In the late 80s, Thursday afternoons used to be red letter-days at home. Back then, DoorDarshan (Indian TV) had begun to telecast unknown old B/W films on Thursday afternoons, in addition to their regular Saturday and Sunday evening film telecasts. The Thursday ones were much better because we could always expect the unexpected – famous actors in unusually fun films with great songs. That’s when I first discovered that Ajit and Prem Nath had once been handsome leading men, that Dara Singh had played hero to Mumtaz and that even Mehmood wasn’t too jarring in his earlier lead roles! And best of all, there were a slew of Shashi Kapoor films. Back then, I remember loving this one to bits. I no longer love it so unconditionally, but I can forgive it’s flaws for the nostalgia it invokes!
Rakesh (Shashi Kapoor) is a gambler and an alcoholic. Since he is the hero, he also has a heart of gold. He may run up huge bills with the corner paanwaala, but when he wins big, he pays up with an open hand, and he never forgets a friend. When his friend Chander (B. B. Bhalla) is behind with his rent, Rakesh empties his pockets for him. And when he hears alcoholic Madho (Chaman Puri) beating his daughter - Renu (Madhavi) - he promptly intervenes. Renu tells him that they have no money for food and are about to be evicted for not paying rent. Rakesh immediately springs into action.
Rakesh tries to borrow money from Bankeylal (Madan Puri), the rich owner of a gambling den. But Bankey is not into philanthropy. He suggests that Rakesh do the usual - gamble for him (Bankey) and earn his cut. That would take time, and Rakesh knows that Renu does not have the luxury of time. He presses Bankey for a loan. One thing leads to another and Rakesh lands up on the footpath, battered and barely conscious. He manages to stumble away, but collapses under a street lamp a short time later. A kindly young woman (Nanda) sees him there and stops to help him.
Next morning, Rakesh wakes up in a strange room, his injuries miraculously healed (did he get hold of Harry Potter’s healing spell?), but no memory of what brought him there. This mystery is soon solved – he finds from Saroj (last night’s helpful young woman) that he had passed out near her house. So she brought him home to sleep off his affliction. (How did Nanda manage to carry Shashi Kapoor?! Magical super powers?). She cooks him a hearty meal and tells him that she likes helping people. Rakesh takes her at her word and calmly purloins a gold necklace he finds hanging in her cupboard!
Rakesh pawns the necklace, and goes back to Bankey's den. They play what looks like three-card poker all night, and Rakesh ends up with all the money. In funds again, he goes to make his apologies to Saroj. But Saroj has got her necklace back, already! He explains that he stole it to help Renu, but her family was already evicted and gone by the time he got home with the money. And he wasn’t even able to redeem the necklace! Saroj kindly tells him that he did no wrong because he was only trying to help someone. Rakesh is enchanted – here’s the kind of woman he thought was extinct. And she is interested in him, too, because she asks him about the woman he mentioned in his drunken mutterings. Cue for a flashback to Rakesh's happier times.
A few years ago, Rakesh was an upstanding idealist. He was deeply in love with the beautiful Sumitra (Tanuja). But there was a fly in the ointment - Chary (Rehman), a rich older man, was also in love with Sumi. She enjoyed his attention while poor Rakesh was consumed with jealousy. One evening, Sumitra chattered a bit too much about Chary - his wealth and his social standing - and Rakesh’s jealousy got the better of him. When Sumi asked to be reassured that their love would last, Rakesh told her that there are no guarantees of lasting love without wealth! She walked off in a huff, and married Chary soon after. This wasn't the end of Rakesh's troubles. His father (Kamal Kapoor) arranged his marriage with a rich girl, but Rakesh refused to be bartered for dowry. Father disowned him in the best khandaani tradition, and now Rakesh does not even have the comfort of Ma’s (Achla Sachdev) love. So now, he's taken to gambling because life is but a gamble. (And here I thought it was a stage - one lives and learns!)
Saroj's sympathy is exactly what the doctor prescribed for Rakesh's gambling heart. The two start meeting often, going on picnics and long drives interspersed with songs. Naturally, picnics and long drives lead to them falling in love. When things get too cosy this early on in the film, trouble is bound to be round the corner. Here, it takes the form of Saroj’s mysterious past. She begins to tell him her life story, but they're interrupted and the topic is never resumed. One evening, when Rakesh walks into Saroj’s home, he is greeted by Bankey! The latter explains that he brought Saroj here from an obscure village, and implies that he and Saroj are lovers. Rakesh is stunned. The two are just getting down to a manly conversation with fisticuffs, when Saroj walks in. Rakesh asks her about Bankey and she unwittingly confirms the latter's story by admitting that he brought her to Bombay from her village. Without further ado, Rakesh is convinced that Saroj really was using him as the "beautiful idiot" that Bankey called him.
A disillusioned and heartbroken Rakesh checks into a hotel and settles down to some serious drinking and angsting. But even here, there is no peace for him. His angsting is unceremoniously interrupted by loud music from next door. He belligerently walks over to demand a noise shut-down - and who does he meet next door but his former neighbour Renu! She is now a cabaret dancer in the hotel and was dancing with her boyfriend. Rakesh forgets all his anger and Renu is delighted to see her kindly benefactor again. She insists on taking him home with her – a home that is amazingly father-free and brother-free…
Rakesh tells Renu that he is tired of honesty and idealism, and needs to try something else (stealing and gambling were obviously not enough). Renu suggests a plan – she will introduce him to some rich men and he must lie a LOT to impress them. It sounds a bit thin to me, but it clearly works. Next thing we know, Rakesh is a rich businessman newly arrived in Delhi. His pictures are all over the papers and attract a lot of attention in the right quarters. He gets invited to all the best parties and gets to gamble with Delhi’s richest. To top it all, the rich Princess Sabita (Naaz) is completely smitten with him. She even threatens to go into a decline if he won’t party with her! At her party he runs into Sumitra – the woman who first broke his heart. Sumi, it turns out, is not altogether happy in her marriage. Her husband is not the romantic that Rakesh was, and the wealth she'd admired before marriage is now poor compensation for giving up Rakesh. She tells Rakesh that she still loves him and would like a second chance. But he has moved on to bigger and better heartbreaks, and no longer cares for Sumi.
Delhi seems chockfull of women from Rakesh’s past! Just after he spurns Sumi’s re-offered love, he hears from Ramu Chacha (David) that Saroj is also in town. She is unwell and would like to see him. Chacha had earlier tried persuading Saroj to tell Rakesh the truth about their misunderstanding. But Saroj was adamant that she will not defend herself. Rakesh must recognise the truth himself, otherwise he’ll never believe it! Rakesh comes to call on Saroj - he may hate her, but he always discharges his debts and he owes Saroj a lot for picking him off the streets and caring for him. (Maybe he is also curious about how she carried him from the footpath?). Well, nobody could accuse Rakesh of discharging his debts any more than dutifully! He is cold and distant to poor Saroj and leaves her in tears. Aah Rakesh, your life is getting complicated, isn’t it? All these women, all the lies and tangled emotions... Where will it all end? Interestingly enough, after some melodrama, Rakesh's story finally ends in a murder trial! His life story has almost as many twists and turns as a good piece of fiction!!
It is, on the whole, a pretty well made film. The songs are lovely, all the performances are pretty good, and the plot moves along at a fast pace. The little melodrama at the end is also very well done and serves as a fitting climax to the film. What is more, in certain aspects, it is surprisingly modern! For instance, the cabaret dancer Renu is shown to have a devoted admirer and she is never given the "fallen woman" treatment by anybody. Then there is Sumitra. She is allowed to marry for money, get disillusioned with her husband and try for a second chance with a former boyfriend. And she is neither bumped off at the end, nor does her husband ever stop loving her for her infidelity! Even Saroj, for all her Bhartiya Naari goodness, never offers an explanation of her past and actually gets an apology at the end.
My only problem with story, and the reason why I don't love this film a lot, is with the hero. Rakesh is rather full of self-pity and has a very black and white view of the world that he insists on imposing over every situation. It irks me that given his own questionable ethics, his perception of the people around him is never tempered with the slightest understanding of human failings. Considering that he embraces several vices himself – including stealing and gambling – I find the moral high ground that he takes, rather hypocritical. A little less talk of "truth" and "honesty" from him would have made him a lot more likeable!