Monday, 5 August 2013

Oonche Log

When we watch a film, I think, what appeals to most of us is the manner in which the director narrates the story and how well the actors have interpreted their characters. Some directors are pretty skillful in their narration while others resort to straight forward story telling. Oonche Log directed by Phani Majumdar is more or less straight forward story telling, where the film scores is in the acting department. Please excuse me, I may sound a bit prejudiced but I do think this is one of my father’s best performances. Unfortunately nobody mentions this film for it sank without a trace, my brother says it ran for just 6 weeks. It is unfortunate really for almost everyone performed well but to me personally besides my father, it was Ashok Kumar who gave a mind-blowing performance as the visually challenged Major Chandrakant.

The film is based on a play, ‘Major Chandrakant’, written by K.Balachandar. After doing a bit of Google search, I learnt that this K.Balachandar is none other than the renowned filmmaker from the south who launched Tamil superstar Rajnikant.

The story in brief is about Major Chandrakant (Ashok Kumar), a widower, who has lost his eyesight during the war.

He lives with his two sons Sreekant (Raaj Kumar) a police inspector and ...

 Rajnikant (Feroz Khan) a student. Incidentally, just a thought, I wonder whether K. Balachander is particularly fond of this name Rajnikant, considering he gave his discovery the screen name of Rajnikant whose actual name is Shivajirao Gaikwad. There are two other characters whom you see in the film's first half, Juman (Kumud Tripathi) the family’s cook-cum-domestic help and Dhunichand ( Kanhaiyalal), a school teacher (see below), who is eager to get his daughter married to Rajnikant.

The film opens with the obvious happiness of the Major at having his beloved younger son home for the college holidays. However, elder brother Sreekant notices a change in his younger brother and expresses his concern to his father. The father brushes it aside, believing that everything will be alright, though he too notices certain things about his younger son which he doesn’t approve of and on and off corrects his son. Unknown to the father and the elder brother Rajni is having an affair with one of his claas mates Bimla Prabhu (K.R.Vijaya). He promises to marry her but drops her like a hot potato when he realizes she is pregnant.

  A quirk of fate leads to Sreekant reading Rajni’s letter. The letter was addressed to Sree  Kant with the Sree and Kant written separately, Rajni  assuming it was for his brother, hands it  over to him. The letter is from  Bimla who begs Rajni to marry her for she is afraid  her brother Mohan Prabhu (my father) will sooner or later learn about it. Incidentally she has no parents and has been brought up by her elder brother.
Sreekant insists that his brother marry Bimla and asks him to meet her and not avoid her. In the meanwhile as  the two brothers are talking the Major comes in. In order to cover up Sreekant talks about the confusion with the letter, the Major takes the letter from his son saying it could be for him. Later, sensing something is amiss the Major asks his elder son Sreekant to read out the letter to him.

 Sree in order to spare his father’s feelings and protect his younger brother makes up a letter of his own, giving an impression that the letter is written by Rajni's friend’s wife Bimla Prabhu who is seeking help from Rajni as her husband is suffering from cancer.

Meanwhile Rajnikant has no intention of marrying Bimla, he asks her to abort the child as he cannot face his father.

 A disgusted Bimla asks him to go away and commits suicide.

 Her brother Mohan Prabhu, Professor of chemistry and a research scholar is completely shattered

 and in a fit of rage sets out in search of Rajnikant and murders him.(below).

 Shocked at his own actions Mohan tries to evade the police and ends up in the Major’s house.

                                                                                                                        Initially the Major is determined to hand him over to the police but on hearing Mohan’s story he decides to give him shelter.                                                                  

He is completely ignorant of the fact that he is giving shelter to his son’s murderer. It is in this second half that you see some excellent performances .
I remember my father speaking admiringly of quite a few Hollywood actors, but amongst the Indian actors,  Ashok Kumar was my father’s idol.

Ashok Kumar was one of those actors who was pretty secure, he was not afraid of his co-actors stealing the show. There were and still are several actors both male and female, who get the their scenes re-written so that they dominate the scene. Ashok kumar was different, for him what was important  was that the scene should be good and not just his performance. He often went beyond the script and improvised, encouraging his co-actors to do the same and this is what my father enjoyed. There is one scene in Oonche Log where Ashok Kumar is searching for a set of keys, his performance of a helpless blind man searching for the keys, slipping and falling down in the bargain, is excellent.

What I liked about his performance is? It is understated. It is not one of those performances where the actor with some over-the top acting and mannerisms almost screams”Look how great my acting is” (see the clip below).

As for my father, well I find it just difficult to pick out one scene but if I have to choose, then it will be the murder scene. It is so realistic,  it is almost as if he is really confronting his sister’s lover, in real life he didn’t even have a sister, and after the murder the expression of shock and realization at the enormity of his action, is heart-breaking (see the clip below).

While watching this scene again, I realized that he and Feroze Khan are obviously on the set, the scenery which you see in the background is a back projection, giving an impression that the train is chugging along through the countryside. As my father accuses Feroze Khan, you notice Khan moving out of the frame and is out of the set, then my father starts beating him, I thought he is obviously whacking some inanimate object, there was such conviction in his performance that I almost forgot that he is there acting all alone on that set.
There is another scene where having entered the Major’s house, Mohan Prabhu assuming that the Major being blind is not aware of his presence, silently  goes into one of the rooms and thirstily drinks water from a jug. I love this scene (see clip below) because you can see the helplessness of a man, a research scholar who suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

Feroze Khan and Raaj Kumar have also acted quite well. There is one scene where Raaj Kumar really performs well and that is the scene where he reads the letter out to the Major (see clip below).

Incidentally there is something quite interesting in the above mentioned scene, at least I for one found it interesting, considering the fact that we just bid a fond farewell to the telegram here in India. Ashok Kumar says, "Oh phonogram.......", I felt a little nostalgic while watching this scene, I call the phonogram which was telegram dictated over the phone, the SMS of our childhood.

Good acting, a good story and some excellent songs could not save the film from box-office doom. What most people did not like was that, the heroine K.R.Vijaya was hardly seen in the film. Her role was brief and most of the time she was shown back to the camera, in contrast in the film’s Tamil version (Major Chandrakanth)  the heroine played by Jayalalitha had a longer role and of course she faces the camera. From what I have heard, the reason for not showing her is that the play had no female character, I guess there was just a reference to Bimla in the play, that is why in the Hindi version of the film too, it was decided to reduce the length of Bimla's character. Personally, I agree with the audience, after all when you see a character on screen you definitely want to see his or her face particularly in the crucial scenes. Most people did not like the film’s first half and found the scenes with Juman and Dhunichand a bit tedious. According to me however, what went against the film was that it was made at a time when the Hindi film audience was used to formula films- a hero, heroine, a villain, maybe a vamp, a separate comedy track with a comedian and comedienne. The hero with the help of the comedian bashing up the villain and then the hero and heroine living happily ever after. In case of Oonche Log, the audience had to walk out of the cinema hall with a heavy heart.


I was little when this film was being made, but I do have some memories about those days. I remember accompanying my father to a photographer’s studio. Now why was I accompanying him I do not remember, I think we were on our way to some other place and dropped in at this studio on the way. I saw the photographer hand over the robe and hat which graduates wear at the convocation ceremony, after my father put on the robe and hat, the photographer looked around, found a piece of paper and rolled it up and handed it to my father. My father posed with that piece of paper and the photographer clicked. I did not understand anything as I was small, when I grew up a little and saw the photo again (we had it at home, but it has been misplaced,  I have therefore posted the screen cap of the same below). I realized that piece of paper which was just some paper lying around, was supposed to be a degree, I was quite amused at just any paper being used to represent a degree.

