Major nostalgia happened while I was watching a party scene in Sai Paranjpe’s marvelous 1982 comedy Katha yesterday: sitting delicately next to a beer glass in one shot was a bottle of Gold Spot, that wonderful orange drink from the Ancient Days. (Another scene had an antique television set that was kept under a cover “because it’s afternoon, there are no TV programmes at this time”. Nostalgia good. Early 80s gooodd.)
Paranjpe’s film, which I first saw more than 20 years ago on Doordarshan, is a beautifully scripted and acted story based loosely on the fable of the hare and the tortoise. After a cutesy title sequence (with an animated rendering of the tale), we meet our tortoise, Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah), an honest, likable young man who works as a filing clerk at a shoe company. Rajaram stays in a Mumbai chawl that’s the picture of communal living; many families packed together in a small space, all on friendly terms, sharing food and gossip. He’s in love with his neighbour Sandhya (Deepti Naval), but true to tortoise form he keeps stumbling over himself and missing the opportunity to voice his feelings. Then his suave, opportunistic childhood friend Bashudev (“call me Bashu, it’s more stylish”), played by Farooque Shaikh, shows up unannounced and coolly moves in with him. Bashu secures free meals at posh restaurants, charms the other chawl-dwellers, smooth-talks his way into an administrative job in the company Rajaram works for…and eventually sets about wooing Sandhya and her parents. All the while, Rajaram continues plodding along in his own way, convinced that everything will come to he who waits.
Katha is mostly narrative-driven – it’s the sort of film where you get absorbed by the story and the characters without thinking much about the technicalities – but it’s also a very playful movie with some funny sight-gags: such as a scene where the sound is turned off and a large “Censored” splattered across the screen while a dirty joke is being told. And a couple of dream sequences that play like spoofs of the mainstream cinema of the time. In one, Rajaram is molested by a gang of cackling shrews (women from his office) and a jhaadu-wielding Sandhya comes to his rescue; in another, Bashu and the delightfully pixie-ish Jojo (played by Winnie Paranjpe, the director’s daughter) perform a disco-style variant on the song “Tum Sundar Ho” (which is used as the theme for the hare’s wooing of various women). Even Mithun-da might have blushed at the shiny vest worn by Farooque Shaikh in this scene; it’s fun to see these doyens of “parallel cinema” clowning about in this way, and Paranjpe keeps giving us entertaining asides that don’t have much to do with the main plot but which make the film very enjoyable.
Despite appearances, Katha isn’t a straightforward morality tale about the Good (read: slow and steady) guy winning in the long run. In the very first scene of the film an old lady, narrating stories to her grandchild, cautions him that in the real world you rarely have the tortoise winning the race, and the rest of the film expands on this idea. Balancing your personal ideals with the practical demands of living in an imperfect world…these are the real concerns of this story, which raise it above the romanticism of the fable it’s based on.
For instance, Paranjpe makes it a point to show us at the film’s end that both protagonists have achieved what they wanted. Even when Bashu is exposed as a cheat, he walks nonchalantly out of the office, twirling his key-pouch around his finger (“my sudarshan chakra,” he calls it), a thoughtful look in his eyes – he’s already planning his next strategy. The last time we see him it’s in a plane heading for the Gulf, presumably to continue conning and sweet-talking his way through life. A director whose primary concern was to provide a moral lesson would have ensured that the character got his comeuppance, but Paranjpe’s approach (much like Satyajit Ray’s) is more gentle – built on exploring shades of humanity in various characters rather than turning any of them into outright villains.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the viewer should condone some of the things Bashu does (especially his final act of seducing Sandhya and then leaving her on the wedding day), but he also serves as a medium for Rajaram to learn valuable lessons about pragmatism. What this film is really about is the development of the tortoise. Though he’s the good guy, on more than one occasion Rajaram comes across as plain silly in his idealism – at times you want to give him a good shaking or at least clip him across the ear. I’m thinking in particular of the scene at the bus-stop where he keeps up a steady, self-righteous rant about people who jump the queue, and the general insensitivity of the world. Here one gets the sense of a character who’s so bent on exposing others’ shortcomings that he fails to understand his own, and rarely makes a serious attempt to be pro-active.
At this level, it’s possible to look at the Bashu character beyond the function he plays in the narrative and see him as a guardian angel (albeit a smarmy, twisted guardian angel) who plays a cathartic role in Rajaram’s life. This comes across most clearly in a scene near the end. Rajaram has just discovered that his friend “borrowed” money from his unlocked cupboard without asking him. Bashu is unapologetic. “This is what happens when you don’t keep your belongings locked,” he says insouciantly. Rajaram responds with one of the funniest lines in the film (though he’s being very solemn indeed): “Main taala-sanskriti ke bilkul virudh hoon,” he says, “Jee karta hai duniya ke sabhi taalon ko tod daalun. Taalon ka matlab hai aadmi ka aadmi par avishvas.” (“I’m completely against the lock-culture. I wish I could break every lock in the world. Locks indicate lack of trust between people.”) Now Bashu, briefly turning into a sutradhaar, tells him “You have to be practical. People like me exist in this world, and we’re willing to take advantage of others. Stop being so idealistic.”
And Rajaram does learn his lessons. Our final indication that he’s grown as a person and learnt not to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses comes in the scene where he offers to marry Sandhya after Bashu’s disappearance. She tells him she’s no longer a virgin; he looks down, visibly upset, but then raises his head and tells her that it doesn’t matter to him. I don’t think the Rajaram we met at the beginning of the film, well-meaning though he was, would have been capable of such maturity. He would have been hampered by his unreasonable expectations of people and his firm views about how things should be. But by the film’s end the tortoise has emerged from his shell, and the hare is at least partly responsible for this.