Namkeen – a quaint bitter-sweet tale by Gulzar!

Gulzar is a leading proponent of the hindustani tehzeeb – the syncretic combination of Hindi and Urdu that is so delectable to utter and yet so easily understood by the masses.

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Sanjeev Kumar as Gerulal (Truck driver)               Image Courtesy – Online FM Radio

I was happy to learn that the multi-talented Gulzar had been awarded the ‘Dadasaheb Phalke Award for 2013.  A popular and well-known lyricist, Gulzar’s talent in writing and directing movies is not appreciated as much as it should be.

I was reminded of his enduring partnership with the versatile actor, Sanjeev Kumar, that produced 5 lovely movies – Koshish, Aandhi, Mausam, Angoor and Namkeen.

Namkeen is possibly the least known of these movies and indeed many might not have seen it as well. It did not get a commercial release when it was made in 1982 and so it was released on our national Doordarshan without much ado.

It was a great cast with Sanjeev Kumar playing the gem of a role of a rough man who is afraid and unused to the company of women. Waheeda Rehman played the role of a lovable old crone who is overly protective of her three youthful daughters –  a sensible Nimki (Sharmila Tagore), a dreamer Mithu (Shabana Azmi) and a spunky Chinki (Kiran Vairale). She has reasons to be worried given her sordid past of being a nautanki dancer who left her alcoholic husband to protect her girls.

They live in a ruined house and eke out a hard living by selling spices. A boarder is welcome as it means some more money to help them survive. The introduction of Gerulal as a truck driver conned into taking the room available for rent is realistically done. While he is irritated and feels cheated, he cannot summon the gumption to walk away from the place. Instead the movie is a nice little cameo of his varying relationships with the four ladies. Despite of the poverty and the constant threat reinforcing their vulnerability, the girls lead a rather charmed life and are shown to enjoy the small sweet moments in their daily routine.

The girls are well-mannered and have strong moral values and are fiercely protectively on one another. In particular Sharmila plays a motherly role for the two younger girls. Gerulal is a keen observer of their routine life and mellows down as he adjusts to his new environment. He loves Sharmila Tagore but is forever tongue-tied and not able to convey his feelings. He feels very protective for the youngest of the lot. He  sympathizes with Mithu who is a dumb girl and she mistakes it to mean that he is in love with her.

Eventually Gerulal proposes to Nimki who refuses to accept the offer as she feels that there will be no one to look after her family. She suggests that he should marry Mithu instead of her. There are no fairy tale endings here and Gulzar keeps the story at a very realistic level as true to his character Gerulal refuses the counter offer and moves away from the family. And this leads to tragedy and ruins the family.

The movie had some lovely songs but sadly it did not draw many viewers. With just over 2 hours of screen time and sans any commercial formulas, possibly it was far ahead of its times. The movie was shot in the lovely hills and one is left with the enduring memory of Sanjeev Kumar wheeling his truck on the serpentine and winding hilly roads  as the rain pours into the night and we hear Kishore Kumar softly sing –

राह पे रहते है, यादों पे बसर करते हैं

खुश रहो एहले वतन हम तो सफ़र करते हैं

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