[The full version of my latest Yahoo! column]
Here’s a trivia question. (Don’t scroll down too quickly.) This popular director helmed two films – call them Movie A and Movie B – in the same year. A sequence in Movie A has the central character visiting a studio where a big star is shooting a nightclub scene. As it happens, this is an actual scene from Movie B, which will be released a couple of months later. Name the director and the two films.
Answer: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gol Maal and Jurmana (both 1979).
The Amitabh Bachchan drunk scene from Jurmana that briefly plays in Gol Maal can be viewed as a form of in-film advertising for the director’s next release. But it’s also an example of two Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies (one a modest, middle-class comedy “starring” that most unassuming of leading men, Amol Palekar; the other a more commercial venture with Bollywood’s biggest superstar) in a little jugalbandhi. And there’s nothing unusual about this if you’re familiar with Mukherjee’s career. His films tend to rework and reexamine certain themes, ideas and character types, so that if you watch a few of them over a short period you see many delicious connections – it’s possible to imagine the films conversing across space and time.
Take the varied ways in which the “real” world and the film world intersect in his movies. Playing himself in that Gol Maal cameo, Bachchan signs autographs for a group of schoolgirls and one of them asks him to write “From Anthony Bhai” (presumably a reference to his iconic part in Amar Akbar Anthony). The superstar gives her a wry look. “Accha, toh aapko mera nahin, Anthony ka autography chahiye?” he says. It’s a reminder of an almost identically composed scene from a much earlier Mukherjee film about a starry-eyed schoolgirl being unable to separate Dharmendra the actor from the roles he plays.
A different sort of acting takes place in Gol Maal, which is the story of a young man who can hang on to his job only by pretending to be twin brothers with contrasting personalities. It's among my very favourite Hindi films, and I’m hardly alone in this - say "Gol Maal" during a movie conversation and you’re sure to see people’s eyes light up as they recall its prized comic moments and lines. But when I mention that I also find it a very moving, emotionally satisfying film, I sometimes get puzzled reactions (or polite smiles).
Many movie buffs – even the ones with eclectic tastes – classify films as “Serious” and “Entertaining” as if these are mutually exclusive categories. Often the classification itself is based on a superficial reading: a film that gives a serious subject heavy-handed treatment (holding the “message” up for everyone to see and laud, in the manner of a child’s Aesop’s Fables book) might automatically be deemed “respectable”, even if the writing or acting is mediocre. In such a case, concept counts for everything, execution for little. On the other hand, a light comedy that makes us guffaw or delight in its plot twists is usually discussed in terms of its “entertainment value”. Try suggesting that such a film can have depth as well, and you might be accused of “spoiling the fun” or “seeing things that aren’t there”.
But great cinema doesn’t lend itself to such polarities, and the inability to recognise that a film with popular appeal can also be a “film of ideas” is often rooted in intellectual laziness, or the need to be spoon-fed – like the reader who thinks a biography of an inspirational real-life person is by definition more profound than a genre novel. Meaning can be subtly embedded within the structure of movies whose primary function is to engage a mass audience, and it can add value without interfering with our enjoyment (or making us feel that we have to get all cerebral about the film).
Gol Maal is, first and foremost, a delightfully funny movie, and it isn’t my intention to undermine this quality when I point out that it also contains interesting ideas about identity, the importance of treasuring the present, and not making sweeping judgements about people. None of these are pedantically imposed on the viewer – there isn’t a single scene where you might shift uncomfortably in your seat, braced for a preachy interlude – but they are there all right, and I think they enrich the viewing experience.
Consider the title song “Sab Gol Maal Hai”, which plays over the opening credits as Ramprasad (Palekar, in a wonderful performance that riffs on his established screen persona as the sombre, working-class man) and his goofy friends fool around at music practice. Has Hindi cinema ever given us a more economical, “fun” depiction of young people grumbling about a world where “paisa kamaane ke liye bhi paisa chaahiye” (you need money even to earn money)? It’s a lovely, high-spirited scene that works perfectly on its own terms, and yet it’s also a foundation-setter for the rest of the film: we are never allowed to forget that Ramprasad needs a job to make an honest living for himself and his (unmarried) sister, and that he is forced to go through the twin-brother charade because the man who signs his salary cheque has hidebound notions about how young people of integrity must look and behave.
This man, Ramprasad’s boss Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt in one of the major casting inspirations in Hindi-movie history), has many idiosyncrasies, among the most prominent being that he measures the integrity of a man by his moustache (“Jiski mooch saaf hoti hai uska man saaf nahin hota”). He reckons the country is making no progress because it is being led by old people – the future should lie with the youth – but at the same time he has unreasonably rigid expectations and is quick to make silly judgements. He doesn’t like nicknames (“Jo apna naam short kar de, woh kaam bhi chota karega”) or flashy clothes, and he believes life should be lived in carefully regimented stages: when you’re young, you should concentrate on studies and career at the exclusion of all else; later, there will be time enough for things like music and sports.
In a seemingly flippant but very telling scene, this philosophy is subverted by a co-worker who twists it to his own purposes: “Aaj ka kaam kal karo, kal ka kaam parson / Itni jaldi kya hai beta / jab jeena hai barson.” (“Do today’s work tomorrow, do tomorrow’s work the day after, why hurry to do anything when you have so many years to live?”) That scene is played for laughs, but I never fail to be moved by Gol Maal’s use of the beautiful song “Aane Waala Pal”, especially the lyric that goes “Ek baar waqt se lamha giraa kahin / Wahin dastaan mili, lamha kahin nahin”. And the shot of Utpal Dutt sipping a cup of tea and listening to the opening words (Ramprasad is singing it for Bhavani Shankar’s daughter, in the house’s “music room”!). The lyrics are rooted in the idea that you should live life as fully as possible because even the happiest of moments will soon be past, and who knows what might happen tomorrow. This is a counterpoint to Bhavani’s own view of life, and yet there he is, swaying his head in gentle appreciation; it’s as if, for one moment, music has opened the heart of this mulish man. (Kishore Kumar’s singing and Gulzar’s writing can do that to anyone!)
Character growth – coming of age, learning about responsibility – is a key motif in Mukherjee’s cinema, whether it’s the bad-tempered, class-conscious Vicky in Namak Haraam or the schoolgirl Guddi (whose personal growth is somewhat simplistically mirrored by the changing dress sense of the doll in the film’s opening credits). But I think Gol Maal has a deeper, more complex take on coming of age than those other films. Here, two men simultaneously mature in different ways: while the younger man takes on adult responsibilities (in his first job as well as in matters of the heart), the older man discovers the merits of lightening up and becoming more open-minded.
And so, the film moves unwaveringly towards a great last shot where we see that Ramprasad has entered the “grihastha” stage of his life (which doesn’t equate to losing one’s sense of fun) while Bhavani has swallowed his pride and even dropped his precious moustache (and some of his inflexibility with it). That final image of Utpal Dutt’s unadorned upper lip is a very funny way to end an effortlessly funny film, but it’s thematically apt as well.