A box-office smash when it was released in 1985, and ranked as one of the best films of that decade, Raj Kapoor’s final film, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, has achieved a notoriety that has less to do with its story, acting, or direction than it does with the limits of decency that Kapoor flirted with. In fact, one of the first results that shows up when conducting a Google search on the title is a video clip of the film’s legendary wet sari scene, but more on that in a moment.
Raj Kapoor was Bollywood’s greatest showman, and the 10 films he directed between 1948 and 1985 (produced by his own company, RK Films) are nothing short of grand spectacles, with most finding both critical and audience acclaim. Though he is considered a great romanticist, his films are not without their political or social criticisms, and even this epic love story has more than a few words to say about corruption in both business and local government.
Ram Teri Ganga Maili, which translates as Ram, Your Ganges Has Been Tainted, starts off as a political drama. The powerful but corrupt Calcutta industrialist Jeeva Sahay (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) has arranged for his son Narendra (Rajiv Kapoor) to marry the daughter of the even-more-corrupt party president Bhagwat Choudhary (Raza Murad). However, Narendra cares little about money or power, and only wishes to live in a just society. His overprotective mother advises him to see the world, and he arranges for a trip to Gangotri, the source of the Ganges River, to learn how and why it is so polluted by the time it reaches Calcutta.
Moments after arriving in the Himalayas, he meets Ganga (then-newcomer Mandakini) and falls head-over-heels for her. Like the river she’s named after, Ganga is an unspoiled beauty, and it’s not long before we realize we’re deep in allegory country. A quick courtship that includes the beautiful Ganga singing under a waterfall in what might very well be the most explicit wet sari scene in Bollywood history (little is left to the imagination) ends with a secret ritualistic marriage, and a sensuous wedding night scene.
The second half of the three-hour film ventures into familiar Bollywood melodrama fare. Narendra returns home and is unable to bring Ganga to Calcutta as he is being held prisoner by his family until he is wedded to Radha (Divya Rana). Ganga, having given birth to Narendra’s son, begins the long journey to Calcutta, in which a series of unfortunate events will leave her as sullied as the river whose path she is following. Everyone she meets along the way is a corrupting influence, and she eventually winds up living in a brothel. Will she ever find her way to Narendra so that her baby will not grow up a bastard? If you’re familiar with Bollywood cinema, you already know the answer.
As an entertainment, Ram Teri Ganga Maili is rather standard fare, no better or worse than other similarly-themed tales. The songs by Ravindra Jain are as wonderful as they always are in Raj Kapoor’s films, and that certainly adds to the enjoyment. However, Mandakini’s performance is painfully stilted, particularly when considering the many sufferings her character endures. Without question, a major factor in the film’s success is its risqué elements, including the aforementioned waterfall moment as well as a couple of breastfeeding scenes that reveal quite a bit of the voluptuous Mandakini. From a Western perspective, these scenes would hardly raise an eyebrow, but to Indian audiences at the time this was cinema at its raciest. For this reason alone, the film will forever have its place in the history books.
Ram Terra Ganga Maili (1985)
Starring: Rajiv Kapoor, Mandakini, Divya Rana, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Raza Murad
Directed by: Raj Kapoor
Produced by: Randhir Kapoor
Running Time: 2 hrs. 58 min.
Release Date: July 25, 1985 (India)