It seems that India collects “eternal love” stories: on top of that of Layla and Majnun, Khosru and Shirin, Sohni and Mahiwal, there is (among many others) that of Heer and Ranjha. This last epic has been the subject of numerous versions, the Wiki page mentions 11 film and TV renditions shared on both sides of the Indo-Pakistani border. But it doesn’t mention the one in which Nutan and Pradeep Kumar played the parts in 1956. The lead actor was already a big name at the time (he had played in Anarkali and Jagte raho), whereas Nutan had just been revealed in Seema. Thanks to Sbasu’s blog (see last post), I have been able to follow the events of this “immortal romance” because the Youtube version is undubbed. In short, the story is a sanctification of love, which runs up against all the possible obstacles. I have tried to summarize the events below (and sent this text to IMDb where the movie was lacking a plot summary).
Heer is the story of two lovers, after the mythical Punjabi legend of Heer and Ranjhna. It tells of their thwarted love, and how beautiful Heer and intrepid Ranjhna must fight to reunite in spite of obstacles and enemies. The two lovers belong to opposing tribes/families and villains are out and out to separate them. During a fair where her champion has been tricked, Heer is promised to somebody of a friendly clan. The defeated hero wonders in the wilderness and meets with witches who direct him to his beloved. In spite of having fallen from princehood to beggarhood, he thus gets back to her, and they hope to marry, but Ranjhna's enemies are still looking for him, and they stalk him. A trap is laid to capture Ranjhna and, to stop any further common plan, Heer is married to her rightful suitor. She plans suicide, but Ranjhna arrives, he tries to drag her away, but he's seen in her apartments and therefore she's punished for not complying with her husband and condemned to the dungeons.
Time passes; Ranjhna the wanderer has become a yogi and winds his way again to Heer's home. She's almost dead, but when she hears of him, she rises and meets him. But she's been too long deprived of him, and has lost her mind: she doesn't recognize him. Shocked, she lies down to die. A plan is organized to join the star-crossed lovers: Ranjhna declares he must take Heer to his hermitage in order to pray and revive her. The plan works thanks to a sister in law: Ranjhna prays and Heer resurrects! But again the pair's enemies catch them, and once more they are separated, and brought in front of the judge, who gives Heer to her lawful husband. She is dragged out, but during her convoy, her own prayer brings fire down on the city, and this proves to the King that she was wrongfully married. Alas, this won't prove good, and Heer's relatives rig another plan to doom her and her lover. She is told to sacrifice herself to save her father, whose house is attacked by a mob of angry and manipulated villagers. This time Ranjhna arrives too late, and can only hold in his arms the poisoned heroine.
The film contains a few lovely finds, which are mostly contained in the songs, but for example one of the villains, Kaido, is magnificently cruel and loud-mouthed; then we have a cute moment when Nutan, on the farm, frolicks with a young goat. I enjoyed the scene of the boat (in spite of the fact that it’s so outrageously false), where she dances in and out of the lattice windows, and the scene in the dungeon where her profile is outlined against the coffin-shaped opening was rather striking. And finally let’s say, to be fair, that Like Sbasu, I was pleased to see Lalita Pawar (Heer’s mother) in a positive role (she also has one in Anari).
Apart from such moments, the story is not much more but a succession of narrative clichés, whose number of ups and downs can seem excessive, and only a way to maintain suspense thanks to wondrous and rather artificial occurrences. The quality of the Youtube upload is very bad, with jumps and stops, and I wonder if any better version exists anywhere. On the whole, were it not for the main attraction of the film, such a story would be an ordeal to watch. But… as usual, Nutan is there, on the screen, in the miracle of her twenty years of age, and most of the value of what there is to be seen and heard comes from her. Let me add a word for the very nice songs, a lot of them, by Anil Biswas. As Sbasu hints, this alone might have saved the movie, but it was a flop, and perhaps this was because the theme had so often been done before? When Hemant Kumar sings Ek chand tukda, one pauses in wonder…
And in Dhadakne laga dil, when she dances around her bare-breasted Pradeep (whose looks are calculated to evoke both Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power), one wishes one was bare-breasted too!
Finally there is Aa mere Ranjhna, the last song of the film where Heer is transported to her final resting place by her two grieving parents – a rather beautiful caravan moving in the night of their hearts.
The cinematography in Heer is really one long study of Nutan’s face. Not her talent, not her skills: her face. In other movies, directors sensed rightly she could be asked to develop a comedian’s resourcefulness, and we’ve seen how well she performs when asked to do that! Then she was asked to play tragic and even pathos, and she shone again. But here, she’s not asked to do much more than appear. And in fact she does it very well, or at least, a radiant and heavenly Nature does it for her! The artistic director just had to come up with the old classic tricks, such as backlighting, sfumato, haziness (this makes her dark eyes go completely soft), gradual close-up, etc. And the costume designer’s art did the rest: veils, curls, make-up or no make-up, of course all the jewellery… there’s even at one stage a rather rare bridal curtain, which I haven’t seen her wear elsewhere. All this is entrancing, and luckily or not, the passages where she’s the major focus of all this attention come out in rather good quality pictures. And I mustn’t forget that a portion of it also goes to Pradeep Kumar!
To finish with this rather fantastic succession of different angles and lightings and perspectives to which the camera subjects Nutan’s face, as if it was transfixed by it, I am pleased to quote what my Nutan-lover friend from Nutan-bollymusings says about the heroine in those days. He is pondering the reason why, in spite of all the flops that affected her early career, Nutan was still given credit and investors still banked on her: “My take is that the base of her survival wasn’t as much her parents, as the industry itself. Which has realized her, but didn’t know what to do with it. When one gets a raw stone and knows that inside it there is a gem far greater than Kohinoor, one might not only not know how to get that gem out from the layers of the dust, but also might be scared to attempt, lest one damages it.” I think this transfers into what Hamid Butt, the director has done: he’d (like many of us) been struck by the star’s splendour, but stopped at the surface. His film is like a showcase for the diamond he’s found, and he shows it around, without realizing that Nutan was a gifted actress too!
Anyway, here’s a collection of Miss Nutan’s exquisite poses. And the miracle is that they aren’t just the sparkling facets of a ravishing woman in the full strength of her charming youth: through them, one feels a life, as full and deep as can be; one knows intuitively that a glory of humanity lies behind the eyes, the forehead, the cheeks, the mouth. So all isn’t lost to appearance: a mystery is felt, part of the veil is lifted, or rather, one feels there is a veil to lift! Just before, one last question: how was she explained such a lavish display of her own good looks? She couldn’t be unaware of the interest they created. Perhaps she didn’t know, when the shooting was taking place, to which extraordinary extent the film was going to showcase them. Or perhaps she was primed into believing that the drama of Heer and Ranjhna was really what mattered to the director? Anyway she was playing the legendary beauty’s role, so she had to accept to be beautiful! Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter much today, but certainly there was room for vanity. One will probably never know whether a tinge of this feeling had made her proud or conceited even a slight bit…