Dastak (1970)

In Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak, there is a scene well into the film which offers a glimpse of both what this film is about and what its tone is like, how it conveys its messages.

Hamid Ahmed (Sanjeev Kumar) is about to leave home for office. His wife Salma (Rehana Sultan) brings him a cup of tea. In a large cage that sits in their room is a mynah which has been mimicking Salma’s voice so perfectly that Hamid has mistaken something it’s said for his wife’s words. Salma, smiling mischievously, points out his error and tells Hamid about a so-called brother of hers from her village.

Salma: ‘… woh kaha karte thhe, “Pinjre mein panchhi ko band karne se bada paap lagta hai”.’ (He used to say, ‘It is a great sin to imprison a bird in a cage.’)
Hamid (smiling): ‘Chhod dene se bhi toh lagta hai.’ (‘Releasing it too can be a sin.’)
Salma: ‘Woh kaise?’ (‘How is that?’)
Hamid: ‘Baahar sainkaron baaz, shikre… koi bhi khaa jaaye.’ (‘There are so many birds of prey outside. Any of them might eat this one up.’)

What begins as an innocuous, even teasing exchange acquires a suddenly serious tone, because Salma realizes that her poor mynah’s plight is so similar to her own. And it is, because—like her mynah, Salma is caged. She is surrounded by love, but that does not take away from the fact that she is, in fact, captive. She has been yearning for freedom, aching to be let out. But what price will freedom be? Will freedom for Salma mean happiness, or will she just be falling prey to worse than she is already experiencing?

It isn’t as if the caged bird is a novelty as far as symbolism goes; dozens of films—from Bandini to Charulata to Teesri Kasam—have used it as a motif to represent a person who is bound. Where Dastak differs is in showing a situation where perhaps captivity may be safer than freedom.

Perhaps. Only perhaps.

But it’s hard to tell who is right and who is wrong in this conversation. Salma, because of circumstances beyond her control, is captive. And Hamid, also because of circumstances beyond his control, cannot really help—and realizes what freedom could entail. Neither of them is totally at fault. Neither is completely absolved of blame, either.

This light and shadow, these shades of grey, are among the most enthralling aspects of Dastak. True, the majority of the characters are pretty much delineated into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but since we see little of them—the focus is almost throughout on Hamid and Salma—this makes little difference. What matters is that Salma and Hamid are brilliantly alive, complex people. Real people.

The story is a simple one, unfolding with Hamid’s arrival in a little flat in a mohallah in Bombay. He greets the paanwaala, Maraati (Anwar Hussain), who has got Hamid the new house, and heads upstairs, carrying with him Salma’s tanpura, wrapped lovingly in its cloth bag.

Salma’s father, who lives in the village, was a renowned ustad of classical music, and it is from him that Salma has inherited her talent and her love for music. She and Hamid look around the new house, Salma wrinkling up her nose at the obvious dilapidation. Somebody has been lighting lamps in this niche here, turning the plaster above black with soot. And the rubbish lying all around!—Hamid finds a sackful of junk, including venis (tinsel hair ornaments) and a framed photograph of a smiling elderly gentleman. This he hangs on the wall, and when Salma asks him why, replies that this man was probably a venerable old soul, much loved by the previous inhabitants of this house; where is the harm in continuing to accord him some respect?

As they go about cleaning up, tidying the place, making it their own, we get an idea of the relationship between Salma and Hamid. These are not your cookie cutter Muslims of Hindi cinema. She refers to him as ‘tum’; she teases him and he reciprocates. There is affectionate banter, leg-pulling, joking. There is also frank, outright lust. In his eyes when he looks at her, in the way she smiles back.

These are two people who may be newly married but are not shy around each other (the dialogue seems to suggest, too, that while they are newlyweds, it’s not as if they are fresh off the altar—there are references to previous hovels they’ve been compelled to inhabit because of their relative poverty. In comparison, this house, despite all its faults, seems very livable indeed).

