Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Music: RD Burman
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi,
Jugal Hansraj, Saeed Jaffrey,
Urmila Matondkar, Aradhana
The 80s were generally considered the nadir of Hindi cinema. It's when films became kitschy, loud, and spontaneously combusted in a riot of colours, pots, flowers, props... However, amidst all that noise and mayhem and violence, there were quite a few films that stood out for their quiet simplicity, excellent stories and direction, capped by great acting from the cast.
Masoom is one of them. Director Shekhar Kapur's debut film as a director, the film was an adaptation of Erich Segal's Man Woman & Child. I had already read Segal's Love Story by then (What can I say? I was a precocious kid.), and had been thoroughly underwhelmed, and knowing the story of this film didn't endear it to me. Neither did its star-cast. I was barely a teen then, and the Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi didn't really appeal to a kid who was besotted by Amitabh Bachchan.
However, we were wrapping up life in Bangalore (then), and for some reason, I remember, Gandhi, released earlier was still playing, and my sister wanted to watch it. Having been fed on a diet of Gandhiji throughout school, I was bored as hell, but wanted to watch Rambo-First Blood, which had just released in Bangalore, because my now-husband had recommended it. (Yes, he was not always a film-snob!) So we, partners-in-crime, decided we would 'suffer' through each other's choices. So we watched them back to back. And then noticed Jugal Hansraj in the posters for Masoom. So we decided we had to watch that as well. (Yup, that's how we chose which films to watch.)
So we duly made our way back to Majestic, and stood in line for the tickets, as the crowd surged around us. It was playing to full house every show, and the lines snaked through the lobby from the ticketing window to the compound outside. As we waited, we watched the patrons of the earlier show coming out - everyone suspiciously red-eyed. 'Uh oh,' I thought to myself, 'one of those!' I looked at my sister and she had the same look on her face. But we had been standing there for nearly an hour, there wasn't another movie we wanted to watch, and we had come to watch a movie, and by God! We were going to watch one... so we stayed.
I'm so glad we did.
The film opens on a note of foreboding. A hospital, a waiting man, a patient with very little time left… and a young boy who comes too late… We are told that according to the deceased’s will, her property is being held in trust for the child. His whole responsibility has been handed over to the man who was by her bedside when she died.
The lawyer is concerned; where will he take the boy? Nainital, responds the old man. No, he has no relatives, he lives alone. Does the boy not have a father? The old man is silent.
The scene shifts to Delhi, the home of DK Malhotra (Naseeruddin Shah), where his daughters Mini (Aradhana) and Rinky (Urmila Matondkar) have just become acquainted with the pup whom DK has introduced to the household in his wife, Indu’s (Shabana) absence. When a harried Indu walks in later, she is met with a very silent family, complicit in their silence. It takes a moment for her to realise they are unusually silent, and only a few more moments to realise why. Despite her rather strict and in-control-of-everything attitude, Indu and DK have a very loving relationship, and theirs is a very happy family. (Even if she calls him a 'chalaak bandar' when he tries to maniplate her into keeping the pup.)
That evening, they visit their friends, the Suris (Saeed Jaffrey and ?), where Indu makes DK promise that he will neither drink nor recite poetry. DK promises the first, and rejects the second, only to order himself a Patiala peg ‘to start with’. It’s a typical society party, and one is introduced to a cast of characters.
One of them is Chanda (Tanuja), a divorcee, who is always promising to stop smoking, ‘kal se’ (from tomorrow). Of course, DK’s ‘one Patiala peg’ has gone on for a while, and soon, he and Suri are singing a duet. While Kanta looks on indulgently, Indu is resigned, and is soon laughing at their antics.
The next morning brings bad news; Ratna, Indu’s friend, is in hospital, having tried to commit suicide due to her husband’s infidelity. Chanda is furious, and when Indu cautions her against speaking out, Chanda bursts out – would Indu keep quiet if it happened to her? That evening, DK, surrounded by his loving family, is dismissive – why marry if you cannot take on the responsibility?
These words will soon come back to bite him.
One day, DK receives a telegram from an unexpected source. Gur Dayal Singh was his school headmaster, he tells Indu, but he cannot think why the old man should want to see him urgently. He’s rushing to office, but promises to call and find out. An urgently booked trunk call gives him some even more surprising news – Gur Dayal Singh wants DK to come to Nainital and take responsibility for his son. DK is shocked – what son? Whose son? Tiwari, the postmaster who DK is talking to (the headmaster doesn’t have a phone), informs him that Bhavana is dead and her son has been left to the care of the headmaster. The connection is cut, but DK is disturbed by what he hears.
