I am not in the mood for a Hindu-Muslim love story after a particularly confused rendition of Edward Albee’s ‘The Zoo Story’ (1958), transposed to Mumbai, with the addition of a skullcap and the shadow of terror. I am rather tired of the imperative endless conversations, to be a Muslim or not be one, the stereotypes, the impassioned pleas not to be stereotyped, the ‘other’ and the ‘other-ing’, that need never have occurred in a sane, humanitarian society. It is as if now, no other kinds of conversations are possible.
But can I resist B.R.Ishara and Rehana Sultan? And I am not disappointed. In ‘Dil Ki Rahen’ (1973) the characters discuss religion with the importance that they give it in their lives, but it does not supersede their human emotions, or their understanding of each other as human beings first. They are not Hindus or Muslims first, they happen to be Hindu or Muslim. Their discussions are the normal discussions we heard when we were growing up, when people of different religions or communities fell in love – so what about conversion, will one or the other convert, what about the children, what religion will they be brought up in, what about you, will you be able to follow your own religion? These were genuine concerns for those who took religion seriously, but not loaded with political gunpowder as they are now.
B.R.Ishara’s films are very low budget but that does not seem to restrain him from using what he has with aplomb. He always seems to me a director with a great urgency to tell his story, going ahead full-blast, sometimes with disjointed shots and editing, with as many actors as he can muster, with whatever locations he can get access to. His films have the rawness and bare-bone character of student films, reminding me of FTII diplomas.
Mahesh Bhatt says in an interview that B.R.Ishara was the first of the few directors to begin shooting in bungalows and not sets, to save on costs. And yet, the house in ‘Chetna’ and the two houses in ‘Dil ki Rahein’ add so much cache to the mise-en-scene of the films.
In ‘Dil Ki Rahen’, the two old bungalows of Rehana (Rehana Sultan) and Rakesh (Rakesh Pandey – strangely he has no name in the film, except for being called ‘Saaheb’ by his servants) in the quiet green neighborhood, their balconies and windows with the elaborate grillwork have a lived in feeling not brought about by art direction. B. R. Ishara uses several shots between the two houses, the points of view from both, looking one into the other, bringing out the proximity of the neighbors, a reminder of the fact that people from different religions did live across each other in nice houses, and localities were not cordoned off by invisible gates.
In my mind though what takes the film to a level beyond the Hindu-Muslim angle is the relationship between Rehana and her mother (Sulochana).
Rehana is a doctor, living alone with her widowed mother. Rehana is pert, pretty and dresses well. She is confident, independent, has her own car and driver, and too many alcoholic patients whom she treats with good humour and a dose of strictness. Her earrings, the flowers in her hair and her cool doctor glasses, have me hooked, despite the mix-up of reels and the missing chunks of film, making for a slightly confusing storyline. Alas, the archival state of our films.
Rehana also has a relationship with her mother, where they actually listen to each other and look out for each other, unlike most filmi parent-child combos, where parents are unbelievably blind and young people stoically silent. Special reference to ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge!, 2002 and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun!,1994.
Rehana buys books for her mother as a birthday gift.
She has promised her father on his deathbed, that she will take care of her mother, and obey her, respecting both her rational and irrational demands. But while she is caring, affectionate and obedient, she is also very truthful with her mother, retaining her freedom to have a different opinion than her. She is going to obey her mother out of duty, but she is not going to like it, she has not shut out her mind. I really like this mother-daughter relationship that is based on discussion, on conversation and not heart-clutching emotional blackmail, even though the mother is actually a heart patient. It is Rehana who is conscious of her mother’s health, and the mother who is aware of Rehana’s care of her.
When a new neighbor moves in to the house across, Rehana is naturally curious, especially when she hears strains of music being played every night and early in the morning. Rehana is the sort of girl who wakes up with a smile, when woken up with music, not complaining of the noise in her ears.
The two to-be lovers have also crossed paths earlier at the Bangalore Bookstore without realizing it, and will meet there again when each one goes to buy the other’s religious book to learn more about each other.
Rakesh is a heart-broken alcoholic, who wanders from town to town, tended to by his Christian driver and Brahmin cook and also lines up his empty alcohol bottles at the window for every passerby to count.
