“Rekha’s Sousophone” origin story: this glorious vision comes by way of the song “Dulhe Raja, Dekh” from Pyar Ki Jeet. No, her lips aren’t actually touching the mouthpiece–but people rarely even bother to plug in their electric guitars in classic Bolly, so my musicological standards have relaxed. Just look at that rank of smiling faces in the background! Produced by G. P. Agarwal and Mercury Productions International, this film was available with subtitles on the Shemaroo channel as of writing.
The victim above is Dr. Anand (Vinod Mehra), son of the brilliant but cynical Dr. Kumar (Ashok Kumar). For reasons of industrial espionage, Anand’s first professional post is neither his father’s metropolitan hospital nor the state-of-the-art private clinic the family proposes building for him. Instead he joins the practice of Dr. Kumar’s old med school chum Dr. Rehman (Shashi Kapoor), a decidedly unglamorous appointment where staff salaries, if paid at all, are sourced from the barnyard more often than the bank. For reasons of polite misunderstanding or, perhaps, sunk cost fallacy, this post becomes a semi-permanent one for Dr. Anand. Do not worry about keeping the names of three doctors straight, for our hero in all but credit order is Soni (Rekha). Soni’s practice of going for seasonal work to The Big, Bad City and returning to The Virtuous Village laden with cash has given her an other than savory reputation among her neighbors. Rather than face their abuses with the tawaifish forbearance one might expect from a Rekha character, Soni cheerfully declares herself “number one defamed girl”1–at least, that’s how the inventive translation seen on the Shemaroo print gives it–and pursues her goals without stint or shame. You will perhaps be unsurprised to learn that those goals encompass Dr. Anand.
The story, certainly the most interesting aspect of this film, is credited to its director. When I looked up Saawan Kumar, the only film that really rang a bell was Bewaffa Se Waffa, that 1992 Juhi Chawla vehicle with the plural marriage plot. (Another is titled Souten Ki Beti, so perhaps shaggy familial structures were something of a theme.) He seems most frequently to have been employed as a lyricist. Dialogues are by Kamleshwar and the screenplay by a B[harat?]. B. Bhalla. The latter also appears mushed in on a title card with a bunch of bit players; IMDB thinks he’s “The Minister,” which could plausibly describe two different roles in this film.2 Both seem to have had careers writing mostly movies I’ve never heard of with digressions into intriguingly high-profile and non-Pyar Ki Jeet-like stuff: Zanjeer, Rocky, The Burning Train. I also see that Kumar, Bhalla, and Kamleshwar had some other collaborations in the late ’80s, which I’m now intrigued to seek out. There are many familiar elements in the mix here: courtroom digressions, lecherous landowners, city mice discovering the countryside. Indeed, lest cinematic pedigrees be unduly obscured, spunky Soni first rides into the picture on a beribboned horse-cart a la Basanti.
These do not add up to the sum I expected. Thematically, Pyar Ki Jeet is something of a more massy, more masti incarnation of Rihaee. As Soni becomes more and more its central figure and the primary object of the audience’s sympathies, we watch the other characters reckon with the notion that the village’s honor is tied up in her body. No observer is without hypocrisy here. Pyar Ki Jeet takes its time telling us what exactly has gone down with Soni. For much of the runtime, her backstory comes filtered through others’ perceptions and assumptions. Some infer that she must be a prostitute; others that she must be a rape victim. Some publicly admire her bravery for refusing to suffer dudgeon. Others believe that her insistence on staying in the village is not only destroying it, but hamstringing her own chances at happiness. None of them prove exactly correct, nor are their assumptions about Soni harmless–including those of Dr. Rehman, whom for a good part of the movie we have learned to think of as the resident moral center. Soni has been wise enough to realize ahead of time that her public reputation lies in others’ hands. Yet of her self she is the sole custodian. Unwilling to give up her friends, her income, or her parents’ house, she can accept being thought of as the defamed girl of Virtuous Village if that notoriety helps her keep hold of them. Dr. Anand becomes a priority for her, too. He is not the one for which she eventually determines to jeopardize her more personal understanding of honor.
I was not initially certain what to make of what the film makes of that particular decision. In the usual manner of Hindi movies, the worst threatened thing does not actually come to pass. There is a whiff, perhaps, of other characters intervening to prevent something that Soni claims to want, but which she will necessarily come to regret. If I correctly read the moral of the previous obligatory courtroom scene, though, I think the movie ultimately comes down on Soni’s side here. We have been told that it is one’s highest obligation to protect other lives with the means at one’s personal disposal. More specifically, we are told that the possible futility of offering such help does not lessen the obligation, nor does the possible injury to one’s dignity. That interpretation could probably be argued either way; I will be intrigued to hear what others think. Wholly unambiguous is the fact that Soni does not need to be softened or civilized to earn her reintegration to polite society. Although she does happen to win the respect of the villagers, her titular victory is really just over Dr. Anand; she has reason to value the former cheaply indeed. When last we see her she is riding to her wedding, still at the head of her own clamorous baaraat.
This is Rekha’s movie to a distracting degree. The other central actors acquit themselves more or less respectably. I found myself disappointed in Ashok, whom I normally enjoy so fully and whose performance seemed sort of flat and weird, particularly in the first half. Vinod Mehra is at his best here when playing comedy, which he gets to do in quantity during the middle stretches when Soni redoubles her efforts to pursue him. He adjusts his doctorly spectacles with an obsessiveness that Manoj might admire. Shashi, looking cheerful but terribly worn down, plays a mezzopiano variation of the bighearted type so frequently associated with him. I am curious about the decision to make his character overtly, piously Muslim in an otherwise Hindu landscape, and whether that is meant to handwave his more ready affiliation with Soni.
The music by Usha Khanna–whom the internet informs me was at some point this director’s wife–is uniformly enjoyable. It seems retrospective by the standards of 1987 and Asha Bhosle sings almost everything solo. (I enter neither of those points in the debit column.) “Dulhe Raja, Dekh” is the standout in terms of music, picturization, and blog-name donation. My second-favorite is “Mainu Rab Di,” a romp-through-a-field number that incorporates the unusually non-grating comic relief characters. While the village scenes get to breathe a bit, most songs and the interiors do look pretty cheap and constrained. “Mujhe Rehna Hai,” for instance, is an old-fashioned fantasy song set in a soundstage bedecked with two parts polyester to one part aluminum foil. It centers around an article of furniture I am choosing to denote “the heart pagoda”; Rekha emerges therefrom, despite it having appeared too two-dimensional to contain her. That bit is charming enough, but the hat–wig?–hwig?–what?–that she wears in “Ae Dost Tu” was so loud that I couldn’t hear Asha ji over it.
1 “Ek number ki aawaara badnaam lardki hoon.”
2 The only named role for which he’s credited in a major film known to IMDB is “Djun-Djun” in Jab Jab Phool Khile, which should render him track-down-able should anyone feel so moved.