Friday, April 19, 2019

Flashback series: language, education and a great romantic pairing in Gunga Jumna

[Here is my latest Film Companion piece, about the very influential Dilip Kumar film Gunga Jumna]

Title: Gunga Jumna
Director: Nitin Bose
Year: 1961
Cast: Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Nasir Khan, Kanhaiyalal

Why you should watch it:

Because it represents Dilip Kumar’s crowning achievement as a multi-tasker

Gunga Jumna is sometimes considered THE Dilip Kumar film, for good reason. Most visibly, it gave him a fine, author-backed role: as the large-hearted and gregarious village boy Gunga, who works hard to educate his younger brother Jumna (played by the star’s real-life brother Nasir Khan) but is driven by misfortune – and the machinations of a local landlord – towards joining a gang of dacoits.

However, Kumar’s contribution goes well beyond his performance. “Written and produced by Dilip Kumar” is the film’s assertive final credit; even though it was officially directed by the respected veteran Nitin Bose (whose career stretched back to the 1920s), Kumar had no hesitation in saying, in his memoir The Substance and the Shadow, that “Gunga Jumna was essentially my baby”. His involvement in every aspect of the production – from location-choosing to editing – has been confirmed, among others, by co-star Vyjayanthimala (who plays Gunga’s love Dhanno) and cinematographer V Babasaheb. There was a personal angle too: the film was partly made with the intention of giving his younger brother Nasir a strong role in a big production.

All of which could encourage a cynical view of Gunga Jumna: that it was an ego project for a major leading man who was nearing forty (an age when, historically, the Hindi-film male star is at his most image-obsessed, vulnerable, prone to self-mythologizing and making poor choices). But a viewing of the film itself dispels such ideas. Gunga Jumna is extremely well paced, made with loving attention to detail, and moves elegantly between small moments and grand ones. Here is an important story about the exploitation of the rural poor under the feudal system, but also an intimate character study. It endorses the rules of civilized life – reiterating that no crime, however provoked, should go unpunished – but retains empathy for a man who was a victim long before he was a “sinner”.

And all this without mentioning the many sweet little interludes, such as the ones involving a grumbling munim (Kanhaiyalal, giving one of those terrific performances one so often sees from supporting actors in old Hindi cinema, which find a balance between stereotype and believability) and his love-hate relationship with a street mongrel who chases him despite being fed by him.

For the use of the Awadhi dialect, making it very different from most Hindi films of the era

The “indie” cinema of the past decade or two has been notable for its greater emphasis on authenticity in dialogues and accents – and the recognition that there are many Indias and that a variety of milieu-specific stories can be set in them. This was not the norm in Hindi films of half a century ago, which were more homogenous and Bombay-centric in their sensibility and use of language; even on the few occasions when stories were set in a specifically identified region of (say) central or northern India, the protagonists’ conversations rarely steered far from “shuddh” Hindi or Khariboli. Gunga Jumna is an exception, both in Wajahat Mirza’s dialogues and in Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics for such songs like “Nain Lad Jaihen” and “Tora Mann Bada Paapi”. Again, Dilip Kumar was instrumental in the bold decision to have much of the dialogue in Awadhi, which many feared would harm the film’s box-office prospects.

However, this linguistic choice wasn’t made just for novelty value, or to present well-known actors in an unfamiliar avatar. One reason it’s so effective is because this story is about the gap between a pastoral world and a forward-looking one; about the possibility of moving ahead through modern education, but also the ambivalence of leaving your roots behind. (You’re making a mistake by getting your brother educated in English, the munim tells Gunga.) The film celebrates progress and change, while sparing a thought for those who are too steeped in the old world to be able to leave it.

Throughout, language is used to distinguish between two sets of people and ways of life. While Gunga and Dhanno speak the rustic-sounding (to our urban ears) Awadhi of the village, Jumna and the girl he loves, Kamla – both of whom have been educated in the local school – are more reserved in their speech. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter characters are wiser or more “sophisticated”, because this is also a tale about the difference between textbook education and lived experience. In early scenes, while the child Jumna dutifully learns and recites lines like “Chori karna paap hai, jhooth bolna paap hai” from a book – and sings “Insaaf ki dagar pe / bachon dikhao chalke” in school – his older brother is learning about the many injustices of life firsthand.

For the thrill of watching a leading romantic couple – who once played Devdas and Chandramukhi – calling each other “luchi”, “daayin”, “besaram” and even “bayl” (bull)

Vyjayanthimala and Dilip Kumar, among the most celebrated screen pairings of the 50s and 60s, are delightful together – as they were in their chatty roles in Naya Daur and Paigham before this film, and in the more sombre Devdas and Madhumati. Like many other great romantic couples, there is something counterintuitive about their teaming: Kumar was the master of understatement, celebrated for his eschewing of the loud or theatrical gesture; Vyjayanthimala came from a tradition of south Indian dance and performance that was steeped in the expression of bhava and rasa – things that fans of “naturalistic” screen acting often have little patience with.

Yet they worked so well together in a number of films, and in Gunga Jumna both also get to operate outside their comfort zones (what with Kumar playing a man given to grand gestures and shows of emotion, participating in a kabaddi game or dancing with zeal). There’s an unusual scene where Gunga inadvertently strikes Dhanno in pain and annoyance as she tries to remove a bullet from his shoulder; and his men – hardened dacoits, all – get angry with him for hitting a woman. Just as engaging, though, are the many verbal jousts between the two lovers.

For how it influenced Hindi films (and stars) to come

Among the many young viewers Gunga Jumna left a big impression on was the 19-year-old Amitabh Bachchan, who often spoke in later decades about how taken he had been by Kumar’s performance – specifically, by how a Pathan had mastered the nuances of rural UP speech. One of Bachchan’s own superstar-making films, Deewaar, would be a reworking of Gunga Jumna’s “brothers on opposite side of the law” theme, complete with a fatal climactic confrontation between outlaw and cop.

The older film has a sharper sense of humour, though: in the early depiction of the Gunga-Jumna relationship, one can see a much lighter version of the Vijay-Ravi equation in Deewaar. The teenage Gunga half-jokingly complains about having to constantly serve his “superintendent” (which he pronounces more like “soopintandant”) kid brother. Not realizing how prescient his words will be when, as adults, the brothers will be divided by clothes (police uniform versus dacoit’s garb) and by speech.


Trivia: Gunga Jumna was co-edited by Dilip Kumar’s friend Hrishikesh Mukherjee, even though the latter – who had begun his career as an editor – was an established film director by this point.

Trivia 2: Vyjayanthimala, who, as a south Indian, was expected to struggle with the Awadhi dialect, recalled in an interview that Dilip Kumar recorded her dialogues on tape beforehand and asked her to listen to them before doing a scene.


  1. I remember feeling overwhelmed by 'Gunga Jumna' when I saw it some years ago, and feeling that I didn't have words enough to praise the film. It's a very skillfully constructed movie with so many brilliant scenes that seamlessly flow on from one another. It probably features the finest and most moving performances of both Dilip and Vijanthimala. The supporting cast was also wonderful; notably Kanhaiyalal who you've mentioned as well as others. There were many scenes that I loved, but just to mention one; there's that scene in the forest where Gunga announces that he's going to stop being a dacoit and turn a new leaf. Dhanno is elated, and says that she'll go to the village and beg everyone's forgiveness on Ganga's behalf. She utters a prayer to the effect of 'God, we haven't forgotten you, please don't forget us. Help us out of this and bring Jumna back to us'. Then they hear news of Jumna's having returned to the village as a police superintendent and approach him full of hope. Part of the scene is on youtube:

    It's a very affecting scene, and the way these characters have been depicted just seems so convincing. There's Gunga who can talk to Dhanno so savagely (the 'hat' sounds so crushing and awful) and yet he loves her so much. You empathise with the couple, and Ganga has every reason to feel conflicted about turning himself him, though I do broadly identify with the film's underlying stance, in that it:

    'endorses the rules of civilized life – reiterating that no crime, however provoked, should go unpunished – but retains empathy for a man who was a victim long before he was a “sinner”.'

    I think that is a very sound position, though tough cases do sometimes come along which seem to challenge it. Netflix seems to be full of highly depressing documentaries on people who have had the most terrible lives imaginable, and go on to do terrible things, and you don't know what to think. Some of these people were brought up in environments where they would not have been able to grasp at any concept of right or wrong. Their lives make it look as though Gunga actually had it pretty good in comparison.

    I also feel that some of the films 'Gunga Jumna' inspired such as 'Deewar' (while entertaining enough in their own right, I suppose) don't come even close to it, in term of the feelings they elicit. I find it a bit difficult to explain why. Perhaps Amitabh's 'Vijay' isn't quite as appealing as Dilip's earthy, at times endearing and very realistic seeming Gunga. Perhaps it has something to do with the writing; though 'Deewar' is well-written, IMO the script doesn't have the brilliance or spark of Gunga Jumna. Some people might strongly disagree with me, but I don't think of 'Deewar' as a 'classic' (I just think of it as a good, solid, entertaining movie, much like 'Sholay'). This Wahajat Mirza fellow must have been a highly talented as well as very versatile script writer; he was also one of the writers of 'Mughal- e-Azam'. As Dilip is also credited for the script, I don't know how it worked out between them; whether it was a collaborative effort or whether Dilip made significant changes to Mirza's original script. Anyways (yes that evil linguistic concoction, lol), Dilip can justly be very proud of his contribution to this film. It is a magnificent film and its no surprise that's it's so highly regarded.

  2. I don't quite agree that Vyjayanthimala's acting is particularly stylized

    It may be so in this film. But hardly the case in her films with say Rajendra Kumar - Zindagi, Saathi, Sangam, Aas Ka Pancchi. Or the film she did with Uttam Kumar - Chhoti si Mulaqat - my personal favorite