In the Seventies, amidst the dominance of the Angry Young Man in cinema, Amol Palekar brought a refreshing change to the screens — the quintessential mild-mannered boy-next-door. Palekar consciously picked unconventional roles, becoming a torchbearer for what would be characterised as parallel cinema. To this day, he’s proud to have never made a “mainstream” film. He wanted to do non-commercial work, and has stayed steadfast in this pursuit. Palekar's choices like Tony Braganza in Baton Baton Mein (1979) and Arun Pradeep in Chhoti Si Baat (1976) worked to subvert audience expectations, presenting a hero who, unlike contemporary mainstream stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna, was anything but larger than life. His characters, instead, were endearingly ordinary men who adorned everyday, ‘practical’ outfits, and used public transit for mobility.
To celebrate his birthday, we are looking at five of our favourite Palekar films, along with a bonus gem.
Palekar's foray into Hindi cinema with his debut film Rajnigandha marked the beginning of a remarkable career that would be defined by his nuanced portrayal of the middle-class everyman. Directed by Basu Chatterjee, the film revolves around the character of Deepa Kapoor (Vidya Sinha), who finds herself caught in a love triangle between her ex-boyfriend Navin (Dinesh Thakur) and the new man in her life, Sanjay (Amol Palekar). The film is a delicate exploration of the complexities of relationships, self-discovery, and the inherent dilemmas of middle-class urban life. Palekar's Sanjay, was a simple and unassuming young man, and his characterisation resonated deeply with the audience. Palekar's ability to convey a range of emotions with understated simplicity was a breath of fresh air, earning him accolades for his naturalistic acting style. The film also set the stage for a distinctive cinematic style that would become synonymous with his name.
This romantic comedy, also directed by Basu Chatterjee, highlighted Palekar's ability to blend humour with meaningful narratives. The core of Arun's (Palekar) dilemma, as suggested by the film's title, revolves around a seemingly minor matter — he must summon the bravery to admit his love for Prabha (Vidya Sinha). His introvertedness, and lack of self-esteem are his biggest hurdles. Enter Nagesh (Asrani), a charming interloper who captures Prabha's attention. Arun realises he must reform his approach to win her over and enlists the expertise of Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar) for a confidence makeover. Palekar's portrayal stands out for its meticulous attention to detail, particularly in capturing subtle mannerisms. One such nuance is Arun's habit of nervously brushing his fingers against his nose, a manifestation of his inner unease. Arun's transformation isn’t as drastic as the montages we see in sports films, but as a subtle shift in these small yet significant details. He doesn't emerge as a supremely confident “hero”, but rather as someone who becomes more at ease — a trademark characteristic of Palekar's portrayal.
Directed by Basu Chatterjee, the most peculiar element of Palekar's performance in Chitchor is how he uses his physicality. As Vinod, he is lanky and unassuming. The image of him sitting with his legs crossed gracefully reflects not only Vinod's ease in his own skin, but also adds a layer of unpretentious charm to the character. In a twist of fate, Geeta's (Zarina Wahab) parents mistakenly assume that Vinod is the engineer expected from Mumbai. Geeta, enchanted by Vinod's simplicity, tenderness, and easy-going nature, finds herself falling in love with him. Vinod, a nurturing soul, not only serenades Geeta but also becomes her mentor, encouraging her to explore the joy of singing together. However, the revelation that Sunil (Vijayendra Ghatge) was the intended match for Geeta, not Vinod, prompts Geeta's parents to withdraw their approval. Instead, they advocate for Geeta to wed the "more successful" Sunil. Geeta's affection for Vinod, however, transcends parental expectations. Vinod is not defined by his social standing, but by his genuineness.
Directed by Bhimsain Khurana, the film captures Palekar's ability to embody a character that exudes vulnerability and tenderness, particularly evident in 'Do Deewane Shaher Mein’. In this song, Palekar's character, Sudip, embarks on a journey through the city with Chhaya, played by Zarina Wahab. As Palekar runs around the city carrying Chhaya's purse, he casually centres her needs without bringing any attention to it. The gentleness carries over to other scenes, like when he holds Chhaya as she rides a mule at the beach. Moments of physical closeness are not marked by dominance, but rather, by a quiet care, whether it is the act of softly removing stray hair from her face, or cosily resting his head on Chhaya's lap. It is also devoid of any overt sexual undertones, and it stands out for how emotionally intimate it is. Palekar presents a softer, more emotionally intelligent version of masculinity — a ‘softboi’ avant la lettre.
By the time this movie was released, Palekar had become a beloved figure, and Gol Maal marked another milestone in his career, showcasing his immaculate comic timing. The film, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, is a trailblazing situational comedy which set a benchmark within its genre, one which is yet to be emulated to the same effect. The film revolves around a young man, Ramprasad Sharma, played by Palekar, who finds himself entangled in a web of lies to please his orthodox employer. Palekar's ability to infuse mischief with a certain subtlety adds a delightful touch to the film. One of the standout elements of Palekar's performance is the way he says his lines. He would start a sentence, pause midway, and then continue. These punctuations added an element of unpredictability to his dialogues, and elevated the comedy of the film.
Palekar's directorial venture Paheli, marked a disruptive departure from the mainstream Bollywood narrative by exploring the complexities of infidelity with a supernatural love story at the centre of it. The film was a bold undertaking, especially considering the casting of two of the industry's most popular actors, Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji, during a highly successful phase in their careers. (Khan and Mukerji would go on to do Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna the following year, exploring the complexities of extramarital relationships, again.)
What sets Paheli apart is its treatment of Mukerji's character, Lachchi, who is not portrayed as a victim tricked into straying from her marriage. Instead, she is a woman with agency, making conscious choices about her emotions and desires as she falls in love with a ghost after her husband leaves her for his work. Kishan (Shah Rukh Khan) deems it crucial to commence work on an "auspicious” date, even if it means doing so immediately after his wedding. In his quest to be the dutiful son to his greedy father, he neglects his newlywed wife. While some may argue that this situation provides Lachchi with ample reason to consider other options, the focus of Paheli lies not in Lachchi's circumstances but in her choices. Palekar's Lachchi is a complex woman who is allowed the space to grapple with love, lust, loneliness.