I couldn’t resist choosing Junglee to be part of the Try It,You’ll Like It! Blogathon. The purpose of the blogathon is to offer up classic films in order to encourage those who’ve never experienced them to do so. Normally, I struggle with the cut-off dates for some blogathons, because the films that would suit the theme beautifully often fall just outside the limit. In this case, though, I was delighted for a 1965 cut-off. I’m putting a little twist on my contribution, in that I’m recommending a film for someone who might be interested in seeing a little something of what Hindi commercial cinema (what Bollywood was before that term came into existence) is all about. Usually when the question comes up, the suggestions run along the lines of things like Devdas (the 2002 version) or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Bravehearted Will Take the Bride”), or, horrors, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (“Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness”). Don’t get me wrong. If any of those films are your favourites, or were your gateway into the wonderful world of Indian films, then I respect that. It’s just that, personally, they're not amongst my favourite films, so I hesitate, and you can’t encourage folks to drink the Kool-Aid unless, well, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid yourself.
That usually leads me to dig into the classic film vault with a recommendation for Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420 (“Mr 420” – 420 is a reference to a section in the Indian Penal Code, and is used in films as a shorthand to refer to a fraud or a con artist or a cheat). It is, I’ll admit, a good choice. Kapoor’s films are beautifully shot and full of wonderful songs. It gives me a chance to gush over the actress Nargis, who was never shot as beautifully as she was in a Raj Kapoor film.
But, I wanted something different. I wanted a film that exploded with colour and laughter and music and fun. And I knew immediately that there was only one film that I should consider for this blogathon – Junglee (“Wild”). Junglee takes us one step away from Raj Kapoor: it stars his brother Shamsher, affectionately known as Shammi. If you’re a fan of Satyajit Ray and have fallen under the spell of Sharmila Tagore, well, she made her Hindi film debut opposite Shammi Kapoor. In Junglee, it’s the debut of another actress, Saira Banu, all of eighteen and incredibly fresh-faced.
Junglee tells the story of Shekhar (Shammi Kapoor), raised in an upper-class family in which laughter and love are seen to be the failings of the underclasses. This, of course, gives Shammi Kapoor the opportunity to walk around looking like he’s swallowed a sour lemon (I’ve long thought that he modelled the performance on several of those of his own father, actor Prithviraj Kapoor) and generally behaving like a right royal stick-in-the-mud. Shekhar prizes discipline and seriousness above all; there is absolutely no room for emotion in his life. All of these are qualities that were important to his late father, and were dutifully passed on by his mother (Lalita Pawar).
So it’s a wonder, then, how Shekhar’s sister Mala (Shashikala) has turned out as she has – pretty, joyful, happy, and – horror of horrors – in love with Jeevan (Anoop Kumar), who is but a lowly employee in Shekhar’s firm. When Mala’s indiscretions are discovered, Shekhar takes her away to Kashmir in order to separate her from her beloved and end the relationship. And Shekhar’s marriage, already arranged with a rajkumari (“princess”) from a royal family, is destined to take place upon their return.
As fate would have it, though, Mala discovers that she is pregnant, and she is taken under the care of a local doctor and his pretty daughter, Rajkumari (Saira Banu) – and yes, this naming is deliberate, and will ensure that confusion ensues later on in the film.
Rajkumari is bright and fun and mischevious – everything Shekhar is not, and she annoys the bejeebers out of him, always flitting around and bothering him. But in one of the film’s key moments, the two end up stranded in a snowstorm, and Shekhar comes to realize how empty and colourless his life is, and the two fall in love. Mala predicted that only someone like Rajkumari could melt a stone heart like Shekhar’s, and she was right.
This transformation allows Shammi Kapoor to transform Shekhar into a character that would be so emblematic of his career – fun, goofy, charming, and inspiring everyone to “shake it like Shammi”. And the song that celebrates Shekhar’s transformation, "Chahe Mujhe Koi Junglee Kahen” (“Call Me Wild”) opens with that iconic cry of “Yahoo!” which would become more associated with Shammi Kapoor than anything else in his long career.
Shekhar's transformation is not welcomed by his stern task-master of a mother, who reminds him that the arranged marriage is looming. "What if I don't like her?" muses Shekhar, trying to find a way to tell his mother that he's done the unthinkable and fallen in love. He goes to meet the rajkumari, and her brother and father arrange for some entertainment, which is a perfect way to introduce the concept of the item number -- essentially a song that doesn't necessarily move the film's story forward, and that's there purely to entertain (thought these days, item numbers are often racy and titillating, all the better to get the ticket buying male public into the seats). Probably the most famous of the item girls was Helen, who appears here in the guise of Miss Suku. This, though, is one of those instances where the item number is actually worked into the plot of the film, with Shammi Kapoor's antics designed to have his future in-laws see him as mad, and, thus, unsuitable marriage material.
One of Junglee's central themes -- that there is something inherently noble about the upper classes, and, therefore, something inherently ignoble about the lower classes -- is one that is often found in films and television shows, and Junglee turns it on its head to reveal its flaws. The rajkumari that Shekhar is supposed to marry is part of a royal family that is decidedly down on its luck, and is hoping to cash in on the marriage in order to solve cash flow problems and avoid a prison term. In fact, they don't see anything wrong with trying to con Shekhar and his mother -- it's their duty, really, in order to restore glory to the family. Rajkumari is a princess in name only, but she and her father are decidedly good people, with good manners and good values, and she is decidedly the better match for Shekhar.
It's hard not to love a film that places value on the simple joys of life: love, laughter and flowers. And it's hard not to be smitten with a film that offers up so much fun.
This post is part of the Try It, You'll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid - do check out all the great entries! And if you're tempted to try Junglee, it's available freely and legally over at the Rajshri YouTube Channel (though you'll have to watch it in parts in order to have the English subtitles).