Falling Walls (Girti Deewaaren)

ashk falling walls

  • Major Spoilers

Upendranath Ashk’s ‘Falling Walls’ is set, by turn, in 1930’s small town Punjab, Lahore and Shimla and follows Chetan from his brutal childhood through his struggles to make something of himself and find artistic fulfillment. ‘Falling Walls’ is not just an engaging novel for social-history enthusiasts, but is also a rewarding read because of the proximity one often feels to it’s characters, particularly it’s central protagonist Chetan. Daisy Rockwell clearly felt this closeness, as evidenced by both her quite personal introduction to the novel, and the many years taken in translating it -her translation is a labour of love. In writing ‘Falling Walls’ Ashk sought to distance himself from his earlier more fanciful, one-dimensional works of fiction and authentically depict the trials, pleasures and interior life of a younger self- the novel, it appears, is heavily autobiographical. As Ashk himself eloquently puts it in his lively introduction to the 1951 edition of the novel, he wished to illustrate that:

“…man is not artless enough to be a deity; that he is not made of pure gold but is a mixture of alloys; that it is not just his exterior universe that is a boundless mass of complications, but rather that many layers of entanglements exist within him as well, and below these are caves so dark that just a glance at them could cause one to tremble.”

The novel begins in Jalandhar, and we are introduced to Chetan’s family and his prospective wife as well as characters populating his mohalla, who have a more tangential presence in Chetan’s life. It would not be harsh to describe Chetan’s father as a monster. One would be hard-pressed to think up ways in which Pandit Shadiram could be a worse husband and father. Chetan’s sufferings at the hands of his alcoholic father are very substantial and are further expanded upon in the more contemplative Shimla phase of the novel, but his Bhai Sahib has had an even tougher time, and is one of those children rendered almost insensate from the abuse and violence frequently and gratuitously meted out to him. Their mother Lajwati’s life has been truly wretched and her situation is more pitiable than that of her children. Given what she has been through, it’s a real wonder that she remains an empathetic and kindly woman, and never turns into an embittered daughter-in-law torturing harridan.

Bhai Sahab diverts himself by way of chess and cards while Chetan’s natural leanings incline him to take pleasure and respite in a diverse range of pursuits; learning and then writing his own poems and bhajans, acting them out, toy-making, music and drawing. Chetan throws himself into these activities feelingly and wholeheartedly. An anecdote is related where a young Chetan observes that his neighbour is in possession of many birds and keeps them all entrapped in one small cage. Chetan is saddened by the plight of the birds and composes a bhajan exhorting his neighbour to release them. This, he literally sings from his rooftop. The neighbour goes on to sell the birds for a profit, but when Chetan views the empty cage from afar he is elated and ascribes this state of affairs to the transformative potential of his verse. He is spurred on by this perceived victory to compose more bhajans.

The adult Chetan is just as sensitive, impressionable and ambitious, and seeks to emerge from the squalor and despair that surrounds him and distinguish himself in some creative field. Embarking upon a career as a translator and occasional story-writer for a Lahore based newspaper Chetan earns little, but is buoyed by dreams of the future and continues to approach the arts with similar ardour; writing and reciting poetry, attempting a novel, and later acting and learning how to sing and play various instruments. All of these activities he undertakes with gusto, but the results are often not commensurate to his efforts, and are a poor reflection of the passion and sincerity put in. Chetan is also eager to make Chanda (the wife selected for him) his equal in learning and education. His efforts in this area, however, initially gravitate between delivering motivational lectures and getting hot and bothered when prompt answers to his questions are not forthcoming. A complaisant and hardworking Chanda is willing to cooperate. Ashk, does however, also amusingly enlighten us as to the sentiments these efforts on Chetan’s part occasionally inspire. The formerly recreational walks of the the couple are now utilised by Chetan for pedagogic purposes.

“Golbagh’s empty paths, trees, plant flowers, leave, grassy lawns and tar-black streets looked beautiful and dreamlike in the milky moonlight of the month of Kartik, and Chanda tired of listening to the curses and harsh voices of the Changar ladies all day long, was eager to hear the sweet rustling of the leaves….she wanted to sit for a few moments by the side of the road where there was a tiny cannon from olden times on the top of a platform , but her boring husband who longed to be a poet and a fabulist…”

Money remains scarce despite the mutual support Bhai Sahib and Chetan proffer one another. Time, however, becomes less so when a naive Chetan is lured to Shimla by quack Kaviraj. Susceptible to the latter’s false promises and flattery, Chetan arrives in Shimla where he is disabused of any illusions regarding Kaviraj and spends lonely days penning Kaviraj’s book. But, it is also in Shimla that Chetan is able to devote spare hours first to lessons in classical music, and then rehearsing for the play ‘Anarkali’. He is very much invested in both undertakings. The lessons culminate in a classical music recital where Chetan is anxious to display his vocal skills. He is practically jeered off the stage and runs ‘home like a thief in the night’. The play is also a tragi-comic event where the fuming director stalks on to the stage and tears off the glasses which Chetan has forgotten to remove. A maturer, more successful Chetan may, in some years, be able to look back at these incidents with a bemused if somewhat wistful smile, but the pathos generated by these events is very real. At times, in reading fiction, you find characters with which you feel an affinity, or with which you share attitudes and particular personality traits . Chetan is one such character, and you find that he possesses certain tendencies which you have still have not outgrown. There is what Chetan himself describes as his ‘overblown sentimentality’. He is easily hurt and depressed and just as easily happy and euphoric. He has a distaste for open confrontation in some situations and tends to withdraw further into himself. E.g. Though he is seething at Kaviraj’s many deceptions he finds it impossible to openly raise the subject with Kaviraj. Assuming that Chetan is a close representation of Ashk himself, it would be interesting to know how Ashk went from being this fairly diffident young man to later on writing scathing introductions to his works, in which he would lambaste one and all (critics and contemporaries). I will probably have to read the other volumes of the Girti Deewaren (Falling Walls) series in order to find out.

In Ashk’s introduction to this novel, however, his appraisal of some of the observations made by his critics appears to be fair enough. Written with verve, the introduction simultaneously expands on the literary influences which had a bearing on his stylistic and thematic choices. While his influences were diverse, Ashk had a particular regard for Premchand, and specifically cites Premchand when explaining his decision to refrain from writing anything outside the ambit of his own experience. In my view, some writers do need to abstain from wandering too far away from the particular world or worlds they inhabit in order to avoid hitting false notes. Others have strong intuitive powers, and a sort of perspicacity which enables them to not only ‘stand in the shoes’ of very disparately habituated individuals but also understand the most intricate workings of their minds. How they do it, I don’t know, but the most stunning recent example of this I have read is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’.

