Supernatural tales are often branded as B-grade in Hindi film industry but there have been instances when filmmakers have explored profound issues through what is often marked as shallow side of cinema. “Gehrayee” by Aruna-Vikas is one such tale which continues to be relevant. It is worth revisiting in the week when we celebrate World Environment Day. The industry is full of stories where producers spiked ideas for want of a successful example. Though Aruna Raje had the idea with her from the time she was co-directing “Shaque”, “Gehrayee” could only take shape when “The Exorcist” became a success story. Based on a real life experience, on the surface, it is about a family where the father Chennabassappa (Dr. Shreeram Lagoo) has a scientific approach towards life. The god fearing mother (Indrani Mukherjee), on the other hand, believes in the ritualistic side of religion. One day their adolescent daughter Umakka (Padmini Kolhapure) gets possessed by a spirit and they have no clue what to do about it. Their elder son Nandu (Anant Nag) is rational but he can’t remain one when he sees the condition of his sister keeps deteriorating despite medical help.
So where does environment come into the spooky picture? Early in the film, Chennabassappa goes to his native village to tell the poor caretaker (Suhas Bhalekar) that he has sold his farm to a factory. The caretaker wails that he could not do this to him as the land is like his mother. Chennabassappa takes it lightly and offers him a job in Bangalore. But the battered soul could not take it and as we discover later decides to seek revenge by planting an evil spirit in Chennabassappa’s daughter. Like many proponents of development, Chennabassappa never gets the other side. As the senior mangager of a company, when in a board meeting somebody questions the retrenchment because of machines, he coldly argues, “We are giving them compensation....” Dignity of labour doesn’t mean anything for him. Though Nandu gradually turns against his father because of the way he handles his daughter’s treatment, when the story reaches the climax, he asks the caretaker’s soul why he did this to his family because after all it was his father’s farm. He doesn’t get the idea of collective control of nature either. Perhaps that’s why the caretaker’s spirit doesn’t spare him either as the son also loses it before the credits roll. The horror story seems like an interesting metaphor for lopsided development.
Recently, Aruna Raje, the one-half of the director duo, who were married to each other for 15 years before separating, came out with her autobiography, “Freedom My Story” (HarperCollins). When one asked her about this interpretation of the thriller, she said that they did not set out to make a film on environment but it is through such reading and re-reading that films like “Gehrayee” remain relevant.
Sometimes revisiting could be boring as well. In 1980, Sudhir Dalvi would not have an image, but today, the moment the actor who made a career by playing saintly characters, enters the frame as a sage, you know things will get better. No such feelings with Amrish Puri as the evil tantrik, who disrobes Umakka for a ritual. Aruna says when Steven Spielberg was casting for “Indiana Jones And the Temple of Doom” , he was sent Puri’s striking performance in “Gehrayee” as the reference point. The pooja scene where we could see the bare back of Umakka generated lot of interest in the media and Aruna says she had to do lot of explaining that films are a simulated experience. It was the time when Padmini Kolhapure had just kissed Prince Charles on the cheek when he visited Mumbai to watch a film shoot. So when “Gehrayee” released, the producer used it as a publicity stunt to generate interest in a film which had no stars. He didn’t need to as the audience responded to the theme and the emotional appeal generated by Kolhapure and Nag with Lagoo lending solid support as a ruthless guy who even covers his moral digression with a straight face.
Known for their melodies, here Laxmikant Pyarelal brought in Tibetan singing bowls and roped in a visiting American musician to create alien sounds and then the master of re-recording Mangesh Desai mixed sounds of Grand Prix motor racing to the track. When it played behind the spooky atmospherics of the lush Cubbon Park, shot with a hand-held camera, it made even the thick-skinned develop goosebumps. Jalal Agha gave voice to the spirit that spoke through Umakka.
Aruna remembers the innovative use of crab dolly which they hired from Merchant Ivory Productions. It didn’t require rails like conventional dollies and could move in any direction, ideal to capture the spirit on the move from room to room. Much before Ram Gopal Varma, it were Aruna-Vikas who planted bhoot in the ordinary living room!