Sunday, December 27, 2020

To leave or not to leave...

I saw Ijazzat (1987) once again! I resisted it for years, despite strong recommendations from many people, and finally saw it for the first time around three decades after it was made. Then I saw it two times in three years. It wasn’t fascination that led me to a second viewing. It was befuddlement.

I must have resisted the movie because of its name. A movie called ‘Permission’ wouldn’t really be my choice for leisure activity. Otherwise, a movie with Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha directed by Gulzar would have been an easy pick, especially after discovering that some of my favourite songs are part of that movie.

After watching the movie twice, I can confidently declare that I intensely dislike this movie.

I do acknowledge that there are many reasons to like it. And here a few: excellent songs, outstanding acting by almost all the actors, aesthetically appealing sets, some lovely handloom saris worn with élan by the beautiful Rekha, a camera that captured the jitteriness of the characters, such care for detail in the screenplay and direction that there was a moment when I could smell the musty odour of a moist towel of an eternal wanderer. Very visceral cinema. Wholesome too, in its way.

Why, then, do I dislike it?

I believe it’s because I feel betrayed. In its presentation of three complicated people, it seems to promise that it will dwell into the existential issues of each of them. The commitment to good cinema, seen in almost every shot, raises the expectations of the viewer. However, as the movie progresses the viewer understands that the narrative has only one protagonist – the man, for it’s his existential anxiety that seems to resonate with the auteur. 

This is good cinema perpetuating the age-old neglect of women’s desires that Hindi cinema has been propounding from the beginnings of time.

The first time I saw it, I thought that Sudha touching Mahender’s feet as a leave-taking gesture made me see red. But then, if I had totally switched off at that disconcerting gesture by Sudha I wouldn’t have registered anything after that shot. However, I had noticed that it was ten minutes to seven on the station clock when the relieved husband gently escorts his wife out. I also remember thinking that this hero will have to stand there frozen for the next forty minutes for the train scheduled for seven thirty to jolt him out of that state.

Of course, I felt bad for the poor chap—losing chance after chance to find emotional stability. Moreover, I had also noted that Gulzar had invoked Devdas, Hindi cinema’s favourite lover, when the hero calls himself Devdas and wants ‘Paro’ to let him into the bolted waiting room after stepping out to find some food. This wasn’t a nonchalant reference to the most popular Hindi cinema trope of unfulfilled desire. It was Gulzar’s experiment with the Devdas trope, albeit a bungled one. For the one who left a “stamp” on the lover – an echo of the original Devdas’s mark of ownership of Paro – was a woman in this movie. It was an awkward transferring of the affect memories of one woman invokes in Mahender when he meets the other woman of the two significant women in his life.

 Probably among the most interesting characters in Hindi cinema, Maya was a rare depiction of a free-spirited woman who lives by her own rules without intentionally meaning to hurt or harm anyone around her. Why ruin such a courageous portrayal by calling her Maya – an illusion – is quite incomprehensible! Does the name indicate that the truly free woman is an illusion? And why was the composed and mature woman called Sudha—invoking the calming effect of moonlight on fraught nerves? Doesn’t the naming of the two women reveal the ways in which they are to facilitate the man?

Mahender man can simply take his tangled web of desire to his wife for her to sort through while he continues to remain a connoisseur of artistic illusions. And when the wife strongly indicates that she will not participate in the mess that he’s made of his love life, he gets a heart attack! Such self-indulgence and sense of entitlement! Leaving an open and messy suitcase in a railway waiting room is an apt metaphor for the night long conversation the two of them have. At the end of it all, he doesn’t get closure. However, he is seemingly not even seeking closure. He’s a will ‘o’ the wisp, a wanderer—he doesn’t live in contained ways for him to feel the need for closure to get on with his life. On the other hand, both the women who were his emotional mainstays are shown to be explicitly asking his permission to leave his life. The artist does it through the most popular song of the movie and the wife does it with an age-old convention— touching the feet of an elder, seeking blessing, before parting. So yes, that ghastly gesture is a very significant reason for my dislike of the movie. However, that is not the only reason.

On watching it the second time, I gained more clarity on why I disliked it so intensely. The narrative’s perspective is such that while there is an empathetic gaze towards the injustices life metes out to all the three main characters, we are expected to shed a tear or two for the lone guy stranded on the platform of an isolated railway platform. We are to stand next to Mahender while he watches a proud gentleman gently take away his best chance at feeling anchored in life. We are to feel his pain at this fresh blow in life. Where there was such empathy for the man’s loss of love and emotional stability in this movie, there was very little empathy for the losses of the two women.

That accusation might seem a tad unfair to some connoisseurs of Hindi cinema because it is actually one of those rare movies in Hindi cinema that fleetingly presents, through two songs, the two women as desiring subjects instead of merely remaining objects of desire. However, I felt that this attempt was half-hearted at best, for these women’s desires were overlooked or thwarted throughout the narrative. Maya dies a violent death within the narrative and throughout the narrative Sudha continues to be the wife who often morphs into the motherly facilitator, suppressing her needs. Additionally, she shows every sign of not getting closure in her relationship with Mahender until he explicitly gives her permission to leave him and be happy in the life she had built for herself.

Sudha had so easily slid back into caring for Mahender within minutes of his walking into that railway waiting room that it was difficult to process that there was a fissure in that relationship. Mahender having to borrow her suitcase keys to open his suitcase marks the beginning of their reliving of coupledom. Sudha is at her best as the efficient homemaker who knows enough to make room for the man in her life to play the adult every now and then. The man, too, does full justice to these opportunities— cycling down in the rain to fetch food, gamely accepting the appreciative laughter at the wasted effort and cleaning up a minor wound after displaying some charmingly possessive anger at the woman’s clumsiness.

If both of them are capable of displaying such adult maturity in their relationship why does each of them seemingly need the man’s permission for the woman to move out of his life? Absurdly enough, she seeks permission to leave his life during a chance meeting a few years after marrying someone else. Does that mean she wasn’t truly emotionally connected with her current husband until she receives due permission from the previous one to desire another man? I would say then that the poor chap deserves to be pitied and not envied by our hero.

This rendering of the man as the one who wields power to permit women to love him or leave him, displayed through the title, the beloved song and the climax, reiterates Hindi cinema’s propensity to depict women as caged beings. And as a double whammy in this movie, both the women are made to go through the full cycle of emotions for desiring subjects – expression of their desire through beautiful songs, feeling desired, and finally feeling that they are no longer desired by the man in their life. To add insult to injury, they also have to seek his permission to stop loving him. But the audience’s gaze is firmly focused, through that of the auteur, to empathise with the man’s losses!

I truly don’t see how women viewers of the movie could have found this acceptable.