Wednesday, July 31, 2013

DUSHMAN: Breaking Good

Rajesh Khanna was so widely known as the "first superstar" of Indian film that this designation appeared in most of his obituaries when he died last year. It's also widely known (if not admitted by his Wikipedia entry) that Amitabh Bachchan's stardom eclipsed Rajesh Khanna's after a few years, and I confess that I find that unsurprising--Amitabh's mid-1970s films remain among my favorites, whereas I often find myself a bit less excited about a film once I see Rajesh Khanna's face on the box.

Maybe it's because I had already fallen for Amitabh's Vijay persona before I encountered Rajesh Khanna for the first time, and then--like the Indian public in the 1970s--I couldn't go back. Or maybe it's chemistry: Rajesh Khanna, aka "Kaka," and I just don't click. Amitabh himself may have been won over by the title character's irrepressible sunniness in Anand, but I was not. (Maybe this is one of those Jerry-Lewis-and-the-French issues; my completely unscientific study of U.S. non-Indian Bollywood fans reveals that few feel much in the way of Kaka-thusiasm.)

But a friend assured me that Dushman would offer superhit music and a "good social message," which I am totally, unironically predisposed to love--so here I am, writing about a Rajesh Khanna movie from the Superstar period before that upstart Amitabh got all the acclaim.

I do find Rajesh Khanna more appealing when he is not exhibiting his heart of gold-slash-love of life. At the beginning of Dushman, his character, Surjit Singh, is a truck driver stopping to get drunk with a nautch girl somewhere along the route. This initial song shows Kaka at his most cynical--which is, IMHO, far preferable to goopy nice-guy Rajesh Khanna--saying unflattering things to Bindu* as the truck-stop dancer:

Seldom have I seen such a matter-of-fact, if fully-clothed, one-night-stand in an older Indian film! Why, the characters don't even seem to like each other much when they fall in bed together. Cut to the sun streaming in and waking the pair in the morning, the driver having stayed much longer than he meant to. So now he's both debauched and late, still drunk and still drinking. In the fog he barrels along too fast, swilling from a bottle, and kills an improverished farmer.

You knew it had to happen; there must be something for Rajesh Khanna to spend the rest of the film making up for. The farmer leaves behind a lame father, a blind mother, an unmarried sister, two small sons, and a widow (Meena Kumari, just a year before her death and looking sadly the worse for wear) who is in no mood to forgive. Surjit's day in court makes clear what an unapologetic blame-shifter he is. But the magistrate, played by Rehman, steps in to try a social experiment (perhaps atoning for driving poor Meena Kumari to drink); he declares that Surjit will spend the next year living with the family whose son/husband/brother/father he took away, coming to a better understanding of his crime and filling the gap left by the farmer's death.

Now, I'm all for cultivating empathy, but you have to admit there are flaws in this approach to punishment. It seems rather harsh to require the distraught family to live with the murderer, even if the worthy goal is for him to care for them as the dead man would have. (Imagine if George Zimmerman had been sentenced to move in with Trayvon Martin's father!) 

I couldn't help wondering, too, if the value of the lost life would have been spelled out in such purely economic terms had the dead man not been a poor villager. So, say, if Surjit had run over Shah Rukh Khan's character in DDLJ, would he have been sentenced to flunk out of college and tour Europe in his place? But I digress. Anyway, the farmer was the support of his family, and now he's gone, so Surjit has to take care of the old folks, marry off the sister, and feed the kids, all while dealing with the Wrath of Meena, who teaches the smallest son that the guest's name is "Dushman" ("Enemy").

After a single day of pitchfork-wielding yokels, hungry children, dramatically unhappy grandparents, and no food or water, Surjit determines to run away from his village "prison," only to be nabbed and brought in front of Rehman. I'm hungry, he whines, and Rehman patiently and slowly explains that the family was as dependent on the farmer as Surjit has been on them this first day, and that it's his job now to improve their lives somehow.

An interesting premise--I couldn't help wondering what a modern film would have Surjit do to earn his keep. (I understand that cooking crystal meth in Albuquerque is fairly lucrative.) But this film, from the spinning center of the First Superstar Era, seems to assume that the audience is already on board with the idea that Rajesh Khanna must be a good person, deep down. In spite of the bad-boy persona being troweled on pretty thickly at the beginning, nobody watching Dushman could imagine that Kaka has it in him to do anything other than the right thing from here on out. Surjit Singh is as transparent as glass, like a character in a fable--which is to say, like a character played by Superstar Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna channels Nargis.
There's still enjoyment to be had in Dushman. A host of villains try to steal the farmer's land, which is supposed to be haunted. In a plot perhaps borrowed from Scooby Doo, the ghost is really Mumtaz, who is hiding her earnings in the field at night to keep her drunken grandfather from stealing the money for liquor. Surjit Singh solves the ghost mystery and wins over the hungry children, who help Dushman Chacha to perfect his Mother India impression while plowing the field. Dushman Chacha repairs machinery, learns farming, and pays it both forward and back. The villain burns the crops, but the stoic villagers vow to plant more. Eventually, everyone except Angry Meena is firmly in the I Heart Dushman Chacha camp.

Once Surjit Singh has traded his dusty black truck-driving outfit for a white suit and accidentally misplaced his moustache, he and Mumtaz become an item. I find her cute rather than beautiful and think she lacks a certain edge (in spite of the drunken grandpa backstory, soon to be repurposed for Dabangg's leading lady), but maybe that's why she pairs so well with the easily tamed Rajesh Khanna. Whatever! She dances with great verve, and she appears onscreen with a truly great Freudian typo:

Obviously, at this point, only a curmudgeon (MEENAAAA!!) would oppose the total acceptance of Dushman Chacha as village good guy. Since the first moral-dilemma plot of the film fizzles out with so little fanfare, I did enjoy seeing a second dilemma involving Meena: the villain kidnaps Mumtaz and plans to rape or kill her, or both, and Meena is the only one who knows--but if she keeps quiet, Surjit Singh will be blamed. What will she do??

Do I have to tell you how it ends? Really?

Well, OK, but don't tell anyone. Amitabh arrives as Vijay, and Rajesh Khanna is finally free to appear in Red Rose.**

*Oh, I do love Bindu.

**Having re-read Jai Arjun Singh's fabulous post on Red Rose while adding the link above, I realize that he's already said pretty much everything I'm saying here about Rajesh Khanna, only better. And he also did this. Could there be a more fitting last word?

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