This 1954 film by M. Sadiq has qualities I wasn’t expecting. With movies that no one is reviewing or speaking about, you are faced with the unnerving problem of wondering whether you aren’t giving value to a work of art out of an idiosyncratic feeling that nobody else has felt what you think you feel, and therefore shouldn’t be put forward as relevant. Of course, there’s always the remote possibility that the work has been forgotten by the critics and disregarded, and that the happy reviewer has unearthed a treasure! Still, the charms of Shabab (youthfulness, beauty) are many and I’m not only saying this as a blinded admirer of Nutan. The story contains a poetic scenario, combined with realistic psychology, great Naushad songs which are very interestingly integrated into the narrative, a lot of subplot humour and cinematographic tricks which, in spite of the studio-level of the film, can’t be discarded as cheap props only. You’ll see!
The story starts like a Perrault Fairy-tale: an infant prince is deprived of his rightful parents and raised by a band of dacoits, and a princess (Ragini) is born to a childless king who rejoices at the event until he’s told of an ominous event which will befall her on her eighteenth birthday. Both are nevertheless engaged in infancy, to tie the fates of the two princely families. We focus at more length on the little boy (Ratan) who’s taught the art of an ascetic and blind music master and who therefore is the depository of his divine knowledge. He’s also got a bad sign placed on him in the shape of the dacoit’s sixth finger having touched him. But soon the story shows us the grown princess, full of grace and beauty but with one defect: she cannot sleep! Back from a temple one day where she’s asked God to grant it to her, she tells her father she’s heard some music and is sure it will cure her. So musicians are fetched and each one tries his chance to put the princess to sleep… Of course they can’t, and it’s an opportunity to ridicule musicians who do not put all they heart into they art, but are mere performers.
Ratan hears about the challenge, and goes to the palace: he’s given his chance and one evening, at dusk (he doesn’t see the princess) plays his music and she falls asleep instantly! The next morning, everyone marvels and of course Ragini wants to see the blessed musician. But her father’s Minister tells her he’s gone away, being a traveller. She demands that he be brought back, she wants to learn his art. But Princess, do you know this musician is a leper? asks the insidious Minister. Horrid to see, and stinking from the corruption? Shocked but not undaunted, she still insists to have him back. Kingly power is exerted, and Ratan (Bharat Bhushan) stands now in front of the Minister: he must know that the Princess not only is bad-tempered (only yesterday she gouged one of her singers eyes!) but horribly blind and ugly too! But Ratan bravely and wisely answers that music doesn’t need sight, only hearing. He’s told (as was the princess) that the lessons will take place, but only on either side of a curtain.
All this of course serves only one aim: to increase the intensity between the two charged electrodes that are the Royal Singer (his new title) and the Ravishing Rajkumari! One wonders about the nature of the Minister’s feelings: could his scheming be a hidden way to preserve the Princess for himself? But in fact no, he’s only inspired by courtesan motives: for him, royalty should have nothing to do with commoners. He’s a faithful defender of the King and what the King stands for. And as such, he’s an instrument of suspense: how will the two prospective lovebirds finally meet? What will happen to the Minister’s lies when they do? What about their infant alliance? And the fateful prophecies concerning them?
In order to know, and follow the movie’s many other suggestive ups and downs, you’ll have to watch yourself, but what’s great about Shabab is the combination of poetic lyricism and fairytale symbolism. The myth (Krishna’s story is apparent, as well as Devdas’s) is cleverly blended with the allegorical, and the social-political dimension combines with the humoristic (which centers around Ratan’s father and the community of his folk). I was reminded of the Shree 420 motif of rise and fall of the gifted peasant, from people to palace and back to the people (but without the redemption process from vice to virtue). Celebrating the divine power of music, the film easily integrates its soulful songs in the storyline, but also makes an interesting statement about its mysterious origin.
Indeed a musician needs an instrument to express his music; he needs to learn it bodily, so there is a good deal of material pursuits involved before the spiritual realities can appear. But when these are conquered, music is like the wind which blows the sail of a ship and takes its passengers to far-off lands, where new stars shine. It has a magic power which depends on, but also transcends, its execution by able hands and voice. And this transcending dimension is shown in that once its nature is recognized, one doesn’t need material props any more, one doesn’t have any necessity for instrumentalities. The human heart only is recognized to be God’s receptacle for joy and harmony. This is why the theme of asceticism and sacrifice runs so strongly in Shabab; that is why there is such an insistence on poverty and beggary: beggars and simple folk represent a state of society which is closer to the purification process which the Hindu (and Buddhist) traditions have recognized as needed to reach sanctity. When they sing, the Godhead can be heard. And when Ratan loses first his status, and then the use of his hands, he is in fact one step closer to divinity.
[Careful spoilers ahead] I have mentioned the cinematographic quality of the film and its inventiveness in terms of visual art: well perhaps the movie’s last song offers the best example. There are many other minor instances in the film, like the vision of the imaginary leper, or the erotic simile of the two lovers’ lovemaking, when the Royal Singer asks his transfixed student to tighten the string of her veena more and more, a little more, a little more, until it breaks in an ecstasy of tension and he can approach her physically:
In the last song, Ragini has married, and her princely husband asks her to sing a song for her. The song she chooses has been written by a destitute Ratan, reduced to utter poverty and condemned to come and beg his food at her palace. She doesn’t know, but he’s outside at her door, and can hear the song, and like the prince, is now listening to it. She sings his words, not knowing he’s listening to them, and she thinks about him, lost forever whereas an alien and wide-eyedhusband is facing her:
I will die at your doorstep
You may know or you may not –
I’ll wander around your house all the time
My love for you will never reduce
I will die for you and you won’t know
After your death I will come to your land
My life will end at your doorstep
I will die at your doorstep
The beauty of the text is that it works on three levels:
- words referring to an imaginary reality: Ragini’s husband listening to her, and wondering perhaps who the words are from (and for), but probably only able to understand them metaphorically, as the trite expression of unknown passion;
- words referring to reality: Ragini thinking about Ratan, hoping her husband understands what she sings isn’t too explicitly an avowal of what’s in her heart; for her the pronouns in the song are real, they refer to Ratan and herself, and she can relish the melancholy pleasure of putting herself both in the position of ‘I’ or ‘you’; but she’s tragically ignorant that the song is doing to Ratan what they say, that the words in her voice have a power that transcends the sheer level of evocation;
- words which are reality: Ratan listening to Ragini and being killed by the very words he’s penned; for him his words can be understood as himself speaking to her and telling her he’s dying – death being here the essence of absolute love, but he can also hear them as her lover’s message that she’ll join him soon, that their love can never die – even if he dies.
The spectator also has his own frame of interpretation: for him there’s the Devdas myth that superimposes itself on top of the romantic fairy tale, the tragic drama together with the lyrical romance.
Nutan was 18 at the time of the film, exactly the age of her character. She isn’t completely in command of all her powers as she will be later; but she’s already the cynosure of the story. Bharat Bhushan, as handsome as he certainly is, pales in comparison and cannot seem to create more than a single star-struck expression on his face. Even his faint smiles look constrained. But Nutan already shows her spirited vivacity, her feel for passion as well as her profound sense of drama; she’s a delight to watch and I think (but perhaps this is because the story doesn’t allow it) all her powers are there, except that superb clownish mischievousness of hers, so typical of her films with Dev Anand. One day I’ll post an article about it!