Friday, 8 November 2013

Kismet: A Tribute to 40s Hindi Cinema (Part 2)

As we saw in the first installment of this three part series, the chain of events that preceded the making of Gyan Mukherjee's 1943 film Kismet had more drama than a masala potboiler. In this installment we shall analyse the the movie itself.

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), an unreformed criminal who has just finished his third stint behind the bars, intends to get back to work immediately. Its not long before he sees a pickpocket named Banke (V.H. Desai, an immensely popular comedian of that era) relieving an old man of a gold watch in his coat pocket. Shekhar loses no time in relieving Banke of his catch. He immediately goes to sell the watch to a fence (David). The old man, whose stolen watch Shekhar has already palmed off, turns up there.

V.H. Desai
This old man (P.F. Pithawala) tells Shekhar that wanted to pawn the watch and raise the money to watch a live performance by Ms. Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) who, as we soon learn, is his daughter. Moved by his plight, Shekhar takes him along to witness Rani's performance. There, Rani's father points out a man called Indrajeet (Mubarak), who is with his wife. Indrajeet was once an employee of the old man, who was an immensely rich person in better days. His weakness for the drink destroyed the family fortune and was responsible for the paralysis afflicting his daughter. He is now on the run from Indrajeet, his principal creditor.

Shekhar learns that Indrajeet is behind Rani to recover the money her father owes him. For Rani, struggling to perform due to her limp, things take a turn for the worse when her younger sister Leela (Chandraprabha), informs he that she's carrying a child from her relationship with Mohan (Kanu Roy, best remembered today as the brother of Geeta Dutt), their neighbour and Indrajeet's son. Shekhar, who has inadvertently got involved in Rani's life, finds himself increasingly in love with the young lady. In Robin Hood like manner, he sets about solving Rani's problems.


In the meanwhile, we learn that Indrajeet too has his cross to bear. His elder son Madan (the 10 year old Mehmood) once ran away from home after a beating from his disciplinarian father and never returned. The recollection of that lost son still torments Indrajeet.

Desperate to raise funds for Rani's treatment, Shekhar decides to break the safe in Indrajeet's study. The plan goes awry when Indrajeet's dog starts barking loudly, attracting the attention of a passing police patrol. Shekhar manages to jump out of the window and escape, inadvertently dropping the pendant on his neck during his flight. 

Indrajeet is shocked when he sees the pendant. He tells the inspector that he wants the thief at all costs. The astute policeman advises him to organise a show featuring Rani. Indrajeet takes his advice. Posters publicising the show are put up all over town, catching the attention of all concerned. And so the climax is set to occur in the theatre, with all the principal characters present.

What happens in the end? Does Shekhar get Rani? Is Rani's limp cured? Does Leela get to marry Mohan? Is their father's name and honour restored? Is Indrajeet's long lost son traced? Watch the movie to get your answers.

Shah Nawaz: The Suave Police Inspector

Having watched quite a few movies from the 50s and 60s, I was expecting a movie with several songs and the odd scene in between. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is not a single wasted scene in the movie. Not once is the pace of the movie slackened by the songs- extraordinary for a Hindi movie of that era.

Even more extraordinary is the character of the protagonist Shekhar. Kismet was the first ever Hindi movie to feature a morally ambiguous protagonist. With an unapologetic criminal for its protagonist, its inconceivable that Kismet would have slipped past the censors but for the clout exercised by Rai Bahadur Chunnilal, as we've seen in part 1 of this series. Remarkably, except for the leading lady Rani, nearly all the other characters in the movie are flawed.


Shekhar was the first Robin Hood like anti-hero in the annals of Hindi cinema. With war time rationing, rising inflation, food shortages and high unemployment, its not surprising that the character found resonance with audiences of that era. The rebellious Shekhar must have appealed to the sensibilities of a time when anti-government sentiment must have been at its height (remember, Kismet was released in January 1943- just 5 months after Gandhi called upon the British to quit India). Interestingly, Shekhar is frequently shown wearing a pagdi, a symbol of status. Perhaps it pandered to the aspirations of the masses in that era.

Kismet was also the first ever Hindi movie to feature the lost and found formula, which would be stock of 70s Hindi cinema. All the characters in the drama converging at the same place in the climax scene and pregnancy out of wedlock were a far cry from anything audiences in 1943 had ever seen. Interestingly, the character of Leela never really says in words that she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is only hinted at- perhaps a device to get the movies past the censors.

As far as the acting is concerned, there's no doubt that Ashok Kumar as Shekhar completely stole the show. His natural, effortless acting stands in striking contrast to that of Mumtaz Shanti, whose over the top acting and dialogue delivery is reminiscent of early talkies a generation ago. Having only seen Dadamoni playing elderly characters in old movies, it felt surreal to see him playing the hero. The resemblance to his younger brother Kishore is striking. Even the singing voice (Dadamoni sang his own songs in the 30s and 40s) is remarkably similar to his brother's. To say that I became an admirer of Ashok Kumar after watching this movie would be an understatement!

David in his Younger Avtar

It was also a treat to see David in a younger avtar. Unfortunately he wears a cap in all his scenes and so it was impossible to say whether he had any hair in his younger days. Audiences today best remember him as Haripad Bhaiya in Chupke Chupke or Dr. Mama in Gol Maal. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the boy who played Madan was legendary 60s comedian Mahmood, whose father Mumtaz Ali (a famous character actor of that era) was in the payrolls of Bombay talkies- actors in that era were contracted to studios, not until the late 40s did actors become freelancers.

I found the scene where Indrajeet asks Rani to cough up the money for Mohan's dowry quite remarkable. Its sad that a social evil like dowry still persists in present day India- a fact I've alluded to in this very blog several times. Nonetheless, its amazing to know that ten thousand rupees was a massive amount of money in that era- enough for the dowry of a rich man's son. Ten thousand rupees would be less than the monthly salary of a sweeper in this day and age!

Rs. 10,000 for Dowry!

Yet another remarkable scene was the one in which the newspaper boy screams out the day's headlines, which include Hitler's unsucessful attack- a reminder of the fact that the second world war was a contemporary event when the movie was made. The price of the newspaper- 1 anna- is a throwback to the age when prices were denominated in annas (a rupee was sub-divided into 16 annas, which were further sub-divided into 12 pies until 1957, when the Indian Rupee was decimalised).

I may add that I was surprised to see not a single Britisher in the movie. Admittedly Kismet could be an exception, but its remarkable that a movie made in pre-independence India only features Indian characters. Perhaps Indians of that era seldom had to interact with the British on a day to day basis, unlike what we imagine. 

To present day audiences Kismet might seem just another Hindi movie. However, its worth remembering that most of those themes- the stock of Manmohan Desai flicks in the 70s- were far removed from anything audiences in '43 had seen until then. Its remarkable that Kismet would have scarcely been out of place in the 70s- in itself testimony to just how far ahead of its time it was. Seen from the point of 1943 audiences, Kismet was a paisa vasool movie with a twist ending.

Socialism in Cinema

There is one last point I would like to mention here. Although avowedly a commercial movie (the term 'masala movie' didn't exist in the 40s), Kismet had unmistakable socialist themes. I do not know if it was the first movie with socialist overtones, but it was by no means the last- the theme would appear in countless films over the two decades that followed.

And so Kismet contained a number of firsts. It was in many ways the blueprint on which countless movies in the 70s and 80s were based. For all you Manmohan Desai fans, check out this movie to know where it all started.

P.S. We shall see the drama that followed the release of Kismet and the fate of the dramatis personae in the third and final installment of this series.

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