Kabuliwala was made immortal with Balraj Sahni’s moving portrayal of the Pathan.

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Kabuliwala (1961 film)

If pathos had another name, Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Kabuliwala” would have earned it. This heartwarming story of a Pathan from Kabul, who comes to Calcutta (as it was then called) to earn money and befriends four-year-old Mini from a middle-class family since she reminds him of his own daughter back home, inspired two stalwarts of Bengali and Hindi cinema to reproduce the story.

If Tapan Sinha made it in Bengali and took Chobi Biswas and the very cute Tinku Thakur to play the main roles, Hemen Gupta made it in Hindi employing the impeccable Balraj Sahni and Baby Sonu. The Bengali version was released in 1954 and the Hindi one in 1961.

The story goes like this: a Pathan called Rahmat (Sahni) whose wife is no more, takes care of his child Ameena (Baby Farida) like a mother and saves her from the wrath of her grandmother. As winter approaches, the poor Pathan is left with little to fend for his family, so he decides to go to Hindustan to earn money and come back. Ameena wouldn’t let him go, so he stealthily leaves home taking her hand print on a newspaper as a memento. In Hindustan, he starts selling dry fruits and warm clothes like shawls door to door.

Because of his unusual look — a huge wavy, layered turban, Pathani suit with jacket and a huge bag — he is taken as a ‘baba’, who would kidnap children and keep them in his huge bag. Mothers scare their kids saying if they don’t listen to them, Kabuliwala will take them away! But little Mini, the daughter of a writer played by Sajjan Kumar (supposedly Tagore himself as the story is said to be based on his own experiences), befriends him. The chatterbox is hooked to the man who gives her dry fruits every day. He repairs her broken doll and tells her stories. After making good money, the Pathan decides to go back home after collecting his dues from a man who has bought a shawl worth Rs.18 from him. When he asks for his money, the man abuses the Pathan and his family. Angry and insulted, the Pathan takes out a knife and kills him accidentally.

Despite the government lawyer asking him to lie, the Pathan tells the truth in court. Impressed by his honesty, the judge awards him 10 years rigorous punishment. He spends sleepless nights remembering Ameena and Mini. On his release, he goes to see Mini, but the now grown-up girl (Lata Sinha) has forgotten him. Stunned, he realises his own daughter too may have forgotten him by now. He longs to go there but has no money. Eventually, helped with cash by Mini’s father, he leaves for Afghanistan in the hope of being reunited with Ameena.

The film didn’t do well commercially. And while it did not win national and international awards like Sinha’s Bengali film, it was made immortal with Sahni’s moving portrayal of the Pathan, besides the two great songs “Aye Mere Pyare Watan” sung by Manna Dey, and “Ganga Aayi Kahan Se” (Hemant Kumar). It was reported that Bollywood’s famous villain Pran was moved to tears listening to the “Watan song” as he belonged to Sindh and came to India during Partition. If Salil Chowdhury’s music impressed people, Madhu Prabhawalkar’s scissors could have chopped off some more scenes, especially the dream sequence in which Mini sees Kabuliwala when he is sent to jail.

Despite India’s cordial relations with Afghanistan, those days people knew very little about ‘Kabuliwalas’. The film popularised them as honest and large-hearted, especially in Calcutta, and even in remote places like the coalmines of Asansol where they were regular visitors as dry fruit and cloth merchants. Jatras played an important role in popularising them.

Despite its flaws, the film leaves an imprint, especially with scenes like Sahni repairing Mini’s broken doll, praying tearfully for her recovery from illness, giving money to strangers, and so on. If Sinha’s “Kabuliwala” is most remembered for little Tinku, Gupta’s “Kabuliwala” is known for Sahni’s power-packed performance.

(Courtesy: Kabuliwala movie review by Shri.Rana Siddiqui Zaman for TheHindu)

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