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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The glorious 70s: shining the spotlight on Gulzar

GulzarHis CV reads: poet, lyricist, writer and director. That covers a wider range than most other film personalities can boast of! Born Sampooran Singh Kalra, in what is now Pakistan, he started out as a lyricist in the early 1960s. Success came early, with Mora gora ang leyi le for Bimal Roy’s Bandini, and he is still best known for his Hindi song lyrics. Not being of a poetical bent of mind, I must admit that its his directorial ventures that interest me more.
He started out as a director with Mere Apne in 1971, and went on to make ten films in the 70s decade. For me, the Gulzar love began with his wonderful tele-serials in the late 80s and early 90s – a big favorite was Kirdaar, which adapted short stories from various writers and featured Om Puri as the lead in every story. After that, looking back at some of the 70s and 80s films that I liked a lot, I was astonished to realise that a lot of them were either directed by Gulzar, or written by him! My favorite Gulzar film of all times has to be Angoor (1982) – his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. But that is a post for another decade! 

Gulzar What is it that makes Gulzar’s films so special? Google 'Gulzar films' and the word that pops up most often is “sensitive”. Isnt that what people say when they mean, “no masala or fun”? I would argue that masala isnt totally absent from Gulzar’s narratives. Take the instance of Mere Apne, for example. There is dishoom dishoom, loud dialogues and blunt symbolism. Or look at Parichay where a rebellious teen is brought back to the familial fold by falling in love with her siblings’ tutor – love conquers all! So, masala is very much present and correct – though minus the masala madness that characterises the average potboiler. As to fun, it isnt missing either - its just a lot quieter, with the humor more witty than slapstick, and the sarcasm a lot more intelligent.
So what makes Gulzar’s films unique? Is it their subtle acting, down-to-earth settings, beautiful stories? No! You can find that with a lot of other directors – particularly of the parallel cinema persuasion. One thing that I love in his films is his attention to small details – little things that turn larger-than-life filmi characters into living, breathing, real people. So you dont have to suspend disbelief to follow their stories. But the most important thing that sets him apart is the unique aesthetics in his films – something intangible, that leaves an impression of beauty in its wake. Watch a Mausam, or a Khushboo or an Aandhi – and what you’ll remember is the feeling of having seen something of delicate and ethereal beauty. You may not always agree with the film’s message, you may not even like the story, but it still leaves the impression of having watched shaayari (Urdu poetry) in motion.
I love all his 70s films, but the two I love most are Mausam and Khushboo - two movies that are full of everything that goes into making a good Gulzar film. They are simple stories where he sketches vivid characters on a small canvas. They feature big stars in unusually de-glam roles that give them the room to show off their acting skills. And they have the kind of songs that take a while to sink in – but once they do, they never let go! Remember Ghar jaayegi or Chhadi re chhadi?
Mausam 1975 Mausam is the story of Dr. Gill (Sanjeev Kumar) and his relationship with two young women. In his youth, Gill had a summer romance with Chanda (Sharmila Tagore). He returns years later, to find that Chanda died in great misery, still waiting for him to return. Her daughter, Kajli (also Sharmila), is forced by circumstances, to work as a prostitute. To make reparations for abandoning Chanda years ago, he tries to transform her daughter into a respectable young woman.
While the first part, with young Gill falling for a bubbly Chanda is charming, it is the complicated relationship between Kajli and the older Gill, that I always remember about the film. Though Kajli is not his daughter, he feels a paternal affection for her, and tries to give her the life she would have had, as his daughter. Kajli, for her part, has no illusions about men and what they want from her. She mistakes his empathy and guilt for genuine attachment to herself, and begins to fall for him. A romance with incestuous connotations, if ever there was one - yet, its handled so beautifully, and yes, sensitively, that it never repulses. Needless to say,  the acting is superb. And the music… Can one ever forget Dil dhoondta hai? If ever there was a theme song for nostalgia, this is it! Compare this to a similar triangular relationship in Yash Chopra’s Lamhe, and you can see the difference a Gulzar can make!
Khushboo-1975 Khushboo is the story of village belle Kusum (Hema Malini), who was engaged to Brindaban (Jeetendra) in childhood. A subsequent dispute between the families led to estrangement and eventual separation when Brindaban moved away with his family. Years later, a widowed Brindaban returns as the village doctor, with his young son in tow. There he meets Kusum, who has never forgotten her childhood engagement. Her resentment of his desertion doesnt last long. She is soon taking care of him and bonding with his son. How can Brindaban resist the appeal of her unwavering love and loyalty, not to mention Hema’s beauty?
This isnt a story I would ever take to, in the normal way. When Karan Johar  attempted something like this (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), I HATED the film. But in Gulzar’s hands, I can easily overlook the outrage to my feminist sentiments and my strongly held views on how romances should be conducted! Its a lovely film, with some beautiful music and great acting.
For all his sensitivity and creative film making, there is one thing about Gulzar’s films that always niggles at me. The female characters in his films, though not doormatty at all, arent very feminist, either. His heroines are all cut from the traditional mould, and never do anything that would upset the patriarchal balance! In Mere Apne, you have Anandi (Meena Kumari) who is convinced that a woman’s place is in the home. Kusum of Khushboo is a proud young woman who refuses to marry her ex out of pride – not because he disregarded their engagement to marry someone else, but because his family did not observe the traditions of an arranged marriage by formally asking for her hand! But then, when the real world is full of such characters, who am I to argue that they should be kept away from the screen? Besides, he did change with the times, and his later heroines were a lot better in this respect.
No matter what minor quibbles I may have with some of his plots and/or characters, there is no denying that the delicate beauty of his films gets to me every time!


  1. but it still leaves the impression of having watched shaayari (Urdu poetry) in motion.
    This is kind of what I always say about Gulzar movies, and why I like them, despite the fact I've actually not managed to watch all that many of them. This post reminded me I should watch Mausam, and Mere Apne. Aandhi, too, eventually.

    Khushboo was my first Gulzar film, in fact. I agree with you that the films definitely don't have any sort of progressive attitudes towards women. The women don't question the system even if they suffer because of it. But I'm glad Gulzar broadens his perspective regarding this later in life.

  2. Beautiful post i haven't seen too much from him but i've seen Mausam and i liked it, i remember Sharmila's slutty character taking on Sanjeev Kumar's sexist attitudes when he goes girls shouldn't curse at which point she replies with something along the lines of if its not good for the goose neither is it for the gander type of dialogue

    My fave Gulzar film so far as to be Aandhi i loved Suchitra sen and Sanjeev in that movie plus the songs are all winners favourites are 'Is mod se jaate hai' 'Tere Bina zindagi se koi' is one of my all time favourite tearjerker

  3. "For all his sensitivity and creative film making, there is one thing about Gulzar’s films that always niggles at me. The female characters in his films, though not doormatty at all, arent very feminist, either."

    A very astute observation and one that I agree completely with. Even though his movies do tend to be women-centric in the sense that they feature heroines in prominent roles, the stories are all *told* from the male perspective. The women in Gulzar's films are gnerally just *reacting* to actions/decisions made by men. Hema's character in "Kinara" may be the closest Gulzar gets to allowing a female character to have true agency.

  4. Gulzar! *sigh*
    I've been sighing the whole day long. First at dustedoff's reading her list of Talat Mahmood's songs and then surprise, surprise at Memsaab's reading her list of fav 70's films and then you put up a list of Gulzar 70s films. *sigh*
    I love all his movies, except maybe Hu Tu Tu.
    His female characters in the film irritate me as well, just like Guru Dutt's do. Add to it the mostly passive male characters, except in Achanak. It makes me shout at them.
    But their movies ARE celluloid poetry. *sigh*
    If I'd to choose my most fav Gulzar film, it will fall on Angoor, just as the case is with you. Though Meera would come quite close. Meera is very under-rated.

  5. I haven't seen many Gulzar films, although I like the ones I have (Koshish, Parichay, Angoor). It isn't surprising that his female characters are a bit doormat-ish. Isn't that why his marriage to Raakhee didn't work out---he wouldn't let her continue acting, and she was miserable? That's the impression I get from my vintage magazines, anyway (well, plus Raakhee was a little nuts).

  6. What Memsaab said!
    I do sometimes wonder what kind of a product would have come out of his collaboration with Raj Kapoor (from his Teesri Kasan days). LOVE the comment about jeetendra's hair grease - :D I still cant understnad y Hema's character is attracted to him!

