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 An unusual realistic depiction of societal life

This charming and unpretentious film offers a refining change from the zesty 'masala' epics that dominated its era, and features superstar Amitabh Bachchan in a decidedly offbeat role. Though its central themes of protracted father-son conflict and of a suffering artist in a callous world are routine enough, its comparatively realistic depiction of life at various social levels in a provincial town, witty yet understated dialogues and beautiful songs that are deftly integrated into the storyline, and masterful but low-key performances all serve to lift it above the ordinary.

 

Alok (Amitabh Bachchan) completes a degree in classical music and returns to his hometown where he promptly reconnects with a childhood friend, the spirited horsecart driver Ganeshi (Asrani), who entertains him en-route home with a comic folk-style song on his mare. Back at the prosperous family home, Alok is reunited with his adored sister-in-law (Lily Chakraborty) and elder brother Ashok, but soon runs afoul of their dictatorial father Triloki Prasad (Om Prakash).

 

After a humorous song at night in which Alok assumes a barrister’s role and pleads the moon's case to his sister-in-law, he accompanies his brother to town, but plays hooky from the family firm to visit Ganeshi’s modest home. In an adjacent building, he finds a singing lesson in progress, taught by a retired courtesan of Banaras, Sarjubai (Chhaya Devi); the pupil is Ganeshi’s sister Radhika Prasad, nicknamed Radhiya (Rekha). Sarjubai’s devoted male companion, known simply as 'Maharaj' (Manmohan Krishna), plays percussion.

 

Given that both baap and beta display similar rigidity of character, Alok's life goes steadily downhill from here on, despite his eventual marriage to the devoted Radhiya and, in time, the birth of a son to the couple. Several attempts by his wife, sister-in-law, and brother to patch things up with the perpetually fuming Triloki Prasad come to nought, and it takes Alok's own fading health, and a visit from the now aged Raja, to make the scales fall from the old man’s eyes. Too late, though: Alok’s melancholic final song Koi Gata, Main So Jata ("Someone sings, as I fall asleep," penned by Bachchan’s real-life father, poet Harbansraj Bachchan) sounds like an elegy for both him and Sarjubai.

 

Although Rekha gives a fine and understated performance as Alok’s adoring and long-suffering wife, romance of the usual sort is downplayed here, and the strongest female character is in fact the aging courtesan-singer Sarjubai, wonderfully portrayed by Chhaya Devi. Though she gradually assumes the role of Alok’s lost mother, she never lapses into the pious maternal stereotypes common to so many Bombay films, but instead offers a complex and rare portrait of an earthy, mature, and experienced woman who has both loved and suffered deeply. She thus adds a further dimension to the history of portrayal of courtesans and professional women in mainstream cinema.

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