Friday Classics: Manoranjan! A Very Happy Movie About Very Sad Things

I hadn’t watched this movie in about 14 years, and by golly it is just as good as I remembered!  Better actually, because back then I didn’t realize how unusual it was to have this kind of a plot.

When I watched An Evening in Paris, I was just blown away by how free and easy and happy the heroine was, it wasn’t something I had seen in modern films, or even in the films of the 50s and 70s, it seemed possibly unique to the 60s era of films.  Or even just unique to Shammi Kapoor, his wild carefree hero type inspired a wild and carefree heroine.

And here we have Manoranjan, the only film Shammi directed, and the heroine is perhaps the wildest freest happiest heroine in all of Indian film history.  A woman who embraces and takes pride in her identity as a sex worker, and also embraces love, joy, everything else life has to offer.  Well, and Sanjeev Kumar, she embraces him too.  And he embraces her back!  No hesitation, no moralizing, he is in love with a prostitute.

This movie is entirely happy through out, and that is what makes it radical.  It is about prostitution, a red light district, police corruption, all sorts of bad things.  But the attitude seems to be “well, that’s just life, and you can choose to cry or you can choose to laugh, and we laugh”.  Plus, happy ending!  All around!  None of these “sins” ever come back to haunt our characters, they get exactly what they want out of life.

That’s just the general information about the film, in specifics, well, everything is wonderful!  Every element is great.  Shammi himself, playing the wise old bartender, adds a lovely joy to it.  Sanjeev is predictably perfect, easily mastering the big hearted innocent type.  Zeenat is a delight!  Throwing herself full into each moment, smiling bigger than anyone when it is time to smile, and sadder than anyone when it is time to be sad (which isn’t much in this film).

The music is great, RD Burman and Asha Bhosle are always perfection.  This is a 3 Mangeshkar sister film, Asha, plus Lata and even Usha.  Which is a sign of how female focused it is as well, the songs required 3 separate female voices.

 

Even the costuming is perfect!  Zeenat, as always, refused to go traditional.  So hot pants, tiny shirts, kicky scarfs, and maxi dresses.  The rest of the cast followed her lead, the extras are all in awesome 70s mini-dresses.

It’s just generally the happiest funnest silliest brightest film!  Not just in the “films about sex workers and police corruption” subgenre, but in all films!  Highly highly recommended, and remember, it is on Netflix!

 

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We enter this world through the eyes of our innocent, Sanjeev Kumar.  Which is good, because the world will always look a little innocent to us.  Like Sanjeev, we will see the good in people and expect the best at all times, even in this world.  He walks down the street in his constable’s uniform, sees a woman and a man enter a hotel, gets suspicious, and then Zeenat Aman trips and falls in the gutter at his feet and he helps her up with an unknowingly double-meaning comment about helping a fallen woman.  But he assumes she is a nice lady, she is so friendly and pretty, and he shares his suspicions that some of the women around her are not nice.  Only to be horrified when he discovers she is not nice either after raiding the hotel.  But Zeenat doesn’t mind, she smilingly accepts herself and laughs at his shock.  Because what is there to be upset about?  Being a prostitute is just her job, and she is fine with that.

Oh, I forgot!  We begin the movie with a prologue, Shammi Kapoor telling this story to an elderly man on the train who is traveling with his very young wife.  Which is on purpose, showing us that even “respectable” people have the same weaknesses, a young woman being open and eager to an older wealthy man through marriage instead of prostitution.  But it is all the same really, so why mind it?

Right, back to the real film.  Sanjeev not only discovers that Zeenat is a prostitute, he also discovers that most police look the other way.  He goes into Shammi’s bar, sits down and puts his cap on the counter, and all the pimps playing cards stand up one by one and drop their money in it without him noticing.  This also shocks him!  And like Zeenat, Shammi just laughs.  Because most police take money to look the other way, and what is wrong with that?  No one is doing anything against their will here.

The plot quickly moves through complications after this.  One of the men Sanjeev arrested turns out to be his supervisor, he is fired.  He goes back to Manoranjan Street to look for a job, and while there sees Zeenat return from jail and be hit by her pimp, Sanjeev is shocked and fights to defend her.  He isn’t the most impressive fighter, but he is earnest and lucky and eventually defeats her pimp.  He is declared a “lion”! By all the men and Zeenat happily takes him home with her and cheerfully seduces him.  The next morning, Sanjeev is in love, ready to marry her and take her from this life.

Which is when we get our first twist!  Zeenat doesn’t want to get married.  And she definitely doesn’t want to stop working.  What would people say?  As the woman, it is her duty to go out and earn money, while he plays cards with the other men and takes her money.  She would be ashamed to face the street if it were otherwise.  Sanjeev points out that in his mind, it is shameful for her to work instead of him.  And Zeenat declares that is his society, her society is this street and it works differently here.  And this is her home, so this is where she will stay and what they think matters.

