10 September 2017

Disenchanted Nights

1957’s second-highest Hindi grosser is much watched but little understood. Pyaasa may have been filled with poets and poetry, but it’s true, bitter subject was money.


Pyaasa started life as a story idea called ‘Kashmakash’ (‘Dilemma’), which Guru Dutt first put to paper in 1947 or ’48, when he was just 22. It was nine years later, once he had established a name with films like Baazi and Mr & Mrs 55, that Dutt returned to his tale of a struggling poet. By then he had his team in place: writer Abrar Alvi (clearly responsible for a great deal of Pyaasa’s script, although he is credited only for dialogue), lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, and cinematographer VK Murthy — all of whom reached deep into themselves to transform Dutt’s germ of an idea into one of Indian cinema’s abiding gems.

Casting our eyes back sixty years, it seems remarkable that this melancholy piece of filmmaking, with a hero afflicted not just by romantic or familial tragedy but by a near-total disenchantment with the world, could become the second-highest Hindi grosser at the box office. We clearly had a greater appetite for tragedy then – and greater empathy for a hero who dreamt of escaping the material condition.

The film opens with the young poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) lying serenely in a garden, composing beautiful verse as he looks at the flowers and bees around him. Suddenly he rises anxiously, and we see him dwarfed by the dark shadows of trees. In the next scene, he must rescue his folder of nazms from a smalltime magazine office: his responses to the poverty and exploitation around him have found their way into the dustbin. “Aapki bakwaas koi shaayari hai? Pad gaye bhookh aur berozgaari ke peechhe latth leke! (Is this rubbish of yours poetry? You’ve taken a stick and gone after hunger and unemployment!),” mocks the smarmy old sherwani-clad editor, before waxing lyrical on what ‘proper’ poetry should be: “Gul-o-bulbul pe sh’er kahiye, jaam-o-suraahi pe sh’er kahiye... (Write a couplet on the flower and the nightingale, write one on the goblet and the wine flask...)”

Vijay scorns this unctuous injunction and walks out with his poems. But preserving this independence of mind, the film suggests, is not easy – especially if the body needs to be preserved first. A penniless Vijay tries his hand at manual labour, placing a dhoti-clad gentleman’s purchases in his car and earning a coin for his services. But when he presents the coin as payment for a meal, it turns out to be fake. Later, hopeful of having his poems published, he accepts ajob as an assistant in a publishing house, which sometimes requires him to serve in the home of the boss, Mr Ghosh (Rehman). It is worth noting here that Dutt and Alvi display an unreconstructed middle class horror at the idea of the educated young man performing menial labour – a horror amplified in women’s eyes, whether the ex-lover watching Vijay serve drinks, or Vijay’s mother imagining him having to take care of himself.

Poetry may lie at the centre of the plot, but Pyaasa’s driving theme is money. Whether it’s a poet or a sex worker, the world seems intent upon making them sell themselves. While suggesting this analogy, the film thankfully also recognises how deeply one’s freedom is inflected by class. At one end of the scale are those whose survival depends on finding clients, for which they might have to resort to deception: the streetwalker Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) sings a seemingly romantic song only to lure Vijay, whom she assumes is a potential customer; the maalishwala Abdus Sattar (Johnny Walker) is often seen tricking people into a head massage. These are people on the margins, and the film does not judge them – in fact it offers what might be among the most acute depictions of a streetwalker’s life in the scene where Gulabo is thrown out of a moving car, and when she demands her money, thrown into the jaws of ‘the law’: a beat havaldar.

It is much harsher on the middle class woman – Meena (Mala Sinha), who has left Vijay for the security of marriage to a richer man (Rehman). Vijay pronounces her shallow and greedy; only VK Murthy’s remarkable camerawork that allows us to see her position with any degree of empathy. In the scene where she talks to Vijay in the lift, she ends by saying agitatedly, “Arrey, main toh bhool hi gayi, mujhe toh upar jaana hai” — and we watch the elevator doors close over her made-up, bejewelled visage: the rise to the top for a woman like her involves giving up her freedom. In another scene, Murthy takes an almost operatic pleasure in showing us Meena as the memsahib in the white limousine, emerging hurriedly from this lap of luxury when she sees Vijay in the distance. But in Murthy’s framing, the liveried Sikh chauffeur who opens the car door also bars the memsahib’s path to her old love.

The film adopts a properly romantic stance, with the hero picking obscurity and freedom over worldly fame and wealth. In a society where the only good poet is a dead poet, Vijay literally chooses social death.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Sep 2017.

