Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946)
Director: V. Shantaram; Writer: K.A. Abbas, V. P. Sathe; Producer: V. Shantaram; Cinematographer: V. Avadhoot; Cast: V. Shantaram, Jayashree, Dewan Sharar, Baburao Pendharkar, Master Vinayak, Ulhas, Keshavrao Date, Rajashree, Pratima Devi, Salvi, Jankidass, Hublikar
Duration: 01:56:59; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.197; Volume: 0.210; Cuts per Minute: 7.796; Words per Minute: 35.313
A chronicle of the real-life story of Dwarkanath Kotnis (V. Shantaram
), a member of a medical team sent by India during WW2, an intensely nationalist period. To fight alongside the Chinese during the Japanese invasion, Kotnis goes to China
, works almost singlehandedly to provide medical relief to the wounded
a Chinese girl, Ching Lan (Jayashree
), is captured by the Japanese
and eventually dies in battle
while developing a cure against an epidemic
. Ching Lan and their infant son return to India
, symbolising the solidarity of their nationalist struggles. Made along with the IPTA-backed Dharti Ke Lal
and Neecha Nagar
(both 1946) under a special war-effort film. Dr Kotnis is remarkable for its absolute abandonment of any pretence at cinematic realism and its powerful nationalist rhetoric, culminating in the hero's dying speech describing what his wife will see when she goes 'home'
. This is intercut with documentary footage of Nehru at a mass meeting
. The film succeeded in simultaneously pleasing the Communists, the Congress and the colonial occupation force. Shantaram re-edited a shorter version in English in 1948 in which, according to S. Bannerjee and A. Srivastava (1988), the 'clothing of the Indian characters' was made 'more ethnic to please a Western audience'.
Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani was a biopic made in 1946, a year before Indian independence as part of the British/Indian war effort, and featured an Indian doctor who traveled to China shortly after the Japanese invasion as part of an Indian medical team.
In addition to the Hindi language film, Shantaram simultaneously made an English-language version, titled THE JOURNEY OF DR. KOTNIS, which was released a year later in 1947 and was intended for the US art house circuit. This English- language version, in turn, was cut and re-edited (with or without Shantaram’s knowledge and consent), with new footage added, and released in 1955 in the US exploitation circuit as NIGHTMARE IN RED CHINA, with Lloyd Friedgen credited as director.
Hans hans ke aayi ho
Celebrated 'socialist-realist' dawn song introducing the land.
Heralding the arrival of Kotnis (Shantaram). Bhondu (celebrated Marathi film director and actor Master Vinayak, here playing the hero's henchman), in conversation with the railway ticket inspector. The performance is typically Shantaram-style over-the-top expressionist - extreme joy. The entire introduction to the film is especially of significance since the film's end will be replaying this introduction.
Kotnis arrives at the village. The return to the village - sniffing the dawn air - from the city: nothing had changed. All of this will be the land for which the drama will be played out.
Kotnis whistles for the horse, Moti, and jumps on the carriage. This is home. But then he informs villager Bhondu that he will be practicing his medicine not in the village, not even in India: but in another country, for the sake of India. That life will be the life complete, for him.
zindagi zindagi zindagi
koi sapna nahi zindagi
kam kare aur gate jaye
ek duje ka hath bataye
ghar me chupna nahi
aao maidan me desh ke dhyan me
kam karte chalo nam karte chalo
nam karne ka hi nam hai zindagi
aage badhte chalo unche chadte chalo
gao veero ke geet
karlo himmat se preet
hogi isse hi jeet
karlo himmat se preet
hogi isse hi jeet
jeet pane ka hi nam hai zindagi
sina tane hue dil me thane hue
jake sewa kare
kuch kare ya mare
desh par jan de
jan dene ka hi nam hai zindagi
aise kurbani ka nam hai zindagi
Written by Dewan Sharar and composed by Shantaram regular Vasant Desai.
This is the true life/Life is no dream/In life, you work, you sing/You help/Hide not in your home/Descend into the arena, the consciousness that is the nation/Work, make a name for yourself/March forward, climb higher/Sing the songs of the brave/Love valour/For such sacrifice is the true meaning of life (Summary translation)
Socialist-realist montage song. What remains extraordinary is the way Shantaram can create his hyperactive nature, the women carrying water, the men in the fields, the squirrels on trees and the clouds in the sky, all material from the Marathi melodrama. Do a quick compare with the Shoor Aamhi Sardar Aamhala (sung by one of Shivaji's lieutanants) in Bhajli Pendharkar's Maratha Tituka Melavava (1964) for the same use of people and nature to mean something very different in the latter's instance a pro-Shivaji Hindu Mahasabha ideology).
The use of filters in black-and-white to make the sky black and clouds white is a technique originally invented by Bimal Roy for P.C. Barua's Devdas.