  7. *sigh* *sigh* *sigh*
    Harvey, you have a company here. I've been doing the same thing the whole day today.
    One thing that I love in his films is his attention to small details – little things that turn larger-than-life filmi characters into living, breathing, real people. So you dont have to suspend disbelief to follow their stories. But the most important thing that sets him apart is the unique aesthetics in his films – something intangible, that leaves an impression of beauty in its wake.
    Very true!!!
    Mausam, Khushboo, Mere Apne, Aandhi, Koshish, Parichay, Kitaab, Angoor, Namkeen (though it was not from this decade)...and the list goes on. One movie of his that I desparately want to watch is Libaas . Love Khamosh sa afsaana , but havent managed to get hold of it yet.
    He really has a way of converying his story across to his viewers, be it as a writer, a lyricist or as a director. His movies are neither very grand nor the characters very heroic and all sacrificing...but it's the simplicity with which he presents them, it's just so beautiful...He does manage to create a connection with the audience. And needless to say, music is simply superb in his films.
    Though he has wokred with lots of actors and musci directors, what an amazing trio Gulzar, Pancham Da and Sanjeev Kumar made!

  8. Lovely post here! I loved Gulzar's films because they are full of quiet masala as you've mentioned but what really draws me into his films is the music, which naturally would be good! Lol it seems that its a staple of middle of the road cinema like Gulzar for the heroes to wear huuuge Michael Caine glasses which look so funny on Jeetendra in Khushboo!

  9. I confess, my interest in '70s films waned after I fully discovered the Golden Age :), but I like a number of '70s films, and I do like Gulzar. Khushboo is a fine film, and I also think it has maybe the best acting performance by Hema Malini that I have seen.

  10. veracious, you should certainly watch Mausam - its his most beautiful film. Mere Apne is pretty masala-y and as far removed from normal Gulzar as can be - but its his most politically conscious film (I havent seen Maachis or Hu Tu Tu) - plus Vinod K sizzles! :-)

    bollywooddeewana, I love Aandhi too, but Suchitra touching Sanjeev's feet before leaving for town, in the end, leaves a bad after-taste!

    Shalini, I've always mentally compared Gulzar's heroines to the women in Sharat Chandra's novels - often strong and assertive, and yet, willing to knuckle down to conventions (and clearly inferior) men!

    harvey, I need to watch Meera ASAP. I watched it as a kid and all I remember now is that Hema was going nuts over some stone statue, while she had a living, breathing, sizzling Vinod K just pining away for her! I wonder if even Gulzar's filmmaking can induce the sort of suspension-of-disbelief that is required to swallow that!

    memsaab, that is what I remember from long-ago gossip, too. Good for Rakhee! Was she nuts? That I have never heard of. Do tell...

    Shweta, the mind boggles at the idea of Gulzar and Raj Kapoor - its like trying to meld Ghalib's poetry with Playboy! As to Jeetendra, I never get what anybody - let alone Hema - would find attractive about him! I started watching Kinara and spent so much time wishing it was Jeetendra's character who had died and Dharam who came on as boyfriend #2, that I eventually switched it off.

    sunheriyaadein, the songs of Libaas are so lovely - more Gulzar+Pancham goodness. I was stuck on Khamosh sa afsaana and Sili hawa so gayi for ever! I wish that film would come out on DVD soon...

    Rum, bang on about the Michael Caine glasses. I was wondering where I had seen them before. Though ofcourse, the Michael Caine glasses were required wearing for any "serious" hero role - from Vinod Khanna in Imtihaan to Vijay Anand in Kora Kaagaz.

  11. Richard, I have always thought of the 50s as the Golden Age of music (never took to 40s music, inspite of early childhood conditioning!), and the 70s as the Golden Age of good films. I dont think any other decade in the twentieth century can compete with the 70s for sheer quantity and diversity of quality films in Hindi Cinema.

  12. Bollyviewer, I don't know about quantity and diversity, but in terms of quality overall (as well as particular qualities), I like most '50s films that I've seen more than most '70s films that I've seen (though I do like some '70s films a lot - more from the early '70s, I think). But, admittedly, I haven't seen as many '70s films at this point because, as I said (and I phased this carefully :) , when I fully discovered the '50s films (i.e. saw enough of them), my interest in the '70s films waned.

    And I understand most references to the Golden Age to mean the 50s, give or take a few years.