That evening, Indu is worried by his mood, but DK cannot bring himself to confide in her. The next day, he receives the letter that his headmaster had sent earlier, which tells him about the boy, the son whom Bhavana had kept from him all these years. Bhavana, writes the headmaster, was adamant that DK should never know of the boy. He had his own life, his own family. Now, Bhavana is long-dead, and the headmaster is worried about the boy’s fate if something were to happen to him. He would like DK to assume his son’s responsibility. Coming as it does out of the blue, DK is shattered by the news. Now he has to face Indu. He knows it will hurt her, but he has no other option. And so, the story tumbles out.
A shattered Indu tries to grasp the enormity of what her husband is telling her. So what does this woman want now? She’s dead. Then? Bhavana had a son. It’s a double blow to Indu. She knows how much DK wanted a boy.
The next morning, after a tense breakfast where the kids pick up on their parents’ mood, DK leaves for work. Matters deteriorate further when Indu receives a telegram saying the child is on his way to Delhi. She is furious. How dare DK do this to her? Whatever happens, she will not accept the child. He cannot be brought home!
DK, who had no inkling about the boy’s arrival is torn – now that the boy is on his way, what can he do? Hadn’t Indu once said that his problems were hers as well? Couldn’t she support him through this? He will make other arrangements for the boy, but for a few days… Indu is justifiably upset. Has DK ever thought of what she’s going through? What about the girls? What will they tell them? However, in the circumstances, Indu feels she has no options; she tells her daughters that a little boy is coming to stay with them for a while. His mother, a distant relative of theirs, had recently passed away.
Rinky puts her finger on the crux of the matter when she asks why he cannot go to his father. As Indu remains silent, it is left to DK to explain the matter further. As the girls go to bed, he thanks Indu for her handling of the matter, only to be told forthrightly that she was only thinking of their daughters.
The next morning, DK meets a shy, reserved Rahul (Jugal Hansraj), accompanied by Tiwari, the post master, who returns to Nainital by the next train. DK tries to draw his son out, pointing out the various attractions along the way, but when the boy finally speaks, it is to ask DK whether he knew his parents.
DK admits to knowing the boy’s mother, but claims to not know the father. The boy is upset – his mother had promised him his father would come for him one day. Now his mother is no more, and how will his father find him now that he has moved to Delhi? DK has no answers.
When they reach home, the only person who is truly welcoming of Rahul is Mini. Rinky is not very happy at having to give up the study, and Indu can only manage a short 'Namaste'. The sight of Rahul is salt to her open wound. So much so, at dinner that night, she can’t even serve him food. Rahul, bereft of his mother, already feels like an outsider. Later that night, as Indu puts her daughters to bed, he stands outside the room, on the periphery of their lives, shut out of the circle of affection that binds this family that has taken him in.
DK can only look on as his son grieves the loss of the mother he loved, and the father he has never known.
The next day when DK and the girls leave for work and school, Indu is aghast at being left alone with Rahul. The boy, not understanding the emotional undercurrents, shocks Indu when he innocently enquires whether she knew his mother. Indu can barely hold her feelings in check. Anguished, she leaves the home, meeting Chanda at her store. Infidelity, affairs, these happened to other people. She doesn’t know how to handle the situation.
DK has no idea how to handle the situation either. He can only beg forgiveness, a forgiveness that Indu cannot bring herself to give. The last ten years, her whole marriage, in fact, seems like a sham now, a charge that cuts DK to the quick.
It’s the weekend, and Suri forces a reluctant DK and Indu to come to his farmhouse. Indu watches from a distance at DK’s growing closeness to Rahul, her grief and anger increasing as DK refers casually to him as ‘beta’. In fact, during a game of cricket, DK has to bite his tongue to stop from calling Rahul his son – a fact that Indu notices. The tension between her and DK does not go unnoticed by Suri. Neither does he miss Indu’s attitude towards Rahul.
Finally, DK has a chance to unburden himself. He tells Suri how it all happened. Some ten years earlier, when Indu was pregnant with Rinky, DK had gone to Nainital for a class reunion. There, he had become reacquainted with Bhavana (Supriya Pathak), an old classmate. Bhavana knew DK was married, was happy with Indu, and she asked nothing of him, except that short tryst.
Now, his marriage is breaking up; how can he make this up to Indu? What can he say that she will forgive him his trespasses? Suri suggests that Rahul’s presence will exacerbate the situation; DK should send him away to boarding school. DK agrees, but surely the boy has some rights as well? What’s his fault?