In Ashk’s case, his determination to write only what he had direct knowledge of, results in a persuasive and affecting portrayal of the early phases of Chetan’s life. His experiences are often fractured, bitter-sweet and inconclusive, and sort of plaintiveness runs through significant portions of the text. The novel is also set in a time where (more so than today) small indiscretions and acts of thoughtlessness could have very momentous and damaging consequences. Chetan, after some resistance eventually reconciles himself to his impending marriage with Chanda. Their wedding night constitutes the first real meeting between the couple, where they are able to openly speak to and discover one another. Chetan is delighted to find out that his wife is not only more attractive than he earlier envisaged, but has qualities which are conducive to their living a contented and meaningful life together. However, while he has an affection for Chanda, his senses are completely enthralled by her younger cousin Neela. Chetan’s own acute receptiveness to Neela’s charms and, at one point, uncontrolled expression of this desire, cause him to obtusely prompt Pandit Veniprasad (Neela’s father) to start looking around for a husband for her. The lengthy Shimla months intervene between this phase and Neela’s marriage. These months bring Chetan some solitude, some frenetic activity, humiliations, and upsurging recollections of a brutal past carried on into the present. Kaviraj specialises in sexual health, and when Chetan is about to take leave of him, he does dispense some advice which Chetan considers valuable and is desirous of implementing on meeting Chanda again. Chetan is now keen to make Chanda ‘his true partner’ so that the two of them can together ‘find their bliss’. These good intentions are thwarted by a situation, the making of which Chetan has significantly, if inadvertently, contributed to. Because of the careless haste with which the match is arranged, and a misleading photograph of the potential groom, Neela is married off to a painfully ill-suited military accountant, thrice her age, thrice widowered, and utterly uncongenial to her. While Chetan had no knowledge of, or involvement in the getting up of this match, prior to his chat with Neela’s father, Pandit Veniprasad had been in no hurry to get his young daughter married. Aghast at viewing the groom’s visage, and filled with anguish at the role his own idiocy has played in bringing about this turn of events, a bitter regret and emptiness come to settle inside Chetan. Neela’s marriage extinguishes his former ardour, causing him to derisively scoff at his erstwhile plans.

“Chanda was sleeping soundly. Chetan went and quietly lay down next to her. He thought about Kaviraj’s sermon on sexuality; he also remembered his own vow and laughed at himself. Where was that vow now, where was that desire…even lying right next to her he felt they were miles apart, as though an impenetrable invisible wall stood between them…..As he lay staring into the dark void with sleepless eyes, Chetan felt that these walls stood not just between himself and his wife , not just between Neela and Trilok, but that countless similar walls stood between all women and men, classes and castes in this subjugated nation ….there was no end to such walls. ”

It is on this ironic and quite bleak note that the first volume of the ‘Falling Walls’ series ends. Ashk’s novel is a very worthwhile read and I certainly want to know what the future holds for Chetan, Bhai Sahab, Chanda, Neela and Ma.©

Godaan

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I thoroughly enjoyed Munshi Premchand’s  1936 novel ‘Godaan’. It’s a classic for a reason, and is different in some key respects, from the 1963 film adaption discussed in my last post. Firstly, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration the film makes him out to be. His life is indeed full of hardships, and people seek to exploit him from all sides. However, it is not as unremittingly bleak and dismal as represented in the film. A core object of Munshi Premchand, in writing this novel, is certainly illustrating the deplorable condition of the Indian peasantry, and their wholesale exploitation by the landowners and priestly class. However, ‘Godaan’ is not a highly charged political polemic or what one may term a ‘superior op-ed piece’. It is a complex portrayal of Indian rural life in the early decades of the twentieth century. Most of the characters which inhabit the novel are complex personalities, and while the peasants may be at the receiving end of the injustice fostered by the prevailing landlord-tenant economic structure, this does not transform them into martyrs or one dimensional victims. Each character has positive and negative traits, though in the better characters the good predominates. Obviously, though, exploitative conditions and ignorance through poverty, can play a strong part in bringing out the worst in any individual. Even the exploiters, such as ‘Rai Sahab’ (the big zamindar of the village) are multifaceted.

Rai Sahab is keenly aware of how fundamentally wrong the system is, and is cognisant of its dehumanising effect on both the peasant and the landlord. The system crushes the peasant and rids him of the capacity to aspire to anything higher; the sum total of his efforts come down to carving out a meager existence. It also turns the landlord into an effete, despicable creature; gorging unearned wealth, and brutalising poor farmers to sustain that wealth. Rai Sahab himself, is also saddled with dependents, who ingratiatingly flatter him to partake in enjoying the revenue generated by the estate, and do not care for him in the least. Yet Rai Sahib is not strong enough to eschew with dependence on zamindari, and cannot forsake his establishment and the pomp that comes with it; hollow as he knows it to be. In a wonderfully written passage Rai Sahib is candidly divulging his woes to Hori, who arrives at the house on an errand. The passage is almost four pages in length, and I wish I could reproduce it all here, but I will have to make do with just providing some extracts. Rai Sahib proceeds as follows:

“‘You’re probably wondering why the master should be confiding his troubles in someone like you who has hardly two pice to his name.  But to whom can I talk? For some reason I trust you. And at least I know you won’t laugh at me. Even if you do, it won’t bother me. It’s the laughter of equals that’s so hard to tolerate, because it’s so full of jealousy, sarcasm and bad feeling. And after all, why wouldn’t they laugh at me? I have a good time making fun of their misfortunes and difficulties. You just don’t find wealth going hand in hand with sympathy for others. Sure I make donations and perform acts of charity, but you know why? Just to show up those other people of my class. My generosity is a selfish matter pure and simple. That’s how it goes….All these uncles and aunts who have a fine time freeloading off the estate- writing and gambling, drinking and living it up- they’re all jealous of me. If I were to drop dead today, they’d put the most expensive oil in their lamps and light them all in celebration. Not one of them will believe I’m ever unhappy- they figure I have no right to be. If I cry, I’m just making fun of sadness, If I’m sick I’m enjoying it. If I don’t drink I’m stingy. If I do, I’m drinking the blood of my tenants. If I don’t marry and fill the house with turmoil, I’m selfish. If I do get married I’m lecherous. If I really were to be lecherous, Lord knows what they’d say. They’ve tried their best to lure me into dissipation and they’re still trying…

… When there’s jealousy or hatred amogst the poor, it’s because of hunger or self defence. I consider that pardonable.  If someone snatches the bread from out of our mouths we have the right to force our fingers down his throat and get it back….I’m surprised that the blaze of your anger doesn’t burn us to ashes…We seek revenge with the police, the officials, the judges and the lawyers; and, like beautiful women we become mere playthings in their hands. The world thinks us very happy- we have estates, mansions, carriages, servants, easy loans, prostitutes and what not. But a person without moral strength and self-respect is not a man, whatever else he may be. A person who can’t sleep at night for fear of his enemies, who finds everyone laughing at his troubles and no one sympathising, whose head is crushed under the feet of others, who’s so drunk with dissipation that he forgets himself, who licks the feet of officials and sucks the blood of his people- I don’t call him happy. He’s the most unfortunate creature in the world.’ 

