Kismet (1943)

Kismet 1943 poster

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.

Kismet-Freedom

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. )

Howrah Bridge (1958)

Hurrah for Helen!

The only thing I knew about Howrah Bridge was that it featured Helen’s famous item number Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu, and that was the reason I picked it up in a collection of classic Black and White films. Although Helen’s appearance is a highlight, there is plenty more to enjoy, including great performances by Madhubala, Ashok Kumar and Om Prakash as well as some beautiful songs featuring Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. The story moves along at a steady pace without any unnecessary diversions from the main plot and despite knowing ‘whodunit’ from the opening scenes there is still intrigue and anticipation as events don’t unfold quite as expected.

Howrah Bridge is an Indian take on film noir, although the story is perhaps not as dark and the characters less ambiguous than in the classic American films of the forties and fifties. However it follows the basic path of a crime drama with a leading lady of somewhat questionable background, and a villain who happily disposes of anyone who stands between him and his fortune. The lighting is generally subdued in film noir style and director Shakti Samanta makes excellent use of shadows to highlight the more dramatic moments in the film. While most of the action takes place in a number of seedy hotels and dimly lit streets in Calcutta, Howrah Bridge appears from time to time and looms effectively over the characters as well as providing the location for the climax chase.

The film starts with the theft of an heirloom from Prem Kumar’s family in Rangoon. It turns out that the jewel encrusted dragon mask has been stolen by eldest son Madan (Chaman Puri), who has taken it to Calcutta to sell to the villainous Mr Chang (Madan Puri). Mr Chang wants the dragon but doesn’t want to pay for it, so he arranges for his chief henchman Pyarelal (K.N. Singh) to dispose of Madan and steal the dragon. Hearing of his brother’s murder, Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) heads to Calcutta to try to recover his family heirloom and en route he meets up with Uncle Joe (Dhumal) and his beautiful niece Edna (Madhubala) who sings and dances in Joe’s hotel. Prem is dismissive of Edna and her dancing while she is piqued by his resistance to her charms which gives her at least one reason to pursue Prem when she meets him again in Calcutta.

Prem hooks up with Tangewala and old employee Shyamu (Om Prakash) and together they attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding Madan’s death and the disappearance of the dragon mask. This involves Prem assuming the name of Rakesh and following in his brother’s footsteps on the night of his murder while Shyamu uses the opportunity to get commissions from as many people as possible along the way. Added in to the mix of characters are Shyamu’s opium smoking nephew Bhiku who saw the murderers on Howrah Bridge, and his cheerful fiancée Chhamia who add some more conventional Bollywood drama to the story. I always love shots of newspapers and did pause to read the other headlines and the ads!

Madhubala plays the role of an Anglo-Indian, perhaps to explain her Western style clothing and account for her less than respectable position as a singer and dancer in her Uncle’s hotel. While she doesn’t do very much dancing, she is convincing as a singer doing her best to entertain the crowd and attract the attention of Prem. She looks beautiful in swishy skirts and Chinese tunics, and gives Edna charm and vulnerability despite her profession and unsavoury connections to the local criminals.

Some of the noir element creeps in here as Edna obviously knows about the various shady deals going on between Uncle Joe and Mr Chang. Her attempts to lure Prem to the hotel seem initially to be to expose him to some theft or extortion attempt perhaps in revenge for his previous treatment of her. Prem is also less than honest as he encourages Edna’s advances to learn more about the smuggling gang run by Mr Chang and Pyarelal. But that’s about it for any noir-ish character ambiguity and rather quickly a real and genuine attraction forms between the two. After a few cups of tea and a boat trip on the river (a Bollywood staple always guaranteed to result in romance) Edna confesses her love for Prem. While Prem does take a little longer to declare his love, the relationship feels warm and affectionate with excellent chemistry between the two actors.  Ashok Kumar is always a very competent actor and here he shows his romantic side while Madhubala looks gorgeous and seems to relish her role as Edna turns sleuth and starts to help Prem with his investigation.

The other characters all fit their parts well. Madan Puri’s Mr Chang is an interesting villain and somewhat different from the usual swaggering, self-confident bully seen in most Bollywood films. He has a limp and walks with a cane, demonstrates a number of affected mannerisms and speaks Hindi softly in a high-pitched voice with a touch of an accent to accentuate his Chinese origin. Chang demonstrates a cold and callous nature when he casually orders the deaths of various lackeys he feels may be a threat but becomes agitated and afraid when he knows that the cops are on his trail. It’s an excellent portrayal and provides a good contrast to K.N. Singh as Pyarelal who plays his role as a more conventional gangster very competently. The oriental touches suit the overall look of the film and of course Helen is perfect (and looks so very young and totally stunning too) as the wonderful Chin Chin Chu when she dances in Mr Chang’s hotel.

The music by O.P Nayyar fits the feel of the film perfectly and ranges from romantic duets to a very jaunty song Shyamu sings as he drives through Calcutta. Mehmood and his sister Minoo Mumtaz also pop up in a fun song at a wedding where Mehmood indulges in some excellent uncle dancing.

