Saturday, April 12, 2014

Revisiting J P Dutta’s Hathyar (and reflections on the bad old 1980s)

[Did a shorter version of this essay for the new issue of The Indian Quarterly]

Those of us whose cinematic consciousness was shaped in the 1980s tend to agree that, nostalgia aside, these were poor times for mainstream Hindi cinema. Actors did multiple shifts a day, zombie-walking through barely scripted potboilers (with the end results rarely indicating that they had succeeded in telling one character from the next, or that the films had expected them to). Production design was non-existent, comedy tracks appalling, and there were those ghastly closing shots where an assembly of surviving good guys stood together in a huddle beaming at the camera in the “mahurat” pose (after a few seconds of dutiful glycerine-shedding because one of their number had just sacrificed his life to save the day). Residue from the Angry Young Man films of the 1970s included the very worst of Amitabh Bachchan (from Pukar and Mahaan through Toofan and Jaadugar). In the immediate pre-liberalisation, pre-multiplex era, “Bollywood” operated in its own vacuum.

Today the DVD culture and the work done by NFDC has made it possible to see good, restored prints of the “parallel” cinema of the time, the best work of Benegal, Nihalani, Mishra and others. And so, for those of us of a certain age who like to think we take cinema seriously, it seems natural to focus our energies on revisiting those movies (which we were too young to appreciate when they came out) rather than waste time and effort trying to locate the few scattered gems that may have come out of the mainstream.


As I have written before on this blog, the first two years of the 1990s were when I became distanced from Hindi films (though a part of me loved the dhishum-dhishum and the familiar, reassuring structures) and sought nourishment elsewhere. I hadn’t read much film theory, had no concept yet of auteurs – like most young viewers, I mostly didn’t even think of films in terms of their directors. Yet, even at age 13, turning nastik and renouncing the mandir of Hindi movies, I knew that some of these films had a special energy in them and gave the impression that actual thought was taking place at the level of camerawork, scripting or performance; that an individual sensibility lay behind the whole. Mukul Anand was one such director (while Hum was the only film of his I whole-heartedly liked, there were stand-up-and-take-notice moments in nearly all his work, even in this tiresome thing called Khoon ka Karz). Another such director was J P Dutta, and one of my clearest memories from the summer of 1989 was watching Dutta’s Hathyar and sensing, without being able to articulate it, that I was seeing something more interesting than the regular action multi-starrer. Looking at tacky posters of Hathyar, with red-eyed Dharmendra and droopy-eyed Sanjay Dutt flaring nostrils and brandishing guns, you wouldn’t think it was any different from a dozen other khoon-aur-badlaa films that these actors were doing around the same time, but that would be an injustice to this layered work about the seductiveness of violence.

This month marks 25 years since the film’s commercial release. Though it has a tiny cult following among knowledgeable buffs, it deserves to be better known; along with the director’s earlier Ghulami, it is the high point of an erratic but important career. Dutta’s work has always been prone to flab and overstatement – something that is most obvious in the star-studded Kshatriya and LOC Kargil – but these 1980s films nicely balanced the large canvas with the intimate moment. They used sprawling vistas in ways that did justice to the conceit of the 70 mm screen, while inhabiting these vistas with well-defined characters who had interiority. Looked at from a distance, they can seem like standard uber-macho sagas, but on closer examination they turn out to be thoughtful critiques of violence and how that violence is related to a feudal, patriarchal tradition and passed down until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are strong roles for women as tempering influences or – in some cases – as facilitators for the more unsavoury aspects of tradition. And even while operating within the hyper-dramatic idiom of the commercial Hindi film, they successfully incorporated elements from outside that
world. Ghulami has Mithun Chakraborty as a wisecracking action hero (whose trademark line “koi shaq?” was guaranteed to draw front-bench whistles) but also has a side-track featuring parallel-cinema stars Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah as husband and wife who weigh mutual respect against ideological differences. And in Hathyar, the voice of conscience is played by someone who usually worked in a very different corner of the mainstream – Rishi Kapoor, whose presence here, in one of his best roles of the time, is a tip-off that this won’t be your regular action film.**

Memory can play tricks on us when it comes to old movies, but the lullaby that bookends Hathyar’s narrative turned out to be exactly as I remembered it when I saw the film again recently. In the opening shot a little boy, initially seen in silhouette, sits on a rocking horse as his thakur father sings to him about a prince who roams the world on a flying steed and returns home when he is tired. (“Ek raja ke bête ko lekar / Udne waala ghoda…”) They are interrupted by an uncle – a more militant member of the thakur’s clan – who gives the child a toy gun, against the father’s protests. Our Avinash won’t grow up to be a coward, the chacha says pointedly. “Aaj kal sharaafat ko hee kaayarta kehte hain,” (“These days decency is mistaken for cowardice”) the father sighs, trying to take the gun away from his boy, but the child is already enthralled, he won’t let go – “Nahin, hum kheleinge” are his chilling words – and the framing of the shot (which dissolves into the adult Avinash’s arms holding a real rifle) makes it seem like the weapon is an extension of his hand. The circle begun by these scenes will be completed in the film's final sequence, set in a toy shop where Avinash realises that running his blood-smeared palms over a plastic globe is the closest he will come to having the world in his hands or flying to exotic lands on a magic horse.

