It’s always nice to see a 40s heroine who isn’t raring to martyr herself on the altar of duty, especially when the film co-stars my favourite - Sohrab Modi. I can see that you’re pointing an accusing finger at the film’s release date, which is, admittedly 1950. But I assure you, this film really does not feel like a 50s film. My womanly intuition tells me that this was shot in 1949. And no, I do not need anybody to ruin my beautiful theory with ugly facts.
Now that we’re all agreed that it’s a 40s film, let’s examine this unusual heroine. She has all the attributes of a "good" woman. Dutiful? Check. Conscious of her family’s izzat (honor)? Check. Always sticking to the straight and narrow and making sure that others do, too? Check. But unlike a lot of other Bhartiya naaris, she does not suffer in silence. She is also educated, independent, sassy and not entirely above modern ideas. Which does not mean that she is a feminist - she is Bolly-naari, after all. But she does her bit to restore my faith in 40s/50s Indian womanhood. The character is named Ranjana, and is played by Naseem Banu. Let’s see what she gets up to…
Thakur Jaspal Singh (Sohrab Modi) comes from a long and illustrious line of Thakurs. That means only one thing in Bolly-land – he is proud of his lineage and zealously devoted to keeping up the family’s izzat in the come-what-may style. That he is up to his ears in debt, and close to loosing his lovely mansion - the titular Sheesh Mahal - does nothing to cramp his style. He donates lavishly to charity, rudely refuses to contemplate a match between his daughter Ranjana (Naseem Banu) and his chief creditor’s son, plans to celebrate Diwali like a minor King, and shuts his ears to his children’s entreaties to live within his means. But that isn’t the sum of his follies. He believes in the Thakur honour to such an extent that he’s married off his elder daughter Nalini (Pushpa Hans) into an impoverished Thakur family and she’s been subject to untold suffering as a result.
A letter from the suffering Nalini moves Ranjana to tears, and her brother Balram (Amarnath?) to helpless anger. Balram never wanted Nalini to be married into a poor family, but Jaspal is firm in his belief that a proud lineage is more important than wealth. Now, he bids Balram to fetch Nalini and her family for Sheesh Mahal’s lavish Diwali celebrations. Balram is happy to fetch his sister, but tries to get his father to scale back on the festivities. Ranjana and he have heard that their father’s chief creditor has declared a foreclosure and will get Sheesh Mahal auctioned. But Jaspal is unmoved – he’s filed a case in court and everything will be fine! Ranjana and Balram shut up, and plunge into the festivities. Nalini joins in with her young son, and bemoans the poverty that has brought illness to her husband and starvation to her little one. Ranjana and Balram soon enlighten her about the true state-of-affairs at Sheesh Mahal.
Along come the troubles, thick and fast. First comes the news of Nalini’s husband’s death. Then, Sheesh Mahal is auctioned. They shift to a small house and try to make ends meet with Balram’s earnings as a factory worker. Ranjana’s fiancé Sundarmukh (Pran) breaks their engagement, because he has no interest in marrying a poor Thakur’s daughter, no matter how proud her lineage. Then Balram looses a leg in an accident and their only source of income is gone.
Through all this, Jaspal firmly refuses to let Ranjana get a job because the women in his family never work! If Balram cannot work, he will paint and sell his paintings. In the meantime they must all survive – on air, I assume! Needless to say, I was all ready to administer some much needed smacks to Mr. Thakur Jaspal Singh. But Ranjana took action herself. Instead of trying to batter some sense into her father’s head, she sought a teaching job. As luck would have it, she lands a better paying job as a companion to Rupa (Nigar Sultana), the spoilt daughter of the new owner of Sheesh Mahal - Durgaprasad (Mubarak). Ranjana then goes home and presents her family with fait accompli. The smart girl does not reveal the name of her employer, but does assure her father that she will keep her proud lineage a secret. Jaspal is not reconciled, but withdraws his opposition when Ranjana entreats him on behalf of Nalini’s half-starving child.
Ranjana starts her job in Sheesh Mahal, and makes an instant hit with Rupa and her Mom (a very young Leela Mishra). The son of the house - Vikram (Jawahar Kaul) – is much struck by her beauty, but when she tells him off for being rude to her, he isn’t quite so smitten anymore. His vague affront hardens into dislike when he discovers a letter calling her to an assignation later that night. He follows her to her assignation, and discovers his mistake. The letter was written to Rupa and Ranjana discovered it in the pocket of her dressing gown while ironing it. She then kept the tryst in Rupa's stead, by the simple expedient of locking the latter up in her bedroom!
At the tryst, Ranjana discovers that Rupa’s lover is her own ex-fiancé, Sundarmukh! She quickly veils herself and tells him that Rupa sent her to drive him away. And she does drive him away - with the help of their dog Bahadur. But Rupa is very much in love with Sundarmukh’s sundar mukh (pretty face), and unlikely to submit to her arranged-marriage groom. She rings up Sundarmukh and the two plan to elope. Sundarmukh thinks like the villain of a regency romance - her wealthy parents will have to accept the marriage once it’s been accomplished. The elopement is planned for the one night in the week when Ranjana is away, visiting her family. But luck is against the lovers. Her father’s distressing cough prompts Ranjana to come over to Sheesh Mahal to borrow some of Mrs. Durgaprasad’s cough medicine. And she is just in time to intercept Rupa and dissuade her from eloping.
Rupa submits to Ranjana’s arguments against an elopement, but fiercely resents being forced into a marriage with someone else. Will Ranjana be able to convince her that marriage with
Pran Sundarmukh is a fate-worse-than-death? How will she evade her own troubles? After she frustrated Rupa’s elopement, the grateful Durgprasad sent her home in his limousine and Mrs. Durgaprasad lent her an expensive shawl to keep warm on the way. Jaspal sees both and immediately jumps to the conclusion that Ranjana has been performing dishonourable service for her employer! Will she be able to escape his Thakur-wrath? Will Vikram ever tell Ranjana about his growing feelings for her? Will the lovely Nalini stop singing sad songs? And most importantly, will somebody finally whack some sense into the annoying Thakur Jaspal Singh? All your questions will be answered - just visit Sheesh Mahal. :D
The performances are very stagey, in the way of pre-50s films. That, and the music, give it the distinct feel of a 40s film. For the rest, it’s a fairly progressive film. While Jaspal represents the worst of silly, retrogressive ideas, the rest of the characters stand up very articulately for sensible and modern ideas. Apart from being peopled with likeable characters, it's also a very fast-paced story with great dialogues, lavish sets, lots of beautiful people, and lovely songs. This being a Sohrab Modi film, there are lots of long speeches, usually delivered by him in his booming voice. He does spout the most annoying nonsense about honour and pride, but I must confess that I love the way he delivers his lines! Besides, since the film is staunchly against the views his character espouses, those speeches aren’t really all that annoying, after all.
And don’t forget to check out Pran in an unusual romantic duet...