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20 January 2014

Kaala Patthar (1979)

Directed by: Yash Chopra
Music: Rajesh Roshan /Salil Choudhary (Background)
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Starring: Amitabh Bachan, Shatrughan Sinha, Shashi Kapoor, 
Raakhee, Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh, Prem Chopra, Parikshit Sahni
In December last year, I posted a quiz on Raj Kapoor. The two runners-up were long-time readers and fellow bloggers, Harvey and Coolone. But the winner was a surprise - Anupama is all of 14 years old, and a huge fan of the legendary triumvirate, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. When she finally wrote to me claiming her prize, she surprised me once again. She wanted me to review Kaala Patthar. She had read my post on what I considered Amitabh Bachchan's best roles, and says it whetted her appetite for more. She proclaimed herself quite miffed that I had not reviewed this yet. The fact is that Kaala Patthar is one of Amitabh's (and Yash Chopra's) most under-rated films, and it was always there on my list of potential reviews. I just didn't find an opportunity to write it up. So, a big thank you to Anupama for giving me a reason to watch Kaala Patthar again. It is a film that definitely deserves to be better known. This is for you, Anupama (and for your grandfather)...

A dark mining town, where the black rock means untold wealth for a few and poverty and death for many. Among those many men is one tall, silent man, Vijay Pal Singh (Amitabh Bachchan), whose days are filled with frenzied activity and nights, destroyed by the demons of his past.  
One night, woken up from an uneasy sleep by his recurring nightmares, he hears the klaxon call warning of danger in the mines. The miners in tunnel no.4 are trapped. Undeterred by the thought of personal danger, Vijay goes down into the mines looking for his doomed colleagues. That he succeeds is not due to his personal bravery but his complete disregard for his own safety. Outside, the joyous yells of his fellow miners mingle with the jeers from his past. Where does one end and the other begin? 
Dhanraj Coal Mines are obviously dangerous, and the mine owner Dhanraj Puri (Prem Chopra) is deeply contemptuous both of the mines and the workers who risk their lives to fill his coffers. He is given the disconcerting news by his Chief Engineer Maneklal Saxena (Yunus Parvez) that they cannot continue digging in tunnel no.4. The adjacent tunnel is filled with water and there is fear of it leaking and bringing down the walls, putting the lives of more than 400 workers at stake.
But how much do they stand to lose if they stop working the tunnel, Dhanraj asks. Rs4 million. Your mathematics is weak, Dhanraj tells Maneklal. 4 million is worth more than 400. He warns Maneklal not to discuss the matter with anyone. In the meantime, they have appointed a new engineer - Ravi Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor), whose first meeting with his new boss does not go too well.

Along with Ravi, there are two other newcomers in town; Dr Sudha Sen (Raakhee), who has come to take charge of the tiny clinic, and Anita (Parveen Babi), a journalist who has been expressly invited by  Dhanraj to write a story about his mines. Ravi is deputed to fetch Anita from the airport, and it is clear that they know each other.
The next stranger to arrive is Mangal (Shatrughan Sinha), an escaped convict. Having made a daring jailbreak, he decides to hide out in Dhanbad until the heat dies down. But he doesn't actually hide; he walks in with an arrogant swagger and lords it over the inhabitants. Until he runs into Channo (Neetu Singh), an itinerant bangle seller; she offers him what she considers a piece of well-meaning advice - don't mess with Vijay. It acts as a gauntlet, which Mangal promptly picks up.

Meanwhile, Vijay's enemies, Tanna (Sharat Saxena) and his friends trap him in the mine at the end of the shift. Luckily for Vijay, Ravi helps him escape. Vijay is taken to the hospital where he meets the new doctor. Much to her consternation, he refuses anaesthetics while she is cleaning coal dust out of his wound. It is his punishment. For what, she doesn't know. 
But she is intuitive, and scarily right in her understanding of him. Vijay is taken aback. Very few people can read him so easily. Surprisingly, she shares her story with him, and Vijay is touched in ways he cannot comprehend. Something unspoken passes between them, and when he turns to go, she offers him her name - Sudha.

