What do we owe to each other? Albela takes the answer(s) for granted, but the issue is not so simple.
Albela is a light comedy about a man, Pyare (Bhagwan), achieving his dreams of becoming a successful theater actor. Interspersed throughout the film, however, is an incredibly tragic B-story about the downfall of a family. Wikipedia calls it a “musical comedy,” citing the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, but the text only calls it a “musical hit” with a “love story” and “tragedy” (p. 321). The plot lacks the inherent craziness of a true masala film; the comedy is funny, the tragedy is truly tragic, put it together, and it’s emotional whiplash.
That’s what audiences wanted n 1951, though: it was the third highest grossing film, dubbed a “Super Hit” by Box Office India. The number three film in 1951 the US was Show Boat, and while I haven’t seen it, the plot seems to be a somewhat similar mix of comedy, tragedy, and music.
Pyare’s family needs money to pay for his sister Bimla’s (Biml Kumari) wedding. While not the movie’s intent, this comes across as a criticism of the system that demands the bride’s family pay such a high price for wedding/dowry: when the family is ultimately unable to pay, the marriage is called off, the family is shamed, and problems start pile up.
However, Pyare dreams of being an actor; he loves the theater and pretending he is playing a part. Unfortunately, this daydreaming gets him fired from his job, which means no additional money for Bimla’s wedding. His father asks him to leave, and Pyare vows he will not return, he will not set eyes again on his mother, until he is successful, famous, and wealthy.
Bimla. Early in the film, Bimla sings a lullaby to Pyare; later he sings it to his romantic interest. And even later, once she is destitute, she sings it in the town square, earning money for herself and her elderly father. She is upset about her broken engagement, but only at the shame the family incurs; there is no mention of whether she liked or loved her intended groom, was excited about becoming a wife and mother, or anything else. Her marriage is the inciting incident of the plot, her song helps her brother and later herself, and yet she largely remains an enigma. What are her dreams? What happens to her after she is eventually reunited with her brother? Who knows, who cares?
Likewise, Pyare is able to gain a foothold in the theater world by barging in to a famous dancer/actress’s house and asking for a job. Her name is Asha (Geeta Bali), and she is the principal female lead at the theater company Pyare hopes to join. She lives in a large home essentially by herself (she has a live in female cook and a live in male drummer who might also be a butler of sorts; his role is unclear other than the drumming). Rather than be terrified of a strange man bursting in to her home at night, she agrees to give him a job washing dishes.
The cook doesn’t have a name; there is an actress in the cast list without a character listing, so I will assume it is her. Usha (Usha Shukla) explains that she also wants to become an actor, and has been working in the kitchen for two years, trying to get her big break. She says some encouraging words to Pyare, telling him not to give up over some small setbacks. But once Pyare achieves success, Usha is never mentioned or seen again. What about her dreams of stardom? She mentions that after two years, everyone compliments her cooking, does she become a famous chef instead? What if she met up with Madhur Jaffrey and they worked on cookbooks together? But ultimately, who knows, who cares.
Asha also seems fascinating. She apparently lives alone (besides her two servants). She holds an important position at the theater company; besides acting, singing, and dancing, she works closely with the theater manager. How did she achieve success? Where is her family? Who knows who–
Luckily for Pyare, he is able to quickly get a paying role and send money home in time for Bimla’s wedding. But he hasn’t achieved stardom, so he won’t return home and doesn’t include a return address. Indeed, he continually sends gifts and money home to his family, and to Pyare’s credit, he is generous, kind, and selfless.
Pyare’s sister-in-law, Malti (Dulari), is the only person home when Pyare’s first money order arrives. As she signs for it, her (clearly) evil brother (Baburao) shows up with a sob story that their family needs money to make rent. Malti is torn between the family she married in to her and her family of origin, but ultimately gives the money to her brother. Ultimately, Malti’s brother is able to blackmail her into giving him everything Pyare sends.
But the loss of this money means Bimla cannot marry. The broken engagement leads to Pyare’s mother falling ill and dying. Pyare’s brother cannot support four people (himself, his wife Malti, his sister Bimla, and his father). [The brother is named Mohan, but I could not find the actor’s name. There is an actor named Shyam who does not have a character listed, so I assume he played Mohan.] This results in Pyare’s father and Bimla leaving home to essentially become beggars.
Malti’s dilemma is the most fascinating to me, and one the movie barely touches upon. She clearly loves the family she married into, and they treat her well. She is concerned when her mother-in-law takes sick and upset about Bimla’s engagement. She argues with her brother and accuses him of destroying her family. Yet her brother’s original justification pertains to her family of origin, to her parents and siblings. She did not stop caring about them simply because she married. Certainly her loyalty should be strongest to her husband (and she should have never given money to someone so obviously evil) but of course she is torn. What does she owe, and to whom?
The family’s patriarch begs for a loan from his perspective in-laws so that Bimla can marry. The other man angrily spits out that if it was him, he’d poison the daughter and kill himself. He is not responsible for the shame falling on Bimla and her family. And strictly speaking, he is not, it is the cultural system in place that says it must be so. Yet Pyare’s father is clearly a good man; he would repay the loan. Bimla is beautiful and industrious; she would be a good wife and daughter-in-law. Perhaps the other family doesn’t owe anything, but are there actions right?
When Pyare finally decides to return home, he simply walks out, despite having a performance that evening. The theater manager (Sunder) is distraught: what will he do without a leading man? He will be ruined! But Pyare doesn’t care. Asha implores Pyare to stay at least for the show and he refuses. As the audience, we understand that Pyare hasn’t been home for months and hasn’t heard about the tragedies that have befallen them. His concern for his family is a thread throughout, and he feels is his obligations to them. But what about his obligations to his employer and coworkers? If the theater company is ruined (the manager could be exaggerating), that will impact Asha, all of the other members of the company, the musicians, stage hands, etc. Again, the real issue is the capitalist system that puts a price on art, but the movie is definitely not critiquing that.
To bring Pyare back, the theater manager pretends another actor will take his place. Pyare is enraged, as he and Asha promised they would never work with anyone else. He races to the theater, shows up in Asha’s dressing room, breaks a vase, explains he is going to disfigure her, and is only prevented from doing so by the appearance of his father and sister.
Asha didn’t actually break her promise, but even if she had, would she have deserved such a punishment? Asha and Pyre are in love. Don’t we owe more to the people we love? To ask, to talk, to explain, to not immediately jump to extreme violence?
Albela constantly asks “What do we owe, and to whom?” It doesn’t answer the question; not because the answer is left to the audience, but because the plot is so singularly focused on the main character. (Incidentally, so the director.) What is Pyare owed? The ability to follow and achieve his dream. To find love. To leave it all behind when he wants to. To control his lover’s actions. Everyone, everything: inconsequential.