Achanak: what is the value of human life?

Publié le 10 Juin 2011

jesus ChristGulzar’s acclaimed Achanak (Suddenly, 1973) suffers from a bothersome defect, its well-meaning intentions. The film contains much worth, but it is too preoccupied by the demonstration process for its own good. What a film says is as important as how it says it, and what it says is important. But Gulzar uses too much the story in order to demonstrate his argument, instead of letting the story unfold and the message flow out of it naturally. I wonder whether this doesn’t happen because of Gulzar’s honesty as a poet (see his profile here), but I’m not sure, this being the first Gulzar movie I watch. Somebody says that the film is very un-Gulzar like in so far as it doesn’t correspond to his style of subject and contains no songs (Gulzar insists on the high value of music in his movies). Still, if one can put this aside (and many people have been able to do it, apparently!), the film’s can be watched with interest.

Army trainingThe story is that of a valorous officer, Major Ranjeet, played by Vinod Khanna (nice performance), rewarded by a coveted military award for military courage, who comes back home one day only to find his beloved wife in his friend’s arms. He cannot stand it, and kills both of them. He doesn’t evade the law, and surrenders to the police. But while back home to pray for his wife’s soul (a wish the judge – who has condemned him to the death penalty -  has granted him), he is reminded that he had to go and immerse her marriage necklace in the Ganges. He knows the police will not accept the mission, and escapes, deciding to do the job himself.

That man amazes me A manhunt ensues, and the soldier is shot, severely wounded, brought to hospital and, whereas he should have died, survives. The doctor (Om Shivpuri) doesn’t understand, and marvels at the miracle. So does the nurse (a young Farida Jalal), who marvels too, but this time at the pleasant sight in front of her. But when the major’s health is back to normal, the police step in once again, and ask to take him to serve his sentence, death by hanging. The film doesn’t let us imagine any other possibility (in spite of not showing the actual event, and even if some websites say the end is “inconclusive”), and so it diverges away from the source which Gulzar was inspired by, a real event which saw the officer condemned to a prison sentence only.

It does seem that Gulzar wanted to tackle some specific issues, notably that of the death penalty, and of militarism. Because in an aggravation of the real Nanavati case, he makes Ranjeet kill his wife, and stages the hospital “miracle”. Thus he clearly denounces the excesses of a certain type of state justice, which doesn’t consider individual situations. This is strengthened by the fact that Ranjeet’s wife (Lily Chakraborty) is the daughter of Colonel Bakshi (Iftekhar), and that the latter might well feel the impulse to further condemn Ranjeet. But on the contrary, perhaps out of a sense of military duty, he supports Ranjeet, and tries to overturn his sentence at the high court. It doesn’t work, and we see him accept his defeat by wiping his tears. Gulzar is telling us here that even the army can be in favour of a softening of its rules for exceptional individual cases. The attack is therefore clearly directed at the state, and its unrelenting system of police and justice who, it seems, has forgotten its Gandhian model.

Justice The other question the movie addresses is that of the value of human life: the fact that Majoor Ranjeet has successfully been healed from his wounds symbolically means that it was wrong to shoot him, that notwithstanding his crime (made double in the movie), it had some sort of justification. The two cheating lovers deserved their punishment. On top of that, the crisis triggers in Ranjeet a reconsideration of his soldierly attitude. He tells this to his wife, shortly before he kills her (a bit unrealistic, isn’t it? This kind of sequence is an example of what I was mentioning at the beginning, the precedence of the movie’s intentions over the story’s requisites):

haunting medal

This classic scruple of the sensitive soldier is associated here to his outraged feeling of dispossession when he comes to learn of his wife’s unfaithfulness. He kills her, but, paradoxically, remains faithful to her since he will later risk dying by escaping the police and trying at all cost to immerse her necklace in the Ganges. I wonder whether there isn’t here in Ranjeet’s attitude some enactment of what Hinduism considers “right action” or proper sacrifice. From a purely western perspective, his attitude is not very coherent. But according to the principle of duty or renunciation (Tyaga), the hero’s self-justice and then sacrifice is understandable, and explains why Ranjeet is considered redeemed to the point that he doesn’t die of his wounds. At any rate, his story puts forward the question: what is human life worth? Isn’t that life greater than justice seems to hold it? Some  people (Veracious at “So they dance”) say that Gulzar hasn’t developed his criticism of the death penalty as he might have done. It’s true, but he does implicitly ask the question, and clearly the film answers that there are principles of action, which are condemned on the basis of human justice, which deserve another type of justice, less systematic and more open to personal worth. 

