Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Walking Down Memory Lane: Achhut Kanya (1936)

This is the first in a series of articles in which we shall rediscover the magic from the long forgotten early years of Hindi cinema- the era of studio contracts and actors who also sang their own songs. It was the era when India was still fighting for independence and Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were not yet out of school.

We kick off this series with अछूत  कन्या (Achhut Kanya/ Untouchable Girl), a Hindi movie directed by a German (Franz Osten), featuring among others the first Ms. India. Released in 1936, when untouchability was one of the burning topics of the say, Achhut Kanya was a reformist piece- a genre popular in the Hindi film industry in the 1930s.

The movie starred Devika Rani, the prima donna of the era. Appearing opposite her was a 24-year old newcomer called Ashok Kumar who was appearing in only his second movie. Achhut Kanya would become one of the early blockbusters of Hindi cinema, catapulting the hitherto little known Ashok Kumar to stardom- perhaps the greatest legacy of this movie.

A car comes to a halt at a railway level crossing. The gatekeeper informs the man at the wheel that the gate will not open for another hour, to his visible consternation. He gets up to have a smoke to calm his nerves, when a revolver drops out of the inner pocket of his jacket. His wife dutifully picks it up and hands it over to him, only to get snapped at.

As they wait, the young lady's husband happens to see a memorial to someone with an epitaph that reads इसने अपनी जान दी..., दूसरों की जाने बचाने के लिए (she laid down her life...., so others could live). He is joined there by his wife, who he gruffly orders to get back in the car. Just then a ghostly spirit turns up to narrate the dead person's story.

The Young Couple at the Level Crossing

Flashback to the distant past, when the same level crossing was manned by Dukhiya (Kamta Prasad), an untouchable. Dukhiya has an unlikely friendship with Mohan (P.F. Pithawala), a brahman whose life he once saved. Their children Pratap (Ashok Kumar) and Kasturi (Devika Rani), who grew up together, are deeply in love with each other.

Unfortunately, caste barriers preclude any possibility of marriage between the two. Pratap is married off to Meera (Manorama- not to be confused with the 60s actress of the same name) and Kasturi to Manu (Anwar). Manu, a fellow untouchable, is already married to a lady called Kajari (Pramila). Angered by the disrespect shown to him by his more affluent wife and in-laws, Manu has chosen to seperate himself from them.

Their lives proceed peacefully until Kajari feels threatened and insecure, now that Manu has found himself a new bride, that too one he is deeply in love with. Pratap's wife Meera, who realises that her husband is deeply in love with someone else, reconciles to her fait until Kajari poisons her mind. The ladies hatch a vicious conspiracy to discredit Kasturi in the eyes of Manu.

One not so fine day, the scheming housewives take Kasturi to a mela in a nearby village and abandon her there, knowing fully well that she will have to hitch a ride home with Pratap, who is running a vegetable stall in the mela. Back home, Kajri poisons Manu's mind against Kasturi. The misunderstanding results in a fight between Pratap and Manu when the former is on the way back home. Unfortunately, Manu unwisely intercepts Pratap on the railway track. In the ensuing scuffle, the two fail to realise that a train is rapidly approaching them. Desperate to save the two, Kasturi goes running down the track to stop the advancing train, sacrificing her life in the process.

Kajri and Meera: Scheming Housewives

Cut back to the present, where the young man who is hearing the story is moved. He confesses to his wife in a weak moment that the gun was intended to be used on her. To his surprise, the young lady is perfectly aware of what's in store for her but accepted it like a good bharatiya nari. Her admission proves the moment of catharsis for her husband, who remorsefully realises his folly.

Movie Review
The story is by no means extraordinary. In many ways, its reminiscent of the story of Radha-Krishna who were deeply in love with each other but ended up marrying someone else. 

Three things work in favour of the movie: one the screen presence of Devika Rani (who received top billing) and the chemistry between her and the boyish looking Ashok Kumar. Seeing this movie, its hard to be believe that the two never got along well in real life.

The second plus point of this movie is the characterisation. The characters and their motivations are very real and believable. For example, when Pratap suggests elopement to Kasturi she turns it down not out of moral considerations, but simply because their family members will have to face the consequences after they are gone- a realism that disappeared from Hindi cinema in later decades.

Lastly, there's the magnificent photography.  I would recommend a viewing of this movie just for the photography. Achhut Kanya has gorgeous visuals (a huge thanks to tommydan55, who has uploaded a restored print on youtube)- the hallmark of early Bombay Talkies in the era of Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten. If you are willing to overlook the odd inadvertent jump cut, the movie is a visual delight- an extraordinary achievement, given the primitive technology available in that age.

Saraswati Devi

On the downside is the acting, which is uniformly stagey. The characters are extremely verbose, with a style of dialogue delivery that sounds like a parody. It may be said, in mitigation, that such verbosity and stilted dialogue delivery was typical of early talkies across the world. Ashok Kumar, who had no background in acting, is the only member of the crew whose dialogue delivery is natural (although paradoxically, his acting is also the weakest of the lot!).

A quick word about the music: the songs are amazingly simple and the lyrics are profound. And yet its hard to express an opinion on Saraswati Devi's music, since its so far removed from anything we have ever heard or are likely to hear from Bollywood. After all, it was an era in which actors sang their own songs, which meant that composers were obliged to come up with tunes that even untrained singers could pull off.

The Crew
The first thing that strikes you in this movie is the sheer youthfulness of Ashok Kumar, who was 24 at the time but looked more like a teenager. He is not just inexperienced, but clearly out of his depth. Yet, Ashok Kumar shows the first signs of the realism that would be the hallmark of his acting. His natural acting is in stark contrast with the stagey, stilted dialogue delivery of the others around. Still, no one who saw that little known and callow 24 year old  in 1936 would have imagined that he would gone to become one of the greatest actors in the history of Indian cinema.