…Then Rai Sahib took out the betel box and again filled his mouth with leaves. He was about to say something more when a servant appeared and announced, ‘Sir, the men on forced labour have refused to work. They say they wont go on unless they’re given food . When we threatened them, they quit their jobs and left.’

The Rai Sahib glowered at him. ‘Come with me,’ he he declared, eyes bulging. I’ll put them in their place. They’ve never been given food in the past. Why this new demand today? They’ll get the anna a day they’ll always get, and they’ll damn well do the work whether they like it or not.’

He turned to Hori. ‘Run along now and make your arrangements. Keep in mind what I’ve told you. I expect at least five hundred rupees from your village.’

The  Rai Sahab went off fuming. Hori was puzzled- all this talk about right and goodness, and then such a sudden outburst of anger.”

I think the last part of this passage was a particular stroke of brilliance. Rai Sahib is an intelligent and not totally inhuman person, and here he means what he says. But in continuing to play his part as the zamindar while bemoaning the ills of the system, he becomes a hypocrite. Having been the wealthiest zamindar in the locality all his life, imperious attitudes and tendencies have also, almost inevitably, crept into his demeanour.

There are also elements of humour in the novel (and not just of the dark variety) where members of the peasant class win their own small victories and triumphs. One such scene is when a policeman is about to be called in to investigate the death of Hori’s cow (which his younger brother Hira poisoned out of jealousy). Hori is aware that Hira was behind the death of the cow, and has revealed as much to his wife Dhaniya, who is completely irate and keen to see Hira behind bars. She and her husband practically raised Hira along with Hori’s other brother. Not only does Hira fail to reciprocate, but he also frequently bad-mouths his elder brother and sister-in-law. For her husband, however, it’s a question of family honour, and irrespective of Hira’s deviousness and ingratitude, Hori wants to protect him. An argument on the question of involving the police arises between them, and as it grows louder, nieghbours and eventually the village heads turn up to ostensibly mediate. The truth is that domestic fights become social events in the village, and everyone arrives to watch the tamasha. Following the argument, the bystanders come to believe that Hira did infact poison the cow, and a police inspector is summoned. He wants to undertake a search of Hira’s house, but Hori is desperate to prevent this, and is prepared to pay a bribe to avert it. He appeals to Datadin, the village priest who is present, to intervene by arranging something to this effect. Hori, of course, has no ready cash to pay the bribe, and will have to borrow from the moneylenders (all of whom are present). They are accordingly quite gleeful about these proceedings. They and Datadin take the inspector to the side and start discussing the terms of the bribe. Hori naively and obtusely takes the assurances and professed solicitousness of Datadin and the moneylenders (several of whom are also village heads)  at face value. Dhaniya gets a whiff of this, and intuitively understands what’s happening. This explosive outburst follows:

“‘We’re not borrowing from anyone. If anyone thinks he has to pay, let him do so himself. I won’t give up a single pice even if you drag me to court. When we wanted twenty-five rupees to pay the rent, no one would loan it to us. Today you’re giving out whole handfuls of jingling coins.  I know what’s going on. Your all full of sweetness now that you’re each going to get a cut. Murderers and blood-suckers, that’s what you village headmen are. Interest rates of twenty five and fifty percent, tips and donations, bribes and graft- rob the poor anyway you can!’

The village elders looked as though their faces had been smeared with tar, and the inspector looked as though he had been beaten with a broom. To preserve their dignity, they turned and marched off towards Hira’s house.

‘That woman certainly has guts,’ the inspector conceded when they were on their way.”

You have to read the book, or at least read this particular chapter to really enjoy what has transpired, and it gets even better as the chapter progresses. Premchand probably got a kick out of writing it, and the reader certainly gets a kick out of reading it.  Dhaniya is an incredibly feisty woman, high-strung and fiery but generous hearted. Her spiritedness does come out in the film, but in the novel she’s quite extraordinary.

Jhuniya is admitted into the house, primarily because of Dhaniya.  Jhuniya is the lower-caste widow with whom Gobar (the son of Hori and Dhaniya) gets involved. Learning that she is expecting his child, Gobar leads her to his home and then runs away from the village, deserting her. Hori and Dhaniya first resolve to eject Dhaniya from their home; the consequences of admitting her will be pretty serious for them. They cannot, however, go through with it. Dhaniya is consumed with pity for the girl, and the couple accept her as their daughter-in-law. For this, they are socially boycotted by members of their caste, and the village panchayat levels a large fine on them. To pay this fine, Hori has to procure further loans, and the never ending cycle of burgeoning debt thus begins. Basically, they brave a lot of censure for taking this step, and Jhuniya initially seems to appreciate what they have undergone. Even earlier on in the novel, she appears to be quite a fascinating character during her courtship with Gobar, when she chatters on about her experiences in the city. Accordingly, her subsequent actions took me by surprise. Gobar returns to the village from Lucknow (where he ran away to) a year later. He is earning good wages (much more than most people in the village) and Jhuniya proceeds to poison his mind against his parents, suggesting that they’re just after his earnings. She proposes that they leave the village, and Gobar before doing so, behaves very brutally with his parents. Later, towards the end of the novel, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but she never expresses (or even appears to feel) much remorse for her actions.  In a novel which becomes quite explicitly moralising towards the end, this aspect of the couple’s relationship with their daughter-in-law seems strangely unresolved.

I was reading somewhere that Premchand is at his best when drawing rural characters: their world is one with which he is intimately acquainted, and the wealthier, better educated characters have not been delineated with the same efficacy. I’m personally inclined to agree with this criticism. Miss Malti, Mr. Mehta, Mr. Khanna, and Govindi, are reasonably well-drawn but they (and the trajectories their lives take) do not sustain the same level of interest as Hori, Dhaniya, Gobar, Jhuniya, Sona or Rupa.  The great turn arounds and conversions that take place in their lives, are not all that persuasively portrayed…Premchand, here, seems not to show, but merely tell. I think that Rai Saheb is the best drawn amongst the more prosperous characters.  Mr. Mehta, whom Premchand has posited as a hero of sorts, is a bit of a bore at times.

How does the film compare with the novel?  

I think the film was a worthy effort by Trilok Jetley (its director), but suffered from significant shortcomings, some of which were not really in Jetley’s power to rectify. Exciting as the film medium can be, it has limitations, and these limitations often strongly manifest themselves when it comes to screen adaptations of literary works.   It is often difficult for a film to represent a character’s interiority as effectively as a novel. Indeed, a cinematic adaptation or even interpretation of a novel of the length and wide ranging expanse of “Godaan” entails the condensation of several hundred pages of narrative discourse, dialogue and the internal thought processes of the concerned protagonists into a space of two hours. It is almost at the outset destined to fail. Even if the script writer evinces insight and a high degree of selectivity as to what particular dialogue should be extracted from the novel and made to feature in the movie, time constraints dictate that much of the film must be devoted to just conveying the momentous events which inform the narrative of the novel, to the exclusion of the somewhat more subtle psychological processes underpinning the actions of the protagonists. These are general problems which attend any film adaptation of a literary work, and are the reasons why I am usually not even remotely interested in seeing movies made on books I love. Usually, I’m left feeling indignant, and deeming the film to be an insult to the original text. In the few cases where I prefer the film to the book, chances are that I didn’t consider the novel in question to be particularly good in the first place. In fairness, it’s a tough job to match the original text if it’s good.

