Sunday, 29 September 2013

Kismet- A Tribute to 40s Hindi Cinema (Part 1)

Yesterday I watched a movie called Kismet featuring Ashok Kumar, David and Mehmood. If the sentence makes you hark back to the 70s, think again. This movie is from an earlier era- not the 60s, not even the 50s. The movie we are talking about is from 1943 (yes folks, there was indeed a film industry in India long long before the 70s). This three part series is my tribute not just to the movie, but also to that long forgotten era. We start off today with a recapitulation of the events that preceded the making of Kismet, which were far more dramatic than a masala movie.  




Kismet was produced by Bombay Talkies, a studio founded in 1934 by Himanshu Rai, Raj Narayan Dube, Framroze Dinshaw and Sir Firoze Sethna. Rai, a prominent actor of the late silent era and the early talkies and a dominant force in the Hindi film industry in the 30s, was the person responsible for running the studio. Several famous movies of that era, including Karma (1933), Achhut Kanya (1936), Savitri (1937) and Kangan (1939) were made under his watch. 

As it stands today, Rai is best remembered for the first on-screen kiss in the history of Indian Cinema with his co-star and real life wife Devika Rani. The great grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, Rani was one of the leading actresses of the 30s. Her popularity In that era was second only to Sulochana (Aka Ruby Myers).



Devika Rani (1908- 1994)

But the couple's greatest contribution to Hindi cinema was inadvertent and the manner in which it came about is stranger than fiction. During the shooting of Jeevan Naiya (1936), the lead actress Devika Rani eloped with her co-star Najmul Hasan, triggering off a series of events with unexpected repercussions. 

In came Sashadhar Mukherjee, one of the leading figures in Bombay Talkies, who had started off his career in the studio as a sound designer. Using all the tact at his disposal, Mukherjee persuaded Devika Rani to return to her husband and in turn, Himanshi Rai to accept his returning wife. While his considerable tact did wonders, there arose a new problem as Rai decided to cut out the scenes featuring Hasan which had already been shot. Najmul Hasan would never again work with Bombay Talkies. The question naturally arose, who would replace Najmul Hasan?  

Mukherjee once again came to the rescue, recommending his brother in law Kumudlal Kunjilal Ganguly, a 24 year old former law student who was then working with Bombay Talkies as a lab assistant. After a preliminary screen test, Himanshu Rai decided to go ahead with Ganguly as his wife's co-star for Jeevan Naiya.


Himanshu Rai: One of the early doyens of Hindi Cinema

Ganguly, who dreamt of being a director, was unwilling to appear before the camera at first, since acting was considered a dishonourable profession in that age. But Himanshu Rai (helped by Sashadhar Mukherjee, who seems to have been a genius at handling people) eventually convinced the reluctant youngster to take up the lead role in Jeevan Naiya opposite Devika Rani. Few people could have imagined then that the 24 year old would go on to forge a career that would last 6 decades, not least Kumudlal Ganguly himself.

He is remembered to this day by his screen name Ashok Kumar. 




Rani's pairing opposite Ashok Kumar proved an instant hit with Achhut Kanya (1936), one of the first superhits of Hindi cinema, following which the two co-starred in several successful movies in the late 30s. Throughout that period, Devika Rani remained by far the bigger star. Remarkably, given how conservative Indian society was back in the 30s, Rani and Sulochana were both leading ladies of that era who were far more popular than their leading men. But the equation started changing after Ashok Kumar's pairing opposite Leela Chitnis. With three back to back hits in Kangan (1939), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941), he was a popular actor in his own right by the early 40s. 



By then much had changed at Bombay Talkies too. Overworked and troubled by the difficulties of managing a studio in an era of wartime rationing, Himanshu Rai's health steadily deteriorated, resulting in his death in 1940. There ensured a struggle for supremacy between Devika Rani and Sashadhar Mukherjee. The struggle ended in an uneasy truce, under which the studio was split into two production units: one headed by Ameya Ckahravarty (Devika Rani's Protege) and the other headed by Mukherjee, with each unit taking turns in overseeing the production of projects. 

Mukherjee delivered a huge hit with Bandhan (1940), the second highest grosser of the year, putting the ball back in Ameya Chakravarty's court. Devika Rani's reply came in the form of Anjan (1940), pairing her opposite Ashok Kumar- reuniting Hindi cinema's most popular couple. The movie bombed at the box office, bringing an end to the legendary pairing. Mukherjee's position became even stronger with the success of Jhoola (1941), directed by his friend and namesake Gyan Mukherjee (no relation).

The team of Devika Rani and Ameya Chakravarty hit back with the successful Basant (1942), featuring Kanu* and newcomer Mumtaz Shanti (and Madhubala as a child artist). After the success of Basant, Mukherjee found himself losing ground to Devika Rani in the battle for supremacy despite three consecutive hits. Determined to regain the initiative, he decided to pull out all stops and deliver a movie that would shut up his detractors once and for all. That movie was Kismet (destiny), featuring his brother in law Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti.


Sashadhar Mukherjee (1909-1990)

Kismet was perhaps the first ever Hindi movie to be backed by a proper script. Hindi movies until then had little, if anything at all, by way of  script. Writing scenes and establishing characters, commonplace in contemporary Hollywood, was virtually unknown in the Hindi film industry until then. As such, Kismet was a watershed in the history of Hindi cinema. The plot also incorporated several themes which would have been considered bold, perhaps even scandalous for its era. That it slipped past the censors was due in no small measure to the efforts of the Studio General Manager.

This gentleman, Rai Bahadur Chunnilal was once accountant general with the Iraq Kurdistan Peshmarga Force, before moving back to India in 1932. Having settled his family in his native place in Chakwal, Punjab (present day Pakistan), he moved to Bombay to explore business opportunities. There he carved a niche in the film industry, becoming one of the leading figures in Bombay Talkies in the late 30s. He also happened to be a member of the Censor Board in the mid 40s, when Kismet was produced.

And so the scene was set for the release of perhaps the most ambitious project in the history of Indian cinema until then. For Shashadhar Mukherjee, it was make of break in his on going battle of supremacy with Devika Rani. Both parties held their breath in anticipation, as Kismet was released in January 1943.

*It was wrongly stated earlier that the movie starred Ashok Kumar opposite Mumtaz.