By Prashila Naik
I like films that feel real, with real people, with real conflicts, and real imagery. This is probably why I have always been fascinated with the Art/Non-commercial films in India. Shorn of gloss and star power, it is these movies that have defined many of my most memorable movie moments over the years. What also adds to this magic is the potent melting pot that India is, with its multitude of languages and mini-cultures. And, yet, it is Hindi that holds a special place in my heart, and its long-persisting and long-evolving Art cinema form, something that I always end up seeking and that is only because sadly it is also the most neglected and largely inaccessible. Here I review four films I watched recently.
Given my experience with Netflix in India, I had no hopes or expectations of discovering any hidden fantastic corners in my Amazon Prime subscription. And, yet, one evening, as I was lazily browsing through the ‘Bollywood’ category of movies, I discovered a quaint little poster titled, Pestonjee. My heart skipped a beat as I have always been a fan of Parsi socials as well as the community in general. Pestonjee stars the stalwarts of ‘character’ based cinema and, incidentally, none of them are Parsis in real life. Naseeruddin Shah clearly is the protagonist but not Pestonjee, who in turn is played by Anupam Kher. Shah and Kher are childhood friends and what a delightful friendship they have. They even decide to get married together, of course, to different girls, who are both selected for them by the same marriage bureau lady. Shah, called Phiroj, meets his often co-star and the very lovely looking Shabana Azmi, who plays Jeroo and develops an instant infatuation for her and, yet, in line with his ruminating personality, takes his own time to reply his consent to the marriage (I had no idea even Parsis performed horoscope matching). By the time he is back, Pestonjee is already married, much to Phiroj’s surprise and annoyance, to Jeroo.
I took a while to warm up to Jeroo. Lost in the hum of the two men and a fantastic group of supporting characters – both Parsis and non-Parsis – Azmi seems to struggle in the universe the movie builds. She is overtly flirtatious and awkward; her Gujarati jars unlike that of her two co-stars. Even her make-up and hair seem to sit all wrong on her. But soon she settles down and we are drawn into an interesting love triangle. And Phiroj is the most intriguing point in this triangle. On one hand, the more he sees of Jeroo, the more he feels disheartened at ‘losing’ her; yet he feels no malice for his friend, even drawing comfort from the fact that it was after all his own dear friend that he lost Jeroo to. Shah plays Phiroj the way he plays most of his roles (no surprise there) and his fourth wall breaking stream of consciousness seems just right, given his introversion. It is almost as if the man talks to himself because he is unable to express his concerns to the others around him. He decides he will stay single, even as he moves to Bhusawal, builds a gentle camaraderie with his subordinates, especially a Maharashtrian young woman with the most gorgeous baby ever. All through he misses his friend and his wife, dreams of playing with their soon-to-be-born child, dreams of coming back to the gentle strains of Jeroo’s piano playing. Only, none of his dreams come true. Pestonjee felt the same to me: a dream that never comes true. By the time the movie ended, I was vaguely hopeful but immensely sad for all the people who were once very dear to me, but are now lost somewhere because we have nothing left in common anymore.
27 Down (1974)
27 Down, the next film I watched, was the first and only film directed by Awtar Krishna Kaul, who Google tells me died in an accident just a few days before the movie released. And somehow this saddened my perception of the movie even more than it would have otherwise. For 27 Down is an incredibly ‘sad’ movie about a man, who struggles to understand himself, struggles to make himself at ‘home’ as the world sees it. This man, Sanjay, played by M.K. Raina, who nowadays plays the benevolent Daadu in the Amazon Fire stick ads, guides the movie through his monologue. He tells how his childhood lacked that single ‘flash’ that would take him by surprise. And that could possibly be because his curiosity is brutally curbed by his train enthusiast and railway employee father (played by a scarily exasperating and yet somehow touching Om Shivpuri) and a loving but clueless mother. The boy, however, does have his flash when he one time spots a statue of the Aphrodite, at once besotted by it and for the first time in his life probably finding a hope for his curiosity, for his unusual mind.
Flash forward, the boy is in Bombay, studying in JJ School of Art, doing everything his father warned him to not do. You think he is on the verge of becoming a rebel, when he softens after reading his father’s letter and, with what looks like guilt, he goes back to Bhusawal. Even if grudgingly, he accepts the idea that a job in the railways is probably what he needs more than an Art School degree, which promises no ‘stable’ perks like the railway job. Soon he discovers his love for the trains, often spending his free time inside one as opposed to going back to nosy roommates, who also unsurprisingly cannot relate to him. Things perk up a little for Sanjay and for the viewer, when he comes across Shalini, a young woman (Raakhee) in the train, who works at the LIC. He is first attracted to her because with both her hands occupied in holding different belongings, she reminds him of the hand-less Aphrodite statue. The two embark on a friendship that soon turns more intimate. The girl takes Sanjay to meet her family back in Pune but things don’t go as expected. An LIC employee is more respected than a train conductor after all, when it comes to standard social approval. Sanjay is distraught and yet he goes back to Shalini, realizing that the moment in the present is what he actually longs for than the promise of a future.
