PYAASA (1957) and KAAGAZ KE PHOOL(1959)
Ever since my childhood days, I was called ‘a sensitive boy’; often, it made me feel like an alien because other boys around me (who eventually became young males in proceeding years) were of a tougher ilk, signifying all the stereotypes there were to be brandished as ‘gender specific’.
I am in my 20s now and still the same: I don’t drink, smoke, indulge in physical fisticuffs or use my gender with flourish to impress upon a fickle world any grand vision of an invincible entity, above authority, decorum or monitoring.
So I’m much too glad to be the sensitive one, the individual who may have been shrugged and laughed off but never tormented by that ‘othering’ on any personal count. I think and actually strongly feel that people always have a way to undermine anyone who doesn’t subscribe to worldly vices and manipulations. She/he is hence stronger and unwavering in leading a normal life than the one sculpted by majoritarian actions. So mocking those opposed to trivial pursuits is just a reaction born out of fear and admiration for them, reflecting one’s own regret at not resisting status quo.
We live in a sinful world and a pandemic has only deepened the lack of humanity on display. That’s why Guru Dutt’s oeuvre comprising all-time classics PYAASA(THIRSTY/WISTFUL) and KAAGAZ KE PHOOL(PAPER FLOWERS) were so relatable to me. As a male, I could fully identify with the complexity of a gentleman whose pure soul was at odds with a materialistic order. Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I came across a portrayal that was revelatory of impaired individuality and completely divorced from what we know as ‘machismo’ of any kind. I could feel how revolutionary it was for Dutt to present his own personal traits in the characterisations in both, especially in an era where the male archetype as a trope was rather prominent.
Since both his masterpieces released barely a decade after India’s independence from colonial rule, he was also able to set them within a society that was very dissonant than the idealistic, reformatory one imagined by honest to God patriots and creatives.
The journey of suffering as a creative individual, mirroring the pros and cons of society at large, is an universal testament to the inhibiting forces of humanity. Behold the richly textured tale in PYAASA as family, so-called friends and gatekeepers of the publishing field elude and entrap the protagonist in anonymity despite his prolific talent and deify him when his rumoured death is employed as a means for their collective self-interest. His shadow-like, messianic figure standing at the entrance of a hall is akin to a ghost, implying the death of the soul where fame and fortune entails a complete and irrevocable fall from innocence.
This is a little different in KAAGAZ KE PHOOL where Dutt plays a successful movie director whose few failures and personal unhappiness take him spiraling down a path of agony. Whether it’s the producers and financiers stampeding on his creative control or his marital family separating him from his wife and daughter owing to their disdain for the ‘film line’, it’s an unexpected progression that has striking parallels with his life-long regret at this now hailed classic failing to strike a chord with audiences in its heyday. He particularly characterises the detractors with a satiric comic touch and exaggerated expressions, to show them as the corrupt conscience of a nation restructuring itself. It’s an ironic bit that makes his plight all the more poignant.
But it will be remiss not to applaud the parallel he draws with Waheeda Rehman’s characterisation in both. They are unlikely participants within their milieu, put in a mould as outcasts and controlled by those who bid for their uncompromising honesty. Rehman Ma’am’s simplicity and emotional value is on an equal footing as Mr. Dutt. This brings the pivotal point to light that both genders ultimately traverse the same road, atleast those who do not give in to man-made fallacies. It’s a belief I stand by.
The soulful picturization by V.K. Murthy, with music by S.D. Burman adds to the melancholic texture. From the use of beams of light illuminating two lonely souls in the iconic WAQT NE KIYA KYA HASEEN SITAM from Kaagaz to Mr. Dutt framed in stark sepia-tones in Pyaasa; to his final moments as an old man immobilized in movements and soul-sapped as a forgotten man, dying seated on a director’s chair in the studio, with the ghostly pallor on his face compounded by the cinematography in Kaagaz.
I am particularly haunted by that scene in PYAASA where a dancing girl swirls and pirouettes in front of her customers in a dubious setting, stricken by her child’s cries. Her circular motions are captured with swirling camera movements while a teary-eyed Dutt, who is an observer, is heartbroken by her plight. The camera too gets hazy and watery, to capture his moist eyes. It makes this poignant moment unforgettable.
