"Har paagal kabhi na kabhi akalmandi ki baat karta hai" ("Every madman has moments of sanity")
– chuckling psychiatrist in the 1969 thriller Ittefaq
Yash Chopra's Ittefaq centres on a "paagal", a word repeatedly used to denote any sort of strange behaviour, and bandied about (even by senior doctors and cops) with the merry disregard for political correctness that we see in so many old films about mental illness.
It is fitting, then, that parts of Ittefaq play like scenes from a madman's dream. Consider the cornucopia of bright colours and geometric designs that fill the screen for two minutes before the opening credits even appear. The influence of Saul Bass's famous title designs for Hitchcock and other filmmakers is obvious, but it also feels a bit random, like some Rubik's Cubes were tossed into a sabzi tray, chopped or grated, and the resulting fragments shot through a kaleidoscope. Anyway, no one would mistake the cheery background tune for one of Bernard Herrmann's ominous compositions.
In a suspense narrative like this, even theatrics do serve a purpose – we have to be on our guard, prepared that anything may be part of a subterfuge. The first thought that occurred to me was that the hysterical Dilip and his almost-equally-hysterical sister-in-law – who accuses him of murder – were putting on an act together
In its time, Ittefaq got much publicity for being a song-less Hindi film – but this doesn't mean it was shorn of the other elements of our mainstream cinema. Unlike its relentlessly dark and gritty Western counterpart, the "Hindi-film noir" of the 1950s and 1960s was part of a tradition where many emotions and registers had to be mixed together. So there are tonal variations here, much juxtaposing of melodrama and studied restraint.
For instance, the opening sequence has a long, handheld-camera tracking shot from the POV of an artist named Dilip (Rajesh Khanna) as he enters his house. All very cinema-verite-like at this point, but then a zoom-in – accompanied by dramatic music – reveals the strangled corpse of Dilip's wife, whereupon the camera whirls like a dervish and there is a spectacularly over-the-top, caterwauling performance by Khanna.
But in a suspense narrative like this, even theatrics do serve a purpose – we have to be on our guard, prepared that anything may be part of a subterfuge. The first thought that occurred to me was that the hysterical Dilip and his almost-equally-hysterical sister-in-law – who accuses him of murder – were putting on an act together. But there are other possibilities: Dilip is guilty and trying too hard to feign innocence; he killed his wife because he was mentally unstable ("paagal hai!"); he is innocent of murder but guilty of loving his art more than partying with his wife ("paagal hai!"); he killed her but then forgot about it because he had to finish a painting ("paagal! paagal! paagal!").
Shortly afterwards, he escapes from a paagal-khana and breaks into a house where Rekha (Nanda) is alone, her husband away on a business trip. And now something intriguing happens. Even as the storm of a police pursuit rages outside, Ittefaq briefly becomes a two-person chamber drama of sorts.
After the initial wariness, Rekha and Dilip are soon chatting away like a married couple. There is a slow building of trust. "Bhaag toh nahin jaogi?" he asks her. "Abhi tak bharosa nahin?" she replies. They settle into a form of domesticity, bickering and making up; at one point, sounding like a hurt wife, she moans, "Maine tumhein kya takleef di?" Making a bed together at night, she playfully tosses a mattress at him. We are offered a vision of husbands and wives as jailers and qaidis to each other, shifting roles in turn.
And they confide in each other. Speaking of her (actual) husband, she says plaintively that there was a time when he was her dashing prince on horseback, but that the prince vanished within a few days. By the film's end, this moment can be viewed as a red herring – diverting the viewer's attention from what is really going on – but I prefer to take it at face value and to trust the genuineness of Rekha's emotions.
Ittefaq probably hasn't aged too well if you're a viewer who prefers the technical finesse and understatement of today's multiplex Hindi film, so it is ripe for an updating – though the remake is likely to be very far in tone from the film Yash Chopra made
There are, of course other things going on, including a bunch of elderly men sauntering about at 1 AM and laughing patronizingly when someone expresses fear of the "paagal" on the run. Despite the loophole-filled plot (and one delightful moment – for those of us who grew up making distasteful jokes about the large backsides of 1960s heroines – where Nanda's sari-covered posterior becomes an important plot point, since it prevents a character from seeing something through a keyhole), the film manages to be gripping when it needs to be.
Ittefaq probably hasn't aged too well if you're a viewer who prefers the technical finesse and understatement of today's multiplex Hindi film, so it is ripe for an updating – though the remake is likely to be very far in tone from the film Yash Chopra made. There will almost certainly be an extra twist or two, they will probably tone down the sentimental moral coda of the original, and "paagal" will be replaced by terms like "dopamine imbalance". The doctors won't openly laugh at their patients.
Plus, there will be no Rajesh Khanna, which means no subtextual analysis centred around one of our most popular screen personas. In the 1980 Red Rose, made long after he had lost most of his appeal as a romantic hero, Khanna was wittily cast as a serial killer-cum-playboy from whom no woman was safe. Ittefaq is in some ways the inverse of that film, with the young, boy-faced star as a pure-as-driven-snow victim of fate and coincidence, whose only crime may be overacting.
Watch Ittefaq (1969) here: