Review: Chaudvin Ka Chaand (Full Moon)
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
A classic, well worth visiting.
After the disaster of his vaguely biographical, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt vowed never to direct again. For his next production, he signed M. Sadiq (director of superhits like Taj Mahal) to create a love triangle set in Lucknow, a land of Nawabs, where Islam flourished. This is the reason why the film broadly falls into the now-dead Bollywood genre of ‘Muslim Social’. That as a moniker might be debatable, but Dutt knew what he was aiming for. As could be presumed from the situation which led to the production of Full Moon, Guru Dutt was more interested in recuperating the losses incurred due to the financial failure of Kaagaz Ke Phool. This further suggests the notion that Chaudvin Ka Chand will be an easy, uncomplicated, and entertaining genre exercise of jilted lovers and mistaken identities.
The film fulfills that promise, but it is also a lot more.
At a local fair, Nawab (Rahman) accidentally catches a glimpse of Jamila (Waheeda Rehman) and is instantly infatuated. Tellingly, the first in a series of misdirections comes in the form of a torn veil. Nawab’s mother wants him to marry but Nawab is still mooning over the beauty he saw at the fair. He sees Jamila again at his house as a part of the get together that his sister has organized. Because this is a society where men and women are segregated, Nawab is unable to talk to her but bribing one of the girls (Tuntun), he is able to get the torn part of the veil, which he thinks belongs to the same girl he saw at the fair. This is just the start of the confusion which forms the heart of this film. One thing leads to another and Nawab, to escape being married off to a girl of his mother’s choice, gets Aslam to marry her instead. Aslam being highly indebted to Nawab agrees almost instantly but not without some personal hurt as marriage is apparently, the last thing on his mind. It does not come as a real surprise that the girl Aslam is being married to is Jamila. It would be remiss to reveal the entire plot here but Dutt/Sadiq derive almost 'Hitchockian' suspense from the simple equation of “when will they get to know?” And when the truth is revealed to one person in the equation, it leads to another layer. What begins as a comedy of mistaken identities slowly reveals itself to be subtle, yet an effective critique of traditionalism and its potential to poison the newer generation and their relationships. Everything which happens in the film is either because of the insistence of a parent forcing their sons to follow a path determined by them. However, it is the purdah system - the social separation of men and women from daily dealings, that comes under the greatest scrutiny as it informs each of the film’s many twists. Predominantly considered an Islamic practice, the Purdah requires a woman to completely cover herself if she steps out of the house. It also requires the complete segregation of men and women at social gatherings. However, these points are not incidental in the film but major plot points are derived from it. So entrenched is this in the film’s form that Chaudvin Ka Chand cannot be imagined elsewhere. In that aspect, it is uniquely Indian.
As opposed to the scenarios today, where the minority characters have all but vanished from the screen or are presented in some degraded violent context or to prove majoritarian superiority, the film also presents a society in complete harmony with itself. While the first half can be compared to a Shakespearean comedy of errors, the second one gets heavier and more tragic. Its structure is tight, confident, and aware without coming across as contrived. The male central characters – Pyare Mohan aka Nawab, Aslam (Guru Dutt), and Shaida (Johnny Walker) – are not just three friends, but they become three facets of the same society. Pyare Mohan/Nawab Sahib is born with the silver spoon in his mouth, the royalty, Shaida represents the middle-class, and Aslam is the lower middle class. The dialogue in the film that these three are “one life in three bodies” sounds like a cliché or an overstatement, but it is not. These three together represent the society or at least, a significant portion of it.
What’s most fascinating is that the film makes all these social engagements a part of the plot and character motivation. Nawab can casually bribe people, so he pays money to get information about the girl he is besotted with and Aslam is under so many favors from Nawab that he is ready to marry whoever Nawab asks him to and later sacrifice that same person. It is this interplay of the classes along with the purdah system which makes the film compelling and representative of not only yesterday’s India but, unfortunately, to a large extent, of today’s too. So stringently is the purdah system in place that even the slightest breach can bring forth tragic consequences. In fact, the finale of the film, where one character urges another to keep this tale hidden forever, is yet another purdah.
But it would be remiss to simply see these characters as ciphers representing societal strata, their interaction, and various sacrifices are funny, genuinely moving, and even sweet. It is tempting to call some aspects of this film clichéd but remember, this is where it all started. Going by today's standards the film surely leans towards melodrama. Everything is overstated and is sometimes repetitious. But it has an overall intelligence and skill which many films of this era lack.
Both Dutt and Rehman were two of the most subtle and effortless actors of the era, and they bring something special here. You believe them as friends. Johnny Walker mostly provided the ‘comic relief’ but was equally adept at drama whenever required.
Perhaps the thorniest aspect of this film is the character of Waheeda Rahman. The plot reloves around her but she remains completely oblivious to everything till the end. A blank slate where men who run society write what they want. But, she gradually becomes the center of the film around which men plan, worry, tumble, and eventually, fail. Her character, despite not voicing anything, becomes the core of the film.
The cinematography by V.K. Murthy, Dutt's regular, is a standout too. Murthy understood the importance of aligning his visuals with the character/situation's mood and never over lit any scene. The music is similarly excellent. The standout, of course, is the title song, and some fine qawwalis add to the overall atmosphere.
In an international context, Pyaasa remains Dutt's most regarded film, currently enjoying a rediscovery of sorts on streaming services such as Mubi, and even in India, this film is relegated as a footnote in Guru Dutt's filmography, more famous for the title song and 'Waheeda Rehman's beauty' than its other considerable merits.
Pyaasa, a powerful experience that it is, in my opinion, has a tendency to preach and threatens to fall apart in the second half. Chaudvin Ka Chaand, on the other hand, simply wants to tell a story. Because its themes are mostly shown and rarely voiced, they work can be easily missed, but they actually gather in power as the film goes on and as a result, come across as more enduring.
If your introduction to the cinema of Guru Dutt started and finished with Pyaasa and the intermittently brilliant Kaagaz Ke Phool, then Chaudvin ka Chaand is the missing link that you need to explore.
I watched this at MUBI where this, with Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool were a part of Guru Dutt Retrospective. I have seen these earlier but the Restoration is great. And the ULTRA DVD is an abomination.