The strange fate of a passive man: on Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastan
Date: 5/14/2012 3:52:00 PM
A few posts ago, I mentioned the new NFDC “Cinemas of India” DVDs – fine restorations of long-neglected films which could, with a little more effort, become something akin to a Criterion Collection for Indian cinema. In the past few weeks I’ve been watching movies such as Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi, Awtar Krishna Kaul’s 27 Down, Shyam Benegal’s Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda and Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor ki Maut on prints that allow one to fully appreciate the visual flair of these films (they also help overcome a mental block against discussing “serious”, non-mainstream movies in terms of their aesthetic appeal, but more on that in a later post).
There is much to appreciate, visually and aurally, in Saeed Mirza’s first directorial feature Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978). For starters, it has one of the most skilfully crafted opening sequences I have seen in a Hindi film. The first images – little huts, fields, poor people minding their children – are from a village or a very small town. A woman lights a chulha and a minimalist music score begins; it’s little more than the gentle plucking of a string instrument, but the sound becomes more hypnotic the more you hear it. We see measurements being taken, cloth being dyed, posts being driven into the ground, threads stretched across them – and soon we realise that we are watching an intricately embroidered carpet coming into existence. Women and little children labour away at it.
As the soundtrack gets busier, we hear people talking in the language of the marketplace - trading, negotiating. From a shot of a wall with the finished carpet spread over it, there is a cut to the inside of a room with the same carpet on display; the camera tracks forward and we see we are no longer in the village, we are in a showroom in the city. This is where the product of all that hard labour will be sold at prices that the original craftsmen could scarcely imagine.
Other handicrafts come into view, a hand passes over the carpet, gently stroking it. Foreign tourists - we don't see their faces, only hear them - murmur to each other in wonderment. “It must be frightfully expensive!” a woman says; she makes soft sounds of pleasure as she runs her hand over a Kashmiri fox fur. A purchase is made, they leave the showroom; in long-shot we see a sweeper toiling on the road outside. And then the opening titles begin with an illustration of a man’s head gradually filling with red colour.
When we first see Arvind Desai (Dilip Dhawan) – the son of the businessman who owns the showroom – he is in his car, watching a street show at a traffic intersection. Driving through his city, Arvind is the picture of a handsome, confident young man taking in the sights (and there are some great vistas of 1970s Bombay in these scenes, including advertising boards of the time and promotional material for Amar Akbar Anthony). But early appearances are misleading, for Arvind is neither confident nor happy: subsequent events show him to be a drifter, uncomfortable in his own skin and never quite certain of where he is going.
Though he seems concerned about social injustice, we see that he is unlikely to ever take a real stand against it; perhaps he perceives himself as being trapped by the world he was born into. Speaking to a dealer who is asking for a higher margin, Arvind shows sympathy for the “mazdoor log” whom he has never met. “Unhein zyaada nahin milna chahiye?” he asks, “Aap aur hum toh unhee ke banaaye huye cheezon pe zinda hain, na?” (“Shouldn’t they get more? People like you and I are existing on the things they make.”) He berates the middleman for being unwilling to reduce his own profit, and then suddenly snaps, “You’re worse than me.” It’s an odd, non-contextual remark, but it seems to come from the hidden depths of a man who is guiltily aware of his cushy existence.
Watching this film, I wondered: is Arvind the most passive “hero” in the history of Hindi cinema? He’s certainly a candidate, and his passivity is central to this intriguingly titled movie. (“Ajeeb dastaan”? Some viewers would say that nothing remotely interesting happens to him.) More than once, we see him going to visit someone (a friend, a cousin), sitting around for a bit without doing anything, then getting up and saying he has to leave because he has to be somewhere else. He spends time with his girlfriend Alice, but there is no hint of physical intimacy. Instead we see him visit a prostitute with a disfigured face, but here again it’s as if he is following a script – making a naive, half-hearted effort to “connect” with the underprivileged.