Turning specifically to Jetley’s adaptation of ‘Godaan’, I suppose my main problem was Jetley’s rather circumscribed vision for the film. Jetley’s project here, was undoubtedly, to depict the harsh realities of peasant life, the peasant’s vulnerability, and the way in which he is  shamelessly exploitated by those positioned above him in the rural socio-economic structure; whether the moneylenders, the village headmen, the preists, the zamindars, the officials etc. However, in executing this vision he comes close to reducing the peasant couple (particularly Hori) to one dimensional victims, and the zamindar to an out-and-out villian. Many of the nuances, and shades of characterisation in the novel are lost in the film. Jetley has tried to address the problem of time constraints inherent in the film medium, by focusing almost exclusively on Hori’s family, and largely cutting out the well-to-do characters, Malti, Mehta, Khanna, Mirza etc. They are placed in the film more as relief to the unending misery that is portrayed as Hori and Dhaniya’s lot.  Minimising the screen time they received was probably a sensible thing to do. Even so, a lot of time is inevitably devoted to just relating the key events which take place in the novel, with the richness of the text never really coming out on the screen. The actors (particularly Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal) do a very good job, but they are obliged to act  in accordance with the director’s vision for the film, which in this case, was somewhat limited. Even so, there are parts of the film which do touch you; Hori’s collapse in the fields, and Dhaniya’s response, Hori’s response to Ram Sevak’s proposal for Rupa, and of course the ending, where Mukesh’s vocals are also employed. The novel actually projects Rupa’s marriage with Ram Sevak in quite a different light (one which would be largely unpalatable for a modern readership).

The film has also been heavily sanitised; there’s a lot of profanity in the novel…it probably would not have gotten past the censor board. As I stated earlier, Hori is not exclusively the object of pity and frustration that the film makes him out to be. He beats his wife; actually, quite a lot of wife-beating goes on in this novel, and not just amongst the peasantry. In the scene I related earlier, where the inspector is called in to investigate the death of the cow, the argument between Hori and his wife is not simply a verbal argument. He is physically beating her; hitting out at her, kicking her, and this is what brings in all the spectators. It is the last time he ever raises a hand against her, and afterwards he is shame stricken and begs her forgiveness. In reading the novel, you get the impression that wife-beating was pretty common amongst the peasantry back then. Even so, you’re a bit stunned when you read it for the first time, and are left thinking ‘Uh….and this guy is meant to be a sympathetic character?’ Undoubtedly, Jetley was thinking along these lines when he decided to leave scarcely any hint of wife-beating in the film; he want’s you to root for Hori all the way. In the novel Dhaniya isn’t one to take a blow meekly, and the fiestiness and strength with which she responds is heartening…and this is partially why I love that particular chapter; because she triumphs so strongly at the end of it, and esteem for her rises greatly in the village.

In my edition of the novel (the publisher being ‘Vishv Books’), the name of the translator is not given, but whoever translated it, did an excellent job.  For those who haven’t read the book, I would strongly recommend it. It’s a wonderful novel, and gives you many new insights into Indian rural life in the early part of the twentieth century. ©

Raaj Kumar

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Image obtained from Karen Bandal’s ‘Everything Bollywood’ blog.

Raaj Kumar is probably my favourite bollywood actor. While I appreciate the work of several of his contemporaries, and the substantive contribution they made to the cinema of their time, Raaj is the only one I’ve ever felt strongly about. Certainly, in terms of his overall body of work and the number of good films he was a part of, he falls well behind Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. But sometimes it takes only one powerful performance to leave a strong impression, and win someone’s lasting admiration and loyalty. For me, that performance came in ‘Pakeezah’. I fell head over heels for the ‘Salim’ of Pakeezah, and sometimes when you love a character so much, at least some of that love is transferred on to the actor. Raaj did full justice to his role in ‘Pakeezah’. Indeed, ‘Pakeezah’ would not have been what it is, with any other male lead being cast as ‘Salim’.

pakeezah train

“Badal kar fakeero ka hum bhes e Ghalib, tamashae ehle karam dekhte hain” / “By donning guises, we, Ghalib, view the spectacle of another’s generosity”

Best Films

Thus began my fascination (obsession) with Raaj Kumar. I started digging up on his other films, and have now seen almost all of them (or if the film is too awful to watch I’ve at least seen the parts of the film where Raaj is present). I think that Raaj Kumar’s best film’s apart from ‘Pakeezah’(1972) are ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ (1960), ‘Paigham’ (1959), and ‘Godaan’ (1963). I loved him as the reserved, reticent ‘Dr. Sushil Varma’ silently in love with his nurse ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)  in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’, or as ‘Ram Lal’ the honest, hard-working but unperceiving mill worker in ‘Paighaam’. The former film was really lovely, but would have been even better if the love between Dr. Varma and Karuna had been allowed to deepen and flourish and take a new route, without the film devolving into your regular love triangle story, in which Dr. Varma’s obnoxious wife is predictably despatched off in the end. It remains, however, a well written film, where the quiet romance which develops between Dr. Varma and Nurse Karuna is lovely to watch. There are some heart-warming hospital scenes which feature good performances by the rest of the cast. ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ also has some wonderful songs.

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Dr. Sushil Varma

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with ‘Karuna’ (Meena Kumari)

‘Paigham’ (1959) is a didactic, semi-socialist, strongly ‘message-orientated’ sort of film.  Its makers did not intend it to be a work of art, and it isn’t one. Yet, I absolutely consider ‘Paigham’ to be a genuinely good movie; being well-written, tightly constructed and showcasing some very good performances. Ram Lal (Raaj Kumar) works hard to provide his younger brother Ratan (Dilip Kumar) with a college education. Ratan who returns to his home town after graduating (with distinction) secures work as chief mechanic/engineer (his position is somewhat ambiguous) in the local mill. Ram Lal is employed in the same mill as a labourer. Ratan percives that the mill workers are being deprived of the wages they are entitled to, and there is also indifference on the part of the management towards their safety and conditions of work. He seeks to establish a worker’s union to demand change and represent the workers claims. The more traditional minded Ram Lal, a good but uneducated man, takes issue with the course of action Ratan proposes. It strikes him as dangerously confrontational, and for him smacks of disloyalty towards their employer. The film engages with the tussle between the two brothers as to what constitutes rightful conduct, in line with the developments at the mill. Ratan’s sweetheart Manju (Vyjayanthimala) is also employed as secretary in the mill. Ram Lal strongly objects to Ratan’s association with her, as her paternity is unknown. This exacerbates the conflict between the brothers. It’s really a movie about the kind of India the makers of the film aspired to see; socialist (yet democratic), equitable, just and relatively classless.  Dilip, Raaj and Vyjayantimala do a wonderful job, and I think that Pratima Devi who plays the mother of Ram Lal and Ratan is very good as well (as she was in Dil Apna aur Preet Parai). Pandharibai, the sweet faced lady who plays Ram Lal’s wife is also good. In both films Raaj gives excellent performances, and is highly convincing and natural in his respective roles.