That night, Salma decks herself up in sharara and jewellery, and sits down beside Hamid on the bed (which Maraati has obtained for them). Even as she sits, a voice starts singing not too far away. It’s a classical piece of music (a thumri?—I’m not certain), and Salma is a little discomfited. The way it’s being sung, the aura of it, suggests something salacious. Hamid laughs and reassures his wife; the red light area of town is a few galis away; this neighbourhood is of good, honest people.

Salma is pacified, and inspired by the song she’s just heard, she sings it for Hamid in the style she learnt from her father. Salma is obviously skilled, and her rendition of Baiyaan na dharo o balma floats out of the window and across the mohallah.

Barely has her song come to an end, when someone knocks at the door. Hamid, puzzled, goes to open it, and in stumbles a drunk, who asks for Shamshad Begum ‘Shaado’, whose kotha this used to be. Hasn’t he just heard her singing? He wants to hear her sing. He’s been a regular customer here. Every month, as soon as he gets money, he comes here—

Hamid, furious, thrashes the man and throws him out. When he’s shut the door and come back in, he and Salma have to try and get themselves under control. Hamid is still enraged, and Salma is shivering with fright. What have they let themselves in for?

But this is merely the start. They do not know it, but Maraati had managed to get the flat for Hamid after discovering that Hamid’s wife was an accomplished singer. Maraati had hoped that Salma’s singing would restart the frequenting of this particular house by dozens of well-heeled patrons. Patrons who, as in the days when Shaado lived here, would stop by to have a paan at Maraati’s. He used to do very brisk business back then.

Now, with nobody going upstairs to the room (news has spread quickly that Shaado no longer lives here), Maraati’s business is suffering.

Others, however, seem to be suffering not so much. Every day, for instance, while Salma is at home by herself, the young men of the neighbourhood peer in through the windows opposite Salma and Hamid’s home and watch her. As she dresses, as she sits on the bed, playing cards with an imaginary Hamid.

Salma is horribly lonely. Her one joy—her music—too has been snatched away, because Hamid has forbidden her to sing. It will only make people think she is no better than Shaado [an interesting comment, actually, though not explicitly stated, on how the perception of art can change based on who practices it—with a tawaif, the very same classical music that Salma learnt from her very well-respected father, becomes something base]. Now all Salma can do to relieve the loneliness is lie on the floor, clinging to her tanpura and imagining a song.

In his office (he works as a clerk in a corporation), Hamid gets some respite from the stifling atmosphere that is building up both within his house and around. There is the pretty colleague, Maria (Anju Mahendru), who smiles shyly at him and occasionally sends him surreptitious but poetic notes of admiration. There is the boss, Mr Kripalani, who seems to be kindly disposed towards Hamid.

… but there is also a contractor who offers Hamid a bribe in order to pass his tender. Hamid gets furious and outright refuses. He is not so dishonest as to take bribes.

How long can they go on, though? The house is, day by day, growing increasingly difficult to stay in. Everybody around (except for a gentle old man called Shahid, played by Manmohan Krishna) believes that Salma and Hamid aren’t even married, and that Salma is really Shaado’s successor in the field. There are the peeping toms, there are the women who whisper behind Salma’s back. There is Maraati, trying to barge in and force paan on Salma. There are the moral police, intent—even by violence—on throwing the young couple out.

On the surface, a simple enough story. But the complexity of Salma and Hamid’s lives, the tribulations they must go through, the facets of their personalities that are revealed—that is what makes Dastak so very worthy of a watch.

What I liked about this film:

Virginia Woolf had called George Eliot’s Middlemarch “One of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Dastak put me in mind of that quote: it is, really, a film meant for grown-ups. Not merely because it is visually rather more explicit than the average Hindi film of the 60s or even the 70s, but because its theme is unlikely to appeal to a child. Or even be understood by one.

Part of this lies in the many things that go unsaid. The turmoil of a stormy night, the lust that suddenly burgeons in Hamid’s eyes in a moment when fear and hatred crowd in and he sees Salma, too.  The anguish and fear in Salma as she scrambles up from the floor and goes racing across the room to bang the windows shut. The desperation of two people who are forced to spend their nights outside their own home, because that is the one place they cannot find peace.

And, in a completely different setting, the look in Maria’s eyes as she glances across the office room at Hamid’s desk, where he sits. She says very little throughout the film, but her eyes speak volumes.

