Everything's Coming Up . . . Sharmila ! . . . and Raja Rani (1973)

Wait. Did I leave my keys on my mental dashboard again? 
Sharmila Tagore has been all over my mental dashboard (because in the age of the blogosphere, our mental desks have become mental dashboards).

  • She gave a beautiful, funny, right-on-the-money speech at the India International Center a week and a half ago--all about the role of women in Indian society and how it relates to the ideals of Indian womanhood as portrayed in popular Hindi films.
  • Conversations over Chai just did a lovely list of favorite Sharmila roles. 
  • And I just finished Aavishkar, a middle cinema film about a troubled marriage, starring Rajesh and Sharmila. 

A cute moment from Aavishkar, 1973. 

So yeah, it's time to talk Sharmila. Most folks seem to think of her as either:

*Satyajit Ray's discovery and muse.
*The melancholic heroine of Amar Prem and Aradhana.
*Rajesh Khanna's very bankable co-star.
*The woman in the two-piece swimsuit that shocked India.
*For masala lovers, Shashi's estranged love interest in Desai's Aa Gale Lag Jaa.
*Or maybe they just think of her as Saif's mom, if they think of her at all.

In honor of Sharmila's ability to grow and grow, and grow upon one, until she is suddenly written all over one's mental space that should be dedicated to other things . . . I am going to actually write a full post about that one movie of hers I always prattle-on and rave about: Raja Rani (1973). 

Raja Rani is a love story between a courtesan and a thief. And unlike other weepy courtesan tales (Umrao Jaan, Gunghroo, Pakeezah), in which the naach girls are invariably rescued by a moony-eyed aristocrat, or "loved" and then left unceremoniously to continue in their lonely profession, this courtesan doesn't do much crying or need much saving. She's effing Sharmila Tagore.

The first thing you'll notice about Raja Rani, that is, if you've watched a lot of masala, is the classic childhood misery/injustice prologue. Thankfully (since this is my least favorite aspect of masala), it's fairly short. But it gets the point across . . .  that sometimes, who and what a person grows up to become is not their fault. In this case, Rajesh Khanna plays Raja, the adult child of the prologue's mistreated widow, who in the words of the amusing Wikipedia summary, "commits suicide when she was compelled to forgo her modesty to save her child from illness." Unlike his mother, Raja is not opposed to doing something "wrong" in order to survive, and he takes up thieving as profession.

Cut to adulthood, and we see Raja all bloodied and running from the police, to a rather fabulous song.

Realistically (or perhaps pointing to his own carelessness?), most of Raja's life is defined by trying to get away.  He gets pretty creative (and risky) in his attempts to escape the police who are ALWAYS hot on his tail . . . climbing walls, crossing roofs, jumping through windows into people's apartments. And then of course, he figures, as long as he's on location, why not steal MORE mid-escape?

Raja even has some amusing adventures "apartment hopping." Like when he happens upon Mumtaz's apartment . . . and leaves a fan note on the mirror.

But, one night, during an especially close shave with the men in blue shorts, he climbs through a window that changes his life.

Long story short, Sharmila and Rajesh's characters end up married to one another . . . without ever seeing each other's faces. Raja runs off as soon as the wedding is over, but unluckily for everyone, gets caught and sent to prison. Due to the general awfulness of her assumed in-laws (who think she has been the cause of their son' disappearance and death--an unfortunate coincidence) Sharmila's character (Nirmala) is thrown out on the street. Through the course of a devastating, grotesque and surreal song . . . we see Nirmala (literally) fall into the life of a courtesan . . . and become Rani, the naach girl.

After finishing his jail sentence, Raja tries to track down the family and their daughter-in-law who he accidently married. But they are nowhere to be found, and Raja has no idea what his bride even looked like. So, when he stumbles into a brothel (running from the police again), and is mesmerized (against his own will) by Rani's dance . . . he has no idea that he is watching his long lost "wife."

