28 March 2018

Katha (1983)

Directed by: Sai Paranjpye
Music: Raj Kamal
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, 
Farooque Shaikh, Arun Joglekar, 
Leela Misra, Mallika Sarabhai, 
Winni Paranjpye, Sudha Chopra, 
Suhasini Deshpande, Nitin Sethi
I grew up an Amitabh Bachchan fan. His brooding intensity, that sexy baritone, that articulate dialogue delivery – all attracted me. I adored him with all my heart. Watching Farooque Shaikh at the time seemed like watching a ‘boy’ instead of a man. He was okay, teenage-me felt; he didn’t leave that much of an impression. The impression I did have was rather negative because he always seemed like he was going to apologise for something. He was the quintessential good guy and perhaps I liked the bad boys better.  It took years, and many more films to realise that I really did like Farooque Shaikh after all. That he was a fabulous actor, really, but was just so unassuming that he blended into his character. Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a film in which I hated Farooque’s acting.

A long time ago, blog reader Nalini had asked me to review Farooque Shaikh – Deepti Naval movies. Since March is the birth month of both Sai Paranjpye (18th) and Farooque Shaikh (25th), I figured I should review one of their films together. Since I’d already reviewed Chashme Buddoor, Katha it was.   

Katha opens with the scenes of a chawl – a grandmother narrating a story to her sick grandson; children playing cricket with a tennis ball in the small courtyard; an irate woman who yells at the kids for breaking her pot; a newlywed couple whispering sweet nothings behind their shuttered windows…
Up the rickety stairs comes Rajaram Purushottam Joshi (Naseeruddin Shah), whose employment has just been made permanent, and is therefore in a state of euphoria. He has even brought a nameplate for his front door. The chawl is also home to Sandhya Sabnis (Deepti Naval), the young woman with whom Rajaram is absolutely smitten though he hasn’t been able to summon up the courage to tell her so.
Suddenly enters a ‘stranger’ to the chawl – Vasudev Bhatt (Farooque Shaikh), an old friend. ‘Bashu’ as he prefers to be called, is a charming smooth-talker who soon wins over everyone’s hearts. It’s as if the sun has deigned to light up the darkness of the chawl. 
From conning a restaurant manager into forgiving their bill (and pocketing Rajaram’s money while doing so) to cornering the only bed for himself while poor Rajaram is left to sleep on the floor, from sweet talking the chawl dwellers to his benefit to stealing from Rajaram, Bashu seizes opportunities where he finds them. And while Rajaram is trying to impress Sandhya, Bashu (wearing Rajaram’s shirt) is finding ways to impress Rajaram’s boss.

Meanwhile, Sandhya’s parents are beginning to see Bashu as a prospective groom for her. What’s worse, while Sandhya has never seen Rajaram as anything more than a friend, Bashu’s charms work their magic on her. Only, neither she nor Rajaram are aware that Bashu has several strings to his bow.  

And then, Sandhya's parents come to Rajaram to fix her marriage with him, he assumes. He's devastated when he realises that they mean Bashu.

How will this play out? Will Bashu pay for his sins? Or will Rajaram be forever destined to be sidelined?

Narrated sometimes in the tradition of Marathi theatre, Katha has all the trademarks of a Sai Paranjpye film – gentle humour, relatable (and realistic) characters, real-life situations. What’s even better here is her depiction of a Bombay chawl – a sprawling, diverse community sharing common facilities like bathrooms and water taps. They are a group, yet make their individual presence known: the newlyweds who are never seen (except twice); a middle-aged couple whose son is in Canada, and are therefore slightly higher up in the hierarchy (in their own estimation); a loving grandmother whose only mission in life seems to be to feed all who visit her; a canny invalid who demands favours from everyone around; the cantankerous lady who is the nemesis of the children in the chawl – they are all microcosms of society, and Paranjpye shows them, warts and all, with affection.
The chaos of the chawl is so familiar to anyone who has lived in or visited one. The cheerful hustle-bustle, the little infighting, the supportive camaraderie is all on display in their unvarnished truth.

