Directed by: Gulzar
Music: RD Burman
Starring: Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, Anuradha Patel,
Shammi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor,
Sulabha Deshpande, Dina Pathak
Over the weekend, while we were driving, my husband played The Kronos Quartet – Songs from RD Burman’s Bollywood. One of the songs they picked for this particular album was Mera Kuch Samaan (Asha re-rendering the song), one of my favourite songs, all the more touching for the matter-of-fact-ness of the singer’s heartbreak. That brought to mind the movie it was taken from – a story of marriage and extra-marital relationships, told, unusually enough, from the viewpoint of all three of its protagonists. It is a tale of missed opportunities and regrets over paths not taken, of loving and losing someone, and how ex-lovers sometimes cross paths in ways not imagined – with consequences not quite expected. I’d liked it very much when I first saw it, but that was many many years ago, and I wondered whether it would stand a second watch.
The story begins in a quaint little railway station, the sort that dot our countryside, not very well-known expect to its residents, that often pass by too fast for us even to read their names. Rain sweeps the landscape as the train chugs into the station, as Choti yeh kahani se trails off… Mahender (Naseeruddin Shah) gets out of the train and impatiently walks towards the first class waiting room; the rainfall has become heavier, and he has a while to wait before he can set off on the next leg of his journey. Amongst the other travellers already there is a woman who, catching sight of Mahender, hurriedly hides her face behind her magazine.
And when Mahender goes into the bathroom, she hurriedly goes outside and asks the station master whether there is a ladies’ waiting room at the station. Unfortunately for her, there isn’t. Meanwhile, Mahender is trying to get a change of clothes out of his suitcase when he realises that he has misplaced the keys. It is clear that Mahender is a rather impatient man.
He decides to ask his fellow passengers if they have the same make of suitcase – perhaps their keys might fit his. But he has no luck with the family who is still in the waiting room. The helpful station master suggests that a female passenger who has just stepped outside might be able to help – her suitcase is the same as his. When Mahender saunters towards the door, he almost bumps into the lady, who is returning to the room.
It is clear they not only just know each other. She is Sudha (Rekha), and Mahender and she were, in fact, married at one time. Sudha walks quietly past him and in the awkwardness of the moment, Mahender too walks back to his seat, without asking her for her keys. (The helpful stationmaster gets them for him.) The only other family in the room are soon gone, rescued by a family member, and as the night progresses and the rains continue unabated, Sudha and Mahender find themselves alone, marooned in the awkwardness of things left unsaid.
Their initial interaction is coloured by this awkwardness, making small talk about his new habit of taking no sugar in his tea, and her spectacles, about his ad campaign in Darjeeling, and her teaching music in Patna. Slowly they begin to relax, and the movie deftly cuts between their mutual past and shared present through their conversation, halting, reserved, at first, and then increasingly more searching, more intimate.
We begin to unravel the awkwardness – Mahender had been engaged to Sudha, courtesy his grandfather (Daddu – Shammi Kapoor). Not very enthused about the idea, he had managed to evade matrimony for five years, much to Sudha’s mother’s (Sulabha Deshpande) distress. Daddu has also run out of patience. Much to Mahender’s shock, Daddu decides to present him with a fait accompli – the wedding will take place next week. At wits’ end, Mahender decides to go meet Sudha at Panchgani and appeal to her good sense. This wedding has to be stopped.
So why don’t you tell Daddu, asks a pragmatic Sudha. Mahender is rather sheepish. He admits that he doesn’t have the courage. His reason for not wanting to get married is that he’s been in a relationship with a girl named Maya for the past two and a half years. He’d hoped that Sudha would have also found someone else in the intervening period. After all, she’s smart, independent, living away from home… And beautiful? queries Sudha dryly.
Mahender, already feeling guilty about breaking their engagement, pleads for her understanding. A not-unsympathetic Sudha askshim to take the right action – take Maya to Daddu and plead their cause. Daddu is not a cruel man, he will understand. A relieved Mahender takes her leave and speeds towards his home – and Maya. But there, he’s welcomed by the news that Maya had left for parts unknown – but she’s left him a note.
