From one birth centenary to another.
Less than a week after Chitalkar Ramachandra was born in Maharashtra, on January 17, 1918, in the town of Amroha (in north-west Uttar Pradesh) was born, into a wealthy family of landowners, Syed Amir Haider Kamal Naqvi. Syed (or Kamal, as it probably more appropriate to refer to him) began writing Urdu stories at a young age and harboured a dream of making them into films—a dream quickly shot down by a father who did not think cinema a worthwhile profession. Faced with the prospect of having to manage the family’s estates, the 16-year old Kamal sold his sister’s gold bangles to finance his clandestine escape to Lahore. Here, he continued to write stories while studying (at Lahore’s Oriental College) and by managing to have some of these published, was able to finally save up money enough to travel to Bombay.
In 1938, when he was just 21 years old, his story Jailor was adapted to the screen by film-maker Sohrab Modi.
And that was how Kamal Amrohi made an entry into the Hindi film industry. This was the man who would write perhaps the most memorable Urdu dialogues of any film in Hindi film history (Mughal-e-Azam). This was the man who made what is arguably the finest and most memorable Muslim social in Hindi cinema (Pakeezah). This was the man, too, who—even though he directed only five films—made a mark for himself with those films, three of them (Mahal, Pakeezah and Razia Sultan) becoming pretty much cult classics.
To commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Kamal Amrohi, therefore, a review of one of his lesser-known films. Daaera, starring Amrohi’s wife, Meena Kumari (whom he had married in 1952). Unlike Mahal or Pakeezah, Daaera was not a big hit—it was, perhaps, too far ahead of its time, and too offbeat a film to be easily accepted by audiences.
But, onto what Daaera is all about.
The story begins on a dark night, when an old man (? E
very source on the Net seems to tag this actor as Nana Palsikar, but while he looks very familiar, I’m certain this isn’t Nana Palsikar Kumar, as identified by several readers) alights from a tonga and totters to a house, where he asks for the doctor. The doctor isn’t in town, says the man who opens the door. He will be back two days from now. The visitor, now desperate, laments that he is in urgent need of a doctor, and he doesn’t even have any place to stay; he’s an outsider in this town. The other man suggests a place where he might go; there’s a haveli nearby, whose mistress lets out rooms to people in need.
So the old man makes his way to the haveli, and there, though the doorkeeper turns him away, the lady of the house (Pratima Devi) takes pity on the old man and tells her servant to direct him to an upstairs room which is vacant.
As it turns out, this room is right opposite—on the other side of the courtyard—from that of the lady’s son, Sharan (Nasir Khan). As it turns out, too, the old man hasn’t come alone. With him is a young woman, lying quietly on a bed outside the room. Sharan sees her, and is so infatuated (even at this distance, without a clear view of her face) that he can’t get her out of his mind, not even the next day, when he’s giving his exams at his college. He ends up handing in a blank paper.
Sharan locks himself up in his room, not even descending for meals. His worried mother goes up to meet him and find out what’s wrong. Sharan denies that anything is wrong, but just as he’s talking, a song—one that’s been sung every now and then—bursts out again. Sharan, caught offguard, looks involuntarily towards the room opposite the courtyard, at the woman who lies on a charpai there. His mother notices, looks for herself, and draws her own conclusions.
Sharan has, by some judicious questioning of the servant, discovered that the room has been let out to an old man and a young woman, who is probably the old man’s daughter. Both seem to be quite ill, says the servant.
And, the two days being up, the doctor (Janakidas) arrives to see the patient he’s been told about. The old man is in a terrible condition, gasping for breath and coughing fit to burst his lungs. In between his fits of coughing, he tells the doctor that he consumed arsenic. And why? So that he could be young again, young like this wife of his!
The doctor is startled. This young woman is the wife of this decrepit old man? Yes, that is how it is.
The doctor examines the old man, then, as he’s leaving, tells the wife that he will begin the course of treatment from the following day. Meanwhile, as he steps out and sees her charpai outside, under the tree, he asks her if this is where she sleeps. Yes, says the young woman. Don’t, the doctor tells her; the dew isn’t good for the health. As it is, she has a cough and a fever.
Matters proceed, sometimes obliquely, sometimes not. Sharan sings a song for this mysterious woman he’s fallen in love with—he hasn’t even met her yet—and writes it on a page, which falls from his hand and goes twirling about on the breeze, flying right across the courtyard and into the terrace where the woman—her name is Sheetal, we now discover—sleeps. She inadvertently steps on the paper, and does not even notice it.
Sharan’s mother goes upstairs one day, accompanied by a maid, to have a look at this young woman who has enthralled her son. While the old lady is sitting at the door of the room, Sheetal’s husband has a bad fit of coughing, and Sheetal runs to his side to attend to him. The old lady looks on, sending her maid in the meantime to fetch the doctor.
Later, as she’s leaving the room, Sharan’s mother gives her blessings to Sheetal and commiserates with her—how very ill her father is. Sheetal does nothing to correct that misconception.
But Sharan’s mother, talking to her son later, tells him that this will not do. The young woman is all very well, but her father is so ill, and whatever infection he’s got has passed itself onto her as well—she’s ill too. How can Sharan’s mother willingly plunge her son into that same hell, whatever it is, that is making both father and daughter so ill?
