Silsila, the spiciness of exposure

Publié le 25 Juin 2018

So much has already been said about this Yash Chopra 1981 movie… And here I am adding to the pileup! Well, I hope it won’t be too long and too boring to read. In fact what I want to say can be quickly summed up: I’m perplexed at actors accepting to stage publicly an embarrassing intimate relationship, and wondering what’s “behind” it. The rumors concerning the Amitabh-Rekha affair seem too insistent to be false, and Jaya Bachchan must have known about it of course, so how could the trio manage to play the roles they played in the film without feeling even more embarrassed? There. I’ve voiced one of my concerns, but there are other levels to the questioning. For example: how much do (or did) actors - in India at that - accept to use their intimate feelings and potential moral wrongdoings in order to ensure revenue or reputation or both? What amount of trapping by directors or producers would their contract have included ? Or: would there have been a possible (implicit? explicit?) way for a director such as Yash Chopra to convince people like the Bachchans and Rekha to transform their life relationships into film material in order to transmute them somehow, or give realism to the film? Or even: is it possible all these people might have taken part in the film as an exercise without any “real” connection with life outside the studios? And finally : could it be that some of them wanted (needed?) to deny the rumors so much that they took the risk of playing the rumor-filled roles so as to give the public the impression that nothing had in fact happened? (and could some of the public have bought this?)

Here and there on the blogosphere I have read a lot of things like this: “The scenes between Chandini & Shobha when they confront one another are subtle yet incredibly powerful. It is at that moment that it hits you - that these 2 women aren't really acting anymore - they are just saying things to each other on the screen that they could not say off.” (here) – But does this happen?! Can one “speak” to another person on the screen as one would have done in real life and was stopped from doing so? Can the screen be a possible confession-booth where secrets can be voiced because real-life situations/conventions forbid it?? Until somebody like Jaya Bachchan herself comes to tell me yes, I’ll never believe it. The screen is a 90% calculated effect zone where almost everything that takes place there is geared towards the effect on spectators (there can be some unforeseen elements which escape the editing team’s attention, of course). I think Yash Chopra has realized that with this “secret” he had a dimension for his film which must be rather rare to possess to such an extent: Silsila becomes a paheli, a puzzle in which one can try and find gossip-like trivia about a situation which everybody can guess and imagine to the best of his knowledge and that even now, almost 40 years later, continues to tickle the brain.

So that for me, much of the film’s interest lies in these unanswered questions and how the movie plays with our expectations. There’s a tantalizing “HOW?” in each of the scenes, and I must say, especially in the scenes where Jaya Bachchan is present because she’s the one who ran the greatest social and moral risk in the business. I could never cease to wonder how she managed to pull it off. Of course, there is the story’s own answer: like Shobha, her character, she knows she is the one which the whole of the Indian traditions backs; and that, provided she keeps her cool, all these conventions are in favour of mending her wronged wife status. Could this have weighed enough for her to accept to play the role of the betrayed spouse? On the surface, especially thanks to the (rushed-up) ending, she’s made to embody the victorious force of the socially acceptable Indian marriage norms. But so many other forces in the film are working in the opposite direction! Agreed, the fact that the film was a flop when it came out seems to say that these opposite forces weren’t strong enough then, and that Chopra’s gamble (modify the public’s feeling about infidelity to the extent that it became “humanized”) was a failure. But who knows if the old fox wasn’t gambling on a plane which reached further than 1981, all the way to the future of India’s stilted social norms (they would enter the history of cinema as brave forerunners)? Because I’ve read that the movie’s reruns refunded it rather well.

So in fact the film could well be doing two things at the same time : reminding (reassuring) its audience of the morally and socially acceptable marriage ideals, and at the same time examining the complexities of feelings and their implications in the face of the said ideals. And in doing so, it gives credit to these feelings, it gives them sufficient exposure for everyone to understand and possibly accept the necessity of certain situations of infidelity. It could be said that Chopra doesn’t choose between these two options, but given the situation in 1981 India, his lack of choice is in fact a clear choice for the exceptions to the rule: his stance must be that there are cases when infidelity does have a justification. And so perhaps, if this was the director’s stance, he might have interested the actors in nailing this in for the Indian audiences of the day? They might have felt it their duty to uphold this daring position: given the circumstances, some infidelity is acceptable.

