Nandlal Jaswantlal’s Nagin was the top grossing movie of 1954. The plot is both convoluted and fairly routine; it doesn’t help that the surviving prints seem to be incomplete, marred by jump cuts and a few confusing gaps in the plot. But Nagin has enough charms to survive the test of time, mainly thanks to Hemant Kumar’s songs, including a remarkable 20-minute dream sequence at the end of the movie.
In a remote and highly picturesque setting, evidently somewhere in the Northeast, rival tribes of snake charmers – the Nagi and the Ragi – earn a living by hunting snakes to make anti-venom, which they sell in the nearby city. Competition in their trade is fierce, and the two tribes have sworn vengeance on each other.
The production designers make the most of the exotic setting without attempting authenticity or verisimilitude. The sets are flamboyantly theatrical painted backdrops, and the costumes are highly elaborate. The supporting cast is strong, most notably Sulochana in a dignified turn as Mala’s mother.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film, though it’s never unpacked or fully articulated, is the palpable tension between the determination to preserve traditional ways and the dependence on (and proximity to) the city. The Nagi chief (Mubarak) is a savvy businessman who seems perfectly at ease negotiating with the city folk, and the villainous Prabir (Jeevan) wears trendy sunglasses along with his feathered headgear.
Predictably, the son and daughter of the two warring chieftains meet and fall in love.
As Mala (Vyjayanthimala, radiant) and Sanatan (a cardboard cutout Pradeep Kumar) conspire to be together, and their families’ objections escalate, the songs come thick and fast.
The movie’s chief claim to fame is Man Dole Mera Tan Dole, the instantly recognisable snake charmer’s theme that has spawned a thousand samples (most memorably in Twist from 2009’s Love Aaj Kal.) The ubiquitous been melody is played by Kalyanji Shah (of Kalyanji-Anandji fame) on clavioline and voiced by Lata Mangeshkar at her most dulcet.
The first time Sanatan calls his “been ka jaadu” into play, a dozen or so cobras come swarming out of the brush and stand at attention, rapt. Mala, hunting in the jungle, hears it and is as charmed as any snake. She is completely caught up in the music, her sinuous hand and arm movements mimicking a cobra poised to strike. Contrary to most cinematic snake dances, there is no sense of danger or wild abandon here. Mala’s dance is lovely and innocent, so much so that she instantly forgets her vow to kill Sanatan, and instead falls head over heels.
The Man Dole theme winds through the movie incessantly, accompanying Sanatan’s every appearance, and even popping upas a counterpoint in several of the other songs.
All of the dances draw heavily on folk styles, with gestures that frequently evoke snakes, both through abhinaya, and the more general use of lithe, serpentine movements.(The opening titles credit four dance directors: Sachin Shankar, Yogendra Desai, Hiralal, and Surya Kumar.)
During a spring mela at which both the Nagi and Ragi earn much of their income for the year, Sanatan and Mala somehow stumble backstage in a travelling theatre company, and are promptly mistaken for the lead performers. This results in a spritely staged number, Are Chhod De Sajaniya in which she dances with great delicacy and he, been-less for once, bounces around sportingly.
Mala’s friends join her for two lovely group dances. Sun Ri Sakhi Mohe is simultaneously flirtatious and wistful, as she pines for Sanatan and dreams of going to his home (his been chimes in right on cue as the song comes to an end). In Yaad Rakhna Pyaar Ki Nishani, Sanatan, disguised as a bangle seller, infiltrates preparations for Mala’s marriage to Prabir in a failed attempt to rescue her; she is surprisingly jolly for someone who is about to be forcibly married to man she despises.
In spite of the broader folk style of most the dances, Vyjayanthimala never lets the audience forget that she is an accomplished Bharatanatyam artist. Even when she is submerged in water up to her eyes (in Tere Dwar Khada Ek Jogi), the minute precision in her every movement gives away her classical training.
Following several plot twists, Mala’s father and Prabir take her away to the city in order to remove her from Sanatan’s clutches. Sanatan, of course, follows. He strolls through town, still playing his been, and a crowd gathers, mesmerised. He is immediately recruited to play in a nearby theatre, and it is decided that a girl must be found to perform with him. Who else should appear but Mala; Prabir is only too eager to make a quick buck off her skills.
The lovers are reunited backstage, and she shows him a tiny viper that she keeps in a box – she has resolved to kill herself following marriage to Prabir. He suggests that they run away together instead, and they escape during the performance, using smoke machines, which they call “Angrezi badal”, to create a diversion. But Prabir sends a cobra in pursuit, and Mala is bitten – the snake sort of leaps up and wrestles her to the ground – and falls unconscious into a fever dream.
What follows is a wonderfully avant garde dream sequence as Mala hovers between life and death, and the entire Nagi clan stage an elaborate prayer ritual in an attempt to revive her. Set entirely to music, with production design that looks like Salvador Dali and Ray Harryhausen collaborated on a Tibetan thangka painting, the film bursts into Technicolor for its final act.
Dressed first as Cleopatra, and then as a fairy princess, Mala glimpses Sanatan waiting for her. “Aaja o saanware” she sings, a bit perplexingly, since surely he should be calling on her to return to the land of the living, rather than the reverse. But before she can reach him, he is obscured by a thick fog of Angrezi badal. She finds herself in a desolate landscape, surrounded by giant, gaping skulls, and is pursued by a chorus of masked and zebra-striped demons, who leap and twirl balletically under a giant statue of Yama.
Suddenly, a Kathakali figure appears, beckoning to Mala from atop a cliff. He tells her that, in order to return to life, she must undergo an agnipariksha. As she approaches the fire, the dream begins to merge with the Nagi ritual, where her people are still standing vigil. She emerges from the flames into Sanatan’s waiting arms. He plays his been beatifically, to the accompaniment of a bevy of celestial Manipuri dancers, with giant flowers for parasols.
And just like that Mala awakens – still in Technicolor – to a new life and a happy, if somewhat abrupt ending.