save him at any cost

One might nevertheless examine the claims of human justice in this story. After all, isn’t the police only doing its duty when it comes to hospital to fetch a person who has been condemned to the maximum sentence? The question might have been, why spend precious time and money healing a man on death row, when one knows that he would have to be executed when back to health? The paradox and contradiction reside in the fact that two sets of laws conflict here. One of them suspends the enforcement of justice for any individual who is deemed in need of medical care, because to function justice needs the health and understanding of the condemned person; the other underlines the fact that killing is worse than wounding, and that it doesn’t make any difference if the executed person was wounded once he’s dead. Justice allows the restorative medical care of its wrongdoers, because it prides itself on being humane, but this principle finds its limit precisely concerning death penalty. If this penalty can be considered humane, more humane than life imprisonment, for example, why care about the physical health of the condemned? One has to say that the human body (and all it stands for) is giving its silent lesson to human justice: the death penalty is a violence which should not be applied in a civilised society where one values human health and human integrity in general. The proof if this is given in Achanak.

anatomy lessonThere is still one difficulty in the movie: Ranjeet looks like a sort of mouthpiece for a more compassionate justice. Yet he’s the one who murders two people! Can it be right to take his stance concerning the absurdity of war and the killing of unknown enemies on the one hand, and accept his bloody revenge on his wife and friend? Isn’t an independent justice, with its universal laws, absolutely necessary, even if in some extreme cases, it becomes inhuman? I’d say that the film’s interesting in that it leaves this contradiction unanswered: Ranjeet is in the middle of it and suffers from it, as we all do. We all strive for an answer.

    dead wife  sorrow

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

Commenter cet article

harvey 14/06/2011 22:52



I can only repeat what Madhu has already said! The last time I watched it, it must have been in my early teens on DD. Everybody lauded it as a very good movie, but just like Madhu I can only
remember Vinod on the run and the flashback in a flashback in the scene in the train. I wonder how I would look at it now!

Many Gulzar films which I liked before, have turned a bit sour over the years. But nonetheless like their poetic flow, though bit of a staccato there at times.

I don't think Gulzar at least consciously uses any rules of Dharma Shastras here. Simply because most of them are against the actions in the film. Even the misogynist Manu condemns murder of the
adulterous wife as he condemns murder generally. I don't know his stance on capital punishment though. And in the Shastras compassion is written big (Karuna). I think Gulzar just wanted to take
up a stand against capital punishment like B. R. Chopra before him in Kannon. Dustedoff has written a review of it: http://dustedoff.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/kanoon-1960/

From Gulzar's films, I would recommend Khushboo, Aandhi (which has rather a too abrupt ending for my taste), Ijaazat (It has quite a fluid movement), Namkeen. I don't know if I should recommend
to you Kinara.
And Angoor I love the most. It will have you in splits!
I saw Mere Apne, just like Achanak, years ago. Liked it that time. Yeah, how could I forget Mausam?
I can't say if I liked Hu Tu Tu. Tabu is nice in it though.
His Maachis is great!

But as I said before, most of his film have an erratic flow. They have very poetic, lyrical moments and then abruptly it changes and loses it all. What he maybe needed is a good editor.

Looking forward to more Gulzar film reviews at your site!


 


I don't think Gulzar at least consciously uses any rules of Dharma Shastras here. And even the misogynist Manu condemns murder of the adulterous wife as he condemns murder. I don't know his
stance on capital punishment though.


In the Shastras compassion is written big (Karuna). I think Gulzar just wanted to take up a stand against capital punishment like B. R. Chopra before him in Adalat.



yves 16/06/2011 23:20



Hello Harvey,


Many thanks for this long comment. Can you tell me what Karuna is?


I have made a list of the Gulzar movies you recommend, and I will cross it with my other lists!


cheers! yves



Suja 13/06/2011 09:25



I wrote a long comment yesterday but it seems to have mysteriously disappeared!! Sorry if it is in fact there and I am repeating myself...


I am glad you reviewed this film, for I have never rewatched it after the seventies - I liked it too much and didnt want to look at it with adult, critical eyes, if that makes sense :)


I agree that this film is about Dharma and Adharma and the hazy lines between the two. A soldier's Dharma is to kill in the battlefield, to kill 'invaders', what if his home is invaded?  A
husband's Dharma is to protect his family and a wife's Dharma is to be true. Does the lack of Dharma on one person's side excuse the lack in the other? A doctor's Dharma is to save lives, a
judge's to see justice done. What if not saving a life is more compassionate at times? What if a miscarriage of justice seems more just? Is one profession intrinsically more noble that
the other? A human being's Dharma is to be compassionate - what happens when this Dharma is in conflict with all the above? These are the kind of questions which worried my mind when I was
but a girl; evidently I never found answers for the same questions puzzle me now.


