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Article Hindi

50 years of Heer Raanjha: Chetan Anand's definitive adaptation of the love ballad is sheer poetry on screen

The film, starring Raaj Kumar and Priya Rajvansh, is the only one in Hindi cinema to have the entire dialogues written in verse.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

One of Punjab's enduring romances, the story of Heer and Raanjha has resonated with audiences through the ages. The first silver-screen adaptation of the pastoral romance was by Fatma Begum, India's first woman director who introduced fantasy and folk romances, in 1928.

Thereafter, the story has seen several film versions, but Chetan Anand’s adaptation in 1970 starring the charming Raaj Kumar and the luminous Priya Rajvansh as the star-crossed lovers remains the definitive one. It was also the producer-director's biggest commercial success.

Chetan Anand had made his directorial debut with Neecha Nagar (1946), which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival. After this impressive debut, he continued to make his mark with Taxi Driver (1954), Funtoosh (1956), India's first war film Haqeeqat (1964), and the experimental Aakhri Khat (1966). In 1970, he picked up the popular ballad from Punjab, the tragic story of lovers written by Waris Shah.

But in the hands of Chetan Anand, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, Heer Raanjha (1970) ventured into unexplored territory. It was the first film where all the dialogues were written in verse by Kaifi Azmi. This was a remarkable feat, and the only one of its kind. The use of verse lends the story a lyrical quality, akin to the original ballad.

Kaifi Azmi also wrote the lyrics for the film's unforgettable songs composed by Madan Mohan. Mohammed Rafi's moving 'Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil' is one of the classic numbers from the film.

Being Chetan Anand’s first film in colour, the exuberance with the medium is evident in the meticulously planned colour palette which was used to complement the emotion in the shots. In the beginning, Heer predominantly wears the colour white, shifting to bright colours when she falls in love with Raanjha, the hues changing in keeping with her emotions. The use of green when the women are playing hide and seek, or the bursts of yellow that herald the arrival of spring, create a breathtaking visual spectacle.

The film also authentically recreates rural Punjab, with each scene composed like a painting by cinematographer Jal Mistry. There are scenes of the rustic village and family life early on, where Ranjha plays the charming rogue, teasing his sisters-in-law or fooling around with the village girls. Similarly, the spaces of women are created with Heer’s friends playing together, or conspiring to facilitate meetings between the lovers.

Chetan Anand takes the love story and, staying true to the original source material, makes it a comment on patriarchy while foregrounding female desire. This is most evident in the scene where Heer defies the authority of her parents and refuses to bow to her mother’s pleas and emotional blackmail to give her approval for marriage to another man (Ajit). She openly says she has been wronged and expresses her love for Raanjha, refusing to accept the marriage as legal. Not just Heer, but even her woman friends beat up Kaido (Pran) to exact revenge for his attitude towards Heer.

Priya Rajvansh looks resplendent as Heer and gives an emotionally charged and poignant performance. With an enviable star cast that included Pran, Prithviraj Kapoor, Ajit, Shaukat Azmi, Tun Tun, Kamini Kaushal, Achla Sachdev, Jeevan, Jayant and Sapru, each role was carefully crafted and played to perfection. The end, when Heer’s dead body spills out of the carriage, rises to a crescendo that envelops Raanjha and the community, elevating their personal tragedy to that of society at large.

The film remains unsurpassed in its depiction of the legend and is a moving tribute to the love of Heer and Raanjha, where the intensity of their love and the magnitude of grief upon their death is lyrically conveyed through the genius of Chetan Anand.