Mahender tries his best to trace her, but everywhere, he is greeted by the same response to his query about whether anyone knows where she’s gone: Usne kabhi bataaya hai kya? [Has she ever told anyone where she’s going?] It also becomes clear to him that he doesn’t know Maya as well as he thinks he does. Left with no options (none that occurs to him, anyway), Mahender takes the easier of two choices – he goes back and marries Sudha.
In the present, Mahender desperately needs a smoke, only he can’t find his matches. Sudha digs into her handbag and gives him a box, much to his surprise. She used to keep matches for him, but now? Sudha smiles – he hasn’t gotten over his habit of forgetting his matches, and she hasn’t gotten over her habit of keeping them.
Their conversation gets slightly acerbic as the past is unwittingly dredged up. And when Sudha says she has never asked him for anything or even said a word, Mahender finds himself saying, almost involuntarily, Wohi toh.. kuch kaha hota… [Yes, that… if only you had said something…]Yet when Mahender cadges a drink off the station master who’s come in to sneak a peg – ‘to keep out the cold’, Sudha is the very image of an annoyed wife and insists that he isn’t to drink.
Mahender leaves to try and get some food for both of them, and Sudha, left alone, tidies Mahender’s belongings which he has scattered haphazardly all over the room. The sight of his camera brings back memories of the early days of their marriage, when they were relatively happy – several cups of tea in the morning, laughter and a shared understanding of what they mean to each other, walks on the beach…
But their happiness is not meant to last. So far, Maya (Anuradha Patel) had only been the uneasy undercurrent to their marriage; now, two months into it, she’s making her physical presence felt.
Maya had always permeated the atmosphere of the house, her invisible presence a palpable reminder to Sudha that she is not mistress of either her home or Mahender’s heart. But Mahender is trying his best, and Sudha confesses that she is both possessive and selfish. Mahender pleads again for her understanding – she has successfully removed all traces of Maya from his house. If Maya pops up unexpectedly in some dusty corner, allow him some time, and he will eradicate her from there as well.
It is around this time that Sudha comes across a few of Maya’s belongings in their house – a long muffler, a woollen coat, a pair of sunglasses… she suggests that Mahender returns them to Maya. An already unsettled Mahender agrees. (Maya’s phone calls have just reignited his emotions, which he’s been struggling to suppress.) And he even sends Maya’s letters and poems back along with the rest of her belongings.
The response, though not completely unexpected by Mahender, comes as a shock to Sudha. Maya sends them a telegram asking for the rest of her belongings… As Sudha says, Yunhi toh din raat Maya hamare saath rah rahi hain. Saamaan bhi rah jaata toh kya ho jaata? [As it is, Maya lives with us day and night; what would have happened if I’d let her belongings be?]
In a bid to get away, both from his own memories of Maya and from Maya herself, Mahender decides to go away on his honeymoon. He and Sudha are more relaxed, more comfortable with themselves and their nascent relationship when reality intrudes. Mahender returns from his honeymoon to the news that Maya has tried to commit suicide. Visibly shaken, he visits her in the hospital but doesn’t inform Sudha. When she finds out that Mahender is still meeting Maya, Sudha is devastated. The silences and the secrecy simmer unrestrained until finally, the cauldron boils over – with devastating effect.
And now, years later, here they are, two people still bound by the complexities of their mutual past.
Gulzar’s Ijaazat was based on on a Bengali story, Jatugriha, by Subhodh Ghosh. Having read the story in Abhi Bhattacharya’s house, Gulzar, intrigued by the thought of two people, their relationship severed, meeting again years later in a railway station waiting room, bought the rights to Ghosh’s story, and went back and worked on his take on the same theme; the result? Ijaazat. It took three years for him to complete the story. As he tells it, he took the finished story back to Ghosh. The latter told him it wasn’t the same story, but it was good. Gulzar promptly asked Ghosh if he could credit the story to him.
