As a kid, anytime I felt any type of emotion, I watched this movie.
Revisiting this movie as an adult was a complicated experience. Caravan (1971) is definitely tied very much to the time in which it was created. This movie was way more violent than I remembered, and the violence is often directed at women. The women embodied very different tropes than I remembered, mostly sacrificing themselves for a male-driven narrative (i.e. the Nice Guy Trophy). While the protagonist is a woman, most of her actions are dependent on men and she ultimately changes herself to be with a man. Scenes with other women are often in competition for men. The three primary female characters (Sunita, Nisha, and Monica) all inhabit different female character tropes that ultimately come together in their sacrifices for men. Sunita is the pure, delicate woman, who is also complicated by her insanity; again, the implication is that she needs a good man to save her. Nisha is the violent, wild, sexual woman who is ruled entirely by her emotions and will do anything for the man she loves. Monica is the evil femme fatale who is part of the plot against Sunita, but she flips sides when she realizes that her own life is in danger.
The depiction of women isn’t the only problematic aspect of this movie. The traveling community is referred to as “gypsies” throughout the film (which I’ve avoided using in my recap, both due to the fact that the word is considered offensive, and due to my own lack of knowledge about these communities in India) and there are a lot of stereotypes associated with their “wild” and “aggressive” natures. There’s also one character who is the funny drunk, which gets really sad, really quick.
But who cares, because of the dancing! I watched this movie over and over again as a kid with my mom and grandmother. The songs are among some of the most famous Bollywood hits created by R. D. Burman, who was instrumental in creating some of the most well-known and beloved Bollywood film scores. It was a childhood favorite, which means as an adult I really have to grin and bear a lot of the terribly dated and offensive bits. Nostalgia makes you do crazy things.
Since I’m guessing that most people aren’t familiar with the movie, I’ve decided to just go with a straight recap format to illuminate why this movie was such a big part of my childhood. I don’t know how successful this recap will be in doing that, but it will highlight how hilariously over-the-top this movie is, complete with very convoluted plot points emblematic of the worst of Bollywood. I’ve tried to weave in some details about the main cast where they’re introduced. I’ve also managed to find the full movie with English subtitles on YouTube, so if you have about 3 hours, you should watch along.
The movie opens with a car crash that leads to our protagonist, Sunita (Asha Parekh, who has the sweetest face ever), in her car, plunging off the side of a cliff. Her husband of one day has apparently tried to have her killed over 300,000 rupees. I have no idea what that is in dollars because adjusting for inflation is hard, so let’s just say a fuckton of money. Okay, I just googled, and apparently 300,000 rupees in dollars today is a little under $5000, which feels like not enough to commit murder over, so I’m sure inflation makes this closer to a fuckton.
Let’s go back to how this began. Rajan has stolen money from his job. His boss is pretty much his adoptive father. When confronted, Rajan responds appropriately with murder, throwing him out an open window. Rajan has Sunita (his boss’ daughter) declared insane, because that’s what silenced people then. Let’s just stack the odds against our plucky heroine Sunita. Rajan then convinces her that her father’s dying wish was for him to marry her, so they do.
Rajan takes Sunita to their new marital home in Khandala, only to find himself confronted by a gun-wielding badass, Monica (famous “item song” dancer, Helen).
Monica is a cabaret dancer who is there to call Rajan on his shit (including accusing him of murder), and blackmail him for his 3-year-long relationship with her.
Sunita locks herself in her room, waits for Rajan to drunkenly pass out on the couch, sneaks out, and then drives over a cliff, bringing us to the beginning sequence. Luckily for Sunita, she jumps out of the car before it careens over the edge, because she has clearly read my apocalypse go plan.
Sunita convinces herself that with her history of everyone believing her to be mentally unstable, she has nowhere to turn. She must find Monica and clear her name. She finds a bus on a road nearby and sneaks aboard, but not before the driver (Mohan, played by Jeetendra) and his friend Johnny have a song break. Never change, Bollywood. They get stopped by Rajan and his crew, but it’s okay, they’re drunk, so they don’t know anything. Also, seriously, how are drunks driving a bus, I mean what exactly were the 70s?
Thanks to my mom (Hi mom), I’m practically living this movie as I’m also eating what they’re eating on screen, and I’m not stealing it by sneaking around under a bus. Sunita is caught, but that’s okay because she manages to hitch a ride with them to reconnect with Monica.
