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27 May 2017

Mere Apne (1971)

Directed by: Gulzar
Music: Salil Choudhury
Lyrics: Gulzar
Starring: Meena Kumari, Vinod Khanna, 
Shatrughan Sinha, Ramesh Deo, 
Sumita Sanyal, Paintal, 
Asrani, Danny Denzongpa,
Deven Verma, Yogita Bali
In my tribute to VinodKhanna, I wrote that the song that comes to mind when I think of the late actor is Koi hota jisko apna from Mere Apne. As it happens, Mere Apne was his first film with Gulzar, who debuted as a director with this film. Mere Apne also starred one of my favourite actresses – Meena Kumari – in what would be one of her last roles. What’s more, the music was composed by Salil Choudhury. All this combined to make me revisit the film recently.

Anandi (Meena Kumari) lives a reclusive but content life in her village. She has a small house and a mango orchard, and her late husband, Niranjan (Deven Varma) had left her enough to live on. To this village comes Arun (Ramesh Deo) – to take Anandi to the city with him.
Anandi is not very sure. She is happy here. Her mango trees have grown old with her, and the mud walls of her house speak to her. She had come into this house as a bride, and even though Niranjan was a short-tempered man, he had loved her and taken good care of her. Until one day, Niranjan had gone with the other men to help donate food and clothing in the wake of a flood. He had contracted cholera and died leaving her a young widow. 

However, Arun’s loving words warm Anandi’s heart, and upon his coaxing – ‘Come live with me as my mother’ – she agrees to go with him. There is a tangible relief that, in her old age, she has someone to call her own. In the city, Lata (Sumita Sanyal), Arun’s wife, welcomes her warmly. 
And soon, Pinky, their little daughter, becomes Anandi’s responsibility. A little later, aghast at their treatment of Anandi, their maid (Leela Mishra) informs her that Arun and Lata are exploiting her. Earlier, Arun had brought another distant relative to stay with them. That lady had been smart, however, and she had negotiated a good salary along with food and lodging. However, as soon as she got a better offer, she had left them high and dry. Anandi is grieved. In the meantime, another of Arun’s cousins, Jatin (Keshto Mukherjee) comes to visit Anandi when Arun and Lata are at work. 
Anandi is not surprised when Jatin repeats Arun’s words, almost verbatim. Not quite as na├»ve as she had been earlier, she asks a visibly uncomfortable Jatin what he would pay her. She negotiates a salary of Rs20 per month, plus boarding and lodging, and sarcastically advises him to discuss the matter with his wife; if she agrees, Jatin can come for her. 

During her perambulations with Pinky, Anandi is also becoming aware of the tense situation created by the presence of rival gangs in their neighbourhood. It is clear that the local residents live in fear – one never quite knows when violence will erupt. The gang leaders are Shyam (Vinod Khanna) and Chennu (Shatrughan Sinha). 
The erstwhile friends-turned-bitter-enemies rule the locality with fists of iron – fists that are quick to rise to stake out and protect their turf. While Shyam’s gang is filled with college students who, because of strikes, haven’t completed their education, Chennu is an uneducated lout who flourishes because of political patronage. Both gangs have no hopes of respectable employment in the current scenario.

Anandi also meets a little urchin (Master Chintu); the cheerful imp begs on the street, using his day’s earnings to buy food for himself and his little polio-afflicted sister (Baby Geeta). Anandi is aghast when she learns they are orphans. Why, in her village, the neighbours would have taken care of the children!  

Shyam is touched to see Anandi take the little boy home with her. Unfortunately, Lata is furious. Their home is not an orphanage, and where does Anandi think the money is coming from to feed all and sundry?
Anandi remonstrates; she had only given the child a portion of her meal. Besides, it’s not as if they pay her a salary! One thing leads to another and Anandi is forced to leave Arun’s house.

The little waif now offers to take Anandi to his ‘home’, an abandoned building where he lives with his sister. There, Anandi finally finds the companionship that her aching heart desires. Not just from the little boy, but from Shyam and his friends, who now become her ‘family’, calling her ‘naani ma’ and according her loving respect. Shyam even bullies Arun into paying her a month’s salary.
Soon, she’s cooking for them, and they spend their evenings with her, telling her their stories, and being alternately scolded and fed by her. They have precious little hope, these young men, and their constant fights with their rivals are taking its toll.
Anandi coaxes them to return to the village with her. Her house is large enough to accommodate them, and the mango orchard will provide them with the means to live. Shyam is tempted. It could be a new beginning. However, the elections are round the corner, and one of the candidates, Biloki Prasad (Asit Sen), is paying them good money to canvass for him. Canvassing for his rival, Shri Anokhelal (Mehmood), is Chennu and his gang. The stage is set for an epic clash.
Based on story by Indra Mitra, Mere Apne is a faithful adaptation of Tapan Sinha’s Bengali film, Apanjan. Set against the student unrest of the late 60s, the film narrates a trenchant socio-political commentary on the disenfranchisement of the nation’s youth; woven into it is the story of an old woman, who gladly serves her family because she sees them as her own, only to realise that they are only exploiting her to serve their own ends.

The old woman and these young men find their comfort in each other, each accepting of the other. The warmth of their companionship, their unstated need for her unconditional love, and the open-heartedness of the young waifs who take her in, are a balm to her wounded heart. 
Mere Apne is not about the relative merits of the village over the city, or of old traditional ways over 'modern' attitudes. Gulzar keeps his directorial perspective deliberately narrow, and shows only the perspective of an elderly woman who is plucked from all that’s familiar and comfortable, and thrust into a more selfish world, one where she neither understands the culture, nor can accept the behaviour. There’s no moral judgement regarding Lata cutting her hair short, wearing ‘western’ clothes or even going to work. Instead, there’s Anandi’s bewilderment at what is beyond her comprehension – women working outside the home, the young men's abusive language, the violence on the streets, the utter lack of interest in other's problems...
This was one of Meena Kumari’s finest performances, and her Anandi is a quiet but strong presence. Traditional she may be, but even as a young wife, it is clear that she has a voice, and is willing to speak up for herself. Perhaps because her illness had taken its toll on her, Anandi’s younger version is played by Amina Karim, though Meena Kumari dubbed for both young and old versions, pitching her voice differently for both roles. Deven Verma (in a cameo) plays her boisterous, blustering husband – one who often threatens to beat her up if she isn't a 'good' wife, but who obviously does nothing of the sort.
Vinod Khanna plays Shyam with an energy that’s barely controlled – you can sense the turmoil roiling under the surface, and the violence, when it breaks out, is like watching a volcano erupt. Complementing him are Paintal (Bansi), Danny Denzongpa (Sanju), Dinesh Thakur (Billoo) and Sudhir Thakkar (Ranbir). Shatrughan Sinha as Chennu is more flamboyant, and Asrani (Raghunath) gets a much more serious role than is usual for him. Shyam’s and Chennu’s personal rivalry is reflected in the political machinations of the two leaders. Both Shyam and Chennu are victims of a broken system, and the culmination of their rivalry leads to a senseless tragedy.
In setting Anandi’s story against that of Shyam and Chennu and their friends, Mere Apne makes a strong case against a multitude of social ills, specifically the neglect and exploitation of the elderly, and the political exploitation of a disillusioned youth whose cynicism colours their views. It is a theme that Gulzar would return to in Hu Tu Tu. His sarcastic lyrics for Haalchaal theek thaak hai and the emotional core of Koi hota jisko apna were beautifully set to music by Salilda. 

Many of the cast were FTII graduates, some of them making their debut here, and Khanna had once complained that they ganged up against him. He felt like an outsider. However, he was to strike a deep friendship with his director, and Gulzar and he would go on to collaborate in other films. Meena Kumari, ailing and weak, would spend a lot of time on a bed on the sets, unless called for her shots. She would pass away a few short months after filming.

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