It Happened One Indian Night

Chori Chori (Secretly) (1956) Directed by Anant Thakur. Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Pran, Johnny Walker, Master Bhagwan (158 min).

Solva Saal (16 Years Old, perhaps, the age at which sexual desire is awakened?) (1958) Directed by Raj Khosla. Dev Anand, Waheeda Rahman (150 min).

Basant (Spring) (1960) Directed by Bibhuti Mitra. Shammi Kapoor, Nutan, Johnny Walker, Pran (175 min).

Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (The Heart Refuses to Listen) (1991) Directed by Mahesh Bhatt. Aaamir Khan, Pooja Bhatt, Anupam Kher. (150 min)


It Happened One Night (1934) is, quite simply, one of the most perfect romantic comedies ever made. Directed by Frank Capra from a superb script by Robert Riskin, runaway heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) and down on his luck newspaper reporter Peter (Clark Gable) are opposites, yet clearly made for each other. Equally matched in wit and spirit, if not social class, a leisurely sojourn during a long bus journey gives them time to bicker and challenge one another, but, through hardship and adventure, find true love. It “featured something new to the movies—the private fun a man and a woman could have in a private world of their own making” (p. 324 The Movies by Richard Griffith). Although the world of Indian film is dense with extended family, in these four Hindi versions of IHON, the only family member appearing is the heroine’s father, true to the source material. The romantic couple are allowed their privacy, mostly free from the intrusion of their day-to-day lives.

The original film was made during the Great Depression, when movie audiences were fascinated with rich people, but also were not adverse to having them taken down a notch. In fact, it was a challenge for the filmmakers to make a rich girl sympathetic, which they accomplished by making her a pampered child longing to escape her well-upolstered cage. Transposed to India, where the dramatic gap between rich and poor is often a film subject, as is the contrast between rural and urban settings (urban being corrupt, and often Westernized) the plot of the runaway heiress, and the ordinary guy (who is not so very ordinary, after all) is a natural fit.

IHON swept the 1934 Oscars, winning the top five awards, for best picture director, writer, and the two lead actors, as well as creating a template for a form of screwball comedy that remains vital to this day. Hollywood movies have always enjoyed distribution, and consequently, emulation, around the globe. It’s unsurprising that a sprawling film culture as voracious for ideas as India’s would find the original plot attractive, and spilling over with inspiration for both copying and improvisation through the decades.

As I note in my essay on It Happened One Night, Capra thought scenes that didn't further the plot were as important as the ones that did. His biographer, Joseph McBride, quotes a Capra interview with Richard Glazer. "Sometimes your story has to stop and you let the audience just look at your people. You want the audience to like them. The characters have no great worries for the moment--they like each other's company and that's it. The less guarded they are, the more silly it is, the better. These scenes are quite important to a film. When the audience rests and they look at the people, they begin to smile. They begin to love the characters, and then they'll be worried about what happens to them. If the audience doesn't like your people, they won't laugh at them, and they won't cry with them." In many poorly written romantic comedies, the audience must assume the hero and heroine will fall in love because they are the most beautiful people on the screen, or because the script says they are in love (without a convincing demonstration). Sometimes, they are opposites, but the audience remains (or should be) unconvinced that they attract one another. The not so secret formula of IHON is to meander, while uniting an interesting couple in enjoyment of their picareque journey, mutual respect and eventually, mature love.

Hindi film has embraced this plot, recognizable by key set pieces, most notably the “Walls of Jerico” sequence (a reference to a story in the Bible about a besieged walled city), where the still quarrelling couple is forced to share a room in an auto camp, divided by a rope and a blanket as a makeshift curtain. Auto camps were precursors to motels, a row of small cabins where you could park your car nearby and rough it (albeit inside) while on a cross country driving trip. By morning, even though there has been no physical contact, love is astir. The metaphor, of a single flimsy layer of cloth separating the sexual desires of the couple, is a powerful one. Frank Capra found rain to be quite sensuous, and Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert lie in bed listening to the patter of raindrops on the window. Indian movies have always used rain as a metaphor for desire, and it’s interesting that this most obvious of homages is avoided in the quartet of films discussed here. Four charismatic Hindi film actors, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Aamir Khan have been cast in Clark Gable’s reporter role (although Shammi plays a writer, but not a reporter) and they each bring their unique star personas to the four films. All offer enjoyment, while reinterpreting the story both for its era, and its stars.

