Several 1967 releases were top grossers, including Jewel Thief, An Evening in Paris, Upkar, and Ram Aur Shyam, which featured two Dilip Kumars for the price of one.
Ram Aur Shyam was the remake of the popular Telugu film Ramudu Bheemudu, which in turn was loosely based on Alexander Dumas’s The Corsican Brothers. It is not always easy for an actor to convincingly portray more than one character. The triple roles by Dilip Kumar in Bairaag (1976) and Amitabh Bachchan in Mahaan (1983) didn’t impress audiences. Shah Rukh Khan’s dismal performance in Duplicate (1998) proved that a snarl here and a growl there isn’t enough to distinguish an evil character from a good one.
The success of Ram aur Shyam, directed by Tapi Chanakya, must be credited to two great actors – Dilip Kumar and Pran. These two fine performers had previously complemented each other in Madhumati (1958) and Dil Diya Dard Liya (1966). In both these films, Pran played Dilip Kumar’s nemesis to perfection.
Ram, meek heir to great property, is regularly tortured and humiliated by his evil brother-in-law Gajendra (Pran), who has no qualms about whipping Ram from time to time to break his spirit – until Shyam, the twin, takes Ram’s place by accident and sets out to deliver justice.
Ram aur Shyam has two stand-out scenes. In the first one, Shyam (pretending to be Ram) takes Gajendra to task for having been mean to his wife Sulakshna (Nirupa Roy) and their daughter. The second is the scene in which Shyam slaps and whips Gajendra until Sulakshna begs him to stop.
The other enjoyable scenes from Ram Aur Shyam are the ones that exploit Dilip Kumar’s comic talent, especially the sequence in which Shyam, a farmer, auditions as a swashbuckling Zorro-like character in order to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor. Shyam beats up the sidekicks for real during the shoot. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get the role. He is duly chastised for his acting adventure by his adopted mother Ganga (Leela Mishra), who locks him up to exorcise the “acting ka bhoot” that has possessed him.
Dilip Kumar’s exaggerated mannerisms, playful body language and funny dialogue as he addresses his mother as “Mummah” and urges her to let him make his mark in filmdom, are a delight to watch even a half a century later.
The scenes of Dilip Kumar as the flamboyant Shyam are in sharp contrast to those of the timid Ram, who is so terrified of Gajendra that he dare not look him in the eye. Dilip Kumar has said in interviews that the scenes were very well written and gave him ample opportunities to demonstrate the stark differences between the twins.
It is obvious that Dilip Kumar really enjoyed working on Ram Aur Shyam, which was a break from the tragic roles with which he had come to be associated. Dilip Kumar signed Ram Aur Shyam after he was advised to lighten up by his psychiatrist. The thespian’s bonhomie with his co-stars Waheeda Rehman and Mumtaz is apparent, leading to relaxed and memorable performances from all concerned, especially in the comic scenes.
The music by Naushad, with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, adds to the movie’s charm. One of the best songs is Aaj Ki Raat Mere Dil Ki Salaami Le Le, in which Shyam bids farewell to Rehman before abandoning his fake identity as Ram. The other is the birthday song Aayi Hain Baharein, in which Shyam dispels the pall of gloom in the house by organising a birthday party for his niece. The song marks a departure from despair. The viewer feels assured that henceforth, all will be well in this household and that the evil Gajendra will soon get his just desserts – which literally happens when Shyam forces him to eat cake at the end of the song.
The roles of the twins were reprised by Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) and Sridevi in Chaalbaaz (1989) to critical and commercial acclaim. It is not easy to pull off a double act. The body language must go hand in hand with facial expressions, dialogue delivery and voice modulation. Viewers should be convinced that they are watching two separate and dissimilar characters. Only a truly fine actor like Dilip Kumar could have done pulled off the double act so convincingly, making Ram Aur Shyam a lasting treat for Hindi film buffs.
Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. The views expressed here are her own.