It was during the making of this film that my father discovered that Raaj Kumar was bald, well not exactly bald, he had very little hair. Those were the days when the press was rather sedate, gossip magazines were unheard of, therefore my father who was working with Raaj Kumar for the first time was completely unaware of the fact that Raaj Kumar did not have much hair on his head.  While shooting for the film, my father was in the make-up room when Raaj Kumar walked in after giving his shot and removed his wig before settling down to relax. His wigs used to be of very good quality, one of the reasons why my father hadn’t been able to detect that it was not natural hair.

I have read that many actors found Raaj Kumar a difficult man to work with, but my father did not have any problem, they shared a cordial relationship. While the film was under production, all of us were going somewhere but my father stopped at some studio or some such place, he parked the car right behind Raaj Kumar’s car, who also happened to be there.  My father got out of the car and bumped into Raaj Kumar. As my father and Raaj Kumar were chatting, my brother who was also small then and who was otherwise a very well-behaved child, couldn’t help himself and began fiddling with the car’s controls, there was a slight slope and the car began to roll and it went and hit Raaj Kumar’s car. There was no damage for there was no speed. My father was terribly embarrassed, but Raaj Kumar was quite indulgent and laughed it off , his attitude being 'boys will be boys'. I was therefore quite surprised  at all the negative reporting about him.

My brother has another amusing memory connected with this film. My brother and Akbar Khan - Feroze Khan's younger brother - studied at the same school. When the film released, Akbar teased my brother, "Very good your father is in jail, he killed my brother." Needless to mention my brother was amused, it was a sort of joke between them.

My next post will be about Gumnaam.It might take a little time  but rest assured I will be back with Gumnaam.

Before I sign off, here is another clip from Oonche Log, I had to post this one for I just love my father's performance in this scene.


  1. I can imagine why the movie was not a success. The audience was just not used to seeing a film of this kind. It was all about trying to establish what was superior, duty or righteousness.

    I agree, the acting was excellent all round.

    I also like Ashok Kumar a lot. Recently I saw Afsana and was struck by how natural his acting was. Not bombastic, but very natural.

    Your father, of course, excelled as ever.

    1. You hit the nail on the head Ava, yes Ashok Kumar's acting was natural not bombastic

  2. Now I have to see this film! Thank you, Shilpi, that was absolutely riveting. I love crime films, and the cast and story of this sound completely up my street. Will definitely watch this.

    P.S. Love those anecdotes too. Raj Kumar has never been a favourite of mine, but you've just made me revise my opinion of him a little. ;-)

    1. Yes Madhu, you must see this film, if nothing else you must see it for the acting and yes the lovely songs.

    2. Among the character actors, Tarun Bose was one of the best.

    3. Tarun Bose was among the best character actor of bollywood. I am a 66 year gent who is an avid fan of anything old on bollywood. Shilpi, your trivia is super. I found a lot of which I was unaware of.Thanks

    4. Welcome to my blog dadani, glad you enjoyed all the trivia and other info.

  3. We had seen this film when we were in the first year of our college (1965-66). I was the one who had literaaly pressurised my freinds to go for this film, all others were not for seeing such a 'heavy' film.
    I distinctly rember that all of us liked acting of Ashok Kumar, Raaj Kumar , Tarun Bose and film's songs, inparticular, both thescenes that you have narrated - Raaj Kumar reading the letter and Tarun Bose 'silently' creeping in the house.
    Of course, I have seen the film several times thereafter. Gradually, I started appreciating the fact of Feroze Khan being stuck in a role which was really villanous and aginst the such strong protrayl of other charcters. That must be have been quite telling for a young actor. He did the job quite gamefully.

    1. Yes you are absolutely right, in fact he is quite lovable in the film, you can't help but like him although you know he is up to no good.

  4. What a lovely post, Shilpi. I just love reading your posts because they always have something different from usual film posts.

    I love Oonche Log. It is one of my absolute favourite films. It is very well-made, tightly woven storyline, the tension is built up beautifully, the characters very well sketched out, lovely songs.

    For me, the best scenes are those between your dad and Ashok Kumar. Your dad was always an excellent actor - but in this film, he even outdid himself, in my opinion.