I was fascinated by this posed production still of IHON in Richard Griffith's The Movies, long before I saw the film.

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Although I’ve always loved IHON, it was moviediva, jr., who, having discovered it in her early teen years, watched it over and over again. As I joined her, my unflagging pleasure in repeated viewings brought a familiarity with the film scene by scene. Gerald Wealds writes, "Although I know that Peter would win Ellie the first time I saw IHON, and although I have seen the film many times, I still feel a sense of joy when she cuts and runs in the wedding scene, making an escape from the wrong husband to the right one." Do any of these four Hindi film versions convey the same cinematic magic?

The earliest Hindi language version of IHON stars Nargis and Raj Kapoor, the most charismatic star couple of the 1950s. Whether or not their romantic relationship continued off screen, their on screen rapport is warm, funny and real. When Kammo and Sagar quit fighting and acknowledge their love, no one doubts it. Kammo (Nargis) a termagent in a bias striped pullover and slacks, tussles with her father about her plans to marry Suman (Pran) her pilot boyfriend, who is shown from the very beginning to be after nothing but her money. The casting of perennial villain Pran, alone, indicates Suman's foul intentions. Diving off her father’s yacht, Kammo is rescued by a tuneful fishing fleet, and later, disguised in big cat eye sunglasses and an ugly embroidered organza sari, decides to make her way to Bangalore to meet her sweetie. When frustrated, she huffs a breath of air, blowing her unruly hair aside. She encounters newspaper reporter Sagar (Raj Kapoor) introduced by "Mere Joota Hai Japani" from Shri 420, just in case you don’t recognize him! Forced to sit next to him on the bus, she is soon hotly pursued for her father's reward money, by not one but two comedians (and their wives) Johnny Walker and Indira Bansal, and Master Bhagwan and Raja Sulochana.

When the bus stops, Kammo buys a cage full of birds and sets them free, singing “Panchhi Banu Udti Phiroon.” Shankar Jaikishan’s lovely songs in this film are rarely the interruptions can be in the later versions. Here, they charmingly illustrate the characters’ emotions, deftly moving the plot forward. Kammo wanders amongst the simple village folk, and realizes there is more to life than her stifling, privileged upbringing. Sagar may be impatient with this ajib jaanvar ladki (strange, wild girl) but she will make a good story for his paper. They seek refuge at an inn where they are forced to share a room divided by a rope and blankets, but Sagar honorably decides to sleep outside on a hammock (after being scolded by the innkeeper for not keeping his wife in line). This gives Sagar a chance to sing the gorgeous “Yeh raat bheegi bheegi” about a rainy night, although it doesn’t actually rain. The beauty and popularity of this song may be why no other version tackles the erotic longing of Capra’s auto camp rain scene. Afterwards, the couple are convulsed with giggles as they fake a fight for the benefit of their pursuers.

There is relatively little time spent with the "Walls of Jerico" since Sagar will sleep outside.

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While they wander through the countryside, they watch a marionette show, which dissolves into Kammo and Sagar watching themselves as marionettes. This image is clearly invoked in the song over the end titles of Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji's Paheli, yet another example of Hindi film's dense internal references. Sagar is unimpressed by Kammo’s tantrums, and in spite of the traffic jam of pursuing comedians, there is ample time for them to fall in love. Their romantic song, “Aaja Sanam Madhur” and Kammo’s later lament “Rasik Balma” are classic songs that retain their pulsing emotion. Nargis’ tearful yearning brilliantly photographed by VN Reddy in a shadowy room framed by billowing curtains, makes one wish for a DVD with a restored transfer that truly reveals the beauty of the film’s cinematography.

The low quality of some black and white DVD transfers is especially frustrating when scenes like this appear. Note the film noir-ish doubling; a photographic portrait of Kammo in the background, her old self, before she fell in love with Sagar.

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Chori Chori sets an interesting precedent for later versions of IHON. Selected scenes from the Capra film appear, so there can be no confusion about the source material, but the script by Agha Jani Kashmiri picks and chooses amongst them to create a charming, and charmingly Indianized version of the Capra film. Many real-life couples (as Nargis and Raj Kapoor were rumored to be) hesitate to show their real emotion on screen, and can appear aloof. Here one can easily sigh over their love, both fictional and non fictional. This was the last of their great romantic films together. And, as an aside, if one can never figure out in American movies how the heroine can escape with such an extensive wardrobe in such a tiny suitcase, Nargis’ bag fits a generous variety of flat folded saris quite neatly.

Note, not just the inexcusable film scratches, but the glow on Nargis' face contrasted with the shadows on Raj's.

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Solva Saal interprets It Happened One Night quite differently. To begin with, it takes Capra's title quite literally, as the plot transpires in exactly six hours on a single night. Laj (Waheeda) steals a pearl necklace belonging to her late mother from the almira and elopes with her scamp of a boyfriend. Nath (Dev) a roving reporter, overhears them on the train, and sensing a good story, follows them, which allows him to rescue the desperate Laj when she realizes she has been had by her faithless lover and in despair, she jumps into a river. The coy changing of clothes on either side of a blanket draped over a rope ensues. Clark Gable doffed his shirt in IHON, supposedly causing a plunge in the sales of undershirts, when he took off his shirt and was bare chested underneath. Dev is the only Hindi film hero in the various versions to doff his shirt—twice. (But, please put it back on!).

Here is a sense of the rapport between the two stars.

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The bad boyfriend (Jagdev) is in love with a filmi dancer (Kammo) allowing the welcome distraction of some time spent in a film studio, where director Raj Khosla plays himself! Waheeda is uncharacteristically flirtatious and playful, for once seemingly unburdened by any male fantasy of her patrician beauty, although she glows in gorgeous film noir sheen of Dwarka Divecha's superb photography. Dev, with his “vagabond heart” is at his absolute best, pouring on the charm, wooing and winning and finally resolving Laj’s dilemma. Their on-screen chemistry crackles; the film is understated in a realistic manner that bepeaks the Guru Dutt school of acting; actor director Guru Dutt and Dev Anand being close collaborators in the 1950s. Solva Saal, rather modest and naturalistic for a Hindi film, with masala spectacle nowhere in sight, is adorable from beginning to end.

The Shammi Kapoor-Nutan version pays creative homage to IHON while zinging in several unique directions of its own. (Shammi Kapoor is Raj Kapoor's younger brother. Where is the other Kapoor brother, the Shashi Kapoor version?) Imperious Meenakshi (Nutan) a modern girl in tight fitting slacks and sweater (like Nargis, before her) demands that her father let her marry Rajesh (Pran) an overt fortune-hunter. When frustrated, she petulantly stamps her foot, shouting, "My foot!" instead of blowing aside her unruly hair. Once again, Pran appears in the role of the untrustworthy King Westley, the wrong suitor. He is forever being typecast in this sort of role, but twice in the same part within just a few years is remarkable! Evading the police on a train, a bus, and at the circus, Meenakshi encounters the poetical vagabond Ashim (Shammi Kapoor) who undertakes her guardianship, even though he pretends to scoff at protecting kissi aur ka mashur somebody else’s girlfriend.

Nutan has the advantage of a dupatta to hide her face from the law, as they pretend to fight.

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And, once again, Johnny Walker is in pursuit! But his character here, Billoo is a composite of ALL the characters impeding the journey of Gable and Colbert in IHON, an interesting riff on Robert Riskin’s original script that results in Billoo morphing from comic nemesis to sidekick, and eventually, even hero. Most of the actors entrusted with the comic side plots in Hindi films produce only headaches, but Johnny is an exception, and he provides goofy fun, whether wearing loud sports shirts or a burqua. If the first half of Basant is IHON, picking and choosing amongst the iconic scenes (with excellent use of the mock fight as husband and wife for the benefit of the police, a scene Dev and Aamir’s versions avoid). They pine, not in one room, but on either side of a real wall in adjoining rooms, with lovely slow camera dollys from one side and then the other to symbolize their growing closeness. But is it mohabbat y zid…love or stubbornness motivating Meenakshi?

