Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam (and fading celluloid)

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.


  1. Certainly brings back a time of innocence, of films and one's own, films-wise. Hrishikesh's movies were so heart warming and idealistic in an unaffected way

  2. I believe it is apathy, a lack of work ethic and a plain inability to recognize business opportunity rather than lack of technology that leads to such poor DVD transfers. As I say here, you can often find pirated versions of the same film which have better quality than the authorized DVDs. On top of the quality issue, Indian DVDs also have minutes of unskippable advertisements and trailers, garish and ugly ad "floaters" that dance around the screen while the movie is going on, occasionally no subtitles even though the DVD jacket claims there are subtitles, and so on.

  3. This 'Yaar meri Zindagi' is really a curious project . I mean how they have inserted Sudha Chandran, who was born in 1964, in the movie ?

  4. I don't particularly like Hrishi Mukherjee. The unequivocal "messages" in his films are bereft of shades of grey. But yes, the films are fun to watch as they're redeemed by some fine star performances. He is a bit like Stanley Kramer in this regard - another director who leveraged star power effectively to make "message" movies.

    I remember liking some of his films better before I watched some of the studio-era Hollywood films that might have inspired Hrishi. Both Abhimaan and Bawarchi appear to be somewhat uninspired remakes of Cukor/Wellman's A Star is Born and La Cava's My Man Godfrey respectively.

  5. I don't particularly like Hrishi Mukherjee. The unequivocal "messages" in his films are bereft of shades of grey.

    Shrikanth: not sure which Mukherjee films you're talking about specifically (perhaps the more serious ones like Anand, Satyakam or even Namak Haraam?) but I have to say that when I think of my favourite Mukherjee films (Gol Maal or Chupke Chupke for instance), I'm stunned by the lightness of touch he brings to some very serious subjects.

    Gol Maal very skilfully incorporates ideas about identity, about living in the moment and not making casual judgements about people (to name just three) into its narrative, but doesn't pedantically impose any of them on the viewer - it remains, on the surface, a breezy comedy from beginning to end. In this sense it actually reminds me of some of the classic Hollywood films that both of us love so much - "termite art" genre movies of tremendous depth.

  6. Rathesh: another Sudha Chandra, possibly? Actually, who knows - I'm not clear at all how this film was stitched together and released.

    inthearmchair: thank heavens I haven't yet seen a DVD that contains ad floaters during the main feature (used to see a lot of that during the dying days of the videocassette era). But have heard of DVDs that seem to have been transferred directly from a VCD print so you can't move between scenes or turn off the subtitles.

  7. that was an enjoyable read, thanks!

    all that nostalgia prompted me to click the link to Diye Jalte Hain, a personal favourite for how it's sung. pleading ignorance here, but does the description 'social family drama' even exist (or does the 'social' refer to the theme, and 'family' refer to the audience!). did a double take when i saw that one on the youtube page..

  8. Jai: yes, I was referring to his more "serious" dramas, including the two seemingly Hollywood-inspired films I mentioned in the previous comment. Bawarchi is particularly annoying what with all the moralizing by the lead character. It makes a poor contrast to My Man Godfrey which is among my all time favourites. I agree that his comedies are first class entertainments.

  9. While on film preservation, I recently read that the very first Indian movie, Raja Harishchandra is missing most of its reels, and so we cannot see the full movie anymore. Imagine the lure of double feature - Raja Harishchandra and Harishchandrachi factory, being clubbed in one single package.

  10. Very interesting - had not seen the common theme of role-playing. I remember when we had a foreign visitor who wanted to see a Hindi movie and a relative took him to see Anand, raving to him about how it starred "India's most famous actor" and the visitor said later he understood that hyperbole when he saw the quiet, intensity of the man - it took a while before the puzzled relative figured out that the visitor had thought it was AB being referred to, not RK.

    Also recall an anecdote that made the rounds when Namak Haram was made - that according to the original script, it was AB who was supposed to die (presumably comes to rescue RK and..?), but RK threw a tantrum and demanded a change, because according to him, death made the star more starlike and it was therefore his prerorative. I wonder how true that is - I feel the ending would have lost a lot of its meaning, if AB's character had died instead.

  11. Suparna: you should read the descriptions on the DVDs of these films - some of them seem to have been lifted directly from a badly written synopsis on a website.

    Imagine the lure of double feature - Raja Harishchandra and Harishchandrachi factory, being clubbed in one single package.

    Amey: yes, that would be wonderful. Or even fragments of Raja Harishchandra included as an Extra on the Harishchandra Factory DVD. Most production/DVD companies wouldn't have the imagination for such a thing though.

  12. Radhika: I heard that anecdote about Namak Haraam too, and it troubles me in the same way. I mean, we all know how important the star system is to mainstream Hindi cinema, but Vicky dying at the end would have made no thematic (or emotional) sense at all - unless the rest of the script was very different at that point.

    About the role-playing theme: have been re-watching a lot of Mukherjee films the last 2-3 days, and once you see a few of them back to back it's impossible to miss the connection. Saw Rang Birangi yesterday; at one point a character says something like "Nayapan zindagi ko rang-birangi banaata hai". You get a real sense of how people submerge themselves into their new identities, enjoying the facade so much that they often stretch it beyond its original function. (In an early scene in Chupke Chupke, when Dharmendra is pretending to be the caretaker, he starts telling Sharmila Tagore a bizarre story about his two wives, which there is absolutely no need for him to invent. And Farooque Shaikh has some similarly nice moments towards the end of Rang Birangi.)

  13. Wonderful. Did you also notice the way issues with the father/fatherly figure are resolved in Hrishida's, Basuda's movies. The overbearing Utpal Dutt seeped in old values vs. Amol/Farookh who are modern yet respect the authority and have to figuratively kill him.

    Yaar meri Zindagi was released in 2008!

  14. Interesting post, Jai. Will the book on film essays be available to purchase in the US, or online?

    I think what makes Mukherjee's cinema classic is its ability to tap into a common vein of human experience. Unlike a lot of successful cinema today that is created on the basis of market research and is made in an exclusivist upmarket idiom, Mukherjee's films were more universal and a lot more people could relate to them. I guess that's why they endure and people still get misty-eyed talking about them. Personally, I think Golmaal is one of the best Hindi movies I've ever seen. I'm always amazed by how literate the humor is and how well the actors incorporate it into their performance. Similarly Bawarchi with its "It's so simple to be happy but so difficult to be simple." When was the last time you saw a popular Hindi movie extoll the virtues of simplicity.

  15. shrikanth, I disagree with you on both counts - I do not see even a single one of his movie as a message movie nor do I think he relies on "some fine star performances."
    I think the thread of a comedy of manners runs through all his movies, which is held together by a strong ensemble cast. Namakharam, which is probably, the most overtly political of all his movies, for a significant portion in the middle, plays as a comedy of manners.
    The performance that I remember most from this movie is that of Raza Murad.
    Interestingly, impersonation is a significant motif in comedies of manners.

  16. Personally, I think Golmaal is one of the best Hindi movies I've ever seen...

    karrvakarela: same here - I can't stress enough how highly I regard it. I also find it a very moving film, which is not at all to undermine its funniness or essential lightness of tone.

    Did you also notice the way issues with the father/fatherly figure are resolved in Hrishida's, Basuda's movies...have to figuratively kill him.

    thequark: that's true of Namak Haraam too, though it doesn't have a comic ending - Amitabh's figurative killing of his dad (played by Om Shivpuri) isn't played for laughs at all.

  17. Will the book on film essays be available to purchase in the US, or online?

    karrvakarela: it probably will be available online, will have to check with Westland/Tranquebar though. It should be published around November. Right now I'm kind of hoping it doesn't clash with the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book!

    Will put updates about it here, but essentially it's a collection of original personal essays by authors who don't write professionally about cinema. Good list of names, including Kamila Shamsie, Amitava Kumar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Manil Suri, Anjum Hasan and Pavan Varma.

  18. That sounds like a good read. I hope I can order it online off the website. Are Westland/Tranquebar also publishing the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro book?

  19. >>About the role-playing theme: have been re-watching a lot of Mukherjee films the last 2-3 days, and once you see a few of them back to back it's impossible to miss the connection.

    Yes, of course - when I read your post, so many connections suddenly made sense. Also movies like Asli-Naqli, and Kisise Na Kehna had role playing. And Guddi, in a sense, was an examination of the illusions caused by role-playing.

  20. karrvakarela: no,that's Harper Collins.

  21. shrikanth, I disagree with you on both counts - I do not see even a single one of his movie as a message movie nor do I think he relies on "some fine star performances."

    Rahul: I found Anand and Bawarchi fairly simplistic and preachy. And the most interesting thing about Namak Haram is Amitabh's performance. It's quite possible though that I might change these opinions upon a rewatch.