Meanwhile, Ravi is finding himself pitted against Dhanraj. But not even Dhanraj's threats can swerve him from fighting for the worker's rights. Dhanraj is not a fool. He realises that Ravi has a lot of influence on the workers. He will bide his time. That night, the miners celebrate, but Ravi is fearful. They do not know the dangers they are courting. Not true, replies Vijay. The first thing that miners do when they get their salary is to buy a shroud for themselves. What if they are not fated to have a shroud? counters Ravi. What if they are destined for a watery grave? Vijay is stoic, but asks to be warned when Ravi is sure the disaster will occur. 

Mangal has not forgotten the gauntlet he picked up. Only, he's underestimated his man. Vijay is not one to back down. The fight may not occur then, but the mutual antagonism is simmering under the surface. It will finally break out, and spectacularly so, when Mangal deliberately insults Sudha.
Ravi and Dhanraj are heading for a collision too. Ravi orders new machinery that will make the miners' work easier, and safer. Dhanraj is furious. The mines are being worked for the owners' profits, not for the workers' safety! Everything is beginning to come to a head - the police are searching for Mangal, unlikely romances flare up, Anita has exposed the conditions in the mines and been kicked out by Dhanraj for her pains, accidental deaths continue, Ravi is forced to stop work in the mines, and Dhanraj is furious. Confrontations and consequences come thick and fast. And all the time...
Will Ravi's fears come to pass? Would Dhanraj really gamble with the workers' lives? Will Vijay's guilt lead him to taking impossible risks? What about Mangal? And Sudha, Anita and Channo? Are they fated to helplessly watch their destinies play out?

Kaala Patthar is a very raw film at heart. Much like its setting - the coal mines - the whole atmosphere of the film itself was bleak and forbidding. There was no room for levity, and the script, based on the real-life Chasnala coalmine disaster in Dhanbad, does ample justice to the disaster-film genre. It is a shame that Yash Chopra stopped making films such as these - the tautly scripted, emotional, conflict-driven, dramatic films that were his forte. This is the man whose debut film was Dharmputra - a tale of human relationships tested by the Partition. He also gave us Ittefaq, a taut songless thriller with just four characters, Deewar, Trishul, and Waqt - all dramatic films with a strong emotional core.

The acting was excellent (Amitabh and Shatrughan sharing the honours, Shashi offering quiet support), and it was not just the leads; Prem Chopra, Parikshit Sahni, Manmohan Krishna... they were all good. It is the songs that, while pleasant enough, were an unnecessary distraction, and so were two of the three heroines.
But these are only small quibbles about a film that was breath-taking both in scope and vision. Everyone involved were at the top of their game. It seems incredible, then, that the film failed at the box-office. Take the acting: this was Amitabh's show all the way. Vijay is a decorated naval officer who, disgraced by his actions, dishonourably discharged from the navy, and disowned by his family, seeks oblivion in this dusty little town. His hatred is for self, and he lives with it. He volunteers for the most dangerous jobs, regardless of danger. All his actions are driven by a desire to prove he is not a kaayar,  a burzdil (coward). And Yash Chopra channelised that anger in a way that seared the screen.
Vijay's romance with Raakhee's Sudha is very subtle and understated, very much like their romance in Trishul. In this film too, he plays a tortured character, carrying his demons with him, and trying to outrun them at the same time. In the scene where she first meets him - she is the newly-arrived doctor at the clinic - she is frustrated at his rejecting anaesthesia, choosing to bear the pain instead. When all her efforts fail, she bursts out, 'Why don't you understand?' and is stunned when he replies, in flawless English: 'Why don't you understand? My pain is in my destiny and I cannot avoid it.' Later, she asks 'Kahan ke ho?' It's a casual question, asked while she is changing the dressing. His answer (later) is, Bacha sawaal ke main kahaan ka hoon. Toh kuch log aise bhi hote hain jo kahin ke nahin hote. It is an unusual answer and it intrigues her. 
However, slowly, she begins to understand this complex, guilt-ridden man and what drives him, until one day, without either realising it, without much fanfare, they know they are in love. It was beautifully done, and like in Trishul, all the more intense for being so quiet. 

Shatrughan Sinha exploded on screen with as much bluster as Amitabh's silence. This was a character after his own heart, and he chewed it up with relish. Whether it is his crackling chemistry with Amitabh, or his rough and ready banter with Neetu's Channo, he burnt up the screen every time he put in an appearance. On the 'opposite' side  of Amitabh, so to speak, he proves a worthy opponent. 
He was also given some pithy one-liners which he spits out with relish - Abey, o, arthi ke phool, hum apni line khud banatey hain! His character remained true to form as well - he is a convict, uncouth and unrepentant, brash and willing to pick a fight, anytime, anywhere. Especially if Vijay is around. In fact, he comes across as a person with a chip on his shoulder, taking pleasure in picking a fight. His redemption is also organic, a result of circumstances, where even foes become friends.  
His romance with Channo seemed contrived, though. It is a cinematic trope that should be retired - he saves her from being raped, she begins to love him. Channo is a strong woman; she's alone, and while her past is not known, she seems perfectly capable of handling herself in a mining town, and has obviously been doing so for years. To have her suddenly be weak because you need a way to ignite the romance between two characters - well, that is perhaps what Javed Akhtar meant by a 'flawed' script.

I could have done with more Shashi Kapoor. His Ravi is the stated voice of conscience, alerting the callous mine-owners to the disaster waiting to happen, and is competent enough in the dramatic scenes with the bosses. It is a supportive role, but a strong one. But in a film that had a very intense story to tell, his romance with Parveen Babi's Anita is the weakest of the three. The repartee between the two does evoke smiles, and they are good-looking people whom I love to watch anyway. Unfortunately, in this film, you wished they would stop bantering and get on with the story.  
Sanjeev Kumar, in a cameo, makes an impact with one line of dialogue. The pain and defeat on his face when he hands over charge to Raakhee, the incoming doctor, is killing. "Is aspataal mein mareez nahin, laashein aati hai... woh laashein jo abhi puri tarah mari nahin hai." It is her introduction to the realities of a small-town clinic serving marginalised people. Raakhee, herself, had a small role, just as she did in Trishul, but as there, it is more important than the regulation heroine's. There is more depth to her character, and she does a fantastic job underplaying the role with subtle grace.
Her romance with Vijay is very touching, and Yash Chopra handles it very sensitively. As Sudha grows fonder of Vijay, she asks him, "Tumhe sapne dekhna achcha nahin lagta?" He, who has always striven to keep himself and his emotions in check, replies quietly, "Mujhe jhoote sapne dekhna achcha nahin lagta." But all dreams are not false, and so she tells him. 
It is a quiet scene, but an amazing one. When Vijay finally allows his vulnerability to show, opening the doors to his heart  - Mera dil ka ek kamra aisa bhi hai, he tells her, jismein main khud bhi nahin jaata - to let her in, she reaches out quietly and kisses his forehead. There are no words said, no words needed. A hark back to Trishul again where Raakhee's Gita says, "Koi bhi insaan nafrat ke sahaare nahin jee sakta. Kabhi kisi se thodi si dosti, thodi si mohabbat maangkar toh dekhte?" And he, another Vijay, places his palm gently against her cheek and says quietly, "Aaj main tumse bahut si dosti, bahut si mohabbat maangta hoon." To me, it is scenes like these that demonstrated Yash Chopra's affinity to romance, not the chiffon saris and Swiss mountains.
The songs may have done nothing much for the story, but the background music (Salil Choudhary) more than made up for it by adding a complementary gravitas to the film's overwhelming feeling of doomed humanity. Kaala Patthar's cast of characters are all running away - Vijay is running away from himself, Mangal from the law. A carefree Ravi is on a trip that finally kills his innocence. An idealistic Sudha, who wants to make up for her father's death due to the lack of medical facilities, eschews a practice in town to serve in a small mining town. Channo has nowhere else to go. They are all, in their own way, as trapped as the miners are. 

The palette of the film overflowed with greys, browns and black, and it more than emphasised the bleakness of the landscape and the stark lines of the machinery. Yash Chopra brought to life a gritty, realistic story, filming it amidst the dirt and grime. The scenes in the mines have to be mentioned because they underline the utter hopelessness of the miners' lives that begin with one siren and end with another. Tragedy is always just around the corner and the men are inured to it. The siren that evokes the spectre of another tunnel falling fails to arouse anything other than tired resignation to the vagaries of their fates. In sharp contrast is Dhanraj's expensive suits, shiny cars and personal aircraft. Dirt lines everyone and everything, from the men's faces and clothes (none grittier than Vijay), to the consciences of other men. And redemption comes in different forms.  

 My review does scant justice to this unpolished gem of a movie. It truly is a diamond in the rough. Now... to go watch it again.