In the casting of Sanjay Dutt as a gun-obsessed young man who becomes a pawn in games played by larger forces, Hathyar weirdly pre-echoes real-world events. In cinematic terms though, it is a forerunner to Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and other sleek, realistic city-crime films that would herald the multiplex era. Dutta’s early work was mostly set in villages and expanses of sunbaked desert where feudalism ran rampant and the line between rebel and daku, victim and aggressor, was erased. (Anyone who had the pleasure of watching Ghulami on a big screen – I have a dim childhood memory of this, though I may have nodded off during the Naseer-Smita scenes – will know how sweeping his visual sense was and how well he used these majestic settings.) But Hathyar was, literally, different terrain for him. Arriving in Bombay to escape village feuds, Avinash’s father is immediately confronted by violence and apathy of a different sort, though the hoodlums here are dressed in jeans and sneakers. “You said we’d move to the city to get away from the jungles, to live with civilised people,” Avinash’s mother (Asha Parekh in a good latter-day role) sarcastically tells her husband, “Well, here we are. Go and hug the cultured people you were so eager to meet.”

The ugly face of the metropolis is omnipresent – they see someone who has fallen off a train and died, and people being casual and indifferent about the tragedy – but new friendships and ties are formed too, and the city's “good” side seems to converge in the personality of one man, their principled and sensitive neighbour Sami bhai (Kapoor). Meanwhile, Avinash gets seduced by the Bombay underworld. This is partly circumstantial, but it could be a natural arc of his personality and upbringing: when we first saw him as an adult, back in the village, he was more interested in the deer at the end of his rifle than in his girlfriend Suman’s talk of romance and marriage; he dashed off while she was mid-sentence, in a scene that played like a variant on a famous episode from the Ramayana (and in this age of epic retellings and reexaminations, it might briefly make you wonder: was Rama’s pursuit of the deer Maricha driven as much by primal blood-lust as by the desire to fulfill his wife’s wish?).


In fact, one possible weakness of Hathyar is that it sometimes appears to blur two separate issues. The first involves the choices that face an unprivileged boy struggling to make ends meet and to support his mother in a predatory world. The second is his own apparent love of violence for its own sake, and the hint that he can prioritise it above his close relationships. At times the film seems undecided about whether to treat Avinash as an amoral sociopath with aggression running in his veins or as a pawn of fate, a cinematic descendant of Deewaar’s angry young man Vijay. But perhaps the two things aren’t mutually exclusive - perhaps what is being suggested is that if Avinash’s background and upbringing hadn’t been so rooted in casual bloodshed, it might have been easier for him to make the “right” choices later in life.

Hathyar doesn’t have the cool, organic sophistication of the gangster films that would come a few years later, such as RGV’s work, but there is an emotional directness in its key moments, and some very striking images, such as a shot of two people huddled together between trains passing on adjacent tracks shortly after the discovery of a dead body. Effective use is made of a minatory background score, and the scene that introduces the adult Avinash has the deliberate texture of gun porn, with loving close-ups of a shiny rifle being assembled, a hand stroking it, loading bullets, cocking it, taking aim. And watching such scenes, an old question in popular-film studies rears its head: is it possible for a powerful visual medium like cinema to meaningfully critique something even as it depicts it? If a film sets out to be a thoughtful commentary on violence but also contains well-executed action sequences – or soulful music to underline the protagonist’s personal dilemmas – does it compromise itself by making the violence “thrilling”?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Personally I don’t believe an objective distinction can always be made between films that are gratuitous/exploitative and films that are well-intentioned: directors and writers bring diverse sensibilities and approaches to the same material, and much depends on interpretation as well as on a viewer’s ability to distinguish between something that might temporarily be stimulating when viewed on a screen while being abhorrent or condemnable in the real world. But this aside, anyone watching Hathyar should be able to see that it accommodates a wide range of attitudes to violence and pacifism, cynicism and idealism.


Dutta’s best work (I’m thinking mainly of Ghulami and Hathyar – and perhaps Yateem, which I don’t remember all that well) sometimes reminds me of the cinema of Otto Preminger, in that it deals with intimate human stories within very large, multi-character frames (so large, in fact, that the films are constantly in danger of being dismissed as bloated epics by a viewer who hasn’t attentively watched them). Like Preminger’s Advise and Consent (a remarkably mature, multi-dimensional political film), Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder, these films present diverse points of view and life experiences without passing sweeping judgements – and yet without getting so fatalistic that they completely abjure notions of right and wrong.
 