Another admirable aspect of Dastak—of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s writing and direction—is the quiet, subtle way in which a commentary on the times is slipped in. No fanfare, no emotional upheavals in a statement that is barely made. For instance, when Hamid, after much trying, finds a flat being built and wants to book it, the builder asks for an advance to be paid. What is your name, asks the builder. Hamid pauses for a moment, and then says, “Nandkishore.” There is no trumpeting about the fact that the Hindu majority would want to keep Muslims out of their neighbourhoods. The prejudice, the deep-rooted communalism that keeps people out, is not vocal as in films like Dhool ka Phool or Dharmputra—in fact, if you’re careless, you may even miss that single word and never see the significance of it.

Last but not least, there is the acting, especially of Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan. And Madan Mohan’s music, for which he won a National Award—for me, the most memorable song is the beautiful Maeri main kaase kahoon, with Hum hain mata-e-kucha-o-bazaar coming in a very close second. Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics rank right up there.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing that I can think of. This is an amazing film: poignant, very real, at times highly emotional, at times so restrained and contained that one wonders if it’s even the same film—until one remembers that life is often like that, too.

A memorable film, and one that, if you haven’t seen it yet, I would strongly advise watching.

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28 thoughts on “Dastak (1970)

  1. hi madhuji,
    i read the article start to end, and was determined to do so without any interruption!
    and i got the time and read it fully!
    very nice review,
    i have now confirmed to watch the film, at the earliest!

    the plot was known to me a little, but now the entire film seems to b very interesting,
    as i wrote in ur last article on R S bedi, i only knew him to b associated with the movie.
    i am eager to watch the movie.
    a very nice article indeed.

    the songs r already known to me and for many years i knew only the songs.
    i like them very much, mainly hum hai mata e kucho o bazaar.

    anju mahendru looks so beautiful in the snap shot, i just liked her.
    i have seen her on TV, in comparatively older age, in various roles.
    i didnt know actually that she is there in the movie.

    in all i liked it very much.
    i cant write in a poetic language, and so cant describe in ornamental words.
    i am just going to watch the movie, at the earliest
    thats the only thing ,i can do! rather i will do.
    :-)

  2. Great review, as usual!
    One interesting aspect of watching this type of ‘ serious ‘ films is the age at which you see them. Despite the fact that you may be a movie addict from ages, the perspective varies at every age. I had seen DASTAK when I was barely eighteen and I had enjoyed the movie thoroughly at that age too but for entirely ‘ different reasons ‘ . I remember some innocuous people asking Rajinder Singh Bedi after watching DASTAK ‘ बेदी साहब, सिर्फ़ दस तक ही क्यूँ ? ‘ !!
    When I saw the movie again a few years back, the viewpoint had undergone a sea change. The film that had appeared ‘ very good ‘ at that time suddenly seemed ‘ great ‘ because I was able to understand the subtle undertones which were not recognisable at that age. Now I realise that apart from the dialogues, there is a language called ‘ body language ‘ too which is there in this film abundantly. And what to say about Rehana, Sanjeev and Madan Mohan ! They are among the best Hindi cinema has produced ! Lastly, how one can ignore that wonderful duet of Lata and Rafi sung in wonderful whispers ‘ tum se kahun ek baat paron se halki halki ‘ and it’s picturisation!

    • “Despite the fact that you may be a movie addict from ages, the perspective varies at every age.

      Very, very true. A lot of my film-watching happened when I was a teenager – through Doordarshan. The usual 50s and 60s film was not a problem; I liked almost all of them universally. Every now and then, however, there would come along a film which would make me think, “Why did they bother making this?” (or, conversely, “Wow! What a film!”). Now, in my forties, I watch those films again, and often realize how my views about the same films have changed. Some films have completely lost their charm, and some which I couldn’t fathom back then have become deep and insightful.

  3. Thank you for such an evocative review of, as you so aptly put it, “a film meant for grown-ups”. It’s been some years since I saw it last, and you’ve motivated me to dig out my VCD from its burrow.

