BLAST FROM THE PAST Starring Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz, Meena Kumari, Rehman
Most of last week, the untimely demise of Rajesh Khanna led television channels to feature panel discussions on the superstar’s life and times, particularly his fall from the position he occupied from 1969 to ’72.
Several reasons were cited, including his restricted acting style, wherein he could enact only soft, romantic roles and his inability to sustain the onslaught of the angry young man, which is what the audiences desired in the mid-’70s. This premise falls flat on watching Khanna in director Dulal Guha’s 1971 film, “Dushman”. Essaying the role of Surjit Singh, a reckless, macho truck driver, with a penchant for consuming desi liquor and visiting brothels, the actor can be described in only one word — superb. Wearing fatigues for most of the film and donning a moustache, Khanna looks every bit the truck driver he portrays. He adapts to the role, discarding his trademark mannerism and style of dialogue delivery for a sprightly walk and body language that smacks of arrogance.
Watching him dance to “Vaada tera vadda” — sung breezily by Kishore Kumar — with Chamelibai (Bindu) is sheer magic. Many critics who swear by similar numbers filmed on Amitabh Bachan-Rekha in films like “Muqqadar-Ka-Sikandar” will have to rethink after watching “Dushman”.
Even in action sequences, Khanna looks credible. Surely, the actor’s downfall was more due to other reasons cited — unprofessionalism and arrogance among them — rather than his capacity to adapt to action-oriented roles. It is a testimony to the tragedy of Khanna that at an age (30) when most male actors in Hindi films barely get a toehold in the industry, Khanna was to go into an irrevocable slide. Perhaps it was his failure to handle superstardom and the consequent adulation which led to this sorry state of affairs.
Another reason that comes forth is his lack of business acumen (most actors had become business savvy PROs by then) and his utter failure to look after his dapper looks. The camera, which never lies, caught the perceptible and sudden change in his looks — receding hairline, paunch, puffy face — truthfully.
The film, produced by Premji, is loosely based on V. Shantaram’s iconic “Do Ankhen Barah Haath” which deals with an alternative system of punishing convicts, by integrating them in the social structure and giving them a chance to atone for their sins.
Thus, Surjit Singh, on a misty morning, when visibility is low, accidentally crushes a farmer, Ram Din, under the wheels of his truck. Although he has the opportunity to escape, he gives himself up for trial in the court of a judge (Rehman, an epitome of competence, restraint and grace) who wants to pioneer a new system of dispensing punishment. After acquiring permission for his experiment from the higher judiciary, the learned judge decrees that Surjit Singh will serve his sentence by ensuring the survival of deceased Ram Din’s family, which includes his widow, Malti (Meena Kumari in one of her last films is adequately placed to play the role of the beleaguered widow, with her perfect timing for tragedy, and some melodrama), sister Kamla (Naaz, passable, with her limited talent), two sons, a crippled father, Ganga Din (veteran actor Nana Palsikar is able to evoke sympathy) and Ganga Din’s blind wife (Leela Mishra, yet to become an accomplished character actor, which she did in later years).
After making a futile attempt to escape, Surjit is confronted by unbridled scorn and animosity by Ram Din’s family and other villagers, who label him a dushman. The rest of the story is based on Surjit’s drive to realise the dreams of his victim: getting a bumper harvest in the fields, marrying off his sister, and preventing Ganga Din’s limited assets from falling into the hands of the avaricious landlord (Anwar Hussain). His integration in the victim’s family is complete when he saves Malti’s honour from the landlord’s evil grasp (who had earlier entrapped Surjit in a false murder charge). In all these endeavours, Surjit is helped by Durga Prasad, a larger hearted farmer (veteran Kannaiyalal in a rare positive outing).
In the midst of all this, love blooms between him and Phoolmati (Mumtaz), a gypsy who shows a bioscope in the village to earn a living. The two share a screen chemistry that is one of the abiding milestones in the 100 years of cinema. Mumtaz, with her sensuous pout and body hugging dresses, is remarkable in the role. She is indeed worth watching in songs that include “Dekho Dekho Dekho Bioscope Dekho” (Lata Mangeshkar) and “Maine Dekha Tune Dekha’ (duet by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar).
The music, composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal to lyrics by Anand Bakshi, adds to its lure, as does the crisp editing. Other character actors, including Abhi Bhattacharya (soft-hearted inspector), Sajjan (landlord’s stooge), Asit Sen (Head Constable Harishankar Chaurasiya) are competent.