The only bit I dont quite see your way is when you say 'Ranjeet looks like a sort of mouthpiece for a more compassionate justice'. I dont quite agree. If I remember, he doesn't defend his actions
or ask for clemency in the film. I believe the director wants us, the audience, to be the mouthpiece for a more compassionate justice as it happened in real life where the public and the press
were partly instrumental in his eventual release from prison.


Cheers. Suja



yves 13/06/2011 14:50



Hello Suja,


It is really a pleasure to have you among my readers! Thanks for your comment, which very satisfyingly expresses the comments I had made in terms of that fundamental concept of Dharma. Were the
previous commentary which you say has disappeared about this too? I am always sorry to hear when this happens, as I believe that part of what we have to say is said through the process of
dialogue or circumstance, and that our ideas are as much ideas that use our channel as they are our own personal ideas, so that sometimes we say things which we lose if that utterance disappears
for one reason or another.


I wonder if we haven't already discussed this: there are famous passages of Hindu epics where this struggle between one dharma and another occur, aren't there? I can think of Rama's obligation to
chase (and condemn) Sita even though he knows she was chaste throughout, but he's acting as a king, and from this point of view, even a doubt creates a duty concerning her which overrides his
intimate knowledge.


I agree with your criticism of : "Ranjeet looks like a sort of mouthpiece for a more compassionate justice". I was not quite sure of my argument, that's why I wrote "a sort of mouthpiece". It is
true that Ranjeet does not ask for any clemency. He does not shy away from the condemnation which he believes he deserves. When I wrote this, I meant that Gulzar was using Ranjeet as a
mouthpiece for a more compassionate justice. Thus I was referring more to the character as part of the director's plan. Thank you for making this point clear.


bye, yves



dustedoff 12/06/2011 07:04



Yes, Yves - I've seen Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, at a time when I was fascinated by Leela Naidu (I still am, but unfortunately she acted in so few films!). It's a good film,
worth a watch, though as I mentioned more a suspense story than anything else. The Nanavati case itself was before my time, but is well-known in India as the last case to be tried by a jury:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KM_Nanavati_v_State_of_Maharashtra


Looking at Gulzar's repertoire as a director (on IMDB), I see that I really haven't seen too many films of his - the ones I remember watching (both when I was a child, so my memories of them may
be warped!) are Angoor (adapted from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors) and Parichay (adapted from The Sound of Music) - and both enjoyable films. Others which I have not seen but of which I have
heard a lot of praise are Koshish, Mausam, and Mere Apne.


P.S. Have just realised that yes, there are two other films - both much more 'serious' than Angoor or Parichay - that I've seen. Khushboo and Namkeen. Namkeen is another of those 'last watched in
my childhood' ones, but I do remember not caring for it much because I thought it too depressing back then. Khushboo I rewatched last year, and liked it. Here's a review by Sharmi:


http://oldfilmsgoingthreadbare.blogspot.com/2010/08/feminism-of-yore-khushboo.html


 


 


 



yves 13/06/2011 15:02



Thanks for this list. I must have seen Khushboo at Sharmi's blog when she wrote about it, but only seen it, not read it, so now I'll have to go back and read it! It's her
fault , she does too many reviews!!


Have a nice day.


Yves



dustedoff 11/06/2011 02:41



Interesting, Yves. I remember watching this film as a child, and though I understood the basics of what was happening (his reason for killing his wife, etc), the larger ramifications of the film
were too evolved for me! The only scenes I do recall were when Vinod Khanna's character is on the run and keeps remembering - and using - Iftekhar's long-ago instructions on how to get clear of
the enemy. I have this on my to-watch list anyway, so am waiting for my DVD rental company to have it available someday... by the way, have you seen the other film based on the Nanavati case, Yeh
Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke? More a mystery, I thought, than with the sort of thought-provoking elements that Achanak seems to have.



nks for the message 11/06/2011 17:07



Hi Madhu, thanks for the message; no, I haven't seen that other movie on the Nanavati case: have you? Is it interesting ? Do you remember the case itself? It seems to have been really big at the
time!


BTW, which other Gulzar movies would you recommend, if you've seen others?