15 August 2017

The Life Poetic

My Mirror column:

The 1957 classic Paying Guest still feels young as it turns 60. But there are things in its frothy shairana universe that now seem almost worthy.

There's a delicious little scene in Paying Guest when the penurious tenant Ramesh (Dev Anand) has returned home to pursue his newly-minted courtship with Shanti (Nutan), who also happens to be the daughter of his landlord. For several seconds, they look deep into each other's eyes, each uttering the other's name in typically soulful lover-ly fashion. "Shanti." "Ramesh." "Shanti?" "Ramesh?" But Ramesh wants more than sweet nothings. "Bolo?" he urges. At which Shanti flutters her eyelashes and says — in the same dulcet tones as before — "Kiraye ke paise laaye? [Did you bring the rent money?]" "Kaisi gair-shairaana baatein karti ho! [What unpoetic things you speak of!]" responds Ramesh, pretending to go off in a huff.
The scene doesn't do very much by way of plot, but it is typical of the sort of bantering courtship, of romance between witty equals, that makes the film such fun. Very little that is gair-shairana -or gair-shararati - is allowed in the Paying Guest universe. The delightful 1957 film was directed by Subodh Mukerji, but its spirit was the product of Nasir Hussain's penmanship. Hussain, for whom this was the second collaboration with good friend Mukerji (the first being Munimji, 1955) - produced with the script and dialogue here a perfect balance between banter and poetry, between sharpness and sweetness. It was this lightness of register would go on to characterise his films as director, starting with Tumsa Nahin Dekha, his directorial debut, which also released in 1957.

Akshay Manwani, in his detailed and thoughtful book on Nasir Hussain's cinema, suggests that it was Husain's writing that allowed Dev Anand to metamorphose into the witty, flirtatious, charming trickster figure that became almost his signature in the latter part of his career. Some of Anand's earlier 1950s films - the noirish ones like Baazi, Jaal, Taxi Driver and House No. 44 -had lent him "a certain brazenness", but as "a man of the streets, a survivor who is at home in the urban underbelly." It was Hussain - with his scripts for Munimji and Paying Guest and later Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), which he directed as well - who set him free to play the fun-loving young man, dashing and quick-witted and happy to turn his energies to romancing the heroine with an enviable lightness. Manwani goes further, citing the writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar to argue that Husain was responsible for Hindi cinema's departure from the melancholy or dramatic protagonist to the carefree, urbane, contemporary hero (embodied first by Dev Anand and then by Shammi Kapoor from Tumsa Nahi Dekha onwards).

The marvellous silliness of Dev Anand in disguise as an old man - something Husain and Mukerji had had him do with great success in the more intricately plotted Munimji a couple of years before - is one of the harmless pleasures of Paying Guest. Ramesh is a lawyer, with not very much work on his hands but with the gift of the gab, and Anand proves surprisingly good at delivering Husain's witty repartee and make-believe tales, both as the youthful Ramesh and in the doddering Mirza Wajahat avatar which enables him to successfully rent a room from Shanti's watchful father. In the context of Lipstick Under My Burkha's marshalling of our squeamish response to an older woman romancing a young man, one must note that Paying Guest is probably one of the earliest Hindi films to establish the trope of the hero, ostensibly desexualised by age, flirting with the young heroine; here for instance Anand-as-Mirza-Sahab constantly calls Nutan "Aziza" [dear], telling her father that the house feels like his sasural, and pretending to rescue her from the attentions of his own younger avatar.

Watching Paying Guest in 2017, exactly sixty years after it was made, one notes many other things with a sense of wonder and not a little sorrow. There is, first and foremost, the fact that a young professional with a Hindu name thinks nothing of first renting a room in the house of an old Muslim gentleman (where a Hindu father and daughter have been tenants for decades). And when, for the purposes of romantic plot, he needs to dress up as an old man, his first recourse is to conjure up another old Muslim gent. To take a room in the house of Babu Digambarnath, his most innocuous disguise is as Mirza Wajahat.

The second setpiece I enjoyed thoroughly was a public 'debate' between Shanti and her college classmate Chanchal (Shubha Khote), on the subject of whether love or money is more essential to the success of a marriage. Conducted in a combination of prose, recitation and sung couplets, the linguistic pleasures of the debate are really those of baitbaazi - a traditional form of poetic competition that was part of Urdu literary life.

This is, it should be noted, a film set in Lucknow, where Mukerji and Husain had both studied. Perhaps the particular history of that city was responsible for some of the ease of these characterisations - a world of lawyers and students who whether they were Hindu or Muslim, shareef tenants or shareef landlords, men or women, could partake of Urdu repartee. But the film was a hit, and not only in the shairana world of Lucknow. In the India of 1957, it seems, there was nothing here to remark on.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Aug 2017.

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