Mapping a political era

Print edition : March 11, 2005

A still from the film. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, a milestone in Indian political cinema, covers the turbulence that mark the pre- and post-Emergency days.

A LAMENT for a lost generation - that, in a nutshell, would describe Sudhir Mishra's Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, an ambitiously multi - layered film that combines the intimacy of three intermeshed personal stories with the epic scale of sweeping political changes. The opening line of a poem by the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, which has passed into immortality, is the perfect title: it laments the loss of innocence as iron enters the soul while paradoxically celebrating the passion of commitment.

This is not the only remarkable thing about a film that has been appreciated at festivals - at home and abroad, including the last Berlinale. In a country that woefully lacks a sustained tradition of serious political films, Mishra has created a milestone.

The concept of a lost generation, falling through the cracks of subterranean social upheavals triggered by above-ground political processes, is something alien to the Indian sensibility. The lost generation is essentially a modern Western idea, of young people living intensely in the knowledge of doomed destiny. It is awash in romantic disillusionment, cynical bravado and gallant gaiety - all weapons to combat despair. Did such a generation exist in the recent past in India?

Mishra discovers such a lost generation, not in the indulgence of romantic catharsis of his own college days, but in those who preceded him - his elder brothers he calls them with sympathy and admiration. And also the objectivity necessary for telling us the story of their tangled lives. He records their brave rebellions and promiscuous compromises through the turbulence that spanned the pre- and post-Emergency days. This was the generation that bitterly felt the failure of the Nehruvian dream and searched for a new political dawn. For the young people of the late 1960s, the flush of optimism following Independence was nothing but the faded memory of their parents, a legacy to be rejected.

Mishra's precise mapping of a political era - its challenges, idealistic battles waged on ideological grounds, the inevitable failures and ultimate compromises - is refreshingly rare, given our usual tendency to wallow in fudged history and rhetorical overdrive. Political films have usually meant linear narratives centred round an individual struggling against an entrenched system. Or it was given a mythic status by the melodrama of mainstream cinema, which conferred the archetypal halo of Karna's tragedy on the iconic persona of Amitabh Bachchan as the voice of the deracinated and disillusioned street fighter.

Sudhir Mishra on the sets of the film.-

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is an unconventional triangle with no single hero dominating the narrative. It is an open-ended graph of shifting relationships between three friends, two men and a woman, and not a rigidly enclosed triangle of formulaic romance. Two abiding themes - the play with time and the changing psychology of people over a given time - surface in practically every film Mishra has made and they come together with near perfection in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. He uses his Masters in Psychology to flesh out characters conceived in the round, a novelistic trait that film-makers so often overlook in the pursuit of the perfect image for its own sake.

So, it is time to meet the three protagonists as they graduate from a prestigious Delhi college and get inextricably drawn into their closely observed lives. Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay) is the emblematic representative of secular elitism: obviously the son of liberal Leftists who married across the communal divide. His dilemma is typical of his class, afflicted by the peculiar predicament of bearing a Muslim surname but unable to speak good Urdu. No one is more aware of this existential irony than Siddharth himself. He is the idealist looking for a cause in the ideological vacuum of a Delhi polluted by politicking. This is a Delhi society where class and education count more than ethnicity and language.

Geeta Rao (Chitrangada Singh) is the brilliant daughter of an eminent scientist, who, for all his eminence, clings to his South Indian conservative ways. Geeta has this innate ability to live easily in many worlds, a seeming epitome of the high-achieving modern woman. From the Telugu-speaking orthodox home complete with an extended family to the trendy set she hangs out with, and then on to Oxford for higher studies and finally to a strife-worn Bihar village... she traverses them all in the course of an eventful life, driven by her singular passion: Siddharth.

If Siddharth is the love of Geeta's life, Siddharth is in love with his great cause: bringing revolution to the parched land and disenfranchised peasants of Bihar. He gives up the cultured ease of Delhi to join the naxalites. His gentle, scholarly father watches helplessly - he cannot approve but neither can he forbid, for he understands Siddharth's commitment to his chosen cause for which he is willing to pay any price.

