जब जब फूल खिले
Sometimes a film can leave the thinking and feeling portions of my brain disaligned. Such films are hard to write about. Jab jab phool khile ("whenever flowers may bloom") is one such, with an anti-modernity and possibly anti-feminist message that is hard for me to swallow. And yet I loved the film for its emotion and tenderness, and I'm inclined to give it a pass for any moral aspects that don't set right with me.
Rita (Nanda), having finished her studies in America, ventures to Kashmir for a little vacation time, and rents a houseboat from a simple local boy named Raja (Shashi Kapoor). Raja is smitten instantly, and eventually a mutual affection develops. Rita's vacation eventually ends, but she returns the following summer, this time in the company of the irritating Kishore (Jatin Khanna), the self-important dandy Rita's father wants her to marry. After a showdown with Kishore, Raja declares his love, and travels to the city to present himself to Rita's family. Rita dresses him in western finery and instructs him in some of her family's modern customs, but when Rita's father sets him up for an embarrassing evening, Raja realizes that he cannot adjust to Rita's world. It's up to Rita to figure out a way to keep their relationship alive.
Jab jab phool khile pits the emancipated go-go 60s against good old fashioned country conservatism, and it's in no way a fair fight. On the side of traditionalism we have the charming Raja, earnest, innocent, and handsome. He looks after his pre-teen younger sister and manages their houseboat rental business with an ethic of hardworking honesty; he's not even comfortable accepting tips. Meanwhile, we are shown very little of value in modernity and Westernization. Rita may be educated, but she's vapid and selfish. It's not Raja the country rube who is a boor, it's Rita, who abuses servants and whines petulantly each time she doesn't get her way. Also on the side of modernity is the sniveling, entitled Kishore, not to mention Rita's wealthy scheming father, who is not satisfied merely to refuse to his daughter to Raja but must also put the rustic in his place. The deck is stacked so heavily in favor of Raja's simple country living that there's no question which kind of life the film is advocating. In one song, expressing his discomfort with the modern trappings, he even makes an explicit contrast between Rita's milieu and what is properly Indian life, asking "kaise bhuul jaaun ki main huun hindustani" - how can I forget that I am Indian?
It's statements like that which make it hard for me to judge the apparently anti-modern, anti-feminist sentiments of the movie. How can I forget that I am not Indian? In the end, it's not my place to declare that this cautionary tale is too cautionary. Rita's over-accessorized, Audrey Hepburnized 1960s splendor is appealing, but I don't know what the threat of western homogenization really looked like from the perspective of this film's original, intended audience. And I don't think the film is necessarily saying that all Westernization or modernization is bad, just the all-or-nothing, un-nuanced brand adopted by Rita and her orbit.
In real life, if a relationship between a "sophisticate" like Rita and a "bumpkin" like Raja were to have a ghost's chance of success, a great deal of compromise on both sides would be required. It's certainly problematic and perhaps a little dissatisfying that in the end of Jab jab phool khile, it's Rita who makes all the sacrifices. (Beth has more about this.) And yet somehow in the film's own narrative context it makes perfect sense. Both Raja and Rita are extremely naive and narrow-minded; neither one of them is particularly good at seeing the perspective of the other. But at least Raja has an excuse for his simplicity; in Rita, supposedly so worldly and educated, the presumption is less forgivable. And Raja does try to join Rita in her world, even though he discovers that it doesn't suit him. Of the two, he seems to be the one who has tried harder, done all the work, and done all the thinking for the both of them. It seems only just that in the end he gets all the reward.
Jab jab phool khile is quite clearly the antecedent of the 90s hit Raja Hindustani, but it is by far the better and more delicate movie, without the masala excess of the more recent film. The greatest strength of Jab jab phool khile is this: Shashi Kapoor is simply a superb actor. He registers Raja's emotional transitions in the subtlest changes in his face - from wide open, boyish innocence to wounded mistrust to anger. The scene in which he chastises Rita after his humiliation in the company of Rita's urbane family and friends is among the most moving in the film - the most explicitly anti-modern, anti-western views are given voice here - and Shashi delivers it perfectly, wringing tears from me even as I squirmed at his sentiment. In the film's songs he is a bit raw and unformed; having not yet developed his own style, he channels his brothers in turn, now Raj's smooth sophistication, now Shammi's wild gyration. In the dramatic scenes, though, he is fully in his own element, one of the finest actors there is. Jab jab phool khile is a Shashi fan's film - he looks beautiful and does all the emotional heavy lifting - and it's as a Shashi fan that I most enjoyed it.