Thursday, June 11, 2009

Khamoshi, and the conundrum of the wildly uneven film

I was talking with someone recently about various aspects of movie-reviewing and book-reviewing, and one of the things that came up was the idea of unevenness: how it’s possible for a film to be transcendentally beautiful in some ways while at the same time containing scenes that are embarrassingly awkward or silly; or for a single aspect of a movie (a performance, a brilliantly written scene) to be so high-quality that it’s at complete variance with the elements that surround it. And how this sort of thing presents a special challenge to the reviewer - especially when you’re writing a lengthy, analytical piece about the work (as opposed to a 300-word overview made up of checklists and an accompanying “star rating” that will be more useful than what’s written in the review anyway).

A few days later I saw Asit Sen’s 1969 film Khamoshi (a remake of his own Bengali film Deep Jwele Jaai) and found that it was an extreme example of a movie that contains bizarre shifts in quality – to the extent that you’re almost watching two separate films, each unaware of the other’s existence.

I had heard a lot about Khamoshi from my mother years ago, but what really prompted me to search for the DVD was when I saw the beautifully filmed song sequence “Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi” on the Space Black channel in Mumbai some time ago (see the video here). As it happens, this four-minute scene brings together the three finest things about the film: Hemant Kumar’s music (complemented by Gulzar’s lyrics), Kamal Bose’s stunning black-and-white photography, and Waheeda Rehman’s luminous, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance as a nurse who begins to lose her own emotional equilibrium as she cares for mentally ill patients.

Well, that was the good stuff. The first alarm bells rang when I discovered that the film is set in the “National Psycho Analytical Clinic” (sic), run by a Colonel Sahab
who works on the assumption that women are capable of any magnitude of sacrifice for mankind. Or men. And that, in fact, perhaps their principal role in the world IS sacrifice. (In a strange flashback sequence, he recounts a wartime experience that taught him this valuable lesson.) Accordingly, he develops a unique form of psychiatric treatment wherein beautiful nurses are encouraged to provide maternal or romantic care (or both, simultaneously) to handsome young male patients, especially the ones who feel betrayed by their girlfriends or mothers (or both).

It took cinema a fairly long time to learn how to portray psychiatric care with sensitivity and intelligence, and this movie will probably not be remembered as one of the milestones along that route. Anyway, the Colonel's approach to healing launches Khamoshi on its twofold path. On the one hand there’s Waheeda Rehman as Nurse Radha, her eyes more expressive than pages of dialogue, weighed down by the emotional demands of her job, haunted by the memory of what happened the last time she fell in love with a patient and by the realisation that she might be falling into the same trap again (with a new patient played by a very young Rajesh Khanna). On the other hand there’s Colonel Sahab and his two stooges (played by Iftekhar and Lalita Pawar, who somehow manages to seem irredeemably evil even when playing a hospital matron who isn’t actually written as an evil character) walking purposefully about the corridors, discussing which patient they ought to administer an “electric shock” to next. (Electric shocks are all the rage in this film. One suspects that whenever Colonel Sahab is feeling slightly bored he turns to a lackey and says “Still two hours to go before closing time? Let’s go and give patient number 18 an electric shock. 2,000 volts at most. By the way, where’s that new generator I ordered?”)

There are also (wouldn’t you know it?) attempts at comic relief, mainly built around the fact that the inmates have the run of the institute. No supervision, they go wherever they please – and so, when a patient’s relative visits the institute and runs into a doctor, each man briefly thinks the other must be a “paagal”, and situation comedy of some form develops. (When the misunderstanding is cleared up they chuckle with relief, secure in the knowledge that they are both sane after all. Deluded loons.) Meanwhile the real patients spend their time making facial gestures lifted straight from the Dummies’ Guide to Playing Mental Patients. (As one of the wards, a young Deven Varma manages to retain much of his dignity, but that’s about the best I can say about these scenes.)

It’s hard to explain how all this puerility can possibly coexist with the delicacy of the Rehman performance or with some of the restrained directorial and cinematographic choices made by the movie (such as the decision to show Dharmendra’s face only very fleetingly in his crucial guest role as Radha’s earlier ward; when he sings “Tum Pukar Lo”, we see only a back view of the character, in a
dimly lit room). But they do coexist, and this makes Khamoshi a confounding film. In particular, there are moments in Rehman’s performance when she seems to be working almost in isolation, oblivious to the pompous, self-centred silliness of the man she calls boss; some of the scenes between her and Colonel Sahab are a textbook demonstration of how the sublime and the ridiculous can share the same frame.

