Blast from the past Friday Review

Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978)

Saeed Akhtar Mirza Photo S. Mahinsha   | Photo Credit: S.MAHINSHA

Not popular? It must then be an art film. Can’t make head or tail of the movie? It must be from the genre of parallel cinema. For the front benchers it was simple ‘saneema’, a bit of love, a bit of fight, comedy thrown in for variety. It was a ticket to entertainment. An art movie was not the kind that fell in the category of “chalo picture dekhe.” It had a niche audience which perhaps did not appreciate the mainstream movie where the hero chased his lady love around the trees and sang paeans for her on the piano.

Parallel cinema was termed a movement by some. It was a platform to give vent to a director’s personal philosophy, his political commitments and maybe his assessment of the times. The director spoke through his actors and wove a tale that was supposed to reach the masses. Sadly, such ventures remained confined to a select audience for many reasons. The critics and distributors, not to forget the theatre owners, were not on the same page. Commerce was a key component because art films did not generate hysteria of a “Bobby” or “Sholay”.

World cinema is marked by some classics that have retained their freshness and appeal even in current times. “Bicycle Thieves”, a 1948 film directed by Vittorio De Sica, is an art film that appealed to all. Movies by Iranian great Majid Madidi brings theatre to the screen with rare finesse. Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Shyam Benegal have a place of their own in the world of cinema. In Bimal Roy we saw a filmmaker who stirred our conscience with a “Do Bigha Zameen” where a farmer strives to protect his land from an evil zamindar. The same director later gave us “Madhumati”, a movie highlighting reincarnation. Art cinema merged with the commercial world, a rare happening.

“Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan” (ADKAD), a film close to Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s heart, was part of the parallel cinema movement that was a tribute to Indian filmmakers. Shyam Benegal, who sometime back rued the disappearance of rural theme from Indian cinema, was at the forefront, with path-breaking subjects. “Ankur”, “Nishant”, “Bhumika” and “Manthan” preceded ADKAD and set a benchmark for they were nice combinations of art and mainstream themes.

Art cinema was thus at its peak when ADKAD blossomed but it faded since the audience did not come to terms with the detailed narrative. It was quite slow-paced and concentrated on the inner conflicts of a city-bred individual, who struggles to understand the meaning of his life and those surrounding him, family and friends. ADKAD perhaps suffered due to the expectations one had with an art movie. Did it suffer because Benegal had certain standards and style?

The audience responded poorly to ADKAD which succumbed to the expectations associated with a certain Mirza. The movie had everything going for it –– story and cast –– but not the timing. “Sholay” and “Bobby” had created a set of followers who had come to understand cinema differently. “Bobby” had the young and “Sholay” everyone rushing to the theatres. ADKAD was different too.

It had a superb cast. Shreeram Lagoo, Rohini Hattangadi, Satish Shah, Suresh Oberoi (in a cameo), Om Puri and Dilip Dhawan, a much under-rated and under-utilised actor best known for his work in “Nukkad”, also directed by Mirza. It was not a movie for the cola-sipping and wafer munching types but for those grey around the sideburns who must have appreciated it better. Dhawan is Arvind Desai, the protagonist, seeking solace from a world he does not strike a rapport with.

Arvind Desai’s father is a rich businessman (Shreeram Lagoo), dealing in handicrafts. Arvind likes neither his vocation nor the city. “This bloody city, I hate it,” he tells his Marxist friend Rajan (Om Puri) and spends time with him discussing art and politics. The film opens to some shots from the world of labourers spinning intricate designs for a carpet. The products reach a city show room, small cottage industry promoters, where other handicrafts are being appreciated. “You can keep jewellery, good for cigars” you hear a murmur.

You witness Bombay of the 70s, beggars and performers at traffic intersections, the hero detesting the “crow, filth and stench” of the city as we see Bombay through the eyes of Mirza, not the panoramic shots of a bustling and vibrant city but detailed insight into the heart and belly of the metropolis. There are slums, football fields and parks, flooded streets and roads washed by rains. City at a standstill and limping back to life. Slow and fast. The sound of the passing local train, the lifeline of Bombay’s public transport, is so craftily captured during the conversation between Arvind Desai and friend Rajan at the latter’s one-room tenement.

An extended shot of workers being frisked as they leave the factory speaks of the lack of faith the owners have on the people who toil and create livelihood for many. Arvind Desai is confused, tackling a dominant father, a reclusive mother, a highly-educated Paris-returned girl being thrust upon him as a life-partner when he seeks emotional and physical bonding in Fatima, a not-very-attractive prostitute.

Arvind Desai feels suffocated when dealing with an artificial world, with each having an agenda. He is best reflected in a symbolic sequence where a street performer is whipping himself and inflicting pain. The protagonist of ADKAD is a masochist who ultimately finds the easy way out. ADKAD is an art film lost in its own world of parallel cinema, exposing the angst of a man without a solution to his woes. Dilip Dhawan, though, stands out as Arvind Desai.

Genre: Social drama

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Cast: Dilip Dhawan, Anjali Paigankar, Shriram Lagoo, Om Puri, Sulabha Deshpande, Satish Shah, Rohini Hattangadi, Suresh Oberoi

Story: Cyrus Mistry, Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Dialogue: Cyrus Mistry, Vijay Tendulkar

Music: Bhaskar Chandavarkar

Box office status: Average

Trivia: Saeed Akhtar Mirza received the 1979 Filmfare Award Best Film – Critics.

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