A newly independent nation’s dreams were finding form in the contours of cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, prominently in the works of Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, B.R.Chopra, V.Shantaram and Raj Kapoor. The nation was brimming with positivity and hope; independence was being seen as a cure for every evil facing the nation. It was in such a milieu that Raj Kapoor came out with his musical blockbuster Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai.
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai is a dacoit drama, which begins with a story-teller Raju (Raj Kapoor) coming in touch with a gang of dacoits in the Chambal Valley after he rescues their leader from the police. Very soon, Kammo (Padmini), the daughter of the leader, takes a liking for the simpleton Raju, who swears at every instance by the name of the holy river Ganga. Laka (Pran), the most dreaded of the entire lot, hates Raju, not just out of suspision, but also because he has become the sweetheart of Kammo, whom Laka wanted to marry. Raju initially allies with the dacoits when Kammo tells him jokingly that the dacoits are like socialists, trying to create equality by taking money from the haves and giving away to have-nots. But the gory images of the Chambal valley soon turns him off and he packs his bag to leave, not before Kammo gets married to him. Raju and Kammo promise each other to bring the dacoits on the right path. Laka kills their ring leader and imprisons Raju and Kammo, who later escape and run away to safety. But Raju, braving all danger, returns to the valley and promises the dacoits a bright future in a new nation for their children, if not for them. After a series of emotionally charged sequences, the audience are treated to a heart-rending climax, where the entire gang of dacoits surrenders before the law as Raju eulogises the river Ganga, which like a conscience keeper, has been cleansing this nation and forgiving the penitent since millenia.
Written by Arjun Dev Rashk, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai was not the first of its kind in Hindi cinema. Three years back, V.Shantaram had come out with the National Award winning Do Aankhen Baraah Haath, based on prison reform. It was a time when reports of loot and murder in the Chambal Valley inundated the press. Raj Kapoor had this idea – what if the dacoits were given a chance to return to the mainstream society.
Raj Kapoor in the studio, recording the songs for the movie
Raj Kapoor kept his tramp moving from Shree 420 to Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and as the rustic Raju, he won the heart of the dacoits, audience and the critics alike. Raju’s innocence and will-power won him the Filmfare award for Best Actor. Besides the movie also won the Filmfare Award for Best Movie (in one of the biggest upsets of Filmfare’s history, it beat Mughal-e-azam), Best Editing and Best Art Direction. Raj Kapoor got Padmini to Bombay for this movie, while she was making it big in the Tamil film industry and also in the classical dance circuit. Padmini did not display any unfamiliarity with the language, though she returned to the South Indian industry soon after. Besides, Radhu Kamrkar made good use of this danseuse by getting the best of dances from her. Watch her move like a mermaid in Ho Main ne Pyar Kiya in the water sequences or pirouette with exuberance in Hum bhi hai. Legend has it that her feet began bleeding while shooting for the song Kya Hua, as the director went for retake after retake, since her co-artists were not trained dancers! But it was Pran who was looking at his terrifying best as Laka. He brought to life with elan the dreaded looks of a wanted criminal and held his own against the might of Raj Kapoor with the same ease with which he adjusted his collar in scene after scene.
Like most of Raj Kapoor’s earlier movies, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai too has Raju’s innocence providing the comic relief. Watch out for the scene where Kammo tries to train Raju in wielding a rifle in vain. 15 years later, this scene was almost recreated with a touch of sensual humour in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay.
The director Radhu Karmakar learnt the techniques of photography working under the legendary Nitin Bose and had become the head of camera department in R.K. Films. His magical touch is visible frame after frame, though he saw success in his career mainly as a cinematographer. The film had the finesse to tell a reformist saga, without being for a moment didactic.
B.R.Chopra had called the 1960s the decade of romantic realism. The heavy drama of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai was made light with plenty of songs and dances, making Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai one of the high points of Shankar Jaikishan’s career. The title track Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai soon touched the soul of the nation and became an anthem of humanism and patriotism. The forlorn love of O Basanti Pawan Pagal and the opening song Mera Naam Raju continue to hold music lovers spellbound. The highest point of drama in the movie is enunciated with the climax song Aa ab laut Chalen, which is a clarion call to the dacoits during their homecoming to their motherland, promising them a new future in a new India.
Nehruvian socialism is undoubtedly glorified in the movie, where the protagonist openly talks of brining about socialism, sans any bloodshed. “Sab kuch barabar karna hai” says Raju but adds his caution “bandook se nahi, pyaar se”. The dacoits are persuaded to tread the path of reform by selling the dream of an India run by Indians, as opposed the one run by British. It took almost a decade (as the power was transferred from Nehru to his daughter Indira through Shastri) for the realisation to dawn in among the filmmakers that India run by Indians was even a bigger challenge to live with. Movies of the 1970s no more sold dreams of a golden India.
Above all, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai mirrored Raj Kapoor’s faith in the holiness of the Ganges. Raj Kapoor planned his next film too on the legend of the Saraswathy surrendering before the might of the Ganga and the Yamuna in Sangam. 27 years later, he returned to tell a story with Ganga as the leitmotif in his swansong Ram Teri Ganga Maili. But by then, the Nehruvian Socialist had given way to a poor shadow his former self and the message was forgotten in Mandakini’s (in)famous waterfall sequence. But Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai still flows in our collective memory, as fresh as the waters of the Ganges in Rishikesh (the location of the opening scene of the movie), for it was a movie from a filmmaker who had the cheek to sell an idea, which was and is still considered unsalable by conventional box-office standards.
(This article was published in the Saturday supplement Zeitgeist of The New Indian Express)