Achhut Kanya – 1936
In a review that appeared in the July 24, 1936 edition of a leading English daily in India, the critic while admitting that Bombay Talkies’ most recent production was not perfect, asserted that “it reaches wonderfully near to perfection and as far as the Indian picture fan is concerned, it is a feast of the richest entertainment he has yet been offered, combining drama, romance, thrilling action, melody and topical interest at their finest and in their most artistic development”.
Glowing tributes for a film that was in its first week run, but then, ‘Achyut Kanya’ was no run-of-the-mill Hindi film.
In forming Bombay Talkies, the genius of Himanshu Rai had not made just another of those film making companies that come and vanish, but an institution that had become strongly conscious of its sense of social commitment.
Bombay Talkies films he knew could not live in the narrow island of profit-making motive.They all came to carry a fine blend of varied appeals and purposive aims meant to reach and move different kinds of people in different stations of society. In ‘Achhut Kanya’ made in 1936, this subtle blending is seen at its best.
At its core, it is a film made for the young people of the thirties. Ashok Kumar, young and tender as a plant, is in love with Devika Rani. The bloom and glow of their love permeates the entire film. They love, sing and coo by the riverside, under ﬂowery boughs and everything seems to speak of love (an example is their song ‘Main ban ki chidiya ‘). Not for long, though. The breezy tale of love suddenly finds itself entangled in and at odds with two themes – one a Devdas-like tragic romance and conclusion and the other, the inhuman intolerance of the caste system.
The film is made to wear these additional faces ; commitments one may call them, to interest and involve other groups. The appeal of ‘Devdas’ was still very strong in the minds of Indian audiences. So, ‘Achhut Kanya’ also threw its bait for those enamoured of romantic tragedy.
As for the theme of untouchability, in a tale celebrating youthfulness and love, Himanshu Rai was apparently very eager to win for Bombay Talkies the favour of the élite – the British Government of the day and people in high places in society. These circles still did not carry a happy impression of Indian films. Himanshu must have naturally felt a great need to specially win their favour and a good name for the concern he had taken so much pains to build on the right lines, as in other countries. The solution then was to make his films purposeful on current themes of the day.
Based on Niranjan Pal’s story, The Level Crossing and his screenplay, Achyut Kanya charted the tragic love story of a Brahmin youth and an untouchable girl. Blind to the boundaries demarcated by caste and class, Kasturi, the daughter of a low-caste railway employee, and Pratap, the son of the Brahmin village grocer, Mohanlal, court love to the lilting tunes. Half way through a nice happy affair they realise they can never meet. He is high on the caste ladder and she is low – an untouchable (harijan). Their fathers are old friends but following vehement protests from the community, the children are forced to settle down with more appropriate partners.
So “Achhut Kanya” is made to operate like a story on untouchability. Ashok and Devika are like any two young people very much in love. They are married off, each into their own caste. Then jealousy intercedes to close the story on a note of big tragedy and sacrifice. But it is to be noted that the progressive theme never becomes dominant. Even when the girl dies at the end, while trying to stop a train in the path of which the two men are fighting, it is like a usual noble deed. There is no pointed reference to the theme and its revolutionary aspect is avoided by the death pretext.
In the show of technical brilliance of photography, settings and acting, there is so much of the modern to be seen in “Achhut Kanya” still. A look at the credit titles shows this to ‘be chiefly the contribution of German technicians whom Himanshu Rai had brought along with him from Europe. There is Franz Osten as director, Josef Wirsching as cameraman, Karl Von Spreti as the art director and Madame Andree as the make-up woman.
Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani, too, had both been for a greater part of their early life in Europe. The Parsi lady composer Khorshed Homji under the pseudonym of Saraswati Devi composed the highly popular music of the film, while her sister played a role under the name of Chandraprabha.
The underplayed acting and the entire subtle style of the film which look so appealing to us, now across time, were predominantly shaped by the strong Western influence which the persons in the unit of the concern brought to it, consciously or unconsciously.
Here’s the complete film for your viewing pleasure.