  1. This is one of my favorite movies ever. I've used it several times to introduce people to 70's Hindi films-not because I think it typifies the era (obviously it doesn't at all), but because of the fabulous way it weaves together multiple perspectives . . . as well as its excellent use of ensemble. Also, it's just inspirational, bottom line.

    Rakhee and Amitabh's characters are certainly the heart of this story. . . but I wonder if we would care so much about their understated relationship if we didn't have to weather the often obnoxious adolescent wooing of Shashi and Parveen's duo. If nothing else, it's a nice contrast! (Of course, it didn't help that they both got slapped with the two weakest songs of the entire film).

    I love is the fact that each of the characters not only fits a social hierarchy slot in the story, but also react so differently to the same external scenarios. We feel annoyed by Parveen and Shashi's frolic perhaps because we know they've ALWAYS been above it all their whole life--that they come from privilege and a social crust that has time for cheesy romance. While on the other end of the spectrum, we have the working girl and the criminal, who despite some misplaced Hindi movie logic in their courtship (the falling in love after being saved from rape) really do seem to share a common flare for resourcefulness and survival.

    In general, this film feels like the bottle episode trope in television, where you throw a bunch of different people in the same room (or just restrict them to a certain space), give them a crisis, and watch the feathers fly. Luckily, Salim-Javed and Yash Chopra had an eye for what would satisfy emotionally . . . and didn't ever get so caught up in the crisis that they forgot about the characters going through the crisis. Which is why I (and everybody else I've shown this to) am so satisfied by the end. If this is a disaster movie, you could have fooled me, cause all I see are FEELINGS, CHOICES, and opportunities for REDEMPTION :) as you pointed out.

  2. Thank you, Madhu. Your comment has me grinning from ear to ear. It is easy enough for me to write passionately about the films I feel passionately about. This was a fantastic film and deserves much more than it received.

    This film came three years (4?) after the Chasnala mine disaster. I knew about it only because dad told me about it when he was taking me to watch the film. They shot this in the same town - Dhanbad.

  3. I think I would have cared about Raakhee and Amitabh's love story even if they had cut out Shashi and Parveen's track. Simply because the former was more organically bound with the story; the latter was a sore thumb. I agree with you about the contrast, though. 'Obnoxious adolescent wooing' is exactly what I should have called it!

    The point about their standing in the social hierarchy is an interesting one. I didn't quite think of it like that; for me, I think, it was more of a 'Look, I don't care if you want to jump each other's bones, but go away and let me concentrate on what is more important.' They diluted the tension, and I didn't want the tension diluted. Yes, Shatru and Neetu fared better.

    Well, I would say this is a disaster movie, but from an Indian perspective. Because for us, it is less to do with the incident itself, as it is to do with what you said - the feelings, choices and opportunities for redemption. It is all brought to a head because of circumstance. That said, I don't care what anyone calls it, or to which genre it belongs. Again, I agree with you that it is a very satisfying movie. :) I'm glad you liked it as much as I did.

  4. I saw this film a long time ago, as far I remember, I I liked Amitabh (I usually do like him) but did I like the film? I do not remember, I know I found it a bit loud in certain parts, maybe I should revisit the film once again, but I hardly have the time, I have a tough time updating my blogs, where do I have the time to watch a film. Yes I liked Rakhee too, that much I do remember.

  5. Indeed a good film!
    But like many Yash Chopra films, I found its end very dragging. That Chopra knows how to make good films but somehow he can't give them a good end. Either it is too rushed like in Silsila (or Lamhe or Chandani for that matter) or dragging like Dharamputra.
    But the remaining film was very good. Though i sitll have that feeling that Shatrughan Sinha's character could have been done away with.

  6. Anu,
    I ditto Madhu. Extremely well written review. I would watch it again.

    'Redundant romance in tight films' can be a very good subject for study. Why do good directors fall prey to this? Either they think the audience is not intelligent, or they need to fill up three hours. As I read it, it reminded me of Deewaar, a great film by any yardstick, but the superfluous romance of Shashi Kapoor-Neetu Singh sticks out as a sore thumb. The most credible and sympathetic character, I find, was of Parveen Babi, who is reduced to superfluous romance in Kala Pathar.

    Deewaar is the film Kala Pathar is closest to - in the silent intensity of Amitabh Bachchan, his past demons and his yearning for redemption. Did the latter film suffer in comparison to the earlier classic by the same team?


  7. I only saw this now. :( My internet connection was down. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I like my prize. This review was so much better than my expectations; you made me want to watch it all over again.

