Sunday, 16 February 2014

Kismet: A Tribute to 40s Cinema (Part 3)

First and foremost: a word of apology to the readers for the delay in coming out with the final installment of this series.

We have seen the drama that preceeded the making of Gyan Mukherjee's 1943 film Kismet in Part 1 of this series and reviewed the movie itself in part 2. We shall recapitulate the drama that unfolded after the release of the movie and the destinies of the dramatis personae in this, the third and final part.

Released in January 1943, Gyan Mukherjee's Kismet smashed all existing box office records. In an era when box office collections were the only source of revenue and ticket prices were more in the region of one-fourth of a rupee, Kismet grossed 1 crore at the box office- the first ever Indian movie to do so. Box Office India classifies the movie as an all-time blockbuster.

Kismet proved to be a watershed in the evolution of the film industry. Up until the early 40s, there were two industries churning out Hindi movies, one based in Calcutta and the other in Bombay (as the cities were known then). The Hindi film industry in Calcutta was already in decline by the 40s. The roaring success of Kismet, pretty much ensured that Bombay would remain the headquarters of Hindi cinema. Its ironical that the most influential people behind Kismet (the Mukherjees Sashadhar & Gyan and Ashok Kumar) were all Bengalis.

Kismet: The First Hindi Movie to Gross 1 Crore

Like countless legendary movies that followed, Kismet was roundly criticised for offending moral sensibilities of the time. Not atypically for a blockbuster, the songs of that movie became immensely popular. While that would have surely pleased the filmmakers, one of them didn't please the British Government of the time, which was still fighting a war in the west. The opening stanza of the song in question ran thus:

आज हिमालय की चोटी से हमने यह ललकारा है (we proclaim today from the Himalayan peaks) ,
दूर हटो  ए दुनियावालों हिन्दुस्तान हमारा हैं। (Go away foreigners, India is ours)

The lyricist Pradeep (more about him later in this article) employed the clever device of inserting the following words in a later para, to hoodwink the censors:

शुरू हुआ है जंग तुम्हारा जाग उठो हिन्दुस्तानी (awake Indian, your struggle has started)
तुम न किसी के आगे झुकना जरमन हो या जापानी। (bow before none be it German, be it Japanese).

Those lines are a grim reminder of the war that was on. Preposterous as it may seem today, for people living in 1943, the possibility of the British losing the war and India being colonised by one of the axis powers was a very real one. The allusion to Germans and Japanese, with whom the British rulers were at war, sounded superficially like a pledge of support to the rulers. That clever ruse (combined in no small measure with the influence of Rai Bahadur Chunnilal) helped the song slip past the censors.

With the Quit India Movement still on and war time hardships, the patriotic overtones of the lyrics were not lost upon the public. The song became incredibly popular among the masses, so much so, that during screenings of the movie, the reels would be rewound and the song played multiple times on public demand. The popularity of the song had not so happy repercussions for the lyricist Kavi Pradeep, who went underground to avoid being arrested for sedition.

The success of Kismet should have pretty much been a decisive moment in the battle for supremacy between Sashadhar Mukherjee and Devika Rani. Unfortunately, the outcome was the exact opposite, as it brought the rivalry to a head, with unexpected consequences for the dramatis personae. The fallout would shape the history of Hindi cinema.

Gyan Mukherjee (1909-1956)

Sashadhar Mukherjee was not even part of Bombay Talkies by the time Kismet hit the screens. Just prior to the release of the movie, he had an acrimonious fallout with Amiya Chakravarty- Devika Rani's blue eyed boy. In a huff, he issued her an ultimatum that she would have to choose between him and Chakravarty. Rani supported her protege, to the chagrin of Mukherjee, who severed his association with the studio.

Ashok Kumar, who was contracted to Bombay Talkies, still continued working as a laboratory assistant despite the fact that he was the leading star of the era (it would be a few more years before actors would become freelancers). He was working in the lab one fateful day, when he was ordered by Ameya Chakravarty to leave the room. Angered by the humiliation, he left, demanding to speak to Devika Rani. He was curtly informed by the security guard that she did not wish to be disturbed by anyone. The snub was the last straw for Dadamoni, who angrily followed in the footsteps of his brother in law Sashadhar Mukherjee.

Gyan Mukherjee threw in his lot with his friend Sashadhar (no relation of his). Rai Bahadur Chunilal followed suit. The two combined with the brothers in law to establish a rival studio called Filmistan, which would churn out countless historic movies in the decade that followed. The studio operates to this day. The exit of the four biggest names associated with the studio triggered off a mass exodus from Bombay Talkies to Filmistan.

The Bombay Talkies Movie that Launched Raj Kapoor

With the success of Kismet, it would have seemed that Devika Rani's position atop Bombay Talkies was unassailable. Unfortunately for her, things went pear shaped from there on. The Indian economy went through a severe crisis in the mid and late 40s, which severely impacted the film industry.  A series of unsuccessful ventures saw the studio sink into debts. Just two years later, Devika Rani got married to Russian artist Roerich, effectively ending her involvement with Bombay Talkies. Desperate attempts were made to revive the studio by Ashok Kumar, who got re-involved with the studio.

Dadamoni's second stint with Bombay Talkies produced movies like Ziddi (which established the careers of Dev Anand and Pran) and Mahal (perhaps the first mystery thriller in the history of Indian cinema) and Neel Kamal (debut film of Raj Kapoor and Madhubala). The crippling debt of 28 lakhs (a staggering sum in that era), proved too big a burden to overcome. A fire in 1954 finished off the studio, which lies in shambles today, surrounded by an industrial estate (a project to revive Bombay Talkies was mooted in December 2013).

The Bombay Talkies Movies That Launched Dev Anand

While Devika Rani would have to shoulder much of the blame for the demise of Bombay Talkies, her contribution to Hindi cinema is beyond question. One of the leading actresses in the 30s, her presence behind the camera  saw her make one last significant contribution to Hindi Cinema even as she left. She was instrumental in giving Hindi Cinema its first superstar. She would unearth the second superstar- this time there was nothing unintentional about it.

Some day in 1944, the 21 year old Yousuf Khan, then the manager of an army canteen in Bombay, happened to be filling in for his unwell father at their fruit shop, when Devika Rani went shopping. Quick to see the young man's potential, she gave him his first break in Amiya Chakravarty's forthcoming project Jwar Bhata (1944). Yousuf Khan, who adopted the screen name Dilip Kumar, is remembered to this day as one of the greatest actors in the annals of Indian cinema.

Sadly, little is known about Amiya Chakravarty, who seems to have been incidental in some of the most momentous events in the history of the Hindi film industry. Despite my best attempts, I have not been able to locate so much as a photograph of Chakravarty online (the so called 'photographs' of his available online happen to be those of the great Bengali poet and Gandhian who happened to be his namesake). I'll be indebted to anyone who could give me more information on him.

The Ganguly Brothers

Of the crew of Kismet, Ashok Kumar was the greatest beneficiaries of the movie's success. The runaway success of the movie marked the high-point of his career. Already one of the leading actors of the era, Kismet propelled him to heights of popularity never seen before. Such was the craze for Ashok Kumar in that era, that police action was needed to disperse frenzied fans whenever he went out in public. His personal mail would be flooded with thousands of love letters from admiring fans. Although the term didn't exist then, Ashok Kumar became the first superstar of Indian cinema post Kismet. His popularity in that era anticipated the Rajesh Khanna mania that would grip the country quarter of a century later.

As his stardom waned in the 50s, Dadamoni successfully reinvented himself as a character actor. Many critics rate him the greatest ever Indian actor on screen. He remains to this day one of the most mimicked Indian actors. Dadamoni's contribution to Indian cinema extended beyond his on-screen performances. He paved the way for his younger brothers Kalyan (Anup) and Abhas (Kishore). While Anup is scarcely remembered today, the youngest brother Kishore, is perhaps the most well remembered of the Ganguly brothers, due to his magic voice that enthralls music fans to this day, close to three decades after he passed away.

For Ashok Kumar's co-star Mumtaz Shanti, life took a completely different turn. After a hugely successful career stretching into the early 50s, she migrated with her husband to Pakistan in the mid 50s, before retiring to become a housewife. She lived on for four more decades before passing away in obscurity (and something approaching penury) in 1994.

Mehmood Ali, who played Ashok Kumar's childhood avtar in the movie, would start off his working career doing odd jobs before taking up the job of a driver. He eventually moved into films, doing part roles in movies like CID (1956), Pyaasa (1957) and Kanoon (1959), before establishing himself as a popular comedian in the mid 60s. He is widely regarded as the finest comedian in the history of Hindi cinema. Perhaps Mehmood's greatest legacy was the support he gave to a young struggler called Amitabh Bachchan in the early 70s.