But old shadows are hard to shake off and Sanjay, despite his need to be led away, finds himself unable to understand or accept anything that he thinks is clearly beneath him. At one point, he thinks that his simpleton, nagging wife will turn into one of the buffaloes she has brought as dowry with her. I wanted to laugh at this line but I did not. Somewhere it cut too close. At another point, he forces himself into a conversation with a random man in Banaras and, then, like every self-respecting (or hating) slacker loser of an indie film hero, he tries to find light, both literally and metaphorically, from a kind-hearted prostitute. And even when he tries to force himself back into Shalini’s life, it is merely his desperation at being unable to let go off her or the idea that he had wronged her, even if she seems to have moved on, pushing aside the memories of him that at some point must have been meant something to her.
One cannot help but feel what the talented director would have accomplished had he still been alive. 27 Down is one of those movies that unfolds like a dream many of us will probably identify with a little too well. Like Sanjay says, “Mai ab sirf chalna chahta hoo.”
The first thing that struck me as I sat down to watch Richie Mehta directed Siddharth was its opening production credits: “Poor Man’s Productions” in association with “Wonders of India” Presents. I chuckled at the wordplay and the irony. But these words pretty much sum up Siddharth. I am not much of a fan of India-based movies made by second generation NRIs. And as much as I wanted to watch Sidharth, I was expecting it to be yet another exoticisation of poverty like so many others of its ilk. But Siddharth doesn’t do that. It smartly finds a middle ground between Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire, even as it moves at the pace of a gentle thriller. Siddharth is the name of a 12-year-boy, who we are never shown. This is probably because he gets lost, when he is sent to work in a factory in Ludhiana. The father, played with supreme empathy by Rajesh Tailang, isn’t a monster because he sends his pre-teen boy to work in a different city. To him, it is merely some ‘help’ in difficult times. Siddharth’s mother is played with great empathy by Tannistha Chatterjee. He has a little cherubic sister, who likes watching cricket and in Siddharth’s absence becomes the ‘boy child’ of the house. The film is mostly about Siddharth’s father’s attempts to ‘find’ Siddharth and the difficulties he goes through during his search.
With a basic plotline like this, Siddharth is strewn with many interesting characters, the most fascinating of them is clearly Mukesh Bhai (played by the real life casting agent, Mukesh Chabra). When we first see Mukesh Bhai, he is a ‘villainous’ character taking advantage of a poor man’s majboori (helplessness). You want to slap him and want to ask him to have a heart. But when we see him next, the man practically disintegrates in front of the camera. He isn’t a ‘good’ man, but he isn’t that bad either. He is like the average person in Delhi, who has never heard of an otherwise notorious suburb in Mumbai.
Siddharth trudges towards an ending we imagine but don’t want to know. There is a touching bit, where in the absence of even a single photograph of Siddharth, his father confesses to his own father (is there some irony there?) that he is beginning to forget what his son looked like. And you believe him, when he notices a boy tea-seller and his face brightens up. ‘My son looks like you,’ he tells the boy, who in turn gives him a free cup of tea! And a little later, he pulls a Muslim boy aside, accusing the boy’s uncle of ‘stealing’ his child. In this world of young child-labourers, where children are easily replaceable, their faces appear to mean no more than their names.
Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
In Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, Arvind, the protagonist, while seated in his own car, tells his ‘leftist’ friend that he hates Bombay. The friend, with a slight smile and an understanding tone, replies that this hatred is a good way to make peace with this dehumanized existence. I could not get over this little exchange because it somehow kept ringing through Arvind’s journey in the movie, in the world, and mostly into his own self. Arvind Desai is born a rich boy, and predictably, he ‘takes over’ his father’s business. But right from the onset, Arvind is a misfit. His mind and his eyes are seldom in sync with his body or with each other. We are not told anything of Arvind’s childhood, and I kept wondering if that influences his present life. Arvind is seeing his secretary Alice, but neither of them seems to be sure about what they want from that relationship. And yet, when it is time to snap, it is Arvind who does so, even as he comes across as a perfect man of ‘class’ to Alice’s gentle mother, who still cannot understand how this high class man could do what he did. Arvind also visits a prostitute and that too one with a disfigured face; then he shows something like disgust, not at her, but at his own body. His motivations for this too are not clear. Arvind is something of a socialist or at least he thinks he is and that might be because he despises his father’s cold capitalism, which ironically feeds his comfortable way of life. Most often than not, his attempts at being ‘nice’ to the ‘lower class’ are met with scorn and ridicule. Arvind doesn’t even notice all this.
He is also critical of his mother and his sister, pretending to be their ‘saviour’, but he gets gently scorned by them as well. His leftist friend provides some solace, but seems to remind him of his privilege and limited intellect. Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan is wonderfully shot. Dilip Dhawan in his first role either deliberately or unknowingly manages to put ‘life’ into what must have been an extremely inert character on paper. He is ably supported by Om Puri and rest of the cast of fine actors. The movie begins and ends with the same images and the same haunting background music. But the tale of a lone man’s self-understood misery, juxtaposed with that of the socio-political situation of that time, doesn’t fully come together. And this might be a good thing because Arvind Desai’s ajeeb dastaan is actually just that: it is strange. There are no convenient connections here, much like everything else in Arvind Desai’s world.
Prashila Naik is a writer with a special interest in all forms of character-driven short fiction. Her short stories have been published in various online literary magazines in India and elsewhere. She additionally contributes features to popular women’s portals and is fascinated with cinema and music as extremely potent and often therapeutic forms of art. She is based out of Bangalore.
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