Trapped in a smart suit on office days – and looking like the typical heir apparent of a wealthy family – he wears a kurta when he goes to visit his “Leftist” friend Rajan (Om Puri), and this too seems like a self-conscious attempt to fit in with Rajan and his jhola-carrying crowd. But when they actually begin talking about such things as existential angst and the effects of industrialisation, Arvind seems unable to participate; instead he goes to the window and stares at passing trains, a dreamy little smile on his face. “I’m not intellectual like you,” he tells Rajan with a little laugh.But what is he exactly? We see him strolling about indolently in a bookstore, as if needing to prove something to himself; he glances at a shelf containing titles by Russian writers like Solzhenitsyn, but he doesn’t pick one up. Is this how an intellectual manqué window-shops?
Arvind is good-looking, but in a vacant, callow sort of way - his expressions range from an unconvincing sternness (when he is dealing with a dishonest employee) to a bashful, boyish smile (when he is joking with Rajan). His voice is mostly flat and inexpressive. And there is a question to be asked here: to what extent are these qualities attributable to the rawness of Dilip Dhawan the actor? Dhawan was very young when he appeared in this film, his lack of experience occasionally shows, and perhaps this is why he comes off so well as a vulnerable young man who is uncertain of his place in the world. This could be a case of excellent casting or serendipity: a first-time director making a low-budget film gives the lead role to one of his colleagues from the film institute, and he turns out to be just right for the part.
Otherwise too, Mishra’s film has a compellingly off-kilter quality. It looks and feels like a movie made by someone who had recently graduated from the FTII, his head chockful of Antonioni and Welles and Godard and dozens of other cinematic possibilities. There is formal inventiveness here, and some of it works very well: I liked the many scenes where people walk in and out of little rooms or cabins in the claustrophobic showroom, doors closing behind them and briefly cutting off their voices so we only get an incomplete sense of what is being said. (The showroom, with its many hushed whispers, is like a temple of capitalism, and one can see why someone with Arvind’s delicate sensibilities feels suffocated in it.) I also liked the use of overlapping dialogue in a party scene populated by the swish set; it is disconcerting both for the viewer and for Arvind himself. At other times, though, I felt Mirza was simply imitating the techniques of other filmmakers to little effect: the Godardian jump-cuts when Arvind drives his car, for instance.
If you’re familiar with Mirza’s other work (including his writing), you’ll know that he can be irreverent and polemical in equal measure, and at the same time. This film is often drily funny about the relationship between the poor and the rich, a running theme being that the former are smarter and more dialled in than the latter think. Going by the indulgent glow on his face, Arvind thinks he is being kind to a street boy by asking him to keep a watch on his car and promising him employment, but the kid makes fun of him behind his back. Later, at a booze shop, when Arvind hurriedly walks away after handing over more money than he was supposed to pay, the shopkeeper (instead of being grateful for the “tip”) shakes his head and chuckles to his assistant “Saalon ko paise lene mein bhi takleef hoti hai.” (“These rich people find it irksome to even take their money back.”)
In the final analysis, though, humour and scorn are the only weapons that the poor have (and this too is a theme that recurs through Mirza's cinema). The film ends with the eyes of the helpless carpet-makers staring out at us as the soundtrack becomes percussive and angrier. That ending – with the drumbeats, the unflinching gaze and the silent accusation – might remind you of the final seconds of the debut film made by Mirza’s friend and colleague Kundan Shah a few years later. But it also seems to underline Arvind Desai’s status as a cipher - a well-meaning but inconsequential man - in his own story.Here's a trailer for the NFDC DVD:
P.S. In Saeed Mirza’s book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother (which I wrote about here), there is an amusing passage about Mirza’s mother watching the preview of Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan and telling him “There was no story [...] I wish it had more drama.” I can sympathise with her – this is a slow, self-conscious film – but I think it’s possible to become so immersed in it that the question “what happens?” becomes irrelevant.