I really enjoyed Howrah Bridge and wasn’t surprised to find that it was directed by one of my favourite directors from this era. I liked the touches of film noir and the variation between light and shade in Chandu’s cinematography, although it’s possible some of the dim lighting may just be due to some deterioration in the film with age. Madhubala is always a pleasure to see in any film and she tends to steal the show whenever she appears. While Ashok Kumar is an actor I enjoy watching, he really does suit this type of role and I think this made me appreciate his performance rather more than usual. I was a little disappointed that despite secret doors and an intricate hiding place for his safe, Mr Chang didn’t have a suitably villainous lair, but the dimly lit room with its statues and heavy furniture was probably more in keeping with his character. It’s not the most exciting story but with excellent performances by some of the most renowned actors of the day, it’s a film worth watching for more than just Helen’s fab appearance. I give Howrah Bridge 4 stars.

Temple says:

I am a huge admirer of Ashok Kumar and have been gradually working my way through his filmography. Of course, Helen in any appearance also pushes a film up the to-be-watched pile. And I’d watch Madhubala if she was watching paint dry so I had high hopes when I first watched this. Sadly, the stars and the songs are really the only highlights for me. Ashok Kumar and Madhubala have a delightful chemistry and their scenes together crackle with life and are full of emotion. Unfortunately the story is not particularly interesting as it is obvious what will happen and who will do what. The pace is leisurely at best, and there is just not enough tension as things plod along so my attention kept skipping to what I knew was going to happen down the track. I found the villains characterisations particularly unimpressive and they lacked purpose – they were just generic bad guys and the addition of all the silly mannerisms did nothing to make Chang more credible or threatening. I do like a lot of the supporting cast, especially Om Prakash, but they generally aren’t doing enough in terms of the story to hold my interest. The songs are excellent, and Madhubala can certainly work the camera!

I watched the movie again last week and I found it quite dull. Unless Ashok or Madhubala was on screen, preferably both, or it was one of the fabulous songs I was itching for the fast forward. I am happy I have seen it as it is often referenced as a classic of its era, but it’s not a favourite for me and I think it is just an OK film. I would recommend or rewatch a number of other films released around the same time – for instance the thriller 12 O’Clock, Madhumati or for a change of pace, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi – over this. 3 stars.

Neel Kamal (1968)

Rajkumari Neel Kamal (Waheeda Rehman) is in love with poet/architect/sculptor Chitrasen (Raaj Kumar). He designs a Rang Mahal for her father, and as a reward asks the king to give him Neel Kamal.  Instead he is walled up alive, and the king forbids anyone to mention Chitrasen ever again.

Sita Raichand (Waheeda Rehman) is a nice girl and good student. On a school visit to the ruins of the Rang Mahal she is overcome by a phantasm of music and dance. Thereafter she is afflicted with sleepwalking and has no recollection of why or where she goes.  She just has time for a very fun musical number before the drama kicks into melodrama.

She is lured out into the night by a voice, a voice beseeching his love to return.  Sita is the reincarnation of Neel Kamal, and Chitrasen is still waiting for her.

His voice is impassioned and yearning. This song is used in many scenes, and I particularly like this a cappella version.

The somnambulism is dismissed as something that may ruin her reputation and so needs to be hushed up rather than treated.  Her wedding is arranged with the help of a friendly local guru (David Abraham). As the doctor breezily assured Sita’s father, once she was busy running a household and looking after children she simply wouldn’t have time for any psychological affliction. Poor Sita. The name alone gives a clue that she will be tested over and over.

She marries Ram (Manoj Kumar) and moves in with his mother (Lalita Pawar) and sister Chanchal (Shashikala). Her sleepwalking continues, and no one seems to care about why or what is happening apart from the potential damage to their prestige. Ram is the kind of hero who instantly believes the worst of his wife just because his Ma says so. I have to admit Sita’s ability to walk, accessorise and elegantly drape a saree in her sleep may have made me suspicious, but surely they could have discussed it. Manoj Kumar is adequate but not overly interesting as Ram. I spent most of his scenes waiting for him to do the hand over face thing, but the closest he got was a half hearted effort (at 1 hour 28 minutes if you need to know).

Their relationship, apart from all the judgemental and non helpful rubbish, is affectionate and quite passionate. With Sita’s romantic choices limited to a dead man or a mummy’s boy, I was pleasantly surprised to see her in a more or less happy marriage.  Of course, this also makes her suspect in the eyes of the mother-in-law. If she likes sleeping with her husband there’s no telling what else she might be up to. The floozy!

The Thakurin and Chanchal are the real baddies in this tale, not poor ghostly Chitrasen. Like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters they take every opportunity to harass and punish Sita, casting her actions in the worst possible light. The word ‘slut’ featured often in the subtitles. Adding to Sita’s woes, Ram goes away on work (after promising a doctor not to leave her alone ever) and the Thakurin sacks all the domestic staff putting Sita to work running the house.