A lyrical look at man-woman relationships, both inside and outside the marital bond, Ijaazat was that rare film that just observed the three protagonists without making value judgements on any of them. Ijaazat is a story of decisions regretted, of paths taken, when ‘What if? is not too silly a question to ask. When they meet years later, both Mahender and Sudha fall back into familiar patterns – there are a shared laughter and camaraderie between them, and Sudha quite easily slips into caring for Mahender again. Even though she asks him dryly at one point: Are you still like this, or is it just because I’m here?’ And Mahender confesses that everything seems familiar.
When Sudha hurts herself in the dark, Mahender yells at her. He later apologises – Itne saal guzar gaye, lekin aadat nahin jaati.[So many years have passed, but habits remain the same.] Aadat bhi chali jaati hai, Sudha respond. Adhikaar nahin jaati.[Habits change too; rights don’t.] It is obvious that one question has been haunting Sudha for years – why didn’t Mahender come after her? She doesn’t voice it, though. Instead, with that adhikar [right] of once having been married to him, she asks after Maya. It is that right which Maya assumes – of having loved Mahender once, of not being able to let him go, even though she has nothing against Sudha, and does, in fact, want Mahender to be happy with her. It is with that right that Mahender insists on bringing Maya home, so Sudha would know her for who she is.
Mahender is weak, yes, but he is also honest. With both Maya, who knows that he is affianced, and with Sudha – when the engagement Mahender had prolonged for as long as he could, looks like it’s going to end, it is to Sudha that he goes, to tell her what he couldn’t bring himself to confess to his grandfather. When he realises that Maya had chosen this of all times to do one of her vanishing acts, it is to Sudha he reaches out. Nothing is hidden from either woman and each act with complete knowledge of the circumstances. Which is why, when Sudha (reacting to Maya’s phone call), snaps ‘Why didn’t you marry her then?’, Mahendra pleads, ‘Itna chhota toh mat karo mujhe.’ He hasn’t been talking to Maya or visiting her since their marriage.
And later, when he plans a trip to Kudremukh for their honeymoon, and Sudha wonders if he is not running away from someone, he tells her quietly: Main Maya se pyar karta tha – ye sach hain. Aur use bhoolne ki koshish kar raha hoon – ye sahi hain. Lekin is mein tum meri madad nahin karogi toh mere liye badi mushkil hogi. Kyunki mujhse zyaada woh tumhe yaad rehti hain. Maazi ko maazi nahin banaya toh… [That I loved Maya is true. That I’m trying to forget her is also true. But if you don’t help me in doing so, it will be very, very difficult for me. Because you think of her more often than I do. If you do not let the past remain the past…]
And that is the crux of the film – Sudha cannot forget the past because the past refuses to stay interred. And Mahender, feeling responsible for Maya, guilty about not telling Sudha anything, and struggling with all his emotions – to forget Maya, to stay true to Sudha… is caught in a whirlpool that is only partly of his own making. This was one of Naseeruddin Shah’s best ‘commercial’ performances in those years, and Naseer played it to perfection. He was the jilted lover, the responsible husband, the man coming to terms with circumstances, an exasperated friend who nevertheless feels responsible for the woman he cared for… and finally, he is the man who hopes for a reconciliation with the woman who understood him through and through.
Sudha too has stepped into her marriage knowing that her husband was in love with another woman. What is beautiful about this film is that she never punishes him for it. She is not asking for Maya’s memories to be eradicated completely. It is just, she confesses to Mahender in one of the film’s many delicate and touching moments, that she feels that everything in this house belongs to someone else – she’s just sharing it. ‘Poora poora apna kuch bhi nahin lagta.’ [Nothing is completely mine.] (That scene cuts to the present, when Sudha is suddenly curious to see whether Mahender still has Maya’s photograph in his wallet.)
