Bimal Roy’s films- those that he himself directed and even those that he just produced- were all notable for strong story-lines, a feel for humanity, a realistic portrayal of emotions and an unmistakable empathy towards the underprivileged. The 1961- film Kabuliwala, which was directed by Hemen Gupta but produced by Bimalda is endowed with all these classic Roy- trademarks. Based on one of Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories, Kabuliwala is a film about a unique human bond between an immigrant Pathan and a small Indian girl.
Abdul Rehman Khan (Balraj Sahani) - a Kabul-based poor Pathan leaves his homeland and comes to Kolkata in order to earn some money and pay off his rising debts. On his arrival, he tries to make living by selling dry fruits and clothing but soon starts to feel home-sick, remembering the young daughter he had left behind. A chance encounter with a smart small girl Minu (Sonu) gives a new lease of life to Khan. In her, he starts seeing his own daughter. Every day, he comes to meet her in her house-garden, brining her dry fruits and sweetmeats. After the initial hesitancy, even Minu starts to like this gentle-hearted Pathan who listens to all her stories and tells her his own! This everyday meeting now becomes the high point of his daily routine. In this foreign land, he has finally found a soulmate. The growing friendship between Khan and Minu is not taken too kindly by Minu’s mother and rest of the family but Minu’s father- a writer with a progressive thinking, sees nothing wrong in it.
Unfortunately a misunderstanding leads to Khan being beaten up by town people who wrongly accuse him of kidnapping the small girl. To complicate matters, soon afterwards Khan ends up murdering one of his abusive debtors. As he is taken away by the police, Minu bids him a tearful farewell.
Ten years pass in between. Khan is released from jail and the first thing he does is to land at Minu’s doorstep carrying tiny red bangles that he had promised to her, years earlier. Minu’s father then informs him that Minu has now grown up and it is in fact, her marriage day! Will Minu recognize her old friend after all these years? What will happen to the strong human bond between the two?
Hemen Gupta’s direction is in typical Bimalda-mould and shows a deft handling of complex emotional scenes. Yes, the editing could have been better and the film’s pace does drag at times. Salil Choudhury’s beautiful music (Aye Mere Pyare Watan, Ganga Aaye Kahan Se and Aye Saba Kehna Mere Dildar Se) provides the perfect backdrop for this excellent film. It comes as no surprise that the kid-artist Sonu wins over hearts with an endearing natural performance- usually the kids manage to do that. But Balraj Sahani’s title role is simply brilliant. His make-up, costume, language, demeanour- everything is so perfect that not for a moment, one thinks he is not a real Pathan from Kabul! One should watch this film just for his performance- not to mention, the lump-in-the-throat climax, which is one of the most memorable scenes in Indian cinema.
The message here is very simple and it says that the bond of humanity and friendship transcends all possible barriers- be it age, race, region or religion!