There is an interesting link between Mother India, Gunga Jumna and Deewar — the three epic representative films of Hindi Cinema. Salim-Javed conceived Deewaar, taking elements from Mother India and Gunga Jumna — the latter had the theme of conflict with its tragic culmination similar to Mother India. In reality, director Mehboob Khan had discussed Mother India with Dilip Kumar before starting the film, but it didn’t work out for various reasons resulting in an entirely different cast.
However, the role and the film’s intense climax probably stayed with the thespian, resulting in the story and screenplay he wrote for his sole production Gunga Jumna, directed by Nitin Bose. The technicolour film was widely acclaimed for its memorable performances, realistic regional dialect, and rustic backdrop redefining the dacoit genre in Hindi cinema.
Such was the impact of its dialogues (by Wajahat Mirza) and their flawless rendition on screen that Amitabh Bachchan repeatedly viewed the film as a student in Allahabad to understand how a Pathan could so effortlessly speak the dialect of UP (Poorvi/Bhojpuri), along with Vyjayanthimala, the renowned actress from South India.
Well received by the audience and critics as one of the biggest hits of the decade (including a fabulous soundtrack by Naushad and Shakeel Badayuni), Gunga Jumna was delayed because of the objections raised by the censor board, strongly countered by the makers. The matter was shocking and unexpected as the board had just cleared Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai with minor cuts, based on a similar theme of dacoits with its fair depiction of violence.
The film remained stuck for a few months before it was cleared with the intervention of Jawaharlal Nehru, who ordered a review of the film. The decision also benefitted other films on hold as Kumar had submitted a detailed account of several instances where the Censor Board had faltered. Regarding Gunga Jumna, one objection raised was about the film glorifying dacoities and another was regarding the train robbery that might provide tips for similar loots. But, more importantly, there was also an objection reported against Dilip Kumar’s last words — ‘Hey Ram’ — in the film before his death.
Moving over the censor issue, the much-appreciated climax also had a lesser-known link with Mehboob Khan, as quoted by Bunny Reuben in his definitive biography of the icon. Though the thespian doesn’t mention the name in his autobiography, Reuben writes about it, as revealed by V. Babasaheb, the cinematographer of the film, in his interview given for the book.
In Babasaheb’s words, Mehboob Khan saw the rushes in the studio and expressed his concern, pointing towards the desired impact missing in the climax. “People are bound to make comparisons of other similar shots in Mother India where the heroine shoots her son. If you want to avoid the similarity, you will have to make changes”, suggested the veteran director.
Both the writer-actor and director readily agreed to the point raised. But how to achieve the desired result was the question, which was again answered by the maestro, suggesting more length to be added to the same shot with some additional footage. “Let the injured Gunga come staggering back to the house, followed by the other characters. Let him go to the God’s idol and die at his feet. In the last moments, let somebody offer him the holy Ganga jal and let the others chant prayers for him so that he may die peacefully,” he added the details. The idea jelled perfectly with the maker’s vision and they incorporated the new scenes into the climax with the addition of ‘Hey Ram’.
Recalling how it was done, the thespian narrates how he took V. Babasaheb into confidence, asking him to keep everything ready. He then took several rounds of the studio premises, jogging and then running for a few minutes. As he started feeling breathless and was just about to collapse, he entered the sets where the camera was ready, canning it all to perfection. The iconic sequence gets prominently cited in every write-up on the film to date, also referred by the teachers at film institutes as a must-watch. Here a deserving mention has to be made of the film’s editing by Hrishikesh Mukherjee along with Das Dhaimade.
Coming to another amazing link, Shapoorji Mistry, the Parsee industrialist, who financed K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, provided the finances for Gunga Jumna too, confidently believing in its subject. And as the shoot began, Dilip Kumar was performing for both Gunga Jumna and Mughal-e-Azam together, flying from one location to the other, as mentioned in his autobiography. Thinking about those times in the present world, one can only say, “What an era it was, graced by such blessed creators!”