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: