The term 'Diwali release' is intrinsically connected to a carnivalesque celebration; everything is included, everything is excessive, and what better to embody this feeling than good ol' Bollywood? Not just the films themselves, but everything around their release during this time — the opening weekend numbers, the high-profile box-office clashes, the promotions, the advance ticket bookings — all of them are equally intrinsic to a 'Diwali release' as much as a film's text. The films themselves are released with the imagined masses in mind, lending them a particularly national address. This year, we sorely miss all of that, despite the Diwali releases we got on OTT platforms. Maybe this is a good time then, to remember a Hindi film that released much before the excess of the 1990s made Diwali another occasion for going to the movies in droves.
1970s popular cinema is discussed today within the context of angst against the failures of the Indian State, channelling the political turbulence of the decade into filmic narratives. It is also discussed for being the heyday of the Indian New Wave (also called Parallel Cinema), which blossomed under State patronage, carving a separate identity in its employment of experimental film practices. Kunwara Baap (directed by Mehmood), a popular Hindi film released two weeks after Diwali in 1974, was a riff on The Kid (1921, dir. Charlie Chaplin), where a poor man finds an orphaned kid and adopts him. However, polio formed the backdrop of this extremely personal tale by Mehmood, whose own son was afflicted with polio. Though the film is remembered as a sombre narrative, in retrospect there are more than enough moments where its carnivalesque nature bursts through. The film had, among other things, a dedicated religious song, a wrestling match, a rickshaw race, a courtroom scene, and a well-choreographed fight scene involving crutches. There are no doubts about its appeal to the national audience either. The adopted kid is literally named Hindustan — a counter to anyone trying to appropriate him into any religion. Moreover, it features two direct fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the audience about raising awareness on polio and sanitation, one of which comes right as the film ends, with Mehmood suddenly getting up after dying on-screen to persuade people to not abandon kids afflicted with polio, and raise and educate them. It also features special appearances from almost every major star of the time: Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Yogeeta Bali, Dara Singh, Lalita Pawar and Mukri, to name a few.
But what I wish to discuss here is an example from the film that shows that this film not only tried to negotiate erstwhile popular currents, but also the cinematic practices prevalent at the time. One that has had a robust afterlife on YouTube and in communal rituals. I am talking about the song 'Saj Rahi Gali Meri Maa', a song that is now famous for its representation of the Hijra community. (It's interesting how a song from a film released in 1974 manages a much better representation of the transgender community than a 2020 Diwali release. But I digress.) The song is a bittersweet exchange between the rickshaw puller who has suddenly appeared with an infant, and the Hijra community that welcomes him but demands answers. This feeling of melancholy, however, pervades not just the text but the meta-text as well. Beginning with a playback solo by Mohammad Rafi, and dancing to the lyrics "saj rahi gali meri maa, sunehre gothe mein" (The streets are decorated with a golden-bordered chunni), is the half-naked torso of a drunk Mumtaz Ali (Mehmood's father), celebrating the arrival of a new child in the community. The shot, panning from an overhead net of flowers to a mid-shot of Mumtaz in the foreground, with kids of the poor community populating the background, immediately evokes a world of deprivation despite the celebratory nature of the lyrics. The meta-text of course, is that Mumtaz Ali, who was orphaned very early his life is the one performing a song about the arrival of an orphaned kid, who will soon contract polio. That too, in a film that his son Mehmood made to spread awareness about polio, because his son contracted it. Yes, cinema is life itself.
Another delight that I discovered in the song was the sequence where a frame within a frame appears when Mehmood is narrating the story of how he found the kid. The entire story in the smaller frame is shown as a succession of slightly sepia-toned still photographs ending with a slight movement of Mehmood's hand over his chest in the last photograph, just as Mehmood does the same action in the bigger, coloured frame. In one fell swoop, the song appropriates the aesthetic of some of the Indian New Wave directors, who themselves were inspired by films like La Jetée (1962, dir. Chris Marker). So, suddenly, within a catchy tune and a back-and-forth exchange, Mehmood uses the New Wave aesthetic to invoke a sense of deep seriousness about issues like abandonment, adoption, homelessness, and poverty. This sequence is a striking repudiation of the supposed divide between the cinematic practices of the Indian New Wave and popular Hindi cinema originating from Bombay.
So, now you have a popular film that releases two weeks after Diwali, has special appearances from most major stars of the day, is a deeply personal story that is also aimed at the nation for generating awareness about a social problem, mixes comedy (Mehmood won the Filmfare Award for Best Performance in a Comic Role), tragedy, melodrama and action, and has songs that have had enduring afterlives on the internet. And in the song, it employs the aesthetic of a parallel cinematic practice not aimed for the masses. What would be a Diwali release if not this?