Monday, June 8, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Saat Lakh (1957) سات لاکھ

"Finally" the first Pakistani film I've seen that can rightly join the ranks of the South Asian romantic comedy (with classics like Chori Chori, Mr. and Mrs. '55, some 70s and 80s middle cinema, Chupke Chupke, etc.), Saat Lakh (1957). As it stars Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar, the first couple of 50s Pakistani cinema (and married in real life soon after this film released), I was certainly expecting sparks. And that's about all you get in Saat Lakh. Sparks, but never a fire.

The hook did bode well. Kausar Banu (Sabiha) is an orphaned heiress who is compelled to marry (by one of those pesky parental clauses) to inherit a fortune of 7 lakhs three times over in land and assets. It seems that if she doesn't, her brother (Himalaya Wala), a boozy gambler will inherit instead. Though she hates the institution of marriage, she's compelled to take the will's stipulations seriously. Despairing to find a feller on the sunny side of 60 (perhaps because of her haughty temperament, perhaps because her brother's reputation) Kausar runs into a bit of luck, or rather luck runs into her, when a young man (Santosh) pursued by the police climbs through her window.


Strangely, the man, Salim, admits to being a suspect in woman's murder, but he begs for her assistance. Clever Kausar sees the opportunity. She offers a deal. She will cover for him when the police arrive, but only if he agrees to marry her. Salim hesitates (resenting her power play), but when the police knock at the door, he's ready to repeat "qubool hai" and "manzoor hai" with the best of them.


The two get married that evening, and Kausar discusses the situation in private with her lawyer. They come up with a plan. She will take hubby to her bungalow in the mountains for the necessary first few days of marriage. After three days, vakeel-sahib will call the police and tell them to arrest the new husband, and Kausar can settle down happily ever after with her cash.


Of course, as soon as the newlyweds arrive at the bungla, it is clear that Kausar will have to work to keep Salim in the dark to what their marriage really is. The separate rooms certainly give him a clue. BUT in heady hill station air, anything can and will happen.

A few days at the bungla, some triangular drama with a local flower seller and dancer (newcomer Neelo, whose career was launched by the biggest hit of the film, Aaye Mausaum Rangeela) . . .


. . . a snake, and a thunderstorm, all bring the two newlyweds into a state of mad sexual tension. Kausar also starts to realize (duh) that Salim can't possibly be a murderer.

(Note: I liked the folk tale symbolism of having the first night scene in the bedroom be one of unrequited lust, and the second, a chance for Salim to save Kausar from the snake about to attack during the storm. South Asian paintings often depict snakes and storms as visual emblems of desire and lust, but it seems to me that these things are being defeated here ... intentionally. Whether this symbolizes heroic love over erotic love, or their upcoming separation, I don't know. It was suitably dramatic and reminded Kausar of her own weaknesses, so perhaps that's enough.)


Things almost certainly would have escalated, except that Kausar forgets how many days have passed. When she realizes that it is the calendar date of the police's arrival, she tries to call off her vakeel, but is too late. (Darn vacation house hours.) The police are already at the door. Kausar tries to explain away the charge, but to no end. Salim is carried off to jail.


It's the second half that tells us whether or not Salim is actually a murderer, whether he will be acquitted, and surprisingly more extensively, how many bewafai songs will have to be sung and virginal tawaifs sacrificed before he can forgive Kausar of her actions. Also, shady brother and his drinking crew must be defeated.

Sadly, much of what is worth seeing in this movie takes place before the last hour. I can give the film the benefit of the doubt that perhaps the dialogue was more interesting than I could appreciate, but the plot itself was painfully old hat. Two or three songs in the second half, however, were brief oases. I read somewhere that the unusual thing about Salim's bewafai song is that his lyrics talk trash about the heroine ... during a time when songs tended to idolize lost loves.

This brings me to the aspect of the film that was most enjoyable--Sabiha's flawed heiress.

When industries put women on pedestals, trying to catch a glimpse of the being at the top sometimes gives me a headache. But Kausar is not the dangerous vamp or the good town girl or the seductive dancer only existing to stoke jealousy between would-be lovers. She's messy, and I like that in people.

This helps the portrayal of their mutual attraction. It's just not as safe and guarded as I expected. He spouts some funny lines before trying to make a move (something about how "this is SO not how a suhaag raat is supposed to go") and after rejecting him, she slinks around the bungalow the next day, barely able to keep her growing interest in check. When he meanders off to the woods, she follows him and communicates with him frankly ... commenting on his bad mood and pushing him towards the reaction SHE wants. In general, this is a character reminiscent of early Nargis or Katherine Hepburn roles ... where the woman is powerful and intelligent and confident, but desperately needs some basic human kindness added to the mix. Since she's allowed to be a sensual being, and since we are allowed to see her fight her feeling of burgeoning love for personal rather than religious reasons, it's easy to be invested in her side of the story. *Spoilers* I get the sense that she is reformed a bit in the second half, but mostly the two lovers are ultimately reunited because others force Salim to confront his misunderstandings.

Santosh is pleasant to look at and has a good presence ... I only found him lackluster during the admittedly formulaic later scenes. But his role pales next to Sabiha's in this film, so it's hard to tell exactly what else he has to offer. If nothing else, I'm sold on their onscreen partnership.  Ooh la la.

I shall leave you with Sabiha's lone number, "Ghoonghat Utha Loon" a flirtatious song about a veil that seems to mark her personal transformation from playing house, to real love. (Is this the equivalence of the mid-film sari dance/sari shift in Hindi cinema?)


*No subtitles here, so please forgive any errors in plot or analysis!

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