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'Jab insaan haiwaan nahin bana tha' – Impassioned plea for humanity in Manmohan Desai’s debut film Chhalia (1960)

In our continuing exploration of early films centred on the theme of India's independence, we look at the Nutan-Raj Kapoor starrer Chhalia, a powerful story of families separated at the time of Partition.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Manmohan Desai’s debut film Chhalia (1960), inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights, is a post-Partition narrative that concentrates on the issue of abducted women and their reunion with their families.

Several films dealing with the Partition of India had taken up this concern, Aag (1948), Lahore (1949) and Apna Desh (1949) being a few early examples in which we see women separated from their families and thereafter grappling with the notions of respectability and acceptance by society.

However, Chhalia threw this issue into sharp relief as the narrative centred on an abducted woman and her travails.

Everything is for sale in this wretched nation' – The prophetic words of V Shantaram’s Apna Desh (1949)

The story begins with Shanti (Nutan) reminiscing of a peaceful and happy time. “Jab insaan haiwaan nahin bana tha, aur Lahore wohi Lahore tha [When man had not turned into a beast, and Lahore was the Lahore of old]." Alive with a life filled with joyous possibilities, she falls in love with Kewal (Rehman) and they get married on the eve of Partition.

In the mayhem that ensues, the family moves to Delhi, but Shanti is left behind and finds shelter with an honourable Muslim, Abdul Rehman Khan (Pran), who sees his own separated sister’s fate reflected in hers.

Five years later, Shanti is able to come to Delhi to find her family, but to her utter dismay, her family refuses to even recognize her. Kewal behaves a shade better and welcomes her, but disowns her when she reveals their son Anwar (Daisy Irani), who is now five years old.

Questioning faith in turbulent times – IS Johar’s Nastik (1954)

Miserable and alone, Shanti thinks of ending her life but finds refuge with a lovable rogue (Raj Kapoor). She is haunted by the ghosts of her past and he does not ask her about it, but things get complicated when he falls in love with her. 

Chhalia deals with the issue of separated families head-on and unequivocally condemns those who disown their own daughters and wives, symbolically seeing their predicament as being akin to that of Sita.

The character of Abdul Rehman Khan layers this engagement further, as the film presents the loss of loved ones on the other side as well, in keeping with its message of communal harmony.

'Beti zyada pyaari hai': The progressive vision in ML Anand’s Lahore (1949)

A fierce Pathan, Khan leaves people quaking in their boots but crumbles with the disappearance of his sister. When he tries to abduct Shanti in a bid to get revenge on Chhalia (for strangely undisclosed reasons), he recognizes her as his adopted sister and is disgusted with his actions. He is unable to comprehend the frenzy that possessed him to attack his own sister.

Expressing dismay, Chhalia remarks, “Duniya kitni chhoti hai lekin do aadmiyon ke beech faasley kitney lambey ho sakte hain, kitney bhayanak, aur kitne kaale [The world is so small and yet the gulf between two men can be so wide, so horrific and so dark]."

When Khan is informed that he must return to Pakistan as his permit is about to expire, he pathetically asks, “Pakistan kahaan hai? [Where is Pakistan?], indicating the utter bewilderment at the creation of another nation. Although this theme of mental breakdown or madness is explored comprehensively in Partition literature and later films, the figure of Khan embodies those responses.

Tejaswini Ganti, associate professor of anthropology at New York University and author of Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, has argued that the “lost and found” genre, popularized in Hindi cinema from the 1950s through the 1970s, can be traced to the moment of Partition where “thousands of families were separated, and many not so successfully united”. It is interesting that after his debut film, Desai employed this genre successfully in several of his films, the most popular being Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Aside from the strong performances, especially by Nutan and Pran, Chhalia featured several memorable songs that contributed to the film's success. With music by Kalyanji-Anandji, who were assisted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, the songs 'Chhalia Mera Naam' and 'Dum Dum Diga Diga' remain popular melodies while the heart-wrenching 'Gali Gali Sita Roye' poignantly captures the pain of abducted women.

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