Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet was one of the biggest box office hits of the time and it still has a charm and elegance I find most appealing.
Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) is newly released from his latest jail stint. The first thing he does is to pick a pickpocket’s pocket and merrily resume where he left off, straight to his old fence (David). The owner of the much-stolen gold watch is an old alcoholic who was going to sell it to buy a theatre ticket. His daughter was going to perform and while he was estranged from the family, he dearly wanted to see her triumph. Shekhar seemed sympathetic and a little amused, but had no intention of confession. He just treated the old guy to a ticket and off they went.
Shekhar hears the old man’s story in a flashback that features Baby Kamala (Kamala Lakshman) dancing beautifully as his little daughter. Present day Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) sings a rousing patriotic song declaring India to be the property of Indians and not various foreign interlopers. She looks a frail but intense young lady, leaning on a crutch for support. But Shekhar wasn’t just on a social outing – he spotted a fancy necklace on the wife of Inderjit (Mubarak), the theatre owner, and decided that it would do nicely. Shekhar stashes the necklace in Rani’s belongings and manages to evade the police. He breaks into Rani’s house and really doesn’t explain why despite her half-hearted questioning. She decides Shekhar is a Nice Man as she assumes he is a friend of her father so therefore, Good. The police, led by Shah Nawaz as the inspector, know that Shekhar is a Bad Egg. He moves in to her house as a tenant, and while he initially uses Rani to improve his own situation he becomes emotionally involved and wants to help. He doesn’t do anything by conventional or honest methods and when worlds collide, Shekhar, Rani and their burgeoning love are all put to the test.
Rani’s leg could be cured if she could afford surgery and therapy, Leela is pregnant to her spineless boyfriend Mohan, and Shekhar is finding things to care about in life and weighing it all up against his relatively free existence. Who really owns the significant necklace? Will Rani dance again? Will Leela’s life be set to rights? Will Shekhar be able to live the life he wants with Rani? Will Rani accept his chequered past? And whatever happened to Inderjit’s long lost son, the one with his name tattooed on his arm? Oh masala, you’ve been around a long time!
Ashok Kumar is wonderful. He has a genial neutrality about him as Shekhar accepts that people are probably doing things for their own reasons, and those reasons are none of his concern. He isn’t a criminal out of any antisocial sentiment, and it could be argued that his brand of theft is generally not violent. My biggest issue with Shekhar was his choice of headgear. It just didn’t seem very stealthy for a thief! He is often seen through windows or doors, not really immersed in the action but appearing to be involved. And he always has an escape route. Shekhar may have a cynical outlook but his smile lights up the room. Ashok is charming and plausible as the gentleman thief, and it is easy to believe that poor sad Rani would be drawn to this competent, caring, and rather dashing beau. Shekhar is an anti-hero who becomes heroic through his certainty of purpose and an ease in owning his choices and the consequences. He doesn’t play the blame game and actively tries to prevent his misdeeds harming others. Yes he even steals from the rich to give to the poor.
Rani and Shekhar had a nice rapport and their lullaby duet is sweet, with Dadamoni singing for himself. He isn’t as good a singer as he is an actor but there is something earnest and yet a bit cheeky in his vocal that is endearing.
Mumtaz Shanti plays Rani as melancholy and tending towards passive, but there is spirit in her teasing scenes with Shekhar and she faces down the rapacious manager and social snobbery of Inderjit with apparent ease. She must have been strong to carry on and keep her sister and crumbling household together after their father shot through. Mumtaz has a stagey and mannered acting style that hasn’t aged well so I found her less engaging than Chandraprabha or Ashok Kumar who were warmer and more natural.
Anil Biswas uses a full orchestra and chorus to provide a lush and melodious soundtrack. The songs range from patriotic anthems to wistful love songs. Ameerbai Karnataki sings for Rani, and her strong, earthy tone gives the character more substance than a more girlish or twittery vocal would have.
And if that isn’t enough, there is a young but recognisable Mehmood in his first film appearance as the childhood version of Inderjit’s missing son Madan. David as the fence was so young I almost didn’t recognise him. V.H Desai is fun as Banke, the inept but enthusiastic thief trying to get Shekhar to join in a big robbery. Kanu Roy is Mohan, the man who gets Leela knocked up but can’t man up enough to tell his father. And how nice it was to see a girl who was pregnant out of wedlock be treated like a human being by her family and friends. Leela contemplated suicide but her father didn’t hesitate for a second before taking her side. Chandraprabha gave Leela a nice dash of defiance that would have made such a pretty girl irresistible to wishy-washy Mohan.
I’d watch Ashok Kumar in just about anything, so when the awesome team at Edu Productions made Kismet available, I wasted no time in getting a copy. I often complain about how hard it is to get a decent copy of older Indian films, especially with subtitles. At last year’s Indian Film Festival Melbourne the print of Garm Hawa provided was in such bad nick it was unplayable. I’ve read journalists taking potshots at actors like Amitabh and SRK, saying that they should do more to preserve Indian film heritage and that it is their duty. I’d like to know why such a huge industry that presumably tips a bit of dosh into the government coffers, as well as keeping the entire sequin industry afloat, needs to leave it all up to actors. Surely there has to be a better solution. And I am grateful to the lovely Edu Productions team who are doing their bit to find, clean up and most importantly share some enjoyable and beautiful films that are out of copyright. And I will stop before I get on my high horse and rant about unfair copyright claims on YouTube.
Kismet has everything I ask for in a romantic drama, namely romance and drama, and wraps it up with charm and humanity. There is redemption and a celebration of looking for gold, not for dirt. 4 ½ stars! (Minor deduction for Rani’s moping. Even when it is justified, excessive moping tries my patience. )