29 September 2017

Humorously Hopeful

The Kishore Kumar and Vyjayanthimala starrer Aasha may have ‘Ina Mina Dika’ as its claim to fame, but what else can we make of its runaway box-office success sixty years ago?

That a film clicks at the box office is no guarantee of its quality. But the fact that audiences flocked to watch a film does tell us something about the zeitgeist that brought it into being. So the fact that MV Raman’s comic drama Aasha was the seventh highest grossing film of 1957 could be attributed to the runaway success of the song ‘Ina Mina Dika’ — but it seemed to me worth looking at the film as a whole.

Looking at the top ten Hindi hits of 1957, as I have done over the last few weeks, brings several actorly personas and directorial careers into focus. My column on Tumsa Nahin Dekha (TSD) zoned in on Nasir Hussain’s directorial debut, and on Shammi Kapoor, who acquired his foppish star persona with that film.

I didn’t really talk about Pran, who was by then an established villain. Watching Pran in Aasha, I thought again about how effortlessly the actor had come to inhabit the part of the bad character in the garb of the urbane man-about-town — and how crucial his subtle, sneering demeanour was as foil to the invariably chatty charm of the heroes he played against. In Aasha, as in TSD, Pran’s city-slicker villainy unfolds against a feudal backdrop in which there is land and a title to be inherited. Here he plays Raj: cynical philanderer, moneyminded bridegroom and scheming older cousin to Kishore Kumar’s bumbling do-gooder Kishore.

Kishore Kumar, who played a chirpy young man in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut Musafir the same year, seems to have begun to craft his future madcap nice-guy persona properly with Aasha. He plays a talented but guileless young man, the true heir to the Belapur jagirdari, whom Pran embroils in a false murder case — a fact which of course means that his character turns fugitive, giving Kishore Kumar several opportunities for comic disguise, including a sustained turn as an ‘Arab’ theatre owner-performer, which is the persona in which he performs ‘Ina Mina Dika’.

Interestingly, though, the film is as much a vehicle for its heroine Vyjayanthimala, giving her ample opportunity to showcase not just her talents as a dancer but as an actor and mimic. She even snags a version of Ina Mina Dika in colour, a circus-inspired bit of rock-and-roll, rather gamely performed by an all-woman team that includes Asha Parekh (Parekh was a child actor who was then still on the cusp of her debut as heroine, having missed out on Tumsa Nahin Dekha).

As the feisty Nirmala, Vyjayanthimala’s introductory scene has her performing on a college stage. Later in the film, she becomes first a member of one theatrical troupe and then another, appearing before us once in the garb of a ‘tramp’-style young male prisoner and then as a bent old woman who claims to have been acting in naatak companies since the time of the Gadar (the revolt of 1857). It is difficult for anyone to compete with Kishore Kumar’s manic energy, but Vyjayanthimala manages to hold up her end fairly well (except when saddled with sugary theatrics, like playing the ‘soul of truth’ in a climactic play within the film).

The film’s ‘message’ of goodness and truth-seeking is muddled and generic, but its take on women seemed to me quite specific. We begin the film with a woman called Kamini, who is one of Pran’s conquests as feudal playboy, and though her status as the duped girlfriend gets worse with a pregnancy, the film never places any blame on her morals in having succumbed to his charms. In fact, with the murder of her father and her own abduction, Raman chooses to make her a victim — though in the end she does die, as all fallen women must.

But the film’s other supposedly fallen woman, Munni, gets a chance to redeem herself when Kishore first respectfully pays her hotel bills and then urges her to forge a new path that doesn’t involve prostitution. Munni must be among the very few such women characters in Hindi cinema who gets to live, and to recast herself as a respectable professional — by becoming a performing member of Nirmala’s theatre company.

A tiny scene right at the start shows us a girls’ hostel as a place whose members might occasionally leap over the wall to get back in — in this case, it’s Asha Parekh) — but the film never makes a big deal of it. Elsewhere, the bike-riding Vyjayanthimala displays a remarkably independent spirit for 1957: having been rejected as bahu by the martinet Lalita Pawar, she declares she has no desire to join the household of a ‘Hitler ki cheli’.

Although a turn in her family’s fortunes is offered as necessary reason for her to take up a profession, Nirmala conducts herself with flair and free-spiritedness, becoming the nodal point for a sort of unspoken sorority that includes Munni, Kamini and Asha Parekh. In one comic scene, when told that the condition of a theatre job is that she not marry or romance anyone, Nirmala’s only response is laughter. There is certainly something here about modern Indian womanhood coming into its own -- firmly with a sense of humour.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Sep 2017.

No comments: