Revisiting two 1970s Hindi films recently, I was struck by light-hearted scenes that showed how the underprivileged can deal with the privileged without direct confrontation. Humour, including biting sarcasm, can be one such tool; so can pure fantasy, which allows you to “reverse” a situation – even if the reversal occurs only in your head.
Rich lad Arvind Desai buys four bottles of Black Label (beer, not whisky!) at a shop. He hands over a currency note and then walks away clutching the bottles as the vendor’s assistant calls out to him to take the change. But instead of being grateful for this casually bestowed “tip”, the shopkeeper shakes his head and chuckles: “Rehne do, yaar. Saalon ko paise lene mein bhi takleef hoti hai.” (“These wealthy people find it troublesome to even take their money back.”)
In an earlier scene in this film, Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, the protagonist – heir to a business empire but also a troubled young man experiencing a nascent form of political awareness – has a self-congratulatory glow on his face after showing kindness to a street boy. But we then see this boy making fun of Arvind behind his back.
Mirza’s film offers more hard-hitting variants on the theme of the poor meeting the privileged gaze: it ends with exploited carpet-weavers staring accusingly at the camera. But that casual ten-second scene at the theka operates in a much lighter register, wittily undercutting the self-congratulatory delusions of the “benevolent” rich and making a sly observation about the Indian class waltz, one that is equally pertinent in the soft-socialist and the post-economic liberalisation eras.
The scene might also make you ask what Arvind was really intending to do, a question that is inseparable from the casting of the young and callow Dilip Dhawan in the part. Dhawan, though very likable, had a limited acting range, so you wonder: was Arvind airily walking away after leaving a tip, or was he just sheepish – as many of us are – about hanging around to collect a small amount?
Either way, I think of the scene often. There was a time when, if someone was delivering food to my door and the bill came to, say, Rs 490, I would hand over a 500 note and mutter “Rehne deejiye” if the man started to look in his pocket for change. After watching the film, if I find myself in the same situation, I will make sure to hand over another thirty or forty rupees so the tip seems more substantial. And it isn’t just heightened sensitivity, it’s also because a part of me thinks this will reduce my chances of being mocked: the delivery man might not joke about me with his friends; the status quo between us will remain.
If Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan was part of what became known as the parallel movement or the cinema of struggle, a very different treatment of the lack-of-privilege theme can be seen in the gentle comedy-romances from the so-called Middle Cinema. Take a scene from Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti si Baat, an archetype of the cosy “middle-class film”. The diffident Arun (Amol Palekar) can barely bring himself to speak to the girl he likes (Prabha, played by Vidya Sinha), but then he goes to a hall and watches a film where a mainstream hero has no such confidence issues. As the brawny Dharmendra sings “Jaaneman Jaaneman” to Hema Malini, Arun imagines himself and Prabha in their place on the screen, and there is even a marvellous moment where the transition from the big movie stars to the everymen is briefly left incomplete – so that we see Dharmendra crooning to Vidya Sinha for a few seconds. Two universes have brushed against each other.
The Middle Cinema often shows us what form fantasy can take in ordinary lives and everyday contexts (another such scene that comes to mind is Palekar imagining himself as a big star while a jobless Amitabh Bachchan languishes outside a studio in Gol Maal) – and while this is often presented as fun and games, it is also a view of the underdog lording it over the pampered poodle. Imagination does have its limits, though: the shirt Palekar wears in the “Jaaneman” fantasy sequence appears two sizes too big, as if it had been fitted for Dharmendra’s muscular chest.
[Earlier Hindu columns are here]