A while ago, I watched the old classic, Kabuliwala. I wanted to write about it then, but I just couldn’t. The movie really moved me, so I’m going to talk about it a bit here. If you haven’t watched it and you plan to, I might spoil it for you by telling you the story… but really, that’s not going to spoil it, not this movie. It is a Hindi movie – with sub-titles nowadays – so you can watch it even if you don’t follow Hindi. If it doesn’t interest you, skip ahead to the book reviews and see if those do.
The Kabuliwallah is a man from Kabul – a Pashtun Afghan. He’s a strapping, strong fellow, not rich, perhaps not poor either, a rural man and a straightforward and honest person. He’s shown working in the fields and coming home to his daughter, a small, sweet girl whom he absolutely adores. That’s in the first minute or so of the movie. Then, as the credits roll, there’s a caravan across the mountains and a long train journey across the plains, till at last he is in Calcutta. He finds lodgings and trudges around town all day, selling nuts and spices and trying to save up enough money to take home.
Meanwhile, he meets this girl. This is no ordinary love story – the girl he falls in love with is like his daughter, a small child. She lives with her family in a house on his beat. He meets her, it seems, everyday, and a rapport and mutual affection builds up. There’s no sinister twist… he never tries to kidnap her (though there is some suspicion amongst the family servants that he might, and even, at one point, that he has done), and his affection is never anything other than paternal.
What happens instead is that the man gets word – indirectly – that his own daughter is very sick. He decides to leave for home immediately, stopping only to say bye to the other little girl. Just as he is about to leave, he fights with the “landlord” (if you can use such a grand term for this person) of the room where he has been staying. The landlord accuses him of cheating, and, his honour insulted, the Kabuliwallah hits and kills the landlord. Thereafter, he lands in jail – and there, unrepentant, he spends the next fourteen years. There are various developments in the interim, but through it all, the man thinks as much or more of the little girl he met in Calcutta as he does of his own wife and daughter. At last, when he gets out, he goes straight to the girls house. To his shock, she is now all grown up, almost 20 years old, and it is the day of her wedding. She has, of course, forgotten him and is quite put out to have to meet this strange and undignified person.
The man starts to leave in despair, realizing that his own daughter too would have grown up and that he will be a stranger to her as well. But the little girls parents tell him he must go him, and they give him the money to do so, and so he does.
And there the movie ends. We don’t know what he will find when he gets home, but we do know at at last, after almost 15 years or so, the man goes home, to a daughter he does not know or who might not even, after all, be alive any more.
The most poignant parts of the movie are when the man is remembering either his daughter or the other little girl. He cannot read, but there’s a letter from his home where it says that his daughter misses him, and this letter he treasures and looks at fondly and opens and folds and opens and folds until it is all but in tatters, even though he can’t read it. Then, at some point, the other little girl gives him a five-rupee note. He is so touched that he swears never to spend that money, and likewise, he treasures that note as much as the letter from his home. It is these two keepsakes that get him through all his lonely years in jail.
Described as I have describe it, the movie sounds a bit like sentimental mush… and sentimental it is, but done is such a simple and sincere way that it cannot be described. I don’t think I’m too much of a cry-baby when it comes to sentimental movies – at any rate, no more than the next woman – but in this movie, more than once, I just couldn’t hold back my tears.
It’s a movie made in the old style, in the old days (1961) in a slow, relaxed, leisurely manner. It doesn’t drag, but it doesn’t gallop. It starts out with a touch of romance (not in the sense of love-romance, but in the other sense, more like nostalgia, if you know what I mean) and slides gently into something so deeply, profoundly touching and sad that it never has a chance to become maudlin or affected. And perhaps the most haunting thing about it – apart from the thought of the illiterate man ‘reading’ and re-reading a letter he can’t read – is that at the end, you just don’t know what he’s going to find when he gets back home.
A movie I regretted watching – because I really would much rather watch a movie that makes me laugh than cry – but that I’ll never regret having watched and I’ll never forget having been touched by.