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Khalid Mohamed revisits ChetanAnand’s poetic ode to the Heer Ranjha love story (1970)

Raaj Kumar & Priya Rajvansh in Heer Ranjha (1970)

While tracking down Hindi cinema's golden oldies - through whichever source accessible - I have found, 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 Zanjeer (1973), Deewaar (1975) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978).

Today's column is dedicated, though, to a hidden gem, which was released 54 years ago but is rarely brought up in academic discourses on Indian cinema. Thoroughly stylised, Heer Ranjha (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 unexpected romantic fervour by Chetan Anand.

Raaj Kumar in Heer Ranjha (1970)

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.Ranjha, 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, continues to enchant 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 – Ulhas, Pran, Jeevan, Jayant and Ajit --  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. Prithviraj Kapoor was cast as a benevolent monarch. And the fine artistes Veena and Shaukat Azmi enacted  Heer’s mother and Ranjha’s sister-in-law respectively.

Over to the bare bones of the dramaturgy: Ranjha of the village of Takht Hazara lives with his extended, prosperous family. He travels to Jhang to attend a close friend’s wedding, although he’s aware that there has been a long-standing feud -- that the people of Takht Hazara and Jhang are at daggers drawn.

At Jhang, he falls in love with Heer, daughter of a Jhang landlord.

Priya Rajvansh

but as directed by Chetan Anand, keeps the spectator on edge. The film connects immediately, especially with the viewer because of the depth of its romantic sequences and the prescience of a tragic denouement.

No spoiler alert there, since Heer Ranjha is a folktale which is as familiar as those of Soni-Mahiwaal, Laila-Majnu, Sassi-Punnu and Salim-Anarkali. Although the ardour of Salim-Anarkali is believed by many to be apocryphal or concocted, the fatal attraction between Heer and Ranjha 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. Before this attempts with Urmila Bhatt (1980) and Tina Ghai (1983) as Heer hadn’t made waves.

For the record,way earlier it had been made in  at least in as many 18 silent and  talkie versions from 1928 to 1965. Noor Jahan, Iddan Bai, Mumtaz Shanti, Swaran Lata, Nutan, Jani Babu, Master Vithal, Fali Billimoria, Dinshaw Billimoria and Pradeep Kumar were some of the familiar names who had essayed the lead pair. TV series in Pakistan and India (Zee Punjabi) on Heer Ranjha were aired in 2013 and 2020 as well.Conjectures are that this tragic love story has been the most often  related in the sub-continent’s cinema.

Incidentally,Chetan Anand had co-founded Navketan Films with Dev Anand in 1949.  Well-educated, he had studied Hindu scriptures and graduated in English from the Government College of  his birth-place Lahore. He was a member of the Indian National Congress in the 1930s, and had worked for the BBC and taught at Doon School of Dehra Dun. For a scholar, his choice of a film career was quite unusual. Perhaps this was partly motivated because he had failed at the Indian Services examinations.

In the early 1940s, he strived to sell a script on King Ashoka  to director Phani Majumdar, who detected the potential of an actor in him and cast him in Rajkumar (1944). Meanwhile, Chetan Anand also aligned himself with the Indian People’s Theate Assoication (IPTA).

Finally throwing caution to the wind, he directed Neecha Nagar (1946) – an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lowest Depths -- toplining Kamini Kaushal and with music by Ravi Shankar. It was the first Indian film to snag the Palme D’Or at Cannes.

Next, among the significant films Chetan Anand helmed were Afsar (1950),  Aandhiyan (1952), Taxi Driver (1954) and Funtoosh (1956).

Chetan Anand

Breaking away from the  Navketan mould, his banner Himalaya Films, rolled out Haqeeqat (1964), and Aakhri Khat (1966) among the first films to headline the upcoming Rajesh Khanna, and Hindustan ki Kasam (1973).

The theme of reincarnation was, however, somewhat clumsily handled by him in Kudrat (1998), a multi-starrer with Raaj Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna and Priya Rajvansh. The effort to reunite with his brother Dev Anand, with  Saheb Bahadur (1976) and Jaaneman (1977), again proved to be downers.

Occasionally, Chetan Anand would put in appearances in front of the camera, but could never assert his acting chops.

Apart from 17 feature films he helmed, he moved to television, with the series Param Veer Chakra (1988) for Doordarshan.

That’s quite a varied oeuvre, which invariably, carried his distinctive signature style –marked by a sense and sensibility which refused to pander to the formula. His song-dances and action sequences advanced his plots instead of striking the viewer as mandatory interludes.

Quite piquantly over the years, filmmakers have tried to recreate the tragic real life story of Chetan Anand and Priya Rajvansh as a biopic. Announcements have been made sporadically, including an unconfirmed one by the late Kalpana Lajmi but the project went under the radar once she was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Priya Rajvansh acted in quite a few of his films (Haqeeqat, Hindustan Ki Kasam, Hanste Zakhm 1973, Saheb Bahadur, Kudrat and Haathon Ki Lakeeren 1986), 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 Juhu 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. Consequently, she was signed off by other filmmakers since she wouldn't opt for theatrical, melodramatic acting or agree to typical Bollywood-style songs-and-dances.

Neither Chetan Anand nor Priya Rajvansh, would regularly attend show business parties, soirees and award functions.

Quite unfairly, Heer Ranjha, despite being a high-quality film and a public favourite, picked up just one Filmfare Award - for the Best Cinematography. The Best Music trophy was lost to Shanker-Jaikishen for Do Raaste. Be that as it may, it was a real pity that Chetan Anand’s ode to love was neither rewarded with sufficient awards or academic studies.

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.


Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critc, screenwriter, producer & politician.

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