Monday, October 30, 2017

Suspense thriller or marital drama? Looking back at Ittefaq

[With the Ittefaq remake coming out this week, here's a piece I did for Film Companion about Yash Chopra's 1969 film]

“Har paagal kabhi na kabhi akalmandi ki baat karta hai” (“Every madman has moments of sanity”)
                  – chuckling psychiatrist in the 1969 thriller Ittefaq

Yash Chopra’s Ittefaq centres on a “paagal”, a word repeatedly used to denote any sort of strange behaviour, and bandied about (even by senior doctors and cops) with the merry disregard for political correctness that we see in so many old films about mental illness.

It is fitting, then, that parts of Ittefaq play like scenes from a madman’s dream. Consider the cornucopia of bright colours and geometric designs that fill the screen for two minutes before the opening credits even appear. The influence of Saul Bass’s famous title designs for Hitchcock and other filmmakers is obvious, but it
also feels a bit random, like some Rubik’s Cubes were tossed into a sabzi tray, chopped or grated, and the resulting fragments shot through a kaleidoscope. Anyway, no one would mistake the cheery background tune for one of Bernard Herrmann’s ominous compositions.

In its time, Ittefaq got much publicity for being a song-less Hindi film – but this doesn’t mean it was shorn of the other elements of our mainstream cinema. Unlike its relentlessly dark and gritty Western counterpart, the “Hindi-film noir” of the 1950s and 1960s was part of a tradition where many emotions and registers had to be mixed together. So there are tonal variations here, much juxtaposing of melodrama and studied restraint.

For instance, the opening sequence has a long, handheld-camera tracking shot from the POV of an artist named Dilip (Rajesh Khanna) as he enters his house. All very cinema-verite-like at this point, but then a zoom-in – accompanied by dramatic music – reveals the strangled corpse of Dilip’s wife, whereupon the camera whirls like a dervish and there is a spectacularly over-the-top, caterwauling performance by Khanna.

But in a suspense narrative like this, even theatrics do serve a purpose – we have to be on our guard, prepared that anything may be part of a subterfuge. The first thought that occurred to me was that the hysterical Dilip and his almost-equally-hysterical sister-in-law – who accuses him of murder – were putting on an act together. But there are other possibilities: Dilip is guilty and trying too hard to feign innocence; he killed his wife because he was mentally unstable (“paagal hai!”); he is innocent of murder but guilty of loving his art more than partying with his wife (“paagal hai!”); he killed her but then forgot about it because he had to finish a painting (“paagal! paagal! paagal!”).

Shortly afterwards, he escapes from a paagal-khana and breaks into a house where Rekha (Nanda) is alone, her husband away on a business trip. And now something intriguing happens. Even as the storm of a police pursuit rages outside, Ittefaq briefly becomes a two-person chamber drama of sorts.

After the initial wariness, Rekha and Dilip are soon chatting away like a married couple. There is a slow building of trust. “Bhaag toh nahin jaogi?” he asks her. “Abhi tak bharosa nahin?” she replies. They settle into a form of domesticity, bickering and making up; at one point, sounding like a hurt wife, she moans, “Maine tumhein kya takleef di?” Making a bed together at night, she playfully tosses a mattress at him. We are offered a vision of husbands and wives as jailers and qaidis to each other, shifting roles in turn.

And they confide in each other. Speaking of her (actual) husband, she says plaintively that there was a time when he was her dashing prince on horseback, but that the prince vanished within a few days. By the film’s end, this moment can be viewed as a red herring – diverting the viewer’s attention from what is really going on – but I prefer to take it at face value and to trust the genuineness of Rekha’s emotions.

There are, of course other things going on, including a bunch of elderly men sauntering about at 1 AM and laughing patronizingly when someone expresses fear of the “paagal” on the run. Despite the loophole-filled plot (and one delightful moment – for those of us who grew up making distasteful jokes about the large backsides of 1960s heroines – where Nanda’s sari-covered posterior becomes an important plot point, since it prevents a character from seeing something through a keyhole), the film manages to be gripping when it needs to be.

Ittefaq hasn’t aged too well if you’re a viewer who prefers the technical finesse and understatement of today’s multiplex Hindi film, so it is ripe for an updating – though the remake is likely to be very far in tone from the film Yash Chopra made. There will almost certainly be an extra twist or two, they will probably tone down the sentimental moral coda of the original, and “paagal” will be replaced by terms like “dopamine imbalance”. The doctors won’t openly laugh at their patients.

Plus, there will be no Rajesh Khanna, which means no subtextual analysis centred around one of our most popular screen personas. In the 1980 Red Rose, made long after he had lost most of his appeal as a romantic hero, Khanna was wittily cast as a serial killer-cum-playboy from whom no woman was safe. Ittefaq is in some ways the inverse of that film, with the young, boy-faced star as a pure-as-driven-snow victim of fate and coincidence, whose only crime may be overacting.

