Bari Behen was one of the biggest hits of Suraiya’s career and while watching it now, I actually wondered how come?! And no, it’s nothing to do with the film appearing dated. It’s just that it’s simply awful in terms of script, characterisations and performances but it has to be said – the songs are wonderful so I’m sure that they were responsible in a big, big way for the film’s success. And also, the film came at a point in 1949 when Suraiya was at her peak and could do no wrong at the box-office.
The DD Kashyap directed film is a classic weepy women’s picture with the miss goody-two-shoes elder sister, Suraiya, constantly making these supreme sacrifices for her younger sister. So we have Shyama (Suraiya) who gets a job as a servant so she can pay for her younger sister, Kiran’s (Geeta Bali) education in the city. Kiran, though, is in love with a rogue, Ajit (Pran). Meanwhile, Shyama meets and falls in love with Shyam (Rehman), the son of the family she works for and who is a doctor who wants to treat the poor. With both of them being ill-treated by the woman of the house, who is Shyam’s stepmother, they decide to elope. However, Kiran comes to her, abandoned and impregnated. Shyama goes along with her without informing Shyam in order to find Ajit. They find Ajit but he escapes from them. The two sisters then relocate to another town. Kiran has the child while Shyama works in another house. In order to get Kiran settled with the young man of the house and to prove her to be ‘without blemish’, she takes it upon herself to claim to be the mother of the child…
Indian cinema has made plenty of such films perfecting the character of the melodramatic and ‘traditional bharatiya nari’ who elevates herself through her suffering and some of them even manage to work quite well, but the biggest problem with this one is that in most of the situations, you feel that there was no need for Suraiya’s character to play the sacrificial lamb. But had she not done so, there wouldn’t have been a two hour plus long film. In that sense, the horribly clichéd screenplay is extremely weak and the narrative flow quite idiotic. Even when the younger sister repeatedly insists on clearing up things, which was the logical and sensible thing to do, Suraiya refuses and creates more problems not just for herself but for the other characters as well, which tells on the film as we watch them all suffer. And this by deceiving not just the man she loves but even the man, she wants her sister to get married to. With such glaring problems, other unconvincing elements such as Pran’s and Rehman’s stepmother’s abrupt turnabouts at the end for the happy ending seem minor irritants.
The performances are unbearable barring Ulhas who easily outacts the rest of the cast with his role of the kindly army colonel. Yes, Suraiya could be stilted and over the top but she has also given efficiently likeable performances when directed properly. This film is definitely not one of them. Here the women, even the vivacious Geeta Bali (wasted in a second lead) talk like they are acting for the last row of an auditorium far, far away. Rehman, though looking young and fresh, merely has to mourn his lost love while Pran plays his usual slimy charmer with his eyes closed.
The songs are by far the film’s biggest saving grace. Bari Behen is perhaps Husnlal-Bhagatram’s best film, musically and has 3 of Suraiya’s best solos – Woh Paas Rahe Ya Door Rahe, Bigdi Bananewale and Likhnewale Ne. The film also sees two early hits of Lata Mangeshkar – Chale Jana Nahin and Chup Chup Khade Ho (with Premlata). However, the static and weak picturisations even drag down this aspect of the film.
All in all, clunky, stagey, stilted and yes, extremely painful. This is one film I’d love to see Baburao Patel’s take on. Especially, with his ‘affinity’ for Suriaya’s, what did he say, repulsive nostrils!
Hindi, Drama, Black & White