Blast from the past Friday Review

Achanak (1973)

SUBTLE EXPRESSION Vinod Khanna in film "Achanak".   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

As Neeraj Pandey’s “Rustom” gathers traction, the Nanavati case is back in public imagination. Cinephiles often count R.K. Nayyar’s “Yeh Rastey Hain Pyaar Ke” as the only cinematic adaptation of the crime of passion where Kawas Nanavati, a naval commander killed his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. But a decade later, Gulzar who was trying to find a new idiom in Hindi cinema came up with yet another potent interpretation of the case. Unlike Nayyar’s rather staid and compromised version, Gulzar delved into the layers of the human mind and came up with a riveting moral battle between judiciary and medical science. Mounted like a thriller, the 90-minute song-less narrative goes back and forth in time as the director keeps you hungry for information.

Instead of drawing directly from the case, Gulzar pegged the narrative on a story by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who used to write a popular column The Last Page in Blitz newspaper. Old timers would remember that it was the weekly tabloid which was accused of turning the public opinion in favour of Nanavati and perhaps the case compelled Abbas to come up with a story where the protagonist not only kills the lover but also his philandering wife.

Vinod Khanna, who used to shoot his way into the scene, here goes against his popular image and makes the entry on a stretcher. Shot through the chest, the doctor has given up on him but Ranjeet Khanna survives multiple operations. The flashback tells us about his army background and how he used his training to kill the two most important people in his life. Instead of showing the act of killing, Gulzar smartly cuts to training sessions where Ranjeet learnt the trick to neutralise the enemy. The moral dilemma spirals further when in a flash back, Ranjeet tells his wife Pushpa (Lily Chakraborty) how the medal reminds him of the people he killed during the war. How does such an emotional man bring himself to eliminate his best friend Prakash (Ravi Raj) and wife? Do we adore a charming army man or a trained killer?

Om Shivpuri as the cigarette smoking doctor Chaudhary takes the quandary to another level. He and his team (Farida Jalal and Asrani) save Ranjeet only to be sent back to the gallows. It says something about the criminal justice system which waits for the guilty to be healthy to be punished. Gulzar doesn’t come up with any clear cut answers. But the ambiguity is not boring as he opens a debate that continues to rankle. And the moral impasse does come in the way of the pace of the thriller best exemplified by the sequence where dogs chase a bare-foot Ranjeet. Even the seemingly syrupy scenes between the nurse Radha and Ranjeet have a bigger meaning for the doctors don’t know that they share a brother-sister bond.

Gulzar has a knack for finding humour in the mundane and his wordplay is legendary. When the colonel father-in-law (Iftekhar) tells Ranjeet he is not only his sir but also susar, it comes as a relief amidst tense moments. Letters recorded on tape create an interesting romantic tapestry giving us a sense of the times. It also justifies the repeated use of “Sun Mere Bandhu Re” (‘Sujata’) as a refrain giving this battle of heart and mind a lyrical expression. That heart is not just a pumping station. Though, Gulzar steered clear of songs, towards the end when in an emotional parting, Ranjeet and his father-in-law, who, by the way, also wants to save him, salute each other one could sense the tune of “Koi Hota Jisko Apna Hum Apna Keh Lete”, the defining song of Gulzar’s directorial debut “Mere Apne”.

For Khanna, it was an experiment in between his rustic dacoit image of Jabbar Singh of “Mera Gaon Mera Desh” and Sarju of “Patthar Aur Payal”. Here he is expected to underplay and he does it without turning into a cardboard. In the 70s, if Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who presented “Achanak”, was offering Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra a different masala to taste, Gulzar was experimenting with Jeetendra and Khanna. Years later, Gulzar again cast Khanna against the tide when he roped him for “Meerabai” opposite Hema Malini. Bengali actress Lily Chakraborty could not make it big in Hindi films but her natural performance made “Achanak” believable for Gulzar dared to show what Nayyar could not. Pushpa is not given an easy way out. Her drink was not laced when she was seduced!

Of course, some of the technical details have become dated over the years, but “Achanak” continues to probe and provoke courtesy Gulzar’s favourite cinematographer K.Vaikunth and editor Waman Bhonsle. In an interview, Abbas, who wrote many of Raj Kapoor’s hits, described “Achanak” as a fairly well made film apart from the fact that he didn’t like the climax. Perhaps, he didn’t like the way Gulzar moved away from the literal translation of his story which talked of heart transplant. But then that is the beauty of Gulzar’s works. The joy lies in peeling for there is always a layer waiting to be explored!

Genre: Thriller

Director: Gulzar

Cast: Vinod Khanna, Om Shivpuri, Lily Chakraborty, Farida Jalal, Asrani, Iftekar

Story: K. A. Abbas

Written by: Gulzar

Music: Vasant Desai

Box office status: Hit


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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 11:20:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/Achanak-1973/article14550904.ece

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