Divakar AKA Kavi Navrang yearns for an Abhisarika in his wife, a naayika so impassioned that she won’t let storms, poisonous snakes or propriety, stand in her way as she races towards her lover. Imagine Lakshmi swooning in Vikram’s arms to, ‘Na kuchh tere bas mein, Julie’, in the eponymous film. Instead Divakar is married to the dry, desiccated Jumna who will go to the extent of sleeping next to her sister-in-law to avoid any physical contact with her husband. Divakar dreams of Vasakasajja, the naayika who adorns herself with silken garments and perfume and make-up in anticipation of a union with her lover, Padma Khanna throatily singing ‘Sajana hai mujhe, Sajna ke liye’, in the 1973 Saudagar comes to mind. Instead, Jumna drapes dull sooti sarees and uses her ghoonghat as a formidable weapon scything every term of endearment, romantic flourish, every flowery verse with middle-class morality, righteousness and practicality. Even her reductive two syllabic name Jumna rather than the more lyrical Jamuna alludes to her lack of imagination. Poor Jumna, she’d rather be married to a clerk than the brilliant, highly-cultured court poet. A man who doesn’t understand her need for security and stability. A man who doesn’t acknowledge that her love speaks humbly, in practical ways, cooking for him, covering him when he sleeps, packing a dabba for him when travels. A man so impractical, so egotistical that he doesn’t see her pawning off her jewellery to keep the family fed. Divakar in his despair, from within his fertile poet’s reverie conjures up Mohini, a creature part Muse, part enchantress.These days, we would have doused him with heavy doses of antipsychotic medication for less. But Divakar finds solace, inspiration and validation in his mythical Mohini. He gets to be drenched in the nine colours that make up the immense ocean of Shringara Rasa. And the colourless Jumna withdraws further and further into her shell, believing her husband to be debauched and unfaithful.
Navrang ends on a happy note, but not before a storm called life blows in and nearly flattens the marriage. Divakar loses his job and his touch with reality and Jumna loses her composure after suffering months of hunger and leaves with their child to return to her father’s home. That is the final straw for the sensitive Divakar, for when Jumna deserts him, Mohini too is banished into the arid wastelands of his broken heart and his poetry runs dry.
There are songs and songs on heartbreak. But never before or after has been aria like Tu Chhupi Hai Kahaan composed nor picturised that Divakar breaks into trying desperately to imagine the sound of his wife’s anklets. And when Jumna finally does appear, Divakar confesses his love in open court declaring,
“Soorat hai meri sapno ki tu Sohini
Jumna tu hi hai tu hi meri Mohini!’
Right off the bat from the austere, much fêted Do Ankhen Barah Haath, a story of reformative justice that was ahead of its time for a country that 60 years later still routinely awards punitive, capital punishment, V Shantaram directed in 1959, the lurid candy-coloured confection of a Navrang. Apparently it was widely panned by the critics, only to go on to celebrate a Golden Jubilee. The audiences loved the song-a-minute treatise on marriage set against a backdrop of a post 1857 Revolution India. The film opens with gun-toting East India Company soldiers mocking a wizened old bard that it was not a revolution but an inconsequential mutiny and the fierce old man rages at them- Jalaado! Jalaado ye itihaas jhoote tumhare…!’ I don’t know why Bharat Vyas’s brilliant Yeh Maati Sabhi Ki Kahani Kahegi is not sung or remembered more often, it would give one a welcome break from the purgatory of Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon that one has been subjected to every August/ January for the past 71 years.
VS’s movies were always grand, with larger than life themes. But made at an unheard of cost of 30 lakhs, nearly 60 years ago, Navrang, more than any other would be VS’s Magnum Opus. It’s a huge canvas for what is essentially a commentary on modern marriage (in 1959!), a love story that begins after the marriage has nearly ended. While this film is based on a short story by G D Madgulkar, I suspect VS’s own experiments with conjugal bliss had something to do with it. VS was openly polygamous. He married three times and Sandhya was his third wife. Wikipedia coughs up an interesting titbit, VS’s divorce to his second wife Jayashree in 1956 was probably the first ever divorce in accordance with the newly-minted divorce laws and his subsequent marriage to Sandhya was probably among the last of the polygamous marriages still legal in the eyes of the law. His and Jayashree’s split seems to have been public and acrimonious, with her refusing to hock her jewellery to help him make Navrang, in complete contrast to his saintly first wife Vimal, who quietly handed over her ornaments to him. That Jayashree suspected VS’s intention to acquire wife number three probably had something to do with her reluctance. At any rate, Navrang did get made and went on to becoming a monstrous hit. I presume VS was able to redeem all his wives’ jewellery and then some.