And from here on, the film began to surprise me, plot turn after filmi plot turn. 

I'm pretty sure this film won't disappoint. And I don't want to spoil it all for you (if I haven't already). So here are a few reasons why this is my favorite Sharmila film by far. And reasons why you should definitely see it sooner rather than later.

She is given the chance to be the nurturer, and be nurtured herself, all within the course of the same story. 

Sharmila is oft-remembered for her motherly roles (Amar Prem, Aradhana, Daag) . . . in which she sacrifices everything for her child, and if she's lucky, catches brief moments of happiness for herself here and there. But here, not only does she give, she also receives in kind. She is not the designated nurturer or martyr just because she happens to be female. It's fun to see her play a character free of that set of filmi expectations, especially given her activism/opinions about those expectations now.

She gets a rare chance to showcase her talent for humor:

Sharmila was usually the melodrama girl . . . and yet, she didn't have to be. She could totally carry tongue-in-cheek humor of a certain sort. And she certainly knew how to be other than serious. In fact, I think one reason I find Sharmila easier to watch in a melodrama than say, Meena Kumari, is that her long-suffering heroines are always buoyed up by an unspoken, conveyed ability to see the good and the bad together and still laugh about the irony of it all. 

This scene and song from Raja Rani is one of the best examples of her humor that I know of, outside Chupke, Chupke (1975). Besides the strength of the dialogue/camera work in this scene, it's funny and poignant because the director gives Sharmila and Rajesh a chance to capitalize on their strongly developed working relationship. And thus, you feel that you are watching a real friendship developing, complete with it's own secret code and inside jokes. 

The sensitive optimism in Raja-Rani's partnership:

A quick note on Rajesh in this film. Whoever the man might have been in real life, his roles are not as uniformly misogynistic as they are often painted by his detractors. Honestly, during the years of his superstardom, he took on a variety of characters, all with very different moral codes, ideals, and approaches to opposite-gender dynamics. I think he just did his best to play roles as written, without judging his character's modus operandi. We don't (usually) judge actors like Marlon Brando for playing misogynistic anti-heroes (like his role in A Streetcar Named Desire), nor are we surprised when those same actors take a sensitive turn (like Brando in Kazan's On the Waterfront). 

Raja Rani is written sensitively. It's characters are sensitive people. And not in a weepy way. Raja Rani is not the near-perfection of "On the Waterfront", but it certainly bears a resemblance in the way the characters . . .

1.  Partner up to try to rise above the constraints of the hand society has dealt them.  

No matter what they do, Raja and Rani are always being beset by people who think they are the scum of the earth. 

2. Hold each other accountable to become better people.  

3. Listen to one another and adapt to each other's needs. 

Their commitment to listen and learn from each other is the sweetest thing, and reminds me of this scene from OTW

4. Forgive one another for serious offenses, both past and present. 

And . . . because Sharmila is the real thief in this film . . . She steals every scene. 

I wish I could properly describe how much Sharmila upstages everyone in this film.

It's like she always knows something that no else knows--and is tickled pink about it. She's untamed and confident and a little bit terrifying in her unshakable self-awareness.

Sure this isn't a disposable part, and let's be honest, a lot of roles for women in cinema are hardly worth remembering. When that rare moment does come--when an indispensable actor meets an unusually powerful role--sparks fly. Sharmila is flint to Rani's flame . . . the second would not exist without the first. 