And clearly, the circumstances in Silsila are more than acceptable: they’re purposefully designed to make infidelity seem logical. This logic takes the form of “human” as opposed to godlike, in the sense that marriage can and perhaps should remain at the level of a human affair, an affair between human beings, not godlike ones:

This requisite is nothing more, in India (and perhaps more in 1981 than today, because things must have changed a little), than tilting the balance upside down: if marriage is only a human business, if a husband is no longer his wife’s godhead, well then it’s quite acceptable that one should part if one can’t stand one another anymore. Unlike gods, human beings make mistakes. This position in fact is upheld in the film where one would not have expected it to be upheld: in the conception voiced by the betrayed Dr Anand himself. You will remember that he’s the deceived husband (played by a fine Sanjeev Kumar) who quickly notices something fishy in his wife’s (Rekha) attitude, and whereas one might expect him to insist on the husband’s prerogatives that his wife stop playing with another man (Amitabh, who plays Amit the aspiring writer – he’s actually given his real name), instead he pleads for a relationship in which his wife is treated as a human being, not as her husband’s slave:

And the implication of this is that she’s entitled to her feelings, her aspirations, her decision-taking, etc. This runs against much of the traditional strictures which the movie is questioning:

And this also corresponds to Amit’s plea for liberation, staged by himself at the beginning of the film:

Now I think a special treatment has to be given to that famous Rang barse song scene. Many viewers consider it one of the movie’s best. Probably because of its provocative nature, because Amit is seen courting Chandni in a very free and clear fashion, and the other two, Dr Anand and Shobha are seen staring and understanding at what’s happening but unwilling or incapable of stopping it because there’s the pretext of the holi dance and Amit’s (transparent) sharabi.

For me, everything is calculated in this scene to provoke the kind of ambiguity which has been alluded to already: on the one hand, the outrage at being obliged to undergo a scandalous public display of infidelity, and on the other the realization that love and desire is stronger than the any social norms and if it plays like this in the open, fearlessly, then DDLJ! There’s no dulhaniya here, but the feeling is as strong, I believe. Love carries its own justification, up to an extent: it transgresses barriers and frontiers, it can be wrong morally, but somehow it’s always right if it’s genuine. Many films and stories work on this principle. The subtlety here is that we can interpret the scene both ways, and I’m pretty sure M. Chopra wanted it that way.

There have been other Indian films about unfaithfulness, notably Kabhi alvida na kehna, which struck me as more contrived (but it’s a long time since I watched it): so what value should one give to Silsila? Does it have intrinsic qualities which justify its reputation apart from the fact that it’s a landmark movie based on some well-known people’s love-affairs? I’d say yes, in spite of all the flaws which it’s afflicted with. First there’s Amitabh’s acting, helped by Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bachchan. All three strike me as believable and complex, notwithstanding the added depth coming from their private-public dimension (this doesn’t concern Sanjeev). I admire how Amitabh manages his big frame and even uses it to express his strength and presence. He captures Amit’s duality rather well, a man who strives at being at once a friend and a lover, and he expresses the difficulties of the situation rather poignantly:

Jaya Bachchan deserves a special mention, because as I said before her role is the hardest. I was sensitive to how she purses herself, how she suppresses her suffering, and how she sometimes gives way to it, making it all the more palpable; her whole persona is a well-balanced mixture of resignation and spirit. She has a mother India inside her, and at the same time she’s frail and exposed. She holds her ground in front of her rival, even though she knows that certain emotional odds are against her – but she’s certainly made a statement about herself:

There is something (a strength? a vulnerability?) which she manages to suggest in her acting and at the same time to hide, almost as if she was still a child or a young girl; it’s a subtle dignity, a certain presence which comes from her innocence, I think. And she has this slightly askance head position which reveals how this something inside her is right in spite of the circumstances outside which wrong her :

Rekha as Chandni is unfortunately the weak point of the characterization (and of the real-life trio?) Trouble is, both Amit, her tall dark partner, and her sprightly and astute husband Dr Anand (Sanjeev) overshadow her at every turn. Her looks are “lovely, dark and deep”, as Kali-like as possible, but they can’t make up for a rather uncertain acting; she’s opted for a low-key, submissive attitude which works partly, but somehow doesn’t erupt when it could have: if she had really loved her man, then why can’t she fight and tear out for him as the tigress she ought to have been? There was room for that. There’s something lacking in her just as they’re something present in Jaya/Shobha. So, question once again: did the actress not believe she had the right to assert herself, knowing that the woman didn’t have this right in real life?...

Whatever the truth or lies contained in this story’s background, it still provides the pleasant thrill of watching Bollywood’s greatest stars screening their lives in a tantalizing cinematic formula (or maybe, having it screened, who knows – so I hope their investment paid well!)…

 

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews, #Bollywood Talk

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silverambrosia 27/06/2018 13:16

I loved Pakeezah well before I was aware of the backstory, and there is less of a direct connection between the actual narrative of the film and the behind the scenes drama, than in the case of Silsila. But even with Silsila, I think it's a very absorbing film in itself, even if the viewer has no knowledge of the real/purported Rekha Bachan affair. But you have made some fascinating observations on the film which factor in that real life dimension; why the film adopted the narrative it did, what it's trying to do, and the possible motivations of the actors.

