A tangy tale of Nimki, Mithu and Chinky, women dissatisfied with life, and their senile mother

Perhaps timing was wrong. Or as Munnabhhai would say, ‘Isska toh good luck hi kharaab tha.’ But Gulzar’s Namkeen failed to evoke a favourable response on the Box Office

A tangy tale of Nimki, Mithu and Chinky, women dissatisfied with life, and their senile mother

Subhash K Jha

Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or as Munnabhhai would say, ‘Isska to good luck hi kharaab tha.’ But Gulzar’s Namkeen, flowery in its fragility and steely in its strength, failed to evoke a favourable response at the boxoffice.

It came during the year when the Bachchan wave swept across the boxoffice with Namak Halaal, Khuddar and Shakti. It was also the year when two female-oriented films Nikaah and Prem Rog did exceedingly well in 1982.

Gulzar Saab loves the film though, just as one favours the child who is a little weak in studies.But Namkeen, rest assured, is not a weak film. It’s a powerful, haunting and exquisite piece of cinema, layered and luminous, casting lengthy shadows on the lives of the characters. Indeed, Namkeen has the most gorgeous gallery of women characters, towering in their mystique, glowing with an incandescent beauty that comes from deep within the recesses of a woman’s heart.

Years ago, I remember Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama claimed to have been shot on location in a woman’s heart.Watch Namkeen, and you realisewhy Gulzar is the most capable of the disciples of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Namkeen is not only shot on location in the hearts of a derelict family of women, it is also situated deep within the human condition, depicting, as it does, the dilemma of lives that must seek out hope, warmth and humour when none of these are there for them to claim.

Shot in picturesque Himachal Pradesh, the lyrical film wastes no time in scanning pretty locales. With our truck-driver hero Gerulal(Sanjeev Kumar) we head straight for the run-down and desolate home of an old, senile matriarch Amma(Waheeda Rehman) and her three daughters, Nimki(Sharmila Tagore), Mithu(Shabana Azmi) and Chinky(Kiran Vairale).

Gulzar introduces this unforgettable household of ladies with minimum fanfare. As Gerulal is taken in as a tenant by Amma, we get to know the girls from their body language and their minute, facial gestures.

Namkeen is a tangy, bitter-sweet exposition on the condition of mellow muliebrity(femininity). It’s an intensely dramatic story where every protagonist has more than her share of emotional turbulence to cope with. Gulzar keeps it calm and collected. The narration is never overcome with emotions even when characters are on the verge of a breakdown.

A tangy tale of Nimki, Mithu and Chinky, women dissatisfied with life, and their senile mother

What stays with you forever is the way the women have been shot as though conveying a molten, unharnessed beauty amidst their lives of wretched hopelessness. Waheeda Rehman is regal in her senile condition. We slip into her past to see her perform a Mujra. This was when she was just two years away from her 50th year. And yet the harkats and nuanced expressions she bringsto Asha Bhosle’s Badi der se megha barsa ho rama are portraits of dextrous nimbleness.

Tragically Waheeda is unable to carry off the present portions as the senile, paan-chewing, loudly-complaining matriarch. The actress’ innate dignity does not permit her the luxury of lapsing into extroverted aggression. The character suffers from the actress resorting to a quota of playacting to put forward the old woman’s inner life.

But the mother and her three daughters, playedby Sharmila, Shabana and Kiran Vairale, three sisters bonded by grief and giggles, seem so much like a part of one family, it’s as though the actresses actually share a blood relationship.

Mithu(Shabana) is the mute sensitive poet of the abandoned family. She lives in her own dreamworld where a Prince Charming is bound to rescue her some day from a life of dereliction.The song Phir se aiyo badra bidesi where Mithu romances the mists of Himachal is so dreamlike and misty it transports us into a world where pain, anger, frustration and bitterness take a backseat.All that remains is the magical mystical enchantment of that moment.

The eldest daughter Nimki is far more practical. She hopes for no redemption, and when the truck-driver who drives into the women’s lives offers to “take her away”, Nimki refuses the generous offer. Her life is with her mother and sisters and there’s no room for an alternative reality.

Chinky is the naughty one, playful but not unheedful of the financial problems plaguing the family. She, the youngest, turns out to be the weakest link in this family of strong women. She is the first to break the family, the one to take the plunge into a life of disrepute over a life of desolation . Years later when Gerulal runs into her, she scoffs at Gerulal’sextended hand of support.

Gulzar laces this sombretale of heartbreak with humorous interludes, all of them woven around Gerulal’s attempts to familiarise himself with the absolutely unpredictable house of capricious women, all dissatisfied with life but unwilling to let their daily lives be sullied by despondency.

The way Gerulal builds a different rapport with each of the women in the rundown home on the verge of collapse(not unlike the lives of the women) makes for a fascinating study of gender dynamics in a culture where women are constantly thrown new challenges in preserving their dignity.

Nothing really evil happens to anyone of Amma’s three girls.Yes, Chinky runs away and joins her fugitive father’s nautanki company. But it’s not the same shade of dereliction as Khandhar, Mrinal Sen’s study of ruins and ruinations, again featuring Shabana Azmi in the cast. There, when the ‘saviour’ from the city left, he never returned. Here, Gerulal returns to take Nimki back with him to civilization.

This one enforced happy ending we don’t really mind.

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