While Sheetal’s husband goes off on a brief trip to collect his pension, Sheetal makes the acquaintance of a newcomer to the haveli. Gomti (Roopmala) arrives in the little room next to Sheetal’s, and through the brick lattice separating them, the two women get talking, Gomti doing most of the talking. She tells Sheetal that this haveli is her nanihaal, the home of her maternal grandmother, and she (Gomti) has been sent here by way of punishment—for having loved well but not too wisely, it would appear. This is to be her prison.
Gomti, chatty and far more outgoing than the very quiet Sheetal, goes on to speculate about Sheetal’s husband (whom Gomti has not seen so far). Sheetal is so beautiful, says Gomti, that her parents must have left no stone unturned in finding a splendid bridegroom for their daughter. How handsome he must be, how very perfect the two of them must look together…
When Sheetal’s husband returns from his trip, coughing and barely being able to make his way into his room, Gomti discovers that this is Sheetal’s husband.
Gomti isn’t a tattletale, though, so the rest of her family doesn’t know the truth of the relationship between Sheetal and the old man. Meanwhile, Sharan is pining away for the woman whose face even he has not seen up close. Pining away to the extent that his mother, sister and brother-in-law (this man looks very much like a somewhat young Nana Palsikar) finally decide to give in and talk to the old man. Sharan’s mother invites him to come and dine with them, having persuaded her son-in-law to broach the topic.
What will happen next?
No, I’m not going to break off at this point with an indication that something very suspenseful and interesting is coming up. Daaera isn’t like that; in fact, it isn’t like any other Hindi film I’ve seen before. It is slow-moving, at times almost artificial in the slowness of its pace and the slowness of its characters. And yet, like Neecha Nagar or Mahal (two films that came to my mind for different reasons while I watched this), it’s a film which, once you’ve seen, you will probably never be able to forget.
What I liked about this film, and some general ramblings:
Compared to the two other Kamal Amrohi-directed films that I’ve already seen—Pakeezah and Mahal—Daaera is arty. There, I’ve said it. Pakeezah is purely commercial (good commercial, well-crafted commercial, just in case you thought I was deriding commercial). Daaera has the songs, true, but it also has a startling lack of background music. It has long, pregnant pauses. It has moments when people act the way people do in real life.
That, the ‘way people act in real life’ is one of the highlights of Daaera for me. Barring a rather ludicrous plan hatched up by Sharan’s brother-in-law, just about everything and everybody in this film is very real. The melodrama is contained, even—through most of the film—completely missing. The characters don’t blurt out deep secrets at any chance they get. They hide things, they reveal things in a way that is very real.
This shines through especially in the case of the central character, Meena Kumari’s Sheetal. Sheetal, throughout the story, says very little, and it’s hard to guess, at times, what is going through this woman’s mind. On the one hand, she reaches out to the page (covered with Sharan’s love poem) and, having read it, lets it fall from her hand, her face expressionless all the while—indicating what? That she has no use for his love? Or that even though she may appreciate it, it is a love in vain and therefore not to be pursued? Which, given that the doctor realizes Sheetal has deliberately been throwing away her medicines rather than taking them, sounds perfectly logical: a young and lovely woman, married to a man old enough to be her grandfather, finds life so unbearable that she grasps at any way to end it?
On the other hand, there is the Sheetal who presses her photograph into her husband’s hand and places it in his coat pocket, so that she (as she herself says) will always be with him. There is the Sheetal who, when a frustrated Gomti begs for the truth, says that one may worship equally well at a temple with a gilded kalash as at a temple in ruins. There is the Sheetal who, without demur and without any sign of abhorrence, calmly lets down her hair to trail over her husband’s face, just because he asks it of her. (A strangely erotic and bold scene, actually, and one that caught me by surprise).
Then, there are the motifs that stud the film. Like the train and its whistle in Pakeezah, various sounds and objects recur throughout Daaera, making their final and telling impact at the climax. There is the alarm clock, for example, which Sheetal sets to make sure she gives her husband his medicine. There is the bhajan—Devta tumho mera sahaara—which is sung at the temple next door, and which makes one wonder: who is the god Sheetal silently calls to? Her husband? Or the young man who has fallen in love with her without ever having met her?
There is a page fluttering about in the breeze. Initially, the page on which Sharan has written his poem for Sheetal, and which goes all around the house, beneath Sheetal’s feet and into the branches of the flowering tree below which she sleeps. Later, there is another piece of paper: an envelope, its damning contents revealing a dark secret, which goes fluttering about a room.
There are the men [oddly enough, working late into the night] who saw a huge beam of wood. On its own (as in the case of the alarm clock) I wondered over the significance of this, but it all comes through very dramatically in the end.
And yes, I really loved Devta tum ho mera sahaara. Jamal Sen (who, I will admit, was not a name I knew) composed the music for Daaera. The songs are good, though not exceptionally memorable—except for this bhajan, which has become one of my favourites.
What I didn’t like:
The slowness of the film becomes occasionally tedious. I found myself wishing for some good old-fashioned melodrama that would catapult the story forward, making it move somewhat faster. One thing I will admit, though: the slowness of the pace makes the bolts out of the blue, when they come, even more effective (the scene where Sheetal’s husband comes to visit Sharan’s family—unaware that they want to fix a match between Sharan and Sheetal—is a fine example of a highly dramatic moment whose impact is enhanced because everything before it has been so slow).
There are those who would say this film is boring; I don’t agree. It’s slow, yes, but in its own way, it’s a memorable film. Tragic, sometimes surreal, complex in a way that isn’t spelled out. Worth a watch, certainly, if you want to see a kind of cinema that didn’t conform to what one expects of Hindi cinema.
Happy 100 years, Amrohi Sahib!