Dwarka is home. His father is in the city. he is asked to go there, setting up the second moment - after his startling disclosure in the Zindagi song, that he will serve the country best by working outside it - of ethical suspense. The children playing, amid the making of butter, is vintage Prabhat Studios.
Kotnis' father (Keshavrao Date, the celebrated Marathi stage actor and former star of classic Shantaram films such as Duniya Na Mane) shows him the medical clinic he has set up for him. Kotnis now reveals that he cannot practice here, for he has promised to go to China.
Kotnis explains his stand. Soundtrack of speech (almost certainly a Communist Party speech) apparently playing on Bombay's Azad maidan, outlining the condition of China after the Japan invasion. 'Is there a doctor who can go to China?' He answers, 'Yes there is'. The crowd roars their praise of Kotnis. Close-up on Keshavrao Date's face a classic in the kind of realist-expressionist performance style with which he was associated.
'Prepare to go to China' - the father's diktat. The actorial confrontation and collusion between Date and Shantaram/between father and son, is fully mobilized for the film's propagandist cause. Angled shot, of father looking into the distance. 'In your place I too would do the same'. Patriarchal blessing to the nation.
The real Dr Kotnis joined a medical mission sent to China in 1939 under the sponsorship of the political party, the Indian National Congress, as a gesture of anti-fascist solidarity during the Japanese attack on China. In 1939, eight years before Indian independence, this was a highly publicized event and a deeply felt independent political gesture in the context of still- colonized British India. In China, Dr Kotnis married a Chinese nurse and died there in 1942, while serving in the Eighth Route Army. The film is based on a novel, AND ONE DID NOT COME BACK, by K. A. Abbas, who also wrote the screenplay for the film.
Kotnis introduces his father to the medical team going to China. A medical team of five doctors, Drs. M. Atal from Allahabad (who was also the leader of the mission), M. Cholkar from Nagpur, D. Kotnis from Sholapur, B.K. Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, was dispatched as the Indian Medical Mission Team in September 1938). 'It is like not one but five sons are going'.
Mother sends son off to war. The aarti, the flowers, promise that he shall soon return (signalling that he never will), that this is now the point at which the family shall merge its fortunes with the nation-to-be.
Two symbols for Kotnis' departure. The ring, which has the map of India. 'Do not return until your work there is complete'. Know that all you do you do for the nation. And then the falling of the stick. The tragic premonition that the son shall never return.
Arrival in a very studio China. the boat has travelled from Bombay via Ceylon and Singapore, and arrived at Chungking (Chongqing). (Not clear how they got there by boat).
The song 'pardesi re/Kahe chhoda mora des' (Oh foreigner, why did you leave my country?), by Zeenat Begum. Doctors are homesick, they listen to the song on a gramophone, and feel as though they are home.
The first air raid, and studio shots of the bombing and the work of the medical team. The first dialogue of a Chinese (Awara Wong, or Kaka Wong), played by lyricist Dewan Sharar. (For those who might think this is a nod to Awara, do note that this film precedes Aware). The problem of language, or more precisely how to get the Chinese to speak in Hindi, now needs textual resolution.
Introduction of Kaka Wong. He compares Kotnis to Gautama Buddha, now sent by India for the second time to bring peace to the wounded body of China.
Kaka Wong, further juxtaposition of Kotnis with the Buddha, the image of India on Kotnis' ring. Pure-symbolic montage sequence.
Letters come from home, Kotnis learns that his father is dead. He prepares to return, but recalls his father's voice: 'do not return until you have completed your task'. Further montage sequences.
The resolution: I shall not leave until my task here is over. It is cowardice to leave before: this was what I had promised my parents. Check the expressionist lighting. One standard strategy for symbolic performance, when hero is called to larger principles, is the dollying in, as he speaks to an offscreeen audience, with the onscreen one grouped behind him.
Decision to send the Indian medical teal to Yenan. A young boy Achin is to accompany them. Introduction of Jayashree, dressed as young boy. The necessary homo-erotics that follow women dressed as men in male society. Backslapping, where did you get such feminine hands, come closer. Comradely-socialist laughter.
Arrival in Yenan: Hindi-speaking Chinese guerillas, Achin leaves.
Yenan. One of the more campy aspects of the film, often mentioned: all signs are in Chinese and Hindi.
Kotnis writes to Wong: three of the five doctors are leaving for India because they are very sick. Basu cna he have to go 'further north' to separate guerilla areas. Direct link with the guerilla movements.
Only two are left: they have to also part, 'the road is invisible, the journey long'. Do not leave me behind and return to India when the War is over: further indication of the tragic end, that this will never happen.
Pan shots of the Yenan countryside: presumably shot between the Bombay-Pune stretch.
Kotnis in guerilla territory. Sign showing his clinic, again in Hindi and Chinese. The elaborate sets on full display, as Kotnis goes to Fong's 'cave'.