Watching this drama from the sidelines is Vikram Malhotra (Shiny Ahuja). If his friends inhabit a rarefied realm of passionate idealism, Vikram is the point of identification. He is himself and yet, everyman. He is the typical small-town boy, desperate to acquire the cosmopolitan sheen that comes so naturally to the elegant Geeta and sophisticated Siddharth. Vikram is in a hurry to distance himself from his father's legacy - a small-time, small-town politician who retains his idealism for which the son has nothing but contempt.

But watching the political process at first hand has given Vikram an invaluable lesson: how to spot, then court and win the politico and the party that is calling the shots at the moment, but without burning his bridges to previous denizens of the corridors of power. From artful survivor to smooth operator with high connections to independent purveyor of power is the fascinatingly familiar trajectory that Vikram's career takes. He knows everybody and apparently, everybody knows him too - the more important part of the power transaction. Vikram's transformation from uncertain small-time guy to the assured, if oily, power-player, is wryly funny and precise in finding the satirical target.

For all his pragmatic survival skills that make him somebody over the years, Vikram is desperately in love with Geeta. And how this love stays with him - even after Geeta returns from Oxford, becomes a journalist and endures an unhappy marriage and finally, throws in her lot with Siddharth, a man hunted by the police - is Vikram's path to redemption. He is jealous of Siddharth at one level, specially when he finds out that Geeta has been using her journalistic cover to meet the fugitive activist and has an off-and-on affair with him. At another level, Vikram has a reluctant admiration for a man who has the courage of his convictions. When it comes to the crunch and Siddharth's life is in imminent danger, it is Vikram who uses his connections and comes to the aid of his one-time classmate and rival.

Mishra uses a series of flashbacks to mesh the past and the present, to give the narrative a linear movement while allowing detours to reveal nuances of changed relationships and accommodate constantly evolving perspectives. The time covered is a little over five years. Over a casual conversation, Mishra confessed how hard it was to edit this sprawling, almost daunting narrative, without his wife Renu Saluja - one of our finest editors whose precise matched cuts bore her flamboyant signature, before untimely death claimed her. The loss has given Mishra's handling of time in the film - his signature as a director - a subtle poignancy. Viewers get the expansive feeling of time stretched luxuriously to observe the changing personalities and feelings and yet, without losing the sense of immediacy, the drive toward the unexpected resolution of the drama. The expected denouement is the Emergency. The unexpected denouement is a profound shift of the emotional equation.

SUDHIR MISHRA joins the ranks of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shaji N. Karun, as film-makers who have found French co-producers for their ambitious ventures. It is time to recognise him as one of the significant film-makers in India with an established body of work. Stylistic echoes resonate over different themes and an auteur's sensibility binds them. The way he treats time as a tangible player in the narrative is distinctive.

A precise time-frame is essential to the film's construction: decades old, regretful nostalgia of three dissimilar friends, secure in their autumnal maturity, for a shared idealistic youth was the overarching mood of Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin. His noir Is Raat ki Subah Nahin crossed the paths of unconnected people in the frenetic span of a single night. Incidentally - and without rancour - Mishra reminds you that his black farce, where the mafia and the corporate types intersect, pre-dates Satya. He is equally capable of finishing off what someone else started and gave Chameli's erotic frisson its time-bound urgency as the worlds of a sassy prostitute and an uptight merchant banker collide over the course of one monsoon night in a deserted Mumbai street.

The irony is that Chameli garnered far more media attention - for the shock value casting of a Raj Kapoor khandaan belle as a streetwalker - for a film-maker who had made the award-winning Dharavi years ago. Can this higher visibility now nudge the audience towards Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi? Ghalib's poetry beckons us to enter the roiling world of dreams and aspirations that are as relevant now, in a globalised world, as in the history-defining days of the Emergency.

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