Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or as Munnabhhai would say, ‘Isska to good luck hi kharaab tha.’ But Gulzar’s Namkeen and its dew-drop tenderness compounded by a compelling resilience of spirit, flowery in its fragility and steely in its strength, failed to evoke a favourable response at the boxoffice.
It came during the year when the Bachchan wave swept across the boxoffice with Namak Halaal, Khuddar and Shakti. It was also the year when two female-oriented films Nikaah and Prem Rog did exceedingly well. Namkeen tragically failed to form a trio of successful ladies’ picture in 1982.
Gulzar Saab loves the film, just as one favours the child who is a little weak in the studies.
But Namkeen, rest assured, is not a weak film. It’s a powerful haunting exquisite piece of cinema, layered and luminous, casting lengthy shadows on the lives of the characters who come into view . Indeed Namkeen has the most gorgeous gallery of women characters, towering in their mystique, glowing with an incandescent beauty that comes from deep within the recesses of a woman’s heart.
Years ago, I remember Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama claimed to have been shot on location in a woman’s heart.Watch Namkeen, and you know why Gulzar is the most capable of the disciples of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Namkeen is not only shot on location in the hearts of a derelect family of women, it is also situated deep within the human condition, depicting , as it does, the dilemma of lives that must seek out hope warmth and humour when none of these qualities are there for them to claim.
Shot in picturesque Himachal Pradesh the lyrical evocative film wastes no time on scanning the pretty locales. With our truck-driver hero Gerulal(Sanjeev Kumar) we head straight for the run-down desolate home of an old senile matriarch Amma(Waheeda Rehman) and her three daughters, Nimki(Sharmila Tagore), Mithu(Shabana Azmi) and Chinky(Kiran Vairale).
Gulzar introduces this unforgettable household of ladies with the minimum fanfare. As Gerulal is taken in as a tenant by Amma we get to know the girls in their individual character spaces, from their body language and their minute facial gestues. We know in no time that Chinky is the naughty one, playful though not unheedful of the financial problems plaguing their family.
Namkeen is a tangy bitter-sweet exposition on the comdition of mellow muliebrity. It’s an intensely dramatic story where every protagonist has more than her share of emotional turbulence to cope with. Gulzar keeps it calm and collected. The narration is never overcome with emotions even when the characters are on the verge of a breakdown.
What stays with you forever is the way the women have been shot as though conveying a molten unharnessed beauty amidst their lives of wretched hopelessness. Waheeda Rehman is so regal in her senile condition. We slip into her past to see her perform a Mujra. This was when she was just 2 years away from her 50th year. And yet the harkats and nuanced expressions she brings to Asha Bhosle’s Badi der se megha barsa ho rama are portraits of dextrous nimbleness.
Tragically Waheeda is unable to carry off the present portions as the senile, paan-chewing, loudly-complaining matriarch. The actress’ innate dignity does not permit her the luxury of lapsing into extroverted aggression. The character suffers from the actress resorting to a quota of playacting to put forward the old woman’s inner life.
But the mother and her three daughters as played by Sharmila, Shabana and Kiran Vairale, the three sisters bonded by grief and giggles, seem so much like part of one family it’s as though the actresses actually share a blood relationship.Mithu(Shabana) is the mute sensitive poet of the abandoned family. She lives in her own dreamworld where a Prince Charming is bound to rescue her some day from a life of dereliction.The song Phir se aiyo badra bidesi where Mithu romances the mists of Himachal is so dreamlike and misty it transports us into a world where pain anger frustration and bitterness take a backseat.
All that remains is the magical mystical enchantment of that moment.
The eldest daughter Nimki is far more practical. She hopes for no redemption, and when the truck-driver who drives into the women’s lives offers to “take her away” Nimki refuses the generous offer. Her life is with her mother and sisters and there’s no room for an alternative reality.
Chinki the youngest turns out to be the weakest link in this family of strong women. She is the first to break the family, the one to take plunge into a life of disrepute over a life of desolation . Years later when Grulal runs into her she scoffs at Gerulal’s hand of support offered to the women and then hastily withdrawn.
