Well, my foray into Bollywood oldies opens up with a bang ! This 1949 classic “love triangle” film which supposedly deals with the clash between traditional India and its Westernisation, errs, says IMdB sd268 in a perceptive commentary, because it equates “one possible answer to the question of the feasibility of a purely platonic friendship between members of the opposite sex with Westernisation, and the other with Indian-ness, which to me is simplistic and therefore unsatisfactory.” This may be so (it is the general lore about the film, cf. here or here), but we’ll see that fortunately, the sheer artistic values of the film transcend its short-sightedness. Indeed, the end of the film favours a condemning perspective. Neena, the carefree westernised daughter of the millionaire who dies of a heart attack, is presented as a victim of her own inattentive code of conduct. She is made to acknowledge that she shouldn’t have allowed Dilip, a friend who saved her life, to become close to her to the point that world wise rumour would think her compromised with him, at the expense of betrothed Rajan, who’s away when the relationship with Dilip occurs.
But Mehboob Khan’s storytelling is carried out in such a way that this interpretation, I mean the one favouring Indian Traditions as opposed their Westernisation, doesn’t completely hold, I think. Because we are led to believe, like Dilip himself, that Neena cares for him, that her ignorance of human conventions, her “westernised” ways, are not so much that, as eternal flirting, innocent as it may seem. What is otherwise the interest of the misunderstanding which occurs in the beginning between Dilip and herself? Doesn’t it occur for the spectator to indulge (just like Dilip, in fact) in the impression that Neena might well be appreciating her new “friend” because he is very pleasing? We all prefer watching love happening instead of love being frustrated.
So the problem which is examined here is the nature of love: what is love? Romantic theory, relayed here by mainstream social and religious laws, says that real love is only given once, that the depth of love is as deep as the essence of life, and that therefore one can, and should (“should”: that’s where society and its laws come in) be only given to one person. But that’s culture, not nature. On the contrary, nature uses love to draw people close to one another, irrespectively of whether they have already pledged themselves to somebody else. Well, passionate love does blind lovers from the rest of the world, and immunes them to other potential attractions. Interestingly, the love that links Neena and Rajan is not of the passionate type. Neena’s eyes are very open to other influences.
And Mehboob Khan knew all that of course. Dilip knows it too: if he repeats, very convincingly, that Neena in fact loves him, it’s because he’s felt it with that special sense that lovers have. The scene where we can see her holding Rajan’s feet, believing him to be asleep, is all too clear. Of course she loves him. Only she also realises that if she lets that love express itself, everything will break apart in her life. In fact it’s too late, but at least she has a keen sense of what her duty is. That duty which comes from her promise. And she also loves Rajan. Loving two people at the same time is very common and natural. Even if one is left to wonder whether there isn’t a slight preference in her heart…
So what’s happening in Andaz is Mehboob Khan using (perhaps not quite intentionally) this ambiguity of love in order for his spectators to enjoy his film (they’re watching real love happening, not just infatuation), and then taking advantage of the consequences of this fictional situation to denounce a type of flirtatiousness which he believes is destructive for Indian pairing traditions. I don’t believe at all that Khan is exploring “platonic friendship”. What there is between Dilip and Neena is love, perhaps even passion, and for us, like Dilip, there is no doubt as to its nature: it isn’t friendship. That sort of friendship between two young people of opposite sex is called love! If Neena had wanted to be clear about her love for Rajan, she would have told Dilip. But precisely, she was too pleased with the relationship with Dilip, that’s why she refrained from telling him about Rajan: she knew very well it would have broken the intoxicating bond that she enjoyed with Dilip. And so she lazily (or craftily? But love is innocently crafty!) left Rajan out in order to enjoy the banter with Dilip, all the more so that she had satisfied her moral sense of duty by having half-revealed to Dilip, through equivocations, that there was somebody else. But it wasn’t enough for him, and not enough for us! Her subtle game had been subtle indeed, or perhaps we should say M. Khan’s subtle game! He has made her convince herself that she was doing right, whereas in fact she was benefiting from Dilip’s insufficient understanding.
This age-old game would be quite OK, perhaps, if the end of the film did not so clearly denounce Neena as the victim of westernised customs imported in India and presented as dangerous for its traditions. I suppose Rajan’s jealousy could also be posited as a “good” Indian male attitude, in some respects, as it defends the culturally-acceptable type of love and rejects the “natural” or “wild” love which has got Neena in the mess she’s in. That jealousy, by the way, is also a strong sign that Neena loves Dilip, and hasn’t from the start taken all the right steps to avoid ambiguity. I think jealousy is always right in some of its assumptions, even if it is a deformed passion in its more developed form. Neena is simply a victim of the eternal battle between nature and civilisation. And that civilisation is human, not Western. Mehboob Khan’s perceptiveness has been to stage this battle once again in all its violence, but the opportunistic advantage he has taken of the victim isn’t quite fair, and the spectator feels very strongly that some injustice has been done at her expense. And in fact, I also half wonder whether Khan is not a little on her side, as she moves away in the depths of the prison at the end: isn’t admiring her resignation, her acceptance of her fate? Isn’t she both victim and heroine?
I won't say anything about the acting, as it is apparently so well known. It's all true, Nargis is a natural, Raj Kapoor is very good (a little over the top sometimes, but on the whole marvellous, a great pro) and Dilip Kumar, a little restrained, I found, but well, I'm a newbie at all this.