    As for music, I have developed a particular fondness of the '40s music, but the '50s music captivated me first and I see it as being at least equally good. Maybe I am more able to be fond of the '40s Hindi film music than you are because nobody tried to make me listen to it in my childhood. :)

  13. lol! You are perfectly right, Richard. Making a 10 year old listen to Saigal is unfair to both Saigal and the child! Not that I was 'made' to listen to 40s music, its just that All India Radio used to play a wide spectrum of music, and both filmi and non-filmi vintage Hindi songs were part of my childhood because of that.

    As to 70s vs 50s, I think the 50s movies tended towards idealism and optimism while 70s movies made room for cynicism and pessimism as well - which already makes for more variety! :-)

  14. Bollyviewer, I agree with you wrt the depiction of women. The not so subtle message seemed to be that women should be punished for crossing their circumscribed borders. I wasn't able to enjoy Aandhi at all. And yet there is great sensitivity in how the female characters are depicted.
    PS: Aandhi was one of the few hindi movies I first saw when it was released. It was later banned.

  15. What can I say that hasn't been said before? - either by you, or by someone else on this list of comments. Yes, I like Gulzar's films a lot, or nearly all that I've seen!

  16. sophy, was Aandhi banned because it was supposed to be based on Indira Gandhi's life? I'd like to think that she objected to being depicted as such a weak, feminine (as opposed to feminist) character! :-)

    dustedoff, Gulzar does have a way with him, doesnt he?

  17. Mmmmm I love Gulzar!
    It's just like you said, you come away from his movies feeling so many things, but not able to put your finger on exactly what you felt. He's a great director who molds his films into a beautiful work of art.

  18. Bollyviewer, Suchitra Sen's character was modeled after Indira Gandhi. I remember my aunt saying Suchitra Sen even walked like Indira Gandhi. I don't know why it was banned but it was the emergency. Our phones were tapped etc etc ...

  19. You're so spot on! Much as I love Gulzar, his women frequently make me stir crazy with some of their choices. I remember watching Filhaal and thinking, "well the apple doesnt fall far from the tree". But at least he makes movies about women!

    I once read an interview with Rakhee in which she said she used to look forward to outdoor shoots because she felt free and happy, when she was at home she was an alcoholic or something. It didnt sound like roses at all.

    1. Can you *please* give me the link of that interview of Rakhee's?

  20. Erin, he gets to you, often even against your own inclinations!

    Sophy, its funny, for all the 70s films I have seen, there has never been any reference to Emergency. Only Parvarish made a throw-away reference to it... Its like Emergency didnt exist for the films! Have you seen it referred to in any contemporary films?

    Amrita, so Filhaal was the same? All the "sensitive" build up they'd given the film put me off even trying to see it.

    Poor Rakhee... I thought she refused to be bullied - left him and continued her career! Guess not.

  21. I am a bit late in commenting on this post coz I have been away (was in India for last 5 weeks). I managed to get Blackmail, Anupama, Bandini, Anand Ashram etc - so will read your reviews after watching these!

    Kitaab is one of Gulzar's best movies of the 70s. Master Raju was the ain character as a child.

    Khusboo is actually a sarat chandra chatterjee novel (don't know the oringal title of the book though). Considering the setting, I don't think Gulzar had much choice about the treatment of woman in this particular movie. It is a good movie indeed. The songs are superb. I like the energy and zest of Farida Jalal and Hema's beauty in the song "Bechara dil kya kare". I think it is one of Asha Bhonsle's best songs.

  22. Filmbuff, great to see you back in blogland! Hope you had a great time in India.

    I have Kitaab in my to-watch pile - need to get to it soon!

    "I don't think Gulzar had much choice about the treatment of woman in [Khushboo]" - True. He could hardly have changed things around without creating a new story altogether. But he could have picked a better subject (a Tagore story, for e.g. - they are usually a whole lot more progressive) for his film-making talents!

  23. Bollyviewer, wasn't the second Sharmila in Mausam, Sanjeev Kumar's daughter with Chanda (1st Sharmila Tagore)?

  24. No Sharmila #2 was not Sanjeev Kumar's daughter. I doubt if any filmmaker in India would dare make a film where a daughter (no matter how unknowingly) develops romantic feelings for her father! He'd be lynched!!!

  25. Khushboo was based on Bengali Novel 'Pandit Mashay' by SCC.

  26. 'Naram Garam', a 1981 film by Hrishikesh Mukherjee also had reference to Emergency, when Om Prakash says, 'Phir aa gayi?', when Utpal Dutt tells him 'Ek Emergency aa gayi hai'.