There are few children in Hindi cinema as heartbreaking as Rahul in Masoom. We don't see his face but he is a looming presence. Rahul enters before the opening credits – we hear his breathing, rushed, frazzled, as he runs to be by his dying mother's side. We then see him as a silhouette standing by her funeral pyre. We have no idea what he looks like but we can sense his abject loneliness. And then finally, more than forty-five minutes into the film, when he is sitting in the car, with his father – who he doesn't know is his father – we see his face, the big green eyes, the protruding lips and that innocent question, which instantly makes you fall in love: "Aap meri mummy ko jaante the?"
Rahul, played by Jugal Hansraj, is the masterstroke in Masoom. The film is an uncredited adaptation of Erich Segal's novel Man, Woman and Child, about a married man discovering that he has a son with another woman. Debutant director Shekhar Kapur transplanted the story to Delhi. We are introduced to DK, a successful architect, who adores his wife Indu and his two playful daughters. It's a picture perfect home but early in the film, the pet dog jumps on a shelf and nudges the happy family photo. It falls to the ground and shatters, foreshadowing what is to come.
Shekhar posted on Twitter that when he made Masoom, he had no knowledge of filmmaking. He had never learnt or assisted anyone. He said: It was pure instinct. His instincts served him well. Masoom was released in 1983 – the year's biggest hit was the loud, gaudy Himmatwala. But Masoom, with its realistic textures, nuanced performances and insightful narrative, seems to have sprung from some other filmmaking universe. The writing by Gulzar and music by R. D Burman is brilliant. Even the tasteful costumes – look at Shabana Azmi's gorgeous saris styled by film critic Bhawana Somaaya – defied the trends of the day.
What I loved most is the delicate portrayal of the relationships. Indu is shattered when she discovers DK's infidelity. But DK isn't a villain. He's a loving husband and father who made a mistake.
The children behave like real children – the three are fearful of the shifts in the adult world. They can be annoying because they demand time and attention but because they are unaware and non-judgmental, they are also wonderfully accommodating. So Minni, the youngest daughter automatically starts to call Rahul, Rahul bhaiya to which Indu responds with, "Yeh bhaiya kab se ho gaya?"
There is an awkward subplot about Indu's friend Chanda who is positioned as an independent woman so she smokes, is estranged from her husband and runs her own business. Chanda says she needs no one but then promptly goes back to her husband because her son asks her to. There is some half-baked reference to maternal love, which perhaps is meant to explain why Indu finally accepts Rahul. There are also a few problematic dialogues about why a son is so important – when DK and Rahul are together, they do the things that we never see DK do with his daughters – like camping and horse-riding.
But please ignore this. Instead keep a hankie nearby and weep, like I did. Masoom is designed to wring your heart like a towel. You can see the film on YouTube.