Earlier this month I was having lunch with Rajorshi Chakraborti – a few hours before his book launch – and we were talking about films. Orson Welles, Vijay Anand, Roman Polanski, Basu Chatterji, contemporary Korean directors (about whose work I know almost nothing), you name it. Rajorshi has written a wonderful piece for an anthology of film essays that I’m editing for Tranquebar (more on that soon) and he mentioned that if he were to do another one, he’d consider writing about an aspect of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema that interests him: the idea that role-playing can enrich life, making it unpredictable and wonderful at the same time.
A few days later I happened to watch Mukherjee’s 1973 film Namak Haraam, which I had last seen when I was a child. This film is a key work of its time, for a number of reasons. For starters, it was the second movie, after Mukherjee’s Anand, to bring together Hindi cinema’s incumbent and future superstars (Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan respectively), and it can be argued that the director’s use of their contrasting personalities – Khanna serene and dreamy-eyed, Bachchan abrasive and practical – represents a thematic progression from the way he used them in the earlier film. (This is not to undermine Anand, but simply to point out that Khanna was more obviously the leading man and the focus of attention there, whereas Namak Haraam gives the two actors equal space.) With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it also marked a passing of the baton - Hindi cinema as dominated by the Bachchan persona in the next decade would be very different from the one that Khanna had reigned over in the previous three or four years.
Further to Rajorshi’s observation, it struck me that Namak Haraam is one in a series of Mukherjee movies that explore how a certain form of role-playing – even one that begins for base or selfish reasons – can turn out to be liberating, cathartic, even ennobling. (Among the others are Chupke Chupke, Rang Birangi, Baawarchi and notably the superb Gol Maal.) The plot of Namak Haraam has Somu (Khanna) taking up a job as a worker in the factory run by his rich friend Vicky (Bachchan) so he can help Vicky get his revenge on a union leader who had slighted him. But Somu’s experiences living with the workers and their families has a transforming effect on him and changes the equations between the friends.
This set-up is used to comment on the master-servant relationship, the class divide and the nature of soft socialism in a country where the gap between the poor and the privileged is huge – and of course, all this is done not shrilly or didactically, but in the characteristic gentle Mukherjee style. In a couple of scenes, the line between reality and play-acting is intriguingly blurred: when Somu first confronts Vicky about workers' rights in front of a large crowd, there's a tiny moment where you're not quite sure if this is part of the plot or whether their ideologies have really begun to clash. Somu and Vicky don’t seem to be acting – they appear to be taking their private little game very seriously.
Namak Haraam marks one of Bachchan’s most interesting pre-stardom performances. It’s possibly the first time he played a character who could be described as a loose cannon. One sees here the seeds of the rage that would become so familiar in his later “Vijay” roles, but the effect is different: the fits of anger are driven not by righteous indignation but by petulance – the petulance of a spoilt rich boy who flies into a tantrum when things don’t go exactly as he wants them to.
On a lighter note, this film is a reminder of a more innocent time, when it was possible for two leading men to lie in bed together and look soulfully into each other’s eyes, caress each other’s arms through soft silk shirts, breathlessly wonder over the phone when they are going to meet again, and participate in an intimate song sequence (“Diye Jalte Hain”) where one man sings while the other lovingly takes a video of him (stroking his camera all the while). None of this is as intense as the furious lovemaking between Dharmendra and Jeetendra in Dharam Veer, but it comes close at times. Little wonder that though this was the first time Amitabh and Rekha were in a film together, they weren’t romantically paired - in fact, their characters appear almost to be romantic rivals!
The reason I’ve listed these points of interest is because I was dismayed by how bad the print of the film was, even on a DVD produced by a respected company. It was scratched or blurred in several places, ugly spots appeared periodically, a couple of seconds of film were missing here and there, the sound quality was poor. Throughout the second half, the sound wasn’t in sync with the visuals – a problem with the DVD recording, one assumes - and this hindered my experience of the last hour of the film (including the beautiful song "Main Shayar Badnaam").
Which returns us to the question: whither film restoration and film packaging? Internationally, the salvaging of movies is being taken very seriously, even though it’s a demoralizing and high-investment job. Restored prints (or superior transfers) are then released in classy DVD packages that whet a viewer’s interest and bring the movies to a new audience. I doubt we’ll have the resources or the technology for the same level of preservation in India anytime soon, but I have to say this: if the print of a film like Namak Haraam (just 36 years old and starring two of the giants of Hindi cinema at vital stages in their careers) is in such a poor state, one shudders to think of the hundreds of low-profile gems that don’t feature big-name actors. Or films of a much earlier vintage. It’s already a matter of record that the original print of Alam Ara, the first Indian talkie, no longer exists. Much of our cinematic heritage could be lost before we realise it.
P.S. Surprisingly, even our most high-profile movies haven’t been given the full DVD treatment yet. Take Sholay. If I were in charge of putting together a DVD package for it (and given whatever resources I needed), I would at the very least include: 1) Three separate audio-commentary tracks, one featuring the surviving members of the cast, the second by Salim-Javed (I know they aren’t on talking terms any more, but this is my fantasy) and the third by Ramesh Sippy and some of the technical crew, 2) A restored, cleaned-up version of the film’s original ending, which had Gabbar being killed by Thakur (and which is available on some DVDs – I saw it on one a few years ago), 3) Anupama Chopra’s enjoyable book about the film. And this is a very basic list – I’m not exercising my imagination at all. Imagine what Criterion might have done.
P.P.S. A friend, Praba Mahajan, writes in to tell me about an unreleased 1971 film titled Yaar Meri Zindagi, with Amitabh in a role similar to the one Rajesh Khanna played in Namak Haraam, and Shatrughan Sinha as the haughty rich friend. Check this link for details - and don't miss the reference to the "pheasant girl" and the description of Amitabh's character as "a messiah for the pheasants". Doctor Dolittle would have been so proud.