Sudha is strong, independent, mature, and understanding. But as she herself confesses to Mahender, she is also possessive and jealous and weak when it comes to him. She knows he loves Maya, but believes that he has also begun to love her. But it is when her husband attacks her self-respect, taking no account of her stated wish, that she makes an emotional, and impulsive decision to leave Mahender – one that has far-reaching consequences on three lives. And it is a decision which she regrets when she learns of its tragic aftermath years later.
Sudha is that curious mix between traditional and ‘modern’ and Rekha plays her with a lot of vulnerability. She is a working woman, lives alone, shoulders the responsibility of her widowed mother. Her marriage is ‘fixed’ by Mahender’s grandfather, and she will not break the engagement. But she exhorts Mahender to do so even though she knows that her mother will die of the shame. When Mahender comes back to her, she marries him, knowing that he loves another. She is certain that they can build a life together. Indeed, Maya is not a verboten word in their household. Sudha struggles to understand her, and her motivations, and it is only when secrets lie heavy between her and her husband that she finally snaps.
In the end, when she leaves – again – she tells Mahender: ‘Pichli baar bina pooche chali gayi thi. Is baar ijaazat de do.’ She had left him once without telling him; she hopes he will give her his consent now. It is the final farewell, a symbolic severance of a relationship that was severed legally many years ago, but not emotionally until now. (Incidentally, Sudha is not the only one who seeks his ‘consent’; so does Maya, when she begs for her belongings to be returned to her. When she gets them all back, she hopes he will give his consent to her burying them. And then, she will go to sleep as well. The play of words – both signifying death – is compelling: Ek ijaazat de do bas, jab isko dafnaaoongi; Main bhi wahin so jaaoongi.
Maya is the ‘other woman’. Not stereotypically so, but a child-woman, immature and impulsive, emotional and affectionate, needy and dependent. Coming from a dysfunctional background (her parents are estranged though still married), she has seen enough to know that marriage is not for her. Yet she is inextricably drawn to Mahender, with whom she can neither live nor can she stay away. It is this need that makes her cling to him, even though she knows he is married, and leads to the last fight between Sudha and Mahender. Though she is distressed by the fact that she caused that fight, her response is to run away – from the problem, from Mahender, from herself. And eventually, when she realises just how much Mahender had come to love Sudha, she sets out to reverse Sudha’s decision to move away from their lives.
Anuradha Patel’s (Ashok Kumar’s grand-daughter) was slightly over-the-top in some of the scenes, but she brought out her character’s helplessness (for all her much-vaunted independence) and desperation. Her eyes did her talking for her in many of the scenes, for they often belied what she was saying. There is a lost child in there somewhere, someone looking for perfect happiness in a flawed world, and running away when there is the least hint of commitment.
One cannot mention Ijaazat without also mentioning two of its crew – the late cinematographer Ashok Mehta, who painted the screen with saturated colours, and music director, RD Burman, who, along with wife Asha Bhosle, gave melody and voice to Gulzar’s lyrics. (Though he is said to have been very frustrated when he saw the lyrics of Mera kuch samaan that he complained that after this, Gulzar would bring him the front page of The Times of India and ask him to set it to music!)
Ijaazat is a simple story, oft told. But Gulzar’s interpretation of a man and two women, bound in a relationship, is made much more complex because of the layers he brings to their characterisation. They are all flawed in various ways, and they are all incredibly human. It is rare that you both sympathise and empathise with all three characters in a triangular relationship, but Gulzar’s writing makes it easy to do so. The dialogues are meaningful, poetic, but it is the silences that tug at your heartstrings. There is so much left unsaid, so much that is implied, and the actors rise to the occasion – faces and eyes do as much ‘talking’ as their dialogues. The film is an amazingly realistic take at human relationships and looks at them as if through a prism – each angle reflects a different view.
And yes, I still found the film very, very moving.
Written By: Anuradha Warrier, is a writer, editor, film and music buff. She writes for pleasure, edits for a living, and indulges in watching films, listening to music, and writing about both on her blog Conversations Over Chai as and when time permits.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and Bollywoodirect.com do not necessarily subscribe to it. Bollywoodirect.com shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.
Main Image Courtesy: SaReGaMa