Heil Holi: Another subdued Holi with the same old songs and an unusual film

Ever since I can remember, Holi, be it with family, friends or neighbours, has been celebrated with almost the same Bollywood songs playlist every year, year after year, writes Namrata Joshi

(Photo courtesy: Youtube screengrab)
(Photo courtesy: Youtube screengrab)
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Namrata Joshi

Like all things in life, our festivals too have found a mirror in films; getting portrayed in all their myriad shades on screen, in popular song sequences and pivotal scenes. Concurrently, their depiction in movies often travels back to us for real, to inspire and add zest to our off-screen, or offline as they say these days, celebrations.

Ever since I can remember, Holi, be it with family, friends or neighbours, has been celebrated with almost the same Bollywood songs playlist every year, year after year. Good times have to always begin rolling with Rang Barse from Silsila to then go back to Aaj Na Chhodenge from Kati Patang with Holi Ke Din from Sholay and Jai Jai Shiv Shankar from Aap Ki Kasam always thrown in the heady mix. Occasionally a newbie like Balam Pichkari from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani enters the charts on the recommendation of the youngsters and goes on to become a lifelong member of the Holi family.

As I write this article, the festivities this year have been highly muted to say the least. In the times of social distancing, how to celebrate a festival which is all about breaking the physical boundaries, which is about individuals smearing each other with colours and dunking in water? Traditional food—gujiya, nimki and thandai—have, perhaps, been the only source of joy and a compelling culinary link with how it all used to be in the pre-Pandemic times.

I decided to fight the quietude surrounding me this Holi by turning to films. Not the usual song sequences that come in as fillers; but more. Going down the memory lane to films where Holi has been a significant part of the story and its telling and progression, where it has been a key plot point. The obvious one, of course, is Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. The merriment of Holi here—twice over at that—is the harbinger of the insane violence that Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) unleashes on Ramgarh and unfathomable personal tragedy it specifically leaves the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) to face.

In Yash Chopra’s rumination on extra-marital romance in Silsila the outrageous flirtation between Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) and Chandni (Rekha) on Holi is a clear marker of the turn in their relationship and the consequences it would have on them and their respective spouse—Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) and Anand (Sanjeev Kumar).

The entire edifice of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini is built on and propelled by the terrible rape that its protagonist witnesses at her own home on Holi. And then you have a filmmaker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali who has an obvious fascination for the festival, portraying it in his signature lush and seductive style, be it Goliyon Ki Rasleela, Ramleela or Padmaavat.

But the film that I decided to revisit doesn’t just take its title from the festival, it is also all about what transpires in a college campus on the day of Holi, from the crack of dawn till the evening. It’s amusing to note that Ketan Mehta’s Holi (1984), based on the play by Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, starts with students in the hostel complaining about lack of water even as you hear a small snatch of the song Piya Tose from Guide—Aayi holi aayi.

There is more cause for complaint. The students have been summoned for a founder’s day event and regular classes at the college on the holiday. Should they boycott and play Holi instead? As the film moves through long takes, from one set of characters and their conversations to the next—in the hostel, college canteen, library, classes and staff room—one can sense the growing restlessness and resentment. Exams have been postponed, liberal ats courses are getting a short shrift.

It all comes to a head when one student is arbitrarily rusticated for getting into a brawl with another who happens to be the principal’s nephew. Protests, suspension and a suicide later, a bunch of students finds itself in the police van while the Holi festivities are in full flow on the streets. The festival that is all about burning the evil has, in fact, ended up stoking the fires of indignation and discontent amongst the students.

The film is a great example of collaborative, improvisational (even though a trifle dated) filmmaking, helmed by Mehta who worked in close association with students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. You can see them act in the film in the many small roles and they are also part of the crew, providing technical support to Mehta.

Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Dr Shreeram Lagoo and Om Puri are prominently visible as the academicians but it’s quite another sight to find a callow Aamir Khan playing the key role of a student Madan, technically his first appearance on screen. Close friend and collaborator and filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker gives him company as the fellow student Ranjeet. While Paresh Rawal is the employees’ union leader heading the strike against inadequate wages, there’s a young Amole Gupte as a student perched atop the tree, ensconced in a world of his own.

The film, in its day was regarded as a strong indictment of the education system, run like any other business venture by the management, shorn of any altruistic motives.

Teachers are apathetic because they often don’t get salaries; or it is so meagre that they are forced to run a cottage industry of private tuitions to make ends meet. Students find themselves directionless, consider colleges to be like jails where the best years of their youth get enchained or like mental hospitals where they are brainwashed to fall in line or like factories manufacturing slaves. Irony is that nothing seems to have changed. Much of it holds true even now, many Holis later.

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