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The girl Friday: shorthand in Trishul (1978)

Computer Still from Trishul  

Watching the 1978 Trishul again after many years, a short, seemingly mundane scene caught my attention. It’s the one where we are introduced to the middle-aged version of the businessman R.K. Gupta, played by Sanjeev Kumar, and his superbly resourceful secretary Geeta (Raakhee).

What the scene establishes is the pace of RK’s day — the unending phone calls, meetings and damage control — and his dependence on Geeta (described later in the film as the company’s ‘computer’). He summons her, she enters his office, promptly reels off the information he needs; as another employee prepares to leave the room to check on something, Geeta tells him the exact number of the file required. Someone else comes in with a document for the boss to sign; simultaneously a phone rings; Geeta picks it up, takes a message, conveys it to R.K. while he is signing, then moves past him to pick up another phone. The second caller is R.K.’s wife, reminding him that their son is returning from vilaayat after two years; he checks his calendar, ruefully says he won’t be able to go to the airport.

On the surface, this is very basic shorthand for “work-obsessed industrialist”. But in a film that is otherwise a little flabby in places (and not just around Sanjeev Kumar’s midsection!), the scene is compact and executed with economy. It isn’t a single shot — there are cuts — but it has the feel of a long, well-choreographed take. The performances and staging create a sense of a lived-in world, an environment that must be managed with clockwork efficiency if it is to succeed at all.

The little moments

I felt this was a notable establishing scene because most of us, including the big fans of 1970s mainstream cinema, think of those films as not too detail-heavy. They are larger than life, built on archetypes: one expects them to do the Big Moments well, mainly through some alchemy of strong writing and acting. Linked as this cinematic mode is to older forms such as the Parsi theatre, the emphasis tends to be on the foreground, on the main characters, what they say, and how this leads the plot from one setpiece to the next. We don’t expect much attention to detail in the ‘filler’ scenes or smaller moments.

Today’s films are generally more intricate in these matters. Since I’m talking about Trishul, which was co-written by Javed Akhtar, an easy comparison can be made with a film directed by Akhtar’s daughter Zoya.

In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ironically the most mainstream of her work, certainly more glamorous and old-world in form than her latest, Gully Boy), Zoya gave us a marvelous scene where a son meets the father he’s never known, who left his mother years ago. The moment offered a conversation, across time, space and cinematic idioms, with the more dramatic father-son conflict in Trishul. The ZNMD scene gets much of its effect from a whimsical touch: Salman (Naseeruddin Shah) casually rolls a joint throughout the conversation with his son.

The office scene in Trishul isn’t subdued or quirky in a similar way, but it performs a comparable function — tells us something important about a character, a situation, an environment with a few minute brush-strokes.

Angry young men

The scene also ties in with a larger vision of a mechanised, carefully ordered world where people must sacrifice their dreams and their individuality. Much as R.K. Gupta himself did as a young man when he discarded love at the altar of ambition (thereby setting the plot in motion), and much as he expects his son Shekhar to do (give up music and finish a business-administration course instead). But this sterile setting will be ruptured by the arrival of Gupta’s other, illegitimate son, Vijay, who shakes things up so much that even the efficient Geeta shows a human side in his presence.

Much has been said about how the Yash Chopra-Salim-Javed films — Deewaar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar — were central to the creation of the Angry Young Man figure. But these films also get much of their narrative tension from the opposition between the climate-controlled world of mansions and skyscrapers and the grittier outside world where people can express their real selves.

In the climax of Deewaar, the anti-hero Vijay ends the career of the chief villain by tossing him through the window of a hotel room. Don’t tell Salim-Javed I interpreted it this way, but to me the shattering of that glass represents the destruction of a corrupting space and has the effect of liberating both Vijay and the film itself. An apt resolution to a narrative about individuality brushing up against a world of businessmen, smugglers… and computer-like secretaries.

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and film critic who finds it easier to concentrate on specific scenes than entire films as he grows older.

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