What does one say of Devika Rani? I had only heard about her, but this was the first time I was seeing her on screen. She has to be one of the most beautiful faces to have ever graced Hindi cinema. Although her acting was limited, she had an undeniable presence on screen. If Devika Rani was the star of that era, her screen presence certainly justified it.

P.F. Pithawala, who plays Mohan (Ashok Kumar's father) is by far the best actor in the crew. The stagey dialogue delivery notwithstanding, he is very convincing as the village chemist with a kind heart and a man who speaks his mind unhesitatingly. Having seen him in other movies of the era, it must be said that Pithawala was a remarkably versatile actor. Sadly I have been unable to find any information about him anywhere.

Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar

Najam Naqvi (1913-1982), who played the role of Manu (Devika Rani's husband), was the person in charge of continuity at Bombay Talkies.  Since he used the screen name Anwar, he appears twice in the credits of the movie under two different names! Naqvi went on to direct several movies in the 40s, before moving to Pakistan after partition, where he worked as an actor/ director.

The actress who played the young lady at the level crossing was Pramila (not to be confused with her namesake who played Kajri), the screen name adopted by Esther Victoria Abraham (1916-2006). A Baghdadi Jew born in Calcutta, Esther went on to become the first Miss India in 1947. A fiesty, spirited woman far ahead of her time, she had the misfortune of being arrested in the 50s under the orders of Morarji Desai- the then Chief Minister of Bombay state- who wrongly thought her to be a Pakistani spy due to her frequent visits across the border to promote her movies. Her son Hyder Ali is best known today for his portrayal of Raja in the 1980s serial Nukkad.

The director of the movie Franz Osten (1876-1956) is today a name long forgotten, but he was one of the leading directors of that era. In partnership with Himanshu Rai, he directed several classics of the late silent era of Indian cinema such as Prem Sanyas (1925) and Prapancha Pash (1929). He became a member of the Nazi party in 1936, due to which he was deported from India by the British Government after the outbreak of the second world war. Ironically Osten, who directed many of Ashok Kumar's early movies, was not in favour of casting the young man who, in his opinion, didn't have the looks of an actor.

Franz Osten

The music was composed by Saraswati Devi, the name adopted by Khursheed Minocher Homji (1912-1980). Classically trained, she and her sister Manek gave regular musical performances on All India Radio's Bombay station. Their programme, known as the Homji Sisters, was immensely popular at the time. Himanshu Rai put her in charge of Bombay Talkies music room in the mid 30s, making her one of the earliest film composers in Hindi cinema. Saraswati Devi also earned the distinction of being the first ever playback singer in Hindi cinema, when she sung the song  for her sister Manek who had to appear on screen but had a bad throat that day.

Unfortunately, cinema was considered a dishonourable profession in the 30s. The presence of Parsi girls in the studios raised the heckles of the Parsi community, of which some members were on the board of Bombay Talkies. Himanshu Rai's intervention with the board members saved the day, resulting in a compromise whereby Khursheed was given the screen name Saraswati Devi to conceal her real identity.

As an addendum to the earlier articles on Kismet: I discovered to my surprise, that Chandraprabha, who played the role of Rani's 'pregnant out of wedlock' sister was none other than Manek Minocher Homji. And so Manek/ Chandraprabha was the first ever actress to have a playback song filmed on her.

Of the remaining members of the cast, I fear I know nothing at all. Sadly its very difficult to come across any information on Hindi movies made before the 70s. I shall be grateful to anyone who could tell me more about the members of the cast.

I knew that Indian society must have been a lot more conservative in 1930s, when Achut Kanya was released. Nonetheless, it came as a shock to see women refer to their husbands variously as मालिक (owner), देवता / स्वामी (God). From the very first scene in which the young man rudely shoos away his wife, its evident that the status of women in 30s India (insofar as they enjoyed any) was pretty much subordinate to that of men. Sexist or even misogynistic as it may sound in this day and age, it is but a reflection of Indian society of that era.

It is equally surprising to see one of the principal characters (Manu) having two wives and not have any of the characters being surprised or scandalised by the fact. Perhaps polygamy was a common practice back then (it must be said in mitigation that the movie is set in a period well before 1936).

Seen by a viewer in the 21st century, the openness with which untouchability is discussed is astonishing. Any possibility of a marriage between Pratap and Kasturi is dismissed in an offhand, nonchalant manner, suggesting that the caste system was considered perfectly normal even in that era when Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar were working against it in their own way. We can safely assure that this movie would have never made it past the censors in our day.

Most surprising of all is the manner in which government officials are portrayed. Kasturi's father is removed from his job for stopping a train in an emergency. The policeman who comes investigating after Pratap's house is burnt down by an irate mob is a scrupulously honest man committed to his duty. Having seen other movies from the era portray government officials/ policemen in positive light one gets the impression that policemen and government officials in general were far more accountable in those days than they are today.

In Conclusion
Seen today, most viewers will surely find the slow pace and the unnatural dialogue delivery boring at best and irritating at worst. To be fair, Achhut Kanya appeared in 1936, when film makers and actors alike were still coming to terms with the challenges posed by talkies- it was just five years since India's first ever 'talkie' film hit the screens (and barely 2-3 years since silent movies went out). 

Achhut Kanya is best viewed as a piece of cinematic history: one of the earliest blockbusters of Hindi cinema and a crucial movie in the career of a hitherto reluctant actor called Ashok Kumar. 

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