Ashok Kumar and Madhubala make a very compelling screen couple - he dashing and serious, she ingenuous and fragile. Amrita at IndieQuill adores this pair so much that she once wrote an entire post celebrating them. There, she especially highlighted Ek saal ("one year"), and after thoroughly enjoying the jodi in Howrah Bridge, I came to this movie with high expectations. And Ashok and Madhubala do not disappoint - but the movie's frustratingly paternalistic premise, plus a particularly grating comic side plot, interfere to make it something less than a favorite.
Usha (Madhubala) is a vibrant, lovely girl who delights in life - you would never know she has an inoperable brain tumor with a prognosis of just one year to live. Usha herself does not even know - when her father receives the news from her doctor (Mehmood), he decides to keep her in the dark. Suresh (Ashok Kumar) arrives, ostensibly to manage her father's land holdings, but really with some kind of con in mind, hoping to fleece the wealthy man for as much as he can take for himself and his business partner, a bitter woman named Rajni (Kuldip Kaur). Usha quickly falls in love with the dashing Suresh, but he does not return her feelings - indeed, he scorns the very idea of love. Even knowing this, her father - desperate to keep Usha happy and smiling in the final months of her life - offers Suresh an astonishing amount of money to pretend he loves her. It is an offer that Suresh, who is always looking for an angle, cannot refuse. But soon Usha melts even his hardened heart, and Suresh has to wonder if the con might become the truth. The jealous Rajni wonders too, and sends a hapless private investigator, Pinto (Johnny Walker), to throw a monkey wrench into Suresh and Usha's romance.
Although there is a lot to love about Ek saal, I find it hard to get past the patronizing way that the men in Usha's life control her access to information. I can sometimes forgive a certain kind of sexism in older movies - one rather often has to, to enjoy them at all. But the idea that a woman is too delicate a creature to deserve forthright information from her own doctor about her own prognosis is just too offensive for me to se aside, even for the sweetest of movies. If Usha is naive, an ingenue, it's largely because Suresh and her father insist on keeping her that way. One supposes that her innocence both pleases them, and keeps her docile and manipulable. Who knows what kind of woman Usha could be if she were actually given control over her own destiny? The movie doesn't contemplate that, and that is very frustrating. Usha's father's grief is poignant - he shudders with sadness every time the clock strikes, marking the passage of her time on earth - but it is also premature. I have to think that if she knew she were dying, Usha would not tolerate her father's simpering, and would instead urge him to enjoy their time together to the fullest.
Meanwhile Rajni offers an interesting contrast to Usha's helplessness. Rajni is an angry, malevolent force - she is in love with Suresh herself, but he rejects her as anything other than an associate in his shady business dealings. Rajni's response to this rejection seems to say that if she can't have Suresh, she'll make sure he and everyone he cares about suffers just as much as she does. She is a fascinating character - a heavyset woman, with her mouth set in a cruel scowl, she is both loathsome and thoroughly fabulous in her own way.
Though Suresh tries to keep her physically distant (trapped in Lucknow while he cavorts with Usha from Bombay to Mussoorie), Rajni takes matters into her own hands, first engaging Pinto and finally confronting Usha herself to sabotage her happiness. What is remarkable here is that it is Rajni who finally reveals Usha's prognosis to the clueless girl. Rajni tells Usha bluntly that men are not to be trusted, and while her motives are nefarious, there's a weird backward truth to what she's saying - the men strive to control Usha by concealing her illness, and only a woman, Rajni, gives Usha anything resembling a truthful account of what is happening to her. She does not intend to do so, but ultimately Rajni empowers Usha.
Suresh is powerless too, in an entirely different way. He is at least nominally in charge of his own destiny, but as he falls in love with Usha he becomes more and more helpless, treading ground he's never covered before in his heartless, mercenary life. A hard heart softened by love may be a time worn cliche, but it is a thing of beauty when well-executed, and Ashok Kumar does a masterful job with this trajectory. When I watched Howrah Bridge - another movie in which Ashok Kumar pretends to love Madhubala only to fall for her for real - I complained that Ashok's about face was abrupt and not sufficiently conveyed. Here, though, his turnabout forms most of the meat of the movie. In one standout scene, Suresh grapples with his conscience, which appears to him in the form of a photograph of himself (never mind why he keeps such a photograph on his nightstand!) that comes to life and scolds him for his reprehensible decpetion.
So, there is a lot going on in this movie, and I admit that I appreciated it more on a second viewing, when I could skim through Johnny Walker's numerous, lengthy scenes - he irritates me a lot more here than he usually does - and focus on these interesting nuances in the story and characterizations. And, of course, on the pretty - there is lots and lots of pretty to enjoy. Madhubala is utterly radiant - even if her imposed fecklessness grates at times, she does play a marvelous ingenue, and she's simply lovely.
That is just the prettiest of the many pretty songs in Ek saal. Early in the film, some dancers perform for Usha on her birthday - wishing her "tu jiye hazaaron saal" - and her childlike delight at their performance is just scrumptious. Toss in a couple of entertaining cameos - Usha's doctors include an uncharacteristically nerdy and straight Mehmood, as well as Madan Puri - and there is plenty to make Ek saal worth watching. If nothing else, it will please Amrita to know that I am thoroughly sold on her favorite jodi. A copy of Mahal arrived in the mail today...