Nagin (1954)
India 1954
Directed by Nandlal Jashwantlal.

Nagin is the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers. If you expect one to be a Montague, the other, a Capulet, well, you're not far off. And if you like Shakespeare, especially Romeo and Juliet, but feel it really could have used a lot more singing, well then; not only did you probably really enjoy West Side Story, you should also enjoy Nagin, and for that matter a good one-fourth of all Bollywood movies ever made -- they all seem to follow that same basic storyline. Only with a lot more singing. Yes, if the film industry is any guide, Family Feud is not just a game, it's a way of life, and India is practically over-run with musical theater versions of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Nagin takes the standard storyline, adds some world-class music, and punches it up with an armload of snakes. The result was a blockbuster in its original release in 1954, made stars out of everyone involved including the songwriter Hemant Kumar, and is now a recognized classic of Indian cinema.

The story takes place in a jungle, where a feud rages between two rival tribes, the Ragi and the Nagi. Both tribes make their living out of selling snake venom, but the Ragi chief claims that, ten years ago, the Nagi tricked them into "selling our venom at throwaway prices." And they've hated each other ever since. The feud is rekindled when a Nagi spy is found, and Sanatan (Pradeep Kumar), the Ragi chieftan's son, chases the spy and shoots him in the back with an arrow. The spy escapes, only to die at the feet of the Nagi chief. They recognize the arrow sticking out of his back as belonging to Sanatan, and vow revenge. The Nagi chief's daughter, the beautiful Mala (Vyjantimala), is the one who steps forward and promises to kill Sanatan.

While she seeks revenge, the two tribes set out into the forest, since apparently snake hunting season has begun, and it's time to stock up on venom for this year's fair. The Nagi seem to have the advantage, raking in more snakes than the hapless Ragi, until, that is, they go to Sanatan and tell him to do his thing. He whips out his bin (a hollowed gourd with two reeds inside -- the traditional snake-charmer's instrument), and plays a tune. Pretty soon all the snakes line up like ducks in a row. But the snakes aren't the only ones attracted to the snake-charmer's music. Mala hears it, and comes closer, utterly under the spell of the tune. She sings, she dances, she is no longer in control of herself. Sanatan sees her, and immediately falls in love. He introduces himself, and she realizes he is the one she came to kill. But soon he is playing her song again, and how can she resist? She, too, falls in love. They part, reluctantly, but Sanatan promises to see her again. The bin will be his call to her.

Mala soon discovers that, not only is she in love with the man she is supposed to kill, she's got other problems. The merchant Prabir has arrived in town, and is a real chum with her father, the chief. The two come up with a plan to ruin this year's Spring Fair, and Prabir agrees to the plan in exchange for Mala's hand in marriage. She disagrees with the plan, but her gentle father kindly reminds her, "If you bring shame to me, I'll cut you to pieces."

The lovers have met, obstacles have been put in their way, but of course, nothing can come between them. Things quickly come to a head at the Spring Fair, where the two lovers steal some time together before Sanatan and Prabir end up locked in a deadly struggle and the Ragi and Nagi tribes are pushed closer and closer to war. The two chiefs nearly come to blows, but then both agree that if Mala wasn't such a harlot none of this would have happened. Mala's father ties her up until her wedding can commence, while Sanatan's father confines him to his house, but swears that, if Sanatan hears the sound of the wedding procession as it passes, he will not be responsible.

At last, the Nagi chief calls on the Lord of snakes to punish Sanatan for is intransigence. A cobra goes out to kill Sanatan, and Mala, who has seen the whole thing, runs out ahead to warn him to get away. And like the poison drank by the lovers at the end of Romeo and Juliet, a bite from a cobra confers much the same effect. But unlike Shakespeare, Indian films are not much for depressing endings. And death, in this case, is most certainly not the end.

Nagin is a classic. Far from being a dusty old relic of interest only to film historians, Nagin holds up well today, and is reminicent in many ways of the classic Hollywood musicals of the same period. Bing Crosby would have made a great Sanatan. The production values are higher than many Indian films made today. Part of the magic of Nagin is the costumes. The merchant Prabir sports an impressive headdress, a giant plume which makes him look like the strutting peacock he is. He also wears a cool pair of sunglasses -- the first hint we have that the story is not taking place in some prehistoric time. Another piece of the magic is the set. Elaborate soundstages create a mystical forest where snakes are worshipped above all else, and great totems rise from clearings.

But what really gives Nagin a place in the history of Indian cinema is the music. Written by the now legendary Hemant Kumar, the theme perfectly evokes the sounds of the bin, played by the snake charmer. The song Man Dole Mera Tan Dole was a runaway hit. So popular was this music that real snake charmers began using the music in their performances, a practice which is carried on to this day. What does it matter to the snakes? They're completely deaf, anyway. I really liked the music myself, though I must admit by the tenth reprise of Man Dole Mera Tan Dole I wanted to grab the bin from Sanatan's hands and beat him with it. As for the musical numbers themselves, they fit nicely into the story. Unlike modern Indian musicals, in which musical numbers find the main singers suddenly in dozens of different costumes in dozens of different locations, complete with background singers and dramatic editing, as if MTV had abruptly thrown up on the narrative, Nagin remembers an earlier age, when the song took place in the context of the film. If Mala began singing tied to a post, then that's where she was when the song ended, without a single costume change. It's really quite remarkable.

As if all of this isn't enough, the film gets extra points for adding some jarringly weird moments into the mix as well. At one point, Sanatan wanders out of the forest into a perfectly modern town, where he meets a man doing a Groucho Marx impersonation. A very bad one, I might add. (I kept waiting for the line "Ah, Sanatan, I can just see Mala bending over a hot stove. Funny, I can't see the stove." But no such luck.) The afterlife, meanwhile, is difficult to describe -- but it is colorized. That's right, dying takes you somewhere over the rainbow, where black and white film is colored by hand. The afterlife also appears to be populated by demons who look like goons right out of the old Batman TV series.

Great music, a tragic romance, beautiful stars, and snakes, snakes, snakes, Nagin has almost everything you can ask for out of a film. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: The internet is a wonderful place. Here's the wildly addictive snake charming tune, courtesy youtube:

Better still, dowload an electronic copy of the old record from this excellent site and get it in your ipod, stat.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 09, 2004.


My Fevret songs in movie


Posted by: shyam at December 22, 2007 08:08 AM
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