Gulzar’s film arrived amidst controversy. There were some whispers, some not-so-hushed allegations that the film was based on the life of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A poster in South India declared, “See your Prime Minister on screen”. An advertisement in a Delhi daily called the film “the story of a great woman political leader in post-Independence India”.
The Prime Minister herself did not watch the film but felt compelled to ask two of her staff members to watch it before deciding whether it was fit for continued public screening or not. The staff members gave the film a clean chit and I.K. Gujral, who was the Information and Broadcasting minister when the film was shot, too liked what he saw. Gulzar himself insisted that there was no similarity between the lead character and the life of the PM.
Yet the rumour mills went into overdrive. Of course, the fact that the leading lady’s appearance was remarkably similar to that of the PM fuelled many a controversy. Suchitra Sen as the leading lady, Aarti, wore saris in the manner which reminded people of the PM. Her hair had a streak of silver, just like the PM. Aarti was quiet, graceful walked briskly, and in many ways, came across as an indomitable woman. The similarities were uncanny.
The decision to ban the film, however, came after it had had a run of around 20 weeks! It was caused at least partly by actions of the Opposition leaders in Gujarat who showed scenes of Aarti Devi smoking and occasionally drinking during their Assembly election campaign. The lines between fiction and fact got blurred. The film was banned. Gulzar was ordered to reshoot the heroine’s drinking and smoking scenes and emphasise that the film had no biographical elements. The filmmaker solved the problem by inserting a scene of the heroine standing in front of the photograph of Indira Gandhi and calling Indira her ideal!
However, before the ban there were problems concerning the release. Most distributors and exhibitors did not know how to project the film. Whether it was to be sold as a niche product for thinking audiences or a film for women, considering it was a heroine-oriented subjected? Or to just release it at any hall as yet another potboiler with super hit music by R.D. Burman? In the end, the film managed a decent run, its collections no doubt helped by the controversy surrounding the subject. Of course, songs like “Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa nahi” and “Iss modh se jaate hain” hit the popularity charts. Incidentally, it was during the shooting of the songs that Gulzar came across as a painter on the big screen. No dance moves, no need for a choreographer. Just a splendid interplay of light and shadow to capture the stillness of the moment, the profundity of the unsaid word.
Suchitra working with Gulzar was no less than a minor triumph for the filmmaker. A few years before J. Om Prakash prevailed upon him to speak to Suchitra for the role of Aarti in “Aandhi”, Gulzar had met her with the screenplay and story of a film to be directed by Sohanlal Kanwar. When the leading lady saw the screenplay she suggested changes which did not go down well with Gulzar. The film never got made. So Gulzar approached her with some trepidation for “Aandhi”. Suchitra though agreed to do the film without any changes to the script. It was to prove to be a masterstroke, as the film revolved around her. In the film, Aarti is shown as a political leader of great calibre; one, however, who is used by her father. Fighting all demons, she manages to carve out her own niche in a male-dominated world on her own terms, even leaving her husband and little daughter for larger political challenges. In between Gulzar, with his skilful handling, throws in poignant scenes of a woman torn between an ambitious father and a husband who has no lust or time for politics or its perks.
The film, however, was no smooth ride for anybody. The initial story, penned by Sachin Bhowmick, did not appeal to Gulzar. In came noted Hindi writer Kamleshwar. The film was based on his story. Kamleshwar penned a novel, “Kali Aandhi”, around the film. The novel marked quite a departure from the film though.
Now a little under 40 years after “Aandhi” was made, not many people miss “Kali Aandhi”. The big screen “Aandhi” though, continues to have repeat visitors on the small screen. The film is Suchitra Sen’s passport to acquaintance with the larger audience, a brilliant showcase of R.D. Burman’s versatile talents, a fine pointer to Sanjeev Kumar’s understated ways, a far cry from the days of “Sholay”. Above all, “Aandhi” is a director’s film. Gulzar is in sparkling form, at consummate ease handling a subject with obvious political overtones. Now, a summer breeze, now a gust of wind heralding the monsoon, now fresh and vulnerable like the early morning dew, “Aandhi” was better than its name.