Well, I watched this movie almost two weeks ago, and then I had to think about it for a long time before I was ready to write about it. Which is a good sign. On the other hand, I watched Dil Hai Tumhaare and then scribbled something off the very next day, because not a lot to think about there! (also, my schedule is totally messed up this week, so it’s Friday classics on Thursday night. There’s something else going up tomorrow morning)
This is one of the subset of Raj and Nargis movies that are not also Raj Kapoor films. It was only their 3rd film together, following her small role in Aag and leading role in Barsaat. And the first time they were not directed by Raj himself in a story written by Raj. It wouldn’t be the last time, between Awara and Shree 420 there were half a dozen Raj-Nargis films made by other artists besides Raj. There weren’t that many Raj-Nargis films between Barsaat and Awaara. Which could just be a lag in filming schedules, there were only two years there. Or it could be that only a few directors spotted the Raj-Nargis magic before Awaara blew the top off (like SRKajol after Baazigar and Karan-Arjun. From hindsight, we can see it even then. But at the time it would be easy to miss the magic they had onscreen in these lesser less romantic films).
But Mehboob Khan didn’t miss it! Or maybe he did and lucked into finding it? But I don’t think so. Mehboob was Nargis’ mentor, her first director. And the director who would later give her her greatest role, Mother India. He knew her so well, both onscreen and off, that I can’t believe he didn’t see the spark between her and Raj and know it was something special. Especially since the film really only makes sense if the Raj-Nargis chemistry is stronger than the Nargis-Dilip Kumar chemistry, which is pretty darn strong.
(The poster guy knew it too! See how Raj and Nargis are combined with an “&” and Dilip is all isolated by his dot?)
What makes this film unique is that it is the Raj-Nargis story told from the Nargis side of things. Not like the actual Raj-Nargis story, not a lot of similarities there (if I had to pick a classic scandal, I would say it is most like the Rajnish Bahl-Nutan-Sanjeev Kumar scandal). But the story of the film is Nargis’, the chemistry between her and Raj is there to support her character’s experiences and conflicts, not Raj’s.
Which makes it a very unusual film. The central female character is strong and complex, and the central figure of the film. But she is also blamed explicitly in the dialogue for everything that goes wrong. This is a classic debate in feminist media studies. Is it more important to have any representation at all, or to have the right representation? Heck, you can make the same argument for race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, everything.
The Amos ‘n Andy TV was the first TV show in America with all African-American talent. And they were serious talent, experienced well trained stage actors getting jobs they deserved and would never have been offered. But, you know, it’s Amos ‘n Andy. It’s a show with terribly racist content created by two white men. Which is more important, that the TV show gave representation (and jobs) to African-Americans, or that it has a perfect political message?
This movie isn’t Amos ‘n Andy. Our heroine is a strong real interesting woman, not a stereotype. But the narrative keeps punishing her for that, explicitly punishes her for that, has her say at the end “if only I had listened to my father!” While the men in her life who leap to assumptions and cause difficulties are never explicitly punished.
Only, they are implicitly punished. This is one of those movies that cries for an against the grain reading. Like, Raees. The film says “crime doesn’t pay, the police give justice, etc. etc.” But you come out of it going “I love Shahrukh! The police are meanies! No one else cares about his people like he did!” In the same way, I wonder if there was a bit of self-censorship going on here. If they wanted to make a film that says “Women bare the punishment for behavior that is really the fault of the men around them”, but couldn’t, so instead they made that film and threw in a lot of dialogue blaming it on the woman, although the actual content of the narrative doesn’t support that.
Here, I’ll give you SPOILERS so you can see what I mean.
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We open with Nargis. She is the protagonist, the “hero” of the film. A young woman in jodhpurs (can I say again how it BLEW MY MIND when I put together Jodpur-Jodhpur?) is begging her father to go riding with her. He refuses because he is tired and says he is too old, she goes out alone, falls, and is rescued by Dilip Kumar, who clearly falls for her right away because she is Nargis and amazing.
Nargis brings him home, introduces him to her father, is generally friendly. Nargis’ friend (Cuckoo! Helen’s mentor! Helen-before-Helen!) clearly has a crush on him, and he doesn’t even seem to see her. Nargis’ father dies suddenly, leaving her the sole heir to his company, with no idea how to run it. She sinks into a depression, Dilip sticks around and gently encourages her to be happy, and when she begs him, agrees to take over running her father’s business for her as well.
And then, boom! Raj arrives! Nargis happily announces to Dilip that he has to come to the airport to meet her friend, and it’s Raj! They embrace, and immediately it is clear to Dilip, and the audience watching the film, that every other man in the world is invisible when Nargis sees Raj.
