Keaton Blogathon: Maryada Ramanna (2010) and Son of Sardaar (2012)

Following some unanticipated travel and my obligatory changing-of-the-seasons bout of illness, I am unfortunately reporting for the Buster Keaton Blogathon late. With concomitant apologies, I present the promised offering: a discussion of two Indian adaptations of Keaton’s 1923 feature Our Hospitality. When the Telugu film Maryada Ramanna appeared in 2010, it sparked off a series of subsequent remakes in other language industries: in Kannada as Maryade Ramanna (2011), in Bengali as Fande Poriya Boga Kaande Re (2011), in Hindi as Son of Sardaar (2012), in Tamil as Vallavanukku Pullum Aayudham (2014), and in Malayalam as Ivan Maryadaraman (2015).

What lies beyond the threshold in Son of Sardaar.

Alongside my predictable choice of Son of Sardaar, I intend to discuss Maryada Ramanna. It was the “flashpoint” for this strange little crop of desi Our Hospitality adaptations and served as a model for all the subsequent ones. Indeed—with the caveat that I had to watch a couple of them without subtitles, and don’t know up from down in Kannada or Malayalam—most of these films seem to be strict adaptations of Maryada Ramanna. I ought to admit upfront that I primarily watch Hindi and Punjabi movies. I am all but certain that I am missing not just cultural and linguistic context, but also cinematic context for understanding Maryada Ramanna.As you will hear, I think it is much the better film, but found Son of Sardaar the more interesting of the two, in part because it connects compellingly to other Hindi movies.

Both adaptations have essentially the same plot setup as Our Hospitality, in which Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) returns from New York City to take possession of some real estate he has inherited in an unspecified Southern locale. On the train ride down, he shares a car with Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), who invites Willie in for dinner once they discover they have disembarked at the same town. Unfortunately, Virginia’s father (Joe Roberts) and brothers (Ralph Bushman and Craig Ward) have already learned that Willie’s McKays are the same McKays with whom their family has spent the past few generations feuding. Although they feel obligated to kill him, they cannot do so honorably while he is their guest. Rapidly wising up to this situation, Willy arranges to remain a guest as long as he can possibly manage. After that point, Maryada Ramanna and Son of Sardaar begin to digress both from Our Hospitality and from one another.

We have S. S. Rajamouli to thank for Maryada Ramanna and, hence, for the subsequent Indian versions. As far as I can reconstruct from the press of the time, it was intended as a deliberately small-scale project in between the release of his expansive action-fantasies Magadheera (2009) and Eega (2012). S. S. Kanchi adapted the story from Our Hospitality, while Rajamouli wrote the actual screenplay along with directing. The film stars Sunil as Ramu (= Willie), Nagineedu as Ramineedu (= Mr. Canfield, an excellent performance that he later reprised in the Tamil and Malayalam versions), Supreeth and Prabhakar as the sons Mallasuri and Baireddy, and Saloni as Aparna (= Virgnia). The screenplay adds a number of new characters to Aparna’s family and surrounding milieu, among whom the most substantial is Srikanth (played by Brahmaji) as her doctor cousin, whom the extended family clearly consider an obvious potential match for her. This is an excellent film that competently manages the balance between humor and threat. Unfortunately, the climax—which is essentially unrelated to that of Our Hospitality, for what it’s worth—weirdly sucks eggs. Until the last twenty minutes or so, however, it is great good fun, unusually nimble on its feet compared to most Telugu actioners I’ve seen. Even though it’s barely a decade old, Maryada Ramanna and its imitators now seem like pleasant throwbacks. If I correctly recall the buzz at the time, Eega was already something of a crossover; Rajamouli’s next project Baahubali introduced the ideal of the “pan-India”/interlingual hit, which all the industries are currently busy chasing. It was legitimately a delight to return to the days in which a particularly successful film would be outright remade in multiple regional styles over the following years, rather than released in a simultaneous dub.

The title drop in Maryada Ramanna.

Son of Sardaar is the most distinctive of those remakes and the only one that I can confidently state was made with direct reference both to Our Hospitality and Maryada Ramanna. It redirects the action from rural Andhra Pradesh to the small city of Phagwara in Kapurthala district, Punjab. Ajay Devgn appears as Jassi Randhava (= Willie) and Sonakshi Sinha as Sukh Sandhu (= Virginia). Rather than the main antagonist being Sukh’s father, the Mr. Canfield-type character Billu (played by Sanjay Dutt) is her cousin; Sukh’s long-dead father is meant to have been Billu’s paternal uncle, compressing the generational spread among the main characters. She still gets two brothers, even if they are more ridiculous than menacing in this interpretation: Tony and Titu, played by Mukul Dev and Vindu Dara Singh, whose enormous teeth I am always pleased to see. Sukh also comes pre-equipped with an eligible bachelor (Arjan Bajwa as Bobby), although, given the North Indian setting, he is no longer her cousin. Finally, the Hindi adaptation both expands Sukh’s role beyond that of Aparna’s in Maryada Ramanna and adds two other major female characters. Tanuja turns in a strange but compelling performance as Sukh’s maternal grandmother Bebe, who is pathetically decrepit in the main timeline but whom we first encounter as a bandu-hefting avatar of vengeance in the prologue. Juhi Chawla plays Pammi, whose wedding to Billu was interrupted during that prologue and whose marriage is now on hold until the rest of the Randhavas have been wiped out. As this description indicates, Son of Sardaar rejiggers the relationships between the Our Hospitality characters much more thoroughly than Maryada Ramanna. Although it is broader, louder, and significantly less funny, I also found it the more thematically compelling—in large part because it feels like less of a direct adaptation.

Tanuja as Bebe, passing out rifles in the prologue of Son of Sardaar.

That statement should not be taken to imply that Maryada Ramanna is a particularly literal adaptation of Our Hospitality—at least, not of the aspects of Our Hospitality that are most remarked upon. Sometimes I think I’ve gotten acclimated to desi filmmaking, and then something like this will happen: Rajamouli et al. identifying a fundamentally different value proposition in their source material than any Anglo take on Our Hospitality that I’ve ever encountered. Even though Telugu actioners are, like silent comedies, driven by a highly mannered visual style that usually encompasses humor as well as thrilling stuntwork, the comedy of Maryada Ramanna primarily lives in its dialogue and delivery. It recycles only a scant handful of the gags found in Our Hospitality; in the case of those few, it is both jarring and delightful to see them reinterpreted in such a different visual language. Instead of peeking through their fingers during a pre-dinner grace, the characters do so during a prayer service commemorating Ramineedu’s brother’s death. Since Raju does not have a faithful dog like Willie’s, his attempt to delay his departure from the house by “misplacing” his wallet is foiled by an overly solicitous servant instead. I spotted one lift from an unrelated Keaton film: the tall-ladder-against-a-short-wall bit from Cops. Son of Sardaar omits many of the gags found in Maryada Ramanna, but also picks up a few more directly from Our Hospitality, as when Jassi tosses a pillow over the threshold to check if someone is waiting outside to shoot him. (The pillow winds up getting stabbed instead.)

Here and there, the Indian films pick up an image or thematic line for development that, while drawn from Our Hospitality, does not have to do with the feud plotline. Particularly delightful is Raju’s bicycle in Maryada Ramanna, which I presume is an expansion of the wonderful pedal-less hobbyhorse via which Willie gets about while still in New York. At the opening of the film, Raju is working as a deliveryman but faced with stiff competition from other workers who can afford motorbikes or autorickshaws. On top of that, the rickety bicycle has a mind of its own (voiced sporadically by Ravi Teja) and resents having to work—although it does at least do its part to save Raju’s life later on. The bicycle contrasts with the car-clogged streets of Hyderabad in “Udyogam Oodipoyindi,” an excellent, surreal song that expresses Raju’s frustration after being fired from his courier gig. (Again, I don’t watch much in the way of Telugu films, but the choreography in this song and in “Raaye Raaye Saloni” definitely seems like a take-off on Chiranjeevi.) The self-cognizant, slightly malicious behavior of the machines in this song certainly has a Keatonian flavor. One noticeable omission from Maryada Ramanna is any adaptation of the famous prologue of Our Hospitality, a surprisingly horrific passage in which Willie’s father and Mr. Canfield’s brother both die in a duel illuminated only by sporadic flashes of lightning. That idea does surface in Son of Sardaar, but to somewhat different effect. In Our Hospitality, the prologue provides a streak of real horror in a film that otherwise makes merry with its violence. The balance is reversed in Son of Sardaar: the equivalent scene plays mostly for laughs, but then is interrupted by a few whiplash strokes of woozy pathos.  

Keeping with its trend of making the feud less secretive, Son of Sardaar makes Jassi old enough to actually witness the events of the prologue.

The introduction of an alternative, pre-approved suitor for Aparna/Sukh in both of the Indian adaptations pleasantly complicates the interpersonal dynamics. In Maryada Ramanna, Aparna and Srikanth have a cute, well-developed relationship. They are confidantes, helping each other out with various schemes, if not necessarily the romantic pair their elders might like them to be. I was disappointed with how their arc ended, as it relied on a plot development that seemed to contradict Sukh’s previously stated opinions. Regardless, I enjoyed the complication their relationship added to the obligatory pairing of Sukh and Raju—especially since it is long left ambiguous whether Raju is genuinely interested in her romantically, or whether he’s just incorporating her into his schemes at escaping from the household. The parallel track in Son of Sardaar is not as deeply explored, but the older-generation romance track between Pammi and Billu more than makes up for it. Although many of its individual moments are played for laughs, their story is also moving and, at times, surprisingly sweet. Pammi is my favorite out of any of the “new” characters introduced in Maryada Ramanna or Son of Sardaar. She is as fully entrenched in the feud as any of them, but the first to question why they are perpetuating it. At least at first, those questions do not stem from an altruistic place. She wouldn’t mind seeing Jassi dead because the extinction of the Randhavas would get her married faster; at the same time, she is self-aware enough to realize that, without the feud, her wedding would never have been delayed at all. It is her compassion for Sukh that finally marks a turning point in the drama.

Few actresses presently working in Hindi can play a tragicomic role with as light a touch as Juhi Chawla gives to Pammi.

