One of the actresses I've been most eager to see has been Suraiya, famous as a singing star from the pre-playback era. Especially since I recently flipped through Shobhha De's novel Bollywood Nights, where she was clearly, and cruelly, roman-a-clefed. After her parents refused to allow her to marry Dev Anand, she vowed never to marry, and she never did. Not that marriage is the be-all and end-all or anything (and more on that subject later), but really, reading his autobiography, he was nothing to get that worked up about. I'm telling myself that she really didn't want to get married anyway, and used him as a pretext.
The film opens with a narrator telling us the story ("dastan") of the people in the "Raj Mahal." My first thought was, the Mahal where Raj Kapoor lives? And he does! In the movie at least. Anyway, almost immediately, I was reminded of the kind of movies Bette Davis used to make: there's a death in the old mansion, and then a flashback to the proud, stern sister who ruled the house and manipulated the lives of everyone in it. Very 1940s women's "weepie," and I mean that in the best possible way.
Sweet orphaned Indra (who'll grow up to be played by Suraiya, with a lovely, clear singing voice indeed) is taken into a wealthy family, where she is beloved by the two sons and deeply resented by older sister Rani (Veena).
That very young and skinny Raj Kapoor is the fun-loving younger brother, who somehow, off-camera, develops the discipline to become a pilot, and who woos Indra in the back seat of a car with lines like "My desires are soaring. Come, I'll take you for a ride." Yeah, I bet he will! As his more serious older brother and unspoken romantic rival, Al Nasir doesn't make much of an impression, which I guess is why Raj is Raj, despite the mugging and some very fey dancing.
Then there's old friend Ramesh, the man Rani plots to hook up with Indra, just to get her out of the house and away from her brothers. Ramesh seems like the best pick of the lot -- rich, good-looking, willing to love Indra sincerely and, if necessary, platonically. For once, thank goodness for that "we've loved each other since childhood" thing to explain why she prefers Raj, who acts like a total idiot in the face of transparently false information about Indra's affections, from a source he knows is untrustworthy.
Despite the tragedy she engenders with her meddling, I'm actually oddly sympathetic toward cold-hearted Rani, especially after this exchange:
Family retainer Shambhu Dada: Till when will you be a spinster?
Rani: Till the rules of your society don't change.
Dada: Child, it's impossible to change the rules of the society.
Rani: Then think that my marriage is also impossible.
Dada: Can I know the reason for this hatred?
Rani: It's because the men of this country take a woman as a slave...and I don't want to be a slave of my husband.
Amen, sister! Frankly, I was hoping for a third-act twist in which she would find love with "what you might call a new man...looking for a new kind of love." (To quote Down With Love's Catcher Block, ladies' man, man's man, man about town). I digress in a big way, but Rani is definitely a Down With Love Girl. And in the absence of the right kind of man, she's right to stay single. Besides, she keeps calling Raj an idiot, and while she may be a bitch, she's got a point.
I came so close to having a Veena film festival: my next Netflix was Kaagaz Ke Phool, in which she plays Guru Dutt's estranged wife. But I decided I wasn't in the mood for anything too serious, so I sent it back. I'll watch it someday, and hopefully catch more of Veena's oeuvre. But in the meantime, I'm waiting on Dancer, which looks like a latter-day Mithun Chakraborty movie, only with a young Akshay Kumar. Now, that's a mental picture that haunts me!