‘Pinjre Ke Panchchi’ is possibly the only movie that was directed by the legendary music composer Salil Chowdhury (of “Madhumati” fame). Unfortunately, his directorial efforts proved to be insipid. Though the plot is intriguing, the narrative falters at many places. Sabita Chowdhury doing the playback for Meena Kumari is another disaster.
Salilda mentioned in an interview that completing the movie was nothing short of a pyrrhic victory for him. By the time the movie released, Meena Kumari had taken to drinking in a big way and had bloated. During the shooting of the movie (most of the movie has been shot outdoors in West Bengal in breath-taking locations) in Filmistan Studios, Kamal Amrohi’s assistant Baquer Ali slapped Meena Kumari in what he thought was an inappropriate act by the actress. People on the sets recalled his offensive behaviour with horror.
Incensed by the humiliation and no longer willing to remain at the receiving end, Meena Kumari never returned home to her husband. Instead she went to her co-star Mahmood’s house after the shoot. Mahmood was too happy to host her. He was married to Meena Kumari’s sister Madhu who later had a troubled marital relationship with the comedian. Rumour mills insisted that to return the favour bestowed on her by her brother in law, Meena Kumari even bequeathed some of her property to him. Regrettably, during her last days, Mahmood failed to take care of his sister-in-law and the actress died a pauper. She was unable to pay even her medical bills and it was Nargis Dutt who ensured that all the bills of Elizabeth Hospital in Santa Cruz were cleared.
For Kamal Amrohi, Meena Kumari was his muse as well as golden goose. Thanks to the mouthy Baquer Ali, Kamal had to deal with his wife’s anger and later separation. Who would have thought that six years after the release of Pinjre Ke Panchhi, Meena Kumari would bid adieu to this world? At 40, the actress looked as though she was 60. Her personal life in complete shambles, it is remarkable that Meena Kumari managed to deliver a stellar performance in this forgettable flick.
Credit is also due to Mahmood for his lively moments and to the legendary actor Balraj Sahni who delivers a strong but subdued performance. Even Shaukat Azmi in a 10-minute role manages to create an impression. It is a mystery why Shaukat Azmi did so few movies in her lifetime.
Two thieves (one a murderer and another a pick pocket) manage to escape from the police jeep and land up in the nearby town where they occupy a house after breaking it open. Soon enough, the landlord visits them and mistakes them to be tenants who were supposed to occupy the house. After a few days, a woman Heena (Meena Kumari) lands up in the house. She is a former nurse who is married to a patient Abhi Bhattacharya in a temple atop a hill. While she was nursing him, both of them had fallen in love. Strangely, the husband sends her to this town assuring her that he would join her soon. He has a suspicion that he is a heart patient and has only a few months to live and in case he dies, he doesn’t want his wife to suffer on that account. These details are narrated rather hazily in the film and the audience realizes this aspect only much later in the plot.
Until then, the two thieves pose as Heena’s relatives and soon a rapport develops between them. The thieves attempt to escape but are unsuccessful. They have to take the help of a former convict Keshto Mukherjee and the scenes involving the latter are a real drag on the pace of the movie. Pity the audiences who had to sit through the nonsense that Mukherjee kept on dishing out in several movies later.
Surprisingly for a movie that is directed by Salil Choudhury, the music is a big disappointment. However, the background music is quite haunting. The mendacious ways of the thieves are soon revealed to Heena and she falls sick when her husband writes a letter to her saying that he may or may not return and in case he doesn’t return, she should marry someone else. On reading this letter, Yateem Khan (Balraj Sahni) rushes to the neighbouring town where Heena’s husband lives and brings him to the house at gun point. Bhattacharya (Heena’s husband) manages to escape and calls the police. By then, Heena’s plight has worsened and she has to be taken to hospital that is on the other side of the hill. Even as both the thieves managed to carry her to the hospital, the police shoot Yateem Khan dead. Heena is comforted by the other thief Mahmood and her husband.
In between there is a sub plot which does not blend with the screen play at all. It features Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and Persis Khambatta. Yes, this was Persis’s first movie and the title card shows her name as Miss Poonam (Miss India, 1965). Persis looks anything but an Indian name and so probably the beautiful Parsi had to be rechristened as Poonam. One wonders what made her accept such a miniscule role. She has one song sung by Asha Bhosale that she lip synchs to.
This is the only catchy number in the film. But to be fair to her, Persis Khambatta looks ill at ease during the limited screen time at her disposal.
In the hands of a better director, Pinjrey Ke Panchchi could have become a classic. The black and white frames do rob the viewer of scenic and colourful locales in West Bengal but then black and white films have their own charm, don’t they? There are touching moments though. Despite their parlous financial situation, the thieves manage to help Heena to the extent possible. But such situations are very few and majority of the movie suffers from a painfully slow pace. Salilda was lucky that he had actors with monumental talent to support him but with a hackneyed screen play, very little could have been done to salvage the plot.
Mercifully, the last scene where Balraj Sahni is shot dead is devoid of any prolix mouthed by the actor. As the narrative is nebulous most of the times, one cannot blame the viewer for losing interest halfway through. Meena Kumari’s screen presence is clearly a facesaver.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)