It’s a delight to observe how the same plot has been “localized” in two different films. Some of the touches are common tropes across multiple Indian cinemas. For example, Ramu uses a song (“Telugammayi”) to distract people during one of his escape attempts, pulling some remarkable faces in the course of so doing. In another scene, however, he flips through channels on the television and catches only programs that remind him of the threat of death. One is the broadcast of what I assume must be a classic filmi song, perhaps from the 1960s, the identification of which I must leave to someone better acquainted with Telugu music. Regionalism contributes to the spectacle of both films, with the beautiful landscapes of southern Andha Pradesh featuring in Maryada Ramanna and the midwinter Lohri festival in Son of Sardaar. Other distinctions are more thoroughly integrated, especially the perceptible difference in what is considered polite behavior. Both Raju and Jassi rely on their status as guests to provide protection from the feud, but it also binds them by standards of comportment against which they frequently struggle. In Maryada Ramanna, self-composure and demonstrations of respect are extremely serious matters. In Son of Sardaar, being in someone’s household requires withstanding plenty of teasing and joshing—a stereotype both in Punjabi cinema and in Bollywood depictions of Punjabi families. Lest it be misconstrued that the Ramineedu clan are paragons of subtlety, however, consider the “Jai Sri Ram” decal on Mallasuri and Baireddy’s car. This is the equivalent of the Canfields’ “Love Thy Neighbor” needlepoint sampler in Our Hospitality: a statement of religiously rooted morality on the part of a family that seems ironically unhinged.

Not for the first time, Raju wishes he could afford to buy a motorbike.

Although I enjoy some of the Punjabi flavor in Son of Sardaar, I also think it is the source of the film’s most serious problems. The setting naturally has the propensity to come off as either pandering or mocking, given that the film is not actually in Punjabi. What bothers me much more is the fundamental reorientation of the protagonist that has to occur for him to fit into this stereotype. In Our Hospitality, Willie is a cowardly hero who avoids being murdered by the Canfields through strategic running, hiding, and distracting—as well, of course, as turning their own customs against them. Ramu is a very similar protagonist. Many of the joys of Maryada Ramanna stem from him trying to weasel his way out of extremely disadvantageous situations. By framing Jassi as an archetypical “sardaar,” who cannot conscionably show fear, Son of Sardaar stifles a rich fount of comedy from which Maryada Ramanna and its other adaptations freely drank. (Salman Khan has a brief friendly appearance as a Pathaani character whose name, to all evidence, is simply “Pathaan”—another ethnic/regional stereotype affiliated with tough guys.) The film sporadically interrogates its sardaari stereotypes, such as when Tony initially realizes that Jassi is a Randhava and runs around the neighborhood trying to source a weapon with which to kill him. All of the Phagwaris seem constantly to carry guns—Tony himself was already carrying one—but nobody can seem to scrape up a bullet. For the most part, though, the machismo is played straight. It is this reorientation that allows Jassi to do what neither Willie nor Raju would: to step knowingly out of the haveli, in broad daylight and in Billu’s line of sight. That passage is scored against a particularly lovely song, “Tu Bichdaan”; sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, it is something of a play on the typical bittersweet doli song. Sadly, I do not think one excellent sequence makes up for the deflation of tension in the middle of the film.

Like Keaton, Sunil has the comedic advantage of being an unimposing little guy–particularly next to these notably monumental actors embodying Mallasuri and Baireddy.

The finale, on the other hand, might. Maryada Ramanna comes to an almost arbitrary conclusion. Although a weaker ending than Our Hospitality, it conveys a similar feeling: that its characters continue to live in a bloodthirsty world. Although Raju and Aparna escaped disaster on a technicality, the peace with which the film ends is demonstrably fragile. Son of Sardaar comes to a conclusion that is not only dramatically satisfying, but which feels final. This sensibility feels different from that of Our Hospitality; I suspect it owes much more to the tradition of Hindi feud movies. Despite its cheerful ridiculousness, there is also a sense throughout of the terrible attrition owed to this conflict, including among the Sandhus. Grotesque though they are, Tony and Tito are already exhausted by the feud by the time the film opens and are trying unsuccessfully to rules-lawyer it out of existence. The fact that most characters (other than Sukh) are aware of one another’s real identities almost immediately also contributes to an explicit exploration of why the feud has been sustained. Shortly after landing in the house, Jassi attempts to convince the Sandhus that he was only in Phagwara to sell the family land and had no intention of enmity towards them; Billu grimly asserts that, if Jassi wants to take responsibility for his father’s land, he should also take responsibility for his murder of Billu’s uncle. The reverse eventually happens, as one character after another decides that this thing isn’t worth doing anymore and starts making some adjustments in the direction of peace. Last to give it up is Bebe, who says simply and lucidly: “It is better to forget the things that sadden us.” And that is all.  

For that matter, many of the same actors have appeared in precisely this type of morally fraught feud movie, like Sanjay Dutt here in Jeeva (1986).

Apart from its clear affiliation with feud movies, Son of Sardaar aligns with a number of other tropes common in Bollywood films. Its NRI hero returns to the Indian countryside without fully understanding its unwritten rules—not merely when it comes to human interaction, but also to the realization that a stolen horse will still be loyal to its owner’s whistle. It also has many characteristics of “purani haveli” movies, in which the history of bloodshed in a given place makes the place itself unduly sinister. None of those characteristics are original to the Hindi adaptation; they come straight from Our Hospitality. I don’t feel equally equipped to gauge what initially have attracted S. S. Rajamouli to the story, but Maryada Ramanna certainly calls attention to its desi-feeling elements: separated families, searching for one’s origins, living within one’s dharma. As soon as the topic of the feud is first introduced, lyrics heard in the background score compare it to the fratricidal war of the Kauravas and Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Sadly, that portion of the score does not seem to have been excerpted on YouTube, but you can listen to “Dhada Dhadalade,” which equates Raju with Bhargava Markandeya, who outwitted death with the help of Shiva. In Raju’s case, the household lingam yeets a cat at him to prevent him from walking over the threshold—or something like that. Perhaps the root of Our Hospitality’s appeal to desi filmmakers is that hospitality and the protection of guests are taken seriously in Indian culture. Son of Sardaar is stuffed with aphorisms and rhyming dialogues. Most of them are newly invented and deliberately silly, but they also include “Mehmaan bhagwaan ka roop hota hai”—the classic saying that a guest is like a form of god.

Please do check out the many other blogathon posts from authors who actually turned theirs in on time. And, if you haven’t seen it, give Our Hospitality a chance. It’s one of the easiest silent features to appreciate and, having slipped the noose of copyright a few years ago, is readily available online.

Khel Khel Mein (1975)

Although I doubt I will rewatch Khel Khel Mein, I am glad that I stuck with it. It opens as an unfunny comedy; it later becomes a mystery that, while not particularly mysterious, is psychologically compelling. Individual moments, scenes, and songs—especially in that latter half—occasionally rise to the level of the transcendent. And if, like me, you are easily swayed by mid-’70s character actors or easily distracted by go-go boots, it should not take too much mental resolve to make it through the unpleasant bits. One warning is in order: this film features some stunt-casting. That fact is well enough known that I expect most readers of this blog, even without having seen Khel Khel Main, will know “who done it.” Should you happen to have made it forty-five years without being spoiled, avoid looking up the film on IMDB or the like; character names may give something important away. (The summary below does not.) Khel Khel Mein was directed by Ravi Tandon from a screenplay by Sachin Bhowmic and story by Shelly Shailender; Ravi Malhotra* produced it for R. M. Films.

Ajay (Rishi Kapoor) is a newcomer to the college where Nisha (Neetu Singh) and Vicky (Rakesh Roshan) are Cool Kids in residence. Both friends take a shine to him; eager to please them, nervy little Ajay is soon enmeshed in their friend group and its ongoing series of pranks and dares. He is equally quickly smitten with Nisha. Ajay can only muster the courage to deal directly with their relationship in brief, self-destructive bursts; not even the comparative emotional intelligence of former admirer/current wingwoman Urvashi (Priti Gangooly) avails much in getting them together. We are meant to understand that, despite their continual troublemaking, Nisha and Ajay are at heart good kids. Vicky has the capacity for serious wrongdoing; his girlfriend is named “Sheri” and played by Aruna Irani, for goodness’s sake! Therefore, when the kids overhear something unsavory about a shopkeeper (Jankidas) whose store is opposite their usual hang-out spot, it is Vicky who proposes turning that knowledge into money. He even knows the name of a local gang they could invoke. The others have misgivings, but all three ultimately reassemble at Nisha’s family’s place and use her typewriter to write up an extortion letter. Although the college they attend only passingly resembles any real-world educational institution, it is apparently not meant to be a secretarial school; designated typist Ajay misplaces zeros to the extent of Rs. 50,000 rather than the proposed amount of 500. Despite this mistake, the shopkeeper drops off the inflated amount as requested. Ajay, Nisha, and Vicky are busy squabbling over if and how to return the cash when they learn that their mark has been stabbed to death, the only clue in the hands of the police being a typed extortion note.

There are two things that prevent me from wholeheartedly enjoying Khel Khel Mein. In the first place, the titular theme of ragging and practical jokemaking does not compel. That may be due to my own lack of imagination; either pranking was not an established facet of student culture where I went to school, or nobody thought I was hip enough to be informed about it. Many and many a Hindi college film, on the other hand, presents ragging as an insidious problem. I presume the depiction has some basis in truth. I get the sense that the film is meant in part as a cautionary tale, an “issues” movie about an issue that seems pretty difficult to be caught up in. From my own limited perspective, it’s difficult to see the remotest hint of coolness in these kids tormenting their purported friends and smashing up the poor canteen guy’s furniture and smoking in the library (!); I had questionable enough tastes at eighteen, but I wouldn’t have thought they were cool then, either. In the second place, the screenplay is inattentive to detail. Despite the amount of screentime spent at the college, it never comes across as a functional institution. Poor Satyen Kappoo must be the most overworked professor in academe, since he seems to coach the field hockey team on top of lecturing on such diverse topics as literature, music, and religious history. Vicky doses somebody’s orange juice with whiskey, a plan that sounds literally unpalatable and that turns the orange juice (clearly visible in a transparent glass) an unnatural color; not only does this plan go undetected, it gets the victim fully sozzled within a couple of sips. Both of those details could feasibly be played as jokes, but they aren’t.

