Nearly caught by the police while carrying blackmarket goods in his bullock cart, Hiraman (Raj Kapoor) takes a vow never to carry contraband again. Transporting bamboo for a trader, he is beaten by two men when their horse swerves to avoid Hiraman’s cart and upsets their carriage. He now vows never to carry bamboo again. One night he is asked to carry a woman passenger to a fair forty miles away. She is Hirabai (Waheeda Rehman), a Nautanki performer going to perform at the fair. As they travel together, Hiraman’s innocence and simplicity charm Hirabai who is also moved by the songs he sings to pass the time. Hiraman tells her in song the legend of Mahua, a beautiful motherless girl who fell in love with a stranger but is later sold to a trader by her stepmother. Hirabai coaxes Hiraman to spend a few days at the fair and see her dance. At the Nautanki, Hiraman gets into a fight with a drunkard who makes an insulting comment about Hirabai. Hirabai angrily asks him what right does he have to fight on her behalf. Hurt, Hiraman stays away from the show. Hirabai calls him to her tent and apologises to him. Hiraman asks her to leave this profession where people talk ill of her. His concern touches Hirabai’s heart as she realizes he looks upon her just as is she were a respectable woman. Becoming unhappy with her situation, she refuses the local zamindar’s overtures. The zamindar tries to force himself on her but she fights him off. Hirabai decides to leave the Nautanki company for her presence will threaten the livelihood of others in the troupe as the zamindar will not leave them alone unless she gives in to him. But she cannot live a lie with Hiraman. She sends for him to say goodbye. At the train station she tells him she is going back to her old company. She tells a hurt Hiraman that like Mahua she already has been sold. As she departs and Hiraman returns to his cart he takes a third vow never to carry a woman from a Nautanki Company again.
It is one of Indian cinema’s tragic ironies that a sensitive and poetic film like Teesri Kasam sank without a trace, indirectly leading to its producer lyricist Shailendra’s death due to stress of financial problems. The irony is even more so as today the film is recognised as one of the all-time great films of Indian cinema.
The film is based on Phanishwar Nath’s (of Maila Aanchal fame) short story Mare Gaye Gulfam. Shailendra acquired the rights to the story and began filming the film in 1962. The film was initially begun with Mehmood and Meena Kumari in mind for the roles finally done by Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman. The initial thought was to shoot the film in the Nepal-Bihar area but hearing stories of dacoities and unrest in the area, the film was finally filmed in Igatpuri, where, incidentally, Madhumati was also shot. Shailendra was warned by friends like Raj Kapoor not to fall into the trap of making films but he refused to listen and the latter, seeing that he was adamant, even advised him to make some changes in the story to make the film commercially viable but Shailendra was firm that he would stick to the original story and make it the way he wanted to. The film, plagued by production problems, took more than three years to make and finally hit the screens in 1966 only to falter at the box-office.
Teesri Kasam is also perhaps director Basu Bhattacharya’s best and most accessible film. He had worked under Bimal Roy earlier and it shows in the film. The rhythm of the film is lyrical and ever so gentle and rarely has rural ethos been captured so beautifully on the Indian screen. The film, refraining from conventional drama, flows like the song of Mahua in the film (Duniya Bananewale) – beautiful, eternal and moving. Though Basu Bhattacharya went on to make some significant films as part of the parallel cinema movement in India in the 1970s and 1980s – Anubhav (1971), Aavishkar (1973) and Grihapravesh (1980) to name some, they never really matched his work in Teesri Kasam.
The blossoming of the bond between Hiraman and Hirabai through their journey together is warm, wistful and charming and is extremely delicately handled. What draws the nautanki dancer to the rustic cart driver is his simple philosophy of life and his natural aesthetic sense which he expresses through his moving songs. Only as the final parting appears imminent, does the intensity strike. In a key scene of the film Hirabai laments that she could play the part of Laila but could never become Laila herself as she justifies her decision to continue her life as a nautanki performer. Love and Marriage are not for her. Can ‘art’ ever merge with ‘life’? Perhaps not.
What adds further poignancy to the story is the fact that the end of the relationship between Hiraman and Hirabai appears inevitable from the start. To quote Star and Style’s review of the film, “The way the cart driver and nautanki dancer meet, talk and discover each other and themselves at the same time and the manner in which they part are like a poem on celluloid with a thread of pain running through it.”
As Hiraman prepares to go back distraught after his final parting with Hirabai, and is about to hit his bullocks in a fit of anger, he overhears her voice saying, “Don’t hit them!” Earlier, when he was transporting her to the fair and tried to hit the bullocks, she had stopped him with the same words. Now as he looks back, we see the train in which Hirabai has left in the extreme far background framed through the fluttering curtains of his bullock cart in the foreground. It is an incredible image and brings to the fore beautifully just how magical cinema can be.
Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman literally live their roles in the film. Though much, much too old for the role, Raj Kapoor more than compensates with his performance as the naive country bumpkin. One cannot help but smile with him each time he blushes and goes ‘iss’ or be moved emotionally looking at the hurt on his face as Hirabai bids him farewell. Waheeda Rehman responds with perhaps the best performance of her career, her films with Guru Dutt and Guide (1965) notwithstanding. The film offers her a great opportunity to showcase both her great histrionic ability and dancing talent and it goes without saying she excels in both. It is a remarkable, perceptive performance. Sadly however for her, after Guide her best work in films like Teesri Kasam, Khamoshi (1969) and Reshma Aur Shera (1971) went largely unnoticed as the films sank and her regular commercial potboilers like Patthar ke Sanam (1967) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967), where she just had to be decorative and dance with the hero and shed a tear or two, were huge commercial successes!
The film is beautifully shot by Subrata Mitra enhancing the lyrical feel of the film. The frames and compositions are evocative, poetic and rich in tonal quality and represent some of the finest black and white camerawork done in Indian cinema. The lyrics by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri retain the rural ambiance of the film and are simple yet profound.
Rarely does one see a mainstream film where music is so well integrated into the film. Shanker-Jaikishen have given an outstanding musical score in the film – simple melodies rooted in folk music. The music is much enhanced with the use of flutes, traditional string and percussion instruments. Sajanre Jhoot Mat Bolo, Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar, Duniya Bananewale all rendered by Mukesh and Pan Khaye Saiyan Humaro sung by Asha Bhosle stand out. It is interesting to see that in keeping with the realistic and human look of the film, Hiraman is just one of the revellers in the song Chalat Musafir and not the lead singer as is the case normally in our films.
Teesri Kasam, in spite of its box-office failure, went on to win the President’s Gold Medal as the Best Feature Film of 1966. However the film had taken its toll on Shailendra and he passed away, a broken man, on December 14, 1966 on good friend Raj Kapoor’s birthday.
Hindi, Drama, Black & White
A song from the film can be seen here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2npO5E7IBM.
Shailendra’s contribution to Hindi cinema never received the recognition it deserved. He gave us some of the most iconic, memorable songs. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for nearly 50 years.