Gulzar laces this somber tale of heartbreak with humourous interludes , all of them woven around Gerulal’s attempts to familiarize himself with the absolutely unpredictable house of capricious women all dissatisfied with life but unwilling to let their daily lives be sullied by despondency.
The way Gerulal builds a different rapport with each of the women in the rundown home on the verge of collapse(not unlike the lives of the women) makes for a fascinating study of gender dynamics in a culture where women are constantly thrown new challenges in preserving their dignity.
Nothing really evil happens to any one of Amma’s three girls. Yes, Chinky runs away and joins her fugitive father’s nautanki company. It’s not the same shade of dereliction as Khandhar, Mrinal Sen’s study of ruins and ruinations , again featuring Shabana Azmi in the cast. There, when the ‘saviour’ from the city left he never returned. Here, Gerulal returns to take Nimki back with him to civilization. This one enforced happy ending we really don’t really mind.
Nimki was to be played by Rekha. High drama happened in the initial days of shooting when Rekha objected to a journalist visiting Waheeda Rehman on the sets. Rekha argued she was off-press. Gulzar argued back that the journalist was Waheeda’s guest. He asked her to leave instead. Then Gulzar called up his friend Sharmila Tagore to step in immediately. She happily obliged.
Sanjeev Kumar would often grumble to his pal Gulzar about being cast in women-centric films like Aandhi,Mausam, Namkeen… But he always managed to hold his own.
Kiran Vairale as the youngest sister Chinky was cast completely in Jaya Bhaduri mould. The actress soon married and left the country.
Samresh Basu also wrote the story on which Gulzar’s Kitaab was based.
Gulzar On Namkeen:
“Samresh Basu remained my favourite author. I read all his works in the original Bengali and was therefore familiar with the nuances in his story that are often lost in translation.Namkeen is based on a story of his which I had loved from the time I read it. To me the most interesting part of Namkeen were these four women, one of them past the age of marriage, the other at a marriageable age and the third approaching the age of marriage.And their mother who is worried to death about them.I underlined her fears in my film.And the way the women clung to the man who comes into their life…Soon he ceases to be just a tenant for them and becomes their support system. He has a unique relationship with each one of them. Getting the actresses to say yes was not difficult at all. Why should it be? If you offer them a good role why should they say no? All of them performed very well. Yes, Kiran Vairale was reminiscent of Jaya Bhaduri.As for Sanjeev Kumar he was always my first choice for whatever male protagonists in my film. There were two constants in my cinema Sanjeev and R.D. Burman. I had the privilege of working with them both.Pancham was a very special composer and very versatile man.His work with me was very different from whatever he did with others .He had the liberty to work out whatever my requirements were for a film.I’d never give him reference points. I’d just tell him what was required.To give you an example from Namkeen, when Pancham and I were working on the song Phir se aiyo badra bidesi. There was a gap in the song. He felt a line was needed.We filled it with Tujhe meri kaali kamli wali ki sau….I met Samresh Basu to get the rights of the story.He had this beautiful smile and a very friendly demeanour.I met first when I was an assistant to Bimal Roy. I re-wrote the story but I didn’t want to distort it in any way. The story was the raw material for the screenplay, just as the screenplay was the raw material for the film….the film’s title Namkeen had a special relevance. I feel a film should be defined totally by its title. I had given the title Namkeen to Hrishida for one of his films. But he said he didn’t like the title. I told him, ‘Main aapko khubsoorat title de raha hoon.’ He asked, ‘Kya hai?’. I said, Bas yehi hai, Khubsoorat.’ So I gave him Khubsoorat and took Namkeen back. One of the sisters was named Nimki. But that’s not why I called the film Namkeen. If one tries to probe a title it ends up sounding absurd. In the same year as Namkeen I did Angoor which for its times was unusual. People reacted to Angoor as they would have if I had named my film Amrood. By now Amrood would have looked natural if that had been the title.When I called my film Maachis even the producer objected. Some wanted it titled Kirpaal. A film’s title should have the space to grow with time.It’s like Alfred Hitcock’s presence in his cinema. It seems arbitrary. But with time we know exactly why he is seen where he is in his films.”