A film of deliberately minor ambitions, Chorni can be uneven in execution but is always enlivened by a warm, well-intentioned heart. Chorni does not flinch away from its characters’ capacities for pettiness, greed, or harm. It does, however, celebrate them whenever they manage to soften the world surrounding them—even by minute degrees—into something a little more kind. Neetu Singh offers a confident, well-rounded performance in the central role, carrying the viewer through several years of a young woman’s life as she loses and regains hope in her own future. Chorni was directed by Jyoti Swaroop (recently mentioned on this blog in connection to Padosan) from a screenplay by Kumar Kiran. The story idea was supplied by a Mrs. Padma Sood, whom I infer was from the same family as the Vikram and Vishwajit Sood who produced it for Kesar Films.
Something’s well and fishy about the dating of this film. I followed the censor’s ticket date of March 1981 since that is at least a verifiable fact. Online sources vary regarding whether it was released in ’81 or ’82, and isn’t the received wisdom that Neetu’s hiatus began with her marriage in January 1980? I would presume that this was a pedestrian case of a small-time production company finishing a film but then having to scrounge around for more cash to print or distribute it. Oddly, though, Neetu looks rather different about the face here than she does in The Burning Train, Khoon Ka Rishta, Yaarana, or Teesri Aankh, all of which released in that immediate post-marriage window of 1980–82. Her figure has also gone a touch zanftig–very fetchingly so, may I say, except in the case of a couple of poorly fitted Western outfits. For all that Neetu worked ceaselessly between the ages of eight and twenty-two, the movies in which she appears all too often underutilize her. Neetu fans will be delighted to learn that Chorni is an exception to this trend. Not only does our heroine look adorable, this is fully and undeniably her story.
Having inherited a patrimony of precisely two earrings, orphan Deepa (Neetu Singh) is folding laundry, fetching tea, and dreamily looking out of windows while in domestic service. Her employers leave her alone on Diwali to minister to their no-good son’s less-good friends, a situation from which she narrowly escapes without harm. Fearing that Deepa will speak up about the terrifying encounter, the boys frame her for theft. She then finds herself sentenced to a term in a girls’ remand home, where she will attain valuable new skills such as smoking, sassing, and picking pockets. By the time she winds up in front of Judge Sinha (Shreeram Lagoo), she has become resigned to rotating between juvie and a theft ring under the command of Shambhu Dada (Ajit): “If I say I’m innocent or I say I’m guilty, I’ll be punished the same way.” Deepa comes to Sinha’s attention a second time after he takes on an advisory position at the remand home and travels there to deliver a welcome speech. Another girl having unwisely palmed one of those earrings, Deepa catfights the thief straight down the aisle of assembled delinquents. Mr. Sinha cannot shake his impression of Deepa, struck by her similarity to his own headstrong teenager, Rani (Anita). He ultimately resolves to bring her home and attempt curing her with kindness. Deepa is reluctantly ousted from her cozy prison cot. Following a lecture on recidivism, Mrs. Sinha (Indrani Mukherji) yet more reluctantly bargains for a year-long trial period. At the end of a single week, Mrs. Sinha, Deepa, and Anita are already snapping at one another’s throats, none of them yet clear on whether the new girl is meant to be a guest, a servant, or a daughter.
After Shambhu Dada and his gang were introduced early on, I kept expecting Chorni to become a broader-reaching story, using those characters to provoke the action climax that seems prerequisite for every massy film of the early ’80s. To be fair, that does sort of happen. Nonetheless, the occasional opening up of the story to broader, more societal scope always feels like backdrop to the central concern of Deepa’s journey. Chorni is carefully domestic. Although there are real, at times terrible stakes in play for Deepa, it is miniscule decisions that negotiate them. Although Mr. Sinha’s decision to bring Deepa home is a radical change for all concerned, the real possibility of rehabilitation lies instead in tiny gestures of acceptance. Where you eat your dinner and how you speak someone else’s name matter in this movie, carrying the capacity for harm or healing. In one regard, this deliberate constraint highlights how small an expense of kindness it takes on the parts of others to meaningfully improve Deepa’s life. More than that, though, it encourages the viewer to appreciate the impact of her own actions. Deepa always directs her own existence, even when the choices available to her are painfully constrained, even though she cannot always save herself.
