In 1977, a few dozen scientists and their families came together to perform Bhoomi Poojan on a plot they had collectively purchased in the recently developed satellite city of Navi Mumbai. Among these was a proud 38-year-old scientist, Gopinathan and his wife and their three young children all under the age of 10. Gopinathan, who earned a salary of about Rs.1500/-, had calculated that the cost of constructing their 3BHK, an estimated Rs.55000/-, would be taken care of by a loan from HDFC and some scrimping and saving, and under no circumstances would they ever borrow from family or friends. Things were going smoothly and the construction was 3/4th of the way through when A R Antulay came to power as the CM of Maharashtra in 1980. In a bid to curry favours with the Congress high command in Delhi and to top up the Congress coffers, Antulay set up a bunch of charitable trusts and in a completely blatant abuse of his authority ordered that no construction could occur in the state of Maharashtra without first making hefty donations to the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan Trust. The scientists were forced to purchase cement in black at exorbitant rates to keep their construction going. But it would take a further 3 years for the flats to be completed, only after Antulay, who was convicted by the Bombay HC for extorting money from builders, resigned from the post of CM in 1982. The cost of the 3BHK Gopinathan had dreamt of, in the meanwhile, had escalated from 55000/- to over 3 lakhs. Money had to be borrowed from friends and family, robbing the scientist of his dignity and self-respect and the stress of making ends meet for the next decade or more all but destroyed his marriage and his health.
1977 was also the year of the release of Gharaonda, a tiny unassuming film, a love story set in the milieu of a city-wide obsession of owning one’s own ‘flat’ or die trying, literally. The film featured a string of actors also of an unassuming nature – the leads being Amol Palekar, Zarina Wahab and Shreeram Lagoo and, of course the city of dreams, Bombay – not yet the squalid, resigned Mumbai. It opens with a sweeping shot of Worli, the newly constructed TV tower gleaming red and white in the background, before moving to the mills of Parel, the still-smoking chimney stacks and sound of the morning siren segueing into the clickety-clack of the spot-on product placement of a sleek Godrej typewriter. This story is of the romance between office colleagues – a typist, Chaaya, and a junior clerk, Sudeep. There’s nothing spectacular, larger than life that happens. Two very ordinary people fall in love, set about trying to build a nest/ Gharaonda – in this case a small flat in a building near the Goldspot factory in Andheri, so they can marry and settle down. The smallest, most mediocre dream that two young lovers can dream of and yet the city does everything in its power to deny them this, to a point where Chaya, driven by her boyfriend’s abject desperation at not being able to procure a flat, pragmatically marries her much older, wealthier boss, Mr. Modi. In a nutshell, idealism followed by strong dose of Premchand’s realism, that Sudeep accuses Chaaya of, when he’s waxing on about their dream abode and she interjects sarcastically that the drawing room is the place where they will receive the debt-collectors.
The heavyweights of this film are all behind the camera. Its director-producer is the brilliant Bhimsain – we all really know and love him as the maker of the most beloved animated short Ek-Anek for Doordarshan. You’ll recognise his signature animation in the opening credits for his company, Climb Films. Gulzar is credited with screenplay and dialogue and lyrics – of course he is. Only he can manage to inject lyricism into the most mundane situations. Post marriage to richie-rich industrialist, when Chaaya returns to her brother’s home for a visit, her loving bhabhi ,the brilliant Sudha Chopra, very conscious of the now looming gap in their status, refuses her help around the house. Hurt, Chaaya rushes off without saying a word. And the neighbour gently rebukes the bhabhi – Guldaste mein rakhhi rahegi toh jad kahan se pakdegi. Apni mitti dhoondti huyi aayi hogi bichari -Can a plant ever take root were she to be only displayed in a vase? She just came looking for a little earth from her childhood to help her sustain her roots…
And then there are the songs. There are only three, but the quality of these more than makes up for that. Three songs that have never left our consciousness, Tumhein Ho Na Ho, Do Deewane and Ek Akela. The last one, is a Sangam really, a confluence of the genius of lyricist Gulzar composer Jaidev and the sexy, masculine, single malt tones of Bhupinder Singh. When you hear it while feeling the despair writ large on Palekar’s face as he wanders, lost on the umr se lambi sadkon, the heart aches and you weep for dreams broken. My favourite however, is the exquisite little poem that is Tumhein ho na ho sung by the exuberant, irreverent Runa Laila. Never have I been more glad that the perfectionist Mangeshkar sisters didn’t get their paws on this little gem. No song captures the essence of a bright new love, the trembling desire, the uncertainty, the feverish excitement like this one does and the slightly breathless, artfully artless rendition by Runa Laila suits it perfectly.
But the revelation for me was the character of Chaaya. Ironically named, because shadow or reflection she is not. She’s a modern working woman, a confusing new species to Bollywood of the 70s. She’s forthright, doesn’t mince her words and can say no very firmly, be it to the preachy boss who mansplains to her about the perils of modelling for money or her boyfriend who takes her to his seedy chawl/ boys hostel digs for a quickie. Innocent teenager she may be, but naive she is not. She marries her boss when her romance goes belly-up and she quickly learns to adapt and love her aged husband. But the beauty of this film, is that, not once is Chaaya judged for her choices. Her family doesn’t push her either way and seems to respect and support her choices; be it the loser boyfriend or the geriatric husband. And her wonderfully civilized husband doesn’t feel the need to fly into an patriarchy-ratified righteous rage when her ex visits her post marriage. Chaaya is very much her own person. Her wardrobe of choice, as a girl from the chawls, are milled cotton printed sarees always worn over white petticoats accompanied by high-backed blouses that are black or white. Wearing salwar-kameezes at home and changing into a saree to go to work, the fun bangs that frame her face in the beginning of the film get pinned back into a low bun when she becomes a married woman. She now wears big bindis, dark lipsticks and drapes Benarasis and soft printed silks as befitting a woman in her position.
A final word is reserved for Bhimsain’s adept, nimble-fingered handling of the many strands in this film that criss-cross to make a textured, layered weave. He has the eye of an ad-filmmaker- every frame could be an advertisement for Bombay, but he has the heart of a poet, who gives all the characters a chance to redeem themselves. Sudeep who upon losing everything is about to leave the wretched city and that would be the appropriate ending. But I think Bhimsain’s tender poet’s heart allows Sudeep a new hope and a new beginning.
As for Gopinathan and family, they could only move into the flat around the time of his retirement. His wife died a few years after they moved into the flat and soon after, ill-health forced the old man to move in with his children. But he’s a content man, enjoying the company of his children and grandchildren.