The aspects of the film that successfully made me laugh were mostly incidental touches independent of the half-baked script, like two students having a tickle-fight in the background of a scene or the ubiquitous Prof. Kappoo tapping out a tala against his lectern when the students interrupt his class with music. Similarly, the second half of Khel Khel Mein proves comparatively effective because its thrills live in the performances rather than the plot. This is not the type of mystery the viewer is meant to keep one mental step ahead of. Nisha and Ajay in the midst of that mystery make for compelling viewing as they squirm and panic and catastrophize. On several occasions, they evade discovery because interested parties assume the shopkeeper would have been under pressure from reasonable, well-considered, profit-minded blackmailers and not some idiot kids acting on a whim. Upon discovering that Vicky did not dispose of the payoff money as proposed, Ajay and Nisha’s brilliant plan is to yeet the wad of cash in the general direction of a police station! Indeed, many of their actions following the murder seem more authentically within the capacity of college-aged knuckleheads than those in the first half.

Individually and as a pair, Rishi and Neetu are this film’s saving grace. I very much doubt I would have weathered the first half without such magnetic leads to keep my eye fixed on the ridiculous goings-on. I am on the record as a stalwart Neetu fan, even when she’s given mere cyphers to play; Nisha, happily, is a dynamic character. Of the students, she starts from the most unsympathetic position and musters the most growing up. I am not typically as enthusiastic about Rishi, but Ajay is almost the platonic ideal of an early Rishi character: tentative, kiddish, conspicuously oblivious to the searchlight-esque charisma beaming blindingly off of him. A small army of favorite character actors round out the cast. It is often rewarding to watch what the background players get up to in the comedy scenes. Hari Shivdasani, Chand Usmani, and Kamal Kapoor were particularly welcome as various of the main trio’s parents; getting some sense of the students’ pre-collegiate existences helped me conceive of them as more holistic personalities, in Vicky’s case especially.

R. D. Burman’s soundtrack is not much to my taste—and is also sufficiently popular that I had grown to dislike most of the songs years before I got around to seeing the movie. Happily, the songs reward being seen in context. They are well-choreographed and most of them feature Nisha and Ajay cavorting adorably about. “Aaye Lo Pyar Ke Din Aaye” is one of the more musically pleasing selections. Aruna’s requisite item number, “Sapna Mera Toot Gaya,” was simply bizarre. Imagine being in the audience at that club, planning a pleasant night on the town, only for the chanteuse to declare that the show must go on while actively suffering a mental breakdown. She actively badgers individual members of the audience for their comparative luck in love. I think I would rather just enjoy my drink in silence! Or to the accompaniment of the synth-heavy pseudo-jazz background music, which is pretty rad.

Then there’s “Humne Tumko Dekha,” perhaps one of the most enticing songs ever put on film. It perfectly demonstrates the actors’ roles in “selling” a song and how much a thoughtful picturization, even when extremely simple, can add to a movie. The only version I’m finding on YouTube is out of focus and letterboxed half to death, but still demands urgent viewing if you, like me, had only ever heard the audio. Nisha hustles Ajay onto stage at the annual college function. “Ek minute,” she mouths while struggling to queue up the tape he’s supposed to be dancing to; people in the audience start to boo. From the opposite wing, though, he has divested himself of his stern jacket and returned bearing a non-plugged-in electric guitar and a scarf nearly twice as long as he is tall. (This is Shailendra Singh’s only appearance on the soundtrack, by the way; much though I like Kishore, who sings for Rishi in all the other songs, this is clearly the combination that g-d and nature intended.) After Ajay has collected a couple of other friends from the wings of the stage to join in the dance, Nisha is already preemptively shaking her head. Once he pulls her onto stage, too, the first thing she can come up with is awkward and strangely elaborate, as though she’s relying on the muscle memory of a different dance that she once did to a different song. Ajay applauds her cheerily. Finally, once Nisha’s self-consciousness is worn away, they catch each other’s eyes and one beat later jive. It’s glorious.

*Thanks to this unfortunate subtitle from Kaala Patthar, I braced myself to be terrified.  


I don’t have anything eloquent to say; I’m not certain I have anything to say at all, except to observe that the Lata songs I have wanted to listen to today are not necessarily the classics. It seemed more important to hear her singing happy, hopeful words.

(In case the link disappears: “Hum Dono Do Premi,” Ajanabee, 1974.)

Milan (1967)

An earlyish entry in the reincarnation genre, Milan justifies its choice to almost immediately reveal the fate of its first-generation characters. There is no suspense about what happened to them. Instead, most of the runtime is devoted to watching why and how it happened, questions that unfold slowly and with breathtaking visual beauty. Unfortunately, the film does not always navigate its tonal shifts securely. Should you be a practiced hand at tuning out questionable comedy and/or particularly susceptible to this genre (e.g., me) it will be a rare treat. Milan was directed by A. Subba Rao and produced by L. V. Prasad for Prasad Studios. Like Subba’s Telugu original Mooga Manasulu (1964), the screenplay is by Acharya Atreya and Mullapudi Venkata Ramana; Virendra Sinha wrote the Hindi dialogues.

Gopinath (Sunil Dutt) and Radha (Nutan) seem to dwell under a favorable star: they are childhood sweethearts, universally well-liked, have just tied for top score in their university exit exams, and—as the sign on the front bumper of their kickass DeSoto explains—are “Newly Married On Way to Honey Moon Don’t Stop Us.”1 On one leg of their trip, though, Gopinath spazzes suddenly into a tormented paranoia, demanding that their boatman drop them off at a seemingly arbitrary patch of overgrown shore. To the first local he finds, Gopinath introduces himself as Gopi the nauwallah. Fortunately for all involved—particularly Radha, who is not merely concerned for Gopinath’s wellbeing but beginning to demand explanations on her own account—village outcast Gowri (Jamuna) is still clinging to life under half a pound of old-age makeup. Her presence shocks Gopinath into fully remembering the past life that began so suddenly to bedevil the edges of his mind. The rest of the film narrates that previous life, in which Gowri was a young goatherd, Radha lived in the now-ruinous haveli on the opposite shore, and Gopi ferried her across to her college every day—that is, before two of them drowned in the Ganga.

Milan is unusually effective at evoking the measured passage of time. This quality is not exploited exclusively or even primarily within the reincarnation storyline. “Modern” Radha and Gopi are minor characters; nothing that happened between the deaths of old Radha-Gopi and the college graduation of new Radha-Gopi is even depicted onscreen. Rather, it is the daily journey across the river to town and back that forms the pulse of the film. These trips absorb a large proportion of Radha and Gowri’s workdays and all of Gopi’s; Radha and Gopi in particular develop the easy sense of one another’s moods that tends naturally to arise from long hours spent existing in unavoidable company. Larger waypoints of time iterate against this daily ritual; it is during the river passage that that these characters discuss and prepare for festivals, birthdays, and the changing agricultural year. As anyone with a commute can attest, taking an identical trip every day seems as though it ought to feel identical, but is always slightly, sometimes irritatingly different. It also feels endless even when one consciously knows it is going to end. Neither do these people have all the time in the world (except on a metaphysical level). A point comes when Radha no longer goes across the Ganga every day; the climax is regimented against the swift march of Navaratri.

Distance matters too. The expanse between the zamindar’s haveli on one shore and the village on the opposite, easily enough crossed in a boat, makes for more treacherous interpersonal territory. Radha is continually trying to bridge it and go sojourning in Gopi and Gowri’s world. She tries to draw him back into hers, too, with less success. When Radha asks him to teach her a folksong to use at her college’s music competition, Gopi is reluctant to sit down on the patio furniture; she sighs and sits down on the stoop next to him, saying that a student is not above his guru. Even though the film overtly states that they are meant to be together in every lifetime, “old” Radha and Gopi are never a romantic couple. Radha is fairly overtly attracted to him; to Gopi, she is so fundamentally unlike him that she might as well not be human. A couple of times Radha asks, “Why do you like me so much?” Presuming he can even conceive of it, he certainly can’t say it aloud. In a silent scene towards the end of the film, Radha discovers with stomach-lurching specificity just how untraversable Gopi considers the juncture between them.

This film belongs to Nutan as far as I am concerned. Radha is not among of her showier roles, but Nutan invests the character with a lively sense of internal life despite the stillness and quietness of her performance. Many of her scenes are spent observing other characters; rather than stemming from some native genius, the care with which she interacts with others seems rooted in her openness to observing and understanding people around her. Even in isolation, Nutan’s performance suggests thoughtfulness. At one point Radha swaps her dabba for Gopi’s. Camped alone on the college lawn, she samples his lunch almost experimentally, obviously thrilling at the transgression. Pran as Radha’s uncle is the primary villain and, unfortunately, gets saddled with the script’s most visible miscalculation. Comedy and tragedy hang in effective balance as regards the main characters; neither seems misplaced at the moment it is happening. Pran’s character continues to be played for laughs long past the point when his menace could be considered laughable, feeling not merely unfunny but out of pace with the surrounding tragedy. Jamuna created the role of Gowri in the Telugu version and reprises it here. She did just a handful of films in Hindi; Milan is the only movie of hers that I have seen. Her style is certainly different than the other players, but it suits the performative mischief in which Gowri absorbs much of her time. Pran’s giant hat makes a nice target for her slingshot.

Laxmikant-Pyarelal provided the music, but I think Anand Bakshi may deserve more credit than them in this instance. Most selections are pseudo-folksongs; to believably match that style, Bakshi’s lyrics are necessarily simple and generalized. Yet in context, each one is heartbreaking. “Tohe Sanwariya,” the loveliest and most lighthearted of them, introduces young Gowri after we have already met her as an old woman. Gowri, who we know will one day be ostracized from this village, prances all over it singing about how love has made her a stranger in her hometown. “Hum Tum Yug Yug Se” begins only a few minutes into the film and introduces reincarnation as a romantic theme—the way that many movies that aren’t actually reincarnation narratives do. In one verse, “new” Gopi and Radha reminisce about an earlier interaction of theirs; he narrates while she teasingly asks him what happened next. Later—and outside of a song—the same interaction takes place between the “old” Gopi and Radha. This song eventually reprises against a visual superimposition that seems like it ought to be obvious, but which is breathtaking to see realized here. Three different pairs of Radhas and Gopis wander through abstract sets, each one evoking a different era going back to antiquity. “Main To Diwana,” on the other hand, has a deliberately plain picturization: the camera simply explores the various lines of sight possible across a parlor. It’s beautiful and horrible.

The whole film is beautiful and horrible, in fact, wringing every drop of value from its Eastman Color. Those innumerable trips across the river—possibly depicting the Vasishta Godavari, as the internet informs me—are gorgeously filmed. Although “Bol Gori Bol Tera Kaun Piya” is my least favorite of the songs, it ought to be seen simply for the spectacle of the dancers spread across the vast muddy floodplain between the temple and the water. Water is everywhere in Milan, sometimes decontextualized into slow, swirling images that make you feel a little sick to your stomach. Apparently placid on the surface, the river is alive with entrancing movement underneath; Gopi and Radha seem so comfortable on and in it that it seems both appalling and ridiculous that it would eventually swallow them. The title screen, on the other hand, is made of fire. I think it must be spelled out in dozens and dozens of lamps across a dark background, but the effect is something more like flaming cross-stitch. And the end titles, while gimmicky, are also kind of glorious: “and this is the BEGINNING.”

1 They got married at a college assembly, as Dean David tells us in his address to a different college assembly. As far as I can discern from the movies, going to college in mid-century India consisted almost exclusively of mandatory campus-wide assemblies interrupted by glorious but infrequent school dances.

Woh 7 Din (1983)

Atrangi Re has been the controversial film of the day for precisely thirty days now.1 The first time that someone—Kirre, to be specific—described it to me sans twist, my unshakeable impression was that it sounded confoundingly like Woh 7 Din. Having now actually seen Atrangi Re, that impression was less literally correct than I had expected, but I still think the parallelism stands on a thematic level. Woh 7 Din also trades hasty marriages of which both parties would rather be rid; the idealized understandings people conjure out of other people; and the struggle to accept happiness in the wake of disappointment. Even if it’s all in my head, this comparison gave me the excuse to rewatch and write about a film that I find both frustrating and very, very beautiful. Woh 7 Din was directed by Bapu from a screenplay by K. Bhagya Raja and produced by Boney and Surinder Kapoor for their S. K. Films Enterprises.

The film opens on the markedly uncelebratory wedding of Maya (Padmini Kohlapure) and Dr. Anand (Naseeruddin Shah), rumored around her neighborhood as being hurried, unceremonious, and odd. Shortly after having been resettled at Anand’s paternal home, Maya startles, retches, and falls unconscious. The doctor, whose dispensary conveniently appends the foyer, patches Maya up; when she comes back to consciousness, Anand explains that no one else in the family knows about the poison. Reassured, Maya begins to narrate the expansive flashbacks that make up much of the film. She, her mother, and siblings had lived in the household of her maternal grandfather (Nilu Phule). Having come to Bombay in hopes of finding work as a music director, Prem (Anil Kapoor) and his teenaged, dholak-playing sidekick Chhotu (Master Raju) began renting out the family’s dilapidated rooftop lean-to. Immediately interested in Prem, Maya had pursued him to no great success until circumstance forced a decision on both their parts. The two planned to get married at night and tell her family in the morning, a proposition that ended with Prem badly beaten and Maya married to Anand instead. Said Anand now bargains for a little time. Seven days should be enough time for his perceptibly agonal mother Savitri (Dina Pathak), at whose insistence he so slapdashedly remarried, to finish dying; it should also give him the chance to track down Prem and return Maya to him with every honor.

I expect that a given viewer will or will not find Woh 7 Din palatable depending on whether they consider it an easy-answer movie. Its resolution leaves two out of three main characters visibly distraught; the explanations they personally offer for winding up where they do stick in my craw. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has seen the Kollywood original Andha 7 Naatkal, purportedly based in turn on the marriage of Tamil comedian J. P. Chandrababu. Not having watched that film myself, I necessarily have to understand Woh 7 Din in isolation; taken on its own terms, I do not know how to conceive of it except as a gentle tragedy. Although the film notionally pits modern secularism against more traditional values—“dharam, parampara, sanskriti,” as Prem rattles off in a row in one dialogue—neither worldview seems idealized here. Maya’s family stands in for the traditional, but that family itself is an unconventional one. Maya’s father at some point boarded a bus and never came back, which is why her mother and siblings have wound up clustered around her maternal grandfather instead. Anand can personally decry superstition, but even from her deathbed his mother cows the rest of the family; Savitri will get what she wants regardless of Anand’s conscience. When this doyenne entrusts her “three children” to Maya—i.e.,Anand, his cypher of a father, and the little daughter from Anand’s first marriage—the label does not seem particularly inapt given her own predominance in the household. These two families collide in a kind of mutual compromise, with Anand scrambling to find a second wife before his mother dies and Maya’s grandfather looking for anyone who will take her without a dowry. The marriage broker simply scoffs and predicts that he won’t be so forward-thinking by the time his grandson is looking for a match.

Nor is it a film that champions any one character. Prem is so difficult to please and his delicate pride so continually affronted that it is difficult to understand what Maya might see in him (aside from a babyfaced Anil Kapoor, that is). Yet she badgers him with all the relentlessness of a ’90s-style stalker hero, oblivious to how her actions jeopardize his and Chhotu’s already precarious acceptance by their neighbors. Milquetoast Anand is so reluctant to offend Savitri’s sensibilities that he draws everybody else—down to his little daughter—into ruses meant to placate her. The constant, seemingly inescapable collateral damage these characters enact on one another stems partially from their understandable absorption within their own most pressing problems. More bittersweet is when they try to be kind to one another without realizing that kindness, contextually, looks different. They have more cultural gulfs to navigate between than just the “traditional”–“modern” dichotomy: rural and urban, professional and blue-collar, Marathi and Punjabi. Doing right by somebody else may require them to want to be helped, but even more foundationally to recognize the action being taken as something that is liable to help them in the first place. This conundrum eventually plays out poignantly in the main narrative; it is prefigured in the miniature conflict that arises when Maya, observing how slimly Chhotu and Prem are living, tries to sneak them a couple of samosas. The misunderstandings extend even to internal ones. As Anand points out, poisoning yourself is easy, but recovering from poison is difficult.  

The one major character whom I have failed to discuss above is Chhotu, whose weary pragmatism offers a foil to the earnestness the others universally display. A familiar child actor of the ’70s, “Master” Raju Shrestha had one of his last pre-adult roles in Woh 7 Din prior to returning to the industry as a character actor. My viewing habits being what they are, I am most accustomed to seeing him in small, saccharine parts—most recently as mini-Amitabh in Khud-Daar. Raju’s easy rapport with Padmini and Anil in a comparatively extensive and serious-minded role impressed me here. Not an actress of whom I have otherwise taken much notice, Padmini has the broadest emotional landscape to traverse. Her demeanor is brittle and self-enclosed as the film opens; once the flashbacks begin, the old Maya seems like a creature from some different planet than the suicidal one to whom we were first introduced, as though gravity is no longer pulling at her so hard. The narrative gradually fills in that trajectory, Maya seeming smaller, more desperate, more hemmed in at each step. Finally, Dina Pathak is invariably a delight and I loved how fully she conveyed Savitri’s position within her family in a few short scenes. One immediately understood the kind of household this woman would once have ruled.  

Prem and Chhotu’s aspirations for a career in film music generate many a referential delight, both during and apart from the songs. When Maya is yet again trying to get it through Prem’s thick head that she’s attracted to him, she tries presenting him with a poem to set to music. She narrates the “situation”: it’s midnight, I’m the only one in the house who can’t sleep, so I creep up the ladder to meet you. Prem remarks that Amitabh and Rekha could probably play such a scene well and then comes up with an incongruous, noisy setting that seems suspiciously reminiscent of “Teri Rab Ne Bana Di” from Suhaag (also a Laxmikant-Pyarelal production, of course).2 Prem later writes “Pyar Kiya Nahi Jata Ho Jata Hai” for another movie scene that has been described to him. With his and Maya’s situation weighing on his mind, he naturally imagines them in the roles of hero and heroine, but the pair dancing in this picturization aren’t “our” Maya and Prem. They are more fashionably dressed than we’ve ever seen the real couple, perhaps looking a little younger, embracing openly in a variety of stereotypical song settings—most delightfully, a pedal boat. My favorite song, “Mere Dil Se Dillagi Na Kar,” also toys with how people project their own circumstances onto film music. Maya overhears Prem and Chhotu rehearsing the song and imagines dancing to it. She envisions herself dressed in a variety of regional and historical costumes until the fantasy comes full-circle and she finally simply herself.

In other music-related news, the background score quotes the Chariots of Fire title music twice. I think this was supposed to make me cry. In both instances, I temporarily suspended my resolve to consider the film in isolation and began merrily singing “Main Teri Hoon Jaanam.”

Although the main timeline can be bleak, regular returns to the lighter world of the flashbacks allow for plenty of beauty and humor. Some of the delightful running jokes include and Prem and Maya’s grandfather complaining about one another in Punjabi and Marathi respectively, or Prem and Chhotu missing curfew (see illustration below). Maya spends the whole song “Anari Khelna Khel Ka Satiyanas” chasing Prem around the courtyard, complaining that he’s too stupid to pick up on her flirting. Although I interpret the ending as tragic, much of what happens along the way is too sweet to despair of these people eventually finding some happier conclusion. When street performers pass outside the courtyard, Chhotu, Prem, and Maya all separately pause to dance to the music in different parts of the house. Maya has been hunting for and finding joy all throughout a difficult life; I see no reason why she would stop simply because the movie did.

1 Did I write this last week and then forget to post it? Am I willing to count twice? Yes; no.

2 Surely this choice must be deliberate, but I can’t decide if is meant to occur to Prem because Amitabh and Rekha are in that song, or because he’s thinking of poor Shashi being hounded by a woman in whom he has repeatedly stated he has no interest!

Khud-Daar (1982)

I can’t decide which of two scenarios is more likely. Did Khud-Daar spring from an excellent script that the exigencies of execution happened to garble? Or was the whole project an inherently shaggy mess that, though some sort of gambler’s fallacy, happened more often than not to strike gold? One scene might be taut, emotionally and socially intelligent, well-acted; in the next, characters are referring with unshakeable confidence to events never intimated to have happened or, what’s worse, Mehmood is running around comedically selling bananas. One’s mileage is going to vary widely with this one. In my case, although I do not feel called upon to watch it twice, I am glad I saw it the once. The family drama at the very center point of the narrative is what lands most effectively. The unpolished detritus at the outer edges, while weird, is not infrequently delightful. There are also beautiful views of period Bombay and some well-executed car stunts. Directed by Ravi Tandon from a screenplay by Kader Khan, Khud-Daar was produced by Anwar Ali and F. K. Rattonsey for the intriguingly named Yokohama Productions.

Law student Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) believes his foremost responsibility is caring for his much-younger stepsiblings Govind and Rajesh. Indeed, Hari pays the children such preferential attention that it inflames the jealousy of his new bride Seema (Tanuja). While Hari is busy sitting the bar exam, Seema loads the kiddoes onto the next train for Bombay Central; she will later claim that they themselves took the initiative to run away. After a rapid overview of the possible fates that await filmi children set loose in the city, Govind and Rajesh fall under the good-natured guardianship of Rahim Chacha (A. K. Hangal), growing up alongside his own endearingly cute children Farida and Anwar. In adulthood, Govind (having now become Amitabh Bachchan) puts Rajesh (ditto Vinod Mehra) through school by driving a literally marvelous taxi. This car—a 1963 Fiat 1100 Super Select, as the internet informs me—is named “Basanti,” has a moral center occasionally at odds from Govind’s sanctimonious own, and can detect both smuggled goods and ill intentions. Insecure Rajesh fibs to his classmates that, if they’ve never run into his brother at a college function, that’s just because he’s constantly off abroad doing fancy businessman things. Although this deception will unravel before he manages to graduate, classmate Manju (Bindiya Goswami) is sufficiently sweet on Rajesh to stick with him—white lies and poor background notwithstanding. She can afford to overlook their differences, says Raju, only because she enjoys the security of a well-to-do family; “let me become wealthy, too, and then I’ll see what’s more important.” So he marries her, and does.

Oh, and also: Anwar is working for Manju’s father’s trucking company, and Hari has become a respected public prosecutor, and Parveen Babi wanders spasmodically in and out of the movie, and Manju’s uncle is played by Prem Chopra so you just know he’s going to be trouble. These are among the shaggy bits.

Despite the spindly disjunction of this film’s plot mechanics, its themes remain closely defined. As soon as Govind and Rajesh are on their own, the elder brother’s idiosyncratic understanding of personal and communal pride is what guides their forward course. Govind is more self-respecting than he is sensible. He insists on working for his keep while Rahim Chacha thinks he’s much too young. Anyone who doesn’t earns his categorical disgust, whether it’s the kingpin of a cocaine smuggling operation or poor little Mary (Parveen Babi’s character), who squeaks by cooking bathtub moonshine. The early scenes in which Govind and Rajesh are still under Hari’s care suggest some part of the problem is the transplantation of a middle-class ethos to a lower-class existence. (In the family song—yes, this is a film with a family song in it—Hari sings a verse deriding laziness while bicycling past a napping beggar.) Having such a tetchy sense of honor leaves Govind open to manipulation; all anyone needs to do to get rid of him is insinuate he might be after a free lunch. While Rajesh and Manju’s wedding is being negotiated, her family come to Rahim Chacha’s house, drink the tea Govind serves them, and then suggest that the couple might be more comfortable settling at the maternal home instead of here. Having moments ago been proud to offer them hospitality as equals, Govind snaps bitterly back; the prospect of Rajesh being a “live-in” son-in-law, no matter how convenient for all parties, could be nothing else but a choking shame.

Although calculated along different metrics, Rajesh has his own tender sense of pride; otherwise, he would have no reason to obscure his background from his classmates. It’s not the poverty that seems to make him self-conscious, but some less material sense of class intimated through knowledge and behavior. Rahim Chacha and Rajesh get along like hand in glove; despite having spent his life as a construction worker, the former bears himself confidently around genteel people. Yet having lowbrow Govind turn up at a Western-style college play, booing and vah-ing like it’s the neighborhood Ramlila, projects Rajesh into nearly paralytic humiliation. There is a massive gulf of sensibility between them, of a character that is believable despite them having grown up alongside one another. One particularly astute moment is when Rajesh announces a “surprise” to Govind. Govind’s line of work has understandably taught him the English words “sir” and “price”; learning that “surprise” means something unrelated to either leaves him feeling almost cheated.

When viewed next to this thoughtful thematic exploration, many other elements of Khud-Daar look oddly half-executed. It seems like the film was probably intended to say something about interreligious relationships. Rahim Chacha lets the Hindu foster children install a murti in his house; after Mary turns up in Govind’s neighborhood during Krishna Janmashtami, she invites him to a Christian festival in turn.1 Developed sporadically and without a consistent sense of trajectory, these details blur into undemanding background noise. The dropped stitches are usually agreeable enough for whatever brief while they are in play. Little Rajesh has some sort of leg ailment for no more compelling reason than that Tiny Tim Syndrome is endemic to the masala populace; this affliction is introduced in one scene, cured in the next, and only alluded to one further time. Fleeting as it is, this detail facilitates one glorious visual transition: as child Rajesh spins and spins around Rahim Chacha’s courtyard, funky music starts to play and we meet the grown-up Rajesh legs-first, jiving for all he’s worth.

At least by my lights, Vinod Mehra was the standout performer of this ensemble. He so often plays goody-goody-two-shoes parts; it was interesting to watch what he could do with Rajesh, who, while sympathetic enough, is also a moral lightweight. The character is led in interesting directions and his tendency toward being dumbstruck offers Mehra the opportunity for some impressive face-acting. On the other hand, my beloved Tanuja is nearly completely wasted. While Seema might reasonably resent her baby brothers-in-law and Hari’s preoccupation with them—particularly in the context during which they first encounter one another—the severity of her response does not feel earned. The influence of catty girlfriends and her own villainous voiceovers did nothing to convince me. Less forgivably: her character isn’t even fun. I will also nod to Hungama, that cute fat character actor who, poor fellow, is so charismatic despite only ever being the butt of a joke.  

Although much of the background score and diegetic music are fetching, the songs themselves do no great credit to Rajesh Roshan. By far the best—and, I am informed, the most popular—is the Janmashtami song “Mach Gaya Shor.” Besides having a lovely melody, there is a thrilling dynamism to the picturization. At one point, we watch the action from through a shop window, as though the energy of the festival crowd has stretched the seams of this narrow street to bursting, leaving no place for an onlooker to stand. Despite myself, I found the goodnatured tour of regional stereotypes in “Angrezi Main Kehte Hain Ke ‘I Love You’” cute—even if the instrumental break is nicked from, of all things, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” By far, though, the song that provoked the most contemplation from me was “Disco ’82” (to which Rajesh dances in the appropriately named Club-N-Disco ’82). I am eternally fascinated by disco-style songs in Bollywood movies, which not only look and sound different than their U.S. equivalents but which seem to embody a radically different network of meanings. Besides learning that the genre had been semi-officially demolished by Steve Dahl all the way back in 1979, the pop music history survey I was obligated to take during undergrad taught me three defining characteristics of disco:

  1. Disco contrasts a four-on-the-floor drumbeat with a syncopated bassline.
  2. The instrumental accompaniments are lush and timbrally varied, often highlighting bowed strings in contrast to the brassier orchestration of contemporaneous funk.
  3. Finally, disco songs tend to have what my textbook referred to as “insipid, repetitive lyrics.”

In all of these categories–but especially the last–“Disco ’82” is the nearest kin to an American-style disco song that I have ever encountered in a Hindi film. “Main ek disco; tu ek disco; duniya hai ek disco. Disco ’82!”

1 For love or money I could not tell you the religious significance of whatever is happening at her house—but they’ve put fairy lights on the church, so filmi logic dictates it must be Christian. Elsewhere she says, “Mera naam ‘Mary’ hai. Aur Mother Mary ki qasam, main tera khoon piungi!”

Safar (1970)

The themes and character archetypes of Safar are so familiar that it seemed at times to be a dreamlike remix of other films. Out of careworn elements, it fashions a world vividly imagined and underpinned with hope. Should Safar have a thesis, it is that traveling through shame and struggle does not preclude one’s capacity for good, or even the possibility of personal happiness. The fundamental optimism of the story warmed me despite some pain along the way. Safar was directed by Asit Sen and produced by Mushir Alam and Mohammad Riaz for MR Productions.

[Censor voice: “Smoking is very injurious to health.”]

Neela (Sharmila Tagore) is a star medical student, but her brother’s inconsistency in meeting school fees occasionally keeps her from class. Hoping to alleviate this embarrassment without offending her pride, Neela’s mentor Dr. Chandra (Ashok Kumar) arranges a tutoring job for her. Drilling teenaged Montu (Mahesh Kothare) on chemistry and mathematics keeps her in pin money; it also attracts the interest of Montu’s stockbroker brother Shekar (Feroz Khan), notable as the owner of at least four different cars and innumerable matched tie and pocket square sets. Meanwhile, Neela’s former classmate Avinash (Rajesh Khanna) is no longer a student of Dr. Chandra’s, but his patient. As Avinash requires more and more care, he becomes increasingly amalgamated into Neela’s household; her one-time annoyance with him softens into tentative affection. Friends and family soon acknowledge that no one knows Neela’s mind better than Avinash. Therefore, when Shekhar begins to make inquiries regarding Neela, it is to Avinash that everyone directs him. After their interview, Avinash resolves to tell Neela everything: that he knows that he is dying, and that his dying wish is for her to marry somebody else.

Safar is based on Ashutosh Mukherjee’s novel Chalachal, which Sen had previously adapted for the screen—in Bengali and under its original title—in 1956. Nonetheless, the plot reminds me inescapably of Aarti (1962), itself an adaptation of a Hindi stage drama. The relationships are rejiggered and the overall ethos starkly different, but both narratives feature the same basic character types confronting similar ethical and medical quandaries. (The helplessness doctors universally feel when confronted with a cancerous Rajesh Khanna would be explored yet more exhaustively with Anand in 1971!) Without the benefit of knowing the novel, I suspect that certain aspects of Safar got lost in translation from one medium to the next. For example, the first scene in which Avinash appears establishes him as another doctor-in-training, attending one of Dr. Chandra’s lectures, loosely acquainted with Neela as a fellow student–yet he spends the remainder of the film working as a commercial artist. There are no further references to him attending school, or dropping out of school, or having ambitions relative to any career besides the one he (apparently?) already had. Presumably the novel would have explained this development. If some connective tissue was excised from the screenplay here, it was not substituted with anything else, making it seem almost accidental that Avinash is a medical student for precisely one scene.

In most regards, however, this story is the richer for being rooted in the more expansive format of a novel. Rather than being constrained by the narrative’s focus on a single protagonist, the world in which Neela lives feels surprisingly vibrant. Peripheral characters like Montu’s mother, Shankar’s business partner, or Neela’s sister-in-law come across as real people with complex mutual relationships. Each one has only a few lines of dialogue in Safar. I presume these characters were more extensively explored in Mukherjee’s book–or perhaps it was simply the repetitive thought-work of transferring them from novel to film to film again that makes them feel so thoroughly crafted. That degree of immersivity highlights the moments when its characters do act more like agents of plot than living people, but happily, those are few.

The wisest use of these side characters is to contrast Shekhar’s household and the one in which Neela has grown up. Both families are quarrelsome, yet there is something fundamentally intimate in the way Neela, her brother Kalidas (I. S. Johar), and sister-in-law Laxmi (Aruna Irani) interact. The physicality and tone of speech they use somehow compute to warmth, even when they are deliberately harassing one another. As the film progresses, Avinash gets absorbed into this messy equation to such degree that I increasingly lost track of which scenes took place at his house and which at Kalidas’s. Shekhar’s family, though cordial enough, feels barricaded away from one another by comparison. One cannot picture them cooking in other people’s kitchens and napping in other people’s beds in this happy, lazy, messy way. In Montu’s case, this sense of self-remove is sometimes heightened by the tactlessness and viciousness of childhood, provoking Neela’s horror. Her oblique attempts at shaping her student’s behavior along with his academic life further highlight the different ways of being their families have adopted. The first time Shekhar turns up at the house, Kalidas is taken aback by the simple fact of someone bothering to knock.

The character actors deserve particular praise for fleshing out these contrasting social worlds. Aruna Irani as Neela’s sister-in-law and Nadira as Shekhar’s mother both play convincingly against type and, despite the slightness of their roles, emerge as holistic characters. More than anyone else, I was impressed with Mahesh Kothare. Montu is the first link between Neela and Shekhar’s families; their competing influences wear on him most overtly. He is depicted as being in preparatory school, the kind of character that would typically be depicted by an adult actor playing under their own age. It was a surprise to see a teenaged performer in this part, much less one who so confidently matched the (mostly) naturalistic style of the older actors. As a younger child, Kothare portrayed the title roles in Raja Aur Runk (1968); he had grown enough in the years between that film and Safar that I did not recognize him here. The internet informs me that he went on to have a well-regarded adult career in Marathi cinema.

I must leave it to someone who knows from Bengali to explain how closely Safar may hew to Chalachal on a technical level. Being acquainted only with Sen’s Hindi films, I was surprised at how distinctive this movie often looks. Some of the editorial choices are deliberately intrusive–often at points of tension, but not always. For instance, the framing narrative introduces Neela while she is being requested to perform an emergency operation. As she hustles through the hospital, the scene transitions to focus on a set of dazzling lights. They are so bright that the image initially seems abstract. It is as though we the viewers are stuck on our backs awaiting an operation, with nothing to look up at but this brilliant many-bulbed light. I can think of some other Hindi films of this date in which the camera occasionally takes on a human viewpoint, but never of such a minor character as Neela’s unnamed patient. Another odd touch is the inclusion of train noises in some of the emotional scenes, despite no train being visibly in evidence. I understand the symbolic work that this is meant to do; in practice, it mostly made me grateful that I could rely on the subtitles for dialogue! Even if these touches attract the attention without necessarily being dramatically successful, I do appreciate that the filmmakers were attempting to do something different from the norm. Then again, I like how Manoj Kumar movies look, so I probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Conversely, the treatment of the Kalyanji-Anandji songs is both distinctive and effective. The only one I would term conventional is “Jo Tumko Ho Pasand,” picturized on Neela and Shekhar as they take a driving trip. Even this song, although beautiful, is a little odd: Shekhar sings but Neela interjects with spoken questions, using the accent of natural speech rather than accommodating the underlying rhythm of the song. All of the others are presented as being audible within the world of the film, a choice that offers interesting dramatic potential depending on who overhears what. Kalidas writes “Hum The Jinke Sahare” for performance on the local radio station; Avinash sings to amuse himself while he is laid up sick; Neela first hears “Nadiya Chale, Chale Re Dhaara” sung by sailors who are passing near her picnicking spot. This last-named song becomes an important touchpoint. Although the boatmen sing it simply to coordinate their rowing, Neela is attentive to its folkish metaphor of life as a river flowing irresistibly to the sea. (This idea, referenced in the title of the film, is first overtly introduced here.) The melody continues to run through her memory later on. Although the other songs are more emotionally fraught, it is from this one that Neela continually takes advice and courage.

Chorni (1981ish)

A film of deliberately minor ambitions, Chorni can be uneven in execution but is always enlivened by a warm, well-intentioned heart. Chorni does not flinch away from its characters’ capacities for pettiness, greed, or harm. It does, however, celebrate them whenever they manage to soften the world surrounding them—even by minute degrees—into something a little more kind. Neetu Singh offers a confident, well-rounded performance in the central role, carrying the viewer through several years of a young woman’s life as she loses and regains hope in her own future. Chorni was directed by Jyoti Swaroop (recently mentioned on this blog in connection to Padosan) from a screenplay by Kumar Kiran. The story idea was supplied by a Mrs. Padma Sood, whom I infer was from the same family as the Vikram and Vishwajit Sood who produced it for Kesar Films.

Something’s well and fishy about the dating of this film. I followed the censor’s ticket date of March 1981 since that is at least a verifiable fact. Online sources vary regarding whether it was released in ’81 or ’82, and isn’t the received wisdom that Neetu’s hiatus began with her marriage in January 1980? I would presume that this was a pedestrian case of a small-time production company finishing a film but then having to scrounge around for more cash to print or distribute it. Oddly, though, Neetu looks rather different about the face here than she does in The Burning Train, Khoon Ka Rishta, Yaarana, or Teesri Aankh, all of which released in that immediate post-marriage window of 1980–82. Her figure has also gone a touch zanftig–very fetchingly so, may I say, except in the case of a couple of poorly fitted Western outfits. For all that Neetu worked ceaselessly between the ages of eight and twenty-two, the movies in which she appears all too often underutilize her. Neetu fans will be delighted to learn that Chorni is an exception to this trend. Not only does our heroine look adorable, this is fully and undeniably her story.

Having inherited a patrimony of precisely two earrings, orphan Deepa (Neetu Singh) is folding laundry, fetching tea, and dreamily looking out of windows while in domestic service. Her employers leave her alone on Diwali to minister to their no-good son’s less-good friends, a situation from which she narrowly escapes without harm. Fearing that Deepa will speak up about the terrifying encounter, the boys frame her for theft. She then finds herself sentenced to a term in a girls’ remand home, where she will attain valuable new skills such as smoking, sassing, and picking pockets. By the time she winds up in front of Judge Sinha (Shreeram Lagoo), she has become resigned to rotating between juvie and a theft ring under the command of Shambhu Dada (Ajit): “If I say I’m innocent or I say I’m guilty, I’ll be punished the same way.” Deepa comes to Sinha’s attention a second time after he takes on an advisory position at the remand home and travels there to deliver a welcome speech. Another girl having unwisely palmed one of those earrings, Deepa catfights the thief straight down the aisle of assembled delinquents. Mr. Sinha cannot shake his impression of Deepa, struck by her similarity to his own headstrong teenager, Rani (Anita). He ultimately resolves to bring her home and attempt curing her with kindness. Deepa is reluctantly ousted from her cozy prison cot. Following a lecture on recidivism, Mrs. Sinha (Indrani Mukherji) yet more reluctantly bargains for a year-long trial period. At the end of a single week, Mrs. Sinha, Deepa, and Anita are already snapping at one another’s throats, none of them yet clear on whether the new girl is meant to be a guest, a servant, or a daughter.

After Shambhu Dada and his gang were introduced early on, I kept expecting Chorni to become a broader-reaching story, using those characters to provoke the action climax that seems prerequisite for every massy film of the early ’80s. To be fair, that does sort of happen. Nonetheless, the occasional opening up of the story to broader, more societal scope always feels like backdrop to the central concern of Deepa’s journey. Chorni is carefully domestic. Although there are real, at times terrible stakes in play for Deepa, it is miniscule decisions that negotiate them. Although Mr. Sinha’s decision to bring Deepa home is a radical change for all concerned, the real possibility of rehabilitation lies instead in tiny gestures of acceptance. Where you eat your dinner and how you speak someone else’s name matter in this movie, carrying the capacity for harm or healing. In one regard, this deliberate constraint highlights how small an expense of kindness it takes on the parts of others to meaningfully improve Deepa’s life. More than that, though, it encourages the viewer to appreciate the impact of her own actions. Deepa always directs her own existence, even when the choices available to her are painfully constrained, even though she cannot always save herself.  

I also appreciate that, while domestic love makes Deepa’s case much easier, it does not simply fix her. If a happy home were all it took, Rani and the Sinhas’ college-aged son Kishore (Jalal Agha, improbably enough) would have it made. They don’t. The Sinhas make some serious, painful missteps in their attempts at helping Deepa. Despite the good intentions of all concerned, there is already a visible divide between the Sinhas’ elder pair of children and the three who are still school-aged—not to mention between Mr. Sinha and his mother (Leela Mishra), whose values often more nearly align with Deepa’s than they do with her son’s. The happy ending available to these people is not homogenization into some uniform exemplar of the middle-class ideal. Rather, the challenge is to learn to live with one another without also effacing their own identities. Deepa finds dignity in every step of her journey. She should not have to leave behind her hustle, or her mother’s earrings.