The film is ably shouldered by their leads – a sad, silent Naseer who brings Rajaram to life, a dashing Farooque playing against type, and a charming Deepti who may have been a mark, but is still a strong, independent woman who you know will move on with her life. 
Rajaram is that person we all know – the quiet man who puts his shoulder to the wheel and works very hard for very little. He’s not very assertive, and his inherent goodness doesn’t allow him to be confrontational either. His very goodness lets others take advantage of him his colleagues at work; the uncle next door, not to mention Bashu. Rajaram is a relatively content man, happy with small things, but he cannot help but feel a little envious of others’ ability to bend a few rules. You feel a touch of sympathy, even empathy in that scene where Naseer takes on Bashu's persona, imagining how it would be if he could be as confident.
Yet, Rajaram is not an easy character to root for because he seems so spineless. Besides, he is complicit in Bashu's cons precisely because he keeps quiet. In fact, he even enjoys the benefits in small ways only to be repulsed by the larger destruction that Bashu leaves in his wake.  
Naseer’s hang-dog look suited the character very well, and he played him with just that touch of desperation that the really poor understand – life is difficult. Even his anger, when he realises what Bashu is really like, is impotent. It was a masterful performance, all the more so for being so understated.

Bashu, on the other hand, is nothing but a con man, but I don't think Hindi cinema has seen one who's so completely amoral. If there’s a rule that can be bent, he will bend it. He skirts very closely to the edge of what is permissible and is like a cat – he always lands on his feet. And, many of his charm initiatives aren't even for profit it's just to see what he can get away with. 
He can sweet-talk anyone into anything, has an inflated sense of his own importance, and is willing to take advantage of anyone who will allow him to do so. 'Varna main kya chawl mein rehne wala hoon?' he asks Rajaram. 'Jab tak mere laayak koi jageh nahin milta, tere saath rah lete yaar!' [Am I the sort of person who would live in a chawl? Until I get a place worthy of me, I'll stay with you.
Bashu doesn’t suffer much from pangs of conscience; indeed, you may argue that he hasn’t any. Farooque played him with éclat. It was a joy to see the actor cut loose from his goody-two-shoes image to play a tawdry trickster who utterly amoral. 'Maan-ne mein aur actually shaadi karne mein bahut farq hota hai', he retorts to a shocked Rajaram who asks him why he consented to a marriage he didn't want. Bashu really doesn't care whose life is destroyed. From the arrogance in his throwaway lines to his shameless name-dropping to the way he twirls his keys around his finger to his shameless lack of repentance, Farooque nailed the character. 
Sandhya is intriguing. A charming young woman who's dazzled by a smoot-talking flashy newcomer is a readily believable trope. But how do you prevent that character from being the stereotype of a naïve young woman who has more beauty than wit? Deepti infused her Sandhya with charm, no doubt, but she also brought in a quiet resilience. She’s not the ‘abala’ victim; she shoulders the responsibility for her own actions and summons up the courage to tell Rajaram the truth.

Katha is a simple, engaging story with real emotions that will resonate with audiences even today. So, what did I not like about the film? The ending.
*Spoiler* (Just in case someone hasn’t watched the film yet.)

Based on the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, the film ends with Bashu absconding and Rajaram stepping up to save the day. But as the credits roll, the flowers that the tortoise holds wilt and the tortoise looks forlornly into the distance (where the hare is hopping away). The implication being that even when Rajaram won, he has actually lost. In fact, earlier, Dadi amma had subverted the tale when she narrates it to her grandson – in her version, the hare wins. Because, she says, ‘Sacchai ki zamaana hi na raha.’  Later, when her grandson points out that tortoise won after all, she responds sadly, Ye bhi kya jeet hai?’ [What victory is this?] For me, that, coupled with the shot above, was a huge disappointment, especially coming from this director. I instinctively recoiled from it then and haven’t really been able to bring myself to watch it again until now. 

Looking back, I can see how the scene is just a culmination of all the contradictory and opposing societal forces that were in vogue then and are still apparent today. It’s perhaps a reflection of how messy emotions are in real life, and how one can be progressive in some ways and regressive in others. Life is nuanced, and perhaps, so are Paranjpye’s films. I still don’t like that scene, but at its heart, Paranjpye’s films are human. And humorous. And perhaps, that’s Katha’s enduring charm as well.

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