This may have been a mistake. I’ve seen this movie 3 times at least, and I did a quick fastforward last night, but I didn’t rewatch it straight through. Usually no one cares/remembers enough to correct me when I make mistakes in this situation, but it’s Seeta Aur Geeta, so I have a sinking feeling that my ignorance will be apparent to many many people. Oh well, forgive me! And correct me! And understand why I am speaking in general terms about the plot instead of saying “the first time so-and-so meets such-and-such, they say…”
When my sister was in grad school, her roommate from Eastern Europe vaguely remembered seeing Indian films in his childhood, specifically there was some movie with a ceiling fan that he really REALLY loved. After hearing that from one person, I’ve started keeping my ear to the ground, and I think I have heard it from other eastern Europeans, and people from elsewhere in the non-Asian parts of the world. In the 70s-80s, there was an established trade route for Indian films all over the world, that’s something I don’t need to confirm anecdotally, it’s just fact. But what I am getting through anecdotes is that, somehow, Seeta Aur Geeta was that one movie of the era that you, a small child who didn’t regularly watch Hindi films or even speak Hindi, would remember and just absolutely LOVE.
We’ve talked before about the kind of “Krishna Hero” idea, the trickster hero who breaks all the rules in a joyful way. It’s not about being a bad boy, so much as being a “naughty” boy. He’s a conman, a flirt, and he does the crazy rule breaking things we wish we could. But on the other hand, he has his own code of honor, and justice. And over the course of the film, he grows up a little bit and realizes the world is bigger than his tricks, although he is still not trapped by the rules. Just like little boy Krishna growing into big Prince Krishna, or Bahubali 2 growing into a king, or Jai and Veeru in Sholay growing into Heroes. This movie is exciting and different, because it has a trickster HEROINE.
Hema in this film looks at the world and sees how she can make it work for her, she flirts like crazy, she does tricks, she laughs at danger, she doesn’t care what people think of her so long as she feels sure she is right. And she will lie, trick, threaten, whatever it takes to punish the Bad People, and win her True Love. On the other hand, when the plot turns serious (very very late in the film) she also reveals her essential decency and kindness.
This is a super rare kind of female role, and Hema plays it beautifully. Hema is a good all around actress, but in a role like this you realize why she was a Star. Because truly, it’s a hard role to play! Childish, but also adult. Immoral but still lovable. Able to reveal her thoughts to the audience, but not to the characters onscreen with her. She had this movie, she also had Dream Girl, and I am sure many other roles where I haven’t seen her. She could play the “regular” sacrificing heroine if she had to, but the fun wild heroines were where she shone. Sridevi is the only actress besides Hema that I can picture really grasping this persona, no wonder she remade Seeta Aur Geeta in Chaalbaaz.
Because it is a female Krishna, somehow Hema’s character is even better than the male version. Maybe it is the way the sexuality is downplayed, or the way the violence is played for laughs, or just the AMAZING costumes. But for whatever reason, of all the childlike Krishna lead characters, it is Hema in Seeta Aur Geeta that the children of the world love and remember.
Now, I saw this movie as an adult. And as an adult woman, Hema was fine, but Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar were FOINE!!!! (sp?) What I am saying is, to support this female lead film with a female double role, they cast two very juicy and contrasting male leads. Totally a bad boy/good boy dynamic.
Dharmendra has earrings and a leather jacket (let me fan myself for a minute), and Sanjeev Kumar makes amused/confused faces and smiles at things a lot (this is all I want from Sanjeev Kumar onscreen). Naturally, our trickster female Krishna heroine is going after that Good Boy because it is far more fun to seduce a good boy, than play with the bad boy. But the audience, not made up of female Krishna’s necessarily, can sit there and happily dream over the bad boy.
This is another Salim-Javed script, and another Ramesh Sippy film, and another Hema Malini role, this time with Dharmendra added. It’s fun to look at these early films as building towards Sholay, looking for the little breadcrumbs along the way. Hema was in place now, Ramesh was going to use her to the utmost and not just as window dressing like in the first movie. Plus Dharmendra was now added, and the crackling Hema-Dharam chemistry on full display. And Sanjeev Kumar, half the Sholay cast was ready to go. Salim-Javed still weren’t though. This script is a magic of construction, everything comes together just so, but it still doesn’t have those powerful lines, and massive Social Statements, they would get to later. And it doesn’t have the depth. This is a children’s movie, in the end, while Sholay was a movie for Adults.
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Yes yes, I am aware of Ram Aur Shyam! Let me get there! Dilip Kumar in the 1960s famously went to a psychiatrist who told him, to cure his depression, he needed to sign a comedy. I thought this was a silly story for years, but then I did Sex Week to cure my February blues and it really worked! So yeah, a dark fictional world can bring you down and a light one can cure you, for real. Anyway, Ram Aur Shyam was the first famous double role/mistaken identity movie. And yes, it is a remake of an NTR Telugu film, LET ME GET THERE!
