There is a song in wordless Mitthi’s heart and it embraces the whole of her world. She sings it in a voice only she can hear, in a place where she lives alone, where it’s safe to examine her fragile dreams, carefully jotted down in her notebook.
As she sings Phir Se Aaiyo Badra Bidesi, Asha Bhonsle’s voice carries a rich languor, evoking the image of a woman rendered vulnerable by the passion she feels for her lover. She seeks reassurance, to be held close and soothed, but simultaneously seeks to entice him, promising him that the next time will be better.
It’s that one sequence that makes Namkeen my favorite Gulzar movie.
Made in 1982, Namkeen is the story of an eccentric family of women who’re forced by circumstances to take in a lodger. As they live in a dilapidated house and the matriarch Jugni (Waheeda Rehman) is pretty bonkers, the best they can do is to con trucker Gherulal (Sanjeev Kumar) into staying with them because A) he doesn’t know any better and B) he can’t afford any better.
It is through Gherulal that we become acquainted with the household. There’s the eldest sister Nimki (Sharmila Tagore), trying her best to keep the family together and play mother to her younger sisters because Jugni checked out a long time ago in everything but the literal sense. Next is Mitthi (Shabana Azmi), a puckish young woman who follows him around to an uncomfortable degree without saying a word to him. And last of all is the talkative and opinionated youngest, the fetching Chinki (Kiran Vairale).
Although they get off on the wrong foot, Gherulal and the women soon get to know each other.
Jugni’s madness, we learn, is a combination of fear, guilt and betrayal. Once upon a time, Jugni was beautiful and she earned her living dancing for men. She fell in love with the man who made the music t0 which she danced and bore him three children, convinced a happily-ever-after awaited her. He had other ideas. When she found out what they were, she left and took her daughters with her.
Nimki, the oldest, must have lived through more of this than any of the others and might even remember it. But the drudgery of her life is so all consuming, she can barely register anything else. Nimki laid her life, her personhood, aside a long time ago. When she talks about the past, she is describing the life of other people – like Jugni, not Nimki.
But the past is also the story of what happened to Mitthi. When Mitthi was but a little girl, her father kidnapped her and took her away to make her dance as her mother used to. When she finally found her way back home, nobody could figure out what had happened to her – her father’s attempt to turn her into his marionette had taken her voice away.
Of the three sisters, Chinki is the only one vocally dissatisfied with her life as a living shadow of her mother’s betrayal. She can’t adopt Nimki’s passivity and she doesn’t have a private world of her own like Mitthi. Chinki is a hard-eyed realist who desires in a household that’s been taught that nothing good ever comes to women who have the temerity to do things like that.
If this sounds terribly depressing, that’s because it is. I won’t lie. It’s the story of people who live to disprove the theory that if you work hard enough everything is possible. Gherulal, Jugni, Nimki, Mitthi and Chinki all make their decisions hoping for the best. But a great number of people come into this world with a limit tattooed on their destiny. Some of them accept it, others fight it, and a few succumb to despair.
Namkeen manages to make the point with gentle humor, a touch of romance and just the right amount of empathy.