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Ratan is welcomed home by the family

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Ram Lal and Ratan each exhort the workers towards their respective positions

I will speak at greater length about ‘Godaan’ (1963). Being Raaj Kumar’s own favourite film amongst the seventy odd movies he was a part of (1) it deserves special space, and while I thought it was a good film with brilliant performances by both its leads Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, my reaction towards  ‘Godaan’ was in some respects quite mixed. The film is based on Munshi Premchand’s 1936 novel of the same name. The novel ‘Godaan’ is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Hindustani literature, and at core concerns Hori (a village peasant) and his wish to procure a cow. The film depicts the exploitative propensities of the zamindars or landlords of the time, as well the oppressive caste dynamics then (and even now) prevailing particularly in rural settings. The hypocrisy of the priestly class, as well as that of the zamindars and  money lenders is amply demonstrated in the film.The press book of Godaan, released in 1963, states the following:

“Go-Daan is the tragic life story of Hori (Raaj Kumar), a true peasant of India. He is a fatalist who has become so, facing crisis after crisis in his dealings with money lenders and the richer classes. And he dies like most men, with an unfulfilled desire. He dies without owning a cow, “The Goddess of Wealth in the House” as the peasants call it…the cow that can be given away in Go-Daan (“Cow-Gift”) after his death.”

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Raaj Kumar as ‘Hori’ in Trilok Jetley’s 1963 ‘Godaan’

My only issue with this description is that Hori appears to be a fatalist right from the outset, before disaster upon disaster strikes him.  He obstinately and obtusely refuses to acknowledge wrong in others, when they actively harm him, repeatedly exploit him, fraudulently appropriate his few possessions (while his family is in dire straits), and penalise him for the sense of humanity he retains and they are devoid of. At the beginning of the film Hori procures a cow on loan which his younger brother poisons out of jealousy, the money lenders apply extortionate rates of interest on loans and cook up the accounts against him. The Village Panchayat levels a huge fine on Hori and his wife Dhaniya for sheltering the lower caste girl who is bearing their grandchild.  Hori and his wife stand by the girl ‘Jhuniya’ in the face of the Panchayat’s opposition, but they are made to pay the price. In order to pay the fine, Hori procures further loans and thus begins a never-ending cycle of burgeoning debt… and this is a very incomplete list of Hori’s afflictions and problems.

What is frustrating is Hori’s standard response to every calamity that comes his way. He automatically reconciles himself to the conduct of those oppress him, without a shade of protest. For him, it is all fate, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. Hori’s perspective is that he and his family belong to a particular ‘biradari’ or community, and they have to bow before its norms, however unfair. His more discerning and spirited wife, sees right through those who exploit Hori and pose as his well-wishers, and obviously finds Hori’s persistent refusal to defend either himself or  his family, maddening. The present order seems profoundly unjust to her, and even Hori’s son Gobar smarts under the strong inequalities engendered by the social arrangements in place. They cannot rationalise these things to themselves, or resign themselves to it all, as Hori can. Right towards the end of the film Hori and his family are almost destitute; all they have is some land that is to be forcibly sold off to pay the mountain of debt that has accumulated. The village priest visits Hori and presents a proposal whereby Rupa (Hori’s youngest daughter) will be married off to the well-to-do but elderly Ram Sevak. The marriage will cost comparatively little for Hori, and they will be able to retain their land. Finally, Hori is disgusted, and his wife Dhaniya is outraged. He says:

Kahan woh thoos bhurra aur kahan meri phool si Rupa! Aaj mere aise din agaye hain ki aap mujhe larki bechne ko kehte hain?

‘That old man and my flower of a girl Rupa! Are times so bad for me, such that you come here asking me to sell my daughter?’

Hori is pained, but here again, as with everything else, he soon begins to reconcile himself to the idea. Thinking aloud to Dhaniya, he says:

Ram Sevak bhurra toh nahi, haan adher zaroor hai. Rupa ke sukh likha hai toh yahan bhi sukh uthayegi , dukh likha hai toh kahin bhi sukh nahi paa sakti.

‘Ram Sevak is not quite old, though he is middle-aged. If contentment is written for Rupa she will find it with him as well, if sorrow is written for her, then she will never find contentment anywhere.’

Dhaniya: var kanya jodh ke hon tabhi byah ka anand hai

‘If the groom and bride are well matched, only then can we anticipate happiness from the marriage.’

Hori: Byah ka naam anand nahi pagli, tapasya hai. Tapasya.

‘The name of marriage is not happiness. Marriage is trial, trial.’

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Hori’s initial reaction to Ram Sevak’s propasal for Rupa

Rupa is accordingly married off to Ram Sevak. The land is not sold, but the debts remain and in a short space of time, Hori works himself to death. At the time of Hori’s death, Dhaniya only has one rupee and four annas in her possession which she gives for the Go-daan (or cow-offering). She brings this to the preist, and as Hori’s funeral rites are being performed, we hear in Mukesh’s soulful voice the following refrain:

Aas adhuri    (Unfulfilled aspirations)

Pyaasi Umariya   (A thirsty age)

Chaaye Andhera    (Clouding darkness)

Sooni Dagariya      (A lonely pathway)

Darat Jiya Bechain    (A pained restless heart)

Darat Jiya bechain    (A pained restless heart)

O Rama    (O God)

Jarat Rahat din Rain    (Eyes perpetually awake)

There is a certain rawness, pain and power in Mukesh’s voice (which he has further modulated to sound like Hori/Raaj Kumar), which here brought tears to my eyes. These poignant lyrics were penned by Anjaan, and are so apt a summation of Hori’s life; his unfulfilled aspirations, his thirst, the clouding darkness, the lonely pathway he has had to tread, his eyes perpetually open with strain and anxiety; slumber is a luxury.

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Hori collapses while working in the fields. Poor Dhaniya thinks that Hori has gone for good. Kamini Kaushal gives a superb performance in Godaan.

The film was made by Trilok Jetley with passion and dedication. The Go-Daan press book states that it had been Jetley’s dream for some years to make a film adaptation of the novel ‘Godaan’, and he paid the highest figure which had ever been paid then for book rights in India, for the purposes of film adaptation. Months were spent on the script and the services of Pandit Ravi Shankar were recruited for the film’s soundtrack. It’s  a pity that a film made with such care should have flopped so miserably at the box office. But, I am not surprised that it fared badly. I am not saying this because I don’t think ‘Godaan’ is a good film. It is a good film, but it makes for a very bleak viewing experience.

