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08 January 2021

Ittefaq (1969)

Directed by: Yash Chopra
Music: Salil Choudhury
Starring: Rajesh Khanna, Nanda,
Iftekhar, Bindu,
Sujit Kumar, Jagdish Raj,
Madan Puri, Shammi, Jagirdar

I’d never been a great fan of Nanda, having been introduced to her through Jab Jab Phool Khile, where her ‘glamorous’ avatar did nothing to endear her to me. And then I saw Bhabhi (1957), where her chulbuli saccharine-sweet role did nothing to make her any more appealing. But over the years, I have come to like the sweet gentleness she brought to her roles – Hum Dono, Dhool ka Phool, Kanoon, etc. Today is her birth anniversary, and to mark it, I revisited her most iconic role, a far cry from her screen image at the time.   

Ittefaq begins with a murder. The victim is Sushma, the wife of the famous artist, Dilip Roy (Rajesh Khanna). She has been discovered dead and her husband's shock and grief may or may not be genuine. His sister-in-law, Renu (Bindu), who lived with the couple, definitely considers him her sister’s killer. In fact, she tells the cops who seem to have reached there almost immediately after the murder, she saw him kill her sister. 

Dilip had married Sushma for her money, says Renu, and their marriage had been crumbling for some time. Dilip wanted nothing more than to paint, while Sushma had wanted to party and socialise – their latest argument had ended in Dilip throttling Sushma.

Dilip, already reeling from the shock of seeing his wife’s dead body, screams his innocence, but Inspector Karve (Iftekhar) arrests him on suspicion of murder anyway. Dilip goes berserk, struggling against the cops and trying to strangle Renu for, he claims, falsely accusing him.

His behaviour doesn’t do Dilip any favours and soon, he’s presented in court to answer the charges. While there, he threatens to kill the judge. 

In short, he’s deemed too insane to stand trial, and on the court’s orders, is admitted to a mental asylum run by Dr Trivedi (Jagirdar). A few days later, Dr Jagirdar receives two visitors – Inspector Dewan (Sujit Kumar) and the public prosecutor, Mr Khanna (Madan Puri). Both want to know if Dilip is indeed insane. 

And so, Dr Trivedi has Dilip brought in to meet the two men. During that interaction, Dilip behaviour veers between the rational and irrational. He rants and raves, all the time protesting his innocence. During one of the ‘rational’ phases, he claims that he is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he’s insane, he’s doomed to be trapped in a mental asylum for the rest of his life. If he’s sane, he’ll be hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. 

The more he talks, the more violent he becomes, and eventually, Inspector Dewan calls for a constable to help him remove Dilip to his room. A desperate Dilip grabs the inspector’s revolver and manages to escape. As the police look for him, Inspector Karve and his assistant Khan visit Renu to warn her that Dilip has escaped and many make his way there.

It’s a dark, stormy night and Dilip eludes the police long enough to find sanctuary in a nearby home. The sole occupant, a beautiful, young woman, Rekha, is frantically closing all the doors and windows after hearing the news of the runaway on the radio. 
Dilip terrorises her, and confiscates the house keys. At gun point, he forces her to walk him through the house until he's sure they are alone, and then to give him her husband's clothes so he can change out of his wet ones.

Rekha, knowing her unexpected visitor is dangerous tries her best to escape the deadly situation. Each attempt – trying to call the police, flashing a torch in the hope a passer-by may investigate, locking herself in her bedroom – is foiled by Dilip, whose very desperation keeps him on an edge.

It seems Rekha will be disturbed a few more times that night. First come Dr Trivedi and Inspector Dewan to warn her that an inmate from the asylum is on the loose. Though she tries to keep them back by offering them coffee, they leave after warning her to keep her doors and windows locked. Dr Trivedi informs her that there are constables patrolling the neighbourhood. 

No sooner have they left than the doorbell rings again. Rekha, nerves already on edge, opens the door to find her voluble neighbour Basanti (Shammi) on her doorstep, asking to borrow some milk for her son. Dilip, well-hidden both times, has assured Rekha that he will kill her if she so much as breathes a word. 

As the night goes on, Dilip and Rekha seem to have some things in common. In any case, there’s an undeclared truce between them. During the course of their conversation, Dilip discovers that the house is quite close to a railway station. He will go away in the morning, he assures Rekha. Rekha, by now, is not sure whether to believe him or not, to pity him or be frightened of him.