This is why their chemistry is so important. Dilip and Nargis have great chemistry as well. We can absolutely buy that Dilip falls in love at first sight, and thinks that she might reciprocate. And when she is sobbing and depressed and clinging to him, we believe that too, that he is someone special in her life that she can trust. But we need to see that Raj is something else entirely. That they are made for each other, that they light up when they see each other, they can’t keep their hands off each other, they are the ideal couple. Dilip is nothing. And of course, it’s Raj and Nargis, so we do see that. The whole plot rests on Dilip suddenly feeling cast aside here, resenting that all he thought he had with Nargis was nothing in the face of what she feels for Raj. And on the audience seeing why he would see that.
There really isn’t much time spent building up the Raj-Nargis relationship. One flashback to their meeting, and that’s it. Instead, we are presented with them as already a couple. They are unofficially engaged with her father’s approval. She has been writing to him all this time and he is finally able to return to India from London to join her, and obviously they will shortly be married, they are so committed to each other that they are essentially married already.
Which, again, is something Dilip and the audience have to understand instinctively, that the reason Nargis never bothered to clarify her semi-engaged status to Dilip is because she considered it such a fact of life, it didn’t seem like something she needed to say out loud. In fact, the reason she was so free with Dilip is because she was so uninterested in him. He interpreted that as interest, but that is his own blindness.
(This is the song where it is most brilliantly confused. He is singing about love in their heart, we later realize that he is singing about Nargis and she is thinking about Raj. But notice she is always shyly looking down, looking internally. She is clearly in love with someone, but never indicates that it is with the man in the room with her. That is Dilip’s interpretation that he puts on her)
And now Nargis is in a problem that is not of her making. She is in love with the man she is supposed to be in love with, her fiance who loves her back. But another man who she needs (she has given him control over her father’s business, and has come to rely on him as a friend) is causing problems for her, making her husband doubt her and making her feel unhappy with his protestations of love that she has no interest in. Dilip knows she is not interested, and yet he persists.
And when Nargis thinks she has gotten rid of him, has left town to spend a blissful honeymoon with Raj, followed by settling down to a happy life with their beloved child, Raj is the one who brings him back, ignores Nargis’ awkward attempts to keep him out of their life. And of course, when Raj overhears Dilip renewing his vow of love to Nargis, he immediately blames Nargis for it and assumes she must feel the same way.
See what I mean about how the script is saying one thing but showing us another? At the same time that everyone is saying over and over again that Nargis shouldn’t have gotten so friendly with Dilip to begin with, and therefore this is on her, we are seeing over and over again that she is doing everything right and the men in her life and choosing to blame her rather then themselves.
(She’s just standing there listening, Dilip is the one singing and Raj is the one who asked him)
Even going back to her father! He tells her not to bring too many strange men home, but he also refuses to go horseback riding with her because he is too tired, and fails to provide an alternative appropriate chaperone. Which leads to her accident, which leads to her meeting Dilip. Who is then welcomed into their home by her father, despite his protests that make it appear he does not want company. And her father, perhaps the more appropriate person to indicate to Dilip that Nargis is engaged or close to it, fails to do so. If the fault lies in Dilip being too friendly with Nargis and not told soon enough that she is in love with someone else, then Nargis’ father should share that blame with her.
In the same way, if the fault is that Nargis as a married woman should not be associating with Dilip, well, the fault lies mostly with Dilip and a little with Raj. Dilip knows she is married, he is the free one, he could go anywhere in the world and he chooses to keep following her. And Raj knows, for whatever reason, that she is uncomfortable with her old friend. Or he would know it if he paid a little more attention. And he is the one forcing them together, bringing Dilip back into their lives.
And then we come to the ending. The extremely dramatic ending. Raj confronts Dilip and, in a rage, pushes him down the stairs. Nargis, terrified that her husband will be punished, insists on nursing the concussed Dilip at her home. This just incenses Raj further. After a big fight with him, Nargis prepares to kill herself, having lost her husband and her daughter (since Raj insists on taking their daughter with him). Dilip suddenly appears, unbalanced following his head injury, takes the gun from her and suggests they die together. They struggle for the gun, Dilip has a long scary monologue about how she must love him and tries to kiss her, Nargis shoots him.
So, let’s count this down. Dilip is in their home because he was injured when Raj attacked him. Nargis has a gun because Raj drove her to suicide. Dilip is unbalanced when he approaches her because of his head injury GIVEN BY RAJ. And Nargis has to shoot him in self-defense because Dilip himself is suffering from an underlying romantic obsession. None of this is Nargis’ fault. She is a victim of the circumstances surrounding her. At least, that’s what the events show.