This is the point of all farce, to give us a “merry misrule” experience, to upend our expectations of how the world works.  Manoranjan Street is a place where the women work and the men relax and Zeenat’s honor is at stake where she to stop working, or marry.  Her honor does not rest on her virginity or chastity.  And who is to say this is a worse standard than the way the rest of the world works?

Well, Sanjeev is to say.  But what is delightful is that no one else in this world can understand him.  Zeenat has the right point of view so far as they are concerned.  Sanjeev’s quixotic quest to find a job, to marry her, and to keep her from sleeping with other men for money amuses them no end.  But Sanjeev is such a sweet little innocent, they indulge him.  Shammi lends him 500 rupees so he can pretend to be a rich Nawab who will pay Zeenat 500 a week just to play cards with him all night.

So far, most of this plot is straight out of the original Irma La Douce.  But the Nawab gives a bit of a twist to it.  Shammi is doubtful of Sanjeev’s ability to pull off this charade, but Sanjeev declares he has seen Mughal-E-Azam, Pakeezah, plenty of other films, he can easily pretend to speak pure Urdu and be a high class Nawab.

There’s plenty of fun comedy with Sanjeev stumbling over Urdu and so on, but the bigger sense of things is that this Nawab type character and Muslim social type film usually presents this story as a tragedy.  “Pyar Hua To Darna Kya” and Pakeezah with the tragic prostitute and all of that.  And here we are seeing it turned on its head, the prostitute who isn’t tragic, the love that isn’t impossible, that is just kind of silly.

The rest of the movie plays out in the same way.  All the things that we have seen tragic in other films are now just funny.  Sanjeev takes a dangerous job to make money, pretending to be a thief so a rich man’s watch dog can attack him.  In another film, it would be smuggling or working in a factory, but here it is just running around being chased by a dog.  Zeenat misunderstands and thinks he is with another woman.  In another film, this would be the tragic misunderstanding that separates them forever, maybe even leads to suicide or murder.  But here it is just a girl fight, followed by Zeenat being mildly upset for a few days and throwing Sanjeev out of her apartment.  Zeenat decides to run away with her Nawab, and seduces him, and Sanjeev is crazed with jealousy!  Only, of course, it is jealousy of himself since he is the one pretending to be the Nawab.  He decides to kill the “Nawab”, by faking a suicide.  And is caught by Zeenat’s jealous ex, the police try to arrest him, and so on and so on. Again, in another film, this would be played straight and would be a terrible tragedy.  But here, not so much.

There is one tiny moment of sincere drama, and it is the exact moment where I want it to be.  Sanjeev has left, and Zeenat’s old pimp shows up and drags her sobbing out of her room, throws her around a little, and finally she pushes him down the stairs.  It’s not played as sexy and funny, it’s played as alarming and “bad”, this man should not be manhandling her, he has no right to do that.  And we are ready to cheer when she stands up for herself.

So, yes, being a prostitute isn’t that bad, living off your wife’s earnings isn’t bad either.  Going to jail isn’t bad, bribing a police officer (or accepting a bribe) isn’t bad.  But what is bad is beating a woman, forcing her to work when she doesn’t feel like it, scaring her, all of that is no good.

There’s another tiny moment later that is also sincere.  Sanjeev has been restored to the police force and he is a regular visitor to Zeenat in jail (she was jailed for attacking her pimp).  She is now heavily pregnant and cheerfully talking about her baby and how happy they will be together when she gets out.  Until Sanjeev says something about her baby following the same profession as she did, and Zeenat immediately protests.  Her baby will not grow up and be seduced by a man into this kind of work, not like she was.

So, being a prostitute isn’t terribly, but the start of it is bad.  Being lied to by a man, forced into doing things you aren’t comfortable with, and then finally making your peace and finding a happy life.  All of that I can get behind too!  Zeenat was completely happy for much of this film because she had Sanjeev.  Someone who treated her well and protected her.  It isn’t the prostitution that is the problem, it’s the pimps.  And the pimps are bad enough that Zeenat wants to protect her daughter from them.

And therefore she is willing to get married.  But not to Sanjeev, her true love, only to the Nawab, the father of her child.  Again, in a different movie, this would be the tragic ending.  Heck, this kind of is the ending of Thoovanthumbikal!  Our prostitute learns the price of her behavior, cannot marry the man she loves because someone else is the father of her child.  And the man she loves, Zeenat is told, has gone off to join a monastery and contemplate life with his broken-heart.  But, nope!  It’s yet another joke.  Because of course the Nawab was Sanjeev all along, there is no reason for tears, everything works out.

I guess that’s the thesis statement for this whole movie!  No reason for tears, everything will work out.

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2 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Manoranjan! A Very Happy Movie About Very Sad Things

  1. I remember watching this movie for the first time and being very (pleasantly) shocked. I had no idea what it was about going into it and I kept thinking -wait, this is an Indian movie right? Where’s the moral outrage/glorifying the hero for his ‘sacrifice’?

    I’ll have to plan a re-watch.

    Like

    • It’s well worth it! Even more enjoyable when you know there will never be a moral lesson and aren’t waiting for it.

      On Sat, Oct 28, 2017 at 1:28 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Like

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