I am occasionally inclined to see a film simply because I adore one particular song of the film. Unfortunately, I score more hits than misses using this criterion. Saranga (1960) is a case in point—it has the classic Saranga teri yaad mein nain hue bechain (one of the few hit songs of Anu Malik’s father, Sardar Malik), but not much else. With Usne Kaha Tha, I had better luck. The lovely Aha rimjhim ke yeh pyaare-pyaare geet liye is a wonderful song, and the film itself is an interesting one.
In a small town somewhere in Punjab, down a narrow street with a line of bricks forming a pathway through the dirt, live Nandu (I don’t know who this child actor is) and his widowed mother Paro (Durga Khote). Nandu is friends with the neighbour’s daughter Farida (Baby Farida), and Paro dotes on him, so all’s well.
One day, Nandu meets the comely little Kamli (Baby Shobha), who’s come from Ambala with her mother (Sarita Devi) to stay for a while with her maternal uncle (no idea who this actor is) and aunt (Praveen Paul). Nandu saves Kamli from a runaway tonga, and they soon become bosom buddies—until one day Kamli abruptly returns to Ambala because her father’s ill.
Years pass and World War II has begun. Nandu is now a big, noisy hulk of a man (Sunil Dutt) who spends his time carousing with his friends, the tongawallah Khairati (Rashid Khan) and Wazira (Rajendranath) and gang. He enters his rooster in cock fights and bets on just about anything (for example, how many glasses of lassi Khairati can drink at one sitting). Paro keeps the household running by taking in tailoring, even though her eyesight’s in a bad way, while Nandu goes gallivanting with his cronies.
One day, Nandu has a run-in with a tongawallah who’s trying to bring a tonga through a narrow lane. The tongawallah finally backs off, but not before the pretty girl (Nanda) sitting in the back has accused Nandu of being a hooligan. Nandu is inclined to pick a fight with her, but Wazira stops him.
What Nandu doesn’t know is that the girl is none other than Kamli, now come back, years later, with her widowed mother to stay with her uncle and aunt.
Nandu makes a killing with his rooster and wins a hefty sum, which he spends on buying a shawl and spectacles for Paro, and redeeming a necklace she’d pawned. Paro is proud and happy, but only until she discovers where he got the money from. She returns everything to Nandu, and he, seeing her disappointment, promises to turn over a new leaf.
Nandu’s friend Wazira is as rakish as him, and has a weakness for shoes: show him a shoe, and he’ll steal it. In his attempt to better himself, Nandu stops Wazira from stealing shoes at the local temple, and as a result, again has a run-in with Kamli, who accuses him of having stolen her chappal. When Kamli leaves in a tonga, the tongawallah, Khairati, tells her who her nemesis is. Kamli suddenly feels much more kindly disposed towards Nandu.
The next morning, Kamli uses the excuse of `a salwar to be stitched’ to visit Paro. Paro isn’t home, but Nandu is, and after some initial bantering and teasing on Nandu’s part, they become friends again…
…and soon fall in love. Kamli’s best friend, Farida (Indrani Mukherjee, in her debut role) acts as go-between, chaperone, and bosom buddy rolled into one. Now follow idyllic days and evenings, mainly spent by the lake, at the local village fair, or in the forest, gaily singing songs.
But the joy can’t last, of course. Unknown to Kamli and Nandu, Kamli’s uncle is looking to use Kamli to make some money. He’s a sahukar (a moneylender), and one of his acquaintances (Asit Sen) suggests a way in which Kamli’s uncle can profit from the war. In exchange, he wants Kamli to marry the son of a subedar who’s looking for a good bahu for his son.
Paro, egged on by Nandu (and, like the two lovers, totally unaware) goes to meet Kamli’s uncle, asking for Kamli’s hand in marriage to Nandu. The uncle’s very nasty to Paro, and refuses to even harbour the thought of Kamli marrying Nandu. Nandu, says the uncle, is a ne’er-do-well, a good for nothing who lives off what his old mother earns. No, thank you; they’re not sending their beloved Kamli off into a home like that.
