There is space on this earth for the mighty and the modest. Around the time Ramesh Sippy was busy wrapping up “Sholay”, a film throbbing with raw, unbridled energy, Gulzar was canning “Khushboo”, a little cheery, if occasionally melancholic, film that could as well have had understatement as its punchline. Both films went on to carve out their niche at the box office; “Sholay” understandably wider, “Khushboo”, a pleasant little nook. It was a film that nudged you, tickled you, and in the end, held you in a thrall.
The year 1975 will go down in the annals of cinema as the year of “Sholay” but for the discerning, it could as well have been the year of Gulzar. The fragrance of “Khushboo” was followed by a storm called “Aandhi”, then an all-weather film, “Mausam”. Nobody hailed him for being prolific, nobody accused him of spreading himself thin. He handled all the films not just with dexterity but with the tenderness a mother reserves for her baby. No melodrama, no violence, just films dipped in sensitivity and laced with soothing music. That was indeed the high noon of the career for Gulzar, and he was in no hurry to abdicate any time soon.
Based on a novel, “Panditmashai” by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, “Khushboo” was the very anti-thesis of what cinema stood for in popular parlance in the mid 1970s. No larger than life projection, no dream girl – despite Hema Malini, the original one being cast as the lead actress here – no booming guns and no dialogues spoken for effect. It has just simple lines which flowed out of the narrative. To top it all a rural background at a time when films often started with small town hero coming to a big city! Why, even the lead pair was aeons removed from the image.
Gulzar presented Jeetendra in very middle-class pant-shirt with a pencil-thin moustache and thick-rimmed glasses. No swagger, no untamed energy, just a self-contained portrayal of a doctor in rural India. Somewhat similar to “Parichay” but simply unrecognisable from the Jumping Jack he was dubbed by many.
Hema as Kusum – a village girl betrothed in childhood to Jeetendra’s Brindavan – was at the other spectrum from the Basanti of “Sholay”. Throughout the film, in a simple cotton sari with minimalist make-up and dialogues at a premium, a far cry from the motor mouth of Sippy’s film, Hema conveys everything through her eyes. Whether it is the portrayal of a deeply anguished woman in endless wait for her man or the woman with a little lilt in her step as she hopes to go home, her eyes say it all. In song sequences they dance, in others they leave you moist eyed!
Many, in 2013, might find Kusum removed miles from the values of feminism. For them, Kusum might appear a bit of a weakling of a girl who is engaged to a boy in childhood and continues to wait for him to come back even as he has left village, and as it turns out, got married and now even has a four-year-old son. Yet look a little carefully and all notions of a subservient heroine will fly out of the nearest window.
Kusum shows strength to stand for her conviction, waits for her man, loves his child also, but accepts the man on her terms. And not before admonishing him for not standing up for his rights! Again, everything is said with such quiet dignity that you could as well call it a whisper!
Unusual characterisation, even more unusual setting, little villages with barely a sign of development, the kinds where barefoot women draw water from the pond, yet there was more to “Khushboo” than that. Notably R.D. Burman’s score, so profound, that one can discern shades of his father. He gets full support from his playback singers, where Asha Bhosle is simply effervescent in “Ghar jayegi, tar jayegi” and “Bechara dil kya kare” and Lata Mangeshkar so moving in “Do naino mein aansoo bhare”.
However, it is Kishore Kumar who is in devastating form in “O majhi re apna kinara…” His rendition pierces ones heart, and the music in the background conveys the pathos of a companion left behind. Then there were the bits and pieces players who combined to make film truly memorable. For instance, there was Farida Jalal filling the screen with her natural exuberance and Master Raju doing his bit.
“Khushboo” was the nice fragrance one can go back to for a nice sniff any time, any day.