Diamonds are forever.
So are good movies.
Comedy in any medium is a tough genre to handle- it requires extreme sensitivity, sense of timing and comprehensive understanding of situations- and the risk of ‘could have been a masterpiece’degenerating into a crass, caricature always looms large. No wonder, magic of the 1958 trendsetting black and white film - Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi- stands out for its exceptional sparkle and panache more than six decades after it was released. Featuring the three Ganguly brothers from Khandwa- Ashok, Anoop and Kishore (and “Champion”, their 1928 Chevrolet), with the ethereal Madhubala, it packed so much punch that it still retains its entertainment quotient, despite changing viewer tastes.
It represents a milestone in the annals of Bollywood- as the first out and out comedy- which brought smiles on the faces of audiences, with ample wit and timing, without relying entirely on the ‘slapstick’ variety, as was the norm in those days. It changed, for ever, dependence of filmmakers on physical attributes of actors to evince laughter- remember Tun-Tun and Gope (of Gope-Yakub duo), and to some extent Bhagwan. What advent of sound did to films, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi did for the genre of comedy, laying a trail that was ably followed in movies like Padosan and Chupke-Chupke.
Directed by Satyen Bose, the story revolves around three brothers- all bachelors- Brijmohan aka Birju (Ashok Kumar), Jagmohan aka Jaggu (Anoop Kumar) and Manmohan aka Mannu (Kishore Kumar) who run a ‘Day and Night Service’ automobile garage in Mumbai. The eldest, Brijmohan, is a jilted lover, something that has made him a woman-hater, with an avowed aim to shield his brothers from treachery of women, and ensuing heartbreak.
Predictably, his efforts are dashed when Renu (Madhubala) knocks at their garage on a desolate, rainy night in a drenched sari, a broken-down car, and with a bad fit of sneezing. The knight in shining armor is none other than Mannu. After some lighthearted banter, he is mesmerized by the damsel in distress and breaks into the classic song Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si. The seeds of love are sown in the monsoon showers, and the flower is in full bloom by the time he lands in her house to claim his paanch rupaiyaa barah aana.
Brijmohan is aghast at the sudden development, and tries to reason with Mannu, but then grudgingly gives his approval. Mannu, then finds himself pitted against Raja Saab (K N Singh) and his accomplice, Prakash (Sajjan), who are conspiring to take Renu’s wealth. It is also revealed that the reason of Brijmohan’s antipathy for women is not Kamini’s (Veena) - his love interest- fault, but the machinations of Raja Saab. The three brothers valiantly take on the villains and claim their brides.
The awesome power of the star cast cannot be overstated.
Veteran thespian Ashok Kumar shows why he is acknowledged the first superstar of Bollywood. As the ‘tough from outside yet caring’ eldest brother, protective of his siblings to the point of exasperation, he essays the role with customary conviction and zeal. He was indeed the first actor in Bollywood to abandon the theatrical style of dialogue delivery and acting, for a natural flair. And Kishore, with his perfect comic timing, velvet voice and dancing skills - which includes slapstick with aplomb- is undoubtedly the most versatile entertainer to have sparkled on the Indian cinematic horizon- the eccentric genius deserves a standing ovation.
The enigmatic diva, Madhubala- in a rare comic outing - had the screen presence and verve to do justice to any role- from Renu to Anarkali- with ease; actors like her come but once in lifetime, her infectious smile and naughty eyes are worth dying for. Anoop, as the bumbling and confused middle brother, holds forte. KN Singh as the scheming, suave-negative character in is his trademark style is a precursor to the likes of Ajit and Prem Nath in later years.
Satyen Bose displayed an acute sense of comic timing with his deft handling of the script and never allowed the story to lapse into dullness, which is oft the bane of comedies. S.D Burman’s (his son R.D and Jaidev assisted him) experiment with different sounds was unique; all songs became everlasting hits (with Haal Kaisa hai declared as the best song of the year on the popular radio program Binaca GeetMala). Lyrics by Majrooh reveal the genius of the poet; his pen wrote romantic and comic lines with equal ease.
On Kishore Kumar’s 92nd birth anniversary there cannot be a better film to pay homage to one of India’s greatest playback maestro.
APS Malhotra is a Delhi based writer & cinephile.