    Gol Maal very skilfully incorporates ideas about identity, about living in the moment and not making casual judgements about people

    Jai: I agree! The film basically makes fun of the traditions of classic Bollywood narrative where one encounters caricatures and not characters. Golmal successfully illustrates how clumsy life can get if it resembled a Bollywood movie and each one of us has to conform to a type! This theme must've been particularly relevant in '79 when the typical "good vs bad" narrative idiom still reigned supreme in mainstream Bollywood.

    Also, I thought the film was making fun of the colonial mindset of drawing far-fetched character inferences based on certain behavioral traits. For instance: A teetotaller is less likely to be a malingerer than a non-teetotaller. Such associative, albeit illogical rules were quite handy for the British administrators to judge the local natives whose cultures they understood poorly. It appears a lot of people, like the Utpal Dutt character, who served in the British Raj acquired this habit from their white superiors. Golmaal is a plea to the generation that grew up during the Raj to shed this colonial habit of using associative rules to judge men.

  22. Contrast father issues in Hrishida movies with that of the Amitabh's movie which have his angry young man trait, the resolution with father is quite violent in the latter.

    The father figure used to be absent e.g. Satyen Kappu's character in Deewar, the father in Roti Kapda aur Makaan, Coolie etc.

    While revisiting Zanjeer I felt Ajit was more or less a father figure to be killed so his real father could be enshrined in that place. (Try imagining the role to be of a person of same age as that of Vijay and it would have been a disaster I feel).

    In movies like Parvarish the father figure was the antagonist.

    So Hrishida movies in contrast with Angry Young Man movies had a "different" father issue resolution, I think. There might be overlaps but then I think there are general patterns but not crisp categories.

  23. from Srikanth's comment

    >>I found Anand and Bawarchi fairly simplistic and preachy

    I remember being quite annoyed by both the movies when I saw them as a kid - RK at his hammy, cutesy best - but when I saw both as a grown up, I felt there were aspects to both that had receded to the shadows in the face of RK's allpowerful luminosity. Amitabh was excellent in Anand and I got the sense that Anand was himself trapped in a - well, role - because everyone expects him to be cheerful, upbeat sort and he can't let go and allow himself to sulk and grieve, except when alone.

    >mindset of drawing far-fetched character inferences based on certain behavioral traits
    True also of Khubsoorat - where Rekha annoyed me, heh, with her reprise of the bawarchi-as-change-agent. Here too, the vivacious girl is seen by the old generation (Dina P) as not being worthy - but there is a copout in how Rekha's character only redeems herself through some good old bharatiya naari caregiving.

    Just realized that H.M did the screenplay for Anokhi Raat - now that was a zinger of a screenplay - I remember it as being taut and shocking in many ways - the gangrape, the exploitation of Aruna Irani, and the possible sale of Zahida, and the morality of the dakoo versus the amorality of the rich zamindari

  24. OK get this (try not to be overwhelmed): In a Sholay DVD by Moserbaer, to accommodate two other Sippy movies, a no. of key scenes have been cut (and come to think of it: each scene in that movie is a key scene!)

  25. Nimit: depressing. Incidentally, for most of my growing-up years, I had a Sholay videocassette that had at least 20 minutes of footage cut from various scenes (including the Asrani and Jagdeep segments and, worst of all, most of the opening credits, with the atmosphere-setting shots of Ramlal and the jailer riding through the village to the Thakur's house).

  26. Lovely post. Enjoyed reading. Made me want to see the movie just to actually see that 'love making' as you put it ;) apart from seeing Amitabh in a totally different role!

  27. Good news! In last weekend's Financial Times an article about Bollywood states that Reliance MediaWorks has begun work with India's National Film Archive to digitally restore 1,000 classic Indian films! Very heartening to read that :-)

  28. PS: Here's an interesting write up about a film that's already been restored!

  29. I guesse going with subtitles for world wide audience is a great way forward for Hindu Cinema.

  30. i really wonder how anyone can miss a wonderful movie 'Asli Naqli' starring devanand and sadana. this movie is one of my best movies to date.

  31. Hi ! I saw namak haram in my pre teens and was too much intrigued by this film portraying class divide. It's been more than 20 years and I am still wanting to watch this movie a second time. I vaguely remember and especially want to see that scene where Rajesh Khanna explains why he can't come back because he got off a speeding car and actually saw people's misery...something like that !Tried searching for this scene on you tube but couldn't find :(! Also your blog made me realize and feel sad about how we may lose some of our real old cinematic sad indeed.

  32. Did you think it was somewhat inspired by the King Henry-Thomas Becket story?

  33. S Rao: yes, Becket (the play and the film) was definitely an inspiration - think Mukherjee mentioned that in some interview or the other.