[Earlier posts on Rajesh Khanna: Red Rose; Shaitani Anand]


  1. I remember Khanna running from a jail scene. I think he wasn't running actually. He was standing at the same spot and from what I remember water was being poured over him to make it look like rain. It was so funny

  2. Reproducing FB comment

    Ittefaq is probably one of the best films of the late 60s.

    A fine thriller on the surface yes. But beneath the veneer, it is a meditation on the nature of justice. What is Justice? Is the goal in life to be "good" and "virtuous"? Or is the goal to appear virtuous? These are not new questions in philosophy. It is dealt with in detail in Book II of Plato's Republic where Glaucon, a young companion of Socrates, confronts the latter and makes the "sophistic" argument -

    "Justice is all about appearing good. A man who appears good but does evil meets better results than a man who does good but appears unfavorable. Justice is not an end in itself. Appearing just however is".

    Socrates, ofcourse refutes this argument in the course of the book. Socratic philosophy is all about rebutting the above argument and making a case for virtue for its own sake.

    Ittefaq confronts the same problem in ethics. Dilip Roy, played by Rajesh Khanna, is this eccentric, who appears self centered, short tempered and impious. As fate would have it, he is embroiled in two murders. And the more one sees him, the more he appears guilty. His exterior is not something that exudes virtue. One is apt to judge him without sufficient evidence.

    Nanda on the other hand is this Sati Savitri. A long suffering wife. An epitome of Indian womanhood. A woman who is beautiful yet devoted to making her not-so-perfect marriage work. A woman kind enough to give whisky to her captor, but abstains from alcohol herself as befits a respectable Indian lady. For the society at large, she is always a lady. Who cannot do wrong. Even Jai here wants to give her the benefit of doubt that her marriage was indeed terrible :)

    So here's a woman who appears virtuous, but is in reality an adultress and an accomplice to a murder. In short, a crook.

    Glaucon would tell us that Nanda's way is the way of the world. Be a genteman or a lady on the surface but a bitchy witch underneath. Thats the key to success and glory. In fact the more "virtuous" you look, the easier it is to lead a life of vice and crime, as people suspect you less.

    RK's way is doomed. What is the point of virtue when you don't display it? What's the point of being "dil ka accha" when your exterior is all fire and brimstone?

    But Yash Chopra doesn't share this cynicism. Moral relativism is shunned. He chooses to lay his faith in a universal law where virtue truly triumphs. He prefers the Socratic path. "God" (or Ittefaq in atheist lingo) ensures that justice is truly meted out. It is not sufficient to "look" virtuous. One has to BE virtuous. The eyes of God are forever watching. And evil doesn't pay. You can fool the world around you. But you cannot fool god (or the eternal law).

    It reminds me of an old Kannada folk tale concerning the great Krishna devotee Kanakadasa. Kanaka had this teacher who gave each one of his students an apple. And told them to go to some place where nobody can see them, and eat it in stealth. Each one of his students did as told. Kanaka came back the next day with the apple as is. His teacher asked him - "Hey...couldn't you find a place to eat the apple alone without being caught"? Kanaka replied - "No. No matter where I went, the eyes of God were on me". That's socratic philosophy for you!

  3. I seem to recall Nanda being tres sexy in the film - she had been stereotyped as the goody-goody sister or the forsaken but loyal wife for so long that it was a naughty pleasure to see her sashaying up the stairs in her clingy blue chiffon that displayed all her curves. There was an apt jadedness to her looks, I could see her as a woman who had become weary of her marriage and disillusioned with the failure of her own promised potential as a wife. I am not sure Sonakshi would convey that as well, she is too dewy-eyed and fresh faced in her beauty. Rani or one of the older heroines would have been better - but then, they too refuse to show any age-withering-beauty telltale signs.

  4. "There will almost certainly be an extra twist or two, they will probably tone down the sentimental moral coda of the original"

    There is nothing sentimental about it. Justice is meted out. As simple as that. It could have been deemed sentimental had attempts been made to somehow rationalize Nanda's despicable actions and turned her into some kind of a victim. But the early Chopra films usually desisted from such sentimentalism.

    What I find admirable them is their strong moral sense. Gumraah is a good example, where Mala Sinha is unequivocally censured for her behavior.

    "I could see her as a woman who had become weary of her marriage and disillusioned with the failure of her own promised potential as a wife"

    It's interesting how people are swayed by sexual stereotypes to give the benefit of the doubt for a woman and empathizing with her bad luck in marriage, just because she utters a line referring to it somewhere in the film. Would you be just as kind to a character played by Pran or Madan Puri, if they uttered a few lines of self-pity?

    This lady is a crook. Period.