Why Padosan's goofy five is just four

Panch Ratan, led by 'guru' Kishore Kumar, is one member short. You're welcome.

The arts, as we know them, are rife with a form of discrimination that is numerical. The Famous Five are always full, by definition, as are the Secret Seven. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse communicate to us, with hauteur, that they are a select society by number, skills and mission, and equine emissions. The Three Stooges and The Three Investigators are triune and closed to general public. The ampersand in Asterix & Obelix, or Calvin & Hobbes is, if you listen carefully, the thud of finality with which they shut the door on you. 

Nowhere, alas, will you find a fun group of guys to hang out with because all the places are usually all taken. Except in the 1968 film Padosan, where Kishore Kumar plays an all-in-all named Vidyapati, and helms a theatre group named Panch Ratan. That name is one of many jokes in the film because they are a group of four, not five. The joke, in my opinion, is actually on number societies such as the ones mentioned.  I hear likewise in the name Panch Ratan an open invitation to join, a welcoming hand patting a seat next to them.

 Panch Ratan are Vidyapati, and three feckless followers known only as Banarasi, Lahori, and Kalkattiya. The first two have the same super power, that of hanging around. Kalkattiya’s superpower is a phonetic ability to turn the name Kais from Laila Majnu to an explosive Gas. Every time I watch this miracle of middle-aged male bonding come together, I know that I can give up everything that instant, join this company and take the name Bengalooria to be like them in blindly following a forelock-tossing Guru who has turned enunciating clearly despite a mouthful of  betel-juice into what UNESCO would call Intangible Artistic Heritage.

Padosan is the reverse of Pandora’s Box. Delights and treats fly out incessantly on each viewing, and you never feel like shutting the lid, or eye-lids, on it. There is the simple joy of observing Mehmood, of observing the continental drift of emotions across his oceanic face. The eyes on that face deserve a separate acting credit for they narrow into competitive Genghisness, or unroll and swell into wobbling, shooting onions of desire when Bindu is near.

He plays a Carnatic maestro cum Bharatanatyam teacher who may be a Brahmin called Pillai. Is this some infant attempt at the Annihilation of Caste? Something better, perhaps. He may be just about every cliché about South India compressed into one lump. In response to this cliche’s  call we have yet another cliché in Sunil Dutt playing Bhola, a Rajput of no talent . a complete zero at acquiring culture, an Adarsh Balak turned 26, whose reading of a manual of Life has alerted him to the painful fact that he has been in Grhastashrama six months and lost time and golden opportunity by persisting with Brahmacharya.

The Bindu that Saira Banu brings to life is a new woman in an India that is still dealing with the novelty of having a woman Prime Minister. She is moved by Art, but unmoved by the Artist’s desire. Her nature is bounce rather than mere oomph, and yet Vidyapati puts her into a box when he describes her as romantic, forward, aur khandaani. But, afsos, love tames her eventually into the ghoongi gudiya that Indira refused to be. Till that cop-out occurs, her’s is the most interesting transit in the film.  If you know your Cyrano de Bergerac, you know that she should kick Bhola aside, and link arms with Vidyapati to achieve World Domination, for he was the one who won her over. Or run away over the horizon with one of her cycling girl friends.  Becoming Mrs. Bhola is bathos uninterrupted.

Long years of listening to Vividh Bharati had left me with the illusion that Padosan had but two songs, namely, Mere saamnewali khidki and Ek chatur naar. If it were not for the chance arrival of a videotape, I would have never known about the many delightful lines of almost-song in the film, or yearned for them to be completed.  I would never have known about Saira Banu doing a decent desi version of Venus emerging from the foam in Bhai batur; decent meaning more foam, less Venus. Nor would I have come across Kishore Kumar abolishing Tiime while abseiling from metaphor to impossible metaphor amidst flashing eyes, floating hair, and much kurta-hand flapping in Meri pyari bindu. That song begins reasonably, with lamps without oil, and then goes crazy, with gardens that Spring abstains from, not by a small distance but from far-far, and worse. So much verbal abandon in one song.

I have always been firmly on the anti-Hindi side of the fence, because I find the idea of national languages abhorrent, and equally because the rashtrabhasha of official conjuring has never sounded like anything but an endless rain of shrieking prethas falling from the sky. Padosan is a guiltless pleasure in that regard, because the Hindi spoken is flavoursome, and living. Balraj Sahni once made a crack about the shuddh pretensions of Akashvani Hindi with the line Ab Samachar me Hindi suniye. When you listen to the language spoken in Padosan, you get to say Ab Hind mein Hindi suniye, and it’s a damned relief.

2019 is the centenary year of the poet, lyricist and abnormally quiet man who wrote the screenplay, lyrics and dialogue for Padosan, the Hindi retelling of the Bengali story and film Pasher Bari. On quiet days I wonder what sort of place Bollywood might have ended up being if that man,  Rajendra Krishan, and others like him had been allowed to do more work in a Hindi so naturally adapted for suppleness and  tongue-kissing. .

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