  1. I just finished watching this movie. Agree on all counts with your review. However older family members tell me that this film was a re-sounding flop - maybe the movie audience expected another sharmila rajesh tale in the lines of what they were used to. This "Jodi" did have a string of earlier hits - Aaradhna, Amar Prem etc. Plus sharmila was not known for her dancing skills at all - you can see how the director has cleverly focused on her facial expressions rather than her foot movements. She has a few dance turns. RD's songs were good indeed esp the chor chor song. I decided to read your review after I had seen the movie - hence the late comment - cheers

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one :) I adore it, if that wasn't already clear!
      You're family is probably right about the waning interest in this jodi, as Raja Rani came out during a dry spell for him in 1973 if I remember right. . . although Daag was a fairly successful movie, and did have the Rajesh/Sharmila factor. As for Sharmila's dancing skills, I hadn't thought about it much, but your observation about the director is dead on. What she does have going for her is a lot of charisma, and I think since she wasn't supposed to be a trained-from-birth dancer, the charisma is enough. There's actually quite a bit of cleverly shot and edited sequences in this film... and the director was able to capture a lot of non-typical interactions by shooting scenes in intimate settings/ways. Crowds and noise and loud comedy are not much part of the equation.

    2. Sharmila is one of my fav heroines. She was always known for her acting and later for her glam too. Watch her in Safar (another one with Rajesh Khanna) and Amanush (with Bengal's heartthrob Uttam Kumar). Both these movies had melodious songs apart from story and good acting. In Safar, Rajesh was in a simple middle class bengali garb ie wearing dhotis and kurtas - something diff from his usual bell bottoms and denims of those days. Yes I do remember Daag which was a typical yash chopra movie tho it is based on a gulshan nanda novel.

    3. I am well on my way to seeing all the Sharmila/Rajesh films, but I haven't seen Safar yet because it sounds frustrating and depressing! I will see it tho, when I feel in the mood for a melodrama with a capital M. Amanush is currently in my Hulu queue, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. I have a bit of a hard time rushing to see Uttam Kumar 10 years past his prime, but the screenshots I've seen look beautiful.

      It's interesting that you mention the dhotis and kurtas . . . I've actually noticed that Rajesh seems to opt for such simpler garb whenever he gets the chance. (I'm sure it was more comfortable, especially in the days of scarce air conditioning). I probably could name quite a few films where he sheds the jeans as fast as he can ;)

  2. He actually looked good in those dhotis (worn bengali style in Safar) and Kurtas. Rajesh is credited for introducing kurtas as a fashion. These kurtas were of diff styles - more stylish in Aan milo sajna (sadly the shemaroo DVD that i bought on my last visit to India got stuck within 10 mins of viewing) and the more traditional ones in Safar. To his credit he did wear costumes in keeping with the story even garish ones like in Apna Desh (Freedom song?)

    1. Aan Milo Sajna is on Youtube . . . just saying :) One should brave the commercials for that cast! My favorite Rajesh kurta moments are probably in Shehzada--there's this blazing orange affair that is quite fabulous. And there's a moment where Sharmila wears "his" kurta at the guesthouse night in the storm in Daag. But, yeah, I'm always happy when he chooses to wear them, as it compliments his figure better than a lot of the 70's fashions. Barring Ajnabee's suits and Apna Desh's song, lol. I LOVE all the outfits in Duniya Mein Logon Ko.

  3. Forgot to add - Feroze Khan was so handsome in Safar although he had to play a wimpy role. Is there an easy way to read comments on your blog like say "recent comments" section with links?

    1. Comments are up by your request :) There's no working gadget to add to Blogger, but I found an HTML shortcut.

  4. Oh thank you so much, this makes it much easier to track your replies! It is good to know that Aan milo sajna is on Youtube. Yesterday I was so happy to find a copy in my local lilbrary only to see it jumping all over and finally getting stuck lilke my own so called original DVD from India. Perhaps I should take that back on my next visit back to India but I can imagine the shop keeper saying "what can i do? I gave you a brand new unwrapped company DVD - if it doesn't work it is the company's fault - lol

    1. Too true. I've definitely bought a few of the same DVD only to find that they are have the same issue. Now I know that if one is bad, it means a bad batch. Which I hate SO MUCH. Quality control is a joke to some of these distributors. For that, and many other reasons:
      A. YouTube is becoming a very close friend
      B. I am choosing to be comfortable with the no subtitles thing.


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