I don’t know if it’s exactly the same in the book, but there is also the issue of predictability. When any calamity comes Hori’s way, you know precisely what will happen. Poor Dhaniya, who knows exactly what’s going on and is raging inside, will urge Hori to defend himself, while Hori will seek to avoid confrontation at literally any cost, resign himself to the injustice, and attribute what is happening to fate. At times Dhaniya tries to take unilateral action, but her efforts are undone by Hori. I would have found ‘Godaan’ more interesting had there been some variation in Hori’s responses or some evolution in his outlook. It wasn’t necessary to take him the point where he could think and act like Dhaniya, but his mode of thinking remains uniform throughout. He is exactly the same at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Perhaps this is precisely the point Munshi Premchand is trying to impress upon us in his novel, decades of systemic oppression, and the ideology that is rammed down the throats of peasants, by those on the upper rungs of society (whether the zamindars or the priestly class) has led to a sort of paralysis in thought, and fear of stepping outside the externally demarcated boundaries, to the point where one afraid to be honest with themselves. One can also think of Hori’s state as a fixed internalisation of the norms which have been dictated to his from the earliest stages of his life. I’m also aware that things which seem axiomatic and self-evident now, such as human equality and freedom to enjoy though fruits of your own labour, weren’t actually that self-evident in the time and place this book depicts.  Even so, perhaps I simply don’t have enough contextual knowledge to be able get into Hori’s psyche and really understand his frame of mind. For this reason and others I ‘ve just got myself a copy of the novel ‘Godaan’, am keen to read it, and may do a separate post on it.

The novel is a pretty large book which features many more characters than those which appear in the film. Understandably, Jaitley has cut it down to deal with the core story which chronicles the trials of Hori and his family. Some of the more educated, prosperous characters which appear in the book also appear in the film. ‘Rai Saheb’, the big zamindar of the village who also exercises functions akin to that of mayor, ‘Miss Malti’ (a social worker), ‘Mr. Mehta’ (an academic and philosopher) and ‘Mr. Mirza’ (another social worker) all feature in the film. Rai Saheb makes fine speeches about how he will be the last one to protest if zamindari goes, and talks about how wrong it is for wealth to be generated on other people’s broken backs. Yet, he continues to live very lavishly and actually pockets the fine which is levied on Hori for offering protection to the lower caste girl Jhuniya. Most of the talk between the better educated classes is conducted in shudh Hindi, and the exchange of ideas which take place between Miss Malti, Mr Mehta and Rai Sahab was largely lost on me. Another reason to read a translated copy of the book.

Raaj Kumar himself has to say about ‘Godaan’:

“Godan’ is the best film I ever acted in. It gave me full scope to get into the skin of a rural character and emote like a villager genuinely does. As it was based on a Munshi Premchand masterpiece, I got my scope to deliver” (2) 

I would differ to the extent that I don’t think of ‘Godaan’ as Raaj Kumar’s best film ever, but the rest I agree to. Both Raaj Kumar and Kamini Kaushal are really excellent in their respective roles. Raaj very effectively projects Hori’s vulnerability, fatalistic outlook and internal resignation. Raaj Kumar is younger than the ‘Hori’ of Premchand’s novel, but by affecting a stoop and exuding a sense of fatigue, Raaj manages to look the part. Strangely, the bulky Mehmood doesn’t look too odd playing his son ‘Gobar’ and also gives a good performance.  In the song ‘Hiya Jarat Rahat Din Rain’ Hori, having recently recovered from physical collapse through overwork, views his surroundings; the land and the animals grazing upon it with their offspring. Suddenly, there enters into Hori the exuberance of a young man (and Raaj looks great in this song). Walking along he comes across the skeleton of a cow and is both visibly distressed, and reminded of his aspiration to have a cow. Raaj emotes wonderfully in the song, which has been very feelingly sung by Mukesh. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vE6-PqX6jhA

Better Films    

Amongst the better films of Raaj Kumar are ‘Oonche Log’ (1965), ‘Phool bane Angaare’ (1963), ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973). These films are not favourites, but they are pretty decent films, in which Raaj gives good performances….and I love Raaj when he acts naturally, before he permanently succumbed to a more theatrical and exaggerated mode of acting later on in his career.  In ‘Oonche Log’ Raaj is a conscientious police officer and the film projects the dynamics at play between him, his wayward brother ‘Rajnikant’ (Feroz Khan) and their father ‘’Major Chandrakant’ (Ashok Kumar) a retired Army major.  Major Chandrakant’s  outlook is somewhat aligned with that of Srikanth’s (Raaj Kumar), but his behaviour is sometimes reminiscent of a certain feudalism which his son Shrikant finds repugnant and rejects (e.g. Major Chandrakant thinks that whipping servants is a wholly legitimate and appropriate means of addressing lapses in conduct).

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‘Oonche Log’

‘Pyar ka Bandhan’ (1963) does draw on a number of clichés, is rather melodramatic in parts and Raaj’s acting is occasionally exaggerated in it. Still, I liked him as ‘Kalu’ the hard-working tange-wala, and devoted elder brother of ‘Sona’ (Kumari Naaz). In ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, because of his father’s early demise Kalu cannot pursue an education, and becomes a ‘tange wala’ (horse cart driver) to support his ailing mother and younger siblings. He works selflessly and tirelessly to give his younger sister Sona the education he never had, and later to ‘get her married’ to the boy of her choice. In valourising Kalu’s exertions to give his sister a grand wedding party, the film reaffirms the understanding that weddings need be a lavish affair, and that this should appropriately be financed by the bride’s parents or relations. While the arrangement of a dowry often isn’t explicitly adverted to in movies, this theme of conscientious brother striving ‘get his sister married’ is one that has been common in Indian films until very recently, and unfortunately continues to be strongly reflected in Indian society. Kalu’s ultimate motivation in all this is, however, securing his sister’s happiness, and the film is another one of those strongly ‘message-orientated’ movies so common around this time; It emphasises the importance of equal opportunity, female education, and the desirability of creating a classless society. However, I do think that the film’s makers could have shown more foresight in eschewing the need for a grand wedding at all, and thus removing the factor underlying many of Kalu’s worries, and a root cause of a lot of gender discrimination in India.