The person who employed Mehmood as his driver was P.L. Santoshi, one of the writers with Bombay Talkies who was part of the mass exodus to Filmistan in the mid 40s. Santoshi would go on to become a film director himself in the 50s. His son Rajkumar Santoshi is one of the most respected directors in the Hindi film industry today.

V.H. Desai, who played the role of Banke was by far the most popular comedian of that era. A former lawyer, Desai was legendary for his inability to remember the simplest lines (for example, it took a staggering 124 takes for him to get the three words "kuch mila partner?" right!). It is said that he was single handedly responsible for wastage of hundreds of feet of film in the 40s- a massive problem for filmmakers in an era when the length of movies was restricted to 11,000 feet due to war time shortages. Despite that, he remained a regular in Hindi movies due to his sheer popularity. Sadly, he passed away tragically young in 1950, still just in his 40s.

David Abraham Cheulkar, known mononymously as David, who played the fence in Kismet would go on to become an extremely popular character actor in the decades that followed, frequently playing the role of the friendly uncle. He is best remembered today for his portrayal of Haripad Bhaiya in Chupke Chupke (1975) and Doctor Mama in the cult comedy Gol Maal (1979). A member of the Bene Israel community, David remained a bachelor all his life, passing away in 1982 aged 73.

Shahnawaz, who played the suave police officer, was a Hyderabadi from the Deccan. Little is known about him, except the fact that he moved to Pakistan after partition, where he appeared in several Urdu and Punjabi movies. His acting career lasted two more decades before he passed away in Karachi in 1971.


Ramchandra Narayanji Dwivedi, alias Kavi Pradeep, who penned the songs of Kismet would go on to write countless songs remembered to this day, including the great patriotic song Ae mere watan ke logo and Main toh aarti utaroon re from Jai Santoshi Ma. Kavi Pradeep's patriotic verses would earn him the title of  राष्ट्रीय कवी (Rashtriya Kavi- Poet of the Country) from the Government of India. Like most of the principal members of the crew of Kismet, he enjoyed a long life before passing away in 1998.

The patriotic themes of the songs were fitting, given that composer Anil Biswas was a revolutionary in his schoolboy days. He would go on to compose songs for several movies that followed, until changing trends in the early 60s saw his popularity fade. Disillusioned with the film industry, Biswas joined all India Radio in New Delhi, working there until the mid 70s. He would go on to compose the music for the now legendary television series Hum Log in the mid 80s. Anilda, as he was popularly known, was active until the early 90s, before passing away in 2003 aged 89.

Anil Biswas
For director Gyan Mukherjee, the success of Kismet was the crowning glory of his sadly short career. He would also go on to direct the first ever movie to emerge from Filmistan- Chal Chal Re Naujawan (1944) starring Ashok Kumar. If he never again replicated the brilliance of Kismet, it was also in part due to the fact that he passed away in 1956, aged just 47. But his contribution to Hindi cinema would be felt long afterwards, owing to the sterling work of two young directors he mentored: Guru Dutt and Shakti Samanta.

Rai Bahadur Chunilal is an almost forgotten name today, despite the fact that he was largely responsible for ensuring the movie slipped past the censors. But for him, its quite unlikely that Kismet would have ever seen the light of day. But his greatest contribution to Hindi cinema would come long after Kismet hit the screens, in the form of his son Madan Mohan who is rightly remembered a legendary composer today, nearly four decades after his death.

Rai Bahadur Chunilal

Like Chunilal, Sashadhar Mukherjee too is a forgotten name today, but his legacy lives on through his successors. His brother Subodh is remembered to this day as the dirctor of Paying Guest (1957) and Jungli (1961). Sashadhar's son Joy was a noted actor in the 60s. Another son, Shomu would marry the actress Tanuja. Kajol (daughter of Shomu & Tanuja) and director Ayan Mukherjee (son of Deb Mukherjee, Sashadhar's second son) are prominent personalities in contemporary Bollywood. Ravindramohan, the elder brother of Sashadhar is the grandfather Rani Mukherjee, one of the leading actresses in the mid and late 2000s who remains a popular actress to this day.

As for the rest of the crew, I regret to say that I know virtually nothing about them. I will be indebted to anyone who can give me information about Kanu Roy (Mohan), P.F. Pithawala (Rani's father), Chandraprabha (Rani's sister), Mubarak (Father of Mohan and Madan/ Shekhar) and Shah Nawaz (Inspector Saahab). I conclude with the hope that I will be able to share  some more information about them in the future.

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