  8. Shilpi, are you sure this was the film? I mean, I just watched it prior to writing this review, and 'loud' is one thing that it is not. It is pretty restrained for the sort of film it is. Very contained.

  9. I think in terms of the ending, Yash Chopra suddenly remembered he was making a disaster film, so he had to show the disaster. :) But it was okay. Didn't take away from the film for me, but that is a subjective thing.

    Was Lamhe rushed? Again, I do not think so. I was pretty pissed off with the Chandni and Silsilaendings, but I quite liked Lamhe. With Silsila the original ending was supposed to be with Amitabh and Rekha together, but Yash Chopra admitted that he would have been lynched if he had shown that. So finally the ending was the lamest thing ever,

    Agree with you about Shatru's character, but he acted very well.

  10. By the way, this was Anupama's 'prize'. When are you going to send me your request? :)

  11. Thank you, AK.

    Redundant romance - my theory is that they decide that a film needs both heroes and heroines. Then, they realise that their scripts are really not written to include the heroines - so they add three scenes,two songs, thus diluting the script.

    I agree totally about the Shashi-Neetu romance in Deewar. Totally superfluous. And yes to Parveen's character as well - I iwsh they had developed it further. That is an arc I would have loved to have seen.

    I have no idea why Kaala Patthar failed, really. By all accounts, it shouldn't have. Amitabh was at the top of his game (Zanjeer, Sholay, Deewar, et al), Salim-Javed were the most sought after scriptwriters, Yash Chopra had just given two hits, Shashi, Shatru, Neetu, Parveen, Raakhee - it was a star-studded affair, it had a great script - who knows what works at what time?

  12. You are welcome, Anupama. I'm glad you liked the review.

  13. Oh I love this movie. I liked the songs as well. The women here are all there for a purpose. They are all working women :) And feisty as well.

    The men were awesome. I love many of Chopra's movies, this is one of them.

    Now I feel like watching the movie all over again :)

  14. It's been a long time since I commented, Anu. But I have been lurking and quietly enjoying every post. Your enforced hiatus let me catch up with all the old posts that I hadn't been able to read in time, but you have come back with a bang!

    Kaala Patthar is one of my favourite Amitabh movies, so I couldn't resist commenting.Thank you for a very well-written review. It is easy to see which films you feel very passionately about - your writing rises up a notch in those posts. :)

    A worthy review for a worthy film. Thanks once again.

  15. Oh Harv, Pacifist Immer, Archana, RAja, Sameer and I often watch movies together. We can work something out maybe. It will be fun :)

  16. Wow! Yes, please, count me in! Bollyviewer and I have had a couple of watchalongs together and it's been a riot! We spend more time chatting about the movie and commenting on it than actually watching, but oh, what fun. Let me know.

  17. I KNOW!!!!!

    I will get the group together and let you know. Bollyviewer can also join in. She is a part of our crazy group now :)

  18. Thanks, Ava. I'm just imagining what my review of a film we watch together will look like. I had so much fun with the Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai post - I watched it with Lalitha, her husband and her sister. I have three films I think that I have watched with Bollyviewer - and the chat transcripts are a hoot. I should post them!

    Looking forward to watching a film with people as crazy as me. :)

  19. Excuse me, we are crazier :)

  20. I have already sent it to you.
    Will send the request once again.
    Hope you can get hold of the film.

  21. Okay, baba, maaf karo! *grin* I'm not as crazy, bas? *Pleadingly* But may I join in the film-watching, please? Or do I have to attain a certain degree of craziness before you allow me? :) :)

  22. Yup, got it about an hour ago. Have replied to it. Will try and track the film down.

  23. This is one of my favorite Amitabh movies. Shatru probably is the only one not to get overshadowed by Amitabh and actually matched him in the films they worked together. Vinod Khanna in comparison was almost always the second fiddle except in a forgotten film called 'Hera pheri'.
    I thought the character that Mac Mohan plays in the film was very memorable, dare I say better than 'Sambha'.
    Did the lack of hit music play a part in this film's failure?

  24. Yes, MacMohan's role was rather different from the usual sidekick roles he played. But this didn't have any chakkas dialogues. :)

    I don't know why this film wasn't more successful than it was, Chris. It is sad, though, because Yash Chopra stopped making gritty films and turned to fluff afterwards.


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