Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bheegi Raat (1965)

Bheegi Raat is perfect for one of two crowds: hopeless romantics, or Meena Kumari fans. Actually, that might be the same group, now that I think of it.


The plot is a precarious scaffolding constructed from old Hollywood, Victorian governess novels, and hill station vacation dramas. 


Despite this questionable mixture of tropes, you can't help but care a little. It manipulates *almost* artfully with duty vs. love dilemmas, heart-rending missed connections, and simmering "will they/won't they/did they?" between the leads. Pradeep Kumar and chemistry?! It surprised me, too. 

Universal-esque horror jumpstarts the film. It's a fact universally acknowledged that all Victorian governesses are secretly Gothic heroines, and lend themselves equally to tales from the nursery and tales from the crypt. 


All three of the main characters are running away from something, and of course, end up in Nainital, ready to lead a tormented yet exotic existence. Neelima (Meena Kumari) falls afoul of a greedy uncle, who wants to make a quick lakh by selling her to the highest bidder. After a stormy escape, she's found in a ditch by Pushpa (Kamini Kaushal), an invalid and guardian to absent brother's (Ashok Kumar) daughter. Neelima sticks around and soon has charge of the household and the kid. 



Back in Bombay, Ajay (Pradeep Kumar) is the artistic layabout son of a wealthy industrialist, and is targeted for marriage by a scheming socialite. 


After rebuffing her, he earns the wrath of her father, and his own. Ajay decides to run from it all, presumably with the help of his secret trust fund, off to paint in Nainital.


He immediately becomes enamored of the stately governess, and their low-profile courtship fills most of the first half of the film. Personally, I loved watching the growth of their relationship, especially since Neelima holds her own, and rarely plays coy or feigns disinterest. Rather than hillside frolics, the two make eyes at one another across cozy fires and front seats.



This all culminates in THAT SONG IN THE CAVE, which I must confess is the entire reason I knew of the film in the first place.


However, watching the song divorced from the film, you may not realize how (A) sex-positive it is, (B) non-tragic, (C) female driven. The couple has just visited a mountain shrine, and are caught in a storm. No symbolic marriage vows hang between the couple, just mature adoration. It's Neelima who insists Ajay stop hanging around the cave entrance and warm himself by the fire. If this description seems more D.H. Lawrence than Bronte, well, I think the director knew exactly what he was doing. And so does Neelima. 










Anu included it on her "Sensuous Songs" list for a reason. This is no adolescent hormone fest; these folks are taking their time and enjoying the heck out of it. The film also never refers to this night (as far as I can tell) with any verbal judgment, remorse, or moral punishment. The struggles the two go through later are [mostly] not of their own making. 



Unfortunately, the second half of the film struggles to find a happy medium between maturity and sensationalism. Jealousy and femme fatales jump in to complicate matters. Anand Babu (Ashok Kumar) returns home to find a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife taking care of his child. Brief madness sets in when he realizes that Neelima is already attached to Ajay. 


Evil socialite discovers the whereabouts of Ajay, and wreaks havoc. Pushpa falls ill. Someone gets in a near fatal accident. The two lovers are separated. If you've seen An Affair to Remember, you might think you know how all this ends, but you might also be wrong.


Despite a lot of improbabilities (which you sign up for the minute you start ANY melodrama), I do really like the film's explorations of interpersonal ethics, female agency, and different kinds of love. 



With two men vying for her affection, manipulating with their claims to family loyalty (Anand), and passion (Ajay), Neelima fights to maintain her own timetable. When a family member tries to extract a deathbed promise, she DOESN'T give in under the pressure. (I don't know if I've ever seen this in a Hindi film before.) And when Ajay resorts to fixing an engagement party date as an ultimatum, Neelima resists his methods. Caught in the middle of a circle of people with conflicting "claims" upon her person, she does her best to honor the separate commitments she's made, and tries (the attempt is the important thing here) not to lose herself in their whims. 

That said, I don't particularly love Neelima's relative helplessness in the last third. Given certain events, however, it's realistic. It also gives the men a chance to resist both their own selfish instincts and social conformism in meaningful ways.  




















Ajay's problems are pretty rich boy problems, and therefore, a proper humbling is in the works. 



As much as it's hard to watch, Neelima's circumstantial disadvantages may just be necessary to the moral arcs of multiple characters. Kind of like a grown-up Pollyanna effect. Nobody has to own their own shortcomings until a pillar of the community is removed. Even during sunnier days, the men were already tripped up by "baser" interests and unfinished business from their past. Like in a lot of Victorian novels, these suitors need to face their personal flaws before they can hope to get the girl.

I really like that in an industry that usually turns a blind eye to selfish male behavior, this film aims toward a slightly higher standard. 



Confession:
I have a weakness for films that use color filters extensively, for hill station adventures, and for romantic Rafi songs circa 1965. A film with at least two of these elements may prove satisfactory, even if it lacks MANY other merits. So, while I want to recommend this film, I think I may have to say, proceed with caution, unless meri majboori hai, aapki bhi majboori hain. 

2 comments:

  1. Dil jo na keha sakha is one of my favourite songs especially the Mohd Rafi version. I haven't seen this movie though. Meena Kumari and melodrama are synonymous, so if anyone picks up a MK movie to watch, they should know what they are in for - LoL. Pradeep Kumar is actually a naturally talented actor (i am reminded of that film with nargis and feroz khan forgetting the name - split personality theme with lovely songs too). My older sister who is my barometer for 60s movies told me that I will not like this movie though i like the song so much. I go by her verdict coz she knows me well. Cheers

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    1. This film is a little crazed ... but if you're in the mood for slightly nutty romantic, it works. I have yet to finish a non-melodramatic MK movie, though I hear Azaad is pretty humorous. From what I can tell, Pradeep/Ashok/Meena were a popular pairing in the 60s ... but I don't hear people talking about those other films much, with the exception of Aarti.

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