Shashikala is great as Chanchal. She seems to relish her mean character, and her mockery of husband Girdhar (Mehmood) is cruel but funny. All the love (or the pheromones) in the air seems to have quite an effect on Chanchal. She seems destined for dissatisfaction as Girdhar is not quite the soul of passionate romance. Mehmood is both useless and pivotal to the drama. His ‘comedy’ is not even slightly amusing, but the hen-pecked loser of a husband is the one who finally takes action. I like Mehmood in the right doses, but this is not him at his best. Lalita Pawar’s character is more obsessed with izzat than about just tormenting her daughter in law but she teams up beautifully with Shashikala to be really horrid. And they are so mean – they even take all of Sita’s lovely clothes!

Although both Ram and her father profess to love Sita very much, neither of them seems to trust her at all. They easily believe the worst, or refuse to see the evidence in front of them. Neither man seems to place as much importance on her health and well-being as they do on her honour and how it reflects on them. Mr Raichand (Balraj Sahni) eventually makes an attempt to help his daughter but Sita by name Sita by nature; she refuses to fail her ‘test’ by leaving.

Sita is not a doormat though. She is strong although, in my opinion, misguided. She could go back to her father, but lots of dialogue about izzat and a weepy pre-wedding song seems to preclude that. She tries to mend her relationship with Ram, and asserts her rights as his wife, but he doesn’t support her when it counts. The ‘haunting’ by her past life love is really well executed. It is a gradual process, wearing down her energy and resilience so that it is easier for her current day bullies to best her.  Her nocturnal wanderings place her life in danger more than once, and she is often tired and confused by day.  Waheeda possesses an elegant beauty that cannot be disguised by a dowdy old saree. She shows the exhaustion and suppressed emotions as Sita struggles to make sense of it all, as well as the happy, radiant young woman in love. I really like her performance even though Sita is one of the characters I might occasionally like to slap some sense in to.

Raaj Kumar is not an attractive man, but his performance as Chitrasen is quite compelling.  From his brief appearance in the opening of the film he somehow makes a strong enough impression that Chitrasen is very present in the rest of the story. The loss and confusion he feels as he lingers in the space between life and death is palpable. He tells Sita that he was killed for love, but couldn’t die because of that love. He reminds her over and over of who he was to her, and tries to make her recall their life and the happiness they had. On the downside, he is not a dancer. And there are not enough artfully placed pom-poms in the world to distract from that. Warning – the following clip contains flashes of nipple (his).

Ultimately Neel Kamal/Sita can’t continue being torn between two lives. Will the past be too strong for Sita? And if Chitrasen wins his Neel Kamal, what happens to Sita? And what will happen with Ram and Sita and their marriage?

Despite finding much of the story quite trying, I really do enjoy this film. I’m not sure how to articulate this other than to say it is an engrossing and atmospheric film with the supernatural and reincarnation aspects flavouring the everyday drama. The sets are stunning, with ornate design and statuary, very nice chandeliers and excellent moody lighting. My DVD looks terrible in screencaps or I would inflict many many more interior design details on you. Waheeda’s performance is lovely, her costumes are beautiful and suit her character. The music by Ravi builds a mood of love and regret and Mohd Rafi is just perfect as the voice of loss and sorrow. It’s a pleasure to watch, even though I occasionally want to slap a few people rather hard.

I do have to make some small deductions for Ram being so annoying, the poor mental health practices, too much teary self sacrifice, and some witless comedy.  3 ½ stars!

Heather says: I was a little disappointed by this film. The opening credits led me to expect something a little more eerie and the lack of any spooky ghosts or macabre happenings was a bit of a letdown. Then the movie skipped forwards in time and any hopes of suspense were totally lost when no-one seemed to really care why Sita was sleepwalking or where she was trying to go. Since I also knew why she hearing a haunting melody and wandering around there was no suspense in these nightly outings either. I really got very little sense of atmosphere from the film apart from in the first rendition of the beautiful tujko pukare mera pyar song. To compensate for the rather pedestrian story though there were some wonderful performances. Manoj Kumar was very appealing as Prem even if his character did seem to be a bit of an idiot at times. Waheeda was beautiful and periodically did manage to get across the confusion and mental disruption than Sita was experiencing. However, like Temple I was frustrated by her continual acceptance of the abuse from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law without even attempting to either explain her problem or object to their treatment of her. It made her character a bit of a wet blanket which I don’t think was the intent. I also found that the story veered off into overly dramatic scenes and declarations just when it would have been more effective to cut the melodrama and concentrate on the more simple interactions between Prem and Sita. The worst issue though was the constant interruption of the main story by the characters of Mehmood and his wife. Although I love Mehmood, and some of his scenes with the excellent Shashikala were genuinely funny, these breaks in the main story totally disrupted the flow of the film for me.

I loved the opening scenes though and Raaj Kumar was fantastic as Chitrasen. He had so much charisma and it was a shame that there was little interaction between him and Waheeda until near the end, as they did some have convincing chemistry together. I was a little surprised at how attractive he was here actually as I can’t think of another film I’ve seen where he had the same appeal. But I am now looking for more!

The best part about this film was undoubtedly the music. The melodies are beautiful and both Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhosle are at their wonderful best in the duets. Although it’s not a film I would particularly watch again, except for those opening scenes with Raaj Kumar, I love the music and keep playing the songs. 3 ½ stars (which is mostly for the music and a half star extra for Raaj).