In Hathyar, a poetic contrast is made between Avinash’s father putting his life into his toy statues, making something new and creative out of mud, and his son who kills people and watches their bodies fall in the mud. But lines are not clearly defined. There is the implication that the Gandhi-like men of integrity in this cut-throat world can “live by their principles” partly because someone less idealistic, more open to compromise, is looking out for them. And yet the film does this without glamorising those who chose the path of crime. All this adds up to a level of complexity that would point the way ahead to the more thoughtful, grounded screenwriting of the indie film culture.

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** One of Kapoor’s finest moments in the film – a triad of wordless gestures that take up just a few seconds – is a late scene where his character Sami bhai is beaten up by Avinash. Having offered no resistance, the dazed Sami bhai is now clutching a pole, out of breath. When he sees that Avinash is done and is about to walk away, he first holds his hands out in a “what, you’re finished?” gesture, then indicates “come, hit me some more, I’m still standing” and finally, as Avinash makes no move back, Sami – though still visibly shaken and reeling in a way that not many beaten-up leading men of the time seemed to be – waves his hands in an almost dismissive gesture, as if to say "This was the extent of your bravado? You have a lot to learn about real courage."

26 comments:

  1. I must see Hathiyar and Ghulami. The only JP Dutta films I've seen are Batwara & Yateem and both are worth watching. After so many years I still remember scenes, characters and something of the plot in Batwara (not in Yateem). And I remember the music.

    Ghulami has at least one great song too, beautifully picturised. That's Zihal-e-Miskin in mixed Hindi-Farsi

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    1. It's very annoying that the YouTube version of Ghulami is only 2 hours and 20 minutes for some reason - whereas the original film is around three hours long. Perhaps this was one of the versions that continued to play in B-theatres in small towns for years afterwards, with the focus being on the action scenes and the wisecracking.
      (Not that YouTube is any medium in which to see this particular film for the first time.)

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  2. There is a funny story about J P Dutta. That the man never cared for amounts of reels he used to use while shooting. I'm not too sure of technical terms but the story goes that once while shooting in Rajasthan, he just switched the camera on while hundreds of camels ran by. When assistants told him it involved huge cost in terms of reels and also camels, he told them to take a chill pill :) This was in 90s or in 2000s by then he had evolved into an eccentric artist :P

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  3. Ah yes. Hathyar is one of those overlooked classics. One of the scenes that stands out in my mind is that shootout in Bandra's swamp. Also, very understated performances by everybody. Ghulami's best shot is when the young kid playing Dharam grabs that eagle and attacks it in the desert. But after Hathyar, the bloat in his movies set in, with Batwara and Kshatriya, both decent movies, with potential to be great if they'd been more taut pieces of work. Thanks for the trip down memory lane :)

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    1. Vikram: Kshatriya had such potential (and what a cast!) but it was so over the top in places. Pity.
      I also wish Dharmendra had been 10 years younger when he worked with Dutta - he was too old for his Ghulami role, sadly.

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  4. Many thanks for taking out this little gem of J P Dutta. Can't forget the railway track scene. No body covered the beauty of rajasthan like he did.

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  5. Just saw your new post.. on 'Hathyar'. One of movies I liked so much. Wuill read the your post now.. but wanted to thank you for writing about it. Most interested in knowing how you viewed it.. to me, this movie was different.. the intense scene with Sunjay Dutt killing that police inspector because he is hungry, the visuals from mumbai local.. were standout!!

    -- The Alco..... Guy

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    1. Nicely put. This movie was not on you tube ( atleast till last summer ). Was thinking about Dharam paaji also. In this movie, he was not over the top ( is it now called OTT ?). I found that him restrained .. kind of how he acted in Johnny Gaddar. .

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    2. I actually wrote a little something about Dharmendra in Hathyar in this earlier post - had forgotten about it. Like I said before, wish he had been 10 years younger when he did these films with Dutta. And his role in this film makes for such an interesting counterpoint to Satyakam.

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    3. Hathyar is on YouTube now by the way - here's the link.

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    4. Thanks. I saw the link last year, but was put off with the 10-12 parts. Now, have to go and read your earlier post.

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  6. Must say i am intrigued and will catch hathyar and ghulami.

    Just out of curiosity, how do you rate the 90s decade and the 2000- 10 decade for bollywood?

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    1. Sid: I missed the 90s entirely, almost, since I wasn't watching Hindi films at all after 1992 (with a couple of exceptions) -- don't really feel qualified to comment. Feel things have definitely improved in the 2000s.

