On the occasion of Amitabh Bachchan’s 80th birthday, a look at Parwana (1971), an early film, in which his brooding intensity was on full display:
Two years before Amitabh Bachchan would do Zanjeer and become Indian cinema’s Angry Young Man, Jyoti Swaroop cast him as a hell-hath-no-fury kind of spurned suitor in Parwana (1971). Back then, Navin Nischol, with the hit Sawan Bhadon (1970) behind him was a bigger star than Bachchan, who played the parwana of the title, the moth that is so fascinated by the shama or flame, that it goes too close, its wings catch fire and it dies—this metaphor for unrequited or self-annihilating love is used a lot in Urdu poetry.
When the film opens, Asha (Yogeeta Bali) is seen hurrying through the airport, watched by the man who is later identified as renowned artist Kumar Sen (Bachchan). Asha rushes home and fusses over her uncle Ashok Verma (Om Prakash), worried sick because she was summoned by a telegram saying he was ill.
It is clear to the audience that Kumar has sent her the telegram, and that he is watching for her arrival. When he spots her, his face breaks into a slight smile. Asha believes that her friend who is getting engaged that evening played this prank on her and dragged her back from an enjoyable holiday in Ooty. She decides to play a prank back, and recruits Kumar to be her accomplice. She wears a burqa and pretends to be the lover of the friend’s baffled fiancé, and after the funny song O Basheera, everyone has a good laugh. This establishes the easy, informal friendship Asha shares with Kumar. He looks besotted with her, but she just never notices.
When she is out of earshot, Kumar begs her uncle to give him her hand in marriage; he however, insists that the suitor do the asking himself. Kumar is just too shy to propose, and equally fearful of rejection.
By the time he steels himself to tell her he loves her, she excitedly informs him that she has fallen for Rajeshwar (Navin Nischol), a tea estate owner she met on her trip. She wants Kumar to intercede on her behalf with her uncle, since she has promised that she will only marry with her guardian’s approval.
When this brick drops on his head, Kumar confesses his great, obsessive love for Asha. The walls of his studio are full of sketches, paintings and sculptures of her. In a torrent of anguished words he tells her he has worshipped her for years; Asha sadly tells him he took too long, and it is impossible for her to give up on her love and accept him.
Kumar loses his only ally, as Asha’s uncle is thrilled with the proposal from the rich Rajeshwar and gives the couple his blessings. Outwardly Kumar remains calm, and even throws a party for Rajeshwar, where seeing him dance with Asha, he clutches his glass so tight that it shatters. He tortures himself watching them from afar and spends sleepless nights imagining their intimacy.
His frantic plea to Ashok Verma is gently rebuffed—the uncle tries to explain to the brokenhearted Kumar, that he understands the younger man’s disappointment and sympathises with it too, but neither of them has the right to interfere in Asha’s life. With a sense of foreboding, Verma says that he can give up his life, but cannot grant him Asha’s hand against her wishes. The meeting ends bitterly, with Kumar declaring menacingly, that whatever has to happen will happen, “because everything is fair in love and war.” Catching the threat in his voice, Verma asks him to leave, and never set foot in his house again.
Kumar starts planning meticulously and with the cold precision of a man who will do anything to eliminate his rival. Ashok Verma is murdered and every clue points to Rajeshwar. Asha cannot believe that he could be the killer and stands by him. In court, a sneering prosecutor (Shatrughan Sinha) draws Rajeshwar into a tight web of probable guilt that seems impossible to break. A death sentence is certain, and Rajeshwar accepts his fate with dignity, refusing to plead for mercy.
Because Kumar’s scheming is there for all to see, the audience knows all along that he is the murderer; what they do not know is how he did it and got away. And get away he does, without even a tiny twinge of conscience, till a confrontation with a distressed Asha brings him down. She tells Kumar that she would rather die than live without her Rajesh. She does not guess that he is the killer, but pitifully appeals to him to save Rajesh’s life, in return for which she will give herself up to him.
The Perfect Murder was ingeniously planned, covering every eventuality; if he did not confess himself, Kumar would never have been caught. The DVD cover boasts: ‘A murder plan that forced Indian railways to change their train timing.’ This plan of getting off a train, taking a flight to and fro and then getting back into the train—thus getting a cast iron alibi—would be difficult to pull off today with so much security and CCTV cameras everywhere, still, Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar (2007) paid tribute to this film, by using the same plot device.
Amitabh Bachchan was new enough to the industry to take on negative and unusual roles like this one and the toddy tapper in Saudagar (1971). In Parwana (written by the indomitable Agha Jani Kashmiri), the intensity of the thwarted suitor’s emotions is visible on his face and he smoulders with envy and rage. Watching this film now it is easy to imagine that this talented, lanky actor would succeed in films, though no one could have predicted his eventual superstardom.
With a fabulous Madan Mohan score and Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics (Simti si sharmaai si, kis duniya se tum aai ho, Yun na Sharma, Piya ki gali), the film should have been a hit, but did not do well at the box-office. It’s possible that it failed because it did not have repeat value—once the murder plot was revealed, there was nothing for the audience to go back for. Nevertheless, it remains one of the best thrillers made in Hindi cinema and a very unusual one for Amitabh Bachchan’s filmography.
(This is an edited version of a chapter in my book Take 2: 50 Films That Deserve A New Audience, published by Hay House in 2015)