Sunil Dutt was one of the more versatile actors to have graced the Hindi film screen, but strangely, little has been written about Dutt, the actor. We have reams written about Dutt the man, the politician, the father. He was undoubtedly an extremely popular star but his cinematic work has largely remained invisible.
That he was versatile goes without saying if one looks at his body of work. If he did a Sujata (1959), where he played an idealistic, educated young man, he was perfect as the rebel in Mother India (1966), or even more serious fare, like Gumrah, Sadhana (1963), or the simpleton in that all time great comedy Padosan. (1968). He's done them all --- action, melodrama, comedy. Dutt had an enviable repertoire of films. With the coming into being of his own production company, Ajanta Arts, Dutt delved into newer areas of experience. He broke from conventions and produced & directed films like Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, Mujhe Jeena Do (1963), Yaadein (1964) and Reshma Aur Shera (1971), to name a few.
Perhaps one of the best films that he produced, and directed was Reshma Aur Shera, a love story set in the deserts of Rajasthan. The film didn't do well commercially but received a lot of critical acclaim. Actress Waheeda Rehman won a President's Award for her role in the film. Even though the film had a great story, great music, intense performances and some compelling cinematography, it failed at the box office and Dutt is believed to have lost a lot of money on it.
Set against the feudal backdrop of Rajasthan, Reshma Aur Shera is about two lovers caught between the rivalries among their clans. A modern day Romeo & Juliet, if you must. Like all enduring love stories, this one too ends with the ultimate death of both lovers. It takes that much for the warring clans to come to their senses.
The film opens with Shera (Sunil Dutt) heading for the village mela along with his brothers Vijay (Vinod Khanna) and Jagat Singh (Nawal Kumar) and the mute Chhotu (Amitabh Bachchan). At the fair, he bumps into Reshma, the daughter of Chowdhury (KN Singh), their arch-rival. Before his encounter with Reshma, Shera has already had a fight with his brothers over Gopal (Ranjeet), the Chowdhury's son. He had ordered his brothers not to get into a fight with anyone from the rival clan. So when Vijay and Jagat surround Gopal and want to engage him in a duel, he comes to Gopal's rescue and turns against his brothers. His outraged brothers head home while he proceeds to the fair and his subsequent meeting with Reshma.
The lovers continue to meet among the sand dunes. Shera decides to go for Reshma's brother's wedding so that he can end the blood shed that has marred relations between both clans. He is ridiculed by his father and two brothers, but ultimately leaves with his mother's blessings. On his arrival, Shera has to face the enemy's wrath and is beaten up by the villagers, even though he insists that he has come to make peace. Finally, Chowdhury is willing to believe in his intentions and it seems that peace and love have won. But just as the two men embrace, Chowdhury is gunned down from afar.
The killer is none other Sagat Singh, who has followed Shera to the village. He forces his mute son Chhotu to actually pull the trigger on Chowdhury and the newly married Gopal. Unable to bear the grief of the newly married widow (Raakhee), Shera vows to wreck vengeance on the killers. He kills his own father in the belief that he is the one who pulled the trigger. On discovering that the actual culprit was Chhotu, he sets off in his pursuit. Chhotu and his mother land up at Reshma's doorstep, in their bid to save themselves. Reshma forgives Chhotu. She is determined to put an end to the violence and decides to marry Chhotu to bring Shera back to his senses. Shera commits suicide and Reshma too dies after him. A sandstorm comes and covers the bodies of both lovers, who are finally united, in death.
Such is the story of Reshma Aur Shera. One wonders today, why the film didn't do well. The love story between Reshma and Shera is beautifully depicted. It has a subtlety about it which is more convincing than loud declarations could ever have been. Of course, it is also to the credit of the lead actors, Waheeda Rehman and Dutt himself. They are not the youngest of lovers, but they still invest their roles with so much integrity and dignity. The other actors excel as well.
Dutt has assembled a great cast in the film. We have veterans Jayant and KN Singh playing the two old rivals. Jayant specially is very impressive. Among the younger lot, we have superstar Amitabh Bachchan playing the mute brother Chhotu. Yes, he is gawky, but he acts with his eyes. The most impressive is Raakhee. She has no dialogues in the film as the newly-wed bride who is widowed on her wedding day itself. But she steals the show in the two scenes that are given to her. The first is when she mourns her husband's death, and the second is when she resolves to kill her husband's killer. It is only through her eyes, her expressions and her body language that she manages to convey the disbelief, the pain and the pathos of the young widow.
The deserts of Rajasthan have been captured innumberable times on the Indian screen. But Ram Chandra's cinematography in Reshma Aur Shera will surely rank among one of the best, in the manner in which he captures the dunes and the undulating sand. The music composed by Jaidev, is quite bewitching. Especially memorable is Lata Mangeshkar's Tu Chanda, Main Chandni.' The film leaves you feeling numbed at the senselessness of violence and death. Its message of love and peace is played out beautifully by Reshma's character. Shera's character has no other option but to kill himself, faced as he is with his sense of guilt at having killed his father.
Despite the violence in the film, it is poetic in nature. There is a haunting poetic quality about it which lingers at the end, even as the lovers lay dead in each others arms. Reshma Aur Shera is surely, one of the lesser known gems of Indian cinema. And it continues to dazzle even today.