P.S. Also see this post about Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance routines that transcended the films they were in.


  1. That 'Sister/Mister (hic!)' song was the one that really had me squirming in this film. What was Gulzar thinking?

  2. Dev D.
    That had moments of amazing maturity coupled with some of the most outlandish and immature ideas I've ever seen in any movie.

  3. Hey Jai,

    While reading I was continuously thinking that you must have mentioned 'One Flew over the cuckoo's nest', but you didn't. Haven't seen khamoshi but loved cuckoo's...

    - Puneet

  4. So agree with the observations in this review.

    Often, especially with old films, the songs are marvellous set pieces (Woh Shaam, Tumhara Intezaar hai in Khamoshi) but the movie itself is often clunky and all over the place bar a few moments and bar performers like Waheeda who try and make it all believable.

    Then again, you have the Sister/Mister song as Shrabonti mentioned!! Thank God you no longer have to buy the entire CD/cassette/LP!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Puneet: I love Cuckoo's Nest too, but it wouldn't really have fit into this post. Maybe another one about the best films to be set in psychiatric hospitals...

    "Apologies if it's off topic, but it's Indian writing and has shades of Kavya Vishvanathan which needs to be called out"

    Anon 2: as you've no doubt noted, this particular post isn't about Indian writing. See if you want to re-post your comment on another post. Thanks.

  7. Anu: your comment about songs being fine set-pieces reminded me of an earlier post about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - have now linked to it at the bottom of this post.

    The Orange Cat: I didn't really think there was much immaturity in Dev D (apart from its depiction of the immaturity of the Dev character, which is of course another matter). What scenes did you have in mind?

  8. With regard to portrayal of mental illness in Hindi films, I suggest you watch Raat Aur Din. It's not brilliant, but its a sea-change from other Hindi films.

    And Nargis' acting is brilliant.

  9. With regard to portrayal of mental illness in Hindi films, I suggest you watch Raat Aur Din. It's not brilliant, but its a sea-change from other Hindi films.

    And Nargis' acting is brilliant.

  10. If we were to compile a list of the 5 best songs ever sung by Kishoreda, surely "Woh Shyam.." will find itself on top of that list with effortless ease?

    What a song!

    And I agree with Anu's comment : some of the best songs were picturised on some awful actors and in some horrible movies!

  11. I know it must get a little boring to have everyone agree with you, but you've captured my own muddled thoughts about "Khamoshi" perfectly. I particularly agree with observations that Waheeda's performance and even role (hers was the only truly psychologically interesting character in the film) seeming to be from another(better) film.

  12. Think of these old B/W movies as masala movies though their recipe was different.The parts to focus in were the parts that you liked.Think of the other stuff is just a part of the furniture.I really do not remember much about the parts you had problems with.It could be that those parts were handled by assistant directors while the studio was keeping the senior director busy on other assignments.
    One other thing I specially liked was how Dharmendra's face was never fully revealed.

  13. Manav: haven't seen Raat aur Din but I remember hearing that it slightly resembles Hitchcock's Marnie.

    Rada: I could never muster up the courage to compile a best-of-Kishoreda list - but yes, this would rank among the 200 or 300 best for sure!

    "I know it must get a little boring to have everyone agree with you..."

    Shalini: not at all. It doesn't happen all that often!

  14. This unevenness came to mind last week when I watched Madly Bangali


  15. /delurk

    I would also recommend the Bengali movie, because of the remarkable performance by Suchitra Sen.

  16. The role played by Dharmendra was played by the director Asit Sen himself in the Bengali version.

  17. I love this movie and its music. I really enjoyed reading this post. The two songs you mention woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi and tum pukaar lo are classics. They’re meaningful in their own right, abstracted from whatever context the movie gives them. I’ve enjoyed them without knowing what the movie was about. Beautiful nurses reminded me a little bit of alfred hitchcock’s spellbound, where ingrid bergman is the psychoanalyst, and gregory peck is the colonel sahab. Thanks for a lovely share.

  18. Jai, you really think cinema has learned "how to portray psychiatric care with sensitivity and intelligence"?