Paro is shaken, and once home, breaks down and tells Nandu all. Nandu, in a fit of humiliation (and sudden enlightenment; about time too!) decides to get a job. This gives him an idea:
[Aside: Isn't `nation' an anachronism here? Since India was still a part of the British Empire, I'd have thought this would've been more along the lines of `for king and country'].
So Nandu goes off to the Punjab Regimental Training Centre, where he learns to be a soldier. Wazira’s also there, so Nandu isn’t without friends.
It’s a tough six months, but at the end of it, Nandu comes home on three weeks’ leave, elated and excited. He’s bought a bunch of glass bangles for his beloved Kamli, and shortly after he returns, he goes to her house to give them to her—and discovers that Kamli is now engaged. Her uncle has used emotional blackmail—“I will commit suicide if you don’t marry this man, but don’t let that worry you,”—to get her to agree. Nandu is (well, what else?) shattered.
Paro tries to comfort Nandu, but doesn’t succeed. The next morning, Nandu leaves to go back to his regiment, even though he’s still got plenty of leave left. Back at the regiment, he’s told to report to the havildar, Ram Singh (Tarun Bose). Ram Singh is about to go on leave to get married—he’s packing when Nandu arrives—and sends Nandu to the Commander. With Nandu gone, he turns back to his packing and casts one last, loving look at the photo of his bride-to-be.
Will Nandu and Kamli be able to escape the bonds and barriers that society imposes, the duties they both have towards those they love and respect? Or will Kamli become a martyr to honour? And what effect will the war—now suddenly coming closer, with the Japanese having attacked Singapore—have on their lives?
Though Usne Kaha Tha suddenly turns serious in the second half and even descends into moments of melodrama, it’s still worth watching. Not a barrel of laughs—not by a mile—but with some fine acting and a good screenplay.
What I liked about this film:
Durga Khote. I’ve always liked her a lot, and in Usne Kaha Tha, she plays a substantial role, portraying very effectively the anguish of an aging woman who adores her son but has to stand helplessly by as he falls apart. She’s wonderful in this one: warm, stern, strong, and forgiving. One of her best performances.
Indrani Mukherjee. She’s perfect as the girlish Farida, charming and sweet, and with a not-quite-defined relationship with Nandu. Unlike countless other Hindi films where a supporting actress of this sort would be swiftly relegated to the role of a makeshift sister by tying a rakhi on the hero’s wrist, nothing of the sort happens here. And the way Farida cries when Nandu goes off to war… it makes you wonder.
Which brings me to one of the main reasons I found this film memorable: the characterisation is superb. Everybody’s very believable, not the one-dimensional cardboard figures all too often seen in Hindi cinema. Kamli’s uncle is not totally evil; Ram Singh is a good man; and everybody is shades of grey. I haven’t read the short story (by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri) on which the film was based, but I’m thinking I should try and get hold of it.
The verisimilitude of the film: the little touches that give it a firmly Punjabi feel; the obviously real scenes at the military training centre and later at the front: it’s all very believable (the Indian Army is listed in the credits). I’m also pretty sure some of the battle scenes are live footage.
The music, by one of my favourite composers, Salil Choudhary. Aha rimjhim ke yeh pyaare-pyaare geet liye is the best, but the other songs too are lovely.
What I didn’t like:
The fact that though the war is on, it doesn’t seem to really affect the lives of those in Nandu’s town. I’d have expected more obvious evidence that there was a war on: shortages, men going off to the front (and not returning), and so on. During the Second World War, the Indian Army reached a peak of 2.5 million men—the largest all-volunteer force in history—and Punjab was one of the provinces that sent a lot of men to war. Surely this should’ve been reflected earlier in the film than towards the end?
The last half hour. I can’t say more without giving away the plot, but it’s too unreal and too simplified a version of what can happen in battle.
This isn’t the film for you if you’re expecting lots of laughs. But despite the hiccups I’ve mentioned, it has a good story and a realistic feel to it. Worth a watch if you can bear to shed a few tears.