4 March 2014

Picture This: A Long Shot on Delhi

Householders and house-owners in 1963 Delhi. My BLink column from last Saturday:
A still from Tere Ghar ke Saamne
Growing up, I often wondered what it was like to see Hindi films as a Bombay person. To have roads and landmarks you knew be part of an on-screen iconography seemed immeasurably glamorous. So I’ve enjoyed watching my own city, Delhi, begin to find its place in the cinematic sun. Sure, the road to filmi fashionableness has been paved with the tediously same-old Old Delhis and distressingly prettified college campuses. But there have also been gems like Do Dooni CharVicky Donor and Band Baaja Baraat, and at the top of the heap, Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.
Delhi in film is a subject for a much longer piece. Recently, though, I watched two Delhi films from long before they became a vogue — and was struck by how their Delhis of half a century ago still resonate today. Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder and Vijay Anand’s Tere Ghar ke Saamne, both released in 1963, and are preoccupied with homes. But how differently!
The Householder opens with a glorious long shot: an Old Delhi terrace, smoke rising from somewhere, the sound of the azaan emanating from the striped dome of the Ghata Masjid. Cut to a close-up of the two figures: Prem (Shashi Kapoor), asleep on a charpai, is gently woken by his pert-nosed young wife Indu (Leela Naidu). This is a world in which the prospect of attending a wedding in Mehrauli makes Indu sit up. “We will sit in a bus and go,” she says with childlike joy, before her brow furrows in contemplation of which of her two good saris she will wear. Prem is a lecturer at a small college, and much of the film — based on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel — revolves around his anxieties about making a living.
A still from The Householder
The dialogue dwells continually on money, the naming of sums echoing the way Prem must count every rupee. His monthly salary is ₹180, his rent ₹60 and repairing the ceiling fan will cost a princely ₹10. Eventually Prem gathers the courage to appeal for a raise, but he is shooed away by his principal’s shrewish wife. When he begs his landlord (Pinchoo Kapoor) to reduce his rent, the alcoholic Sehgal reads his petition, only to break into a bizarre drunken soliloquy. “The cost of living has gone up terribly. Sixty rupees for a bottle of whiskey!” And as poor baffled Prem looks on, Sehgal continues as if in a trance: “Sugar one rupee a seer, rice one for a seer, oranges three rupees a dozen, apples four rupees a pound...”
Tere Ghar ke Saamne talks money, too. And if Sehgal’s spending the whole of Prem’s rent on a bottle of Vat 69 seemed ironic, TGKS evokes a world even farther from the lowly lecturer’s. The film opens at a government auction for “Dehli ki behtereen locality ka behtareen plot”. Lala Jagannath (Om Prakash) outbids Seth Karamchand (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) on a highly valued front-wala plot. But the pugnacious Karamchand, not to be outdone, returns to bid the same amount on the lesser-valued back plot. As he announces to his appalled wife, “Shaan bhi koi cheez hoti hai (there is such a thing as grandeur).”
The level of irrationality is as high as the stakes. When Dev Anand (playing the foreign-returned architect Rakesh) asks about the adjoining plot, Nutan (playing Karamchand’s daughter Sulekha) wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Don’t talk about that.” “But why?” “Because it’s cheaper than ours. Theirs is two lakh, and ours two lakh one thousand!”
Yet Tere Ghar ke Saamne was one of 1963’s biggest hits, its effervescent comedy of manners and still memorable songs making it the year’s sixth highest grossing Hindi film. And The Householder, despite its affecting subject, flawless photography by Subrata Mitra (Satyajit Ray’s longtime collaborator) and a final cut apparently by Ray himself, never transcends its stilted characters and caricatured subplots. And it doesn’t help that everyone speaks in English, with no attention to inflections of class.
The Householder, even at its best, has a stodgy, one-note quality. TGKS seems to invite multiple readings. When Prem and Indu get off their bus amidst the ruins of Mehrauli, Prem remarks with pleasure on how quiet it is. But it is only an instant before his brain begins to count paisas again: “I’m sure rents are low (here). It would be economical for us.” Meanwhile, when Rakesh and Sulekha in Tere Ghar ke Saamne whiz past the same Mehrauli ruins in a car, they arrive in a village home. Rakesh offers to pay for the home-cooked meal, the old woman refuses. It’s a cue for him to applaud the non-money-mindedness of the poor as against the unprincipled avarice of the rich — before leaving money “for the oil that burns in the diya she lights for God”. The possibility of cloyingness is averted a minute later, when Sulekha rejects his proposal and a miffed Rakesh declares he will be waiting for the ₹5 he’s just spent on her roti — the money-mindedness of the rich has just been brilliantly, ever-so-lightly underlined.
The song-less film whose characters reminisce about watching Hindi films is the one that got reviewed in the New York Times. The mainstream hit was seen as mere fluff. But somehow the film about elite houseowners tells us more things about ourselves than the one about the sad householder.

No comments: