Classic, Film, Hindi, India, Review


Dilip Kumar has always maintained that Nalini Jaywant was the best actress he ever worked with. And if you look at Shikast, one of two films where she worked with him, you will know why. Kumar’s efficient understated act aside, it is Jaywant who owns the film with her superb and complex portrayal of a widow whose forbidden love for him leads to high tragedy.

Shikast begins with a doctor, Ram (Dilip Kumar), returning to his village (Kundan Garh) after seven years to sell off his land and return to the city, where he wants to use the proceeds top set up a hospital. He had left the village when he wasn’t allowed to marry the woman he loved and who loved him too, Sushma (Nalini Jaywant), due to the enmity between their fathers. Ram, who is selling his land to his cousin and Sushma’s brother, Madho (KN Singh), is shocked to see Sushma, now a widow with a young son, behave like a heartless tyrant with the poor farmers who are in debt to her. He decides to remain in the village and help the exploited farmers instead. He does so setting up a school and a hospital in the village. Sushma, knowing of Ram’s sympathy towards the farmers, continues to torment them as she knows that he will then continue to fight for them and stay back in the village. As Sushma and Ram struggle to come to terms with their still existent feelings for each other, events including an outbreak of plague, spiral out of control leading to a catastrophic finish…

Shikast is director Ramesh Saigal’s follow up film to his back-to-back bumper ‘patriotic’ hits – Shaheed (1948), where Dilip Kumar plays a freedom fighter, and Samadhi (1950), which sees Ashok Kumar play a soldier who is part of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). This time, though, rather than the freedom struggle, Saigal turns towards contemporary social realism. This, at a time dominated by Nation building and Nehruvian socialism post Indian Independence. It speaks much about where we have headed post our freedom as some of the key issues that Shikast tackles be it the abject subjugation of poor farmers by wealthy moneylenders, lack of proper education and healthcare in rural India, or the plight of women trapped in patriarchal societal norms – they are all highly relevant issues even today. And while  the film sticks to its story manfully, admittedly, it was seen as much too gloomy and short of obvious entertainment items at the time of its release in 1953 and sadly, didn’t perform as expected at the box office. However, to its credit, it seems to have gotten better with time and today, one sees it as a pretty unusual film of that era and one that could also perhaps be called daring for its time even if it ends in a disappointing status quo rather than take a committed stand for Sushma’s character and her dreams and desires.

Still, despite the stalemate, it is Sushma (and Nalini Jaywant) who is the life and soul of the film. Hers is a fascinating and layered character and it is she who drives the film narrative forward with her actions dictating Ram’s reactions. We see her deliberately slap the servant girl or cruelly torment the farmers, often hurting herself in the process, only to keep Ram from leaving the village. The few moments she gets with him, even if out of conflict, mean the world to her as she has never gotten over her love for him. And vice-versa. But even as she drives the story, we see her caged by society and its moral conventions that has no place for women like her (widows) and their desires. At every stage when she wants to take a stand for Ram and support the farmers, she is not allowed to do so. Finally too, it is she who has to pay for her forbidden love for him and find release only in death so that the prevalent norms of patriarchy remain intact.

It is to Nalini Jaywant’s credit that through her superb performance, where even her silences speak volumes, we empathise with Sushma and understand her love for Ram and his idealism, even if her actions speak otherwise. We see just how well she understands Ram. Even as she appears to be hostile to him, it is she who, in fact, goads him on by telling him that if he cares so much about the poor farmers, why doesn’t he stay back and do something for them? Which, of course, he does. In scenes like the one where he angrily tells her he was not going to stay back in the village but now he will even as she smiles to herself on the other side of her veil as she has succeeded in keeping him back, she is truly magnificent.

For Dilip Kumar, Shikast, known to be one of his favourite films, it is yet another film where his love for the heroine remains unrequited. As he built up his famous reputation as the ‘King Of Tragedy’, he, more often than not, lost the woman he loved. We see this in Jugnu (1947), Mela (1948), Andaz (1949), Babul (1950), Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951), Shikast and of course, most famously, Devdas (1955) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Here in Shikast, through his suitably low key, understated performance, we totally feel his sympathy for the farmers and his anguish and love for Sushma that refuses to recede despite what she has become. In fact, Ram’s and Sushma’s is a most interesting relationship in that in spite of all their disagreements, they cannot help but continue to be drawn to each other.

Of the supporting cast, Durga Khote as Ram’s mother-like sister-in-law and Madho’s wife, brings much kindness and dignity to her role as the cause of reason, while KN Singh perfectly plays the villain who wants to retain his land at whatever cost, even if it means destroying his own sister if she dares to oppose him. Om Prakash is adequate as Singh’s sidekick as is Leela Mishra in yet another ‘Mausi’ role.

The music by Shankar-Jaikishan is soft and soothing and goes well with the film even if not overtly standing out as compared to their other more popular scores. At the time, Talat Mahmood was Dilip Kumar’s ‘quivering’ voice and just how well the singer and the actor complemented each other can be seen yet again be it the haunting solo, Sapnon Ki Suhani Duniya Mein, or the lovely duet Jab Jab Phool Khile. The other musical highlight of the film is Kare Badra Tu Na Jaa, sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar and filmed on Nalini Jaywant.

Though it’s obvious that many of the outdoor scenes have been filmed inside the studio with the painted backdrops, nevertheless KH Kapadia photographs the story evocatively. In particular, there are some beautiful close ups of Nalini Jaywant that deserve special mention.

All in all, Shikast is one of those films that has only got better with time, continues to be relevant and is well worth a watch even today. It is also a potent reminder as to why the 1950s are considered the golden age of Hindi cinema.

Hindi, Drama, Black & White

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  1. Nalini Jaywant is my all-time favorite Bollywood actress too. Very charming with a natural grace which is further magnified by her dignified screen presence. As far as the film is concerned, I have always felt that Ramesh Saigal has been one of our underrated filmmakers, who inspite of making some fine films like Shikast, Shaheed, Samadhi, Railway Platform, Phir Subah Hogi & Shola Aur Shannan, has rather fallen through the cracks. This is all the more surprising because barring one or two, almost all of these films were big hits too.

    A special thing about Ramesh Saigal was his ability to adapt classic literature while remaining within the commercial framework of Indian cinema. And so if he adapted Dostoevsky with impressive results in Phir Subah Hogi, here he transplanted Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Palli Samaj on the Hindi screen with finesse. Like all Sarat novels, characterisation and conflicts are a strong point in Palli Samaj too- and in the capable hands of actors like Nalini Jaywant & Dilip Kumar, the same gets translated on-screen too.

    That said, the Bangla original of this film- the 1952 Naresh Mitra hit, is supposedly even better. Haven’t seen it though, as today the film is only available at the National archives in Pune. Now, if only a print of the film could be retrieved and made available to the public for viewing, an interesting comparison between Palli Samaj and Shikast could have been drawn. Alas! This seems to be impossible- at least as of now.

    1. Thanks for this post. Would agree that Saigal was an underrated filmmaker. There’s much to commend Shaheed, Samadhi, Shikast, and Phir Subha Hogi. And if only Shikwa had been completed…

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