A few nights ago, two to be precise, while visiting my boss, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my favorite movies being screened right in the middle of Godavari Dhaba. Godavari dhaba is one of the many dhabas in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The movie was Haasil. Haasil literally translates into achievement. I saw the movie by accident some years back much after its theatre release. I still remember the people with who I watched the movie and I can also remember the night. We watched exulting in the authenticity and the lucidity of the drama being played and watched the movie a second time right away.
I admit the movie remains dear to me for reasons of identity and for a place we call home. The people who watched the movie with me that night also came from the same part of the world. We were enthralled at what I am calling a rather 'realistic' potrayal of what life in small town North India is like. The word realist means many things to different people. It is also a word regularly abused in the world of arts and aesthetics. I use the word real to convey the fact that I found the behaviour of characters, their movement in space and the general drama convincingly reflective of the place.
It is a known and a repeatedly bandied fact that North India is a cauldron of caste rivalries and that politics permeates into every sphere of life. Hindi films for long have romanticised home but only in the form of idyllic villages and the hegemony of Bombay as a cinematic location is an uncontested fact. The provincial is a India, Bombay films know nothing about unless it is an 'art' movie and social realism the intention.
Haasil is a rather dynamic tale. It begins with the Brahmin strangehold on Allahabad University which is contested by the Thakurs led by Irfan Khan as Ranvijay Singh. The politics plays out and Ranvijay wins the student elections. I am not aware of the level of influence, but there was/is a time when the students politicians wielded considerable power in Uttar Pradesh (UP) politics. But the central focus of the story, through which a remarkable documentation of life is made, are a couple who meet and fall in love despite the emasculation that romance offers in mofussil India. Jimmy Shergill and Hrisitha Bhatt are the estranged lovers. I have a very high opinion of Jimmy Shergill and I think he is a very competant actor and this chikna Punjabi lad fits right into this UP story.
The boy falls in love with the girl in his small town way and can only furtively meet (in abandoned cinema: this reminded me of The Shadowlines by Amitava Ghosh, Tridip in a letter to May mentions something similar) her or pass on letters through friends. Jimmy Shergill's father is a railway guard and they live in a cramped quarter in a railway colony. The girl comes from a Thakur family and the father exhibits all the tenor, Thakur's are known to exhibit. There is one episode I always enjoy recounting. The couple are the few modern characters, in the sense, while at the university they participate in the dramatic and theatre activities. During one of the days when it gets late in college, the girl is on a cycle rickshaw going home. Aniruddha Sharma(Jimmy Shergill) is also on his bicycle going home and though not knowing each other but familiar the girl asks the boy to accompany her rickshaw till her home. The boy gladly does so. The parents of the girl are anxiously waiting for their daughter outside their home. As soon as the father sees his daughter, he lets himself lose. He chides the girl for being late and then concentrates on who the boy is, to which the girl replies he studies with her. The father asks Jimmy Shergill what his name is, when the boy answers with only his first name, the father insists, Annirudh what, essentially to know his surname and by extension caste.
The story unravels on two levels, the politically rising Ranvijay and secondly between Ranvijay and Annirudha. Ranvijay incidentally too is in love with the same girl. So Anni due to a series of unfortunate circumstances gets embroiled in the politics through his association with Ranvijay while Ranvijay is manipulating the situation to get the girl himself.
The movie was shot in Allahabad and conveys the culture (or the lack of it) of the place and effectively carries the sweetness of home for me. Home by extension of course, I am not from Allahabad. But the denegeration this Oxford of the East has suffered is to be seen to believed and it is symptomatic of the decay that North India symbolises, lost between an ineffective modern ethic (the State) and a nostalgic fantasy of the rich Indian culture that only the Western world has discovered for us. The climax of the movie is shot at the Kumbh Mela ghats during the last Kumbh in 2003. Many shots were filmed with the Ganga as the background, as is the key promise the hero makes to the heroine, that they would have a house where a river flowed nearby.
The other characters in the movie are also very well etched and representative of that world that sometimes you bend over with laughter and at others you shudder at their choices. There is a hilarious discussion Ranvijay has with his cronies related to Che Guevara and Maoist guerilla tactics. The star of the movie is Irfan Khan as Ranvijay Singh. It is a performance which is very sincere and geniune. It was an exciting character and Irfan is so very credible potraying him. Begining as the proverbial underdog, Ranvijay assumes many shades in between before finally turning into the antagonist. The other actor I found astounding was Murad Ali, who plays Badri Shankar. Badri succeeds to his brother's position as Brahmin student leader. Both these characters grow in the playing time of the movie in front of your eyes and in extremely plausible ways. Badri is a very nervous man and even stammers when his brother makes him stand for elections at the start but after his brother is killed and the mantle passes to him, the same Badri gains in confidence and is ambitious enough to want a party ticket to contest a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) seat.
The strengths of the movie is its unquestionable fidelity to the language, location of the setting and the intelligent screenplay. The film is a great documentation of the politics of the region and rather true evidence of the difference in life between Allahabad and Mumbai or Delhi. Metropolitan India is escape in the parlance of the movie. When Jimmy Shergill is absconding from the police, he is sent to Mumbai to keep low and a character ironically tells him that in the city, no one bothers you in love and romance. When Jimmy Shergill is plotting his elopement with the girl, the route is, Allahabad se Kanpur, Kanpur se Delhi aur zindagi tumhari hai (From Allahabad to Kanpur and then to Delhi and life is yours). The distance from Allahabad to Kanpur is about three hours and another six hours to Delhi. The distance in metaphorical terms is that of a few decades in social attitudes.
My exuberance at this movie is for the fact that it maps, in my era, a world similar to mine is rather obvious. But I come from a region which is remarkably omitted in literature (English) or films (Hindi). The only representations available are stereotypes which are neither flattering nor informative or mostly inaccurate, not enough to express any understanding. This movie was exciting for that and I should well go on and let you know that it is your normal hindi film, it does not bend rules nor does it omit songs but staying within the genre/format, Tigmanshu Dhulia gives us a great story. For a partially similar mapping but in English Literature, there is Pankaj Mishra's first novel, The Romantics, to refer to. The book for a part is about the character's time at Allahabad University and later even Benaras. Some may not agree with this extension of thought but I see a corroboration of The Romantics in the movie Haasil. But it would be important to clarify that the book and the movie, over all, intend to do something very different but the coincidence I mention is what prompted this conflation.