Fully five years ago now, when the door into the bright world of Hindi films had just begun to crack open for me, I picked up a couple of movies that had songs I had heard and liked. Caravan was one such - on the strength of the famous "Piya tu ab to aaja" - but I somehow got the idea that the movie was bad, and never got around to watching it. As has happened so often before, once I finally saw it, I kicked myself for waiting so long.
When Rajan (Ravindra Kapoor) is caught with his hand in the company till, he murders the company's owner, Mohandas, and convinces Mohandas's daughter Sunita (Asha Parekh) to marry him. The marriage is a ruse that Rajan planned with his girlfriend Monica (Helen) to get at Sunita's fortune, and Rajan intends to do away with his new bride just as he did her father. But Sunita escapes and, posing as a simple village girl named Soni, falls in with a gypsy caravan heading to Bangalore. Sunita's presence among the gypsies causes some strife, though; their top performer, Nisha (Aruna Irani) is jealous of the attention paid to Sunita by the gypsies' hired truck driver Mohan (Jeetendra). And Rajan's men are still after Sunita as well, endangering them all.
The plot is light on substance, but no matter - the movie is utterly engaging and delightful all the same. Jeetendra is charming and funny as Mohan - earnest, goofy, and somewhat deluded about his own intelligence, he emits a continuous stream of daft English malapropisms. He is a skilled dancer and provides some decent physical comedy as well. (Caravan was my first Jeetendra film but I'm certain it won't be my last.) He's supported by two entertaining sidekicks, his little brother Montu (Mehmood Jr.) and the perpetually drunk but wonderfully soft-hearted Johnny (Kishen Mehta). The chief of the gypsy tribe, Mithalal Tota (Madan Puri) is fatherly and fun, and the inimitable Manorama plays his wife, adding moments of her uniquely physical comedy to the mix.
And then there is Nisha, the delicious Aruna Irani, whose bare midsection is practically another character in the movie - it features prominently in several of Caravan's many wonderful R.D. Burman songs. "Dilbar dil se pyari" is the most memorable of these. Asha Parekh turns in a satisfyingly physical performance as well; her highlight also comes in a song, the comically absurd "Daiya yeh main kahan". And of course there is the famous item number of Helen that brought me to this film in the first place those five years ago.
The story of Caravan pokes playfully at issues of class and culture, but is not heavy-handed about them. Mohan insists that because of his "untocation" (his version of "edumacation") he deserves a classy, cultured girl, better than the ragged gypsy Nisha and even better than Sunita, who he thinks is a simple village girl. The rich and educated Sunita doesn't share his snobbery, and the resolution of their romance feels to me a bit like a light-hearted twist on the end of Jab jab phool khile - Sunita throws off her high-class advantages and joins Mohan's dusty vagabond life, but not because of any haughty notions of traditionalism and Indianness. Rather, she does it mostly out of love for him, and because the prospect of living as a widow in her dead father's house just can't be all that appealing.
There are a few elements that rub the wrong way; I can't shake a feeling that I should not have enjoyed the film as much as I did. Nisha is not merely spunky and spirited; her manic energy crosses the line into violently insane. And in rejecting her advances, Mohan tries to convince her to marry a member of the tribe so stupid that he can barely string a sentence together without drooling - clearly an awful match for the willful Nisha. The film finds disturbing humor in violence against women, too, as when Mithalal Tota beats his wife because he thinks she has burned his lunch.
Yet, I have forgiven more egregious anti-feminist sins in less entertaining movies. Caravan's more cringe-worthy moments are amply redeemed by the sweet moments, and indeed by everything it delivers. From Jeetendra's doofusy earnestness, to Asha Parekh's impressive talent for physical comedy, to the wonderful, colorfully-picturized songs that come fast and thick - not to mention the delectable midsection of Aruna Irani - Caravan is pretty much a big silly grin from beginning to end - an instant favorite.