However, she puts down a bedsheet for him on the carpet so he can catch a few winks and assures him that she would bed down on the couch. She even offers him a drink, and he mixes a sherbet for her. The night brings a strange camaraderie; he talks about his childhood, she confesses that her husband is a workaholic who has no time for her. Even when he’s home, she barely sees him. Dilip, a little more relaxed now, tells her she’s beautiful. There’s sexual tension in the air, though neither of them acknowledges it.

Finally, Dilip falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion from the day’s events. When she’s sure he’s asleep, Rekha gets up and eases her house keys from Dilip’s pockets so she can sneak out before he wakes. Startled awake, Dilip looks for Rekha, but the room is dark. Torch in hand, he blunders around the house searching for her. As he stumbles into the bathroom, he comes across a shocking sight. 

It is Jagmohan, whom Dilip recognises from the photograph downstairs.

His scream attracts the attention of Inspector Dewan, who had just paused outside to check with his constables. When the door finally closes behind the inspector, Dilip comes out of hiding and accuses Rekha of murdering her husband. Nonsense, says Rekha, Dilip must be mad. She can prove it - where's the body in the bathtub?

So, who really killed Sushma? And Jagmohan? Is he really dead? If so, where did Jagmohan’s body disappear? Is Rekha a victim or a master manipulator? Did she kill her husband? Is she the virtuous wife? Or a femme fatale? Or is Dilip imagining things?

Who can you believe. Renu or Dilip? Dilip or Rekha?

Ittefaq was a songless thriller at a time when songs were the order of the day. Despite that, however, director Yash Chopra ensured that the dramatic tones of a Hindi film were intact. Adapted from the Signpost to Murder, the story that plays out mostly over the course of a single night, is deftly mined for its dramatic content. The focus is on the two main characters in a closed atmosphere. Initially defined by their desperation – one to escape a killer, the other to escape a false accusation, it changes into a drama of manners, as they squabble like a long-time married couple. 

This sense of ‘coupling’ is underscored by the arguments, the flirtation, the attempts at seduction, etc. The moods keep changing like quicksilver as the two have screaming matches and philosophical discussions, and there's a deep sadness that underlie these conversations. There's even domesticity (with its underlyingas sexual tension) as they do mundane chores like making up their beds for the night.

As the cat-and-mouse game continues, we get pulled into their conflict, becoming privy not only to their scheming and manipulation, but also to every nook and cranny of the house, which emerges as the third, albeit inanimate character.

As Dilip, Rajesh Khanna chewed on the scenery to depict the unravelling of a character who’s falsely accused of a crime. But his behaviour keeps us guessing – did he? Didn’t he?  Is he really mad? Pretending to be mad? In one of his earliest roles, Khanna is riveting as the alleged murderer, vulnerable and dangerous by turns.

His defiant anger and uncontrolled outbursts mask his desperation to clear his name. As he quickly unravels, one is left to question whether or not he's turning insane, even if he wasn't mentally unstable before.

But it was Nanda who was the screen-stealer. She played against type to bring the duality of her character to life. Even when she's befriending Dilip, Rekha is a like a chess player, always thinking two steps ahead. But there's an edge to her performance; the actress made it seem like her character is on the edge of an emotional meltdown throughout her presence on screen. Flirtatious and frightened, friendly and defiant, resigned and manipulative, virtuous and evil – she was all this and more. It was a contained performance.

They were ably complemented by a stellar supporting cast including Iftekhar, Jagirdar, Jagdish Raj and Sujit Kumar. Iftekhar, especially, had played a cop before and since. But in this film, he had a lot more to do than just appear at the climax to capture the villains who had already been vanquished by the hero. 

Chopra’s deft direction also keeps us from questioning the plot too much. In this, Chopra was also aided by Salil Choudhury’s background music, which ramped up the tension very effectively. Every sound heard during the night plays a part in the narrative. Cinematographer Kaygee’s camera work helped quicken the pace of the film, that was, to all intents and purposes, shot within the confines of a home.

Ittefaq was made as a quickie. BR Chopra put Aadmi aur Insaan on hold due to heroine Saira Banu’s accident. To offset the losses caused by an idle unit, the brothers decided to film Ittefaq. Rajesh Khanna, who was reeling from five flops, received a lifeline that kept him going until Aradhana released the next year, catapulting him to superstardom.

Despite the plot holes, Ittefaq is, even today, a thrilling watch.(Just suspend disbelief a little.)

Trivia: Signpost to Murder was itself the remake of a play of the same name by Monty Doyle. It was adapted into a Gujarati (and then, Hindi and Marathi) play called Dhummas (Fog), which the Chopras adapted to Ittefaq. The background music for Dhummas was composed by Jaidev.

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