हाथी मेरे साथी
There is a vanishingly small number of Hindi movie stars that I actively dislike. A few are neither here nor there, but one of the great joys of Hindi films for me is that most of the stars are so generously appealing. Despite that, though, I have never been a huge fan of Rajesh Khanna. The better movies of his that I've seen (Bawarchi, Amar Prem) I saw too early in my experience of Hindi movies to fully appreciate them, and his heavy-lidded, mumbling performance style did little to distinguish him for me. I watched Anand on the strength of many recommendations of that revered movie - and I absolutely hated it, enough to cement him as the rare fillum star whose name in the credits is a deterrent to viewing.
On the news of his passing, though, I knew I had to give Rajesh Khanna another chance. He is too important and beloved a superstar for me to keep avoiding his movies just because I find him a little froggy. So I dug into my stack of unwatched movies looking for something with enough fun and delight to overcome the weight of my least favorite star this side of Shah Rukh Khan. I begin my commemoration of the career of Rajesh Khanna with Haathi mere saathi ("elephants my companions"). Salim-Javed, Tanuja, and four elephants to the rescue!
Four friendly elephants rescued Raju as a child, and as he grew up they protected him and became his constant companions. Now an adult, Raju (Rajesh Khanna) loves the elephants and cares for them as family. Even when he loses his home and becomes destitute - thanks to the machinations of an envious carnival owner, Kumar (K.N. Singh) - Raju won't part with the elephants. Raju performs a successful street show with the animals, and parlays that success into an enormous animal theme park, Pyaar ki duniya ("world of love"), featuring lions and tigers and Mehmood Jr (oh my!). He also wins the heart of Tanu (Tanuja), whose otherwise kindly father (Madan Puri) had been reluctant to approve of the match when Raju was penniless. Their marriage, though, brings new problems along with the joy of it - Tanu is jealous of the attention Raju pays to his beloved elephants. And, she begins to fear for the safety of their son, despite Raju's protestations that the elephants would never harm him. Is there room for everyone in their happy home?
Okay, for a Salim-Javed movie, Haathi mere saathi doesn't offer a ton of depth. This is not a movie with the raw intensity of a Deewaar or the culture-defining resonance of a Sholay. With his massive, sparkling bungalow and magical animal-charming powers, Raju is hardly the gritty face of passionate young India. But it's not hard to see why Haathi mere saathi was a huge hit all the same - it is delightful and simply a whole lot of fun. The elephants easily steal the show, and they are charming and adorable - even more adorable than Tanuja, and that is saying something indeed.
Haathi mere saathi's story, such as it is, is all over the place. It veers from episode to episode, some without much coherence or payoff. There is an elephant race, a traiterous family accountant giving false testimony in a crucial court case, a seemingly star-crossed romance, some fist fights (including one where Raju pauses to fix his hair), and even an outrageous circus-stunt sequence in which Raju, desperate for money, sets himself on fire and leaps from a 100-meter platform into a tiny pool of water. Pure entertainment, for sure. Still, there are a few consistent threads - Raju's love for his elephants, his relationship with Tanu, and Kumar's jealous scheming to acquire the elephants for his own carnival. The last 45 minutes of the movie focus on the repercussions of Tanu's entirely rational fear of sharing her home with enormous wild animals who could crush her small child like a bug. In one of Haathi mere saathi's unintentionally hilarious moments, Tanu encounters one of the elephants smooshing a doll, and imagines, in terror, that the doll is her child. It is, I have to admit, a rather funny sequence - but at the same time, I can't say I blame her!
And then, there is Rajesh Khanna, nominally the reason I chose to watch Haathi mere saathi just now. I can't say I like him any more in this movie than in any other - he is as smug, supercilious, and mumbly as ever. But none of that detracts from a movie that is cute and fun and really more about the elephants than anything else. Really - how can a mildly unappealing star get in the way of a movie in which Mehmood Jr. leads a parade of elephants, tigers, and lions into a function hall in an orderly line to partake of a wedding feast?
Besides, there are lots and lots of pink suits. Rajesh Khanna wears a pink Nehru most of the time (except when he wears a blue one). And Madan Puri sports a dazzling array of very fine suits in shimmering jewel tones, including this magnificent crimson.
What can I say? Haathi mere saathi offers no purchase for biting analysis, no syncretism or social message to subject to withering close critique. What it does offer is simply a silly, sweet, adorable movie full of fun animal tricks and goofy bad guys of varying degrees of haplessness. Oh, and cute, cute, CUTE songs. How can you not love a song in which four helpful elephants tow Tanuja in a disabled red convertible?
A friend of mine told me that after she saw this movie as a child, she threw a pachydermed-up version of the classic "I want a pony!" fit for weeks on end. She told me that she wouldn't rest until her parents took her to pet the elephants at nearby temple. That image alone was worth the price of the DVD - if only she had home movies! But in their absence, at least we have Haathi mere saathi - lots of silliness, and lots of smiles.