In this bimonthly series, Jai Arjun Singh recommends Hindi films from the fifties and sixties. In this instalment, he tells you why you should watch Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazar starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman.

For the premier scene and other movie references

In perhaps the most famous scene in Kala Bazar, movie stars arrive for the premier of Mother India, to the screaming of ecstatic fans, while Raghuvir (Dev Anand) and his men sell tickets in black nearby. This is a forerunner of celebrity cameos in such films as Naseeb (1981), Pehla Nasha (1993), Om Shanti Om (2007) and this year’s Zero. 

Unlike in those films, the stars appearing as themselves in Kala Bazar – among them Nargis, Dilip Kumar, Sohrab Modi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and Guru Dutt – don’t linger to chat or dance; they wave shyly at the camera or walk quickly past it. Still, the scene offers a glimpse of celebrity-adoration in an earlier era, when things weren’t as innocent as many of us imagine. And this is reflected in the main plot too: Raghuvir is driven by penury to set up an illegal city-wide business, which is facilitated by the fact that people are movie-mad enough to buy tickets at inflated prices. Eventually his conscience is awakened by Alka (Waheeda Rehman), who becomes his “dharmatma”, and he repents enough to start a “safed” business for his former associates. 

(It’s another matter that he plays a fraudulent little game to get Alka romantically interested in him! Kala bazaari can take many forms.)

The premier scene aside, Kala Bazar has other little delights for film buffs: a shot of Dev Anand looking at his watch while Alfred Hitchcock does the same thing on a poster behind him; the words “Ben Hur is Coming!” on another poster, seen just as the firebrand Alka makes her first appearance, striding across the road; a reference to V Shantaram’s social-message film about prison reform, Do Aankhen Baarah Haath – notable, given that Kala Bazar is also, in its own way, about rehabilitation and second chances. 

For Vijay Anand the stylish young director… and for Vijay Anand the charming young actor

Kala Bazar’s first few scenes are marked by vivid sound design and montage. The chants of “paisa, paisa, paisa babu paisa”, heard as Raghu wanders the streets unemployed (while the visuals give us quick dissolves of money changing hands in different contexts), acquire a rhythmic force – we can feel them seeping into his consciousness. The black-marketers’ cries of “sava ka do … sava ka teen … sava ka dus!” are set against shots of Nargis’s anguished face on the Mother India poster, as if to emphasize that THIS is what things have come to in our country. Still later, during the wonderful song “Teri dhoom har kahin”, lyrics like “Duniya ki gaadi ka pahiya / Tu chor tu hee sipaiya” are accompanied by the sounds of honking and a policeman’s whistle (as comedian Rashid Khan, playing Raghuvir’s friend, mimes the words).

There is a distinct visual and aural sensibility here, and much of it owes to the film’s young writer-director Vijay Anand … Working in black-and-white, Anand even manages to imbue a devotional-song sequence with shadows and canted angles from film noir.

There is a distinct visual and aural sensibility here, and much of it owes to the film’s young writer-director Vijay Anand (Dev Anand’s brother, a decade younger than the star). His facility with long takes – more fully explored in later films like Guide and Jewel Thief – is on view too, especially in the staging of group scenes where Raghu and his men debate the ethics of what they are doing. Working in black-and-white, Vijay Anand even manages to imbue a devotional-song sequence with shadows and canted angles from film noir.

But Vijay Anand the actor is also an important part of Kala Bazar, very natural and laidback in his small part as Alka’s boyfriend Nand, who goes abroad to study (thus clearing the way for Raghu to step in). With no disrespect to Dev Anand, a great star-actor, there are times here when he comes off as a little too self-conscious (anticipating his more narcissistic roles in decades ahead) while his younger brother’s performance is more intriguing. Their elder sibling, Chetan Anand, also has a small role as a lawyer, making it the only time the three appeared in the same film.

For Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand, together in a low-key setting five years before the more weighty Guide. And for an unusually pragmatic approach to romance

Notwithstanding one awkwardly protracted sequence where Raghu slips off a cliff in trying to get a flower for Alka (a narrative set-up for the line “Kya yeh mumkin nahin ke tum hamesha mujhe girne se bacha do?”), Rehman’s sharp, no-nonsense performance works brilliantly within the modernity of the Navketan Films universe. In fact, there is a separate mini-film here about a young woman assessing her feelings for two different men, making a choice, and confronting her former boyfriend in a scene that is wonderfully played by Rehman and Vijay Anand. “Judaai ke imtehaan mein hum dono hee fail ho gaye,” Nand and Alka say as they exchange smiles, accepting that their dalliance was puppy-love and that they have moved on. She takes her ring off and tells him to give it to his new French girlfriend; he gives her a rose to put in Raghuvir’s collar. It’s a lovely, atypical moment for screen romances of the period.

For the songs (and the song sequences)

SD Burman’s music includes the celebrated “Khoya Khoya Chand”, but equally notable are Shailendra’s lyrics, which – across two songs – playfully explore the idea of fake or duplicate Gods. First, “Teri dhoom har kahin” invokes money as a deity (note the wordplay around “dhoom”, which implies smoke that can cloud one’s judgement, but is also linked to the incense used in worship) – later, in the train song “Apni toh har aah”, Raghu makes pious-sounding references to “upar waala” when he is slyly trying to get the attention of Alka, sleeping on the berth above him. Taken together, these sequences might be said to track Raghu’s journey from greed to redemption, from a “bad” form of devotion to a “good” one. Which is what the film as a whole is about.

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