(Piano! Instrument of DOOM! If only she played something nice and traditional like a Sitar, none of this would have happened)
What the characters say is that it is her fault. Nargis is put on trial, Raj testifies against her saying that she clearly always loved Dilip, Raj was just a smokescreen. She gave Dilip all her father’s money and kept him around as her lover even after marriage. Nargis is so heartbroken at this, and takes full responsibility for having given her husband reason to doubt her, that she doesn’t even bother to put on a defense. At the end of the film, FINALLY, Raj finds a letter from Dilip declaring his love despite Nargis having told him she only loves her husband and has only ever loved her husband, which clears Nargis of all suspicions. But it doesn’t mean she gets a happy ending. She is still punished, to “banishment”, and bids farewell forever to her husband and daughter, declaring her guilt for not listening to her father and living like an Indian woman. The explicit message is that the woman is at fault and should have kept herself apart and virtuous. But the implicit message is that the woman is unjustly blamed for activities beyond her control.
Now, all of that I could have written last week after one watch and a quiet think. But what makes this a movie I have to think about for two weeks is that there is a whole other way in which you can interpret it. This is a very “early Independence” kind of film, evoking the question that Raj himself will put much more succinctly 6 years later in Shree 420, what makes someone “Indian” if India is so influenced by the rest of the world at the moment?
Of our 3 leads, only Nargis is “from” India. Dilip is introduced as having recently arrived from South Africa where he was born and raised. Raj arrives from London. Through out the film, there are symbols of Westernization. Nargis wears Jodhpurs and goes horseback riding in her first scene. She continues to wear western clothing much of the time until and even after marriage. The men are always in suits (and on a shallow note, they look Gooooooood! Uff, well-cut 1940s men’s suits are a very good look). The interior design of the houses is all modern furniture, the nursery for the eventual baby is filled with mass-produced western style toys. Their honeymoon is spent golfing. Even the music Dilip plays is western, sung at the piano instead of a sitar or a tabla.
And yet under all of that western gloss, all 3 leads falter because of their Indian hearts. Raj may go golfing with his wife and buy his daughter fancy western toys, but he is enraged at the possibility, or even the possibility of a rumor, that she might be unfaithful. Dilip is from South Africa, he rides and plays the piano. But he falls in love and believes his love must return his feelings, refuses to consider forgetting her and marrying another woman. And Nargis is incapable of imagining that a man might think she is unfaithful, either Dilip falling for her thinking she could forget Raj, or Raj being jealous of Dilip.
And when the situation explodes, they have no tools to deal with it. There is no marriage counseling to help Raj and Nargis, the only suggestion Dilip’s father offers him is to agree to marrying someone else to forget Nargis. They are in the situation of, I don’t know, a child given control of a sports car. That’s not quite what I mean, but it is close. They have all these wonderful modern freedoms, Dilip and Raj can fly all over the world (another slight gender statement, Nargis as the woman is still trapped within India), Nargis can go riding and golfing and drive her car and pick the man to run her father’s company for her, Raj can dote on his daughter and buy her expensive foreign gifts and wear his suits, all of this is possible for them. But they don’t know how to fit this new reality into the traditional social structures around them. If a man and woman can be friends and do everything together inside and outside of the house, what does marriage mean? If a man can dote on his daughter and spend all his time raising her, what position does that give her mother? If a woman can inherit her father’s business and then pick a man to run it for her, what is her relationship to that man? What rights, if any, does he have over her? If a man can have a friendship with a woman, and later refuse an engagement his father brings to him simply because he doesn’t want it, what does that mean?
(Notice how just a few years later, Raj will deal with a similar situation in Sangam and find a solution for it by giving the woman a voice and allowing the men to understand her and believe in her essential Indianess)
This isn’t a problem restricted to India. That’s the other thing I found fascinating about this film. I have seen similar stories in American movies of this era, in British novels from the Edwardian era, in anything that talks about the “roaring twenties”. The idea of the world moving forward so fast that social rules can’t keep up with it is universal.
And this is especially true post-WWII. WWII made the world so much smaller, brought in air travel, penicillin, women in the workplace, dozens of changes that effected everyone in the world equally. And it brought about the end of colonialism but not the end of colonial influences. That is what this film is struggling with, through the guise of Nargis (our female symbol of India). She is modern and western. But at heart she is Indian. And the tragedy is that no one can see that, no one believes a woman can talk with a man, play golf, be in a board room, and yet still be devoted only to her husband unto death