I was 5 when Chetna released. And yet, I have this memory of its iconic poster. The bare legs of a girl spread apart, standing on a bed. I don’t know where I remember it from. The poster apparently was a tongue in cheek rejoinder by the filmmaker to the ‘A’ certificate given to the film by the Censor Board.
I saw the film only recently, brought to it by a friend’s review – her take on the 2 BR’s of the industry (Chopra and Ishara) and what they represent.
It is difficult to see now why the film invited such moral outrage, strangely not from the Censor Board, whose only objection was to the bottle of Vat 69, their logic being why should we promote foreign liquor in our films, but from a posse of filmmakers, 47 in all, Ishara’s peers who thought he was morally degenerate, for his portrayal of a call girl Seema. Ishara had difficulty even finding the finance for the film, until his editor Kunnu, gave him the money. He made the film for less than 1 lakh INR, and it became a hit. Perhaps that is what irked his filmmaker buddies.
The low production value of the film lends it a quaint simplicity that only enhances the chastity of the film. It is in fact, one of the few Indian films I have seen, which is a woman-centric film and yet, not exploitative at all. Because we all know how most supposedly woman-centric films pan out.
In fact, that shot of the bare legs is the only bit of provocative skin that you see. Even when Seema removes her clothes and gets ready for her client, Anil, we hardly see her at all, certainly not her nudity, but only Anil’s disturbed innocence.
Ishara circumvents the lack of budget by using off camera voices for characters. Several characters like Seema’s father, a patient at the clinic, guests at a party are only heard off screen, never seen. This austerity also adds to the lingering pace of the film. As do the use of extreme close-ups of Rehana and Anil.
It becomes then a detailed examination of a character and her journey.
My earlier quibble with Anil Dhawan is laid put here, because Ishara knows how to work with actors, with their limitations. Anil’s character (also called Anil Dhawan in the film) works because of the innocence of Anil’s face; he makes this good, decent, naïve character believable, given that we rarely ever see an Indian man like this on screen otherwise. Rehana is not a great actress, but there is confusion and a complexity to her character, which reflects off her face. Even Shatrughan Sinha, as Anil’s older, more worldly-wise friend, Ramesh, is natural, at ease. His suggestion that what Anil needs to get over his love for Seema is a woman, and in this age, women can be bought for 5 rupees to 5000 rupees is delivered in a no-nonsense way. He says ‘bhatakne se bahakna bachcha’. (It is better to be lost than wander around).
Ishara also uses voices to put into words, Anil’s state of mind. When Anil, sick with love for Seema, is summoned by his doctor friend, a voice (a patient) moans, ‘God, give me some medicine for this pain.’ After Anil comes back from his encounter with Seema, having found out that she is a call girl, he is confused, agitated. His servant boy, Daddy fights with the dhobhi (washerman) about a shirt and it’s dirty stains. The dhobhi says ‘Yeh daag nahin jaayege, kameez dusre rang me rang do, daag chchup jaayege.’ (These stains won’t go away, but you can dye the shirt in another color, it will hide the stains.) This prompts Anil to propose marriage to Seema.
Daddy is a little kid, the gardener’s son, born on the same day as Anil’s father dies, hence the name. Very innocent, he watches silently, almost the only witness to Anil and Seema’s love story. I am not sure though why he sleeps on the floor on a thin shatranji (a thin rug), why he has not been given a mattress by the otherwise kind Anil?
Anil’s proposal of marriage is one of the most progressive ones I have seen in Indian cinema. He says, ‘Jo kuchch bhi aap hain, jaisi bhi aap hain, aap ki taraf se main ne koi pavitrata ki pratima nahin banali, jis ka toot jaane ka darr ho.’ (Whatever you are, you are like, I haven’t thought of you as a statue of purity. There is no fear of the statue being shattered).
Because isn’t that pratima (image/statue) the one we have been fighting against for so long ? The ideal of mother, goddess, sister, wife, a good woman. Anil’s proposal is a far cry from Sai Paranjpye’s hero (Chashme Buddoor, 1981) crying out, ‘Tum jaisi ladki se bhagwaan bachaaye’. (May God save me from a girl like you).
Seema’s older friend, Nirmala (Nadira), very sensuous, gives her the advice she is looking for, a respite from the cynicism of a call girl’s life. Seema thinks the idea of love is false. Nirmala says, No, what we are living, ‘Yeh jhooth hain. Chehre ka namak. Jab utar jaata hain, tab sacchai saamne aa jaati hain. Pyaar aur mohabbat sacch hain. Hum jaisi aurato ko maa aur bahen kahne wale bahut mil jaate hain, biwi kahne wala koi nahin milta.’ (This life is false. Sex appeal. When it fades, then the truth is revealed. Love is real. There are many men who are willing to call women like us mothers and sisters, but no one to call us wife).
Seema accepts Anil’s proposal, but like her photo on the phone dial she keeps turning, turning as life dials her. She is confused about herself.
She marries Anil with eyes open. But when she first encounters the marital bed decorated with flowers, the flowers and bed swim in and out of focus before her eyes, how can she be so naive to start her marriage as if her past does not count?
Anil is sensitive enough to understand, he is willing to give her time. He does not want to know about her past, but acknowledges that she might want to share it.
Seema is matter-of fact about her past, as she recounts her story to Anil. Her parents were very poor. In college she envied the girls arriving in the latest cars, chauffeur-driven, dressed up in the latest fashion, the latest jewellery. Boys had eyes only for girls like that.
If they looked at poor girls like her, it was only with sympathy. When she was offered the chance to be a call girl, the money was attractive. Her lifestyle became first ‘Ek craze, phir meri aadat, aur phir meri zaroorat’. (A craze, then my habit, and then my need). She is matter-of-fact about drinking, smoking. Anil does not blame her; he does not moralize or presume that he is saving her.
Slowly, she begins to love Anil, to accept his love. But when she finds out she is pregnant from a past sexual encounter, she says ‘meri kokh mein zahar hain’. (I have poison in my womb). She wants to abort the child, start her marriage with a clean slate, but the doctor refuses to help her.
She is completely derailed by this fact, not trusting Anil’s love. She wants him to shout at her, blame her, throw her out of the house, hate her. She would find the strength to live if he hated her, his love only seems like pity. She feels that ‘insaan shaitaan ke saath jee sakta hain, jaanwar ke saath jee sakta hain, par devta ke saath nahin jee sakta’. (Man can live with the devil, with an animal, but he cannot live with a god).
It is this confusion in Seema, which confuses me. On one hand Ishara sets up an unconventional heroine, unapologetic about her past.
And yet, he does spend a considerable amount of time setting her up in the familiar cliche of a golden-hearted prostitute, seeking solace in temple, church, dargah (shrine), a do-gooder who helps people with their studies (the doctor), setting up their business (the mechanic), looks after a spoilt sister, a sick father. Once she is married, she wants to find solace in the feet of her husband. (Even though these seem highly unclean).
The end she chooses for herself is the easy way out, for her, but even for the filmmaker. Even a bold filmmaker could not be bold enough to show a call girl happily married, living happily forever after? Or maybe that was too much to expect in 1970?