Once upon a time, long ago, when there was only one TV channel (DoorDarshan - DD) in India, we used to get one Hindi film per week. If we were very very good (that is, if we lived in areas where Hindi was the local language), we got two films per week. As that was a major portion of our weekly entertainment ration, we’d anxiously scan DD’s programs for hints of what was in store for us at movie-time, and eagerly check the newspaper for information. Any hint that DD was about to bestow an old B/W Sunil Dutt-starrer on us, was always taken as a sign of the DD Gods’ pleasure, and awaited with eager anticipation. Its in those days that I watched this film, and I remember liking it a lot. Twenty years on, I must say that I am glad there are some movies I can watch without blushing for my kiddie-self’s taste!
The film opens with the lovely Basti basti parvat parvat sung by a wandering minstrel (Manmohan Krishan) in a train. His fellow travellers in the train are a mixed lot. Chief amongst them are: Ram (Sunil Dutt) an unemployed youth who is traveling with his widowed Maa (Leela Mishra) and young sister; Naubat Singh (Johnny Walker), a middle-aged Marwari businessman who is traveling with his child-bride; a dhobhi (washerman) who is very proud of his independence; a small-time thief (a very young Jagdeep). But these are just the plebians. The upper crust of society is also represented, but in a different compartment. There are several rich people traveling first-class and chief amongst them is the glamorous Princess Indira (Sheila Ramani). She is running away from a marriage arranged for her by her father, the King of Andher Nagri (Raj Mehra), and is passing herself off as "Sheela".
All these people’s lives intersect when their train is stalled, indefinitely, at a small station on the border of Andher Nagri*. Railway Platform is the story of these passengers in the next 24 hours, with the action taking place at a small village near the railway platform. Its the closest village to the station, and the only place where the stranded passengers can find food, and shelter of sorts.
Unwilling to be cooped up in a train without food and water, the passengers make their way to the village, with the crafty Naubat Singh ahead of them all. He persuades the owner of the village’s only shop and well to sell both to him, for 24 hrs. The simple shopkeeper and his daughter, Naina (Nalini Jaywant), are dazzled by the princely sum of Rs.150 that Naubat offers them for just 24 hrs. They soon regret their hasty decision when they see Naubat sell water to thirsty passengers – the ultimate in inhuman conduct!
Naina is horrified by Naubat’s exploitation of the passengers’ plight and tries to return his money but Naubat is adamant – he bought the well and the shop and his they stay for a day. In an argument with him, Naina falls into the well and is in grave danger of acquiring a watery grave. Ram promptly dives into action and Naina is soon re-united with terra firma. She is extremely grateful to Ram and chooses to repay him by falling in love with him!
Ram is not grateful for Naina’s attentions. But then, he has problems that keep him from falling in love. He is a college graduate unsuccessfully looking for a job. His Maa takes every opportunity to remind him that she used her life savings to educate him, and keeps entreating him to find a job. As if his cup of woes isn’t already full, along comes the glamorous, haughty Indira, to make things worse. He tries to help her with her luggage and his reward is a tight slap from Her Highness’s swinging right. Hey Ram!
In the village, a bustling business has sprung up, thanks to Naubat’s enterprise. He’s employed a few of the passengers to cook and clean, and has set up a make-shift restaurant. Since he holds a monopoly in the food and water business, he is doing brisk trade. Ram does his bit to rouse the social conscience by abusing God (Dekh tere bhagwaan ki haalat kya ho gayi insaan** – humans, see what your God has become!), much to his mother’s (and Naina’s) dismay. But hunger soon drives him to spend a few precious rupees on Naubat’s "unethical" food. His food is wrapped in a newspaper that coincidently has a missing-persons-ad for Princess Indira with the promise of a Rs.10,000 reward for information about her! So off he goes to telegraph her whereabouts to His Highness.
Alas, Ram has been too hasty. On his way back from the telegraph office, he encounters Indira and realises that she is crazy about him. A much flattered Ram succumbs to Indira’s glamour and begins to dream of riches and a life of ease with her wealth. Poor Naina is heartbroken when she witnesses her beloved "Babuji" romancing "the evil rich woman". The poor girl doesn’t seem to be getting the just reward for her many virtues!
In case you are batting for Naina, do not despair. She is living in the most eventful 24 hours on earth! In these 24 hours, relationships are made and broken, fortunes are made and lost, and everybody leaves that railway station a changed man/woman. So one cannot really predict what is going to happen - unless, of course, one is a seasoned film-viewer and can foretell the future of a hero/heroine after the first 30 minutes of the film!
This was Sunil Dutt’s Hindi film debut and, for a first film, he is surprisingly good. His Ram runs through a gamut of emotions – from helpless anger, dreams of grandeur, sweet helpfulness and (of course!) macho pride – very convincingly. It helps that Sunil Dutt looks as young and callow as the character he portrays. The rest of the cast is pretty effective too. I loved Sheila Ramani. She looks gorgeous and makes as glamorous a run-away princess as one could wish for! Johnny Walker, cast in a very unusual role, was a delightful surprise. This is the closest I’ve ever come to seeing him play a masala villain, and his Naubat Singh is quite easy to hate!
I loved how the film didn’t go for over-the-top villains. The bad guys weren’t unreasonably bad – Naubat was the worst, and he was only a businessman making a quick buck. Even the good guys weren’t all good. Naina, for all her virtue and goodness, avenged the slap to her Babuji by giving Indira a good drubbing! And Ram, the idealist, was easily dazzled by dreams of money.
On the minus side, I felt that the film bit off a whole lot more than it could chew. It touched upon class differences, opportunistic businessmen, unemployment, injustice, romance, religion… every possible social issue, in fact! It was all very well done, except The End. I know that everything has to be tidied up at the end, but must it also end with improbable reformations? And that too, within 24 hours?! Its the kind of plot that would lend itself better to a tele-serial of the ye olde DoorDarshan variety, with more room for the rest of the ensemble cast to perform and for each of the interesting side characters to develop into something more than mere stereotypes.
But all said and done, I enjoyed every minute of it, and wish I could have 24 hours even half as eventful!
*Andher nagri = dark town. Its part of the Hindi saying Andher nagri chaupat raja, taka ser bhaji taka ser khaja – a bad town, a useless king and everything in chaos.
**Dekh tere bhagwan ki haalat is a parody of Dekh tere sansaar ki haalat – poet Pradeep’s lament against contemporary morality and culture.