The Outlaws Of Chambal:
Fifty years ago, the first mass surrender of dacoits had taken place in a Chambal village (source a report in The Hindustan Times by Shruti Tomar and Shiv Pratap Singh) –flashing back to one of the finest bandit films made in India.
The injustice forced upon the rural poor by the feudal system in India, gave rise to the baaghi (outlaw) dacoit. So common were dacoit gangs around the Chambal ravines in central India, that dacoit films were a genre all by themselves in a trend that continued right up to the Eighties.
Sunil Dutt’s Ajanta Arts produced Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), directed by Moni Bhattacharjee, the gritty drama written by Agha Jani Kashmiri, has none of the false glamour and bravado that invariably creeps into films about bandits.
The film begins with a Sahir Ludhianvi song, Ab koi gulshan na ujde, ab watan azaad hai (May no garden be ruined now that the country is free), ironical because Independence from British rule brought no relief to the downtrodden.
There is no back story to Jarnail Singh (Sunil Dutt)—the viewer was expected to understand what turned this brave and proud man towards a life of crime. He probably lost his land to a cruel zamindar and could not bear the thought of living a life of slavery. Life on the run has hardened him—in the first scene, he kills a man who refuses to sell him ammunition. Even as his wife Champa (Nirupa Roy) carrying an infant in her arms pleads with him to spare her husband’s life, Jarnail drags him to the village square and shoots him dead. This incident unites the entire village and enraged men swear revenge.
Jarnail Singh’s gang is ambushed by the police, on the way, but manage to escape amidst a camel caravan. The mole in the gang is summarily shot. However, the cops led by a Superintendent of Police (Tarun Bose) dedicated to wiping out the dacoit menace, stay one step behind the Jarnail Singh gang.
On their next attack at a wedding in a rich man’s (Sapru) house, where the alluring Chamelijaan (Waheeda Rehman) has been called to perform, Jarnail Singh is smitten by her and kidnaps her. Chamelijaan declines to sing or dance for him, so Jarnail gives orders that she is to be given no food till she relents.
There are some comic scenes involving Jarnail’s buddy and the gang’s jester Dara Khan (Rajendranath), and a glowering deputy Kripal Singh (Siddu). Jarnail tries again to get Chameli to entertain him, at which she delivers a fierce monologue saying that a tawaif is better than a dacoit; she entertains people while he ruins families; her hands are coloured with henna, his with blood; on judgment day, God might forgive her, but not him. She gives him several stinging slaps, scratches his face and passes out. At this moment, instead of rage, the expression on Jarnail’s face is bafflement—he has fallen in love. Only Dara can see through his friend’s heart and he is overjoyed that at last Jarnail has found someone to guide him to the right path.Jarmail proposes to Chameli, and lets her think about it. She is touched that he wants to make an honest woman out of a courtesan.
The cops are relentlessly on the dacoits’ trail—there is a confrontation between Jarnail and the SP during which the cop promises to see the audacious bandit hanged. Jarnail returns just in time to see Kripal trying to molest Chameli, but she begs him to spare Kripal’s life and accepts his earlier proposal of marriage. Kripal breaks away from the gang and forms his own ragtag bunch.
Chameli gives birth to a son at Dara’s house, where his mother (Durga Khote) and sister (a very young Mumtaz) help. Soon after this Dara is killed by Kripal’s bullet. Jarnail is shattered by the death of his best friend. Already his gang is being weakened by police attacks.
At one of his raids, Phool Singh (Anwar Hussain) gives Jarnail a tough fight, when he is about to kill him, his little son pleads for his life. Jarnail is unable to pull the trigger; in fact Kripal following his former cohort, shoots Phool Singh and Jarnail saves his life.
Now for the sake of his family, Jarnail wants to a give up this nomadic way of life. He tells Chameli to take their son and settle down to a decent life in a village. Chameli chooses a home next to Champa’s and finds a friend in her; she also pretends that she is a widow.
At school, Chameli’s son inadvertently gives out his identity, and the village mob attacks her home. She is saved by Champa, who believes that innocent family members should not be lynched for Jarnail’s crimes.
Jarnail agrees to surrender, the cops and villagers gather outside the village to wait for him as he rides in alone and throws down his gun. Kripal shoots him before he can reach; before dying, Jarnail atones in a way, by saving Champa’s son who has run into the crossfire.
The film was an authentic portrayal of the lives of dacoits. The unit of Sunil Dutt’s Ajanta Arts shot in actual bandit territory in the Bhind-Morena ravines in the Chambal valley, at some risk to their lives. They had to shoot under police protection. In real life, many dacoits had surrendered following a call by Vinoba Bhave and an amnesty agreement announced by the government.
The songs composed by Jaidev were brilliantly integrated into the narrative—such beautiful numbers as Raat bhi hai kucch bheegi bheegi, Nadi naare na jao Shyam, Maang meri bhar le rang, Tere bachpan ko jawani ki dua deti hoon.
Both Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman were outstanding in the film as were the actors in supporting parts.
Moni Bhattacharjee started as Bimal Roy’s assistant, and went independent with Usne Kaha Tha (1960), in which Sunil Dutt starred. The connection must have been forged then for him to get assigned to direct Mujhe Jeene Do, which remains his best known film.
It was a hit and also the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Although other dacoit films had been made before (notably Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Ganga Jumna) and after Mujhe Jeene Do, few were as powerful as this.
(This piece is an edited version of a chapter in my book Take 2: Fifty Films That Deserve A New Audience, published by Hay House in 2015)