I also appreciate that, while domestic love makes Deepa’s case much easier, it does not simply fix her. If a happy home were all it took, Rani and the Sinhas’ college-aged son Kishore (Jalal Agha, improbably enough) would have it made. They don’t. The Sinhas make some serious, painful missteps in their attempts at helping Deepa. Despite the good intentions of all concerned, there is already a visible divide between the Sinhas’ elder pair of children and the three who are still school-aged—not to mention between Mr. Sinha and his mother (Leela Mishra), whose values often more nearly align with Deepa’s than they do with her son’s. The happy ending available to these people is not homogenization into some uniform exemplar of the middle-class ideal. Rather, the challenge is to learn to live with one another without also effacing their own identities. Deepa finds dignity in every step of her journey. She should not have to leave behind her hustle, or her mother’s earrings.
Neetu Singh’s performance here impressed on me her breadth as an actress. She spends much of the film in the streetwise, spunky avatar most characteristic of her. In the first few scenes, however, I had difficulty recognizing such a familiar face. She shrinks into Deepa’s initial position as a servant, an invisible part of the household in which she works. Throughout Neetu invests this character with a palpable sense of will, whether that is through scraping up joy in difficult circumstances or following the demands of her own eclectic conscience. I also loved Leela Mishra’s turn as Mr. Sinha’s mother. Not just the way that the character is written, but the whole manner of her performance highlights her disjuncture from the younger generations of the Sinhas. Although it was never overtly stated, I got the strong sense that Mr. Sinha was probably the first professional in their family, that his mother is not accustomed to this genteel sensibility. When she’s taken a vrata on a schoolday, she cannot understand why her son and daughter-in-law would insist the grandkids ought to be going to class and not to the mandir. Unfortunately, Indrani Mukherjee and Anita1 are both burdened with difficult, thankless parts and did not pull them off.
I realize now that I have failed even to mention Jeetendra, who not only appears in Chorni but is notionally its male lead! He plays a doctor friend of the Sinhas’ whose dispensary Deepa pilfers at Shambhu Dada’s request. I found him charming enough in the role, although the romance is ancillary to Deepa’s story and the part therefore slight. I smiled when the credits called him “Jeetu.”
The music by Shankar-Jaikishan is not up to their finest standards. One of the love songs, “Dekha Hai Tumhe Kahin Na Kahin,” is the only one that stood out to me on a musical level. It is catchy and surprisingly fast-paced, with Kishore Kumar’s voice sounding even more beautifully round-toned than usual. Even when the music is nothing remarkable, however, most songs have notable picturizations. “Chorni Hoon Main” is scarcely my favorite of the many, many rapscallion anthems out there, but Neetu’s turn-of-a-dime expressions in it are delightful. Although Chorni is visibly a low-rent movie, connoisseurs of bizarre turn-of-the-‘80s style will find much to admire in it, nowhere more so than in Helen’s item number “Hai Yeh Kaisa Nasha.” She performs in a nightclub decorated with stylized skulls and dragons, yet which somehow is not the same skull-and-dragon nightclub where Parveen Babi gets roofied in Suhaag! (Why would any film industry need two of these?) Helen emerges into the dining area from a hallway shaped like the mouth of a demon. She dresses entirely in sequins, whereas each of her four male backup dancers wears a different-colored set of overalls with matching newsie cap. It seems like the kind of nightmare you might have after being forced to watch a lot of Sesame Street.
1 I would be curious to learn if anyone recognizes this distinctive-looking, mumbly-mouthed actress. I suspect she may have been a one-film-only performer, but the absence of a last name makes that all but impossible to confirm.