5 September 2017

New lamps for old

Watching BR Chopra’s Naya Daur in Narendra Modi’s New India can produce a strange resonance — even as we look at it across the gulf of sixty years.

Dilip Kumar as the labouring Shankar in Naya Daur (1955)
1957's third biggest Hindi hit might never have got made if BR Chopra had listened to Mehboob Khan. As actor Dilip Kumar tells the tale in his 2014 autobiography: "Mehboob Sahab read the story and found no meat in it for entertainment. He told Chopra Sahab it could be made into a fine documentary on the doomsday awaiting the labour force in the country once machines replaced them but, as a feature film, it was not a great idea."

The younger man listened carefully — he had, after all, gone to solicit the senior filmmaker's opinion —but made up his mind to go ahead with the film if Dilip Kumar agreed to come on board. Yash Chopra, BR's younger brother and then working as his assistant, remembered how that almost didn't happen, because Dilip Kumar was committed to working on a film by Gyan Mukherjee. But when that film fell through, Dilip Kumar said yes promptly — and then spent a month doing story sittings in his shack in Juhu with producer-director BR Chopra and the film's writer Akhtar Mirza.


Most people remember Naya Daur for staging the confrontation between man and machine in a climactic race between a bus and a horse-drawn tonga. But how was such a battle to be made believable? Dilip Kumar writes that he was himself unconvinced by the original idea that the bus was to be beaten "by some kind of manipulation". As Yash Chopra remembered it, it was the thespian who first gave writer Akhtar Mirza the idea of the horse-cart taking a short-cut to get to its destination — "something that was logical and convincing".

There is something charming about how the universe of popular Hindi cinema perceives and produces its own internal logic — and when it abandons it. In Naya Daur, for instance, the village, while standing in for the country, has no farmers. The on-screen populace is divided between tonga-drivers and karkhana-walas, men who work as woodcutters and carpenters in the wood-production unit owned by the kindly local landlord (Nazir Hussain).

Hussain's departure on a pilgrimage to Banaras leaves the village open to the heartless machinations of his city-returned son Kundan (Jeevan), who brings in first a wood-cutting machine that robs the sawmill workers of their jobs, and then a bus that takes away the business of the tonga-drivers. In the era of demonetisation and Digital India, sixty years after Naya Daur first released, there is something distinctly sinister about watching the thin-lipped Jeevan pronounce his decisions the sole route to progress and development, even as the technology he brings in rides roughshod over the lives of the labouring poor.

Dilip Kumar's delightful portrayal of the film's protagonist Shankar, too, shares this on again-off again approach to logic. Shankar is somehow both shy and flirtatious, hot-blooded and calm. He seems wonderfully logical in his arguments with the crooked Kundan, or his sister's father-in-law-to-be, but becomes totally beholden to fate when it comes to resolving the love triangle in which he, his friend Krishna (the future popular villain Ajit in an important early role) and his sweetheart Rajni (Vyjayanthimala) find themselves.

Since it is obviously not an option to simply ask the girl which of the men she would prefer to marry, the two friends arrange instead to gamble on fate — if Rajni places white flowers in the Shiva temple the next morning, she is Shankar's, and if the flowers in her pooja thali are yellow marigolds, she is Krishna's. Naya Daur may come off as a sort of socialist musical (its iconic song is the infectiously choreographed 'Saathi Haath Badhana', with lines of villagers digging the earth in unison). But it is embedded in a deeply religious milieu —the temple atop a hill, with its massive statue of Shiva, is the locale for both intense romantic moments and the sort of monologue between the hero and God that later became a fixture of Hindi cinema.

And yet, this faith — the powerful sense of a superior being who can be appealed to for the things that really matter — does not blind the film or its hero to how religion can be used for cynical purposes. The most remarkable instance of this in the film is when Kundan and his devious accomplice, the greedy village Brahmin, secretly conceal a statue of a goddess along the road that Shankar and the villagers are constructing for the race. When the trusting villagers stop digging to fold their hands in prayer, we hear the villains intone, "Yahan mandir avashya banega", it is hard not to feel a chill go down one's spine. Naya Daur had heroes capable of circumventing the cynical appropriation of religion and of technology. The ordinary people of New India might not be so lucky.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 Sep 2017.

1 September 2017

Blood on our hands

My Mirror column: the fourth column in my series on the Hindi hits of 1957

V Shantaram's Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) used a prison reform experiment to think about freedom - and that message still bears repeating.