Similarly, the circular motion of glasses of alcohol in a frame, in KAAGAZ KE PHOOL, is an indication of the rejected protagonist’s descent into alcoholism. Guru Dutt and his team’s genius lies in capturing the sad awakening of a sensitive consciousness in such an impactful whole.
Famed film writer and filmmaker Khalid Mohammed was a brave man for rescuing the stories of women from his family, stories that would have been buried and misrepresented by others. Thank God that he chose to pen his own screenplays and have the consummate intellect of Shyam Benegal carry the history and personal integrity of his female anchors in a trilogy of films. MAMMO(1994) and SARDARI BEGUM(1996) began that journey which I have been privileged to watch. The series culminated with the story of his estranged mother, in the form of 2001’s Zubeidaa, subtitled as THE STORY OF A PRINCESS.
This is his reimagining of a woman who was innocent, unsullied by corruptions of the world but always dictated by others’ whims. As I watched it, I could feel her immense helplessness as despite a good breeding and familial privilege, she was just a ‘woman’ who was forced to never have any say in her own life. Karishma Kapoor offsets this rather bleak outline with a spirited understanding of a woman who just wanted to be free adjunct with her unsullied innocence and God-gifted beauty of being. She never becomes a victim even as she gets agitated or impetuous, driven to bouts of anger when with her second husband, a prince from a royal estate in Rajasthan. This goes back to the way she is made to renounce her first marriage by dint of her father’s hollow pride and her otherwise understanding mother too makes her part with her son so that the only male heir stays within her maternal home, when she gets married into the royal household. (That son, by the way, is none other than Mr. Khalid himself in real life)
All she wanted was to perfect her love for dancing and performing but her father, a producer himself, denied her the right to do so. Her husband’s already stifling royal protocols and secondary status as the second wife decrees that she cannot even share a moment of joy with the folk dancers performing at the palace. It’s a constricted life and it broke me in these two particular instances.
But the final image of her dancing away to glory with unrestricted joy, in a film reel from her only on-screen appearance is golden. It is special for her son and mother watch her as her only two surviving family members. One wishes if she could have led a life she wanted.
ZUBEIDAA also indicts patriarchy, royalty and society in general for the way it attempts to imprison young women while unraveling the hypocrisy of making identities based on one’s background in films or the arts. It is perfectly pitched, acted and ultimately memorable for its timeless appeal, twenty years after it first made its way into cinemas.
SKATER GIRL is a work that is quietly effective, with its subtle screen treatment and vision of empowerment coming from solidarity of action rather than screaming out vapid words.
Rachel Saanchita Gupta gets the body language and emotional pitch right, of a girl named Prerna from rural Rajasthan who is practically invisible owing to her gender, social status and the overall set-up she lives in. Change is stubbornly resisted. Until she finds out that a rudimentary question like, “what do you want to become when you grow up?” was never even asked. Nobody expected her to be anything other than invisible for life.
Amrit Maghera is the voice of change who asks her that question and sets up a complete personal evolution for Prerna. The art of skateboarding as a mode of freedom akin to a bird’s graceful glide and swoop is at the center of this wondrous transformation for the teenager.
Of course, there are obstacles in this place that stubbornly resists change. But the power of the girl and other young people within the village inspires a little revolution of sorts when a skatepark is built and skating becomes a boon for all. I love SKATER GIRL not only for its merits as a standalone film but for its makers’ true commitment. They helped build the DESERT DOLPHIN SKATEPARK in record time for the film’s shoot and ensured it became a cultural and social landmark for the village and within India at large as a one of its kind haven .
Today, it functions to nurture dreams, just like the ones shown in the film. Now that is how cinema should function and facilitate change. This makes it an unique touchstone.
Also, I loved how Waheeda Rehman’s cameo proves that she is indeed a legend. To have watched three of her films spanning decades and eras within this short timespan makes me happy as a cinephile. With a 13 year old Olympian making history as a skateboarder, who knows what dreams may get fulfilled through this initiative? Sky’s the limit.
BHARAT EK KHOJ(1988)
My journey into the world of BHARAT EK KHOJ and its expansive dive into Indian history brought me to an unusual episode of the series. This one is the 21st episode based on the Bhakti or Devotional Movement that put spirituality and faith apart from organized religion, in the mould of an inner awakening to the purity of one’s nature. I had always enjoyed learning about this era in my history classes.
Shyam Benegal, true to his unconventional approach, decides to add an element of irreverent humour in the first half of the hour long episode, by staging King Mahendra Verman’s play that satirized the religious dogmas, greed and manipulations of his age, sparing no one. This one is long-drawn and almost a one shot, single act presentation that pays homage to the theatrical roots of most of the episodes, as I had mentioned earlier. The idea here is to ridicule the conventions and corruptions orchestrated by religious individuals to befool people. The likes of Mita Vashisht appear here and do full justice to a tonally absurd detour within this historical capsule. It’s hence contemporary in flavour too.
The second half then balances the scales by having Saint Appar’s fearless faith become an effective medium of expression for the Bhakti movement. Anang Desai is marvelously restrained as the legendary saint, standing up to royal decrees. His humble presence truly steals the show here.
The dual interplay then of humour and earnestness is an interesting choice for relaying polarities of human experiences.
The two episodes on the historically maligned Aurangzeb is also effective for touching upon those who put a dent on the secular character of our glorious nation. The titular ruler descended from the formidable likes of Akbar and his own benevolent father Shah Jahan and despite being taken to be an able administrator was responsible for fanning the flames of bigotry and cruelty towards his own aged father and brothers, especially the decent and non-violent Dara Shikoh.
These two episodes show how one’s rancour towards others can begin destroying the very foundations of family first and then society while sycophants in the form of self-serving courtiers compound those divisions further.
It is also a showcase for the family tree comprising of an ailing Shah Jahan exiled to a cloistered room by Aurangzeb, his brothers Murad, Dara Shikoh, Shuja as well as sisters Jahan Ara and Roshanara Begum.
Jahan Ara is the only sister on Emperor Shah Jahan’s side while Dara Shikoh is the sole male member who is a picture of forbearance and grace as well as moral complexity opposed to his brother’s severity. The actors are all legends and it was such a treat to behold Surekha Sikri as Jahan Ara here.
BIBLE KI KAHANIYAN/ STORIES FROM THE BIBLE(1993)
STORY OF ISAAC
I’m so proud to add this Biblical series, made and produced in India, to my own written repertoire. It testifies to such a richly diverse set of creative works that graced our golden years of television.
Thanks to YouTube, one can often hark back to this treasure trove addressing basic human values in an epic format but directed with such simple and expressive felicity.
I loved the installment on Isaac and Rebeccah and their twin sons. Not only is it a cautionary tale about blind love for a particular favourite child but also how it can have lasting repercussions on society at large.
Mita Vashisht, an extraordinary actor, plays Rebeccah as a figure of much emotional flexibility who grants her neglected younger son Jacob his father’s blessings in his final days which he has always reserved for the older child and next heir. Mohan Gokhale, with his beautiful eyes and chiseled facial features, is almost Christ-like in appearance and plays an elderly Isaac with utter conviction. Kanwaljeet Singh as Jacob endures for his lack of bitterness and resolve to earn his share of love and respect even when it is never meant to come so easily.
I also loved the locational authenticity of Rajasthan, the costumes and sets, in general the ethos, in capturing the Biblical setting.
Ultimately, it is about the politics of granting power and inheritance to the older male heir even though he may not be worthy enough hence becoming a reflexive take on patriarchal norms passed down to us since the ancient times. Delivered in chaste Urdu and with a feature film length of 1 hour and 37 minutes, this one is enlightening for all discerning viewers.
The series’ take on Noah’s Ark is similarly effective, running for smooth fifty minutes.
Raza Murad, with his command of voice and Urdu, is compelling as the titular figure, a man of faith and virtues, who is given God’s noble task of rescuing the last vestiges of humanity before divine wrath fills the Earth with flood waters.
Wonderful supporting work by Urmila Matondkar as his hopeful and courageous daughter in law adds to its appeal.
It again benefits from a simple style and overall fidelity to the moral innocence of the legend.