Anyhoo, Seeta Aur Geeta is more or less Ram Aur Shyam but with the genders flipped. But also, kind of not? Like, the original set-up is the same. A gypsy woman helps a rich woman give birth and keeps one of the twin babies for herself without telling anyone. Years later, the gypsy baby has grown up carefree and fearless and happy and has a grumpy friendship with a local of the same age. The rich baby has been orphaned and grown up weak and cowardly and is now abused by his/her jealous relatives. And then the rich baby runs away from home at the same time the gypsy baby is on the run from the police for a minor infraction, they get confused and the gypsy baby goes home to the rich house and whips everyone into shape and ends up romancing the “proper” rich baby’s arranged fiance/e, while the rich baby goes to the gypsy house and ends up winning over the touch best friend with his/her sweetness. And then there’s a big fight scene. And a double wedding. THE END.
As you can see from that description, it is essentially already the perfect film. A great plot that crosses the line of “unbelievable” and circles all the way back to “has it’s own kooky logic”. Great fish out of water humor from both directions, great fun role for the lead in two very different parts, and great romances from both directions as the romantic partners try to figure out how the person they thought they knew has changed. Plus, ends with a double wedding!!!! Best Possible Ending. Well, second only to the birth of another set of twins.
The gender flip immediately shifts the weight of the film. In the original, we had cocky Dilip playing a kind of familiar hero role, and then the hilariousness of seeing him play a sweet sensitive abused coward. The fun wacky strange memorable part was seeing a Hero play a coward. In the female version, the fun wacky strange memorable part is seeing a Heroine play a street tough con artist. The boring “good” heroine gets only a few scenes and most of the time we are starring at Dharam Garam anyway.
There’s already a social message in the original, that the “rich” twin turned out to have the terrible life while the “poor” twin was happy, but again the gender flip shifts that. Our heroine who is locked in the house, who wears sari, who is sweet and has all the female virtues, is the one who suffers and is miserable. The heroine who is out on the streets working all day every day is the one who is happy and confident and strong. It’s an extreme version of reality, our working heroine is a gypsy street performer (not an office worker) and our “homely” heroine is scrubbing floors like a cinderella and being whipped, not doing light housework. But it’s still saying “going out in the world and earning your own money makes a woman healthy wealthy and wise, staying safely in the home makes her miserable and endangered”.
And then we have the way the actual plot was ever so slightly tweaked. Street Hema is found by Rich Hema’s family and escapes them, immediately seeing they are evil, only to land up in the car of sweet doctor Sanjeev Kumar who previously met Home Hema as a potential fiancee. Sanjeev Kumar saw there was something weird when he met Home Hema and confirms it with Street Hema’s experience of the family. He “rescues” her in the best sense. Hema is tough, she escaped on her own, but Sanjeev is the one who finds the legal documents and gives her the educated manly tools to help her save herself. That fine line of acknowledging the power men have in society, while not making them the “savior”. I have to admit, I haven’t seen Ram Aur Shyam, but I can’t imagine that the rich girl was required to help Street Dilip figure out how to defeat his evil relatives, that’s something a man can do on his own.
And there’s the dramatic sacrifice at the end. Street Hema learns that Home Hema is being held captive and is forced to play drunk at a party and destroy her relationship with Sanjeev, convince him to leave her so she will be free to marry Evil Man her family has chosen. The sinfulness of a drunken loose woman is specifically gendered, as is the female pain of losing her love. Especially for Street Hema, who has always been in control of her own life, to play a woman losing control is devestating.
Finally, there’s my terminology “street” Hema and “home” Hema, which only makes sense because it is in the city. The original was in the country, not the city. Putting this story in the city makes it different, both Hemas were in the same place all along, and the reality of city life is that two people can be right next to each other and never overlap. It also puts “home” Hema and her troubles in a different light, she is surrounded by people, but doesn’t feel safe going to any of them for help. Most of all, it puts the rapid class leap of “street” Hema in a new light. She starts out as a gypsy in fancy performing clothes, but once she comes into her new position, she quickly gets a kicky modern 70s wardrobe (and hair!), learns how to roller skate, goes to sit by hotel pools, and is over all the perfect modern rich woman. This is city living, class can be leaped with just a few new clothes.
But most of all, it’s the change I talked about in the beginning, making our “Krishna” hero into a heroine. Street Hema woos confused/bemused Sanjeev Kumar (including scarring off sexy other women), she defeats her relatives, she rescues her poor Grandma, she goes through torment when she realizes her sister is kidnapped and endangered and she must sacrifice her love, and then once she is in control again and breaking into the kidnappers lair to rescue her sister, she confidently defeats the goons (with the assistance of her loyal followers, Dharam and Sanjeev), culminating in a straight up Errol Flynn style swordfight with the big bad! There’s even that moment when she has him defeated, but honorably steps back to let him pick up his sword again. Hema is not a heroine overcoming her fear and rising to the occasion, she is a straight up Hero, fearless and confident of success and always perfect. How wonderful! How delightul! How absolutely perfectly Ramesh Sippy!