How can a film so bad be so good? Moralistic, judgmental, manipulative, jingoistic, sexist, voyeuristic, xenophobic, and more than anything- fascist in it’s disgust at miscegenation. A real hatred of those of us who straddle the space in-between poles. Like all Hindi films, you may say -yet, what complete flair for high-pitched melodrama in image, sound and sudden shifts of tone. If the film is about anything then it must be shame- the shame of the humiliation of colonialism, of our desperation to be something other than ourselves- of our need to reinvent ourselves. And i have a feeling he understands the role that cinema and image making play in helping us do that. In that sense it is also the shame of the pleasure of cinema itself. The camera’s gaze is often fractured in mirrors, lenses- action takes place in distant shadows, in blurred edges, behind smoke screens- often blown out of the red lips of our main heroine obscuring our vision. The shame of seeing and being seen pervades every scene.
Yet there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what is not you are supposed to see or what is forbidden to you. The white woman’s body becomes the object that can be fetishised. He covers his face when faced with embarrassment at the Indian man who denies his Indian family and lusts after the blonde, but the camera’s eye has no such qualms when it looks straight down the white woman’s cleavage or up the mongrel heroine’s skirt.
There is a self-conscious way in which the human body in placed in every frame- especially in the ones where they all come together to form a tableau. Each body is frozen in a gesture like it would in a narrative painting and as the scene progresses the bodies turn towards each other, then away from the gaze of the camera- looking away, looking towards. As the camera swirls around revealing hands raised in gestures of refusal or of welcome.
Hindu myths are overlaid on the story with no qualms. The black and white rain drenched sequence involving a basket and a flood where characters stand in thigh deep water before the great tragedy that shapes the film takes place- the betrayal of Om by Harnam, references the birth of Krishna. And just in case you didn't get it- a portrait of Vasudev saving Krishna floats down the alley at the end of the scene.
After color arrives with independence our hero enters symmetrically placed in a temple singing a bhajan and is introduced as Bharat “Purab”. “Paschim” Preeti enters much later when Bharat goes for his further studies to London when at the airport she enters turned to the camera and in a sudden turn of smoke and close-up.
More fantastically overplayed scenes: the revelation to the blonde bikini clad girl that her lover is a married man- seen through a flurry of glass panes and lenses- the window of her room and even the spectacles of another man looking at her; the red umbrella behind which she hides the wife and child of her lover before she reveals them to him; or for that matter the conversation that the jilted father in law has with our hero played out on the night street with male mannequins on a shop front surrounding him. In another scene his turban lies unraveled on the street his son-in-law wades through it before a white man restores it.
The action scene in the middle of the film- when goons are hired to kill Bharat in a nightclub is mind-boggling. Manoj Kumar juxtaposes the rhythm of the music with movements of the scantily clad dancers, with the scenes of torture in the inside room; he juxtaposes pornographic drawings of women’s bodies on the dancers. The sequence ends with over the top symbolism when a broken bottle of alcohol is used to stab Bharat’s white Christian friend. His crucifix pendant is caught inside the bottle and is seen distorted through the glass as it pierces his body and is covered with blood. The sequence ends with Dreyer like faces backlit in mourning. In another scene Londoners are enraptured by Hindu bhajans in an Eisensteinian montage of faces.
There is so much more- the melodrama does not stop- the thick spectacles of the father that does not allow him to see his daughter- the ‘truth’ that is cleared up on the altar of her wedding;
the scene in which the cigarette is hidden from the traditional mother in law by the bride to be; the last scene where Paschim files her nails as she is split between- literally and visually between her husband and India, and her mother and the foreign land;
or in the scene that follows the grand betrayal in the beginning- the widow refuses to wipe out her sindoor, while the wife of the betrayer wipes it off as kali looks on and her the shadow of her husbands finger points towards it.
The song sequences - silhouettes, shadows, mirrors- even the silly twinkle twinkle little star where Purab and Paschim are played out as puppets- allowing them to say things that otherwise they would not be able to. Mirroring in image making that allows them (and us) to become what we can’t allow ourselves in everyday life. Our pleasure in that- and our embarrassment.