Essay: 55 years of Teesri Kasam
A faithful adaptation of a short story, Maare Gaye Gulfaam, by Phanishwar Nath Renu, Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow), starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman, is 55 years old this year. Directed by Basu Bhattacharya, produced by lyricist Shailendra, and with dialogues by Renu himself, the film, which won the National Award in 1967, is a simple story simply told of the fragile love between two social misfits. It does not have a happy ending but is not a tragedy either. A character-driven film, it offers several insights into human relationships and life in a small town somewhere in Bihar.
When the film opens, we are informed that the protagonist, Hiraman (Raj Kapoor) is a naïve bullock cart driver who has taken two vows. The first is to never carry stolen goods in his cart and the second is to never carry bamboo again. What is the third vow? The viewer will eventually find out.
Hiraman is asked to take a lady passenger to a village fair 20 km away. He glimpses a part of her fair leg when she gets on to the bullock cart and suspects she is a witch. So he stops his cart at a temple and offers prayers to save himself from the witch. But when he sees the woman’s beautiful face, he begins to think she is a fairy. Her name, she says, is Hirabai (Waheeda Rehman) and when she learns his name, christens him ‘Mita’ because, she says, two people with the same name must be friends.
The cart journeys through the late winter landscape to the fair where the nautanki company will perform. Nautanki’s origins lie in the Saangit, Bhagat, and Swang musical theatre traditions of north India and was once the biggest medium of entertainment in its villages and towns. Its rich musical compositions and entertaining storylines enthralled rural folk with one Saangit called Saangit Rani Nautanki Ka becoming so popular that the whole genre came to be called nautanki. A much-in-demand performer, Hirabai has just joined a new group and is the star of the show. Hiraman gets to know his passenger but has no idea about what she does for a living.
On the way, when she wants to take a dip in a lake, he points her towards one for virgins. She goes there to bathe, surprised at his naivete in assuming she is a virgin. Later, he pulls down the curtain in front of her seat. When Hirabai asks why, he says it is to shield her from the village folk who ogle at women. Hirabai is both amused and happy.
At the fair, Hiraman is a bit surprised to see a life-size painted poster of Hirabai hanging outside the performing space. Unaware of the status of nautanki performers, he gets into a fight with a couple of men who make vulgar remarks while Hirabai is dancing on stage.
Hirabai realises that Hiraman is the first man in her life who has treated her with respect and does not tolerate others insulting her. He asks her to leave the profession but she tells him that just as he is addicted to his bullocks and his cart, she too is addicted to nautanki, to the adventures of travelling to and performing in different places and that this is her livelihood. Her perspective on life, however, begins to change through her interactions with Hiraman. There are soft touches when we see her cooking for him and him refusing to sit as he is angry with her. He hands his earnings to her for safe-keeping during the fair. When she rejects the advances of the local landlord who offers her money, she has to leave the group and return to the one she left. Hiraman, through his innocence and generosity acts as a catalyst to turn Hirabai into a woman with a mind of her own, one who can take her own decisions even if it means her future is uncertain. Just before she gets on the train to return to her old troupe, she wraps her shawl around Hiraman’s shoulders. It’s a gift to commemorate their friendship. He then takes his third vow – to never carry a nautanki performer in his bullock cart again.
The film garnered rave reviews mainly focussed on the songs – 10 of them with music composed by Shankar-Jaikishen in a score that is unique in their repertoire. The lyrics were penned by Shailendra with one song being written by Hasrat Jaipuri. Sajan re jhoot mat bolo khuda ke paas jana hai and Paan khaye saiyan hamaro have become immortal hits.
Waheeda Rehman was one of the best dancers in Indian cinema. In this film, her dancing is less than perfect -- a wonderful innovation by choreographer Lacchu Maharaj who designed the performances to suit Hirabai’s character as a nautanki artiste. Always a versatile actor, Waheeda Rehman’s excellence as Hirabai is no surprise. Her beauty, however, makes it somewhat difficult to think of her as a common nautanki dancer.
Each of Hirabai’s song-dance numbers is metaphorical and is read differently by Hiraman and the audience within the film. While they see the sensual performance of a beautiful dancer, the numbers also function as a silent “dialogue” between Hiraman and Hirabai.
The film stands out because it highlights the basic goodness of human beings. Hiraman is uneducated, a village bumpkin, poor and simple but has a good heart and respects fellow beings, especially women. Hirabai, a beautiful, talented nautanki dancer whom men consider sexually available, finds a connection with a grounded villager like Hiraman.
What particularly impressed me when I recently watched the film again was the complete deconstruction of Raj Kapoor as an actor. Along with Jagte Raho, this rates as the best performance of his career. Stripping himself completely of the personae that made him famous, the screen image of Awara and Shree 420, he turned himself into an honest village bumpkin completely dedicated to his bullocks. What a performance!
Subrata Mitra’s cinematography, in black and white, captures the natural landscape during the journey as easily as it captures the faces in the crowd gathered to watch the performance, or the tent which is Hirabai’s temporary abode with the mastery he gathered in Satyajit Ray’s films. Nabendu Ghosh’s screenplay is tight but the film could have been 30 minutes shorter.
Phaniswhar Nath Renu gained great popularity for giving voice to rural India through the genre of Aanchalik Upanyas (‘regional story’). Originally published in the 1950s, Maare Gaye Gulfaam was later included in a short story anthology brought out by Mohan Rakesh in 1959. In 1985, Kathryn G Hansen translated this story and several others by Renu into English.
55 years after it was released, we can see that Teesri Kasam is a classic. Since Raj Kapoor and Shailendra were close, he asked for a fee of just Rs1. Waheeda Rehman once revealed that when Shailendra told her with tears in his eyes that he had no money to pay her, she was so saddened that she asked him not to mention money at all. The film was a commercial flop. Shailendra, who was already reduced to penury, died soon after. Teesri Kasam is a beautiful film with a tragic back story.
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.