The foolish Ram (Raj Kapoor) getting his butt kicked by the villainous Miss Rita (Nishi). Also, incidentally, one of our favorite songs from the film, not available on YouTube but very similar to Raj Kapoor's brother, Shashi Kapoor's Jane Mujhe Tu Ne from the later Naina.
We at the PPCC tend to shoehorn Hindi films about drinking into either the Devdas box, the Sufi box or, more rarely, the Dionysus box. Yet we can't do that for MNMH, since it neither glamorizes drinking nor uses it as a vehicle for transcendental sadness. If anything, drinking is just portrayed as embarrassing, and our increasingly alcoholic anti-hero, Ram (Raj Kapoor), is a carefree, caddish idiot. He doesn't choose to drink because of some past lost love, but is instead just peer pressured again and again via the dealbreaking, "What are you? A baby?!" When drunk, he doesn't deliver poetic soliloquys full of existential angst a la Dilip Kumar; instead, he just becomes even more babbling, incomprehensible and childish (who would've thought that was even possible!). He also has a number of face-first falls which looked like they really hurt! The whole thing was a strange combination of humor and cringe-worthy pathos.
Whoa, easy on the Vat 69, RK...
The PPCC wants to be the Nishi of the new millennium!
The reason the drinking is important to the story - as this isn't supposed to be a film where we laugh at an idiot, though we often did - is two-fold. On the one hand, we have the scary, emancipated Miss Rita (Nishi) who has decided to seek vengeance on Ram's father, the severe Judge Kundanlal (Mubarak), by corrupting his prized eldest son. Cunning! Evil! Anyway, Miss Rita - a super-singleton and owner of the aptly-named Wonderful Club - speedily ruins Ram's rep by getting him hammered at a picnic, seducing him and getting him addicted to her and booze. From then on, an entranced Ram becomes a Wonderful Club regular.
Apart from just how embarrassing it is for Ram's father to see his son turn into Captain Stupid every night, there's also a poignant family history (and this is the second interesting plot device): Ram's grandfather, Dharam Das (Nasir Hussain), was an alcoholic who, during one of his drunken evenings, killed a dancer and her lover in a fit of jealous rage. Dharam Das went to jail and the entire family was shamed. Judge Kundanlal, whose entire life seems to be a reaction against the vices of his father, understandably fears that some of that behavior could be passed down to his son. Then - in an early surprise - Dharam Das is released from jail as a kindly, frail old man. Trying to reconcile the reeling, demonized Dharam Das of yore with the gentle, sad little man in the present is pretty difficult - for the PPCC and, it will turn out, for Judge Kundanlal. And it's interesting for a Hindi film to spend so much time humanizing a murderous alcoholic. But there you go: the present-day Dharam Das is positively saintly!
Nasir Hussain as the reformed grandfather, in one of his more typical poses.
Which brings us to the most interesting theme of MNMH: forgiveness. Usually drinking too much liquor and slapping your elders pretty much assures your death in a more mainstream Hindi film. Yet MNMH's treatment of alcoholism is not as a symbol of evil, but as a symbol of frailty; something that has embarrassing and occasionally destructive consequences. The two alcoholics in the film - Dharam Das and Ram - aren't demonized at all. Rather the only evil person is Miss Rita - who barely touches the stuff. Judge Kundanlal's rigid, zero-tolerance attitude - which is more in line with typical filmi morality - is upended as he eventually realizes that he loves and accepts his highly flawed father and son, despite all their imperfections. Tellingly, there's even a little subplot about the family's slightly evil servant, Munshi (Dhumal), who is also - after a particularly egregious fault - forgiven.
Basically, this film felt a lot more liberal than the more conservative Hindi films of that era - and its zany envelope-pushing filmmaking predated even crazy Manmohan Desai (you'll have to keep an eye open for some of those weird George Lucas-esque cuts!). And even better - the women rocked! For example, there was a bold, unexpected sequence when Ram's childhood love, the pure and kind-hearted Shanta (Mala Sinha), teams up with Grandpa Dharam Das to save Ram from the evil Miss Rita's clutches. Their plan includes transvestism and a jealousy-inducing courtship with strong homoerotic undertones: between several women!
Transvestism! Lesbian undertones! Shocking!
The film also has an interesting meta twist, in that Raj Kapoor (and his brothers and sons) was notorious for hard drinking (and hard eating). While most of his drunken scenes are over-the-top and quite funny ham-fests (pratfalls, high-pitched shrieks), the more understated moments were the hardest to watch: they just seemed a little too real. A thing we like about Raj Kapoor was his ability to project vulnerable intensity - both of his characters (the infamous moment when Raju slaps Rita in Awaara) and of himself as a performer (those self-obsessed performances that always tried so hard!). In this film, for once, the imperfections and vulnerability were difficult to watch: he ranged from ridiculous when over-the-top (the "look, I'm a baby! waah, waah!" moment was spork-inducing awful) to painful when understated (the poignant title song). That's not to say it's a bad performance (okay, sometimes it is, but sometimes it also isn't), it's just a thankless role with uncomfortable meta implications.
Raj in a rare moment of understated acting (his best!), kicking it a little too real.
Altogether this was a unique, enjoyable find: quirky story, novel themes of tolerance/rehabilitation rather than demonization, wonderful villain, incredibly fast pacing (bam-bam-BAM!) and fun songs. Like that Frank Sinatra movie where he's an alcoholic comedian who regularly bombs shows and humiliates himself, we found ourselves cringing through a lot of this film, but, well, like the Frank Sinatra movie, we also really liked it. The story was fun, interesting and well-told: pure, crazy masala. And there was a quality of sympathy and a rare tolerance for unromanticized weakness that was refreshing. But hey - whoa, new neural pathway: Frank Sinatra and Raj Kapoor!