Introduction of Guerilla General Fong (the very well known Marathi star Baburao Pendharkar). The astonishing ability to transport the 'land' paradigm as seen in Sholapur into 'Yenan'.
The General sees off his motley soldiers as they go off to fight the Japanese.
Introduction to the hospital, and the 'list' of patients who have to be operated on. Pendharkar's problems in finding the right heroic-performative note, in contrast to Date's complete command over his own expressionism.
Reintroduction of Achin (Jayashree), now Kotnis' assistant. Introduction of the romantic edge.
Achin is revealed to be a woman, Ching Lan, 'from Peking'. She shows him home. Romantic inscription furthered.
The Kotnis-Ching Lan story now unfolds. Ching Lan arrive as the star in full mid-shot on a mountain top. She then tells her story: she was a medical student at Nanking College of Medicine (Nanjing Medical University) when she saw the Japanese horrors. They decide to devote their lives together to relieve the pain of the Chinese people.
nayi dulhan nayi dulhan
mai hu nanhi nayi dulhan
din gin gin kar gin gin gin
aaj bani hu nayi dulhan
o meri maa o meri maa
lage hai dar naya hai ghar
aaya mera dulha
kya jane kya hoga
aaya dham dham dham
thar thar thar kape badan
nayi dulhan nayi dulhan
na ghabra na sarma
sar to utha dekh jara
khush ho ja he dulhan
tere ghar tera dhan tera sapna
tera apna ghar aaya
aaya aaya jham jham jham
khil khil jaye man ka chaman
mai hu nanhi nayi dulhan
o meri maa dekh ye chand
mera chand mera chand
jisse suraj bhi ho maan
wahi hai jo rato ko
neend me aata tha
jab sare so jate the
mujhko jagata hai
aaya chand mera chand
sham ko ye aan mile
aaya chand mera chand
khushi khushi se nache dulhan
nache dulhan nache dulhan
mai hu nanhi nayi dulhan
Singer: Jayashree, Lyrics:Diwan Sharar, Composed by: Vasant Desai
About the fears and dreams of a young bride.
This is the film's big song number, and another cultural oddity. Sung in a form apparently intended to derive from Chinese opera.
Neepa Majumdar writes:
"In DKAK, the markers of Chineseness are most visible in its two ‘Chinese’ song sequences. In the fan dance sequence, the visual spectacle synecdochically relies on oversized fans to connote Chineseness and literally to mask the Indian-inspired
costumes of the dancers. The second ‘Chinese’ song sequence in DKAK is a bridal song in which Ching Lan demonstrates the moves of a Chinese bride for Kotnis as she dances and sings a song with Hindi words that sound ‘Chinese’. Both the hat and the fan seem central to the American imagination of China. To take an example from a mainstream Hollywood film from the period, witness the mimed China
sequence in A Star Is Born
(1954), where Judy Garland uses a lampshade as a hat and mincing steps to signify China in an ‘Around the World’ song sequence. The ‘Chinese’ song Judy Garland sings sounds astonishingly similar to the bridal song in DKAK in that both draw on a common musical vocabulary that connotes "Chineseness’. There is a dizzying series of cultural displacements in the bridal song sequence in DKAK as the Indian actress Jayashree plays a Chinese nurse who mimics a Chinese bride, singing a song in Hindi that sounds ‘Chinese’ based on Hollywood and British cinematic renditions of ‘Chinese’ music. As we shall see, these displacements take a further twist when we find this song sequence surviving editorial cuts in Nightmare in Red China.
- Neepa Majumdar (2008). 'Immortal tale or nightmare? Dr Kotnis between art and exploitation', South Asian Popular Culture, 6:2, 141-159, this ref. pg 147)
First declaration of love.
Kaka Wong urges Kotnis to declare his love for Ching Lan right away. he rushes off to do so.
Kotnis proposes, but Ching Lan cannot marry him. Further hint of impending tragedy.
The political resolution of their marriage. They are supposedly court-martialled by the guerilla General, who then has them marched in and passes judgment that since they ove each other they shall marry in three days. The translation of the patriarchal role onto General Wong does not hide the tyranny of people's courts, possibly an Abbas intervention.
The marriage. The villagers are not happy, initially, but Kaka Wong establishes that this is the marriage of two countries. This is also important because apparently the marriage of Kotnis with Guo Qinglan in1941 was not have been supported by the Chinese. Elaborate (and famous) sequence of Kotnis showing Ching Lan in mime how to wear a sari. They exchange rings with each bearing the map of the other's country. There is 'civilization' talk as he pretends to ancient Indian customs. They promise eternal love even as bombs go off.
