Gyan Mukherjee's taut, bold drama Kismet ("fate") was a mega-hit in its time, and held the crown of the longest-running movie for more than three decades before being deposed by Sholay. Even 70 years later, it's not hard to see why. Kismet is fascinating, influential, and even subversive. Ashok Kumar delivers an engaging performance as a morally ambiguous character. The songs are stirring - and, in one case, gutsy. And the film introduces Hindi-movie audiences to a number of devices and themes that resonate through the movies for decades to come.
Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) is an unrepentant thief. Released from his third stint in prison, he banters with the inspector (Shah Nawaz) that he'll be back soon enough, and heads right back to his pickpocketing life on the streets of Bombay. Soon Shekhar meets a sad theatrical performer named Rani (Mumtaz Shanti). Rani, a former lead dancer, suffers from a leg injury that relegates her to the side of the stage, as a backup singer. Shekhar is moved by Rani and her troubles, and gives her an extravagant necklace that he steals from the wife of the theater owner, Indrajit (Mubarak). When this thievery is discovered, Rani feels betrayed by the man she thought was an angel. But Shekhar is determined to care for her - he wants to steal enough to pay for a surgery that will restore Rani to her former glory as a dancer. Shekhar escapes from custody, intending to turn himself in after carrying off one last heist for Rani's sake.
Roshmila Bhattacharya's article on Kismet (captured and linked by Memsaaab) notes that Shekhar is not a hero but an anti-hero. A nearly remorseless criminal, Shekhar is nevertheless a charming gentleman with a heart readily moved by the suffering of others. Shekhar's sympathy for the sad plight of Rani's father (PF Pithawala), an alcoholic former music-master who holds himself responsible for Rani's injury, leads him to his initial acts of kindness. And Shekhar's love for Rani drives him both to donate the proceeds of his thievery and, eventually, to go straight. There are some genuinely touching scenes as Shekhar, the criminals he associates with, and even the police inspector realize that love for a woman has inspired him to mend his ways where even multiple imprisonments could not. Bhattacharya credits the fresh, bold, subversiveness of this character with the immense and unexpected popularity of the movie.
Much of what is moving about Shekhar emerges from the gentleness of Ashok Kumar's performance. Writing on Indian films tends to indelibly attach certain labels to certain actors; Ashok Kumar is often heralded as a "natural" actor, but nowhere more than in Kismet is the aptness of this label apparent. Kumar has crept up of late to become one of my favorite actors. Here, in the rising arc of his stardom, he is no less fascinating. His performance in Kismet has less gravitas than he shows later in his life; the performance is more tentative, and perhaps more deserving of the tag of "natural" acting. Despite the drama inherent to his profession and the melodrama that swirls around him, Shekhar moves through the story like an ordinary man. His young face is fresh, open, and honest - Kumar emotes, but does not play to the back of the house, does not amplify emotions in the classic melodramatic style.
The naturalness of Ashok Kumar's performance is even starker in contrast to Mumtaz Shanti, who as Rani gives a true midcentury melodramatic turn. Her performance is classic soft-focus tragic acting, gazing moist-eyed at an imaginary horizon while delivering words of hopelessness in slow, gauzy, breathy tones. This is not a style I normally find effective; it tends to feel anemic and mealy, and here it renders Mumtaz Shanti the weak link in an otherwise superb movie. But it is a matter of style; it is certainly of its time and place, and in the context it is not too terribly distracting. And on the rare occasions when she smiles, as in the movie's gorgeous lullaby "Dheere dheere aa re badal," Mumtaz Shanti is radiant.
Shekhar's heroic criminality is not the only boldly subversive element of Kismet. Rani's sister Leela (Chandraprabha) becomes pregnant by her lover Mohan (Kanu Roy), the son of Indrajit, who opposes their marriage because of Leela's poverty; he cruelly informs Rani that he can get a 10,000 rupee dowry from another girl. Not only is Leela not punished for this transgression, but her pure heart earns her a happy ending with Mohan. (It is both moving and fascinating that in confessing her pregnancy to Mohan, Leela cannot bring herself to say she is going to be a mother; instead, she scratches the word "maa" into a wall with her fingernail.)
Even more subversive is the magnificent patriotic song, "Door hato aye duniyawalo, Hindustan hamaara hai." Bhattacharya's article claims this aggressively nationalistic and anti-colonial song got past British censors because the only nations it identifies by name are Germany and Japan, Britain's enemies in the war which was then raging around the globe. This seems too facile to me; that one line doesn't erase the otherwise obvious pro-independence message of the song (whose set features an enormous map of pre-Partition India). Perhaps the censors were somewhat sympathetic to the cause of independence; or, perhaps they really were too complacently paternalistic to see the song as a rabble-rousing threat.
Finally, Bhattacharya credits Kismet with introducing Hindi cinema to a number of tropes and themes that resonated so with Indian audiences as to become a staple of Manmohan Desai and other filmmakers throughout the years. Principal among these is the backstory of Indrajit's wayward son, Madan (Mehmood in his first role!), who disappears as a young boy and is reunited with his family at the movie's end, identified through such devices as a tattoo and a locket, which are now masala clichés. (No points to the seasoned filmi fan for guessing which character Madan grows up to be.) It may be correct that Kismet marks the first time such a story was presented in an Indian movie. But given the strong cultural resonance and enduring popularity of such concepts, it's difficult to believe that they don't have their origins in older stories that are woven into the tapestry of India's many cultures. Isn't Karna of the Mahabharata raised apart from his brothers, only to learn of his true parentage as an adult?
Even if it does draw on earlier sources, though, Kismet clearly blazed a path that thrilled audiences and that filmmakers returned to for decades to come. Shekhar is a model for numerous filmi incarnations of the rogue with a heart of gold (surely also an ancient archetype). For instance, a scene in which he pleads with the inspector to release him - asking for 48 hours to save Rani with a promise to turn himself in - is nearly quoted in Tezaab with Anil Kapoor. There must be countless other references over the past 70 years, direct and indirect, to this fascinating and influential movie.
For information on how to watch Kismet with subtitles, see Memsaab's post about the movie.