Chal Ri Sajni from Raj Khosla’s Bombai Ka Babu (1960) is a dirge that is also a love song, set during a wedding.
Loosely inspired by O Henry’s short story Double-Eyed Deceiver, Khosla’s film explores the taboo subject of incest. Babu (Dev Anand) is impersonating Kundan, the long-lost son of a wealthy family in a village. Babu is a smooth criminal from Mumbai, who goes on the run after he accidentally kills his partner. Babu pretends to be Kundan on the suggestion of Bhagat (Jeevan). The plan is to impersonate Kundan for a finite period and steal the family’s wealth.
Babu is eventually converted and redeemed not by the joy of his fake parents, but by the beauty and affection of Maya (Suchitra Sen), his supposed sister.
Babu falls for Maya instantly, and drop dark hints all along the way to suggest that his love for her is not of the brotherly variety. Jal Mistry’s fabulous chiaroscuro camerawork draws out Babu’s dark edges as well as Maya’s blinding radiance. Maya suspects that something is not quite right with Babu, but hesitates to expose him even after she stumbles upon his real designs to save her parents from heartbreak.
Bombai Ka Babu has several estimable songs by SD Burman, all of which are dexterously woven into the narrative. When heard on its own without the accompanying visuals, Chal Ri Sajni, beautifully sung by Mukesh and written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, works perfectly as a bidaai (farewell) song for a bride. The context within which the song is placed tells the real story.
Chal Ri Sajni unfolds in the background during Maya’s wedding in the climax. The song turns the traditional ritual of the brother giving away his sister on its head. As Babu watches Maya leave her home, the real source of his pain is evident only to her. Maya keeps turning back to look at Babu, both with gratitude for having dumped his partner and saved the family honour as well as with something that approximates love. The frisson that has been crackling between the two throughout the movie finally has a name, but it’s too late for both.