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Revisiting Caravan (1971), a colourful road movie – Sachin Bhowmick death anniversary special

The musical superhit film directed by Nasir Husain featured Asha Parekh, Jeetendra and Aruna Irani as members of a gypsy troupe who travel from Mumbai to Bangalore.

Sonal Pandya

Prolific screenwriter Sachin Bhowmick contributed to the success of several films over the course of his career, establishing collaborations with several leading filmmakers, including Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta and Rakesh Roshan.

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On his tenth death anniversary, we revisit the musical superhit film Caravan (1971), directed by Nasir Husain, which takes us into the colourful world of the gypsies seen through the eyes of a young bride Suneeta (Asha Parekh) as she flees her scheming, gold-digger husband (Kishen Mehta).

She takes refuge with the performing gypsies and Mohan (Jeetendra), a lorry driver who is touring with them, as she tries to make it to the one person who can help her out, her late father’s former manager (Shiv Raj) in Bangalore.

The screenplay of the film was provided by Bhowmick, but the treatment of the film was all Husain, who turned it into the entertainer that it was. According to the film's star Asha Parekh in her biography The Hit Girl, Caravan happened accidentally.

Husain’s younger brother Tahir was producing a film with Pramod Chakravorty as director; however, the project never materialized. Nasir stepped up and Bhowmick, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the books and films that he had seen, suggested a story inspired from the Hollywood film Girl On The Run (1953), in which a murder in a burlesque club is investigated by a reporter and the victim’s girlfriend.

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The film was reimagined for Indian sensibilities, substituting the burlesque show with a band of banjaras aka gypsies. The travelling troupe featured Madan Puri as the manager and a young Aruna Irani as the star performer Nisha. In fact, Irani nearly stole the show from the film’s heroine with her animated performances in the songs 'Chadhti Jawaani Meri Chaal Mastani', 'Dilbar Dil Se Pyaare' and ‘Ab Joh Mile Hain Toh’.

In Caravan, there was a song for every mood. There was the soft romantic duet ‘Kitna Pyaara Waada’, the road song ‘Goriya Kahaan Tera Desh Re’, the goofy performance number ‘Daiya Yeh Main Kahaan Aa Phasi’, and, of course, the most famous of them all, the cabaret track, ‘Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja’ picturised on Helen, which brought singer Asha Bhosle her third Filmfare award for Best Female Playback Singer.

The combination of Husain, composer RD Burman and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri had the Midas touch when it came to soundtracks, and Caravan was no exception. Burman uised singers Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Bhosle in tracks where they stood out as usual.

The film’s plot, while simple, became complicated as the story progressed. Suneeta’s father Mohandas (Murad) is murdered by her soon-to-be husband, who plans to bump off his new bride as well. As Suneeta slowly realizes the danger she is in, she seeks refuge on the road, disguising herself as a village girl Soni, instead of the heiress of a millionaire.

She badly tries to assimilate with Mohan and the gypsies, failing to be a cook on hire. Nisha, who is in love with Mohan, feels threatened by Soni and desperately tries to have her thrown out of the troupe. She doesn’t succeed as the rest of the gypsies come to her support.

Eventually, the truth about Suneeta’s double life emerges and everyone bands together to save her from the clutches of her evil husband and his gang.

The ensemble cast was also made of up of players like Manorama, Mehmood Jr and Ravindra Kapoor, who lent their support to the entertainer. Like most of Husain’s movies, it featured a little bit of everything — drama with the love triangle, thrill with the ongoing murder mystery, and comedy through its supporting characters. It also contained colourful touches, like with Mohan’s loud lorry, named Toofan Mail, which is adorned with huge paintings of Nisha.

Around eight years after its Indian release, Caravan was released in China in 1979 to great success. In 2019, it was selected to be screened on opening day at the Hainan Island International Film Festival (HIIFF) in China. Nasir's nephew, the star Aamir Khan, spoke about the 1971 film’s popularity in the Middle Kingdom when he was promoting his film PK (2014) in 2015.

Caravan completes 50 years of release later this year on 5 November.

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Indian cinema