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Kaala Patthar 1979

ZIYA US SALAM
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Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrughan Singh, Rakhee, Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh, Parikshat Sahni, Prem Chopra

Black goldA poster of Kala Patthar
Black goldA poster of Kala Patthar

For those who thought Yash Chopra was the king of romance, here is a film that would help in a more nuanced understanding of the filmmaker who passed away recently. For those who thought Chopra had a special talent for choosing locations, and that Switzerland, not crests and troughs of music moved him, here is a film that again will help in better appreciation of the man. Often a prisoner of convenient stereotypes, Chopra, unfortunately, in the later years of his career, came to be identified with feel good cinema, his well decked up heroines atop the Alps in chiffon saris, his leather jacket clad heroes happy to play second fiddle.

But look a little closer, and a little further back, and you will find Chopra was a man for all seasons. He was not as untouched by reality as alleged by his critics; and his sense of locales extended right to the badlands where Kaala Patthar was shot. Indeed, it is a film that helps right many wrongs. He was rooted to the soil; he had a knack for good stories and a ear for music. All of them come together in this rooted film. Based on a real life tragedy in Bihar but given a dash of fiction, the film talks of the lives of coal miners. The nation might have become wiser to politics of coal thanks to Coalgate 2012, but more than three decades ago a voice was raised for nationalisation of coal mines following a tragedy in which scores of men lost their lives in a private mine. Written by Salim-Javed, Kaala Patthar talks of coal politics without ever appearing didactic or sermonising. The writers eschew political preferences and give us a taut story that provokes and engages in equal measure. When the film opened at the box office, it failed to set the cash registers jingling, partially because it was touted to be the biggest multi-starrer! The focus in the promos was on the glam quotient rather than the pertinent issue the film raised. Closer to the release date, a balance was sought to be restored with photos of an all-black Amitabh Bachchan — a disgraced Naval officer seeking redemption by working in a coal mine — screaming in pain. But cinegoers failed to accept Bachchan covered in soot and grime from head to foot. You see, the viewers wanted the hero to beat the daylights out of his rivals without a strand of hair going out of place! However, now with the passage of so many years, Kaala Patthar deserves a more nuanced appreciation than initially afforded.

It was a multi-starrer alright, but it was a film whose heart was in the right place. Let’s begin with Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics. Not many would regard the film to be a milestone in his career but listen carefully and you would realise here was a poet at work, a man who identified with the Progressive Writers’ movement and managed to sneak in snatches whenever, wherever he could. Here he gives us “Ik raasta hai zindagi”, a song nothing less than a teacher of life. The words inspired Kishore Kumar to tap his inner reserves for a wonderful rendition. And Rajesh Roshan, not a regular with Yash Chopra, proves equal to the task. Then Sahir gives us “Meri dooron se aayi baraat”. On paper, it appears to be a customary wedding song in a Chopra film. But listen to this one carefully and you will realise Sahir uses some rarely used words here and reminds us that expressions like “paahuni” (guest or a visitor) do exist in the Hindi vocabulary! Add to that the breezy “Bahon meri teri masti” and we get a score that stays with us. Not quite in the same league as, say, Silsila later, but if one remembers songs from what is a grim tale of grime and vendetta, it means the music director and lyricist did their job.

Then there is the story of the three men — Bachchan with Shashi Kapoor (playing a white-collar engineer to go with his good guy image) and Shatrughan Sinha (as Mangal, a character with more layers than one can see in a coal mine). Mangal undergoes a total transformation from an egoistic man who has a showdown with Vijay (Bachchan) in a roadside eatery to a compassionate being who joins hands with Vijay when a disaster strikes the mine, endangering the lives of the coal miners.

Chopra pays great attention to detail. The background is identifiable and well removed from studio footage.

Then there is the handling of the female cast: heroines make their presence felt in what is essentially a heroes’ saga. Rakhee as the doctor has an understated appeal while Parveen Babi and Neetu Singh provide moments of unadulterated glamour and romance. Yes, Kaala Patthar may not have proved to be a black diamond at the box office but it is a film that completes the picture for Yash Chopra. From the badlands of Bihar to the mountains of Switzerland, he covered them all; from the tunes of Ravi, Rajesh Roshan and on to Shiv-Hari, he used the best of them all.

ZIYA US SALAM

Chopra pays great attention to detail. The background is identifiable and well removed

from studio footage.

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