Back home, Rinky is melting towards Rahul, especially when he helps her with her studies. She’s wondering why he isn’t studying further; why can’t he stay on in Delhi and go to school with them? Her sudden friendliness is balm to the little boy’s heart, but he’s not sure ‘aunty’ will agree. Rinky has no doubts – her mother loves all children; she’s just shy of him because he’s new.
Rahul is settling in, though he still hankers for his father. While the children are fast becoming close to each other, Indu and DK are drawing further and further apart. Their personal tension begins to affect DK’s work as well.
For Indu’s birthday, Rahul makes her a box to store the bangles that Rinky is planning to give her. He is quick to discern that Indu's not happy with the gift, but DK and the girls reassure him. In fact, Indu is deeply touched, and for the first time since DK confessed to his affair, she’s able to see Rahul for the child he is.
But while in his room, she also sees Bhavana’s photograph for the first time, and she cannot un-see it – it poisons her mind, and hardens her heart again. So much so, the next day, when Rahul’s hurts his hand badly, and comes running to her to help, her pent up feelings spill over as she snaps at him. Shaken, the boy manages to hide the wound, tying it up as best he can. Mini notices the blood when they are having dinner, and when DK discovers that Indu has no idea how it happened, he finally blows up. Indu, already feeling guilty over snapping at Rahul instead of asking him what was wrong, blows right back at her husband. ‘Take your son and go away,’ she snaps.
The next day, DK avails of leave from an exasperated boss, and takes Rahul back to Nainital, where he plans to enrol the boy in boarding school. While there, they learn from the postmaster that the old headmaster had passed away a few days earlier. Rahul, already grieving his mother’s death, is facing another personal loss. Not only that, the boy is suddenly wondering whether his mother may have lied to him; perhaps he may not have a father at all.
But he’s forging a close bond with his ‘uncle’, even while he’s missing the girls. While wandering around Nainital, he confesses to DK that he would much rather stay with him than go to boarding school; and then, perhaps, he could call DK ‘papa’.
DK is realising just how much Rahul has inveigled himself around his heart in the short while he’s been with them. Unfortunately, he knows he cannot take Rahul to live with them. even though Rahul is terrified of the new school, and wants to live in Delhi. Admission over, they return to Delhi, so DK can collect all the papers that are necessary for school, and get Rahul kitted out. At his office, amongst all the other papers, is the letter that the late headmaster had written to DK.
The situation is further exacerbated when DK introduces Rahul to his boss as his ‘friend’s son’. That night, Rahul runs away.
Why did Rahul leave, and where did he go? Will they find him? And if they do, will Indu ever be able to forgive DK and/or accept Rahul? Will their guilt, their regrets be enough?
Shekhar Kapur adapted the story beautifully to an Indian background. And yes, he changed the ending. (Thank heavens. Reality is over-rated anyway.) What really stands out about Masoom is how relatable these characters are, how real. Adultery destroys not just the marriage and spousal relations, but also affects the children, who are the most innocent (masoom) of them all. The acting was absolutely top-notch, and if I have to list the honours, it would be between Shabana, as the cheated-upon spouse, Jugal Hansraj, as Rahul, and Naseer, who turns in a finely-etched performance as DK: the man whose one indiscretion has come to haunt him, and who is torn by guilt; both towards his wife, whom he betrayed, and his son, whom he cannot acknowledge.
Is there also guilt towards his daughters for his unspoken desire to have a son? One would suppose so. It's a finely nuanced performance, and one cannot but help pity him, even if he's responsible for creating this mess in the first place. Naseeruddin Shah has played morally conflicted roles before and after, but this role stands out for his youthful sincerity, his voice as well as his silences expressing more than just the meaning of the spoken dialogue.
He is at once guilty and remorseful, sensitive to his wife's grief, and torn by his love for the son who unexpectedly comes into his life. It is an achingly sensitive performance, and one cannot help but feel for a man who is paying such a huge price for a momentary indiscretion. He’s flawed, yes, but he’s also trying his sincere best to make amends to the wife he’s wronged, and to the son he cannot claim as his own, until the very end when it might just be too late.
Jugal Hansraj never did make it as a hero, despite his chocolatey good looks, but Shekhar Kapur draws a fine performance from the young boy, and he mirrors Rahul's grief at losing his mother, his hope that he will find his father one day as his mother constantly assured him, his confusion over who DK really is, his hurt at Indu's seeming dislike of him, his love for his half-sisters, who joyfully embrace this new almost-sibling without any hesitation - for a young boy, it was a fantastic performance. His eyes reflect hope and pain, eagerness and hurt, love and a deep longing to actually be part of a loving family he's come to think of as his own. His final ‘Sorry, aunty’ is heart-breaking.