EXCUSE YOU, IT’S TIME FOR AN EPIC DANCE BREAK.
WITH COSTUME CHANGES.
AND A FULL BAR THAT IS PART OF THE SET. WITH A BARTENDER.
Seriously, aren’t you confused about why the bar is on stage and why there is a slide attached to a cage? But the song and dancing and makeup are amazing and nothing else matters.
After the song, TWIST REVEALED: Monica is plotting with Rajan. It’s okay; Sunita runs out and runs right back on to the bus. Mohan, Johnny, and Mohan’s little brother Monto are on their way back to Khandala to meet up with a performing troupe that has hired the bus, lead by Mithalal Tota.
Among this troupe is the sassy, fierce Nisha (Aruna Irani, who is most familiar to more recent Bollywood audiences as the conniving and/or bitchy aunt in every movie ever). Nisha is in love with Mohan and she isn’t exactly the wilting delicate flower that Sunita is, as Nisha runs around holding knives to Mohan’s throat and demanding that he love her back. Unfortunately, he tells her he’s better off with Bhola, one of the same traveling community, who she violently attacks after being cast aside by Mohan.
Monto smuggles Sunita into their tent where she can get sleep and rest at the risk of getting caught by Mohan. Luckily, drunk Johnny is the only person to find him, which of course leads to hijinks and mixups because drunk people, am I right?
Sunita, though she managed to have the foresight to jump out of a moving car to escape her abusive and murderous husband, can’t seem to get her shit together long enough to hide from the troupe. She is, of course, caught, and then has to convince them that she can earn her keep over the two month journey to Bangalore by cooking for Mohan and Monto.
Sunita again is in over her head. She can’t cook to save her life. (See what I did there?? SHE NEEDS TO COOK TO GET TO BANGALORE TO MEET HER FATHER’S COWORKER WHO WILL BACK HER UP AND SAVE HER LIFE, DO YOU GET IT? Pure poetry.) Johnny convinces her that he can cook, so Monto and Sunita go catch the troupe’s performance. Gotta love a Bollywood movie that finds a way to make the song and dance numbers actually relevant to the plot.
Here’s the thing with alcoholics: while this is played for laughs in this movie, this is actually a pretty solid argument for why alcoholism is a destructive and terrible disease. Johnny can barely keep his job together, regularly gets in trouble, and usually implicates other people in his problems. Johnny, this time, has burnt the food, which leads to Monto switching their pots with those of Mithalal Tota’s wife, which leads to Mithalal whipping his wife, which then leads to the wife finding the pots in Sunita’s possession, which leads to Mohan kicking Sunita out for being a thief. The anti-alcohol message gets muddled between song and dance numbers, and this PSA isn’t really that effective.
Meanwhile, Nisha has found her opening! Time to swoop in and and reclaim her man without sweet-faced Sunita stealing her thunder. Women, always competing for the real prizes: men. Luckily, Monto is inconsolable over Sunita’s departure, so Mohan goes and finds Sunita. Nisha is not pleased, and reacts as most people would — with blind threats of violence and pure unbridled rage. There are more threatening looks and violent moments. I love that no one in this movie seems to be bothered by Nisha’s violent outbursts. They just seem to carry on like, oh that Nisha, she’s just fun. Sure, she throws knives and bites people seemingly unprovoked, but man, can she dance.
Everyone is momentarily placated, and now it’s morning and the caravan is heading off, set to another song, to which I somehow have remembered all the words.
Oh good, there’s a 3-second clip reminding us that Sunita’s husband Rajan is still hunting her down, because we can’t drop that plot point we’ve ignored for the past 45 minutes.
HOW ARE THEY PROMOTING THIS SHOW WITH A PICTURE OF NISHA HOLDING A KNIFE? WHAT KIND OF FAMILY FUN IS THIS?
Oh right, the crowd is loud, aggressive, and belligerent. Never mind, this is exactly the type of crowd that wants to see blood. Nisha refuses to go on and demands that Sunita take her place on stage. They dress her up in clearly everything they could find and throw her on stage.
Sunita now sings a song about not knowing what to sing or do. My roommate would refer to this as a “song about what’s happening right now.” Rajan’s men show up mid-song, but thanks to a clever use of props, Sunita manages to hide and get the rest of the troupe to push them out of the theater, which you should just watch yourself, because every minute of this song is so slapstick and vaudevillian and amazing.
