Chhalia, Nutan's contribution to the Indo-pakistani peace process

Publié le 26 Décembre 2011

hope and trust

In Chhalia (Manmohan Desai, 1960), we have another of Raj Kapoor’s avatars: his character personifies a “chhaliya”, translated by Philip as a cheat, or artful deceiver, but who in fact doesn’t deceive anyone, and I wonder whether we shouldn’t say “cunning middleman”. In the story, indeed, Chhalia intervenes to restore the broken bond between Rama and Sita, or at least their earthly representatives, Kewal (played by Rehman) and Shanti (Nutan). These two, here in the context of the Indo-Pakistani Partition period, are husband and wife, but they have been separated by the events, and as the film starts, we follow Shanti arriving in India, after an absence of 5 years. We learn through flashbacks that she has known her husband only one month in Lahore, that he has fled to India and that she has been looked after by, a “Pathan” or Afghan soldier called Abdul Rehman who has vowed to protect her in order to compensate spiritually for his own sister in India. The story makes it quite clear that he hasn’t even looked at her, so that her honour is intact. He’s the Ravana-figure who in spite of its violence also comprehends an ascetic ideal which the promotion of Rama in Bollywood has sometimes forgotten.

Laxman and Sita

Chhalia intervenes when Shanti – Sita like - has been rebuked by both her family and her husband, who both had come to meet her at her arrival in the refugee location in Delhi. Her father considers she is now a stain on the family (probably because she’s stayed so long in Pakistan, land of the Ravana-like Muslim arch enemy) and refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter; and her husband, who had wanted to welcome her back (and had parted with his family for her) now shuns her because the 5 year old son she bore him is called by an Islamic name (Anwar) and says his father is “Abdul Rehman”. But nothing Shanti can say softens the outraged Kewal-Rama! Chhalia saves the desperate young woman from committing suicide, brings her to his shack where she recovers somewhat, especially when she realises that her son has been admitted in the school where her husband, whom she hopes to reunite with some day, is a teacher.

think of me

What happens next is Chhalia struggling to express his love for Shanti and at the same time being forced to hide it, perhaps at first because he feels it isn’t requited, and later when she tells him she’s faithful to her husband’s love, he recognises he had been foolish. And because she’s called Shanti (peace), the political allegory is clear: continuing rivalry and enmity are wrong between the two countries who should be united like husband and wife. So it’s a surprise when Abdul Rehman, the grave Pathan, arrives on the scene, and tries to settle an unexplained feud with Chhalia. But the latter represents India, which is perhaps the real cheat, politically speaking. So their fight must represent the war between the two cross-border foes. And of course it is Shanti who stops the fight. Rehman recognises her voice from when she used to stay with him, and abandons his futile warring. He goes back, and meets with his lost sister on the train. So his sheltering of Shanti during the five years when she was in Pakistan finds its reward.

Abdul Rehman

Chhalia now understands his mission. Forgetting his selfish love, he now does everything he can to reunite the wronged Sita to her Rama, who is still brooding about his cheated situation. The first thing he does is make Kewal-Rama accept his son, who figuratively means the fruit of peace. He goes to Kewal’s dwelling, and confronts him with his boy. And when Kewal rebuffs him saying he doesn’t have any proof of his fatherhood, Chhalia cleverly challenges this misplaced appeal for proof:

proof of belief

Man cannot prove much, says Chhalia (who could be Manmohan Desai’s mouthpiece here), and the more he tries to reduce human relationships, which must at all cost be based on trust, to a proof-based contract, he destroys the necessary bond of confidence between men. The lesson of Rama accepting Sita back after her trial of fire (note the choice of this version of the Ramayana, as opposed to the one in which Sita isn’t trusted and not reunited with her husband) corresponds to India accepting Pakistan after the ordeal of war, and basing the new political reality on the fruits of peace.

Dashera festival

The film’s climax is the moment when Chhalia manages to reunite the estranged couple, and this is done thanks to the symbolical burning of the formidable figure of Ravana, and the fright it creates for Sita’s life, as Shanti is narrowly saved from the falling burning effigy. The crowds at the Vijayadashami festival could represent the Indian population agreeing to reinstate peace within its midst. The power of cinema is that of a political utopia: that of proposing a future for the two new neighbours based on peace and enduring trust.

he can get the stars

A few words about the two main actors; Raj Kapoor does his best to second Nutan, and occasionally reaches moments of convincing characterization, for example during the classic song Dum dum diga diga, where he saunters under the monsoon rain, and playfully dances with the passers-by:

Dum dum diga diga

But the palm undoubtedly goes to Nutan, who once again carries the movie, not only symbolically as the flag of peace, but professionally. Her acting is flawless, and thanks to her we suffer when she suffers (for example when she’s rejected by her relatives upon arrival in India):

death in life

we rejoice when she rejoices (the moments when she unwittingly waxes tender with Chhalia):

no name

and we hope and dream when she too hopes and dreams (the moment when she’s looking at Kewal taking little Anwar in his arms and in effect adopting him):

Mother

She’s our interpret, she carries our emotions and expresses them to their realistic maximum. And there are some moments when she has been almost amorously caressed by the camera:

Shanti praying 1

When one is familiar with the political and historical level of meaning of her adventure, one cannot refrain from loading everything that happens to her with that meaning, and her story becomes beautiful indeed. In the history of the subcontinent, Peace was indeed first espoused, and then wilfully rejected, before it became once again the object of hope and negotiations. The purpose of peace is also greater than what was historically achieved: peace is always ahead of its limited realizations; it is always greater than the flawed attempts which bipartisan negotiations implement. It acts as a ferment, as an incentive, as a desire which is always working from inside in our efforts towards accomplishment. Nutan was wonderfully chosen for such a mission.

smiling shadow

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Nutan

Commenter cet article

harvey 14/01/2012 00:33


Yeah, something on that lines. When a relationship between two humans breaks, there is the phase of processing the sorrow of separation involving waves of love and hatred and only after this
phase has been successfully processed can one accept the individuality of the toher. Similarly I think India át that moment was in no position to accept Pakistan as an independent and sovereign
nation. It was still involved in the sorrow of separation. I can naturally only hypothise about it, contemporary witnesses can surely say more about the times then.


I think that is also the reason why Germany and particularly Austria needed time till the late 80s to process their Nazi past. But that is a different story altogether.

yves 15/01/2012 16:37



"Processing the sorrow of separation": good way of putting it! I suppose this is what we call the bereavement process, isn't it?



harvey 13/01/2012 10:40


:-)

MD surely was for peace between the two countries. Any sane minded person would be!

I think he would have rather seen the two countries united like Rama with Sita. That would reflect more of the popular sentiment at that time, rather than the recognition and acceptance of the
new neighbour. In many movies of the 50s one sees the map of India encompassing all of South Asia. But I think the sentiment is a bit different than when the restaurants in Hungary carry posters
of maps of greater Hungary.
Ekta (unity) was always the theme in his movies.
My mother still says the partition was as if somebody had removed India's shoulder and she would rather have had her muslim neighbours stay than go to Pakistan. She was also very sad when a good
Jewish friend of hers went to Israel, just like when I left India.
Coming from the Indian tradition of joint-family and also from living in the chawl (which MD did too), the neighbours are always a part of the family. Maybe it comes from the concept
of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam - The whole world is one big family.
One can see this from different angles. One can say that this is encroachment or one can say that it is the path of acceptance and making place for something new. I am not saying this is good and
that is bad, just that how I see the things value-free.
Like everything in life it has its positive as well as its negative shades. Time and Age determine what interpretation is prevelant.
:-)

yves 13/01/2012 15:58



Hi Harvey,


Yes, I see now what you were questioning: the fact that Pakistan might have been valued as an independant neighbour to be reckoned with, when everybody (or a majority?) would have wanted the old
situation of pre-partition to come back, or at least they felt the new situation was like a broken unity. 


So according to you, perhaps M. Desai would have done his movie with the idea that the reunion of Rama and Sita was more to be understood as a reminder of the sorrow of separation than as a call
for peaceful cohabitation?



harvey 12/01/2012 19:47


I find the interpretation about the film reflecting also the realtionship between India and Pakistan fascinating, but I doubt if MD would have thought about it. but it has been a long time since
I saw the film, maybe when one watches the film with this idea maybe it is clearer then. :-)

yves 13/01/2012 00:33



Hello Harvey,


I wonder what you believe MD wouldn't have thought about? Perhaps the rather peaceful stance which I suggest is imbodied by Shanti? Would he have approved of the ongoing resentment between the
two brother-nations? But since he has Rama reunite with Sita at the end of the movie, when he could so easily have followed the tradition of her rejection, doesn't this mean that he was promoting
a message of appeasement?



harvey 11/01/2012 17:37


Somehow for the last few weeks, i couldn't write a comment on your site. Somehow this pop-up window wouldn't pop-up. It seemed to take ages. Today it is working!


You have given a very interesting interpretation of the film. I can't see eye-to-eye with some of the things but the Rama-Sita interpretation fits in quite well.


As Madhu has said, if I see this movie again I'll see it with open eyes!

yves 11/01/2012 21:35



Hello Harvey,


Sorry for the pop-up problem; I hope this won't happen again. About the movie, which things can't you see eye to eye?



Filmbuff 10/01/2012 03:54


I saw Chalia ages ago on National TV and don't remember much of it except for a song or two.


BTW, Happy new year to you and your family.


did you get to see any of the recent good films like Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, Do Dooni Char, Tere Bin Laden, Once upon a time in Mumbai, Udaan, No one killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture etc?

yves 10/01/2012 11:52



Hi Filmbuff,


Ye, I saw Dhobi ghat some time ago (see here), and I have got Peepli live in my to-watch pile at home: the others no, alas! there isn't enough life, perhaps !!



dustedoff 27/12/2011 07:27


That's an interesting review, Yves. I watched Chhalia a few years ago, and didn't much like it, mainly because Raj Kapoor's typical 'lovable tramp' character got on my nerves. Also, partly,
because I didn't like Rehman's character. I doubt if I'll get around to watching it again, but if I do, it'll certainly be with new eyes - I hadn't noticed the religious connotations - the
Ram-Sita-Ravana stuff - of it. Thank you!

yves 27/12/2011 18:21



Hello Madhu,


Yes of course there's RK's mimics, even if he doesn't overdo them, but you know me, I disregarded all that to focus on the one and only!


Yves