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As ‘Kalu’ the tange-wala in ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’

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Captain Rajesh courting Usha (Mala Sinha) in ‘Phool bane Angaare’

Both ‘Phool Bane Angaare’ (1963) and ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) are war films. In  ‘Phool bane Angare’ (I rather like the name: flowers turn to sparks of fire) Raaj plays the part of Captain Rajesh in love with Usha (Mala Sinha), a caring, independent spirited girl who undertakes to support and provide for her widowed mother and younger brother. Mala Sinha (who had me wincing and cringing all through ‘Mere Huzoor’) does a pretty decent job in this film, and the depiction of their initial courtship is quite nice. Rajesh is subsequently called to serve in Korea (am slightly confused about this; initially it appeared that the war in question was the Sino-Indian war of 1962), while Usha remains tending after her mother and brother. This movie is about duty towards one’s family and one’s country in times of crisis, and like ‘Pyar ka Bandhan’, ‘Phool bane Angaare’ isn’t a bad film. ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ (1973) focuses on the conduct of Operation ‘Cactus Lily’ which took place in the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. Not being very familiar with Indian Military history, I really don’t have anything to say about the film’s depiction of the war and operation ‘Cactus Lily’, but the film appears to be free from any kind of jingoism. It’s director Chetan Anand goes to considerable lengths to show the essential humanity of the other side, and this is not done in a merely tokenistic fashion. ‘Hindustan ki kasam’ is also notable in that it probably features the last completely natural and unaffected performance Raaj was to give in his career. Because it’s a Chetan Anand film, Raaj’s love interest, to my chagrin, is Priya Rajvansh. The film is rather far-fetched in the second half, but I’m still inclined to place ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’ in Raaj Kumar’s ‘better films’ category.

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Returning from a test flight in ‘Hindustan ki Kasam’

Best Known Films

Apart from ‘Pakeezah’ (1972), ‘Mother India’ (1957),‘Waqt’ (1965) and possibly ‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) are Raaj Kumar’s best known films. ‘Mother India’ is not a movie I personally like much, but it is widely considered to be a landmark film, and while Raaj played a somewhat peripheral role in it, the movie shot him to fame and really got his film career going. Raaj, like many other members of the cast, engages in a fair bit of over-acting in ‘Mother India’. The songs are however wonderful, and Raaj, despite a few bad wigs, is eye-candy in the film. I don’t really think he needed a wig at this stage, given that three years later, in ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ he sported his own hair and looked very handsome. ‘Waqt’ likewise has always struck me as being a nothing film; all glitz and glamour and very little underneath. In 1965, ‘Waqt’, with its strong glamour quotient, may have fascinated audiences, but I don’t know how it keeps contemporary viewers stuck to their seats. Even on a purely ‘masala’ level, I don’t feel that ‘Waqt’ makes for an entertaining viewing. But again, Raaj is eye-candy in it. ‘Mere Huzoor’ (1968) is, I think, a pretty awful film; very artificial, cheesy and affected, in the spirit of most of the 1960’s ‘Muslim Social’s’ that preceded it.  However, because Raaj looks the way he does, I can watch it repeatedly just for him (or rather repeatedly watch the parts where he is present), to the exclusion of everything else (lol…even to the exclusion of what Raaj’s character is actually saying). Other points in favour of the film are Johnny Walker and Manorma, who are both very funny in it.

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Shamu and Radha in better times (Mother India)

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Seeking to charm her Highness (Waqt)

‘Heer Ranjha’ (1970) was a laudable attempt by Chetan Anand to make an a epic film on the fabled lovers of the Punjab; Heer and Ranjha. What is unique about the film is that it is entirely in rhyme. It’s evident that Chetan was trying to offer viewers something novel by recruiting Kaifi Azmi to pen the film in verse. I actually wonder whether Chetan would have been more successful in conveying this tale if he had just stuck to prose, albeit poetic prose. I don’t think that just making things rhyme necessarily elevates the script to the level of poetry. This is not a judgement of Kaifi Azmi’s broader literary abilities (I love a number of the song lyrics he has written, though I haven’t read his poetry or other substantive works apart from this). It is just my response to the script he penned for the film ‘Heer Ranjha’. I thought the script was all right, without being anything amazing. What really destroyed ‘Heer-Ranjha’ for me was Priya Rajvansh. Priya Rajvansh may have been a very nice person in real life, but she was an absolutely atrocious actress, and did not at all look the part of Heer. Indeed, I can say without exaggeration that she is the worst Bollywood actress I have ever watched. The are so few films where Raaj really got to play the romantic hero, and I love him in full-on romantic mode. Indeed, here he acted wonderfully as Ranjha, but to see him have to romance Priya Rajvansh : (  Her being cast as Heer made a film I would have otherwise probably enjoyed, unwatchable. I have mostly just seen those frames of the film where Priya is absent. The film also features some lush cinematography and good songs.

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Ranjha thinking of Heer

His Appearance

With reference to Raaj’s looks, just surfing on the net, I have read a few unflattering appellations being used for him. He has variously been described as ‘Mr. Twisted Ears’, ‘irritating’ or just plain ‘odd’ looking. The truth is prior to ‘Pakeezah’ I never really did consider him particularly handsome, at least not in the conventional sense, and kind of understood where the ‘irritating’ description came from. But, with ‘Pakeezah’ his looks grew on me, and now I am totally on the same page as those who regard him as downright gorgeous. Moreover, then I hadn’t seen any of his earlier films from the 50’s and early 60’s where he was really handsome. He had aquiline, rather chiselled features, and could project an attractive intensity on the screen when he chose to. For me, he’s also the first man to sport a moustache who doesn’t automatically start looking like an ‘uncle’ because of it.  I wish I could see him in his earliest films ‘Rangeeli’, ‘Aabshar’ and ‘Ghamand’. Chances are these won’t be very good films, because Raaj was a new comer then, and probably took whatever came his way. But still, I’d love to see such a young Raaj Kumar.

Decline

Post 1973 came a very steep decline in the kind of films Raaj acted in, and the kind of performances he gave. It’s not as though Raaj hadn’t been a part of bad films before this (indeed, he had his fair share of bad film’s in the 50’s and 60’s as well). What is unusual is how consistently poor these films were, and how they represented a whole new level of awfulness. Raaj, how could you say yes to something like ‘Karmayogi’??..Ughhhh…yuck!  Almost his entire output in the 80’s and 90’s was uniformly terrible. ‘Police Public’ (1990) strikes me as being a marginally better film, but is not what you would call a good movie. Many of these films, even a hard core Raaj Kumar fan like me, cannot sit through (It’s really difficult to even sit through just the parts of the film which feature Raaj Kumar).  Granted the 80’s were a bad decade for movies, but even then I find most of Raaj’s choices, in this period, utterly unfathomable. From what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, intellectually inclined man and must have known that most of these films were total trash…Why then did he consent to act in them? His acting in these films, moreover, was often very exaggerated and affected. Any excuse for this? This is what Raaj himself has to say:

“….Another film which I really enjoyed working in was ‘Oonche Log’ where I played a police inspector. The story was really brilliant but astonishingly both the films (Godan and Oonche Log) flopped badly. People only wanted me to deliver high voltage dialogues and I was forced to adopt a particular style to cater to the audience…Yes, I know none of my present films have the touch of my earlier classics like ‘Mother India’, ‘Godan’ or ‘Pakeezah’. But I have to survive as acting is my only profession. Today the standards of films have really deteriorated a lot and no director is interested in making a serious film like Mehboob Khan, B.R. Chopra or Kamal Amrohi.” (3)

Basically Raaj is saying that films were his bread and butter, and he had to make do with whatever came his way….Still Raaj, I hardly think you would have starved to death if you had said no to movies like ‘Desh ke Dushman’, ‘Jung-Baaz’ or ‘Galiyon ka Badshah’ (shudder)….I don’t know how you saw your own films without groaning, shutting your eyes and covering your ears. When going to his worst films of the 80’s and 90’s on youtube, I see comments saying things like ‘Raaj Kumar is the KING!’ or ‘Kya Dialogue Delivery Hai!’ Apart from financial reasons, there’s a real chance that Raaj allowed responses like this to get the better of his own judgement.

