Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Flashback series – why you should watch Waqt (1965)

[the third entry in my Film Companion series. From the cosy, black-and-white Mem Didi in my last column to the lavishly mounted and colour-drenched Waqt – it’s like going from a low-budget B-movie to a Cecil B DeMille epic. But perhaps the better Hollywood analogy would be with a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama – glossy, opulent but capable of shifting between the grand moment and the intimate one

Title: Waqt
Director: Yash Chopra
Year: 1965
Cast: Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Shashi Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Achala Sachdev, Rehman

Why you should watch it:

Because it’s a near-perfect summary of the “masala” film before the term was commonly used

Here are my dominant childhood memories of watching Waqt on TV:

*A middle-aged couple with three children – conservatively dressed mummy-ji, daddy-ji types – exchange lovelorn glances as the man sings to his wife at a mehfil of friends and family,
*An earthquake strikes just as a businessman, flush on material success, boasts about his fortunes,
*In a daring-for-the-time scene, set in a swimming-pool changing room, two young lovers get out of their wet costumes, press against the wall separating them and whisper sweet nothings to each other,
*Swanky convertibles race each other in a sequence which offers the grand conceit that an Indian landscape – with potholes, random construction work and vegetable sellers in the middle of the road – could be a setting for this sort of thrill,
*During a trial, a man opens a cupboard to demonstrate an action to the court, only to have a life-sized dummy fall on him from inside.

These and many other setpieces make up this sprawling work, a progenitor of the lost-and-found multi-starrer of the 1970s (Yaadon ki Baarat, Amar Akbar Anthony), as well as a lovely-looking film packed with glamorous people conducting romances, AND a courtroom drama built around a murder. Can we say “masala”? That term has been over-used in descriptions of mainstream Hindi cinema, but rarely has it applied so well to a film as to this one.

For the stars, the gloss and the clothes

This was Yash Chopra’s first colour film, and it anticipates the lush vistas and romances of films like Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila and Chandni. In her memoir, the celebrated costume designer Bhanu Athaiya notes how invigorating it was to work with so many different character types, situations and settings. The outfits worn by Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore became so popular, she says, that girls in Delhi bought movie tickets for their tailors so they could see the designs and replicate them. (“We introduced the churidar pyjama and sleeveless fitted kurtas with a side band that brought complete attention to the body form.”)

Given this, the actors were at an advantage from the start. Raaj Kumar is always an acquired taste (and his performance as the oldest of the three separated brothers involves some eccentric choices), but even he manages to look suave here. There is an
unusually energetic, fast-speaking performance by Sunil Dutt as the garrulous Ravi, and the more obviously glamorous stars – Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Shashi Kapoor – look terrific. (Kapoor has a one-dimensional role, but the line “mere paas ma hai” would fit his character here as well as it did in Chopra’s Deewaar 10 years later – though in Waqt, he is the one named Vijay!)

For the way in which a complicated narrative is woven together, and the use of the “adalat” as an allegorical place where justice is served on multiple fronts

The film’s arc moves from a genteel if aspirational world represented by Lala Kedarnath (Sahni) and his wife to a more modern space: sleek cars, jewel thieves breaking into high society. Things get a bit slack for a while as relationships are formed and a love triangle collapses, but the pace picks up in the final third; the many narrative strands are masterfully brought together in the “Aage bhi jaane na tu” song sequence – and finally, in the trial.

With all the hyper-realism of today’s cinema, contemporary viewers have become sheepish about – or outright dismissive of – the grand courtroom scene of yore, which is a pity. What a cast of actors and characters comes together in Waqt’s court scene, and how many small and big dramas play out!

Incidentally one of the least-mentioned members of the large cast is the veteran Motilal, as the prosecutor in the climax. Though long past his heyday here, Motilal was once regarded, along with Ashok Kumar and Balraj Sahni, among the first exponents of “naturalistic” (as opposed to theatrical) Hindi-film acting. Which means that watching him and Sahni briefly share screen space here is a historical document of sorts.

For a reminder that even in the good old days, rich Indians were happy to manipulate their poor drivers into helping cover up their crimes
Decades before Aravind Adiga wrote The White Tiger, or certain real-life cases came to public notice before being hushed up, here is Chinoy Seth (Rehman), all elegant largesse when it comes to mundane matters, but showing his fangs when big things are at stake. “Duty din ki ho ya raat ki, inkaar nahin karoge,” he tells his soon-to-be-driver at their first meeting. Things get worse for the poor employee, who will soon understand that the “raat” in that sentence could also mean a nighttime of the soul.

For being blasé about the little awkwardnesses that come out of dramatic family reunions

Raju ends up being big brother-in-law to the woman he was trying to woo for much of the film; Ravi must deal with the fact that his adoptive sister and his real brother are in love and getting married.

For the snarling but hapless Madan Puri

Here is one of Hindi cinema’s most ineffectual bad men. The stocky Puri, always dressed as if he left his house uncertain whether to commit a bank robbery or attend a cocktail party, shrieks in anger and pulls out a sharp knife whenever something annoys him – but he never seems able to do anything useful with the weapon, and is swiftly overpowered (even by the un-muscular Rehman). Time may heal all wounds, as the film’s title and screenplay keep reminding us, but as this unfortunate villain discovers, it also wounds all heels.

[Earlier Flashback pieces are here]

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