    This film is one of what I call ‘minor classics’. Everything’s come together well, script, direction, acting, songs (lyrics/music/singing – all equally good! My personal favourite is Hum hain mata-e-coocha-o-baazaar ki tarah – a gem of a ghazal. As an aside, for my money, Madan Mohan’s rendering of Mai ri is right up there with Lata’s superb one. If anything, a tad more moving.), the works. And yet, if you ask most Hindi film fans to list their top ten favourites of that era, few would have it on their list. It’s almost an afterthought.For some reason it has to be dredged up from the recesses of memory. (Somewhat like Hemant Kumar? So many wonderful songs, but, again, generally an afterthought when talking about singers.)

    • I agree with you about Madan Mohan’s rendition of Maeri. As a matter of fact, I heard that before I heard Lata’s version. He’s sung it with so much feeling. Beautiful.

      As for Hemant… hmm. I must admit to being a great fan of his. :-) But yes, I do agree that most people tend to flock after the other main singers and think of Hemant only as an afterthought, even though he did sing some songs that I cannot imagine anybody else singing (Tum pukaar lo, for one).

        • Yes. The lyrics were the main reason, for instance, that I listed Hum hain mata-e-kucha-o-bazaar: the music of that, I thought, was not half as memorable as the lyrics.

  4. One of these days, I surely have to watch this film. I tried 3-4 times, but somehow the anticipation of what was to befell the young couple depressed me and I left it after 5 minutes or so.
    The songs are simply great and love them all, particularly Madan Mohan’s own interpretation.
    Thank you for the well-written review.

    • Thank you, Harvey! Glad you liked this review. :-)

      Yes, the film is depressing, but not all through – and I really liked the ending. It reminded me, in a way, of Do Bigha Zameen. You should give it a try, someday.

  5. Your review is so moving that it makes me want to watch this movie, even though I have never watched it because I don’t want to suffer with the couple! I have heard great things about this movie but the plot makes me dread the ending so I have put it off every time. Now you have written a review which makes me want to watch it and … I don’t know, I might give it a try.
    It is your fault – writing such a good review that puts me in a bind!

    • Thank you, Lalitha! You warmed me with that praise. :-)

      Do give the movie a try. As I mentioned to Harvey, it is depressing, but not all through. And the end is not one to be dreaded. ;-) In fact, I liked the end a lot.

  6. Madhu, I don’t know how many other times I’ve said this, but you’ve surpassed yourself yet again. This is one of your best reviews, and that is saying a lot. The film deserved it too – Dastak was a film where story, direction, music, and acting all came together to make a fantastic whole, which was greater than the sum of its parts.

    Poor Rehana Sultan, though, was almost ostracised for playing these grown-up roles. She could never surmount that reputation to become a successful heroine. (I deliberately didn’t use ‘actress’, because I think she was extremely talented, and very successful at what she did.)

      • Thanks for that link, Madhu; it’s sad to know that an actress who had so much to offer was summarily dismissed because of the roles she portrayed. Matters have improved because different stories are being told today, but heroines still get short shrift. I’ve hopes for the likes of Anushka Sharma, Vidya Balan, Kangna Ranaut, Swara Bhaskar… keeping fingers crossed that they will get the roles they deserve.

        • Yes, I think things have changed a good deal, but from what little I hear and see, you’re right about ‘heroines still getting short shrift‘. What I like is that a Vidya Balan can do a Dirty Picture or Kangana Ranaut can do a Queen – both hatke films – and still come back and do more conventional roles. Poor Rehana Sultan (and God knows how many others) seems to have suffered badly for having done a good job portraying a ‘bad woman’.

  7. Madhu,

    This is a fantastic review! You brought the best out of this movie and summarized it so well. I really liked your interpretation of mynah which highlights RS Bedi’s beautiful writing. With such a killer music, spectacular writing and wonderful acting by all, I wonder why this movie doesn’t get the credit that it deserves.

    I absolutely loved your point – “an interesting comment, actually, though not explicitly stated, on how the perception of art can change based on who practices it—with a tawaif, the very same classical music that Salma learnt from her very well-respected father, becomes something base” – So true!

    Thank you for such a lover review!

