20 February 2018

Seeing each other home

My Mirror column:

Ghar, released 40 years ago, is usually remembered for its delightful songs, but it remains a most unusual treatment of love in cinema.

There are three good reasons to remember Ghar this week. One, the film was released on 9 February 1978, which means it just turned 40. Two, the late Vinod Mehra, who starred in it opposite Rekha, would have turned 73 on 13 February. And three, we’re just emerging from Valentine’s Day which, even if it’s meant to sell flowers and soppy cards, makes it a good time to talk about a film that takes love seriously.

Ghar opens in a setting that was once a fixture of popular Bombay cinema: the opulent two-storied mansion with the grand staircase and the vast dining table, at which the businessman father sits, absorbed in a newspaper. But almost as soon as Vinod Mehra, playing the young protagonist Vikas Chandra, comes downstairs to join Madan Puri at breakfast, it becomes apparent that Manik Chatterjee’s 1978 film is going to fill this familiar world with rather less familiar things.

The first sign of this is the quietly cinematic way Chatterjee captures the distance between father and son. Mehra sits down at the place laid for him, quite far from Puri. A neatly-clad servant brings him toast. Puri passes him the butter dish – not by leaning across the table, but via the servant who carries it between father and son in a tray. Screenwriter Dinesh Thakur’s dialogue, too, experiments with realistic pauses and an economy unusual for a Hindi film of the time: in response to his father’s questions about arranging his marriage, Mehra responds with a half-hearted “Papa main... abhi kya...”, trailing off into silence.

The film goes on to sketch the contrast between Vikas’s home and that of his girlfriend (Rekha). The easy intimacy of Aarti’s home underscores the echoing silence between Vikas and his father. When the doorbell rings at Aarti’s, it is her mother who answers, and Vikas is nearly hit in the eye by a ball from Aarti’s little brother Raghu.

Aarti’s, too, is a single-parent home, but her bespectacled sooti-sari-wearing mother, whom she calls “Mamma”, laughs easily with her daughter’s boyfriend. That relaxed, intimate vibe isn’t ruptured even by Raghu’s cheeky sasural jokes.

The mood of banter extends into Vikas’s office, where the film serves up another rare character in the shape of Prema Narain: a female colleague who is aclose friend to the hero without being a vamp or a threat. Her flirtatious chatter – introduced to Aarti as Vikas’s “would-be wife”, she immediately names herself as the “could-be” – is never misconstrued by either him or Aarti.

Ghar offers a rare Hindi film example of the love marriage achieved without drama. The expected objections from Vikas’s father count for little when our hero has a job and makes up his mind.

The court registry marriage, with the carload of colleagues and the friendly boss as a father figure, is followed by a period of domestic bliss, achieved first in a borrowed house and then finally a rented flat of their own.

The second thing that makes Ghar’s portrayal of these newlyweds rare for Hindi cinema is the warm sexual intimacy that is gestured to: the relationship seems friendly and loving, and Aarti’s participation in it extends happily beyond the coy refusals and sidelong glances that were afforded to many heroines of the time.

It probably helps that the white kurta-pajama-clad Vinod Mehra with dishevelled morning hair can make even puffing cigarette smoke into Rekha’s face seem like a charming romantic gesture.

But what makes the film truly remarkable, of course, is the traumatic event that ruptures this cosy togetherness. After a late night show at the cinema – the film is Loafer – the couple are walking home when a gang of drunken louts descend on them. Unlike in the many versions of this scene that Hindi films have shown us, four armed men overpower the hero easily: Vikas is beaten up badly and Aarti gang-raped.

The scenes showing Aarti under observation in hospital are perhaps the film’s weakest – Rekha’s unseeing eyes as she turns her head and seems to look past Vikas, her repeated attempts at suicide are realistically conceived but badly executed. Thakur’s screenplay also elides the difficult terrain of the police case. But it deserves applause for its focus on the pressures an incident like this places on even the strongest relationship. The rape is front page news, and that media exposure – even forty years ago – makes the couple profoundly vulnerable. Concern-trolling neighbours, stupefied awkward colleagues, and callously gossiping strangers all take their toll, especially on Vikas.

With Aarti, his reaction to the rape has been one of grave sorrow and loving concern. But so entrenched is the social construction of sexual purity that Aarti now needs to be convinced of his love, over and over. The film marks the shift of body language beautifully – the traumatised Aarti suddenly seems like a child, afraid, in need of hand-holding. But the more patient and loving Vikas is to her, the more disconcerted she becomes. She tells him not to pity her. Then she accuses him of being excessively loving to make up for the fact that what happened happened to her and not him. These are difficult conversations. He snaps. He slaps her.

Neither Ghar nor its hero is flawless. But there’s something warm and honest and courageous about both that makes one want to look beyond their failings. And that, one might say, is what love is about.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Feb 2018.

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