Friday Review

Know your Bharat

Manoj Kumar and Bharati in “Purab aur Paschim”.

Manoj Kumar and Bharati in “Purab aur Paschim”.   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

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As the government honours Manoj Kumar with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, a look at the contribution of the actor-director.

Recently when the Delhi High Court judgement in Kanhaiya Kumar bail case began with “Mere Desh Ki Dharti”, it took us back to times when nationalism was not a complicated concept. Land is our mother and hence it could not be divided. Purab is pure, Paschim is corrupt. Those were the days when a film song could be patriotic and the hero could be named Bharat. “Ai watan Ai watan humko teri kasam” was so ingrained in our psyche that it never occurred to us that we were listening to a film song on 15th August and singing “Rang De Basanti Chola” didn’t bring us close to an ideological hue. It was Manoj Kumar who stirred this nationalism in public consciousness. Some find his contrast of cultures – from village vs city to East vs West – simplistic, but in the late 60s and early 70s when Hindi cinema was more about romance and less about social injustice, he sold patriotism at the box office in a poetic fashion.

“Shaheed”, which he ghost directed, remains the best sketch of Bhagat Singh on celluloid. It brought the ‘extremist’ freedom fighter back in the national conscience when popular culture was busy giving shape to Nehruvian dreams. He played Bhagat Singh and Singh’s mother found him so close to her son that she lent his cap to Manoj Kumar to wear in the film.

Manoj’s family bore the brunt of the Partition and his mother-in-law was a staunch Gandhian. His surroundings shaped his nationalism. It is another matter that over the years he got disillusioned with the Congress and slanted towards right wing ideology. It reflects in his films as well. From “Upkar” to “Kranti” there is a subtle inclusion of religion in nationalism. But it was seldom one at the cost of the other. Like in “Jeevan Chalne Ka Naam”, a song weaved around a cycle marathon where in he brings symbols from every religion. The cycle marathon was something he grew up watching in Ajmal Khan Park in Karol Bagh.

Talking of “Upkar”, he made it on the advice of then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight the ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ slogan, something Kanhaiya is espousing today from the left corner. “If every young man will move out of village, who will take care of the country's hunger,” asks Bharat . It still rings a bell. So does his searing take on hoarders. Interestingly, Bharat is well read and knows the etiquette of the city. He is just talking of arriving at a balance. In fact, the first time Dr. Kavita (Asha Parikh), who comes to village to spread the gospel of family planning, looks back and notices him is when Bharat says ‘mention not’ to her ‘thank you’. His progressive take delinks education with your vocation and place of work, something our system and society are still grappling with.

“He was far ahead of his time and everybody associated with cinema has acknowledged his talent. If you watch “Purab Aur Paschim” now you will feel that it is today’s subject. We should understand that he was addressing the layman of the time,” says Chandra Barot, his long time associate, who went on to direct Don. He is right for Vipul Shah copied his idea as “Namastey London” almost three decades after the original released.

“When I congratulated him he said you have been part of my journey, it belongs to you as well. In an industry known for scandals, he led a virtuous life,” beams Barot.

Manoj Kumar’s camera angles and framing changed the way we looked at our screen idols. Be it a rear view mirror of a cycle or the hub of a car’s wheel or capturing the crops through the anklets of the actress, Manoj Kumar introduced us to a new visual grammar. “Now we are practically at par with Hollywood in terms of technique but to make a film in late ‘60s that withstands the test of time and still looks contemporary is something,” says Barot. He cites the example of the revolving stage that he used in “Purab Aur Paschim”. “The set of a London restaurant was erected in Mehboob Studios and workers pushed it from beneath.” Similarly he shot the night scenes in “Shaheed” in tennis court lights. Fond of taking long shots, Barot reminisces how he asked him to pull an eight feet long trolley and stop at 14 points, to and fro, to bring different characters in one shot. “Kahani se set hai, set se kahani nahin. Anurag Kashyap spent crores in creating Bombay in Colombo but it didn’t work. In this industry you are known for how you put an idea into practice,” says Barot calling him a better director than an actor.

A big fan of Dilip Kumar, Kumar not only took his screen name from one of the characters that the thespian played but also followed his mannerisms. “When you follow your idol, some mannerisms are bound to creep in. Dilip Kumar inspired many actors of his generation,” reasons Barot.

Veteran film critic, Suresh Kohli, who once pushed Kumar to write his autobiography, differs. “I don’t think he copied Dilip Kumar. If you watch ‘Aadmi’, where both of them were there, Manoj stood his ground and you could see the difference between the two.” In Raj Khosla’s films you won’t find any obvious shade of Dilip Kumar in his performance. “It was in films that he directed or ghost-directed that there are certain mannerisms,” analyses Kohli.

His gesture of covering face with his palm is often parodied now but there was a time when it was applauded. “He was conscious of his limitations and covered them quite well,” feels Kohli and has an interesting theory for it. “There were two particular gestures. Covering of face was an indicator to the camera person to zoom in. And when his fingers moved from right to left or left to right, it was an indicator for trolley movement.”

Kohli says Kumar is much more intelligent than many give him credit for. “The few pages that he wrote for the book reflect his calibre as a writer. He created an imaginary dialogue between Hari Krishna Goswami and Manoj Kumar. How one has taken everything from the other and now doesn’t even acknowledge the presence of the other.” Barot reminds he wrote the first half of “Mera Naam Joker”. “The line Joker woh hai jo karta hai came from him. And who can forget ‘Shor’.” When one reminds Barot of the way Kumar represented female characters, he goes back to Nanda’s portrayal in ‘Shor’. “She shot for two days but her song is the most abiding image of the film.” Kohli agrees he exposed his female characters but in a stylish way. “As Hema Malini famously said Manoj Kumar’s idea of sexuality lies in titillating the feet.”

For him songs were always integral to the story and conveyed what dialogues could not. “Songs like ‘Kasme Vaade Pyaar Wafa’, ‘Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai’ or ‘Jab Koi Tumhara Hriday Tod De’ add depth to the narrative and this was possible because he himself was involved in the process. Kalyanji-Anandji always acknowledged his contribution. In ‘Don’, the credit for including ‘Khaike Paan Benaras Wala’ goes to him. After watching the film, he said the second half feels too tight and I must include a song for some relief,” reflects Barot.

Few remember that it was Kumar who raised the voiced against inflation with “Mehangai Mar Gayi” in “Roti Kapda Aur Makaan”, his comment on the welfare state. “He took on fake sadhus in ‘Sanyasi’ and ‘Clerk’ was a failure but thematically it talked about corruption,” reminds Kohli. After “Kranti”, the quality of his films waned. Films like “Kalyug Aur Ramayan” reduced him to a comic figure. Once a novelty, his camera angles began to look forced. Kohli gives it to complacency and a bad back that reduced his direct involvement in direction. Not to forget his desperation to launch his brother.

All along he kept on playing with his image. Before he was labelled Bharat he did a series of thrillers like “Woh Kaun Thi”, “Poonam Ki Raat” and “Gumnam”. After the patriotic image was attested to his name, he tried to break it by playing “10 Numberi” and “Be-imaan” and was even awarded for it. But posterity will remember Manoj Kumar from making us fall in love with Bharat over and over again.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2018 12:15:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/know-your-bharat/article8337316.ece

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