Watching Gulzar’s 1972 film Koshish the other day, I was reminded that even when a movie's tone is predominantly sombre, a light interlude can be effective and revealing. Koshish is the story of two speech-and-hearing-impaired people (apparently it isn’t politically correct to say “deaf and dumb" these days, though no one told the DVD subtitle-writers this) who meet, get married and negotiate the many challenges of their shared condition. Needless to say, this makes for a film with many emotional scenes, underlined by Madan Mohan’s insistently (and often effectively) melodramatic background score.
And yet, there is an unusually whimsical, carefree moment early in the film. Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) and Arti (Jaya Bhaduri) are getting to know each other, going for walks together and so on. After watching a man talk into a public phone, they enter the booth and make prank calls – dialling numbers randomly, pretending to speak and listen. A succession of befuddled people answer the line at the other end, and finally there is a charming cameo: Dilip Kumar (presumably playing himself) walking down a stairway in a large house, looking around with mild annoyance at having to pick up the phone himself. He listens to Hari making incoherent sounds for a while, then mumbles “Yeh toh mujh se bhi maddham bolte hain” (“This guy speaks even more softly than I do”) and puts the phone down.
I couldn’t help imagining this was Hindi-movie meta-commentary of a sort, with the famously “understated” thespian of an earlier generation (Dilip Kumar) marvelling at the (even more) “understated” actor of the present day (Sanjeev Kumar). (What, I wonder, would these two make of Ajay Devgan acting entirely with his sunglasses throughout Company? But let’s save that for another discussion.)
Subtextual analysis aside, this sequence might seem frivolous, but I think it’s an important scene for the film because it shows us Hari and Arti in a light moment, sharing the sort of intimacy that they can’t share with anyone else – it’s almost like they are waggling their thumbs at the “normal” people who can speak and hear. It makes it easier to believe that these two can grow into a relationship together and that they will be able to have some fun too – that their married life won’t just be a litany of struggles. It shows a side to the relationship that we don’t get to see much of in the second half of the film, as things become increasingly grim.
Koshish has a reputation as one of the more sensitive dramas of its time and indeed there are many good things in it, starting with the heartfelt performances of the two lead actors – Sanjeev Kumar in particular. (As old-time readers of this blog will know, I’m not a big enthusiast of Kumar as a self-consciously Serious Actor, but this role really is a tour de force for him – the movie would be diminished without his dignified, anchoring presence.) There are some lovely scenes early on, notably Arti’s initial turning down of Hari’s marriage proposal and her subsequent change of mind. Nothing is explicitly spelt out here for the viewer, but the impression I got was that Arti feels the proposal is motivated by sympathy – that Hari (who is more self-sufficient and worldly-wise) is offering to take care of her – but changes her mind when she sees him in a moment of vulnerability; she realises that they can look out for each other, that this can be a relationship between equals.
But given all this nuance in the first half, I thought the film was compromised by the abruptness of its final 20 minutes and an unconvincing resolution where the protagonists’ son Amit is emotionally bullied into marrying a deaf and dumb girl (the daughter of Hari’s boss).
It’s obvious that the idea here is to dole out a moral lesson – Koshish was made at least partly to raise social consciousness, and this ending is its way of telling the audience that handicapped people should be allowed the same opportunities as everyone else. And as a beacon for social attitudes, of course this message is appropriate. But at the individual level, surely it should be possible for a young man to turn down a proposal without having to endure his father putting him through a ferocious guilt trip and ordering him out of the house? (“Your mother and I had this disability too,” Hari tells Amit through sign language, “but we brought you up, taught you how to read and write, and this is how you repay us?”) Despite Kumar’s superb performance in this scene, the premise is shaky, and sends out very mixed signals about responsibility and obligation.
Something else I found jarring: when Hari’s boss initially makes the proposal, Hari (who doesn’t yet know about the girl’s condition) firmly refuses, indicating in sign language that the gap in social status between their families is too large. This is an unedifying moment (to say the least) given that the film is shortly about to condemn discrimination in another sphere. Basically, though Hari is stricken by his son’s reluctance to accept a speech-impaired girl for a wife, he himself has been attaching undue importance to the class divide – something that is a much less momentous factor in a situation where two people will be spending their lives together.
It’s discomfiting to see how the power equation quickly gets reversed when the truth about the girl is revealed: Hari kisses her on her head and “accepts” her as his daughter-in-law; it’s as if disability has evened the scales between the two families, bringing the upper-class girl “down” to the level of the lower-class man. All told, I wish the issue of social status had been sidestepped altogether and the proposal had come from one of Hari’s colleagues.
There is much to admire in Gulzar’s work as a filmmaker. He chooses atypical stories and subjects, has a feel for the arc of complex relationships between men and women, and when he’s emotionally invested in a scene it always comes across. ** But some of his work has a hurried, not fully thought out quality to it. I thought Koshish erred on the side of heavy-handed moralising when it could have spent more time showing the growth of the special relationship between its two central characters. In short, I wish there had been a little less preaching and more scenes like the phone-booth one.
** Given Gulzar’s strengths as a songwriter and his interest in music, I wonder if it’s facile to note that the song sequences in his films – Ijaazat and Aandhi come to mind immediately – are often shot more lovingly, with greater care and attention to detail, than the non-musical passages are. Watch the poetic use of dissolves and the synchronisation between visuals and lyrics in “Katra Katra”, for example, and compare it with the strictly functional camerawork and cutting in the other parts of the film.