The Hindu Business Line
Signs of the times
I watched Manmohan Desai’s 1981 hit and it spoke strangely to the world we live in
This week, for no reason, I had a sudden craving to watch Naseeb. It is a film I’d definitely seen in childhood. But all I remembered were the songs: Hema Malini crooning ‘Mere Naseeb Mein Tu Hai Ki Nahi’ to an already besotted Amitabh Bachchan; Reena Roy twirling with impeccable tragic swag to ‘Zindagi Imtehaan Leti Hai’; Rishi Kapoor’s hilarious ‘Chal Mere Bhai’ night-walk trying to get Bachchan off his drunken high horse — as well as an actual equestrian statue; and the requisite pre-climactic dress-up song: the wonderful ‘Dhoom Machaake Jayenge’, in which Bachchan and Hema finessed the flamenco into the perfect villain’s den dance, while Rishi did a rather sweet Chaplin impersonation.
Sometimes one doesn’t know why a particular old film beckons. I certainly didn’t have a reason to watch Naseeb. But as I sat embarrassingly glued to YouTube in the middle of the day, a few things about why my subconscious so wanted the comfort of Naseeb began to click into place.
First things first. Naseeb is a Manmohan Desai film, made four years after Amar Akbar Anthony, and clearly intended to replicate the specificity of that magic. Like almost all Desai films in that era, it is a multi-starrer with a labyrinthine plot whose many tentacles allow for the incorporation of as many heroes, heroines and comedy sequences as ridiculously villainous villains.
One of the assured pleasures of watching mainstream Hindi cinema in the ’80s was, of course, predicting who would play what — or better yet, predicting the arc of the character’s on-screen life based on our recognition of the actor. So when, in the film’s opening moments, we see Kader Khan (an established villain, apart from being the film’s dialogue writer) and Amjad Khan (whose very entry into Hindi cinema was as the immortally evil Gabbar Singh of Sholay) as supposedly ordinary men, pretending to be close friends of Namdev (Pran) and Jaggi (Jagdish Raj), our guard went up right away. No good, even the smallest child in the cinema knew, could come of having Amjad as a friend. And as expected, none does.
Within the film’s first 15 minutes, a lottery ticket has been won, one good man murdered for it and a second falsely implicated in his death — while the certified villains we identified at a glance have taken the money and transformed themselves from lowlife criminals into hi-fi seths, whose shiny suits and Black Dog-stocked bars carry no traces of their original sin.
Perhaps it was these villains I really wanted to see again. As we crawl through the daily indignities of the Modi era — in which at a FICCI event in central Delhi, a Niti Aayog bureaucrat was heard telling an audience of suits to encourage digital payments among their “servants” — perhaps I simply wanted to be allowed again the comfort of a world in which everyone already knew that big men in suits are guilty until proven innocent, slimy until proven straight. And the fact of having risen up from the street — Amjad’s Damu starts as a smalltime photographer, Kader’s Raghu as a tangewalla — did not make them honest men. In Naseeb, they give the falsely implicated Namdev’s little boy a waiter’s job in the hotel built from their ill-gotten gains, and keep trying to stop him from educating his younger brother. They do, in other words, exactly what the big men of our time are doing: patronising the poor, closing off their options, while all the while telling them it’s for their own good.
The other thing which the Desai film serves up with heart-imploding ease is the lost world of bhai-bhai secularism. Unlike Amar Akbar Anthony, where brothers separated at birth are raised in three different religious traditions, Naseeb gives us all-Hindu heroes and a single Christian heroine. But Desai is a master craftsman — he takes the smallest tokens and builds from them a highly emotive multi-religious climax. Three signet rings worn by Namdev — one each from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — allow each religion’s God to punish at least one of the villains, as well as functioning as pulleys that eventually save our heroes’ lives.
That combination of the religious-emotional register and a kind of faux-scientific jugaad marks the film in general. There is a fascination with distances and the use of technology to bridge both time and distance. A 20-year photograph is produced as proof of the real murderer. A telephone is used by a villain to stage a fake dying confession that implicates Namdev. A telescope is used by one of the heroines (the forgotten Kim Yashpal) to lipread what the villains are saying across the street. The camera is constantly swooping down from a height — sometimes from the perspective of a killer (Shakti Kapoor trying to shoot Amjad from a hilltop, through layers of glass) and sometimes a rescuer (Shatrughan Sinha’s view of a boat on the Thames, on which Hema Malini is being harassed).
Something about all of this reminded of Mr Modi’s hologrammed appearances, and a recent much-touted speech he gave at a UP rally, via the phone. We are supposed to have grown up, as a country and as a cinema audience. But sandwiched between (real) counterfeit currency, (false) rumours of notes with chips implanted in them, and noncalibrated non-working ATMs, it’s clear we haven’t left the Manmohan Desai universe. Only the secular bhaichara, sadly, now needs our nostalgia.