Gulzar’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.
The 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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
There 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.