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A file photo of Kishore Kumar
A file photo of Kishore Kumar

The best Hindi movie ever and the inimitable Kishore Kumar

‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’’s portrayal of liberated women was ahead of its times and still stands out

I have taken a conscious decision in these troubled times to not write about covid, the economy, China and the answer to the big question about the meaning of life, the universe and everything (which, to anyone who has read Douglas Adams, is of course well-known—42). There are enough learned people writing about these weighty matters. So let me take off my mask and make this big categorical statement—that Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi is the best Hindi movie ever made.

Let me explain. Cinema is the most expensive art form invented till date by mankind. So, if a film does not entertain and consequently give a return on investment, it fails a fundamental test. Stanley Kubrick once said: “The truth of a film is the feel of it, not the think of it." That is what Kishore Kumar did in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Yes, the official director of the film was Satyen Bose, but if you look at his filmography, you mostly encounter the maudlin—Jagriti, Dosti and Aansoo Ban Gaye Phool. Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi leaps out from the list of films he directed as a giant aberration, and so one can safely assume that it was eccentric genius Kishore Kumar who controlled the creative process.

The zaniness starts right from the animated credit sequence—certainly ahead of its time in 1958. Then we move on to three brothers who run a motor garage, jiving through South Bombay in their car Champion, a 1928 model jalopy. Soon, the magical Madhubala appears, drenched in the rain. The fun is non-stop, the songs classic, and every sequence brims over with a striking spontaneity. Imagine a film with eight songs, of which at least six are unforgettable, and all of them joyous. The only glitch is one mujra song that could easily have been done away with. From Babu, samjho ishaare and Haal kaisa hain janaab ka to Hum they vo thi and Ek ladki bheegi bhagi si, they are some of S.D. Burman’s happiest creations.

And there’s some interesting trivia too. My friend, president’s award-winning film historian Aniruddha Bhattarcharjee, tells me that the song Paanch rupaiya baara anna refers to the five rupees and twelve annas that Kishore Kumar owed the canteen at Indore Christian College when he left for Bombay to seek his fortune as a singer-actor. And that no one till now has a clear idea about who spoke the words O Mannu, tera hua, ab mera kya hoga? mouthed by Anoop Kumar in the song Hum the voh thi. There is also the rumour that Kishore Kumar made the film, hoping that it would be a flop and he could show losses to evade income tax officials hounding him. If this is true, then he failed miserably.

What is not often mentioned about Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi is its portrayal of women. Madhubala’s character is that of a remarkably liberated woman, driving her own car and determined to be in charge of her life in a male-dominated world. Her father would not agree to a wedding proposal from a prince unless she gives her consent. Anoop Kumar’s beloved runs a petrol pump. Ashok Kumar’s former girlfriend was forcibly married off, but he does not think twice about taking her back when they meet 10 years later. I cannot think of another Hindi film from the 1950s (or even 1960s or 1970s, in fact) that treats women so equally as men, and in which all the male protagonists are less chauvinistic.

The last scene in the film has the three women in the front seat of Champion, with Madhubala driving, and the three men in the back seat. This, when even today, the staple wooing technique for men in many Indian films can only be described as blatant eve-teasing till the girl miraculously discovers a heart of gold behind the sexist behaviour and relents.

Hardly anyone in the film takes themselves particularly seriously, except for Ashok Kumar, his lost love and the villlain. Kishore Kumar is ever ready to break into an impromptu song and dance, using mechanical stuff in his garage as convenient musical instruments. All three brothers are quite crazy in their own ways. The standard Indian film trope of rich boy-poor girl or rich girl-poor boy is not paid any attention. Madhubala’s millionaire father has no objection to her marrying a lowly garage owner. There is no cloying sentimentality and, amazingly, even the police arrive on time, something quite unthinkable in most Indian movies. It’s all fun and games, no one is sad for longer than about three minutes, and the world is a fine place.

Incidentally, Satyajit Ray held Kishore Kumar in high regard and even wrote adulatory blurbs for a couple of films that Kishore Kumar directed officially. He waited three months for Kishore Kumar to be free to sing the only song in Charulata—he could not think of anyone else who could carry off a song that had no orchestral accompaniment.

Yes, there may have been other singers whose art and craft were of a higher level than this man with zero formal musical training, but his voice, sheer range and adaptability to the actor for whom he was singing was surely unparalleled. He died young, at the age of 58, but can anyone actually imagine an elderly Kishore Kumar? I certainly can’t, and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi is a permanent reminder of his incomparable whimsy and joie de vivre.

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