    • Ashish, you are too kind! Thank you so much – I’m glad you liked this review. I think films like Dastak, so carefully crafted (and I think this is a craft – it requires so much skill, so much heart, so much precision and attention to detail), is easier to write about because it is so good and leaves such an impact.

  8. Hi Madhu
    Another brilliant review! Bhagwan Thavrani was right about the question he was asked – “Bedi Sahab dus tak kyun”– (he was being politically correct!) the rest of it was “Barah tak kyun nahin?”
    Couple of things that come to mind – Rehana said she was honored to have received the ‘Urvashi’ National Award for her first film, an award that Nargis received for Raat Aur Din after years of brilliant performances. This was her debut film, she was signed from the Film Institute (as was Vijay Arora for Phagun, by the way). The film took a little while to get on the floors so her Chetna was released ahead of Dastak, and several people believe she was ‘discovered’ by BR Ishara. Another interesting point is she played a prostitute in Chetna, so people somehow associated her with that kind of role. Coincidentally in Dastak the neighbors assume that is who she is, and the audience actually expected it as well. Sanjeev had also been signed when he was a relative unknown and by the time the film was released he had started to become famous. Bedi Sahab said “Sanjeev did not take the role seriously and had a very casual attitude, but what he did not realize was that was exactly what I needed for Hamid’s character”. This film put him up there with the greats – somewhat like Rekha after her role in Umrao Jaan, a film she did not take very seriously either.
    On an aside I suddenly remembered – the ‘ghararas’ used in the film – I brought them back from Bombay and we used them as costumes in college plays!

    • Thank you, Nishi. Yes, it’s very deplorable that Rehana Sultan’s roles in this film and in Chetna sounded the death knell for her career – such a shame, considering that she was such a good actress. (In my comment replying to Anu, above, I’ve given a link to an interesting article on BBC about her, which pretty much explains what you have written, too).

      I hadn’t known that Sanjeev Kumar didn’t take the role seriously – that was an interesting anecdote (especially, as you mention, that that was exactly what was needed for Hamid’s role).

      I like the idea of using the ghararas in college plays! Good reuse. ;-)

  9. I visited the link u have given…
    It was very unfortunate that rehana was typecast, and was offered so called bold roles, that actually need no talent!
    I didint know, she has won national award for dastak.
    Its really unfortunate, actually cruel that this fact was ignored or forgotten.

    • Yes, it’s a shame, considering she was such a good actress. If only there had been more directors like Mr Bedi, who knows how different Rehana Sultan’s career might have been…

  10. Such a beautifully written review. I’m a long-time lurker – not a big fan of movies, but I immensely enjoy the way you narrate the premise of each film. Thank you for sharing this blog with your readers, each post of which invokes the joy of pure, lucid storytelling.

  11. OK yes I plead guilty, I am not at all active on the internet, but despite everything I just had to share this little piece of trivial information. Dastak’s cinematographer Kamal Bose who, as I have mentioned in my blog was like an elder brother to my parents, won the best black and white photography Filmfare award for the film. With this win he completed a hat trick, he had won this award in the previous two years for Khamoshi and Anokhi Raat.
    When the awards were announced I remember telling him that he seemed to have no competition in the black and white photography category. He jokingly remarked that he wished he would get more black and white films. Of course at this stage in 1972, black and white films were giving way to colour so there was no chance of him
    signing a black and white film. However that did not seem to matter, he went to win the Filmfare award for Dharmatma.
    Whenever I see any mention of Dastak, I am reminded of this incident.

    • That’s an interesting bit of trivia, Shilpi – I do wish Kamal Bose had come into the limelight much earlier rather than at a time when black and white had pretty much given way to colour. Maybe we’d have been able to enjoy his cinematography some more… though of course, Dharmatma was very good in that respect. I also love his work in Khamoshi and Anokhi Raat (the memory of those curtains billowing in the breeze!)

      • You belong to a different generation, so I guess I cannot blame you for being under impression that Kamal Bose came into the limelight when black and white was giving way to colour. He was very much in the limelight in the film industry right through his career having won his first Filmfare award for Bandini way back in the early sixties.

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