Starring Ashok Kumar, Mumtaz Shanti, David, Mubarak

Long, long ago, before the abundantly talented Ranbir Kapoor launched his campaign to establish suzerainty on the throne of Bollywood, now increasingly looking without a claimantthere was Ashok Kumar, who, with “Kismet”, made by Bombay Talkies, became the first ever superstar India ever had.

And not without reason!

Today, it may have become a fad amongst all leading actors – male and female – to have a role with negative shades in their repertoire, but in 1943, when Ashok Kumar essayed Shekhar – an anti-hero, a pickpocket, a conman, a regular jailbird – in “Kismet”, which went on to create box-office history, thereby earning it a place in the pantheon of all time blockbusters of Hindi cinema, it was indeed a watershed characterisation. Legend has it that the film ran for three years in some theatres and grossed around Rs.60 crores if inflation levels are adjusted. Ashok Kumar took to the role with an ease with which fish takes to water. With a smirk on his face, mischief in his eyes, cigarette dangled between his lips and a measured carelessness in his walk, he looked every bit a seasoned thief. Kumar was in the vanguard, through films like “Kismet”, when crucial transition was being made in the acting style prevalent on screen – from theatrical mannerisms to the realistic genre. It was evident to a great extent in “Kismet”, where, except for Mumtaz Shanti (as Rani, Shekhar's love interest), other main actors had successfully managed to make the crossover, which included David.

Certainly the success of “Kismet” would not have been possible without Gyan Mukherjee, who wrote and directed the film. It is apparent that the man was clear in the product he wanted to deliver and had a panache and vision for the art of storytelling. It is to his eternal credit that he penned a story (a brilliant screenplay by Niranjan Pal) that was way ahead of its times and consequently became a source of ‘inspiration' for most future films made in the mainstream, commercial genre.

Soft-spoken thief

The concepts he introduced were innovative at that point in time – there was no villain, but an anti hero, the sophisticated, soft spoken chor, of the type played by Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham in the “Dhoom” series, as also by Amitabh Bachan in “Shaan”. Leela (played by Chandraprabha; Rani's younger sister) gets pregnant out of wedlock. There is a dramatic escape sequence when Shekhar jumps from a police van and then runs onto a moving car to escape the dragnet. There is a lost and found angle with the ubiquitous locket with an old photograph and a name tattooed on the forearm providing vital clues. There is a double role. There are direct conversations with God in a temple seeking divine intervention.

The film had an outstanding music score, composed by Anil Biswas, set to lyrics by Pradeep. The softly romantic duet, “Dheere Dheere Aa...Mera Bulbul so Raha hai”, sung by Amirbai Karnataki and Ashok Kumar, retains the capacity to tug at strings of the heart, almost seven decades after it was unveiled. The film, despite being an out and out thriller, packed an unexpected patriotic punch, to make an overtly political statement in wake of the Quit India movement and the ongoing Second World War through the song, “Door Hato-O -Duniyawalon Hindustan Humaara hai”. Due precaution was taken to make the lyrics sound as not being anti-British by inserting a line against the Germans and Japanese.

Proponents of Akhand Bharat will surely like to see the song, as the map of India emblazoned on curtain of the stage extends from frontiers of Afghanistan in the West to Burma in the East. And lovers of Urdu will rue the fate that has befallen the language on the basis of religion, as in various scenes the method of salutation is ‘Aadaab'.

The story begins in the Central Jail, from where Shekhar is being released after completing his third stint, whereby he comes in contact with a disabled singer, Rani, performing in a theatre through her father (Shahnawaz), who has abandoned his family. On the steps of the theatre he steals a precious pearl necklace from the theatre owner, Indrajit Babu's (Mubarak) wife. To escape the police dragnet he hides it in a violin case placed in a tonga that soon goes away. In search of the necklace he enters their house. The two fall in love, as Rani thinks him to be an honourable man and a friend of her absconding father. Thereon, he makes every endeavour to save Rani and her family from the clutches of Indrajit Babu, who has usurped their property, and gets Rani operated upon to correct her disability, whereby she can dance again.

It is a grand finale, when Rani performs on stage, recording her saga, with all the chief protagonists being present there.

Déjà vu.

Surely!