It would be unfair to view VS’s unique brand of cinematic genius through the coloured lenses of his personal history alone. Nobody made movies quite the way he did, they are a language unto themselves. The acting in Navrang or Jhanak Jhanak… is very gestural, theatrical almost, I wonder if it was in some way an ode to VS’s early grazing grounds in the Tamasha brand of theatre. I keep explaining to my kids when they turn up their noses at these old Bollywood films, that it’s like learning a new language. It sounds funny and comical in the beginning and a taste hard to acquire. But gradually you start appreciating the length and breadth of the director’s vision.
I have been watching Sandhya’s films obsessively- from Amar Bhoopali to Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje to Jal Bin Macchli, Nritya Bin Bijli. Once the cool-as-ice teenage daughter to came to sit next to me while I watched for the 100th time, Gopi Krishna and Sandhya dance to the most romantic song ever written, ‘Nain So Nain Nahi Mila’, in Jhanak Jhanak… As Sandhya lovingly urges Gopikrishna , ‘Kheencho kaman, maroji baan’, the daughter asks me why they are dressed in ‘god-type’ costumes, I explain that they are playing the roles of Kamdev and Rati. More like Kaamdev and Shoorpanakha, the daughter snorts wickedly. I shove her out of the room and continue watching the video. But my sharp-tongued daughter’s wit is spot-on. Gopikrishna is grace personified; every movement, honed by years of riyaaz, is poetry in motion. Sandhya on the other hand while not lacking in confidence- she’s never less than self-assured- stomps about unselfconsciously. Her guilelessness is adorable.
Interestingly, many of Shantaram’s films with Sandhya are gender-benders. He seems to have deliberately chosen beautiful, artistic, sensitive male co-stars, the curly-topped cherub of a Mahipal in Navrang, the dreamy Gopikrishna in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, the doe-eyed Panditrao in Amar Bhoopali. Sandhya on the other hand is too loud, too over the top, garishly dressed and painted and always too much.
A friend, to get a rise out of me, teased that surely the beautiful songs of Navrang couldn’t have been written for a jhalli like Sandhya. I snarled defensively that everyone doesn’t have to look like Madhubala to have someone write love songs for them. Truthfully though, no one can ever accuse Sandhya of being typically feminine or demure or sensual. Although my father remembers college boys in his time putting up sexy posters of Sandhya with her percentage pallu ( if you don’t know what that means, I’m not telling).
When Sridevi passed away recently there was an outpouring of grief among millennial writers. How her pomp and pageantry helped them express their inner Nagins or helped them come out to the world. The directors spoke of her total submission on the sets and her transformation under the arclights. Many many beautiful odes to the iconic actress. But I don’t think anyone remembers that long before Sridevi, there was Sandhya. She is that girl who’s the first to get drunk and start throwing herself around on the dance floor in a painful approximation of a nagin dance, she’s the lovable but embarrassing relative who will drag everyone onto the dance floor, she’s Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, making a fool of herself in odd mismatched clothes and neon lipstick in a bid to look more womanly for the boy she loves. Sandhya really stands for all of us jhalli girls who have been told to stand straight and don’t fidget, don’t laugh so loudly, have you run a comb through your hair recently, why do you have to play with the boys, look how dark you’ve become, who will marry you…
According to some reports Sandhya will turn 80 this year while others claim her age as 85. Either way here’s to this striking, unusual, unsung actor, who stood out like an exotic species of duck among a sea of swans. No one could have done the things quite the way she did. Everytime Sandhya appears on the screen in Navrang, it’s a huge event, a celebration- be it balancing 7 pots on her head while plucking a lotus for her lover, daring to duck under an elephant, agreeing to paint her face the entire palette of Eastman Colour fearlessly. When I looked up the top heroines of the 1950s, Sandhya never features on any list. It’s always Madhubala followed by Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Nutan. These incredible actors deserve their places in the sun. But so does Sandhya, who gave hit after mega hit. Despite hotshot directors of the time offering her blank cheques, Sandhya refused to work outside of Rajkamal Studios. Perhaps it was her unswerving loyalty to the studio that gave her her first break in Amar Bhoopali, it could also be because of her loyalty to the man who considered her beautiful and talented, unconditionally.
Throughout Navrang you can sense VS’s deep if somewhat unreasonable desire to unite the Muse and the Missus, even though there was never a more mismatched couple than Jumna-Divakar. I’d like to imagine that happily for VS, he found his Abhisarika in Sandhya.
I have this ongoing love affair with Kavi Bharat Vyas and his sublime poetry. Every word in every song he ever wrote makes me pause in wonder and in yearning. The trifecta of singer Mahendra Kapoor, composer C Ramchandra and lyricist Bharat Vyas, should alone make you want watch this extraordinary film. I leave you this gem of a song- It’s one of those rare times when a poet in our country has composed an ode to the beauty of a dark-skinned woman.