    1. Thank you Raja and yes I just love my father in this film. It is quite sad that the film was such a flop.

  5. Well Shilpi another eyeopener loved reading as well as seeing some of the scenes, both your father and Ashok kumar are indeed very fine actors very sutle and the performance is so very natural.Now waiting for Gumnaam as it was one of my favorite, but as i child i troubled my mom a lot while watching this film as i was very scared of some of the scenes and she could not njoy watching it as i kept putting my head on her lap during some of the scenes.Come quickly with Gumnaam.

    1. Your memories of Gumnaam are quite interesting Rajee. I will try to speed up but I also have another blog, I need to attend to that too. So I request you to just watch and wait for just a little while.

  6. wow, Shilpi!
    I didn't know that Oonche Log was such a good film.
    I read a review of it somewhere and wasn't really keen on seeing it. Now after watching the scenes. I would love to!

    1. Please do Harvey, I am sure you will like it.

  7. That was such an engrossing read. I was reliving those scenes as they fitted in the film - a film I really like, and is one of my favourites. I'm with you in considering this as one of your father's finest performances.

    Such a pity that it failed at the box office not being a 'formula film'.

    Looking forward to your Gumnaam post. As always, the flow of events and description and trivia make your posts so unique.

    1. Thank you very much for that wonderful comment Pacifist. Yes it is a pity the film flopped but thankfully Gumnaam was hit.

  8. Coming late to this, Shilpi, but I love the way you intersperse the story of the film with your personal reminiscences and incidences connected with the film's shooting. It is a very absorbing read.

    Interestingly, K Balachander himself filmed Major Chandrakant a year after Oonche Log, causing many to state that he had remade Phani Majumdar's film. Most people did not know that Oonche Log was based on Balachander's play.

    In fact, Sunderrajan, who played the Major's role in the Tamil version came to be called Major Sunderrajan after the film because he was so good in the role.

    1. Better late than never Anu. Yes I did read about this on the internet that Sunderrajan came to be known as Major Sunderrajan. But that bit of information is really funny that people believed that K.Balachander remade Oonche Log.

  9. Shilpi m'am: Sorry to be coming late to the game. "Oonche Log" remains a classic in Indian cinema. Thanks to the riveting performances of its lead actors and a taut screenplay, the movie earned a Certificate of Merit at the 13th National Film Awards.

    Here's some additional information on the ackground of the movie:

    As you have stated, it is the screen adaptation of a play"Major Chandrakant" by K.Balachander. KB initially wrote the play in English. He was employed in the AG's Office in Chennai at that time and the chief there was a Bengali gentleman. The play was staged as part of the cultural activities in the office and KB wrote it in English so that the chief could follow it. KB himself essayed the role of Major Chandrakanth in the English version of the play.

    The success of the English play prompted KB to adapt it into a Tamil play of the same name. He roped in Sundararajan, an aspiring artiste to essay the role of the protagonist in the Tamil play. The success of the Tamil play earned Sundararajan the sobriquet of "Major".

    Seeingthe success of the Tamil play, AVM got the rights to make it into a movie. The initial discussions with KB, to make the Tamil movie, did not go through and seem to have been stalled for some reason. At this time Phani Majumdar got the opportunity to make the Hindi movie "Oonche Log". It turned out to be the filmmaker's last Hindi movie. It was also probably the only time K.R.Vijaya ventured in to Hindi cinema.

    Later, KB got the opportunity to create the Tamil version of the movie, retaining "Major" Sundararajan in the lead role. The brilliant and noteworthy performances by its lead actors, in particular Sundararajan and Nagesh (who reprised the role played by your father), made "Major Chandrakanth" an all-time classic too, imho.

    1. Welcome to my blog Ambrish.Thank you very much for all this additional information, it is really interesting to know all these little bits of history particularly the fact that KB himself played the role of the 'Major'.

    2. Shilpi M'am: I just found out that K.Balachander may not have played the title role in the original English version of the play. That role was probably essayed by S.Varadachari, KB's colleague in the AG's office. I apologize for any confusion caused.

    3. That is okay, there is no need to apologize, we all make mistakes.