In a monthly series–a kind of a double bill–we pick two films that share characteristics that may not be obvious at first glance. In the second instalment, we discuss and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
The most basic difference between Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and Arvind Desai (Dilip Dhawan) is that the former is a doer, a man who acts on his instincts, and the latter isn’t, a man who does not act on his instincts. After he is rejected by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the blonde he desires, Travis, one of cinema’s most famous anti-heroes, goes on to buy guns, makes an assassination attempt on a Presidential candidate and starts imagining himself as the saviour of an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster) that ends the film in a bloodbath. He may have turned into a monster, a freak, but he surely does get a release. He explodes. Arvind Desai implodes. He can’t bring himself to decide whether he wants to shoot himself in the head to end this misery once and for all. He briefly flirts with the idea of suicide, but isn’t able to do it. Fate intervenes, bringing a strange conclusion to his life and lends the film its title: Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai).
As we approach the end of the film, we see him increasingly losing control over his life, whether it’s succumbing to a business deal negotiation where he fails to protect his workers; or showing double standards when, after two employees are caught stealing, he fires one employee and doesn’t fire the other (Satish Shah)—because he is a cousin; or agreeing to get married with the daughter of a friend of his father’s (Sriram Lagoo). Decisions that haunt his conscience. This is another big difference between him and the Travis Bickle character. He has a guilty conscience where he has none. The other being the most obvious one: that Travis is a nighttime cabbie in New York and Arvind the son of a rich businessman, a Seth, in Bombay who has inherited his father’s luxury handicraft shop.
But despite the differences, there are curious parallels between Martin Scorsese’s celebrated classic and the Saeed Mirza film, that came out two years later, in 1978. When we first see Arvind Desai—stylish, in his suit and sunglasses—he is in his car. Even though he isn’t a taxi driver like Travis, it’ll be the defining feeling of the film: him behind the wheels in his own car drifting through Bombay. Every time we will cut to the sights of the city, a jazz soundtrack (score composer: Bhaskar Chandavarkar) will accompany the visuals (cinematographer: Virendra Saini). There’s something about driving around a city teeming with life that makes it a perfect vehicle for portraying urban alienation, something cinematic.
Like Taxi Driver, Arvind Desai is a great big city film that shows us both the cosmopolitan side of Bombay—with its art deco buildings, Marine drive, movie palaces and so on–as well as its seamier side, such as the red light district, where he pays visits to a prostitute named Fatima (like Travis visiting Iris). Back home after visiting her, he takes a shower, as if washing away his sins, a sort of spiritual cleansing of his soul. He complains about the ‘bheer, gandagi aur badboo’, a sentiment he repeats through the film. Like Travis in Taxi Driver, who just keeps saying the same thing: that the city is filthy and full of scum and that it should be cleaned up. Perhaps such vague hatred for the megalopolis is what sociopaths are driven by.
They are also driven by a deep-seated misogyny. Arvind at first appears to be progressive—and he on many accounts is—but he exposes that side of him in two instances: when he asks Alice (Anjali Paigankar)–the secretary he is going out with–if she, like other women, is also a gold-digger, when they are at a restaurant; and in another scene, in the car, when he decides that she is. ‘All you women are the same,’ he tells her, calling her a ‘bitch’. Nothing that Alice does suggests that she has been unfaithful to Arvind. It has more to do with how Arvind perceives and generalises women than how Alice is as a person.
The tone—and words—are chillingly similar when Travis gets thrown out of Betsy’s office. He had an impossibly idealistic image of women to begin with—a fantasy image of the blonde; ‘you are the most beautiful woman in the world’ is his pick-up line—and when it comes crashing down, he is unable to deal with it. Perhaps he is afflicted with what Roger Ebert calls the “madonna-whore complex”—where there are only two ways of looking at women, the virginal and pure, or the slut—a conditioning of the male psyche that he identified having in common with the filmmaker owing to their Catholic upbringing, and a character trait that can be found in other Scorsese-De Niro collaborations including Raging Bull (1980) and Casino (1995).
What else drives men like Arvind and Travis? Again, you may say that it isn’t fair to put them in the same league at all; Travis is a psychopath to Arvind’s slacker with a social consciousness. But both, as inarticulate as they are, talk about a certain loneliness. ‘I am God’s lonely man’, Travis writes, in one of those quasi-prophetic lines in his diary. Even Arvind says it in so many words—‘A peculiar loneliness takes hold of you’—when he visits his sister (Rohini Hattangadi) in her posh apartment; when his sister leaves the room to make tea for him, he leaves without informing her. He seems to run out of things to say when he is with people, and we see him making abrupt exits from his ‘leftist’ friend Rajan’s (Om Puri) apartment and on another occasion from Alice’s house, where he is invited for lunch.
As if following a behavioural pattern, both make up false identities. Travis, when he is chatting up the Secret Service guy in the rally of a Presidential candidate, feigning interest in how to get recruited, lest his suspicion falls on him (or does he really want to work for the Government? Who knows?); Arvind when he is giving a lift to a couple who have just watched a re-run of Roman Holiday at Metro. It could have well been Taxi Driver.
Make no mistake. Arvind Desai is its own thing, a film characterised by an enjoyable looseness and the unmistakable light touch of Mirza (who often gets left out of conversations about the Parallel Cinema movement in Hindi film in the 70s and 80s, and who would go on to complete his trilogy of troubled young men in Bombay with Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, where his working-class concerns will be even more pronounced). But does it seem so improbable that one of our own ‘brats’–fresh out of film school and making his first film–would’ve taken a cue from one of their ‘brats’ who had taken Hollywood by storm?
The ending confirms the film’s Taxi Driver-ishness. Why give a gun to a man like Arvind, a choice that makes logical sense in the American scheme of things, with its gun laws and its history of mass shootings? But then you see how differently it plays out, and when you read what Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, has to say about the psychology at work with Travis, it adds up. Schrader said that Travis would’ve acted out differently if he wasn’t American. Instead of killing others, he would have killed himself. Which is exactly what Arvind does, or at least he wants to; but he isn’t exactly someone who acts on his instincts, remember?
Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan is playing on Mubi and Taxi Driver can be rented on YouTube movies