Have you ever watched a film with an impending sense of doom, heart thumping, waiting to see how the hero makes a bad situation worse? And this when it’s not even a thriller? That pretty much sums up how I felt watching this film! All I knew before was that it was based on Munshi Premchand’s story of the same name, and that it starred my favourite onscreen couple (Sunil Dutt and Sadhana). The film’s title meant that there was to be an embezzlement (gaban = embezzlement), and knowing that it was based on Premchand’s writing made me suspect the worst. As it turns out, it is a lovely film. But if I’d known just how bad things were going to get, I could’ve stopped expecting the worst and relaxed enough to enjoy the film! So for those of you who prefer to be forewarned, here goes…
The year is 1928, the place - Allahabad. Ramanath (Sunil Dutt) is the eldest son of a scrupulously honest court clerk (Badri Prasad). When the film opens, Dad is wondering what his unemployed eldest son will become. Well, Ramanath is convinced that he is human and will stay that way! He is smartly turned out in a dapper set of pants and blazer, and getting his expensive leather shoes polished. How did an unemployed son of a poor clerk manage to be so expensively dressed? He "borrowed" his friends' stuff because he believes that "wealth must be shared"! His friends are not convinced, but are finally won over by his charm. And they’re not the only ones. He visits his father at court and manages to dazzle Dad’s client (Brahm Bharadwaj). Said client promptly asks for Ramanath's hand in marriage – for his daughter Jalpa (Sadhana).
For all his charm, there is a darker side to Ramanath. He takes bribes from people to get their work done by his father and prefers to cover up inconvenient truths with convenient lies. He is, in fact, quite well-known among his friends for his creative lies – something that will soon land him in a deal of trouble. It all begins with his marriage…
Ramanath’s father, anxious to make the wedding an occasion to remember, spends too much on the festivities and jewellery for the bride. The wedding over, he finds that he cannot repay the jeweller Gangu (?). The only way to get out of debt is to return some of the bridal jewellery. When Dad asks Ramanath to get the jewellery from his new bride, he is aghast. He spent their wedding night trying to impress Jalpa with his (non-existent) wealth. How can he now ask her back for the jewellery he gifted her?! It would mean admitting that he is not only poor, but also a liar. He elects to take the easy way out, and steals the jewels!
Jalpa is inconsolable at the loss of her jewellery. To cheer her up, Ramanath promises to get her new jewels to fill up her jewel box. But to buy gold, he must first earn some money. He approaches his frequent chess partner, Ramesh aka ‘Bade’ Babu (Agha), for help. Ramesh is a clerk in the municipal office and has always boasted that he has great power in his office – unlike Ramanath’s, his aren’t empty boasts. He helps Ramanath get a job collecting tax payments in the municipal office. For a while, things go well. Ramanath works hard during the day and spends the rest of the time basking in Jalpa’s affection.
The trouble with Ramanath is that it never takes him long to wander off the straight-and-narrow path. The moment he gets his salary, he goes off to buy Jalpa some gold jewellery. He intends to buy something inexpensive, but is easily persuaded by the jeweller into spending more than he has. He does intend to pay the jeweller’s debt, but at some future date.
Jalpa is entranced with her new jewellery and wears it when they visit an elderly relative of Ramanath’s. The old man has a very young and very lovely wife - Ratan (Zeb Rehman) - who is very fond of jewellery. When she expresses an interest in Jalpa’s gold bangles, her husband promptly hands Ramanath Rs. 600 to get a similar pair made for her. Ramanath gives the money to the jeweller, asking for the bangles to be made. He completely ignores the fact that he already owes the jeweller a lot of money! The latter calmly pockets the cash in lieu of Ramanath’s debt and refuses to give the bangles without further payment.
Now Ramanath is in a fix - how to get more cash? For Ratan will eventually want her bangles. As anticipated, she is soon pressing Ramanath for her bangles. He tries to fob her off with talk of delays but this won’t do for her. He must either get her the bangles right away, or her money back. So the day of reckoning is on him, sooner than he expected. How to return Ratan’s money? He does not have Rs. 600! There is one ray of hope. He is certain that she does not want the money - she is only trying to pressurize the jeweller into making the bangles quickly. What if he shows her Rs. 600? That should buy him some time. So he approaches his friends for loans, and manages to collect about Rs. 200. But he is still Rs. 400 short. What to do?
That evening, when it’s time for Ramanath to deposit the day’s tax collections with the office cashier, he waits till the cashier leaves before trying to deposit it. This gives him the excuse of taking the money home for safe-keeping, since nobody else at the office is willing to take responsibility for the cash. He plans to take the money back early next morning, certain that Ratan won’t take it. Unfortunately, the best laid plans have a way of going awry. Ramanath is away when Ratan comes to take the money, and Jalpa hands it over. Ratan admits that she does not really want the money, only her bangles. But Jalpa insists that Ratan must take her money and get her bangles made herself! By the time Ramanath returns home, the deed is done. His money is gone and come morning, he will have to admit to the defalcation at the office.
The next day, Ramanath makes a full confession to a shocked Bade Babu. Our hero is told that unless he wants to be arrested for embezzlement, the missing cash should be returned before noon. Ramanath comes home, hoping to steal Jalpa’s jewellery (again!) to cover up his defalcation. Alas, Jalpa has gone out wearing all her jewels. He waits for her to return, with the clock ticking. As it gets closer to noon and there is still no sign of her, he sends out a servant, asking her to return immediately. As he waits impatiently for her return, he sees the police coming down the street to his door. Convinced that they’re about to arrest him, he flees through the back door. Had he waited a few moments, he’d have found that the police were actually looking for one of his neighbours!
Jalpa returns home in response to Ramanath’s summons, just after he’s fled. Seeing that he’s left in a hurry, she goes to his office to see him. There she meets Bade Babu who tells her about the missing money. Jalpa isn’t going to wait around for her husband’s fair name to be smirched. She sells her necklace and promptly makes a full restitution.
Unaware that all is quiet on the embezzlement front, Ramanath boards the first train out of Allahabad. The train is headed for Calcutta, and Ramanath is aboard with no ticket or cash. When the ticket checker arrives, a friendly co-passenger (Kanhaiyalal) buys him a ticket. It does not take long for the helpful stranger to deduce that his young companion is on the run from the police. This being 1920s India, he assumes that Ramanath is a freedom fighter and running away from the British police! The old man – he is Ramu Kaka (really?!) – had lost two sons to the cause, and feels very sympathetic toward any young man ready to sacrifice himself on the altar of Bharat Mata. Ramanath, naturally, says nothing to disillusion Ramu Kaka.
Once in Calcutta, Ramu gives Ramanath shelter in his home. His wife (Leela Mishra) objects loudly, but her tough exterior hides a marshmallow heart, and she is secretly pleased to be helping a "freedom fighter". Ramanath writes home to reassure his family of his safety, but is too scared of the police to put his return address on the letter. So nobody back home can tell him that it is safe to return home! Their only option is to advertise in the newspapers in Calcutta, hoping that he’ll see the message and return. But they are reluctant to make his embezzlement public, for fear of a scandal. So Jalpa decides to travel to Calcutta to look for him.
So far, except for the songs and Jalpa’s 60s fashions, there had been absolutely no filmi touches to the story. I concluded that the film is following Munshi Premchand’s story to the letter. But the film was only half over, and the embezzlement was already solved. So what happens next? Our Ramanath is clearly a weak and cowardly character, but even he cannot make things any worse than this. I should’ve known better!
Before Jalpa can find him, Ramanath gets caught up in a police versus Congress contretemps on the street. He is taken to the station where the police soon nose out that he is on the run from the law. This comes at a time when the British-Indian police is trying to implicate a group of non-violent Congress workers in a bombing incident. Daroga Khan (Anwar Hussain) has been unsuccessfully trying to get one of the group to turn state’s witness. When he sees Ramanath, he hits upon a brilliant plan. Ramanath will testify about the terrorist activities of his “fellow Congress workers". In return, he will get full immunity for the embezzlement.
Ramanath is quite willing until he realises that he is expected to testify against an old classmate. He'd been assured that these men had indulged in violence, and needed to be convicted. But he knows that his old friend is a firm believer in Gandhi’s policy of non-violent agitation! The police put the screws on him – testify and live in the lap of government sponsored luxury, or refuse and rot in jail for embezzlement. Weak man that he is, Ramanath gives in. While they await the trial, the police start digging into Ramanath’s embezzlement. Imagine their surprise when they find that there is no case against him! If they’ve no hold on him, their star witness will walk out. Their best chance is to make sure that he does not find out until he testifies. So they lock him up in a luxurious bungalow with plenty of wine and women to keep him occupied.
While Ramanath is locked up in his golden cage, Jalpa has been scouring Calcutta for him. She happens to run into Ramu Kaka and finds out that Ramanath is going to give false testimony to escape the charge of embezzlement. They join forces and try to find Ramanath before he testifies. Will they find him in time to stop him from sending a dozen non-violent freedom fighters to their deaths? More importantly, will they find him before the next sad song comes up? Well, there are no more sad songs, but there is buckets-full of drama yet to come.
While Ramanath’s is hardly an admirable character, it is nice to see a “hero” who is so extraordinarily un-heroic! He is not evil, or even bad, yet through his selfishness and cowardice, he brings about enough suffering to make a genuine Gabbar Singh go green with envy. But for all that, I must admit that I do not really hate Ramanath. Perhaps that is something to do with the fact that it is Sunil Dutt on the screen? ;D He does put in a very good performance here. He is very understated throughout and manages to stay off the melodrama, even in the very dramatic climax. The rest of the cast was equally good, and equally restrained. Sadhana only puts in one NAHIIIN face, but that’s when Jalpa loses her jewellery and a situation like that does call for a big NAHIIIN!!!
The film was probably shot over a period of a few years since Sadhana looks sweet and pretty (like she did in early 1960s films like Ek Musafir Ek Haseena) in parts, and rather tired with a deeply furrowed brow, in others. Apart from that discontinuity, the only other jarring feature was the complete lack of period details - everybody was clearly living in the 60s and wearing 60s make-up and dresses. In such a well-made film, that particular detail did annoy me a bit. But for the most part, I was too engrossed by the story to dwell too much on the costume anomaly. For those of you who like a well-told story, you must give this a watch!