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A still from ‘Karmayogi’ (ughh) . Seriously Raaj, WHY?

Raaj Kumar: The Man

I really know far too little about the man himself, to be able to provide any real insights here. As stated, from what I have read about him, it appears that he was an intelligent, well-educated and intellectually inclined man. Raaj Kumar, originally Kulbushan Pandit was born in Loralai  (now in Pakistan) in 1926 (some articles say 1927).He came from a large family of nine children. Raaj recalls “I knew no loneliness since I come from a big family. We never needed any outside entertain­ment. We used to sing, dance and fight in our home”. His father was an Army officer, and the family originally hailed from Kashmir. (4)   A recent “documentary” about Raaj Kumar was made, which was actually really awful, and just consisted of the presenter showing footage of his films ( footage easily available to anyone with internet access) and regurgitating verbatim the content of old (and pretty poor) internet articles on him. (5) Scarcely any actual research was conducted. They did, however, also briefly interview his son, and he provides some interesting snippets about his father. Kulbhushan graduated with an Arts degree from the then prestigious Government College in Lahore. He won a gold medal in philosophy, and wanted to go on to study English literature at Oxford. For whatever reason, this didn’t eventuate, and after working for some time as a sub-inspector at the Mahim police station in Bombay, he turned to films. Raaj Kumar’s son Purru speaks of how well before his actual entry into movies, Khulbushan was approached by Sohrab Modi, who wished to cast him as the male lead in an upcoming production. Because Khulbushan was then still interested in heading to Oxford to study literature, he refused the offer. Raaj Kumar discusses how he subsequently entered films in this video interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSDHoB4TBiA

From the above interview in the link provided, it’s evident that Raaj was a very articulate man. A Cineblitz article states “Like any of his stock, he was extremely well read and was knowledgeable on a myriad of subjects. He also had a flair for many languages — English, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Kashmiri”. (6)

In the late 1960’s he married Jennifer, an Anglo-Indian air-hostess whom he met on a flight, while travelling to a shooting destination for ‘Heer Ranjha’.  It was love at first sight, and after marriage, he named her Gayatri, in accordance with her kundali. Though Purru states “basically, we’ve been brought up in all faiths. We’d visit churches, dargahs, mandirs and synagogues”. (7) It appears that Raaj was very possessive and protective about his wife and children, and sought to keep them out up the public eye as much as possible. I feel like I myself am now just repeating the content of the interviews I have read…It’s probably best for me to just provide links below to all of these interviews. When I first became strongly interested in Raaj Kumar (over a year ago now) there was almost nothing about him on the internet. Now, a reasonable, if not abundant, amount of information has cropped up on him. It appears that many considered Raaj to be an egotist, and in fairness, that egotism does come out pretty distinctly in a number of his interviews. It also turns out he was scarcely ‘Mr. Shareef’ in real life and before he married Gayatri, was something of a playboy. With reference to his reputation as an ‘eccentric’, I think that Raaj Kumar was an interesting enough man in himself without having to play the part of the ‘eccentric’, whatever his motives (warding off the press, keeping his private life private by creating an alternative external persona, or just grabbing a bit of attention at parties).  In this 1983 Filmfare magazine interview, I think the interviewer K.N.S. probably gets it right when he makes the following observations:

“He seems to enjoy building a maze around him through which it is diffi­cult to move and find the real person. He seems to forget people’s names. His comments, at least as quoted, are brash and provocative. What emerges from these is a composite of someone unpredictable and nearly insufferable. In reality, at least at very close quarters, he is quite a car­ing person when he wants to be one. He has his loyalties and affections. He has his own code of chivalry and honor. His courtesy is faultless. Perhaps at one time he felt misused or ill-used and started building mental self defenses.” (8)

Well Raaj, you weren’t perfect but there were a lot of great things about you. I still know so little about you, and wish I could know more….I wish I could have met you, and told you what an impact your performance in ‘Pakeezah’ had on me. I sometimes imagine scenarios whereby some strange transfiguration of time, I happen to take the seat next to you on a flight or train journey, and then ensues an extended four hour conversation….and in this imagined conversation you obviously aren’t completely indifferent to me. You don’t throw me off with platitudes, but I get to hear what you genuinely think, and we talk and talk about films and books and all kinds of things. You were a very special actor, and are really special to me (ok….now this is getting super lame, but I can’t help myself).  When given a decent script to work with you could really show your acting prowess. In many of your films though, there wasn’t much opportunity for you to show your talents, or extend and test your own abilities as an actor. Your overall range probably wasn’t that broad; I can’t really imagine you doing comedy well, but perhaps I’m just saying this because I haven’t really seen you do comedy. After all, just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it can’t be.  Within your perceived range, you were a unique actor, had an appealing individualistic style, and could give subtle expressions. In the very few romantic roles you did, you exuded a warmth and tenderness and restrained passion on the screen which felt very real. Unfortunately, a number of the movies you were a part of didn’t really demand the subtlety, nuance and finesse you could bring to a performance (acting qualities amply demonstrated in films such as ‘Pakeezah’, ‘Godaan’, ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ and even ‘Heer Ranjha’)…but you were something wonderful; there are no two ways about that. ©

 

 

(1) Ranjan das Gupta, ‘The True Avatar of Mother India’, Friday Review Delhi, The Hindu. 11/7/2008. See: http://www.hindu.com/fr/2008/07/11/stories/2008071150810300.htm

(2) Ibid

(3) Ibid

(4) ‘Raaj Kumar: Memories’ obtained from ‘Cineplot’ (Published in Cineblitz, August 1996). See: http://cineplot.com/raaj-kumar-memories/

(5) NewsX, ‘Falshback: Remembering Raaj Kumar’. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH4g6hy1Y9A

(6) Farhana Farook, ‘Dad was Bizarre but never boring- Purru Raaj Kumar’. Filmfare (28/01/2013) See: http://www.filmfare.com/interviews/dad-was-bizarre-but-never-boring-purru-raaj-kumarr-2214.html

(7) Ibid

(8) ‘Raaj Kumar’. Interview by K.N.S. in 1983. Obtained from ‘Cineplot’. See: http://cineplot.com/raaj-kumar-interview/