Well, "four rapes" is an exaggeration. There is only one rape. The other three are attempts by essentially "good" men who, once their attempted rapes are foiled, turn into their would-be rape-victim’s best friends and protectors!! Why did I persist in watching such a bizarre film? Well, partly because the story was engaging to begin with, partly because I love Sharmila Tagore and was intrigued to see her almost-pairing with Balraj Sahni, and partly because, having started, I wanted to see where it was going! The film is the strangest mix of awful and engaging, with the awful far outweighing the engaging.
Raju (Jeetendra) is the good-for-nothing son of a poor farmer. He spends his days learning the secrets of knife-wielding from the village outcast, Ustad Anwar (Tiwari). Raju’s father shoulders the entire burden of managing their small farm, and is often ticked off by his fellow villagers for letting his son loaf about. Though clearly old and tired, he refuses to rein in his son, and the inevitable happens. He drops dead one day, and Raju is left with one very debt-ridden farm. Finally roused to his responsibilities, Raju decides to work his farm. But he needs oxen to till the farm and his father had sold theirs’ to raise money. Racking his brains to come up with a way to earn the ox-price, Raju hits upon the idea of going to Bombay. A passing trucker had talked about how money flew around in Bombay, and Raju is convinced that once there, he’ll quickly earn enough for a pair of oxen.
Since he can’t afford a train ticket, Raju decides to stow-away on a truck. He climbs into the back of the first truck he sees, and finds it already occupied by one other stowaway. His fellow stowaway is an engaging young woman who introduces herself as Tarna (Sharmila Tagore) and proceeds to demand his blanket to cover up her torn clothes. She ascertains his antecedents first, and then tells him her story. She is an orphaned gypsy girl, running away from the man who "bought" her from her adoptive parents. Raju is moved by her plight and spends his small store of money to buy her a salwar-suit at the truck’s next stop. Tarna is touched by his kindness and his selflessness in spending his last penny on her. And so, as the truck winds its way onward, a romance begins to brew under the tarpaulin in the back!
With romance in the wind, trouble can’t be far behind. Sure enough, it soon finds them. The truck breaks down near a waterfall and Tarna decides to bathe while the truck driver, Joginder (Prakash Thapa?), waits for his assistant, Lalloo (Jagdeep) to bring help. When the truck gets repaired sooner than expected, Raju is able to get back on the truck undetected, but Tarna is seen in the rear-view mirror. The truck is stopped and the stowaways are discovered. Raju is shooed away, but Tarna is expected to "pay" her fare! Raju’s knife flashes out, and he soon has Joginder at his mercy. The latter is impressed by Raju’s amazing knife-y skills and immediately decides that Tarna is now his 'sister'. Lalloo is just as amazed as I am at this sudden twist in the tale. Are we both too slow to recognise the fraternising influence of the knife?!
Joginder is soon able to convince Lalloo that Tarna is his sister, too. Tarna’s two 'brothers' then bid her a tearful goodbye at the truck’s final destination. They help the lovers stowaway on a goods train bound for Bombay with a load of cattle. Having learnt nothing from their earlier mishap, Raju gets off the train when it stops in the fields, and is unable to get back on. Poor Tarna is left alone with the cows! At the next station, she is discovered by the cowherd (cowman?) when he comes to inspect his cattle. Naturally, like all men, he wishes to err… get cosy with Tarna. She runs from him and seeks shelter in a house by the station. The man of the house saves her from her pursuer and promises to help her find Raju. He take her to the "police chief of the area" aka the town lecher - Mittal (Jeevan). Mittal promises to start the police search for Raju and then quickly negotiates her price with her rescuer. He then manages to trap her in his bedroom and get started on some serious sexual assault. (This is attempted-rape #3, in case you’re keeping count.)
Just as I was about to give up in disgust, in comes Tarna’s knight on a muddy charger – film director Ashok (Balraj Sahni). Turns out that Mittal is a film producer/financier and Ashok is so important to him that he will willingly postpone a rape or two for the director’s visit! While Mittal and Ashok are discussing matters filmi, Tarna manages to escape from the bedroom and wind herself around Ashok. He isn’t quite the white knight she hopes for, though. He has no desire to intervene in his producer’s bedroom peccadilloes. But then he sees something in her eyes and decides that she is 'star material'. Once he conveys this to Mittal, the latter is quite willing to let Tarna off the hook!
Tarna isn’t willing to embrace a career in films and is only convinced when Ashok tells her that if she became a famous star, Raju will come and find her. Thus begins Tarna’s journey to stardom. We don’t see Ashok do his Prof. Higgins act, but the results are equally startling. The rough Tarna is soon transformed into the sophisticated and successful film-star Meenaxi. On the inside though, she remains Tarna and even after a few years in the lap of luxury, still yearns for Raju.
Lets see what happens to Raju after he misplaces Tarna. He makes his way to Bombay and finds that the city is neither friendly nor easy to earn money in. Tired after a day of unsuccessful job-hunting, he repairs to the pavement for some sleep. But in Bombay, even pavement accommodation isn’t free! He is soon being accosted by Ragiya Dada (Suresh?) and asked to cough up the "rent" for his "spot". Out comes Raju’s knife, and it has the same effect as before – Ragiya is enslaved by Raju’s knife-wielding skills. He promises to find employment for Raju, and takes him home to his intimidating sister Kusum (Lakshmi Chhaya). Kusum’s rough exterior, however, hides a marshmallow heart. She takes to Raju like a crocodile to water, and is soon urging her brother not to force Raju into any of his nefarious activities. So, while Raju tries his hand at earning the price of two oxen, Kusum falls for him, and she and her brother both plan for her wedding to him!
Raju is nothing if not tenacious about his Tarna – not all Kusum’s care and her great dancing makes him forget. His tenacity is rewarded when he recognises her in the pictures of film-star Meenaxi. Off he goes to her bungalow, to claim his Tarna, but Ashok won’t have it. He hasn’t worked hard to create Meenaxi, only to hand her over to Raju! He tells Raju that Tarna is now his wife. A heartbroken Raju goes off to get drunk and stagger home to Kusum. Tarna finds out about Raju’s visit and upbraids Ashok for reneging on his promise. Ashok tries explaining to her that she is now a big star, and has a duty towards her work and towards him – to no avail! Another near-miss later, Tarna manages to find her way to Raju’s home. She gets there just in time to see him embracing Kusum. It’s now her turn to return home, heartbroken.
Will Tarna-Raju ever get together? Will any woman in the film escape sexual assault? Will Tarna ever wake up to the fact that, old or no, Ashok is a whole lot more attractive than her bovine Raju? Do you even care?
I do not expect a lot by way of gender-equality in vintage films, but this film’s casual approach to sexual assault left me stunned (and it’s not even an 80s film)! I’ve often bemoaned the lack of grey characters in mainstream films, but in this, I’d have happily settled for the usual black-hearted villains. This film gives a whole new meaning to the co-existence of "good" and "evil" in one person!!! The only good thing about the film is Balraj Sahni in an unusually (slightly) evil role. It’s so nice to see him play a character that is not earnest and is often flippant and selfish. Plus, he is so darned charismatic that I was quite annoyed with Tarna for not recognising his attractions! For the rest, the film should come with an "avoid yaar" rating.