The titling of V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath involves a series of hand-prints being made. Each time a hand is lifted off the screen, it leaves adark impression – and a printed title appears at its centre. The hand-prints obviously make a reference to the film’s name – literally ‘Two Eyes, Twelve Hands’. But whose hands are we speaking of, and why do they matter?

Shantaram lets the mystery linger for a little while, even as he takes us directly into his milieu, opening with a sequence of theatrical excess that involves a jailer kicking prisoners. The symbolic humiliation of placing bootclad feet violently on the back of another human being is particularly great in an Indian context where the feet are believed to be the most impure part of the body – you are brought up to apologise if your feet touch someone by mistake, and you only touch another’s feet voluntarily as a way of emphasising your social inferiority in relation to the other person.

After this temporary focus on feet, Shantaram slowly and deliberately returns us to hands. Hands are, by their very nature, a stand-in for action – and in the case of the criminal offenders whom Shantaram places at the centre of his film, those actions are violent ones. When the junior prison official Adinath (played by Shantaram himself) gets permission to launch an experiment in prison reform, he chooses six men convicted of particularly grisly crimes. He uses the cinematic medium to great effect as they are introduced, overlaying the almost comical excess of these gruff, hefty men with their own memories – memories in which they used their hands to take lives. Now those same powerful hands, Adinath decides, are to be put to honest labour. The man who once lifted a boulder to murder his wife is told to build a dam with enormous stones; another who had committed his crime with an axe is told to clear the shrubs with one.

Hand-prints, of course, are also tied to personal identification, in a context of assumed illiteracy as well as one of modern policing. By the mid-20th century, fingerprinting had been around as a technique of criminal forensics for at least fifty years, and Shantaram plays with the way that humans had internalised that knowledge. When Adinath, trying to establish a rapport with the men, asks their names, they respond by silently making hand impressions on a piece of paper. “If we run away, it is our handprints that you will find useful to trace us – not our names,” says one. It is as if we were to introduce ourselves with our Aadhaar numbers.

Shantaram in 1957 was already a veteran, with the founding of Prabhat Film Company and pioneering films like Manoos, Kunku and Shevari behind him. For Do Aankhen, he chose to depart from the technicolour seductiveness of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (a dance-heavy drama which had been the third biggest Hindi hit of 1955) for an almost Expressionist black and white. Do Aankhen unfolds at a deliberate pace, with dramatically staged set pieces and several weepy moments.

But alongside the high drama is a goofy brand of humour, exemplified for instance in the scene where the six men, all hulking moustachioed brutes, prop up a dismantled barbed wire fence so as to view an attractive woman safely from behind it. It is as if the charms of Champa, a toy-seller played by Shantaram’s third wife Sandhya, are such that they prefer to lock themselves up.

The scene may be comic, but it is in fact of a piece with the film’s view of masculinity, of violence – and of freedom itself. The large patch of barren land where the convicts settle is named Azaad Nagar – Freedom Town. On their very first night there, they find themselves so discomfited by the prospect of sleeping in an unlocked room that they chain their feet together, weighing the chains down with their agricultural implements.

Months later, in what is the final test of their reformation, they promise Adinath that they are capable of selling their fresh-grown vegetables in the local sabzi mandi without being roused to violence. When they get there, however, the low prices they are selling at make them the target of the local middleman and his goons, who attack them in full public view.

Shantaram pegs his climax on the men’s transformation from brutish hulks – who had been quick to snatch another’s food when hungry, or react to perceived injustice with the threat of violence – to mute sufferers even in the face of one-sided beatings. This is a film made ten years after Indian independence, and it sends out a message about ahimsa that is strongly in synch with the Gandhian position on non-violence. The true exercise of collective freedom involves curtailing our baser instincts – not setting our worst selves free to roam. It is a lesson we could all do with in Modi’s India.

Homing in, zooming out


Among 1957’s biggest Hindi hits was Musafir, a triptych of tales about a house and its succession of tenants, which inaugurated the career of Hrishikesh Mukherjee.


"Laakh laakh makaan, aur inmein rehne wale karoron insaan. In karoron insaanon ke sukh-dukh, hansne-rone ke maun-darshak -- yehi makaan (Lakh of houses, and crores of people who live in them. And the mute witnesses to these people's joys and sorrows –these very houses),” runs Balraj Sahni's voiceover as the camera pans across a cityscape, finally settling on one such makaan as the setting of this particular story.

