Sunday, April 20, 2008

Benazir (1964) - Another of Bimal Roy's forgotten gems

title Having seen Bandini at a tender age, I was understandably wary of Bimal Roy. (Anyone who's seen the movie - ok not anyone, just me, perhaps - might be puzzled by the inexplicable choices made by the heroine.) Prem Patra, and Sujata however, changed all that and I was ready for more Bimal Roy. Browsing through imdb led me to Benazir, and I began my hunt for the DVD. I was overjoyed to come across it in the local Hindi DVD store and sat down to watch with eager anticipation. Here's my take on this forgotten classic.

The story starts with an earthquake in Bihar in 1934 and a young child being found in the ruins. She is found by a kind man who having lost his own daughter, decides to bring her up as his own. From such a beginning, and knowing the rules of hindi cinema, one could expect one of the following scenarios: a) a social drama with the benefactor's new wife becoming the evil stepmother, b) any variation on the standard lost-and-found formula, c) the "kind" benefactor is a criminal who gets reformed by the child but his past catches up with him on the eve of the girl's wedding, etc. As the movie proceeded and no such scenarios were forthcoming, I realised that Bimal Roy had broken new ground by departing from the sacred tenets of 1960's movie-making!
Fast forward several years and the girl has grown up into Benazir (Meena Kumari) a successful stage performer in Lucknow who has enslaved the rich Nawab Afsar Hussain (Ashok Kumar). Aside: If one was to believe 1960's movies, Lucknow was peopled entirely by rich nawabs, most of whom were Ashok Kumar! Meena Kumari is in her trademark tragic mode, bemoaning her helplessness in having to dance whether she likes it or not. So far, they were both running true to form - reprising their Bahu Begum and Pakeezah roles. OK OK...so these movies were later releases. They are much better known, though, and I saw them before Benazir. So, the comment wasnt entirely invalid.
Where is the Bimal Roy touch in all this, you ask yourself. Patience.... have faith in Bimal da. Turns out that the Nawab is married to Sarbari (Nirupa Roy) and was living happily-ever-after till he was smitten by Benazir. Now, he spends most of his time and money on Benazir. He does have time to sire a son though, and the occasion of his birth calls for festivities. Benazir is engaged to provide entertainment for the male guests and after the requisite mujra, sits down with the men to an impromptu mushaira (urdu poetry recital). This is where I made my first discovery - Meena Kumari can do shaayari like nobody's business (yes, I knew of it before but had to hear it to believe it!). She has a beautiful voice (how should one describe it - honey and cream mixed with liqueur?) and recites urdu couplets so melodiously.... I think I am smitten, "tragedy queen" notwithstanding.
She is in the midst of her recital when her gaze lights upon a beautiful sight - Anwar, the Nawab's younger brother, comes in to join the festivities. That one look is all she needs to fall for him! Anwar is played by a very handsome, very young, Shashi Kapoor (note the emphasis on young). I cant fault Benazir's good taste, but Shashi Kapoor and Meena Kumari make a very ill-assorted couple. Plus, isnt it the hero who should be smitten on sight? This is ignoring movie tradition with impunity!
This was just the first 25 min of the movie and I was beginning to wonder if my faith in Bimal da was justified. Still, there was Shashi, Ashok Kumar and Tanuja as well, to look forward to - so I persevered.
Anwar runs in to meet his Bhabhi (sister-in-law) and runs full tilt into Shahida (Tanuja), his Bhabhi's younger sister who has also come for the festivities. My faith in hindi movie traditions was restored. This is how one is supposed to fall in love - as a kid, I was firmly convinced of the romantic possibilities of the crash and I hold hindi movies responsible for that!
Well, Anwar and Shahida fall in love following the golden rules of hindi cinema and their elders are inclined to let them make a match of it. Hey! A romance in nawabland and a happy ending in the first 50 min of the movie - this is unheard of! What was Bimal Roy thinking of - breaking the sacred rules of cinema may not be a punishable offence but it is a SIN!
Not to worry, tragedy was in the offing. Anwar learns about his brother's obsession for Benazir and is very concerned for his Bhabhi's sake. He decides to visit Benazir to convince her to leave his brother alone (of course, it has to be the woman's fault) but doesnt find her home. When Benazir realises that she missed seeing him, she breaks into the beautiful Lata number Husn ki bahaaren liye aaye the sanam, kaisi badnaseebi hui mil sake na hum (he had brought showers of beauty, it was my misfortune that I couldnt meet him). Where Shashi is concerned I heartily concur with the sentiment!
In his next visits Anwar is more successful. He leads his brother to believe that Benazir and he have been conducting an affair behind the Nawab's back while using the latter for his money. The Nawab, primed by the villainous Shaukat (Tarun Bose), believes this and throws Anwar out of the house. He then succumbs to a heart attack and is nursed back to health by his wife and Benazir.
Shaukat in the meanwhile, carries the story of Anwar's affair to Shahida's father who forbids Anwar and Shahida to meet. Anwar manages to meet Shahida in secret and the two exchange vows of eternal devotion. You must admit that Bimal da hasnt completely forsaken tradition.
Anwar then proceeds to Bombay and gets a job as a door-to-door salesman. Benazir in the meanwhile, has also moved to Bombay and forsaken performing on the stage. As the laws of movie-land dictate, in the course of his daily calls Anwar knocks on Benazir's door. On seeing her, he flees like all the hounds in hell are upon him and gets hit by a car. His injuries are severe. Benazir gets him medical attention and helps to nurse him back to health. She even takes up stage work again to help pay for his medical bills. Anwar is touched by her devotion and when he learns how she helped his beloved Bhabhi and Bhaiya get back together, he decides to marry her.
Noooo - you yell! This cant be happening. Shashi and Meena Kumari! No way!!! And what about poor Shahida? Never fear, the movie isnt over yet. How does it end? Does Anwar get stuck with Benazir? Tempted as I am to tell you, I'll let you watch it yourself and find out.
The Meena Kumari of this film was way past her beautiful days and had nothing but her golden voice to recommend her. Ashok Kumar was great as usual, even when he was being a complete arse. It was a rare treat to watch Nirupa Roy twinkling mischievously and sans her trademark white sari. Aside: Did you know she was the most careless mother of hindi moviedom - she was always misplacing her children!
Shashi and Tanuja were the picture of young love and were very cute. Shashi played the affectionate younger brother rather well (years of practise?). Tarun Bose in a rare villainous role was a revelation to someone who's more used to seeing him as the benign doctor or father.
The story was rather corny but raised above the commonplace nawabi dramas of the time by the good screenplay and dialogues as well as the sensitive and nuanced performance of the cast. The songs composed by S. D. Burman were lovely and beautifully picturised. Dil mein ek jaane tamanna ne jagah paayi hai (available on youtube), Mil ja re jaan-e-jaana, and Husn ki bahaare liye are especially noteworthy. The movie may not be everybody's cup of tea but for those of you who wished Pakeezah could be remade without the irritating Raj Kumar, less histrionics and more substance, this is the movie for you.
Some random screencaps from the movie:

20 comments:

memsaabstory said...

I've put this one in my Nehaflix shopping bag! Looks deee-lightful :-)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

wth- I have a feeling shashi ends up with Tanuja- and y cudnt shashi and meena live happily ever after? :( Bouble standards by Bollywood irk me sometimes ...:)

Bollyviewer said...

I am glad to know that memsaab. Hope you like it as much I did. :-)

Shweta, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, wouldnt you find a Shashi-Meena jodi crazy? Any older heroine that could do this without gallons of paint on her face would have my vote, though. And Bollywood double standards usually favor the more established star - remember Meena and Dharmendra?

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I know I kno- it is my flight of fantasy. Despite that, I still wish the "fallen" woman would get the guy once in a while- and If Demi can get Ashton (I agree, hardly comparable to Bollywood in the 60s), we can have Meena w/ Shashi, np. :D

Beth said...

I just watched this and am full of angst and confusion about the ending. After its various twists and sucker-punches (in a good way) - like you, I kept thinking "Wait, this can't be right, we still have so much time left and it seems so tidy!" - I am very uncertain about what the filmmakers are telling us at the end. It's so ambiguous, and I do not do well with ambiguity. Sigh. Much gnashing of teeth before I write my post. :)

Bollyviewer said...

I think the movie is enforcing the current status-quo in the sense that "loose" women, no matter how good and open-hearted, cannot integrate into respectable society. A more charitable take would be that "true" love requires the ultimate sacrifice for the loved one's happiness.

bollywooddeewana said...

please what make was your dvd, its quite a hard find, i've seen a baba one but i don't like their products too much, i'm trying to see if there's anymore out there i know shemaroo have one on vcd but thats no use for me

Bollyviewer said...

