The last time Gulzar directed a film was Hu Tu Tu, way back in 1999. The celebrated artist continues to express through poetry, lyrics and screenwriting, but has said his directing days are over. He made his first film, Mere Apne, 50 years ago. Each of the 19 features he wrote and directed since remain socially-relevant, fiercely political and feature characters who aren’t traditionally considered engaging enough for cinema. It’s never a bad time to revisit any of his works. Here are three of his films that still resonate with us, and raise questions that are worth pondering over.
After a recent re-watch, what stood out about Gulzar’s Koshish is something I hadn’t noticed on earlier viewings – almost every character in the movie is kind and empathetic. The only one who is not, is eventually punished for his crimes. At the centre of Koshish are Aarti and Hari, played superbly by Jaya Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar. They’re in love and they also happen to be hearing and speech impaired. They work around their disability without a hint of cynicism or self pity. Life keeps throwing curveballs (they lose their first child in a terrible tragedy, Hari loses his job) and they keep persevering. Aarti and Hari are honest, hard-working, self-respecting, and just genuinely nice people. So is everyone around them, like Aarti’s empowering sign language teacher, her supportive mother played by Dina Pathak, a visually-impaired friend who becomes a co-parent to their son, and a cop who employs Hari.
Koshish is ultimately about Gulzar making a strong case for inclusivity, way before it became an urgent topic of discussion. He also tempts you believe in the naive maxim that good things come to good people. There’s a bit at the end of the film that hasn’t aged well, but ignore that and hold on to this feeling.
For the longest time doctors in Hindi films mainly popped up only to inform the hero that he has either lost his memory or has a brain tumour. The horrific events of last year made me wonder how many Hindi films had paid closer attention to the medical fraternity. Achanak is one of the few. Gulzar humanises healthcare workers by raising questions about the emotional toll of caregiving. He also gets us thinking about the medical fraternity’s ability to save a life and the law’s power to take one.
Achanak takes off from the infamous Nanavati murder case of 1961, and then pivots, offering a deeper and more disturbing take on the incident, something that Akshay Kumar’s Rustom (2016), which is also based on the same case, failed to do. Achanak begins with decorated army man Ranjeet Khanna (Vinod Khanna) being wheeled into a hospital with a bullet in his chest. Ranjeet is on death row for murdering his wife and her lover and was shot while escaping cops. The doctor at the hospital believes he is as good as dead. “Don’t expect me to perform miracles,” he says.
But this is a movie so a miracle does happen and Ranjeet comes out fighting fit. The young doctor and nurse (played by Asrani and Farida Jalal) who look after Ranjeet form an emotional attachment with him and never seem to wonder how a person so amiable had killed two people. They’re devastated when after months of caregiving, Ranjeet is eventually taken back to prison only to be hanged to death. A few days later, yet another prisoner who is shot by a cop is brought to the hospital. The doctors fight back tears and then dutifully roll up their sleeves to save another man who will probably be claimed by the law.
The list of things to treasure in Aandhi is endless – R D Burman’s timeless music, that it’s a rare love story of an ageing couple, Suchitra Sen’s unparalleled grace, and her crackling chemistry with Sanjeev Kumar, especially when their characters are older. Aandhi’s biggest triumph is its protagonist Aarti Devi played by Sen. Women in positions of power are often written as one-note ‘strong’ characters, someone who must assume a sort of Iron Lady-like persona to be taken seriously by men. Gulzar gives us so much more with Aarti, layering her with complexities and contradictions. She’s smart, upright, ambitious and a capable political leader. After being pelted by stones, a journalist asks her if violence is a part of politics. “Certainly. It is a part of bad politics,” she answers.
Aarti is poised to rule the country and at the same time she’s also fragile, lonely, and burdened with the emotional baggage of walking out on her marriage and young child to run for office. In the last leg of a heated election, she contemplates throwing it all away to return to her estranged husband JK (Kumar). Thankfully, Gulzar makes his men evolve too. JK, who once forced her to choose between work and home, says, ‘Main tumhe haara dekhna nahi chahta. Na ghar main, na baahar’.