Rehana first gets involved with his well being because she’s a doctor, ignoring his wish to self-destruct in a no-nonsense way.
In lieu of her professional fees, she requests he teach her music. This foray into music through the song ‘Apne suro mein mere suro ko basa lo, yeh geet amar ho jaaye’ brings them closer, and Rehana who is not coy, begins to go out with him. Naqsh Lyalpuri and Madan Mohan write and compose some other memorable songs for the film ‘Aap ki baaten karen ya dil ka afsana kahein’ and ‘Rasme-ulfat ko nibhaaye to nibhaaye kaise.’
For the first time, Rehana lies to her mother to go out with Rakesh.
This is when the conflict between Rehana and her mother begins.
Rehana wants to honour her mother’s wishes, but she also makes it clear that she does love Rakesh. Rakesh and Rehana’s mother and their houses become representative of the two points of view, the mother’s religious and Rakesh’s humanitarian, and Rehana is conflicted between the two, going from one to the other, trying to reconcile both, chafing at giving up her love, torn between duty and her own desire.
I don’t like that Rehana seems to lose her confidence at this point, projecting herself as a helpless woman tied to her mother by duty and love, making mistakes with her patients, being swayed by the superior intelligence of her lover, who explains to her why it is important not to listen to your parents all the time, or to pay too much attention to the demands of religion.
He has his own back-story to justify his dismissiveness of too much filial obedience. His father married him off to a woman who horror of horrors, smoked, drank and cavorted with other men.
The mother in fact, is the pivotal character of the film. Despite her own religious views, she engages with the idea of her daughter’s happiness and of what action she should take to ensure it.
When Rehana asks her mother, “Ammi jaan, kya dusre mazhab mein shaadi karne ki baat sochna gunaah hoga?” (Ammi, would it be a sin to think of marrying into another religion?) her mother replies, “Agar kahu ki gunaah hoga toh?” (If I say yes?) Rehana asks, “Aur kisi ko dil se pyaar karne ke baad, kissi aur se shaadi kar lena, kya gunaah hoga?”, (And to marry someone when you love someone else, would that be a sin?) her mother says, “Agar pahli baat ko gunaah taslim kiya jaaye, toh dusri baat toh usse bhi zyaada gunaah hoga.” (If the first is a sin, the second is a bigger sin)
The mother is also quite politely dismissive of the young man who represents society, the son of a family friend, a prospective suitable bridegroom for Rehana. When he tries to provoke her into suspecting Rehana, her cool reply is, “Kya apni beti se zyaada mujhe logo ki baato par bharosa karna chaahiye?” (Should I trust other people’s gossip more than my own daughter?)
This is clearly a mother who is looking out for her child, who is willing to change her own ideas when faced with something new, who actually says to her child, that you keep wanting to do your duty towards me, but give me a chance to do my duty towards you, i.e. take care of your feelings.
Though in the end, she literally has a heart attack when she sees a copy of the Bhagwad Gita on her daughter’s bed, torn as she is between the two religious books, seeing them in her mind, just before she dies she comes to a pretty sane conclusion.
After having asked her daughter to ask her beau to convert, she takes back her words, that if a man is unfaithful to his religion, what is the guarantee that he will be faithful to his wife?
When Rakesh says, ‘Har insaan ke do mazhab hote hain. Ek insaniyat. Aur doosre zaat. Aur duniya ki jitni bhi zaatein hain, mazhab hain, unki buniyad hain insaaniyat. Aur jiske andar insaniyat hain, uss ke andar duniya ke tamam mazhab hain. Koi badlega kya?’ (Every human being has two religions. The first is humanity. And the other caste. And all the castes in the world, all the religions, are founded in humanity. If someone has humanity within them, they have all the world’s religions within them. Then what should they convert to?), somehow, I get the feeling that perhaps ‘Dil Ki Rahen’ is B.R.Ishara trying to convince Rehana of his own love for her. I don’t have any evidence to validate this whimsical thought, but just the fact that the heroine is called Rehana, and the film is dedicated to Majida Sultan, Rehana Sultan’s mother, makes me think that the film has a strong element of B.R.Ishara’s personal love story in it.
And here is a random pretty picture of Rehana Sultan to prove my theory.