The thing about many Hindi movies of a certain vintage is that either they feel outdated now or their running length of close to three hours makes one fidgety. Not so with Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, which is such great fun that you don’t even notice the time pass.
Satyen Bose’s 1958 madcap comedy was also its lead actor and main singer Kishore Kumar’s home production, even though he is not credited as producer. It is well known that Kishore wanted to make this movie as a tax write-off; so convinced was he that it would flop and he would have to pay lower taxes. The story goes that he was so annoyed that the film was such a hit that he transferred the film’s credit and all rights to his secretary, Anoop Sharma, who is credited as producer.
The funny thing is that watching the movie today, it is difficult to understand how he could have thought it would flop at all. Even after more than 60 years, it remains immensely watchable, thanks to easy-breezy comedy, great chemistry between all the actors, female characters who are independent-minded and don’t feel like props for the men. It also has fantastic music by S.D. Burman, with Kishore’s incredible range and energy, obviously, featuring in most of the songs.
In the week of Kishore Kumar’s 91st birth anniversary, a look back at this joyride of a movie that showed the performer at his finest.
All for the love of a car
In the opening credits, apart from Kishore Kumar, his brothers Ashok and Anoop Kumar (the trio known as the Ganguly brothers, per their family name), Madhubala and the supporting cast, one credit stands out: “Introducing ‘Champion’ car, model 1928”. It’s not just the Ganguly brothers’ famous eccentricity — the car really does play a starring role in the movie. In fact, the whole movie is said to be inspired by Kishore’s childhood trips from Khandwa to Bombay in his father’s 1928 Chrysler, to visit his older brother Ashok who was already a movie star by then.
In the movie, the brothers play, well, brothers — Brijmohan (Ashok), Jagmohan (Anoop) and Manmohan (Kishore) — who run a car repair garage. The three are close, save for one problem — Brijmohan doesn’t allow his brothers to talk to girls, or even look at their pictures, because he believes women are at the root of all problems.
His brothers don’t know this, but a decade earlier, Brijmohan was madly in love with a woman named Kamini (Veena), and he believes that she betrayed him to go off with a much wealthier man. Since then, he has maintained this crusty exterior when it comes to women, saving his passion for his boxing.
The women are the drivers of the story
It’s all fun and games until Manmohan meets Renu (Madhubala), who comes by the garage late one rainy night with a car in need of fixing. Soaking wet and full of attitude as she is, Manmohan begins to crush on her, even though she has no idea that he has done anything of the kind. Cue one of Hindi cinema’s most fun rain songs — Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si.
Conveniently, Renu forgets to pay Manmohan, but leaves her purse behind, in which there is a ticket for a show. Manmohan goes to the venue in the hopes of getting his due payment — paanch rupaiya baarah aana. The story goes that in real life, one of the Ganguly brothers owed exactly this amount to the canteen owner of his alma mater, Indore Christian College.
Some reports say it was Kishore and others say it was Ashok. Either way, the movie was evidently a home production in more ways than one — and the song in question shows off Kishore’s versatility, expressive face and loose-limbed energy more than any other in the movie. It is also the song that takes the movie forward for it takes place when Manmohan, waiting inside Renu’s car, is fast asleep and dreaming of her while she, unaware of her backseat mechanic, drives home after her show.
A few minutes of bedroom comedy later, Manmohan has escaped being sighted by her father and run out of the house, but chances upon a group of men dumping a corpse out of their car. Not wanting to get into trouble with the police, he stays silent about this.
Meanwhile, Jagmohan has developed feelings for Renu’s friend Sheela (Sahira), although he is too scared of her, Brijmohan and all women to do anything about it. Thankfully, both Renu and Sheela are independent-minded, forthright and perfectly capable of taking charge of their romantic affairs, be it asking the guy out or simply picking him up for a picnic on the pretext of needing a mechanic to come look at a faulty car.
In fact, one of the things that makes this movie so sweet is just how endearingly non-macho the men are — and how the women are shown, without ceremony, as strong characters. Zero fuss is made about the fact that they drive and call up the men they like to ask them when they are free to meet or the fact that Renu’s father won’t have her married off to anyone without her consent. Even when Brijmohan goes to meet Renu and tell her to stay away from his brother, she doesn’t cower, but challenges him — politely but firmly. And the romance between Manmohan and Renu is refreshing because they don’t just sing songs (although it is a musical), but actually talk, as friends or as a couple falling in love would do.
Things come to a head when Manmohan realises that the man Renu’s father does want her to marry, if she is willing, is the same one who dumped the corpse on the road — a man named Prakash, who her father thinks is the wealthy Raja Hardayal’s brother. Manmohan and Renu decide to become sleuths and follow him around, but of course, that doesn’t quite work out. They find out that the idea of the marriage is part of Raja Hardayal and Prakash’s plan to steal Renu’s father’s wealth, and that Hardayal has done this before, with the very same Kamini whom Brijmohan is convinced jilted him but who has never stopped loving him.
Some hilarious car chases and upper cuts later, of course, all is resolved, and the movie ends as it began — with the brothers sitting in their car, Champion. Except this time, they’re sitting on top of the back seat, while the women are up front and Renu is at the wheel. And, of course, they sing.