Before the digital revolution in India, Hindi cinema used to have prominent references of Diwali — the festival of lights incorporated in the scripts just like western cinema had films revolving around Christmas. Sadly, the festival very rarely finds any such strong mention in our Hindi films today, whereas one can still find western movies incorporating Christmas in their cinema as a regular feature.
Interestingly, there is a rarely-talked-about link between one of the most popular films related to Christmas in western cinema and a Hindi film directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Released in 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life is an American fantasy produced and directed by Frank Capra, famous as one the most-loved, cult movies associated with Christmas. The film enjoys a special status in the history of American cinema for its few amazing facts related to its making and enigma created decades after its actual release.
To begin with, its script is based on a short story that was initially included in a Christmas card published around 1945. The story revolves around a ‘God-sent Angel’ who saves a man committing suicide on the Christmas Eve. The Angel then takes him to an enlightening journey making him rethink about the value of his life and how his non-existence would have affected his family and friends. The life-teaching experience makes the man realize that every life is a gifted one and every individual has something valuable and unique to contribute in his granted lifetime that cannot be replaced ever.
The film, which didn’t do well on its release, later became a classic because of an unintentional issue found in its copyrights during the decades of ’70s and ’80s. The glitch in the rights allowed the television channels to repeatedly air it during the days between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. And as a result of those repeated airings, it gradually became a tradition associated with Christmas winning the hearts of millions of people from every age group and region. Amazingly, the cult status continued post the production house got the rights back in the ’90s.
Ranked among The Most Inspirational Movies of All Time and The Top 100 Greatest American Movies list by the American Film Institute, It’s A Wonderful Life was the personal favourite of both Frank Capra and James Stewart, that also got nominated in the five major categories at the Academy Awards.
The emotional American classic later inspired three films in Indian cinema, including two Hindi movies releasing in two different eras.
The story idea about a man realising the mistake of committing suicide through a special arrangement made in heaven was first adapted in a Hindi film Pahli Tarikh (1954) directed by Raja Nene and featuring Nene himself, Nirupa Roy and Agha in the lead roles. The film is at present recalled more for its hit song Din Hai Suhana Aaj Pahli Tarikh Hai. The same plot was later adapted in Tamil as Mudhal Thethi in 1955 featuring Sivaji Ganesan in the lead.
However, incorporating the idea of an angel assisting the protagonist, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made his one and only fantasy movie Naukri in 1978 on the story written by Salil Chowdhury. The film had a rare cast ensemble featuring Raj Kapoor as the divine angel and Rajesh Khanna as the young man committing suicide, not realizing the difference it will make to the lives of his dependent family members.
Unfortunately, Naukri turned out to be one of the most thoughtful yet weakest project helmed by the reputed director that failed to convey the valuable lesson and couldn’t win over the viewers. But it did bring two stalwarts of our Hindi cinema together, which became its key attraction.
Luckily, three of the above-mentioned movies are now available on the online portals to view namely It’s A Wonderful Life (English), Mudhal Thethi (Tamil) and Naukri (Hindi) with the print of Pahli Tarikh still to be re-explored and uploaded. So in case you haven’t seen any one of them, then do watch as a must and celebrate the gift of life together with your loved ones.
(The writer is a critic-columnist, an explorer of cinema and author of 'Did You Know' series on Hindi films also active at bobbytalkscinema.com)