What I just described is the opening sequence of Musafir, a triptych of tales about three different families, connected only by the house they rent in succession. The third film in my series of columns on the top Hindi hits of 1957, Musafir was the tenth highest box office grosser that year, and has several points of interest about it. For one, it was the directorial debut of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who had come to Bombay from Calcutta with Bimal Roy in 1950. Mukherjee had worked as Roy’s editor at New Theatres for five years, and in making the journey to Bombay at 27, he joined a group of young Bengali men with various kinds of cinematic ambitions. These included the actor Nazir Husain, writer Nabendu Ghosh, assistant director Asit Sen and dialogue writer Pal Mahendra. The second bit of trivia that makes Musafir interesting also relates to a young Bengali man — Mukherjee shares writing credits on the film’s script with the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.

From where we stand now, the raw, powerful Ghatak of Subarnarekha or Titash Ekti Nadir Naam and the warm, gentle Mukherjee of situational comedies like Chupke Chupke may seem to represent two unbridgeable poles of the Indian cinematic universe. But in the late 50s the world was young, the lines between the artistic worlds of Calcutta and Bombay, and those of 'art' and 'entertainment' were still permeable. Thus the man who would become one of the cinematic trinity of grandly ambitious Bangla high art wasn't so distant from the man who would come to stand for the mild-mannered, middle class Hindi comedy of manners. The year after Musafir, 1958, two films released – one was Bimal Roy's marvellous Nehruvian-era ghost story, Madhumati, which was written by Ghatak, and the other was Ghatak's own directorial venture, Ajantrik, in which it is another inanimate object – a car rather than a house – that is at the centre of the human stories Ghatak chooses to tell.

Musafir itself combines Mukherjee's lightness of touch and prodigious talent for characterisation with Ghatak's flair for the melancholy and for the recurring motif. Most of the film unfolds, as was Mukherjee's wont, within the four walls of a house. But Musafir also contains the sense of a streetscape – we view the house first from the chai shop window, and the chatty tea-delivery-boy (Mohan Choti) appears in each narrative. In fact it is he, along with the genially repetitive landlord (David), the gossipy Munni ki Ma, and the friendly neighbourhood drunk Pagla Babu, who stitches the film's three parts into a sociological urban whole.

Like Subodh Mukherjee's Paying Guest, which I wrote about two weeks ago, Mukherjee's first film deals with what was then a relatively new urban world, increasingly unmoored from feudal certitudes. The tenants who are anonymous until they aren't, family units whose legitimacy cannot be vouched for by foreknowledge, village elders or caste networks; nosy neighbours (like Munni ki Ma) who make it their business to establish the traditional 'rightness' of those who have moved into the area. In the first segment here, for instance, Suchitra Sen plays a new bride who yearns to be accepted by her in-laws despite her runaway marriage. The possibility of a nuclear family unit is one she rejects instinctively as inferior to the real thing.

Mukherjee's interest in these new populations, free-floating in space but not quite ready to give up on their connections to community, family, tradition – remained a persistent theme in his films in later years. Tenants, landlords and the negotiation of neighbourhood rules are central to his comedy Biwi Aur Makaaan (1965), and also to the Jaya Bhaduri-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Mili (1975). Both Mili and Bawarchi also begin by visually laying out the neighbourhood, and then using a voiceover to zero in on the one home whose internal dynamics we are to have the privilege of witnessing.

In Musafir, these dynamics seem to involve older men who, despite their 'good' intentions towards their families, are such sticklers for discipline/
rules/
rationality/tradition that they end up tyrannising wives and daughters, as well as any non-conformist younger men – the young man who marries without parental permission in the first story; the jobless Bhanu (a very youthful Kishore Kumar) in the middle segment, who can't stop playing the fool; or the heart-stopping Dilip Kumar as the violin-playing tragic alcoholic of the last segment (clearly inspired by O'Henry's 'The Last Leaf'). The lawyer brother of Usha Kiron, or Nazir Hussain as the irascible father with money trouble, and Suchitra Sen's father-in-law in the first segment are all men determined to to be merciless, grown-up patriarchs who must be humoured like children – and one can see in their caricaturish excess the roots of Utpal Dutt's character in Golmaal, or Om Prakash's Jijaji in Chupke Chupke

Musafir has some rough edges, and its tonal shifts from tragic to comic are not always successful. But it is an interesting film, if only for the many ways in which it foreshadows Mukherjee's future filmmaking career.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20 Aug 2017