Saturday, September 08, 2018

Two princes or two paupers? Parvarish, and an identity non-crisis

[In the week of the Section 377 verdict, when we have reason to think about -- and celebrate -- the fluidity of identity (sexual and other kinds), here's a reminder of an egalitarian 1950s Hindi film that simply sidesteps the identity question and even lampoons those who get all hot and bothered about it. My latest “moments” column for The Hindu]

Of the countless “child grows up to become the hero” transition scenes in Hindi cinema, this one must be among the most charming. We are a full thirty minutes into the 1958 film Parvarish. Two boys, Raja and Ramesh, have been raised together in a Thakur’s house. In their first appearance as adults, played by Raj Kapoor and Mehmood respectively, we see them performing for their music teacher Banke Bihari, whom they call “maama” (uncle).

First Ramesh plays skillfully on the sarangi. “Tu hee mera asli bhaanja hai,” the pleased teacher cackles. You are my real nephew. But then the camera pans right to show Raja performing with equal gusto on a tabla. Poor Banke is – not for the first time – confounded. “Bees saal se tum dono mujhe dhokha de rahe ho,” he says jovially; whereupon they get up and, in perfect sync, launch into the exuberant song “Maama, Oh Maama”. Jumping about goofily, they sing lines like “Asli hai kaun bhaiyya, naqli hai kaun?” – a question that hangs over the film.

There is a complicated back-story to all this. The film begins with two babies – one born to the Thakur’s wife, the other to a dancing-girl who dies in childbirth – being mixed up at the hospital, with no possible way of telling them apart. The lineage-obsessed Thakur (played by the always worried-looking Nazir Hussain) has no option but to take both babies home and trust that eventually he will figure out (through behaviour, bearing or complexion) which of them is his biological child. Meanwhile, he is also saddled with the crass-seeming Banke, who was the brother of the deceased tawaif and is just as concerned about his nephew’s well-being – he ends up as a permanent house-guest, teaching the boys music.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that we never find out who the Thakur’s child is. “Ek din khoon bolega, aur zaroor bolega!” the nobleman declaims early on, but blood doesn’t announce itself. (And of course, DNA testing was no option: its molecular structure was only just being discovered in faraway Cambridge around the same time!) The film uses the “confused at birth” premise to move its plot further, but it turns out to be blithely unconcerned with providing any answer to the identity question.

This is such an unusual narrative choice because the search for, and uncovering of, identity is one of the most irresistible of story arcs. Some version of the conundrum “Who am I, what is my place in
the world – and what must I do after I get the answers to these questions?” exists in all the great mythologies (for instance, it informs the life of the Mahabharata’s Karna, whose story has had such a big influence on Hindi cinema) and in modern pop-cultural myths derived from those mythologies (look at “Mr Glass” in M Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable).

In another Parvarish, made nearly twenty years later by Manmohan Desai, a cop’s son grows up to be crooked while a criminal’s son becomes an upright policeman; Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony tells us that it’s okay for children born in a Hindu family to grow up as Muslim or Christian (and to marry bona-fide Muslim or Christian women); Raj Kapoor’s own Awaara similarly touches on the nature-nurture debate. But even in films that are progressive or egalitarian, the satisfaction of knowing the truth (or watching the characters finding out) is central to the effect. The 1958 Parvarish cares for none of that.

This film is about the fluidity of identity in many ways, not just at the level of rich-vs-poor, and this is underlined in the “Maama Oh Maama” scene. In old Hindi cinema, when a man performs classical music or dance (enacting rather than simply being the privileged watcher), we usually see a softer, more cultured side. In this scene, both men behave like they were brought up among artistes rather than as heirs in a haveli. Imagine how much this must irk the feudal-minded Thakur, given that he wants his son to “be a man” and lord it over others.

The variability of identity can also be seen in the erasing of the line between two archetypes of popular cinema: the cool leading man or Hero, and the sidekick who provides comic relief. Mehmood would play the latter role many times in years to come, but here the two actors are on level ground. They both clown about. They can’t even practice sword-fighting with a straight face; instead they irreverently wave the weapons about and parody the regal lifestyle. The elders may huff and puff about blood ties, class and pedigree, but Raj and Ramesh – stand-ins for young Indians of the post-Independence era – are unselfconsciously democratic.

[Earlier "moments" columns are here]

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