Among the many nuggets that author and documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir gives us in her book, Conversations With Waheeda Rehman, a few are about the lovely monochrome film Teesri Kasam (1966). It is one of the tragedies of Hindi cinema that this black-and-white gem sank at the box office despite the all-round talent involved in its making. Most importantly, the film’s failure claimed the life of its producer, the lyricist Shailendra.
The songwriter had several financial problems in making the film. Rehman commented in Nasreen’s book, “He had to really struggle hard. One day he came to see me and said he couldn’t pay me. I felt very bad for him. He had tears in his eyes. It is heartbreaking to see a man cry. I told him not to talk about money.”
Based on the writer Phanishwarnath Renu’s story Maare Gaye Gulfaam, Teesri Kasam revolves around the three promises made by the cart driver, Hiraman (Raj Kapoor). Hiraman commits to the first two decisions in the initial few minutes of the film: one, of not carrying stolen goods in his cart; and the second, never to carry bamboo again. The large part of Teesri Kasam’s narrative involves Hiraman getting acquainted and his subsequent relationship with the acclaimed nautanki artiste Hirabai (Rehman).
Although Rehman indicated to Kabir that she could never imagine Raj Kapoor in the role of Hiraman (“I wondered how he would look in a dhoti”), Kapoor’s depiction of Hiraman, the innocent rustic enamoured by Hirabai’s feminine grace and gentleness, was a finely etched performance.
“It turned out that Raj Kapoor was excellent as Hiraman,” remarked Rehman, who herself notched up yet another impressive, sensitive performance, following in the footsteps of Guide (1965). As Hirabai, Rehman portrayed the conflicting worlds her character has to grapple with; in one part, she is compassionate and attracted to Hiraman; and in the other, as the woman who has to deal with men who seek her company to keep themselves entertained and think of her as nothing other than a common prostitute.
Teesri Kasam took many years in the making. Shailendra had approached Rehman for the role in the early 1960s. The story goes that Shailendra had initially cast Mehmood and Meena Kumari for the roles that were eventually played by Kapoor and Rehman. The film was directed by Basu Bhattacharya, who had earlier assisted Bimal Roy on films such as Madhumati and Sujata.
The realistic feel that Bhattacharya managed to give Teesri Kasam was a direct offshoot of his working with Roy, who was heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists. The writer Nabendu Ghosh, another regular Bimal Roy crew member, wrote Teesri Kasam’s screenplay. The dialogue was written by Renu himself.
Rehman offered an interesting insight in this context. “Rajji thought the ending of the film should be changed and Hiraman and Hirabai should go away together. But no one agreed to that. The whole point of the story was Hiraman’s ‘teesri kasam’ never to let a nautanki girl travel in his cart again. The writer Renu… would have been furious if the ending had been changed.”
But perhaps the most important aspect of Teesri Kasam’s brilliance was its songs. Written by Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra and composed to Shankar-Jaikishen’s tunes, the soundtrack adeptly carried the story forward. Numbers such as Chalat Musaafir, Paan Khaaye Saiyaan Humaro, Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Humaar and Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo, rendered in the voices of Manna Dey, Asha Bhosle and Mukesh, beautifully articulated the moment, the mood and the emotion in the screenplay.
The jewel in the crown was the Mukesh solo Duniyaa Banaanewaale. Written by Jaipuri, the song detailed the fable of Mahua Ghatwaran’s tragic romantic liaison, but was an apt summary of the passing encounter between Hiraman and Hirabai: “Preet banaa ke tu ne jeena sikhaayaa, Hasna sikhaayaa, rona sikhaayaa, Jeevan ke pathh par meet milaayaa, Meet milaa ke tuney sapney jagaaye, Sapney jagaa ke tuney, kaahey ko de di judaayee?”
Beautifully shot by ace cinematographer Subrata Mitra (of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy fame, Teesri Kasam, despite its commercial failure, went on to win the National Film Award for Best Film in 1967. Apparently, Kapoor charged Shailendra only a rupee as his fees to help his lyricist friend tide over his difficulties to make the film.
While a few scenes of the film were shot near the Powai Lake, the rest of Teesri Kasam was shot in Bina, a small town near Bhopal. Rehman detailed an uncomfortable episode while on her return to Bombay from Bina. A large group of students wouldn’t let the train leave Bina station. Kapoor even tried to negotiate with the young men, who were eager to catch a glimpse of their matinee idols. While Kapoor had presented himself to the students, he refused to let Rehman come out. The students remained adamant in wanting to see Rehman.
The situation grew tense as Kapoor persisted with his stand. The crowd resorted to stone pelting and hitting the train with big iron bars. Kapoor had to be pushed into Rehman’s compartment by his friends where the actress, her sister and her hairdresser “had to literally pin Rajji on to the seat. I sat on his chest while my sister held on to his legs”.
Eventually the police arrived and the crowd was dispersed. But when the stars arrived at Mumbai Central the following day, people were shocked to see the state they were in. “We had fragments of glass lodged in our hair and sprayed on our clothes – we even found bits of glass in our bags,” Rehman told Kabir.
Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins India). He tweets at @AkshayManwani.