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Teesri Kasam: Shailendra's painful dream

A poet of great sensitivity and skill, Shailendra could not handle the commercial aspect of films. A passionate man, he sacrificed his life to film a story he loved. On his 93rd birth anniversary, we look at the film that was the greatest evidence of a poet's conviction.

Shriram Iyengar

Poets are sensitive creatures. They dive into life passionately, and often emerge hurt and damaged by its vicious nature. Shailendra was one such soul who found the commercial burden of films too hard to bear.

The poet and lyricist was one of the famous members of Raj Kapoor's team when he decided to produce his first film, Teesri Kasam. The film proved to be his Waterloo. Declared a flop on release, Teesri Kasam is considered a classic today, and acknowledged as one of Raj Kapoor's better performances. The praise, however, came too late for Shailendra.

Born Shankardas Kesarilal in 1923, Shailendra adopted the nom de plume to avoid being noticed by his father. A practical middle-class man, Shailendra's father was not inclined to support his son's ambition of becoming a poet.

But the young man was too talented to escape fame. At one symposium in Punjab, he stood up to read the fiery poem 'Jalta hai Punjab' (Punjab is burning). Raj Kapoor, who had a keen eye for talent, offered the young poet a job in cinema. Shailendra turned the showman down. It was this self-respect and lack of money-mindedness that was to prove fatal to Shailendra.

In an interview, Shailendra's son, Dinesh, said, "His film is a legacy. Teesri Kasam was very close to my father’s heart. He lived and died for it." Based on a short story by the great Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath 'Renu' titled Maare Gaye Gulfam, the film was born on the sets of Bimal Roy's classic Madhumati (1958).

The story goes that the poet spotted Roy's assistant Basu Bhattacharya engrossed in a book during a shoot. On being asked, the soon-to-be director remarked that he was reading a short story by the famed author Renu. The poet was even more surprised when it was described to him as 'the best short story ever written'.

Shailendra's literary curiousity was piqued. The story and its theme touched him to the core. Soon, two of the core members of Bimalda's troupe were planning a film themselves.

Filmmaking is not as simple as it sounds, particularly for the producer. Shailendra knew he lacked the directorial vision to complete the project. This is why he decided to give Basu Bhattacharya his big break with the film. A man of fine tastes, the producer spared no expense on his favourite project.

Today, the cast of the film reads like a who's who of the golden era of Hindi cinema. Basu Chatterjee, another fine filmmaker, worked as assistant on the film. Lacchu Maharaj was roped in to choreograph the dance sequences of 'Chalat Musafir' and 'Paan Khaaye Saiyyan'.

The film's star cast is another matter. Not wanting the faces to take precedence over the story, Shailendra had initially cast Nutan and Mehmood in the lead roles. Unfortunately, the actress was carrying her first child and had to drop out. Meanwhile, close friend Raj Kapoor, on hearing that Shailendra was producing a film, simply walked into his office one morning and demanded, "You are making a film without me?" The lyricist-turned-producer could hardly turn his close friend, and a very good actor, down.

The passion the poet poured into the story was such that it cost him his personal fortune. In Nalin Saraf's biography of Shailendra, Suhana Safar Aur Yeh Mausam Haseen, he quotes the poet's wife saying, "The bank books went empty. I had saved some money in containers in the kitchen. But he even spent that. We had to give up our servants after some time. I know of no other producer who spends his own money on a film." 

The story that so captivated the poet was that of Hiraman, a bullock cart driver. Having been cheated twice of his dues, he swears never to transport black-market goods, or bamboos. His third transport is to ferry a dancer for a local nautanki troupe to another town. The story revolves around the simple-minded Hiraman losing his heart to the dancer Hirabai, while the dancer discovers freedom in the simplistic life of the bullock cart driver. In the end, both find themselves bound to the real world, and part. This leads to Hiraman's third vow: to never ferry a nautanki troupe dancer.

The film was plagued with problems from the beginning. Financiers were unwilling to cast Raj Kapoor in the role of a simpleton bullock cart driver. They complained that he was too old, and not fit for the role.

Another point of contention was the ending of the film. According to lead actress Waheeda Rehman, even Raj Kapoor was against the parting shown in the end. She said in an interview, "Rajji thought the ending of the film should be changed and Hiraman and Hirabai should go away together. But no one agreed to that. The whole point of the story was Hiraman's teesri kasam [third vow] — never to let a nautanki girl travel in his cart again. The writer Renu — who had also written the dialogues for the film — would have been furious if the ending had been changed."

The producer himself was stubborn at not changing the ending. But these were just the little issues. Shailendra's lack of understanding of logistical matters enmeshed the film in further problems. He was conned into buying bulls for the shoot, which were later sold off, forcing him to buy another pair at extravagant cost. In addition, distributors were considering the film too offbeat to find popular audiences.

The financial pressures took their toll on the poet's health. Nalin Saraf quotes playback singer Lata Mangeshkar as saying that even in his worst health condition, Shailendra would remark, "I just want Teesri Kasam to release everywhere. Once that is done, I will get well by myself."

It is not known why the poet felt so strongly for the story or the film. Perhaps it was the cruelty of the world against simple hearts. Lata Mangeshkar says, "Shailendra could never utter a lie. He did not have the penchant for it."

Regardless of his efforts, the film was declared a flop. The failure of the film to lure audiences in the first three weeks proved fatal to its box-office life.

Sadly, it proved fatal for Shailendra as well. The poet's health worsened with the film. Teesri Kasam had become the Horcrux which stored the final ounce of his life.

The poet gave up on his poetry as well. The story goes that Vijay Anand, on the cusp of making Jewel Thief (1967), would often coax Shailendra into composing a song for the film. Unwilling to lie to the producer, the poet would step out of his house every time Vijay Anand called.

But Anand was adamant. To catch the poet off guard, he left his car in the garage and camped at the corner around Shailendra's house. Surprised, the poet agreed to compose one song for the director. The song was 'Rula ke gaya sapna mera'.

It was the last song Shailendra wrote. On second hearing, the song is one of regret and pain. Shailendra passed away in 1966. Jewel Thief was released in October 1967.

Teesri Kasam is considered a classic today. The film went on to win the President's Gold Medal, the equivalent of the National award for Best Feature Film in 1966. It is considered by many critics as Raj Kapoor's finest performance. It is Basu Bhattacharya's finest film. The songs, from 'Paan Khaaye Saiyyan' to 'Duniya Bananewale' continue to be popular. By any measure, it was a creative victory for Shailendra. Sadly, the poet did not live to enjoy the praise.

Yet, there was no doubt that Shailendra never compromised on the quality of the film. It might have been a bad business decision, but it was creatively pure. He finished the film, like he lived his life, on his own terms.

As Raj Kapoor narrated in Nalin Saraf's biography, "The man was a poet, really. He even left on such a day... it will bother me every year." Shailendra died on 13 December. The next day happened to be Raj Kapoor's birthday.