yves 27/06/2018 14:06

Yes, because up to a certain extent, actors show their public that there's always a duplicity in acting: the character and the actor, and so when a real-life situation dramatizes this link, it adds a third role to the complex event happening on screen, and one follows what we see with a consciousness of what the actors saw themselves doing...It's probably voyeuristic, but anyway all visual arts are that, to an extent. Artists (accept to) show themselves and the audience watches...

silverambrosia 27/06/2018 00:42

Really engaging and thought provoking piece on the film. I saw 'Silsila' some years ago and remember being very very impressed by it: the writing, the performances, the music, the film as a whole. Why a guilty pleasure? Nothing to feel guilty about Anu :) Like Yves, i was also wondering how on earth they managed to get the cast to consent to be a part of it, especially Jaya. Interesting possible underlying reasons u have suggested. I didn't think of Rekha as the weak link in the film, but yes she is perhaps in some ways an unassertive character, and it's an interesting question you pose:

'did the actress not believe she had the right to assert herself, knowing that the woman didn’t have this right in real life?...'

But even if those real life resonances hadn't been present and there had been no backstory, 'Silsila' remains an impressive film in itself. It beautifully brings out each of the character's individual feelings, desires, and internal conflict. I don't think any character was projected unsympathetically (as a rake or as a home-wrecker), even if the director ultimately opted for the more socially acceptable ending.

Some people don't like the film as much because of the ending, and view Yash Chopra as having short-sold himself. I don't dislike the ending myself but I can see how the 'You're my wife and I'm your husband. This is the truth. The rest is all false" dialogue can seem hollow to people who have not had a happy marital experience, and see no reason why these two should be bound to continue on together. On the other hand there is the real betrayal of trust involved when any party opts for an affair and the consequences which ensue from that. I thought the film very effectively portrayed this conflict.

There are many really good scenes in the film, but I particularly like the scene where Rekha (Chandni?) is about to leave Sanjeev Kumar, and second thoughts when he tells her to take care of herself. It's said with concern and love, and he knows she's having an affair. If I remember correctly, she also knows that he knows. If he had been accusatory or angry, the scene wouldn't be nearly as effective.

yves 27/06/2018 12:22

Hi, thanks for the visit & comment. I agree that the film has intrinsic merits, if we disregard its backstory, but for me it's really the constant flow of interference between front and back which makes it rather unique. I went to check your website and saw you have a special affection for Raj Kumar and Pakeezah, well Pakeezah is my other example of a film where such a loaded backstage story was present in the film, and it does enhance the interest of what art strives at doing, doesn't it?

Anu W 26/06/2018 04:24

Yves I don't know. From what I remember reading, the film was supposed to end with Amit and Chandni going away. But this was when the cast included Parveen and Smita. I suppose Chopra changed it when his star cast became the casting coup of the century - Amitabh, wife Jaya, and alleged paramour, Rekha.

I doubt it would have become a hit, even so. We don't forgive the glorification of infidelity, I'm afraid.

Rumour had it that AB and Chopra had a falling out during the making; Chopra was supposed to have celebrated the flopping of his own movie. But these are rumours - I cannot imagine anyone celebrating the loss of his own money. And Chopra needed a hit as much as AB did, at the time.

I did wonder what made Jaya take on the role, though. It was a thankless one, because she came across as a prissy, whiny, character. AB's character, too, wasn't exactly heroic - he's shown to be willing to compromise for an award (in the beginning).

yves 26/06/2018 14:21

Thanks for your answer. Even if I can see that you don't have much more information than I do, and are compelled to wonder, for example, at what Made Jaya accept the role...!

Anu Warrier 25/06/2018 21:50

This film is my guilty pleasure. I grew up through this scandal (and this casting was even more scandalous, as if Chopra was legitimising the relationship instead of, like an astute businessman that he was, cashing in on it). The film was initially supposed to star Parveen Babi and Smita Patil as lover and wife respectively.

It suffered from weak characterisations of both women - Jaya is supposed to be unconventional enough to live with her fiancé before marriage; yet, upon his death, and pregnant, she mutters, 'Main kahan jaaoon?' as if it was her BIL-to-be who's supposed to parent her unborn child.

Chandni/Rekha on the other hand, was a tad more believable - when her man leaves her, what other option does she have other than marry someone in an arranged marriage?

The film also flopped because Chopra didn't have the guts to give Amit and Chandni a happy ending - he would have been lynched in the court of public opinion, given the supposed real life casting.

From what I've gleaned during that fraught period, Jaya had the staunch, unwavering backing of her in-laws. There was no way in hell that AB, if this affair story were true, could have divorced Jaya and married Rekha - his folks wouldn't have stood for it.

Perhaps that's the reason that Jaya agreed - allegedly, Chopra asked AB to persuade both women.

p.s. For some reason, I cannot use Firefox to comment on your site - the comment doesn't get published.

yves 25/06/2018 23:58

It's interesting that you say that Chopra could have go even further in his provocation, and make the film end happily for Amit and Chandni...Do you think that ever might have been an option? And do you really think that the response would have been better??