It is hard to write about a film that as I write this piece is about fifty-three years old. For the advantage of hindsight is that greater objectivity is brought about but often at the cost of ´estrangement´. This is to say that the world of the film becomes so remote that one is often emotionally or intellectually unable to comprehend it without the expenditure of great effort as well as the most imaginative perspectivizing. For a classic like Mehboob Khan´s Andaz the task becomes that much harder. Here with all the historical haziness one also has to confront the work of a supreme filmmaker, a master of the genre, a director who paved roads on which we yet travel.
Andaz is a romantic triangle that represents in many ways an allegory of the newly independent India. There is the liberated woman in Nargis whose story through the progression of the film symbolizes the dangerous seductions of modernity, the ´entrepreneur´ of the new India in Dilip Kumar who in his eagerness to occupy the space left vacant by the vanishing aristocracies of the old India is unaware of the equally regressive hauntings in these very spaces, and finally the aristocratic Raj Kapoor who enormously and tragically miscalculates the dynamics of these new equations. In a sense all three characters fumble around in the mappings of newly independent India and their interactions create the tragedies of Andaz.
Neeta (Nargis) befriends Dilip (Dilip Kumar) after the latter saves her from a potential horse-riding accident. Dilip misunderstands this friendship to be love. Neeta´s father (Sapru) cautions her more than once on this liberated friendship as he fears unfortunate consequences to arise from it but Neeta pays no heed. She is hence totally unaware of the fact that Dilip is in fact in love with her and is interpreting every one of her friendly gestures as confirmation of her reciprocatory love for him. Then one day Rajan (Raj Kapoor) who has been abroad arrives and Dilip learns that Neeta has in fact been engaged to Rajan all along. Just before this event Neeta´s father also passes away and Neeta entrusts a large part of the business empire to Dilip. After learning the truth Dilip spends a great deal of time in personal torment and then finally reveals to Neeta the truth about his emotions for her. Neeta is shocked and turns away totally from him and in the meantime also marries Rajan and settles down into domesticity. But Rajan, somewhat chastised, returns and at a party Rajan overhears a conversation between Dilip and his wife which because of its incompleteness throws a web of suspicion on his mind about Neeta. From here the story moves towards its ultimately tragic denouement.
The paradigms Mehboob Khan invented for Andaz are still with us in Hindi commercial cinema. The trope of two men vying for the same woman with one being the very serious, introverted type (here represented by Dilip) and the other being the more flamboyant kind (here Rajan) is a commonplace of romantic triangles even today. Similarly the Westernized heroine who has a bit of the spoilt brat in her and who is always blissfully unaware of the romantic attentions being foisted upon her from all directions is another staple ingredient of Bollywood romances. Then of course there are the misunderstandings, the excessive reactions et al. Not much has changed over fifty years in this regard!
Nargis does a fine job as Neeta and her transformation from the joyousness of the character in the first half of the film to the tortured wife in the second is well brought off. Dilip Kumar does a competent job in his role bringing to it all the understatement that he later became famous for. But the acting honors belong to Raj Kapoor here who with his effortless portrayal of the character´s flamboyance steals scene after scene from Dilip Kumar and most effectively in the second half where his subtlety as an actor is a textbook example of the craft. Sapru in a nice supporting role as Neeta´s father also makes an impression. The rest of the cast is just about stereotypical in equally stereotypical characterizations. The script is well written, the dialogues are even better, and the music is quite simply a delight.
Mehboob Khan as director is in complete control here and skillfully walks through all the variations of this rather bold script that would have become pitfalls for a lesser talent. He also creates the kind of ambience for the film with the kind of attention to technical detail that is not as consistently present in his later films with the possible exception of Amar. He explores an interesting theme, specially given the times, and the only unfortunate aspect of his film is the fact that for all the audacity of his venture he ultimately succumbs to a rather familiar morality tale whereby ´modernity´ becomes the villain of the piece. But Andaz is still a film for the ages that teaches in exemplary fashion what commercial filmmaking at its very best can be. Sadly, there are hardly any directors today who can learn from such an example.