Why Chetan Anand's Heer Raanjha needs to be celebrated
While tracking down Hindi cinema's golden oldies - through whichever source accessible - I find, to my dismay, that a majority of them have dated. In eight cases out of 10, movies which were cherished during my growing-up years now strike me as tackily produced, blotchily photographed and suffering from antiquated technique, particularly in the editing department.
The exceptions to this rule are the classics of Guru Dutt, V. Shantaram, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan. Of course, the breezy, colourful entertainers of the 1960s, starring Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna, are also worth repeat viewings, thanks in no small measure to their outstanding musical scores. And when it comes to the 1970s, Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man image looms large, arguably best projected in Zanjeer (1973), Deewaar (1975) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978).
Today's column is dedicated, though, to a hidden gem, which was released 50 years ago but is rarely brought up in academic discourses on Indian cinema. Thoroughly stylised, Heer Raanjha (1970) was rendered in Urdu-flavoured rhyming verse instead of jabberwocky dialogue, photographed at points in lengthy single shots by cameraman Jal Mistry, and directed without a shred of compromise by Chetan Anand. Derived from an epic poem by Waris Shah, the 18th century Sufi poet of Punjab, this one-of-a-kind romantic ballad narrates the star-crossed story of its eponymous lead characters, belonging to polarised social classes.
Raanjha, portrayed by Raaj Kumar with a perfect lovelorn air, and Heer, enacted delicately by Priya Rajvansh, who happened to be director Chetan Anand's constant partner and muse, continue to enchant the audiences to date. Besides their inspired performances, the film is also remarkable for its writing by the magisterial poet Kaifi Azmi, who also penned the lyrics of its seven songs, including the imperishable Milo Na Tum Toh rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, and Tere Kooche Mein Tera Deewana and Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil by Mohammed Rafi.
Here are the kind of songs, composed by Madan Mohan, which are heard on loops even by millennials who understand the era of the music when melody was king. Indeed the stalwart music director S.D. Burman had congratulated his peer Madan Mohan by sending him a letter, stating, "For once in my life, I have felt jealous while listening to another composer's work."
The plot while describing a love story in the Romeo-Juliet-like mould, delves on the period details of Punjab in a bygone era. Gratifyingly, the villains or the obstacles aren't reduced to predictable caricatures but etched as people, who, by their upbringing, cannot allow the wall between the rich and the poor to be broken, a taboo which is timeless perhaps.
The film connects immediately, especially with the viewer because of the depth of its romantic sequences and the inevitability of a tragic denouement.
No spoiler alert there, since Heer Raanjha is a folktale which is as familiar as those of Soni-Mahiwaal, Laila-Majnu and Salim-Anarkali. Although the ardour of Salim-Anarkali is believed by many to be apocryphal or concocted, the fatal attraction between Heer and Raanjha is considered to be a true life story, according to most historical records.
Another version was made by director Harmesh Malhotra with Anil Kapoor and Sridevi, circa 1992, but proved to be a downer.
Quite piquantly over the years, the tragic real life story of Chetan Anand and Priya Rajvansh has been sought to be made into a biopic. Announcements have been made sporadically but the project has been stalled since years. Chetan, the elder brother of Dev Anand, had won Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Neecha Nagar (1946) and was known to be a director who would not fall in line with commercial diktats.
Priya acted in quite a few of his films (Haqeeqat, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hanste Zakhm, Saheb Bahadur, Kudrat and Haathon Ki Lakeeren), but quit acting when her mentor passed away in 1997 at the age of 76. Three years later, Priya, at the age of 63, was found murdered under mysterious circumstances in a beachfront home, a case which has remained unsolved.
Born in Simla, the actress had studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Her style of acting was unlike any other actress' - she would adopt a poetic approach to her roles, her dialogue pitch would be in a sing-song cadence and her body language graceful and elegant, preventing her from being signed off by other filmmakers since she wouldn't opt for theatrical, melodramatic acting or agree to typical Bollywood-style songs-and-dances.
Chetan Anand, who was married with children, before his professional and personal liaison with Priya Rajvansh, wouldn't regularly attend show business parties, soirees and award functions. Quite unfairly, Heer Raanjha, despite being a high-quality film and a public favourite, picked up just one Filmfare Award - for the Best Cinematography.
A real pity because such films are a rarity. Suggestion: if you haven't seen it already, do make an effort or at the very least, plug into its music tracks, especially Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil, which reminds you that for the luckless ones, the world can be a lonely place.