Chori Chori (1956)

I grew up watching RKO and MGM musicals, and have always loved that kind of film with snappy dialogue, lush soundtracks, stylised visuals and excellent casting. I am a bit resistant to the remake in general – I tend to think that if a film was great first time around, why mess with it. So I was surprised by how much I like Chori Chori. It is ‘inspired’ by the 1934 Frank Capra film ‘It Happened One Night’ starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and has the legendary jodi of Nargis and Raj Kapoor at the fore, directed by Anant Thakur. Chori Chori seems to me to be the perfect balance between slick Hollywood and heart on sleeve Bollywood.

One of my great friends often says ‘Raj Kapoor was sleazy…and not in a good way’ which never fails to crack me up and is the thing that pops into my head when I see him.  I didn’t ‘get’ Raj Kapoor til I saw this film and drew the connection to the Gable style of Hollywood hero that used equal measures of smarm and strong-arm to win the day. I’m still not a huge fan, but I can at least glimpse what it was that makes him such a significant figure in the Hindi film industry.

Nargis is Kammo – spoilt daughter of the super wealthy Ghirdarilal (Gope). She is determined to marry the dashing pilot Suman (Pran!) but her father is sure Suman is only after the dollars not his daughter. She jumps ship and swims to shore, determined to make her way to Bangalore and Suman’s arms. I have to say she showed some moxy in pawning a diamond ring to fund her travels, but the white net sari she bought with the proceeds struck me as wildly impractical for a long bus trip.

Also bound for Bangalore is struggling journalist Sagar (Raj Kapoor). The two loathe each other on sight and of course we know that can only mean true love is round the corner. Sagar is reluctantly drawn into helping Kammo, caught by his chivalrous nature, curiosity and later by his attraction to her. He wears a western suit and hat, slightly the worse for age, and his look could have been lifted straight from Hollywood Central Casting. He represents the heroic battler, trying to make a decent living while keeping his morals intact. He cuts a deal with Kammo – he will help her get to Bangalore and Suman, and he will reap a financial reward when he sells his story.

Ghirdarilal places adverts offering a reward for anyone who returns Kammo to him. Thus there is ample opportunity for a host of minor characters (including Johnny Walker) to join the treasure hunt, and a catalyst for throwing the sparky leads together.

As they travel incognito, scenes cut away to Suman who is shown to be a gold-digger with an eye for dancers. This is not bad for the viewer as we get to enjoy a very nice classically inspired dance, but we already know which man Kammo should marry.

Kammo and Sagar miss their bus, and continue to travel together under the pretence of being married. Raj is only carrying a small valise and yet I lost count of how many pairs of stripy pyjamas he seemed to have packed. Mind you, Nargis seems to amass a decent collection of saris along the way so it’s probably only fair that Sagar has an extensive range of sleepwear. The pyjamas were quite significant in ‘It Happened One Night’, but rather than share a single pair of pjs this couple get matching his n hers. Lots of them. Perhaps the wardrobe team had the day off when someone came up with Kammo’s alluring night attire.

They encounter suspicion and adversity and their own growing feelings. Sagar wanted the story and maybe the money, and Kammo wanted Suman – neither of them wants to acknowledge what is changing between them. They offer each other small kindnesses – the loan of the ubiquitous pyjamas, a blanket thrown towards a sleeping Raj – and lots of snark. The dialogue by Agha Jani Kashmiri is sharp and delivered with perfect timing. These two really are a match for each other and the chemistry is sizzling.

It’s all quite predictable down to the last twist and turn but it is still compelling. Nargis is stunning in her portrayal of the feisty Kammo. She isn’t afraid to articulate her feelings for Sagar, whether in song or dialogue, and challenges his reticence. In one scene, heartbroken Kammo walks through a storm and Nargis exudes grief so profound it outshines all the environmental theatrics. It is a bit irritating, although perfectly in tune with the era, after such an independent start Kammo appears to realise she should never have defied her father or left her home, although that may be her own idea of a necessary penance.

Kammo’s relationship with her father was perplexing. Kammo was spoilt rotten and certainly lacked for nothing in the material sense. He locked her up to stop her marrying Suman and really did not believe that anyone would marry ‘baby’ for anything other than his money. He was devastated when she disappeared but trusted Kammo to tell him as much as she wanted to on her tearful return. So I kind of blame Ghirdarilal for making Kammo susceptible to Suman’s flattery as she was seeking approval she didn’t get at home. But he also made her the kind of brat that needed a reality check. Oh these filmi parents!

Raj Kapoor seems content to mostly allow his leading lady to dominate, and is fairly low key. Until the puppet song which I think was designed to allow him to release all the repressed over-acting. He spouts a lot of philosophy about the joys of the simple life, which seems to impress Nargis. I’d have more faith in that if Sagar had ever lived anything other than a simple life and so could make a valid comparison, but I’m a cynical viewer not a filmi heroine.

A disquieting note throughout is the equation drawn between marital status and the individuals’ threshold level for physical violence. One scene has a landlord test whether Sagar and Kammo are married by smacking Sagar around. The fact that he doesn’t flinch is accepted as proof he must be married to her! Slaps fly in this film, and while they are generally shown as a symptom of passion, it’s still a bit disconcerting and causes me to remind myself this is the 50s. For those wondering, Nargis lands some excellent shots, which I enjoyed, but on the downside the women in Chori Chori are generally portrayed as the aggressors in domestic violence.

The music is used to perfection in this film. Each song acts to illuminate the innermost thoughts of the characters singing or those observing the performance. Shankar-Jaikishan have the perfect big band sound for the romantic duets, and the orchestration is lush as befits this story. The songs show a range of musical influences and are very well integrated into the narrative. And who doesn’t swoon just a bit on seeing Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey and Mohammad Rafi all on a soundtrack?

The classic visual devices from ‘It Happened One Night’ appear throughout Chori Chori – particularly the wall Sagar creates in their shared rooms by draping a blanket over a rope, those stripy pyjamas, and the cramped bus trip. It’s a fairly faithful remake, adapted to suit its audience’s sensibilities, and the changes don’t weaken the story.

Raj and Nargis are stunning and deliver beautifully nuanced performances. With the frisson of their legendary affair in mind, the romance on screen seemed that much more compelling as I wondered what was acting and what was revelation. The film has style, beautiful cinematography, lovely songs and strong performances. I give it 4 stars! Temple