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    2. Thanks for the reply. Good to know that someone as well versed with films thinks that films have actually improved. On the other hand, I am super pessimistic, always find it depressing to think about current state of the industry and think that things are down the drains :-(

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    3. Well, I should point out that I often have mixed opinions about these things, and am frequently contradicting myself! Have lately been on a very minor voyage of rediscovery when it comes to the 80s commercial scene, who knows what I might end up finding and thinking! (Just the other day, watching bits of the original Himmatwala on TV, I felt that the film wasn't bad at all, and there was something charmingly "meta" or sutradhaar-ish about the way in which the bad guys - Kader Khan, Amjad Khan etc - stand about plotting and simultaneously commenting on their own plots. But won't go on about that here!)

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  7. Reading your comment about Dharmendra in that other piece, wondering if you have seen Bharat Rungachary's Zulm Ki Hukumat. Dharmendra does a fine job as Vito Corleone ; so do Shakti Kapoor as Sonny and Govinda as Michael.

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    1. Rahul: I saw it when it first came out, I think (and got the references even then, though I had only seen The Godfather in bits and pieces at the time). From what I hazily remember, I liked Dharmendra and Govinda (don't remember Shakti Kapoor's Sonny at all) but the film itself definitely didn't hit me in the way that Hathyar did.

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  8. This was one of two movies I had mentioned to my wife a while ago, meant to share with her, (nostalgia, trivia, etc) but couldn't find. Found the other on Youtube, but not this. The other film was a Mukul Anand film, btw, Mahasangram :) Haven't seen Khoon ka Karz.

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    1. I don't remember Maha Sangram at all, which (having looked it up on Wikipedia) is quite strange. Back in early 1990, I would certainly have queued up to watch a Vinod Khanna-Madhuri-Govinda starrer.

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  9. Then you should watch it. Pretty decent flick. Govinda acted well. Madhuri too!
    Not to mention the Madhuri song..
    Also, the canvas is typical Mukul Anand.. ( which I always liked )

    - The Alco..... Guy

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  10. Glad you liked Advise and Consent

    I feel like watching it again. Been a while.

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  11. Oh I also liked Advise and Consent. I found it too good. The performances, the lines, the staging and that quality of extending and keep on extending what is already a beautiful scene and a dialogue was so good. At the risk of sounding stupid, I think Hollywood films from 1970s onwards do not have that quality. Too much focus on what they say "realism" robbed us off of some great cinema which existed prior to 70s. Anyway, thanks for suggesting Advise and Consent

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  12. I haven't seen Ghulami or Hathhyar since I don't normally venture beyond the 70s in Hindi Films, but one film that I have seen is "Mahaan" and I can't agree with your disposition of it as among the very worst of Amitabh Bachchan. I rather love the movie.:-) Bachchan's skillful portrayal of three different characters, the presence of the lovely Waheeda Rehman, the fun, catchy songs and some seriously funny bits all added up to one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of my childhood.

    The 80s had some nice "middle-of-the-road" offerings too, like the gentle, mature romance drama, Ek Baar Kaho.

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  13. Dear Jai,

    Thanks for reliving my childhood and my dreams. I distinctly remember watching Hathyar and how massively I was impressed JP Dutta. I, for one considered him to be one of the best directors at that time considering the sub standard fare that was being dished out by the hindi film industry in the 80s. Up until Border, I was a big JP fan and think that he started losing his touch with Refugee and LOC Kargil, though both films had their moments.

    I still remember that one scene from Hathyar that is forever etched in my mind. A child walks into the toy store and Kulbhushan Kharbanda,a JP regular who played Sanjay Dutta's father in the film, tries to sell him a mud toy. But then as expected from the underlying theme, the child veers towards a plastic toy gun replete with all the sounds. Still can't get that scene out of my head.

    Just as an aside, if I am not mistaken JP Dutta got married to Bindiya Goswami, the star of the 80s.

    Finally, in continuation with the commentator who mentioned Mukul S Anand's Mahasangram. This was possibly the first film that had Gulshan Grover playing a non negative role. He had a famous dialogue in the film that he kept repeating. It goes something like, " Hamare Punjab mein aise hota hai? Na hamare Punjab mein aisa nahin hota." By the way this film was also one of the last screen appearances of that great character actor, Iftekhar.

    Cheers!!

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  14. HATHIYAR is my FAVORITE film of all time.I have watched it at least 100 times .It is the first and the last film which is based on gun culture in society.The concept of the film as well as presentation is such that i must admit that it is the best film i have ever seen including all the english,hindi or any other language film that i have ever seen.J.P.Dutta is the only filmmaker in the world who makes films based on serious issues. There is always a base on which he makes films.No other filmmaker in the world can match him.I can watch Hathiyar atleast a 100 times more

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  15. J.P. Dutta's Hathyar SIMPLY THE BEST Gangster FILM Of India.

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