Dir. Shammi Kapoor
I was just thinking that it had been a while since I watched an instant favorite - one of those movies that I know on first watch will be one I return to again and again, one that I gush about in a breathless review. Manoranjan, it turns out, is one of those movies. It is not original; it is a very closely wrought remake of Irma La Douce, that wonderful confection with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. But it is nevertheless funny, charming, and sweet - not to mention bold and convention-smashing and maybe even a little subversive. And it is made with a sophisticated and elevating attention to craft. It is unfortunate that the studios of Bombay were for so long (and to a lesser extent, continue to be) in the habit of shamelessly copying the films of other nations without crediting them. But taking that practice as a given, Manoranjan is in every way a worthy successor to Irma La Douce.
One reason that Manoranjan is so delightful is that Sanjeev Kumar, with his goofy everyman appeal, fits right into the mold Jack Lemmon created for this character. His performance is packed with physical comedy. Like Jack Lemmon, he perfects a bug-eyed innocence, a manner both physically speedy and mentally a little slow on the uptake, displayed in cute double-takes and confused stammering. If you already like Sanjeev Kumar - and I very much do - what he brings to Manoranjan is adorable enough to carry the movie all the way through.
The character Kumar plays, Ratan, is hopelessly naive and splendidly good-hearted, a green-behind-the-ears police inspector utterly over his head in the world where he finds himself, which is a world of prostitutes and pimps, of shady dealings and matter-of-course bribes. He quickly loses his bearings there, and his job. But thus unmoored, he seems to have nowhere else to go, and so he stays. He falls for Nisha (Zeenat Aman), one of the women who work the hustling beat between the cafe run by Dhoop Chhaon (Shammi Kapoor, chewing the scenery most delightfully) and the Hotel Mauj across the street. He somewhat accidentally beats up Nisha's pimp Balram (Dev Kumar), and by the code of law that prevails over the civil law in such communities, becomes Nisha's pimp himself. Ratan is horrified by this new role, though it is also seductive to his underdeveloped ego. More, he is overcome by a clueless good-guy urge to save Nisha from her life of debauchery. With some help from Dhoop Chhaon, Ratan adopts the persona of an elderly Nawab who has the means to pay Nisha for weekly visits, well enough that she no longer needs to provide her services to other men.
Here is where a little mental compromise is required to enjoy Manoranjan; you do have to buy into its imaginary world of cheerful prostitutes and relatively gentle pimps who behave more like a group of harmless adolescent layabouts than an organized crime syndicate; Balram is a brute but he also loves Nisha, and the other pimps, like the goofy Tingoo (Paintal), are chummy and comical. The avuncular Dhoop Chhaon, serving up snacks and drinks at his bar, is the adult supervision that keeps the group's internecine conflicts under control, so that apart from the dark cloud of Balram's jealousy, there is nothing sinister in the operation at all, just laughs and fun and oh yeah, women selling their bodies and giving the proceeds to men to drink and gamble away. It is a little uncomfortable for sure to accept this sanitized version of the sex trade and trot along as the story unfolds from the premise of it.
And yet there is enough sophistication even in the Disneyfied atmosphere of Dhoop Chhaon's bar to hint at less sparkly truths that lie beneath the jaunty surface. Irma La Douce had this too, and Manoranjan preserves it faithfully, without losing the comedy's critical edge. When "Sheru" (as Nisha incongruously nicknames Ratan) offers to marry Nisha, and support her so she no longer needs to have sex for money, Nisha retorts sharply that there is no honor in being supported by a man, that her pride requires that she work and give him a comfortable life. What good is a woman who cannot provide for her man, she asks, in a funny and subversive twist on the societal norm that hangs masculine self-worth on the ability to financially support his wife. In Nisha's world, gender norms are skewed, but perhaps the asburdity of Nisha's notion reflects absurdity of the corresponding notion in our world.
There is an undercurrent of sadness, too, in Zeenat's performance of Nisha, that also casts shadows on the shiny happy veneer of Manoranjan's jovial family of pimps and prostitutes. This, too, is borrowed from the original, from the genius of Shirley MacLaine in keeping her eyes sad while her lips are smiling, keeping wryness in her voice even when her words are relentlessly cheerful. I will not claim that Zeenat's work rises to quite that level, but it is credit to Shammi Kapoor's direction that this nuance is, to a certain degree, detectable in Manoranjan. Nisha has never been treated truly generously by a man, and to her surprise, Ratan's tender deference to her reaches a part of her that had of necessity been closed off by the life she was born into and lived. This is touchingly conveyed in one of the film's wonderful songs, later in the movie, "Chori chori solah singar karungi," where Nisha enjoys a midnight shower while singing of the first true happiness she has enjoyed in the entire movie, notwithstanding lots of smiles and laughter.
The subversion continues as Manoranjan hews faithfully to Irma La Douce's story to the end. Early on, Manoranjan maintains plausible deniability about whether sex happens between Nisha and Ratan, and at first when Ratan comes to her as the Nawab, he is careful to keep their meetings chaste. Eventually, though, it is irrefutably clear that Ratan (as Nawab) succumbs to Nisha's seduction. It is noteworthy that Nisha is the sexual aggressor throughout her relationship with Ratan, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. (Even when Ratan tries to take on the aggressor's role, in a moment of anger, he cannot bring himself to go through with it.) True, Nisha is a prostitute; perhaps a Hindi film of the 70s could not have given a woman sexual autonomy without first relegating her to a demeaned, outsider category. Still, while Nisha lives a life normally assigned to vamps played by Helen and Aruna Irani and Bindu, she remains the heroine, sympathetic, the one true love of the seedha-saadha bhola-bhala hero.
There is so much more that I love about Manoranjan. It features a sparkling RD Burman soundtrack; the songs and their picturizations both are tons of fun. From a jaunt early in the movie where Nisha's sorority of prostitutes bats poor Ratan around for sport, to the brilliantly conceived dream sequence of "Aaya hoon main tujhko le jaaunga," each song is fun and playful, and even enhances the story. In "Aaya hoon main," Ratan dreams himself in competition with the Nawab, rendering in dazzling color and hilariously elaborate sets the conundrum he has created for himself with his ruse.
There is quick verbal humor too, some borrowed from Irma La Douce, and some fresh and lending a more organic touch. Like his original counterpart, Moustache, Dhoop Chhaon claims in a set of running jokes to have had a vast array of prior careers, from sitting on the Supreme Court in Lahore to being a union organizer to being a commodities trader, and every time he mentions one of these in conversation, he follows with "magar yeh kissa, phir kabhi (but that's a story for another time)." When Ratan adopts the disguise of the Nawab, Dhoop Chhaon cringes at his awful Urdu - an in-joke multiplied by the excellent, studied diction for which Sanjeev Kumar is famous.(*) Ultimately, Manoranjan satisfies on every level - true to its title, it is charming, naughty, bold, a little bit thought-provoking, and a whole lot of fun.
(*) There is another in-joke around this that I need some help with. As the Nawab paces the street murmuring his practiced pronunciation of "shabba khair," the background music takes on the melody of the song of that name from Itihaas - still some 13 years in the future at the time of Manoranjan. Any theories what's going on here? RD Burman already had the melody in mind but hadn't had a chance to use it? Could the song have been written for Manoranjan but cut?