NostalgiAashirwad tugs at the heartstrings

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Dinesh Raheja

All doting fathers of daughters: be forewarned. A still from Aashirwad

Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Aashirwad is bound to push you into bidaai mode and bring a lump to your throat.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee must be commended for daring to make Aashirwad revolving around Ashok Kumar when the actor was 55 years old and had long been doing character roles!Ashok Kumar made the most of the opportunity, winning both the National Award for Best Actor andFilmfare's Best Actor Award for this simple film.

Aashirwad is faintly redolent of Rabindranath Tagore's short story Kabuliwala, which had already been brought alive on screen with warmth and feeling by Balraj Sahni. ButAshok Kumar in Aashirwad plays his role with as much naturalness as Sahni,with a dash of innovative flamboyance especiallyin the movie's earlier portions.

ProducersDirectorMusic DirectorStars
N C SippyHrishikesh MukherjeeVasant DesaiAshok Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Sumita Sanyal, Veena

Heplays Shivnath, the genial zamindar who has majordifferences with his materialistic wife Leela (Veena). Their fragile marital bond is stopped from unravelling only by theirlove for their daughter Nina.

The pursed lips Leela rules over the peasants on her land with an iron hand. Much to her consternation,Shivnath is putty in their hands. Shivnath tries his best to shield the hapless villagers from his wife's wrath, much to the chagrin of her wily munim Ramdas (Sajjan).

Shivnath endears himself to the villagers, especially Baiju (Harindranath Chattopadhyaya at his eccentric best), and enjoys participating in gabfests and poetry sessions and playing the mrudang with them, earning himself the epithet of Jogi Thakur.

After an ugly showdown with his wife, prompted by his attempt to divert money to the villagers, Shivnath flees to Mumbai. He makes a living by performing for children at a public park. The famous Rail gaadi song sequence ismemorable for its pristine, innocent fun.

Shivnath is drawn to a little girl with a sunshine smile (an adorable Sarika). She reminds him of his daughter Nina, and shares her name, too. But Nina dies after a bout of fever.Heartbroken, Shivnath returns home to find solace in hisdaughter, but before they can reunite, hegets embroiled inmurder. Incensed by his Munim's attempt to molest Baiju's daughter Rukmini (Padma Khanna), Shivnath strangles him.

Working out hisatonement, Shivnath pleads guilty to murderthough his lawyer advises self-defenseand is sentenced to life imprisonment.Nina believesher father has renounced the world and embraced sanyas.

The passage of years is beautifully established by Shivnath reading aloud the philosophical poems he pens. He is compiling a book of poetry hepromisedNina.

Ninagrows up (Sumita Sanyal) and the film takes a much-needed breather inher breezy romance with a good-humoured doctor Biren (Sanjeev Kumar).

Biren is appointeda prison doctor and becomesfriendswith the ageing Shivnath. Her fatherrecognises Nina when she visits Biren in jail, but sheexpresses contempt for all criminals. She puts Shivnath in a quandary when sheexpresses a yearning for her long-absent father's presence and aashirwad (blessings) at her imminent wedding.

The climax may be geared towards stimulating your tear ducts, but you shed tears nevertheless. Disguised as a mendicant, Shivnath arrives at the wedding venue and blesses his daughter. Does she recognise his touch? Or does he die, anonymous and unfulfilled?

Hrishikesh Mukherjee shows a marked talent for establishing lasting relationships in brief screen time. This is evidentin the easy,abiding camaraderie between Ashok Kumar and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, the inexplicable bonding between Ashok Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar, and the love that isconstant despite the irreconcilable differences between the ill-matched couple, Ashok Kumar and Veena (palpable when Ashok Kumar is informed in jail about his wife's death).

Mukherjeemakes his points without underlining them. Veena's complexnatureis deftly brought out in a parenthetical scene where the autocratencounters her maid taking her child for lunch and asksher to make sure the girl drinks her milk as she had not done so the previous day.

The director's faith in budding lyricist and dialogue writer Gulzar's ability to imbibe Ashok Kumar's character withmuch-needed sensibilities pays off. Gulzar makes himspout some exquisite poetry to give his character a much-needed additional dimension.

Famous songs from Aashirwad
Rail GaadiAshok Kumar
Ek tha bachpanLata Mangeshkar
Jeevan se lambe hai bandhuManna Dey
Jhingapore taqurtaqurAshok Kumar-HarindranathChatotpadhya
Kane ki ek nagriAshok Kumar-Harindranath
Nao chali, Nina ki nani ki naoAshok Kumar
Saaf karo insaaf karoAshok Kumar-Asha Bhosle-Hemlata
Jhir jhir barse sawanLata Mangeshkar

Veena, gifted with a steely voice and ramrod straight back, cuts a truly intimidating picture. Sumita Sanyal looks pretty while Sanjeev Kumar, bereft of the mannerisms that unconsciously seeped into his latter day performances, is heart-warmingly natural.

The film ultimatelyrests on Ashok Kumar's hunched shoulders. Heis effortlessly effective. It's a treat to watch him recite poems with unequalled emotion. His love for children spills onto the frames. Not surprisingly, he gotidentified with the avuncular image of Dada Moni in latter years.


* Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Ashok Kumar made a formidable team in films like Pyar Ka Sapna, Satyakam, Mili, Arjun Pandit and Khoobsurat.

* Veena was a star of the 1940s and Ashok Kumar was the hero of her firstfilm, Mehboob Khan's Najma. They made a hit team in Mehboob's Humayun, B R Chopra's Afsana and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. They successfully matched histrionicsas character actors in Pakeezahand Aashirwad.


* Ashok Kumar, who had sung many of hissongs in the 1930s and 1940s, sang for himself after a gap of several years. His hit song from Aashirwad, Rail gaadi, predated the rap movement by decades.

* Vasant Desai, composer of memorable hits like Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) and Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959), got a much-needed shot in the arm with Aashirwad and followed it with another Mukherjee hit Guddi (1971).

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