Neetu Singh’s performance here impressed on me her breadth as an actress. She spends much of the film in the streetwise, spunky avatar most characteristic of her. In the first few scenes, however, I had difficulty recognizing such a familiar face. She shrinks into Deepa’s initial position as a servant, an invisible part of the household in which she works. Throughout Neetu invests this character with a palpable sense of will, whether that is through scraping up joy in difficult circumstances or following the demands of her own eclectic conscience. I also loved Leela Mishra’s turn as Mr. Sinha’s mother. Not just the way that the character is written, but the whole manner of her performance highlights her disjuncture from the younger generations of the Sinhas. Although it was never overtly stated, I got the strong sense that Mr. Sinha was probably the first professional in their family, that his mother is not accustomed to this genteel sensibility. When she’s taken a vrata on a schoolday, she cannot understand why her son and daughter-in-law would insist the grandkids ought to be going to class and not to the mandir. Unfortunately, Indrani Mukherjee and Anita1 are both burdened with difficult, thankless parts and did not pull them off.

I realize now that I have failed even to mention Jeetendra, who not only appears in Chorni but is notionally its male lead! He plays a doctor friend of the Sinhas’ whose dispensary Deepa pilfers at Shambhu Dada’s request. I found him charming enough in the role, although the romance is ancillary to Deepa’s story and the part therefore slight. I smiled when the credits called him “Jeetu.”

The music by Shankar-Jaikishan is not up to their finest standards. One of the love songs, “Dekha Hai Tumhe Kahin Na Kahin,” is the only one that stood out to me on a musical level. It is catchy and surprisingly fast-paced, with Kishore Kumar’s voice sounding even more beautifully round-toned than usual. Even when the music is nothing remarkable, however, most songs have notable picturizations. “Chorni Hoon Main” is scarcely my favorite of the many, many rapscallion anthems out there, but Neetu’s turn-of-a-dime expressions in it are delightful. Although Chorni is visibly a low-rent movie, connoisseurs of bizarre turn-of-the-‘80s style will find much to admire in it, nowhere more so than in Helen’s item number “Hai Yeh Kaisa Nasha.” She performs in a nightclub decorated with stylized skulls and dragons, yet which somehow is not the same skull-and-dragon nightclub where Parveen Babi gets roofied in Suhaag! (Why would any film industry need two of these?) Helen emerges into the dining area from a hallway shaped like the mouth of a demon. She dresses entirely in sequins, whereas each of her four male backup dancers wears a different-colored set of overalls with matching newsie cap. It seems like the kind of nightmare you might have after being forced to watch a lot of Sesame Street.

1 I would be curious to learn if anyone recognizes this distinctive-looking, mumbly-mouthed actress. I suspect she may have been a one-film-only performer, but the absence of a last name makes that all but impossible to confirm.

Bahu Begum (1967)

I swear someday I’m going to stop getting suckered by Meena Kumari vehicles; Thursday, alas, was not that day. Bahu Begum is replete with beautiful images and music, along with story elements that—while they will not meet everybody’s tastes—address mine with laser-guided specificity. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. Although the film hangs together and, frequently, punches hard, I found I enjoyed rereading my notes about it more than I had enjoyed watching it. Bahu Begum was produced by Jan Nisar Akhtar for Sanamkada with direction by Mohammed Sadiq; Sadiq and Akhtar both have story credits alongside dialogue writer Tabish Sultanpur. When I watched it, a tightly letterboxed copy was available (with subtitles) from Ultra’s YouTube channel. Don’t be fooled by these cheerful girls, swinging and dancing under the mango tree! There is little celebration to be found here.

Zeenat (Meena Kumari) lives in a shabby Lucknow mansion, enlivened by her good-natured bua (Leela Mishra) and the frequent visits of friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman). Mirza Sultan (D. K. Sapru), Zeenat’s widower father, subsists on an perpetually diminishing pension. His parsimoniousness has had the unforeseeable effect of fostering Zeenat’s tentative romance with Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar). The pair have been taking note of one other from across the courtyard ever since Yusuf’s chum Achchan (Johnny Walker) began renting out half of the haveli. They tease each other; they recite poetry at one another; they’ve barely actually spoken. Mirza Sultan is, as a dialogue phrases it, too “self-respecting” to permit his daughter to court or be courted, leaving Zeenat and Yusuf in an ongoing game of chicken regarding which one will speak up to their elders first.

Neither has managed to do so by the point when, to the horrible misfortune of all, Bilqis and Zeenat go jewelry-shopping at the same store where Sikandar Mirza (Ashok Kumar) is looking for a pair of earrings. An aging bachelor whose much-younger sister Suraiya (Not-a-Baby Naaz, recipient of the earrings) has been pestering him to bring home a bhabhi, Sikandar seems finally to have found an alluring object. He boxes up the bangles Zeenat had been admiring without being able to afford and begins making inquiries. Their engagement is almost immediately fixed, although—due to assumptions, miscommunications, and active sabotage by a wicked uncle—both Zeenat and Yusuf come to believe that they are engaged. Only during her wedding is Zeenat’s misapprehension on this point corrected, abhorrent to her not merely from the shock of the thing but also because she and Yusuf have exchanged a number of informal promises such as “If we can’t marry, I’ll swallow my diamond ring and die.” She flees the zenana, hoping to intercept Yusuf at their traditional meeting place. The party must decide how to proceed when Zeenat fails to return when expected: do they call off the wedding, or continue in the hope that the bride might someday turn back up? Nobody swallows a diamond—although people do die.

I like a good Muslim social; I love tragedy. Many aspects of this one play beautifully. (Oh, where those two bangles end up–!) The story ventures in interesting, poignant directions and, although it concludes with the requisite self-sacrifice, that sacrifice was not made by the character I had expected. All this makes it difficult to define why watching Bahu Begum was so strangely trying. I can at least point to two decisions that force the story mechanics visibly to the surface—the wrong kinds of contrivance, so to speak.

The first is the choice to open the film with Zeenat and Yusuf’s relationship ambiguously established. It takes perhaps forty minutes for the audience to definitively learn that they were already in love with each other when the action began. Many a movie would have spent the entire first act establishing this romance. Not to do so is an interesting decision, one that correctly reflects the limited access Zeenat and Yusuf can have to one another without betraying propriety. Perhaps a pair of performers with more mutual wattage than Meena Kumari and Pradeep Kumar generate might have made it work. As it is, those forty minutes mostly feel wasted. Rather than one calculated to inspire grand gestures of loyalty, this romance is still flimsy and underfed when Sikandar arrives to complicate their lives. Secondly, Yusuf’s villainous uncle1 is ridiculous. In a social world whose denizens are otherwise bound by such rigid constraint, it almost induces whiplash to see this man curling his mustache while plotting–even if solitarily. Worse, the character is superfluous. Although Maamu provokes the central problem of this story, that dilemma could have been resolved by about thirty seconds of clarification that everyone else—everyone—fails to supply. All these decent, petty people are capable of getting themselves into some version of this mess without external impetus; hard things hurt the most, after all, when no ill intentions are involved in creating them. It feels as though the scriptwriters could not quite think the specifics of that situation out, so instead they resorted to a reified villain.

Maamu’s cartoonishness is particularly regrettable given how vividly depicted the other ancillary characters are. I was particularly impressed with Achchan and Bilqis, both regarding the actors’ performances and how the parts are written. These characters initially fill archetypes that, while effective, are also worn with use. As the hero’s friend, Achchan’s job is to provide comic relief and serve as the secondary agent in various schemes Yusuf springs to get a little closer to Zeenat; as the heroine’s friend, Bilqis sympathizes with her smittenness while also fighting to keep Zeenat’s feet on something resembling solid, pragmatic ground. (The faces Zeb Rehman pulls during the lovelorn song “Hum Intezar Karenge Tera Qayamat Tak” are wondrous!) As the engine of the tragedy begins to lurch forward, however, Achchan and Bilqis increasingly emerge as human creatures more than stereotypes, bound to the primary characters by genuine, active love. Bilqis watches each step of Zeenat’s progression toward disaster, unable to divert her friend despite her best efforts and, at one horrible juncture, inadvertently contributing to her quandry. Although Achchan remains ridiculous, his increasing concern for Yusuf and Zeenat spurs him to startling if ineffectual bravery. This character reminded me of how much I appreciate Johnny Walker as a performer on those occasions when he escapes being saddled with barely-withstandable “comedy.”

The principals form more of a melange. I am afraid I must reaffirm my recent characterization of Pradeep Kumar: “He looks like a radish that’s been left in the fridge too long and has equivalent charisma to the same.” I only find Pradeep effective when he is in roles that permit some buoyancy or cheerfulness, for which the character of Yusuf allows meager remit indeed. A liberal application of blue eyeshadow does not substitute for this deficiency. I have already commented on how underdeveloped his chemistry with Meena Kumari feels by the point at which the narrative cleaves their characters near-permanently apart. Meena and Ashok are more equally yoked.2 I have difficulty imagining what other actor of this era could play Sikandar without seeming merely pitiable; Ashok’s performance does not elide the insecurity or venality of the character, but prevents him from becoming unsympathetic. My very favorite performance in the film, however, is that of Lalita Pawar. She is omitted from my summary above because she appears only in the second half. To describe Lalita’s character in any detail would betray too much; suffice it to say that she is compassionate and sensible, one of the few characters who has learned to view social convention as a tool that can actually serve to lighten people’s burdens.

I was first impelled to meditate on Pradeep Kumar’s vegetal characteristics by Anuradha’s recent post celebrating the music of Roshan. Ordinarily I attempt to highlight two or three favorite pieces of music from a film, but I am at a loss to choose among the treasury of beautiful songs in Bahu Begum. There are two beautiful qawwalis set in Shah Baba’s dargah; of course, Sahir Ludhianvi’s sacred lyrics touchingly parallel the secular conundrums in which our characters find themselves. The first, “Waqif Hoon Khoob Ishq Ke Tarz-e-Bayaan Se Main,” has an especially beautiful picturization that toys with the various lines of sight possible in an environment subdivided by curtains, screens, and dangling flowers. Asha Bhosle sings two different mujras, both picturized on Helen. I always find it interesting to watch Helen dance in classical styles; to my admittedly untutored eye, it seems like she sells them less with confidence in her whole body than with hand gestures and expressions. Regardless of the technique, they are entrancing. And of course, there is the swing song “Padh Gaye Jhoole, Sawan Rut Aayi Re,” from which the above image is clipped. Zeenat, Bilqis, and their other young friends frolic to this folkish melody, shoring up an island of deceptive peace at the opening of the film.