Neepa Majumdar writes:
"DKAK relies on the externalization and repetition of ideologically and morally
legible signs not only in its gestures towards the British war effort, but also more generally speaking. The most over determined of these signs is a ring presented to Kotnis in farewell by his father. Bearing a white map of India, the ring reappears in close-up at various nationally charged moments in the film, such as when he makes
the decision not to return home to help his mother after the death of his father. The greater need of the motherland is clearly suggested here, with the ring allowing nationalist and familial affiliations to be conflated. At the end of a sequence in which
Kotnis rescues a child from a burning hut, his Chinese friend Kaka [Uncle] Wong remarks, ‘Your parents are fortunate to have you as a son,’ which dissolves to a close-up on the Indian map on the ring, implying the nation as equally proud parent.
In the overt cross-cultural discourse of the film, the ring also figures in the wedding between Kotnis and Ching Lan, where they exchange rings with maps of China and India. The film’s advertising also relied heavily on anticolonial internationalism, with pronouncements such as ‘Mr Hindostan [sic] Meets Miss China’ and ‘Their Marriage United 900,000,000 People’
- Neepa Majumdar (2008). 'Immortal tale or nightmare? Dr Kotnis between art and exploitation', South Asian Popular Culture, 6:2, 141-159, this ref. pg 145)
The evacuation, the march, and the Japanese bombing. Intended to be a spectacular sequence, this is also where the mountainside set is blown up.
The march continues, and among the guerillas spreads a new disease epidemic that Kotnis cannot decipher. He isolates the bacteria, and then plans to inject himself with it in order to understand it better. This is an important moment in the fiction,since the historical account of Kotnis is that he died of medical negligence.
Kotnis injects the poison into his body. Crucial moment in the film.
Kotnis finds the cure for the epidemic.
Ching Lan declares that she is pregnant, and Kotnis is also accepted as now a citizen of China.
Dekho mauj bahar. The song is known mainly for Jayashree's extraordinary singing, in the five-tone structure (in the Bhoop raga) that would be typically India's imitation of Chinese music.
This is, with Nayi Dulhan, the other big song of the film, again using kitsch versions of Chinese opera.
Kotnis and Ching Lan at the hospital. Having told her story to Kotnis, Ching Lan now has no problem abandoning her male disguise. Comedy interlude involving the General Wong and his moustache.
Kotnis falls ill a second time.
The final battle. Kotnis is infected. The guerillas go to fight the Japanese. Kotnis fights with the Chinese.
Gulam nahin tum josh me aao/Yeh desh hai tera, hosh me aao
Sung by Jayashree, Lyrics: Dewan Sharar, Composed by: VAsant Desai
With the 'aaj Himalay ki choti se phir humne lalkara hai/door hato ai duniya walon hindustan hanara hai' song in Kismet, this must be Indian cinema's other big anti-imperialist song. Interesting that it is supposedly sung by the Chinese against the Japanese invasion. Jayashree as Ching Lan exhorting the soldiers and the wounded into battle is a great moment.
Kotnis is captured by the Japanese: more Hindi extras.
Kotnis escapes from the Japanese, is chased, but manages to give them the slip. They leave, believing him dead.
Kotnis is helped by a Chinese peasant. Lungshan Pahadi is many mines away, he is told. He has to go there, for his zindagi and his farz (life and duty) are both now at that hill.
Kotnis makes it back to Lungshan Pahadi (signposed again in Hindi and Chinese), and reunites with Ching Lan. She has in the meanwhile given birth to a son. The illness hits him again.
The medical mission: this is the most direct near-documentary propaganda presentation shot of the film. Kotnis heals people but is himself ill. He falls down again.
chit dole nit dole
subah shaam ho shaam saveraa
man pritam kaa ho deraa
is dere kar bhi le
visaraam prabhu ji
nile parbat khet sunahare
nili nadiyaa gahari gahari
chanda taare likhe saare
teraa naam prabhuji
pyaare nazaare hai
aankho hi aankho me
nain tere nain mere
Sung by Jayashree, lyrics: Dewan Sharar, composed by Vasant Desai
Lullaby, as Ching Lan looks after both the infant child and her ill husband at once putting both to sleep.
The ill Kotnis bestirs himself to save the grievously wounded General Fong. Kaka Wong wants Ching Lan to take him back to India, and to stop him from working.
The suspensful operation of General Fong. The General was earlier described as indespensable for China's victory and freedom. The operation is in the end successful, but Kotnis' end is near.
Kotnis is dying - he recalls the first time Ching Lan and he had performed an operation, and how she had washed his hands.
Kotnis deathbed scene. Kaka Wong brings news that India too has been attacked by the Japanese. Kotnis has a complete fantasy scene, recalling the film's beginning, of entering the same village and meeting the same people he had met, of coming home with his wife.
Ching Lan's return to India, and Sholapur, in Kotnis' absence.
The opening Zindagi song played on the image of Kotnis, over a pan shot of a large political rally presumably signalling Indian independence.