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Why Kidar Sharma’s Jogan is a complex classic: Birth anniversary special

On the filmmaker’s 110th birth anniversary today (12 April), we revisit his underrated drama starring Dilip Kumar and Nargis.

Sonal Pandya

The talented Kidar Sharma began climbing the filmmaking ladder in Indian cinema from the bottom rung. After landing in Calcutta, he joined New Theatres as a still photographer, then became a background painter, and eventually graduated to write the dialogues and lyrics for PC Barua’s Devdas (1936), starring KL Saigal.

Soon, he moved on to direction and made his name with films like Chitralekha (1941) and launched artistes like Raj Kapoor and Madhubala with Neel Kamal (1947). Sharma enjoyed great success as a filmmaker and was even part of an Indian delegation that travelled to the American and British industries to learn more from them.

On the filmmaker’s 110th birth anniversary today (12 April), we revisit his underrated drama, Jogan (1950), starring Dilip Kumar and Nargis. The film and its unusual subject were way ahead of its times and even today we can’t imagine a feature like this being made without running into controversy and protests.

Jogan explores a complicated and difficult relationship between a sadhvi (a female ascetic) and an atheist, played by Nargis and Dilip Kumar, respectively. Both stars were young when they took up these complex roles; Dilip Kumar was 28 and had been an actor for just six years; Nargis was only 21, though she had been in films a few years longer, having begun as a child artiste in her mother Jaddanbai's projects.

The black-and-white film opens with a song. Dilip Kumar, who plays Vijay, hears the song and is intrigued by the female voice. An atheist, he hesitates to go into the temple and is conflicted about his thoughts about the singer.

The singer is Nargis, whom the villagers call Meera Devi, a sadhvi who has taken shelter in the shrine. She is looked after by Mangu (Baby Tabassum in a cherubic performance), the caretaker’s little daughter. Once Vijay begins pursuing her to get know her, she grows more and more disturbed.

The young woman was once known as Surabhi; she was the daughter of a wealthy man constantly in debt. She gives up her materialistic life for the devotion of god after her marriage is arranged to an old man to clear the family’s debts. Surabhi escapes her past and begins anew.

In the film, Sharma shows Surabhi literally as a trapped bird. When she meets Vijay, she is tortured by her thoughts, by the carefree woman she once was, and what a connection with another can mean.

Vijay, too, embraces the suffering and continues to arrange ways of meeting Meera Devi. It’s almost as if he can’t help himself. Dilip Kumar turns in an intense but restrained performance as Vijay, who is neither here nor there.

Meanwhile, Nargis has an equally challenging role. We see her two personalities — almost split — one subdued, the other dreamy and looking ahead to a future in the flashback. It is a stark change that Nargis enacts well. Where once she wrote poetry, she now recites bhajans (devotional hymns).

The screenplay, though uncredited in the film, questions both atheism and religion, while questioning the deep attachments people form on their time on earth. Dilip Kumar and Nargis are both remembered for their star turns in Devdas (1955) and Mother India (1957), respectively, but Jogan is a worthy entry in their filmographies.

The actress Purnima (grandmother of actor Emraan Hashmi) and a young, lanky Rajendra Kumar also have small roles in the first half of the film. Jogan has 14 songs, written by Pandit Indra, BR Sharma and Himmat Sharma and composed by Bulo C Rani, who turned in one of his finest albums. Geeta Dutt, then Geeta Roy, who sings most of the numbers here, matches the pain and sorrow of Meera Devi/Surabhi through the bhajans of Meerabai.

Author Ashok Raj writes in Hero Vol 1 that in Jogan, Sharma "indicates a complete break with the formalistic melodrama, but also his striking ability to explore complex themes, using mystical imagery and an original music score and a sense of song picturization".

Sharma was persuaded to make Jogan by Ranjit Movitone head Chandulal Shah. The filmmaker took up the task and delivered a film that entangled the male-female relationship while questioning the need for love and spiritualism as well.