Kapur's success as a director is in drawing these nuanced performances from the children, who are beautiful and perfect and all that is nice, but still so believably real, unlike the precocious brats we are used to seeing on screen. Both Urmila and Aradhana depict a very real sibling relationship, laughing and playing and squabbling and complaining, tossing off casual insults at each other… (‘Stupid!’ ‘You stupid!); and their scenes with Rahul are very natural, just three kids together, talking and playing like all children do.
While Urmila is the steady one, with just one ambition - to top her class, beating her closest rival, the young Aradhana is a minx. Whether it is her squealing in fear of the puppy while at the same time claiming to be totally unafraid, trying to insult her sister through a mouthful of toothpaste foam, her open acceptance of Rahul, or even, not completely understanding her parents' tension, breaking into an off-key rendition of Taiyyab Ali pyar ka dushman haaye... before she trails off into silence.
The protagonist is Rahul, as well as DK, but Indu, Shabana's Indu, is the fulcrum around which the whole plot hinges. She's the one who is destroyed by her husband's betrayal; she's the one who is forced to accept the boy, the living, breathing sign of her husband's infidelity into her home.
Faced with the vulnerable Rahul, however, she's torn. Her maternal instincts make her want to reach out and comfort the motherless boy, who so clearly, wants her affection. But each interaction is a painful reminder of how he came to be, and her anger at her husband affects her behaviour to the child. It also affects everything else - her relationship with DK, because she cannot erase his tryst with Bhavana from her imagination; her relationship with her children because she cannot, or will not, express the anguish that she feels - the internalisation of her pain forces her deeper into herself, until she's but a silent shell who erupts at intervals when she cannot hold it in any more.
Her rejection of Rahul stings, but however much one feels for the boy, he of the liquid eyes that melt your heart, can you blame Indu? For years, she had watched the marital difficulties of their friends - the divorces, the extramarital affairs, the hurt, the games people play. Now, suddenly, she's faced with duplicity in her own marriage. Worse, it is a double betrayal because DK had been so voluble about others' shortcomings. There’s a scene where Indu, learning that DK had returned (from Nainital, where he had gone to enrol Rahul in boarding school), quickly gets up from her bed, and goes to the mirror to comb her hair before rushing down to greet him. However, as she brushes her hair, her actions slow down as she remembers why he left.
Her eagerness wars with her hesitation, her joy conflicts with her anguish, as she sits down again, on the edge of her chair – the performance was fabulous.
Finally, she, DK, Rahul - they all have to come to terms with the reality of their lives. What makes the screenplay so effective is that they all have a choice; whether you agree with that choice or not, it is important that they make it for themselves.
In short, this is probably Gulzar's (screenplay/dialogue) most progressive woman character, perhaps because it's not his story.
Shabana used her silences, and her very expressive eyes, to great effect in this film. Her body language showed her conflict and her anguish more effectively than any spoken dialogue could. Her comfort with Naseeruddin Shah, co-star in many movies, also reflects in their scenes together. It won her a Filmfare nomination for Best Actress - she, however, won for Arth. (I'm not sure how this came about, given that Arth was released in 1982.)
Gulzar's verses, set to tune by RD Burman match the tone of the film; the haunting Tujhse naraaz nahin zindagi (reprised) so achingly beautiful, the female version interspersed with dialogues that reflect the man's helplessness and the woman's grief, while Do naina ek kahani is all the more poignant for Rahul's rejection juxtaposed against the girls', enveloped in their mother's warm affection; the ebullient Huzoor is kadar bhi na itraake chaliye that reflects happier times, but seems to be signal what can occur when footsteps falter; and the playful Lakdi ki kaati, a children's song sung by children.
Both RD (Music) and Gulzar (Lyrics) took home the Black Lady, as did Naseeruddin Shah for Best Actor. Unfortunately, since Masoom was up against Ardh Satya, Shekhar Kapur lost to Govind Nihalani in both Best Film and Best Director categories.
From the point of view of a book being adapted to a film, and from that of a 'foreign' book being Indianised, Masoom was a winner. If you want to watch an age-old story told with sensitivity and empathy towards all the protagonists, not painting them with broad brush-strokes, instead looking for the humanity within each, do take a look at this endearing little film.
[Oh, yes... our eyes were suspiciously red, and I had a cold I didn't have before, when we came out of the theatre.]