STARRING Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz, Om Prakash, Nirupa Roy, Jiwan
If the hallmark of a legend were to be the endurance of his legacy, then, ace director Manmohan Desai would be a winner all the way. So complete is his hold over the imagination of generations of filmgoers, almost two decades after his tragic and untimely death (when loneliness and loss of the Midas touch at the turnstiles forced him to the sidelines) that it has inspired a slew of filmmakers, which includes the likes of Rohit Shetty, Farah and Sajjid Khan to adopt his style of making films. And the success of these ventures provides ample proof, if ever it was required, to the universal and timeless appeal of the formula concocted by Desai to ensure box office goldmine.
After the box office success of “Sachaa-Jhutha” (released in 1970) — in which Desai cast Rajesh Khanna, the phenomenon, with Mumtaz — Desai did an encore in “Roti”. (This was before Desai started his extraordinary and awe-inspiring partnership with the Big B to blaze a new chapter in the annals of contemporary Hindi cinema.)
And the trio rocked once again. By this time, the pairing of Khanna and Mumtaz had achieved cult status with their onscreen bonding and was regarded by some to be in the same league as that of Raj Kapoor-Nargis and Dilip Kumar-Madhubala before them. “Roti”, along with “Aap Ki Kasam” and “Prem Kahani”, was one of the last movies in which the two paired together.
The film, written by Desai’s better half, Jeevanprabha, even in its larger-than-life scope, deals with the basic issue of hunger, even as the flag of socialism fluttered high and mighty over citadel India, and starvation was prevented by each shipload of wheat that came from the U.S. The country was in the throes of social upheaval and political unrest. It seems Desai was inspired by his mentor, Raj Kapoor, who pioneered the use of film as an effective medium to highlight social issues, while retaining the mainstream genre.
The film deals with the pangs of hunger afflicting a young boy, who is forced to steal a roti to satiate his hunger, which marks his entry into the murky world of crime. The boy grows up to be Mangal Singh, a name to reckon with in the underworld, under the aegis of don Suraj (Pinchoo Kapoor). The going is good, till the long arm of the law catches up with Mangal, who is decreed to be hanged till death for his misdeeds. As he is being led to the gallows, Suraj manages a daring escape from the prison to free his protégée, who, thereon is on the run from law enforcement agencies.
Finally, he finds refugee in a nondescript, scenic village located in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he takes the guise of Ramu, a school-teacher. In this change of identity he is helped by a bidi smoking Bijli (Mumtaz), who runs an eating joint and arranges shelter for Ramu in Shravan’s house, by presenting him as a friend of Shravan. He is taken as his own son by Shravan’s parents Lalaji (Om Prakash) and Malti (Nirupa Roy). In a twist of fate, Shravan is the same person whom Mangal killed while escaping from the dragnet. From here, the film takes several twists and turns, with both the police and his erstwhile accomplices going for Mangal’s jugular.
Khanna, as Mangal Singh, tries to escape the romantic, chocolate hero mould he had straitjacketed himself into, with some action scenes, but by now, his mannerism and style of dialogue delivery that had endeared him to the masses had become an integral part of his acting, stifling the spontaneity to some extent. Mumtaz exudes raw sensuality and vivaciousness that is endearing and matches Khanna step for step. She is a forerunner to actresses like Sridevi and Vidya Balan, who, in some of their performances, seem inspired by her.
The supporting cast of Om Prakash, Nirupa Roy, Pinchoo Kapoor, Jiwan and Sujit Kumar is worthy as ever.
Incidentally, the film is one of the few to be co-produced by Rajesh Khanna’s banner, Aashirwad Pictures. On the technical front, editing is fast paced, which won Kamlakar the Filmfare Award in the category. However, art direction by Rangraj and cinematography by K. Vaikunth (especially in the climax) seems a bit tacky. Dialogues by Akhtar-Ul-Iman and Kader Khan add panache, while screenplay by Prayagrag lends weight to the film.
The music, composed by the veteran duo of Laxmikant-Pyarelal, set to lyrics by Anand Bakshi, was a smash hit, with each song retaining its allure to this day. It is in “Gore Rang Pe Na Itna” (Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle in devastating form) that Khanna and Mumtaz sizzle to the extent of setting the screen afire. “Naach Meri Bulbul”, in which Khanna dons a disguise, even as Pinchoo Kapoor goes bananas over a nautch girl, is hummable. However, it is in “Yaar Hamari Baat Suno” and “Yeh Public Hai” that Desai deals with sensitive issues. While in the former Kishore Kumar croons about sin, justice, introspection and forgiveness, in the latter, burning issues like hoarding of food, black marketing and performance of politicians is exposed.
Finally, as the dust settles on Khanna’s poignant adieu to life after having failed to reclaim the pedestal from where he reigned over Bollywood, one cannot but lament that while several persons from the field of performing arts, with much fewer accomplishments than Khanna, have been bestowed with the prestigious Padma awards, Khanna, the icon, failed to get any in his lifetime. Posthumously. Hopefully.