Sunita and Mohan have a moment when they are celebrating their success and he hands her money. I too can fall in love with anyone who is giving me money because I have a very expensive Masters degree to pay for now that I’m out of school.
Later, Sunita gets grabbed by Rajan’s men when she’s in town. Unable to find her and unable to miss their suddenly very firm schedule, the caravan leaves her. So much for that moment between Sunita and Mohan, and their bonding song and dance number. Sunita manages to escape again, which just confuses me how she manages to succeed at the escaping but everything else is beyond her abilities. I AM ROOTING FOR YOU, GIRL, DESPITE THE MANY REASONS NOT TO.
She’s been wandering through the jungle for what looks like weeks, based on how quickly her clothes have become dirty and shredded, and the vultures that are now following her (seriously, this escalated so quickly). She manages to see the caravan off in the distance, which tells me that maybe their schedule wasn’t as firm as they intended, or maybe Sunita has only been missing for about an afternoon. Dramatic much, Sunita?
The caravan spots her scarf floating towards them, rescues her and takes her to the hospital.
Sunita has awoken in the hospital to find out that Mohan has paid for her hospital bills and is in love with her. Too bad about her murderous husband.
Mohan proposes and Sunita rejects him but doesn’t explain why (because that would be a relatively easy solution), so Mohan reacts like most heartbroken people do; he drinks a lot and tells Nisha to marry him. Time for a drunk seductive song and dance number in front of everyone in the Caravan while Sunita looks on sadly.
Mohan gets violent (in case you haven’t yet learned that alcohol is terrible, which I realize is deeply ironic considering I’m drinking right now, sorry mom). Mithalal Tota decides to leave Mohan and his bus because this situation is getting out of hand and even the caravan has their limits. As Mohan begins to wallow, Sunita is there to save him from himself because of love. She manages to slip up while yelling at him and reveals that she’s not the simple illiterate village girl that he thinks she is. In fact, she’s pretty well educated and kind of wealthy. They rejoice in their love and return to the caravan, where Nisha is of course inconsolable.
There is a completely normal, not melodramatic conversation between Mithalal Tota and Nisha where he gives her a poisonous snake with which to kill Sunita. Apparently this is a lesson to Nisha to forsake her love for Mohan’s happiness. Death is often the most effective teaching tool; I learned that with my
expensive overpriced grad school education.
As Sunita and Mohan are getting married in one part of Bangalore, Monica is having a change of heart (because she has been threatened with death), and has confessed Rajan’s misdeeds to Sunita’s father’s friend. Sunita also reaches out to him, leaving her wedding abruptly, and finds her father’s friend dead. Sunita has almost walked into Rajan’s trap for her, but is saved by Johnny and Mohan. Rajan is of course furious and asks the question I asked many times during this rewatch, “How does Sunita keep escaping?”
You know what would probably help them out of this predicament? Unleashing Nisha’s bloodthirst. But no one listens to me, so Mohan will probably find some way to solve all these loose ends, and Sunita will be even more in love/indebted to him. Drunk Johnny will also manage to screw things up, because that’s how it goes.
Surprise, surprise, I was right. And Nisha even got to threaten people with knives and guns, so that’s even better than I remember. That’s a way more appropriate time to quench your extremely high bloodlust, Nisha.
OH MY GOD I FORGOT NISHA GOT SHOT. EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE. I get that she sacrificed herself for Mohan, and we get the nice ending of the whole troupe coming to the the rescue and Rajan falling into the grave he dug for Sunita, BUT NISHA IS DEAD AND WHAT IS THE POINT?
Sunita leaves her wealthy home for Mohan, and they live happily ever after traveling and performing, which is great for them, I guess.
This movie seriously has everything in it, and in three hours still feels like there isn’t enough time to pack it all in. So, as we do with so many things, being a fan of problematic things is difficult and you often have to reconcile how you engage with media. This movie holds a special place for me for the many afternoons watching this movie with my grandmother and mom when I was sick, when I was bored, when I was happy, and whenever we felt like it. It uses so many Bollywood tropes, including the triumph of the nice good man over everything and the blossoming of true love between pure and good people. The combination of all these elements, good and bad, make it a pretty essential part of my childhood. It’s a fun ride if you let it be.