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Dinesh Raheja

Kabuliwala, a cinematic adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's famously poignant short story, brings a lump to your throat each time you watch it. It makes you wish that more filmmakers would emulate Sanjay Leela Bhansali (who has recently adapted Sarat Chandra's popular classic, Devdas) and tap into the rich treasure trove of literary works.

Producer Director Music Director Stars
 Bimal Roy  Hemen Gupta  Salil Choudhury  Balraj Sahni, Usha Kiron, Sajjan, Sonnu

The opening frames of Kabuliwala establish an idyllic middle class Bengali family of three, comprising a genial father (Sajjan), a contented hausfrau Rama (Usha Kiron), and their full-of-beans child, Mini, who has an imaginative mind and the curiosity of a puppy.

Like in Roy's Sujata, the Hemen Gupta-directed Kabuliwala too felicitously captures the ethos of a middle-class but educated and essentially progressive family.

When a Kabuliwala (Balraj Sahni) knocks at their door to sell his spices and dry fruits, Mini, dressed in a mini sari and blouse, hides below her father's writing desk -- her favourite hideaway.

When her indulgent father cajoles her to speak to the Kabuliwala, little Mini innocently asks, "Kabuliwala, mujhe jhole mein daalkar le gaya toh?" [What if Kabuliwala carries me off in his sack?]

It is a fear that has been encouraged by her mother (Usha Kiron), who does not want the gullible Mini to talk to strangers. But the Kabuliwala soon wins the child's confidence with his gift of the gab. He tells Mini that his sack contains an elephant and produces a fistful of dry fruits for her.

Mischievous Mini reminds the lonely-at-heart Kabuliwala of his own motherless daughter who he has left behind in his native Kabul. A close bond is established between Kabuliwala and Mini as he proves to be attentive listener and also a magnanimous admirer. When Mini warbles, he raves, "Tum toh bulbul se bhi jyaada achha gaata hai." [You sing better than a Nightingale.]

This portion of the film is touching in its portrayal of an innocent child's unabashed fascination for adults who treat them as individuals; and the need for affection that is common to all humanity.

Meanwhile, a disapproving Rama, in a bid to prevent Mini sneaking out to meet the Kabuliwala, makes her wear payals [anklets]. But the sparkly-eyed Mini outsmarts her and tiptoes to meet her Kabuliwala.

However, when the Kabuliwala brings red bangles for Mini on her birthday, he is not allowed to meet her. Next morning, she scours the city for the Kabuliwala, while her frantic father anxiously sets out in search of her. Kabuliwala chances upon Mini and kisses her small hands while she feeds him mithai [sweetmeats]. The search party arrives just then and the prejudiced adults, misread the Kabuliwala's intentions -- they think he is going to kidnap her. They pounce on him and pound him to pulp while Mini's cries rent the air.

A series of further crisis crisscross their lives, but their bond remains unbroken. The Kabuliwala, in a moment of rage, stabs a debtor. A weeping Mini wants to know why the handcuffed Kabuliwala is being led away. Harking back to an earlier conversation about Mini going to her sasural [inlaw's house] after marriage, the Kabuliwala gently replies, "Bachchi woh aaj hamare sasural ke ghar ko jaatee hai." [I am on my way to your inlaw's house]

When the Kabuliwala returns from his jail term, 10 long years have elapsed. The world has moved on, unrelentingly, but time seems to have frozen for the Kabuliwala. He buys red bangles that would fit a toddler and goes to meet Mini. But the realisation that Mini has grown into a girl about to be married, coupled with the fact that Mini now has no recollection of the Kabuliwala, shatters the old spiceseller. He is apprehensive if his daughter will remember him at all.

The high point of the climax is Mini's father gifting away the money set aside for Mini's wedding lights to the Kabuliwala to pay the Kabuliwala's fare to his wattan [homeland] and his eventual reunion with his daughter. As he reasons with his wife, "Ek majboor baap ko uski aankhon ka noor mil jaye, toh yehi sabse badi roshni hogi. [What can be better than seeing a hapless father re-unite with his daughter?]" Mini supports him and offers her gold bangle for Kabuliwala's daughter.

Please keep a kerchief around to muffle your sobs. As one father prepares to part with his daughter; another father prepares to meet his long-lost offspring.

The film's biggest strength is the evocative story and the heartfelt performances by Balraj Sahni as Kabuliwala and Sonnu as Mini. Sahni's interactions with Mini are suffused with tenderness, his laughter robust, his walk, regal. To give his character a more rounded feel, he is belligerent and boisterous with the adults -- including a tuneless singer, and has a philosophical side too as reflected in his response to 'Ganga aaye kahan se, Ganga jaaye kahan re'. Sonnu as Mini is uninhibited, the camera seems to be her best ally.

Homespun wisdom and everyday humour is abundant in S Khalil's dialogue. When Mini's father gently reprimands her for telling lies with, "Jo jhooth bolte hai unka chhera bigad jaata hai[Liars end up with a distorted face]" Mini spontaneously recalls her domestic Bhola and queries, "Bhole ka chehra aisa kyon hain? Woh bahut jhooth bolta hain?[How come Bhola does not look any different? He lies all the time.]"

Kabuliwala's philosophy, 'Pyar mohabbat mein ehsaan nahin hota, sirf pyar mohabbat hota hain' [One does not do favours in love, just gives unconditionally] is admittedly not the most eye-opening definition of love. Nevertheless, when woven into a story with as much affection as Kabuliwala mends Mini's cloth doll, it holds you enthralled


* Before he joined films, Balraj Sahni had taught Hindi and English at Rabindranath Tagore's famed institution of learning, Shantiniketan. It's therefore fitting that Sahni be chosen to play the title role of this Tagore story.

* Though she plays a deglamorised role here, Usha Kiron had done films with Dev Anand (Patita) and Dilip Kumar (Musafir) in the 1950s and played the crucial role of Raj Kapoor's wife in Nazrana in the same year as Kabuliwala!

* Director Hemen Gupta had worked with Balraj Sahni earlier in the stark Taksaal [1956].

* Kabuliwala had been made five years earlier in Bengali by Tapan Sinha with the renowned Bengali actor Chabhi Biswas in Sahni's role.

The Music:
Famous songs from Kabuliwala:
  Song  Singers
  Aye mere pyaare wattan
 Manna Dey
  Ganga aaye kahan se  Hemant Kumar
  Kabuliwala  Hemant Kumar, Usha
  O ya qurbaan   Mohammed Rafi

*Kabuliwala was the tenth collaboration between Bimal Roy productions and Salil Choudhury in eight years. Salil had been introduced to Hindi films by Roy in Do Bigha Zameen; and the team had already produced some excellent scores in films like Naukri, Madhumati and Parakh.

*In Kabuliwala, Salil Choudhury's music is perfectly attuned to the theme. The well-known Ganga aaye kahan se number is a meditative reflection on life, while Ho saba kehna mere dildaar ko, dil tadapte hai tere deedar ko, wears the guise of a boisterous number but unveils the hidden longing of the nomadic pathans for their loved ones.

*The film's numero uno number is indubitably the pathos-laden Aye mere pyaare wattan, aye mere bichhde chaman. Kudos to Manna Dey for singing the song with a wealth of feeling.

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