Saturday, May 25, 2019

Flashback: Reasons to watch the anti-war film Aman (apart from the Bertrand Russell cameo)

[from my Film Companion Flashback series]

Title: Aman
Director: Mohan Kumar
Year: 1967
Cast: Rajendra Kumar, Saira Banu, Balraj Sahni, Chetan Anand (not to mention Lord Russell, Naseeruddin Shah and Jagjit Singh!)

Debating whether to write about Aman for this series, I reminded myself that this isn’t meant as a canonical “best of the 50s and 60s” list – it includes films that, while problematic or flawed on some levels (especially when looked at through contemporary lenses), contain moments of beauty, are ambitious and far-reaching, or just very unusual. All of which applies to this story about the noble Dr Gautam (Rajendra Kumar) who, after a London education, decides to work in Japan to help find a cure for atomic-bomb survivors – and to spread the message of world peace, much as another Gautam (the Buddha) had done centuries earlier. In so doing, he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Meloda (Saira Banu, thankfully not too heavily made up to appear exotic or foreign) but also imperils himself by going on a mission to rescue fishermen who have been exposed to nuclear radiation.

Why you should watch it:

Because it’s one of the oddest films of its time, combining surface gloss with a serious, compassionate look at the horrors of nuclear war

Aman straddles many modes and sensibilities. It’s a good-looking film, elegantly shot (by Raj Kapoor’s favourite cinematographer Radhu Karmakar), and often as glamorous and touristy as the more “entertainment-driven” films of the time such as An Evening in Paris. Yet it is also dignified and mournful in its treatment of a major human tragedy.

It’s easy to identify the ways in which this film can be negatively critiqued. It is very much a star vehicle: in the end, following an age-old tradition, it finds a way to deify its male lead, even turn him into a Christ-like martyr. It teeters close to unintended comedy at times; there is some pathos-disguised-as-slapstick in scenes featuring Om Prakash as a savant in the hospital for Hiroshima survivors. There is also a 25-minute midsection when the film gets sidetracked from its main theme and focuses on the Gautam-Meloda romance, greedily cramming a few songs into a small span of time.

But despite all this, Aman’s take on nuclear warfare and its repercussions is a sincere, credible one – especially coming in a decade where India had fought costly wars and was on the path towards becoming a nuclear power itself. Internationally, with the Cold War underway, many films were being made on this subject. In the high-mindedness of its tone, Aman is much closer to the doomsday drama Fail-Safe than to the doomsday black comedy Dr Strangelove. The Hiroshima memorial scenes are moving, and the film is pacifist in a way that it’s hard to imagine a mainstream Hindi film being in today’s jingoistic climate.

For its thoughts on shared humanity

In a lovely early scene – well-performed by Balraj Sahni and Rajendra Kumar – Gautam has a philosophical conversation with his father, who understandably isn’t thrilled that his only child, having just returned to India, now wants to go and serve another country. (When the son tries to touch his feet upon their reunion, the father embraces him instead, points at his heart and says “Judaai ka dard wahaan nahin, yahaan hota hai.”)

For Gautam, though, the personal has become political: as a child he couldn’t save his mother, who was killed in a wartime aerial attack, but as a doctor he intends to save people he doesn’t even know, and the whole world – not just India – will be his hospital. The world has become so small now that it is like a single city, he tells his father, and anyway, national borders are human constructs. “Kal jo kuch bhi Japan mein hua, woh aaj yahaan bhi toh ho sakta hai.”

Later in the film, something very unusual happens: a Hindi movie song (“Mera Watan Jaapaan”) “patriotically” celebrates another country’s beauty and glory, and links the very personal word “watan” with a foreign nation.

It bears mentioning – for viewers who have no patience with compromises in linguistic or cultural representations – that this is a film where the Japanese characters speak in Hindi or English. You need that suspension of disbelief to be able to enjoy the good things in Aman. But also, in an odd way, I feel this aspect of the film is justified by the subject matter and the unity theme. If a story is idealistically presenting the whole world as one family that needs to look out for each other, then surely it is poetically justified to have Indians and Japanese speaking to each other in a common tongue, with no barriers to understanding.

The film goes for restraint and understatement in conversations between the main characters – mimicking the formality of Japanese etiquette – but when it comes to the scenes with the atomic-age victims, there is no reason to hide emotions. The subtext is: in a world where such bombs can be dropped on cities populated with people, what is so farcical about a hospital scene where characters behave in “over the top” ways?

For condensing many eye-popping sights and sounds in its first 18 minutes alone… including an audience with “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell

Consider the first few scenes, which give us, in order:

-- A prologue set in 1942 Rangoon, which lays the ground for everything that follows. “Why are humans bent on destroying each other?” is the simple question with which the film begins.

-- The amazing opening titles, which (after a dedication to “Nehru, Apostle of Peace”) offer such gems as “Hiroshima Museum Poetry by Prem Dhawan”, “Cabaret Artistes of Duo Arnedis Fame: Oslo, Norway”, and an unusual (for a Hindi film) list of 16 supporting actors with such names as “Dr CC Chang”, “I Chang” and “Hen Fa” all crowded together on one screen.

-- Elaborate shots of Big Ben, and Rajendra Kumar walking through London’s streets. As if to emphasise its own international-ness, the film then has a strange, hypnotizing, and completely random scene set in a nightclub where a woman in a bright blue bikini and a man in a bright blue bikini bottom – presumably the Norwegian artistes mentioned in the credits – perform acrobatics.

-- And then there is this unforgettable credit: “Lord Bertrand Russell, Courtsey (sic) Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation”.

Aman is best known among trivia-buffs and quizzers today for the 94-year-old Russell’s two-minute appearance as himself, giving his “blessings” to Dr Gautam as the latter explains his goal of world peace. The scene has a documentary-like feel to it, complete with a voiceover (there’s an outside chance that the aged Russell – who wears bright red shoes – thought he was being interviewed by a real doctor rather than an actor playing one in a fiction film!), and it sets the tone for this film’s combination of good intentions and somewhat whimsical execution.

For a (possible) glimpse of the teenage Naseeruddin Shah

If Aman was the feature-film debut for the nonagenarian Lord Russell, it was also the less-than-portentous debut for seventeen-year-old Naseeruddin Shah, who was one of the extras walking alongside a large funeral procession at the end. This sequence suffers from the typical unruly nature of Indian crowd scenes, with people waving merrily at the camera when they are supposed to be sad. Naseer, the serious actor even back then, would definitely have played mourner to the hilt. If only one could spot him!

In his memoir And Then One Day, Shah confirms that he CAN be seen in a couple of shots, even sharing the frame with Rajendra Kumar at one point. I think I saw him in a blurry background during one of Dr Gautam’s close-ups, but you’ll need to use the “Pause” button to figure it out.

Trivia: Aman is quite a film for cameos and bit parts! In addition to Bertrand Russell and Naseeruddin Shah, the young, turbaned Jagjit Singh – who would go on to become one of our most celebrated ghazal singers – appears in a tiny part as Gautam’s friend.

[My other Film Companion Flashback pieces are here]

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