The "Walls of Jerico" as a real wall. Again, the murky quality of the DVD transfer is a disgrace.

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The second half unexpectedly channels An Affair to Remember, with liberal swaths of wacky masala plotting. Rajesh hires a killer to finish off Ashim. Only wounded, he is nursed back to health by fierce Minoo Mumtaz in Ukka Dukkar, a wacky “tribal” village with a giant cat statue. Although this would seem to be too much plot for one movie, there are also welcome interruptions by O.P. Nayyar’s eleven lively songs, incorporating everything from qwaali to rhumba to brass band. “Chori chori” (an homage to the Raj Kapoor and Nargis version?) is particularly hummable . Nutan brings needed fire and melting emotion to Meenakshi, while Shammi is in fine form as the free spirited Ashim. Entertaining, and cinematically the exact opposite of the clearly plotted, modest Dev Anand version which preceeded it.

In the most recent of the four versions, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Pooja (Pooja Bhatt) is a runaway heiress taking a bus to a Bangalore rendezvous with the suitor her father disdains. As in Solva Saal, he's in the movie business, only this time an actor, not a hanger-on. On the way, Pooja meets Raghu, a footloose reporter (Aamir Khan) he’s dressed, alarmingly, in a captain’s hat, bright yellow shirt and red pants, but still, they fall in love. Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin is not just a Bollywood version of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night….it is exactly the same: same dialogue, same direction…with the exception of some annoying comedy gangsters, several, mostly forgettable songs (although the title song keeps running through my brain) and an extended part for Anupam Kher to ham it up outrageously as Pooja’s father, the copy is so close, the director must have had a VCR running a tape of the original on set.

Aamir exactly copies Clark Gable's hitchhiking technique...

...and then Pooja shows him that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

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The Netflix disc did not have English subtitles, but the dialogue is almost identical, so if you are familiar with the American film, no problem! Capra’s version lacks, however, a fantasy where dancers dressed as giant flowers serenade the heroine, and song spectacle is an important element here. A few of the set pieces are rearranged (for example, the hitchhiking scene comes before they are forced to share a room instead of after), and Pooja has a little drama when she is kidnapped (to melody of the Pink Panther theme) and Raghu must battle to save her. Naturally--since this is the one episode that appears in all four versions--they are forced to share a room. The next morning, she’s appalled the room has no attached bathroom (the same as a 1930s auto camp) but Raghu tells her sternly, “In our country, the bathrooms are outside.” The audience can chuckle that Pooja, a spoiled brat with a massive 1980s perm and Western style full-skirted dress, ought to know better.

What is with that captain's hat? We know he will have to trade it for gasoline, later, but still.

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Aamir’s brash charm is perfectly suited for the role, and Pooja Bhatt winningly flounces and pouts, but they have zilch chemistry together. Perhaps having to engineer such an exact copy of such a famous film was too burdensome. Boringly directed by Mahesh Bhatt (Pooja’s father) and written by Robin Bhatt, this version, 30 years later than the previous one, should have taken a cue from the imaginative Indianization of the earlier versions.

I guess, if they are on opposite sides of the room from Clark and Claudette, it's not an exact copy.

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Interestingly, with a few minor exceptions, these four films don't imitate each other. Pran, here, singing fisherwo/men there, but in almost every case, the filmmakers go back to the original for inspiration. Both Basant and Solva Saal are clearly derived from IHON, but they bear little resemblance to each other. One must conclude that while the original Hollywood film is the gold standard, later Hindi film versions are closely tailored to the star's audiences, and the tastes of the era.

So, which do I prefer? I have to say, I would gladly watch Raj and Nargis, Dev and Waheeda and Shammi and Nutan again (and again) depending on who I was in the mood for. But, there are so many better Aamir Khan movies, even from that era (and even directed by Mahesh Bhatt…I love Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, itself a riff on the Cary Grant-Sophia Loren Houseboat) I feel as if that will be a one time watch, only. As for imitation? Except for the Aamir version, I would call them homages, or appreciations, rather than copy cats. I’d gladly hit the road, and fall in love with most of them, again.

c.moviedivaSeptember2009