I am impressed that ‘Sunghursh‘ (H S Rawail, 1968) is based on a story by Mahashweta Devi, and has dialogues by Gulzar and Abrar Alvi.

Bhawani Prasad (Jayant) is a thug by caste. He belongs to a cult that worships Bhawani through killing and robbing, thus fulfilling the duties of their caste. It is Bhawani’s remorseless belief in violence that keeps a feud between the family of his cousin Naubat Lal (Sapru) and himself alive. Bhawani even kills his own son, Shankar (Ifthekar) when he tries to take back his young son Kundan (a young Dilip Dhawan, who grows up to be a middle-aged Dilip Kumar) from his father’s clutches, who is determined to make Kundan his jaan-nasheen (comrade) in his practice of violence. When Naubat Lal reveals the truth to Shankar’s wife (Sulochana) and mother (Durga Khote), Bhawani Prasad kills him as well. The women, sick at heart, leave Banaras and go off to live at Sulochana’s brother’s house, (Sunder) leaving young Kundan  at the mercy of his grandfather,

Kundan, despite all his grandfather’s training, grows up determinedly non-violent, and sticks around Bhawani Prasad only out of love and pity for him. When Sunder comes to invite Kundan to his younger sister, Yashodha’s marriage (Anju Mahendru in a minuscule role), Kundan gets a chance to visit his mother and grandmother and his siblings after many years. Meanwhile, Naubat Lal’s sons, Ganeshi and Dwarka, who have grown up to be Balraj Sahni and Sanjeev Kumar, have sworn vengeance on Bhawani Prasad’s descendants, specifically Kundan. Kundan’s invitation to them to come for his sister’s wedding does not appease them. Instead they see a chance to kill Kundan, away from his grandfather and his gang of thugs.

They decide that Dwarka (Sanjeev Kumar) will go for the wedding, and find a chance to kill Kundan. Ganeshi (Balraj Sahni) employs Laila (Vjyanthimala), a courtesan as the back-up plan, also falling in love with her dazzling beauty himself. What he does not know is that Laila is Kundan’s childhood sweetheart Munni, who was unscrupulously taken into wing by a courtesan, from an unsuspecting guardian when she was little.

Munni and Kundan have already crossed paths, and Kundan has already crooned a love-song to the mysterious woman who calls herself ‘pujaran’. Munni takes on Ganeshi’s work, so that she can in fact, foil Dwarka’s plans to murder Kundan. When Kundan realizes who Munni is, his love becomes stronger, and he takes her home to meet his mother and grandmother. The ladies go a little berserk at Munni’s beauty, leaving Teja in splits at their goggle-eyed admiration. Bhawani Prasad lands up there, to reveal the truth about Laila, and wake everyone up from their dreams about beauty and love. Laila leaves, humiliated.

In the meanwhile, Dwarka attacks Kundan again, and gets killed instead by Kundan, inadvertently. He forgives Kundan before dying, but he is unable to pass on the message to his angry brother, Ganeshi, that he too should forgive Kundan, who has brought the dying Dwarka back home. Ganeshi does not recognize Kundan, but his wife (Urmila Bhatt) does as she has seen him on the ghat with Bhawani Prasad. She urges him to finish this bloody feud. On another occasion, she asks Kundan to convince Ganeshi to marry Laila, and bring her home, instead of staying at Laila’s home, allowing her, i.e. his wife to serve him and his new wife both.

Instead, Kundan decides to serve Ganeshi as repentance for his grandfather’s sins. An attack on Ganeshi by one of Laila’s admirers, Raja (Jagdish Raj) means that now, Laila, Ganeshi and Kundan are staying in Laila’s house while Ganeshi recovers in some very fashionable slings. Laila is determined to make eyes at Kundan, Kundan is determined to sacrifice his love to his cousin, and Ganeshi is busy going ‘Meri Laila, Meri Laila’.

This deliciously complicated story ought to have yielded lots of melodramatic pleasure, but I find myself distracted. There is something tired about Dilip Kumar and Vjyanthimala, later explained in her autobiography ‘Bonding – A Memoir’. She writes about a man-to-man chat between her husband, Dr. Bali and Dilip Kumar, and also ‘I did not talk to Dilip saab during the remaining of the film.’ Sunghursh was caught in the cross-fire between Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, over the dates of ‘Sangam’ and ‘Leader’, and Dilip getting Vjyanthimala replaced with Waheeda Rehman in ‘Ram aur Shyam’. Any wonder then, that she writes ‘He was supposed to be holding me. Anyway, we both wanted to get it over with.’ (Read the excerpt on the shoot of ‘Sunghursh’ here.)

What I realize too is that the costumes of the film are so garish, that they refuse to let the film be taken seriously. It’s hard to be worried about Bhawani Prasad’s killing innocent travelers when he is wearing hot pink, or sympathize with Naubat Lal’s righteousness when he wears long, heavily-curled-up-at-the-toes mojris, or concerned about Kundan’s separation from his family when he is wearing green embroidered with mauve, or take Ganeshi or Dwarka’s anger seriously when they are laden with jewels and gold, and wear balloony caps. To offset the colors and shininess of all this of course, is Shankar’s blood-stained shawl which is brought out at all emotionally charged moments, in the battle between violence and non-violence. Not a pleasant sight. Admittedly, Kundan does switch to cotton kurtas and a beard after he moves into Ganeshi’s orbit, but by then the eyes have been too dazzled. If you want to see a film’s costumes giving a good story a run for its money, here’s the film to see.

A sample here.

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I must confess I had no patience with the music of the film, and fast-forwarded the songs both times I watched the film. Except for this one, where Dilip Kumar is delightful, dancing like a village belle, and affords us a glimpse of the ravishing Padma Khanna as Mama’s (Sunder) fourth wife.