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.