As if the story elements were not enough, Bahu Begum makes an even more direct appeal to my personal tastes by wringing beauty and pain from its physical settings. Relatively rarely, as in that hexed excursion to the jewelry shop, does the action escape out of doors. Most of the film unfolds in carefully cultivated, compartmentalized spaces in which every activity has an appropriate place—however little. Thus we see Mirza Sultan’s household shrink into an ever more constrained corner of his own estate; things that are physically near them feel at times irretrievably gone. Yet the arrangement of these buildings also provides endless opportunities for characters to overhear, observe, and invisibly affect one another. Zeenat stands on a terrace, drying her hair; a few drops fall on Yusuf in the courtyard below; Achchan, unseen, spots Yusuf glancing up and immediately understands why his friend has been coming around to visit so much. I have already mentioned the picturization of “Waqif Hoon Khoob Ishq Ke,” which in which Yusuf and Zeenat sit together in the shrine as the camera gradually pulls away from them: through a layer of hanging jasmine, over the dargah chaadar itself, then past a second curtain of flowers that obscures them almost wholly from view. Having grown so accustomed to permeable curtains, it is horrible to be confronted with locked, impenetrable doors.

1 Played by Balam. I wrote down three different versions of this character’s name and am not certain which one, if any, is correct.

2 What are there—four or five films of which this statement could be made? Pradeep Kumar, why are you like this? And why did people still insist on casting you opposite Meena?

Parampara (1993)

To her readership, Margaret once posed the question: “What is your favorite Yashji movie?” Shyly, I commented that, of all of them I had seen, I found Dharmputra the most moving. The statement was disingenuous. After all, if she had asked what I thought Yash Chopra’s best movie was, I would have to have said Waqt. The one that I had most often screened for friends? Kaala Patthar. To give my unshielded, non-redefined opinion on the question actually asked would have been, and is now, an embarrassment: my favorite Yash Chopra film is the one where Vinod wears all those awful sweaters. Behold! A. G. and Firoz A. Nadiadwala’s Parampara.

Upon confrontation with this image, you may think to yourself: “Perhaps Vinod is so darn old for this style of sweater—and by extension his apparent role—because we are shaping up for an intermission time jump, following which he will be left playing his own age.” Well, yes and no. To discuss this thing, one ought to have a reasonably complete picture of the plot up to that anticipated time jump. There is plenty of it.

Parampara follows the family of Bhavani Singh (Sunil Dutt), one of the stubbornest, most hidebound thakurs inscribed on film. Among the numerous peccadillos affronting his sense of dignity is a multigenerational land dispute with the banjara clan who live around the edges of his property. Bhavani Singh’s peaceable son Prithvi (Vinod Khanna, in sweaters) would rather simply make friends of the banjaras. Chieftain Gora Shankar (Anupam Kher, in vests), whose father1 the thakur dueled and shot dead back in the prologue, is skeptical of Prithvi’s earnestness only until he meets the man. Prithvi is soon spending what seems to be the entirety of his free time at the banjara encampment, doing manly, mostly horse- and firearm-related activities with Shankar. By some point, Prithvi considers himself promised to Shankar’s sister Tara (Ramya Krishnan) and the banjaras appear uniformly to be of the same mind.

The couple have barely gotten the chance to enjoy an unusually explicit rain song before Bhavani Singh—less ignorant of this situation than everyone has judged him—puts the finishing touches on a marriage alliance with another landowning family. Tara, Shankar, and Prithvi propose a dozen solutions among themselves, each of which their crisscrossing bonds of obligation render unworkable. Things fully break down once Bhavani Singh condescends to speak to Shankar face to face, a conversation in which he both threatens all the banjaras’ lives and implies that Shankar has deliberately pimped out his sister to force a claim on the thakur’s land. Insulted, justifiably nervous about his people’s safety, Shankar refuses to shelter Prithvi any longer; Tara, not wishing to jeopardize her relationship with her brother, declines a proffered elopement. All parties will ultimately render a notional, reluctant consent to Prithvi’s marriage with Rajeshwari (Ashwini Bhave).

You may, however, recall mention above of a certain rain song. News of Tara’s inevitable pregnancy spurs Prithvi to open rebellion against that titular yoke of tradition: he plays hooky from his own sangeet to legitimize their relationship via a good old-fashioned bloody-thumb wedding. Then he calls a secret conference with the mangeetar. Prithvi urges Rajeshwari to refuse the marriage and let him absorb the shame of their situation, but Rajeshwari decides that she would rather be a second wife than risk provoking revenge upon the banjaras. When news of Tara’s pregnancy eventually reaches Bhavani Singh, though, he goes back on his implied word and orders a band of goondas to raze the camp anyway. In a chilling sequence, Rajeshwari raises the alarm and then reluctantly gallops away from the burning settlement, carrying the newborn whom Tara has entrusted to her. Most of the banjaras, Tara included, do not survive. Shankar does, although the thakur soon has him imprisoned for (not unreasonably) getting upset and shaking a sword at him. He remains incarcerated as Prithvi wages a years’-long sit-in of silent protest against Bhavani Singh and Rajeshwari fights to maintain the peace of a bitter household.

Shankar emerges from jail when Tara’s son Ranvir is a young child and Rajeshwari’s Prataap barely out of toddlerhood. (They will grow up to be played by Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the latter in what IMDB believes to be his earliest adult credit.) Once freed, Shankar sweeps into the haveli demanding satisfaction against Bhavani Singh. Although confused as to why Prithvi insists on fighting on his father’s behalf, Shankar does not object; he wants nothing more than to die and presumes he can at least trust Prithvi’s Chekov’s marksmanship to see him out. In fact, we reach interval with Prithvi dead by his friend’s hand, Ranvir in Shankar’s care, Prataap in Rajeshwari’s, and Bhavani Singh reeling with impotent grief.

To watch this film sympathetically, one must be willing to entertain its central proposition: that this ridiculous extremity of patriarchal honor is the reality in which its characters live. Much though they might wish to escape, they feel that they cannot; even their rebellions are conducted mostly in deference to the thakur’s authority. That description may make Parampara sound like a throwback to what I privately think of as “the tragedy of manners,” a mode endemic to, e.g., Muslim socials of the early ’60s. In fact–although it’s not nearly as grimy–the closest analogue I can think of for Parampara‘s register is that bleak daaku-drama Kachche Dhaage. In contravention to the last-act laxity of many Yash Chopra movies, Parampara marches unfalteringly into a conclusion that feels hard-earned, cathartic, and inevitable.

Honey Irani’s story also diverges from available models in that it never argues a thesis for why these people are so thoroughly, irretrievably screwed. The characters themselves do proffer explanations, of which my favorite is the notion that the hill and the haveli are themselves evil—having developed, as the opening song tells us, a taste for the blood of innocent men. This idea does not track. Prataap, after all, grows up in the haveli as a floppily pleasant, bighearted kid. Despite being raised in deliberate peace by a penitent Shankar, Ranvir is the one whose personality betrays some worrisome reflections of his grandfather’s. Nor is it the thakur’s personal wickedness that is to blame, or tradition itself; both lose much of their potency in the second half. Propriety certainly drives wedges through these relationships, but it is ordinarily wielded by a premeditative human hand. When Shankar asks Prithvi to start calling him “sardar” again, Prithvi immediately answers in “tum” as though that’s going to save them; later, Prithvi uses the title “thakur” to legitimize Tara’s relationship with him, but to sever his own with Bhavani Singh. Much later, the thakur will plead, “Call me ‘father’ again, just once” to a vision of his son.

As abstract tragedy, I find Parampara deeply affecting. It takes a hard turn after interval, when we begin to follow Ranvir, Prataap, and their love interests (Raveena Tandon and Neelam Kothari) through a lighthearted school setting. Over that college comedy hangs the threat that there will be guns again, that we will see these kids on the dueling hill, too. The task of holding both halves together falls mostly on Sunil and Ashwini, their characters being the only ones who do not have to navigate some major change over the time jump. Sunil’s investment of dignity prevents Bhavani Singh from coming off as simply insane: I can buy him as a person who considers it a failure of courage not to have personally skewered baby Ranvir. His gradual unpicking by grief is believable, too. How would a person like this mourn? The only possibility is implosion. Ashwini matches him step for step, painting Rajeshwari as tenacious in her own understanding of social order. I particularly love her chemistry with Ramya Krishnan; the latter I have never seen elsewhere, but am given to understand that she does mostly Telugu.  

There is not a song I do not enjoy. The music is by Shiv-Hari with lyrics by Anand Bakshi of precisely the type for which I appreciate him, poignant but deliberately simple. “Aadhi Raat Ko,” set during a blackout at the college, is the one I relisten to most often. My real favorite is “Mujhe Ishq Ho Gaya,” one of the lamentably few recordings that Aslam Sabri has made for film. One does savor a theoretically joyful, contextually painful qawwali. It embraces a significant span of plot, opening during the major confrontation between Prithvi, Tara, and Shankar and continuing all the way into Prithvi and Rajeshwari’s secret meeting. Clarifying dialogue is heard at several points in the film version; the music video version linked above excises that. I find the action perfectly legible without and, that way, speech does not disrupt the accelerating pace of the song. Finally, I confess that I find “Saawan Mein Pyaas Piya” unusually tender—in part because it is not ashamed of Vinod’s weary, blobby body. Tara kisses Prithvi’s bare chest not because, as would have been the case in the same scene in 1975, we would otherwise feel cheated. She kisses his bare chest because she desires him enough to want to see and touch him, paunch and all; although one imagines Vinod might be embarrassed to be seen by an audience, Prithvi smiles at being seen by her. It feels kind.

It’s also possible that I permanently imprinted on pre-Rajneesh-hiatus Vinod like an idiot duckling and he can’t not be attractive to me now; please don’t judge me.

Certain elements of Parampara admittedly fail to hang together. The age makeup ranges from okay (Sunil) to very, very bad (Anupam) to, for some reason, not even attempted (Ashwini). I have no clue how Shankar is meant to have gone from recently released inmate to competitive horse trainer—a profession with obvious, non-side-steppable start-up costs. Still, I consistently come back to Parampara when I’m in a mood to feel some strong emotions about imaginary people. It’s one of the best things out there for that.

1Also Anupam Kher, but in an even fancier vest. Certain of this film’s sweater sins are counterbalanced by vest virtues. Of Aamir’s insanely high-waisted trousers we shall not speak.