Its a Baba one and I thought it was pretty good. The picture quality isnt great, but thats probably because of the damaged film rather than the DVD manufacturer's fault (other Bimal Roy films dont have good prints, either). The subtitles seem pretty adequate (the poetry and beauty of the Urdu dialogues is of course, beyond translation!) and even the songs are subtitled.

Nasir said...

Excellent humour underlies your review Bollyviewer. Also shows how well you're conversant with Hindi films and actors, the typical stories, Indian traditions and culture.

Haven't seen Benazir as yet, but from your short review, I was reminded of Mere Mehboob where the Nawab Ashok Kumar mistakes Rajendra Kumar for the lover of Nimmi (who actually happens to be his sister and stage performer and love-interest of the Nawab).
Then there was Dharmendra-Asha Parekh starrer AAYAA SAWAN JHOOMKE too I think in the same sub-plot. I'm sure there are more Bhabhi-saving movies. LOL.

Bollyviewer said...

I like that! Bhabhi-saving movies is now a new genre in the masala movie category!!! :-)

Mere Mehboob, of course, has MUCH better songs (nothing to beat Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki qasam), but I liked this movie a lot more. Bimal Roy's direction ensures that all the trauma-drama is pretty low-key, and nobody indulges in scenery chewing the way they do in Mere Mehboob (or Pakeezah).

Aparajita said...

Shemaroo has just brought out a DVD of Benazir. It would be good quality too as they have the rights and would have done a transfer from an original beta.

Bollyviewer said...

Aparajita, my experience of Shemaroo (and other Indian DVD manufacturers) is that they ALL transfer from the same bad print - the only difference with Shemaroo is that they simply chop off parts that are (I assume) bad. If you happen to see their print of Benazir, I'd love to find out what you think of the quality.

harvey said...

watching this right now!
somehow don't like sd's music in this. And I never thought I would say this, but shashi is grinning too much. but like the film overall. everybody is looking damn beautiful here.

harvey said...

twhat is wrong with bimalda? The ending is so melodramatic, it could have been made in the 80s. A total let down. Can't believe this is the same director who gave us such splenddid endings like in bandini and madhumati

harvey said...

Just realised that Bimal Roy wasn't the director, just the producer. S. Khallil is the director, though the film does have Bimalda's touch, except for the ending. Gulzar was the Asst. Director.
But funnily enough the Playback Singers are not listed at all or is it just missing from my shemaroo copy?

Bollyviewer said...

harvey, I completely missed the fact that Bimal Roy did not direct this! *blush* In my defence, it does have the little Bimal Roy touches and imdb lists him as one of the directors (I wonder what they know about it...). And my copy does not list the playback singers, either!

The ending is uber melodramatic. But at least she does not drag herself down a staircase in death throes, mouthing deathbed dialogues, all the while! :D

It's interesting that you find Bandini's ending "splendid". I must admit that I cannot understand how Nutan could leave Dharmendra for Dada Mani (I do love Dada Mani, but still...)!

eydpotter said...

Gotta watch Benazir but why isn't it available on DVD? or is it?. I've watched Bandini twice now, and though I loved it the first time around, I love it even more now. Yes, the ending is meant to be a letdown but there's a good reason for it too. Kalyani feels so guilty about what she has done is that she is never able to let go of her past. By making the ultimate choice, she again embraces a half-life, a cruel life that is not a happy ending for her - and that's what she thinks she deserves. Remember how in the beginning she takes care of the sick inmate without any fear for her own life. She thinks that if she were to die, it would be something she deserves anyway. Also she is someone who is shown to be very caring from the start, and leaving someone she loved to die like that would have been completely out of character. Yes, we wish she'd gone to Deven, but eventually as the lyrics in 'Mere saajan hain uss paar' say, she's a prisoner of love.

Arjun Narayanan said...

I am yet to watch this Bimal Roy movie. I guess Roshan or Naushad would have done a better job in the music department. And Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari have played this Nawab and forbidden lover game so many times! May be this was the first of many times.

Neeru said...

Saw this movie years ago, but could never figure out how the lost child grew up to be a Mujra girl ? What was the point of the earthquake ? The story could have just started with the grown up Meena Kumari. I saw it on video and thought there were scenes missing in the beginning.

Well, at last I have found one person who agrees with me about Bandini's ending... How could you leave such a great opportunity to marry Dharam and go back to Ashok Kumar who has given nothing but grief ! But then, I am not the story writer :)

Gaurang Pandya said...

Just saw last night. All the performances were superb. Everybody lives up to the royal class. Loved all actors,