Quite Keen on Namkeen

01 Oct

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.


Posted by on October 1, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


21 responses to “Quite Keen on Namkeen

  1. bollyviewer

    October 1, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    If this sounds terribly depressing, that’s because it is.” – thats pretty much how I remember it! I saw it as a kid and all I remember now is the unremitting gloom and the Aanke chali baanke chali song.

  2. bollyviewer

    October 1, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    PS: I am also very keen on Namkeen – the edible variety, though!

  3. Sucker for salt-n-peppah

    October 1, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I haven’t seen Namkeen but this song is so evocative of the “In the Mood for Love” soundtrack (haven’t see that movie either, just heard the themes, on YT).

    It also reminds me of Shoba — South India’s answer to Shabana of the 80s… the brooding, bottled-up-yet-brimming-with-love heroine — and this (much more exuberant but similarly themed) song from Mullum Malarum.

    Lovely write-up, this. The last line especially reeks of a recipe for the perfect chiwda! Now one more post this week profiling heroines of questionable mental health and I promise I’ll scream bloody murder. 😛

  4. pitu

    October 1, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Lovely post! I absolutely heart ‘Namkeen’ altho I wouldn’t call it my fave Gulzar film. That would have to be the other Sharmila-Sanjeev starrer ‘Mausam’. And this song! God, they don’t make ’em like the Panchamda-Asha jodi anymore *sniff*. I had it for the longest time in an mp3 I burnt called ‘Impending Doom’, among other such gems as ‘Seeli Hawa Chhoo Gayi’ (Libaas- another Gulzar film). This was played obsessively when I was in an emo mood :-p Alas, I have lost that mp3 :_(

    Also, I was fruitlessly browsing Netflix for some good desi piktures and I chanced upon 2 dvds of ‘Kirdaar’ which is apparently a collection of short stories directed by Gulzar, starring Om Puri etc. So excited!!!!!!!!! Will review once I see it tomorrow 😀

    • ananddad

      October 12, 2009 at 4:48 am

      True, there will never be another lyricist-musician duo like Gulzar and RD. Be it Asha, Lata, Kishore or any other singer, Gulzar and RD had an uncanny chemistry. Check this out and read about RD’s initial reaction to ‘Mera kuch saamaan’: How can we ever forget the final outcome?

      • Amrita

        October 12, 2009 at 2:44 pm

        That’s one of my favorite Bollystories. 🙂

  5. M

    October 1, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Oh I loved this movie, when I was younger and had hardly anything to worry about! – now I refuse to put myself through its misery! But Sanjeev Kumar…sigh. In any shape or form (Ok, his usual form was pudgy, to put it politely!).


  6. apu

    October 1, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Haven’t seen this movie – but yeah, doom and gloom seems to cover it…

  7. DewdropDream

    October 2, 2009 at 4:48 am

    I LOVE your reviews 😀 I want to watch this movie … you can tell I’m quite the ignoramus when it comes to cinema.

    Pitu, I await your review and will line up to buy Kirdaar when you’ve posted it!

  8. Srinivas

    October 2, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Love these lines – “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.”

    Very true.

    The movie was all you say. Thankfully, they gave Nimki a happy ending 🙂

  9. Amey

    October 2, 2009 at 10:05 am

    If this sounds terribly depressing, that’s because it is.

    And you are leaving us with this to read on a weekend?

  10. Mamma Mia! Me a Mamma?!?

    October 2, 2009 at 10:23 am

    I remember seeing this almost half a lifetime ago and it struck such a chord then.

    Lovely write-up. Made me want to see the movie again.

  11. harini calamur

    October 2, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    i found this film soooooooooooooo depressing. But, great music

  12. Amrita

    October 2, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Oh come on! It wasn’t that depressing, was it? I mean, the love story between them was really sweet. Hmm…. well, there is the madness, and the deaths and the implied prostitution and pimping by the father, I suppose. Bummer.

    Pitu – you lazy object, I’ll hold you to that!

    S for s-n-p – no more mental health issues! But I have to embed that song here – so lovely:

    • pitu

      October 3, 2009 at 11:33 am

      Meh, Kirdaar was just so-so 😦 I rly didn’t think I’d say that evar about a Gulzar movie/series but it was so slow and dated and blah. And issues that prolly seemed very pressing back then are sorta blah 2 decades later… I removed volume 2 from my netflix queue 😦

  13. dipali

    October 3, 2009 at 6:19 am

    Such a beautiful, poignant movie, Namkeen.

  14. Amrita

    October 5, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Pitu – oh BOO! Or maybe, yay coz now I won’t have one more thing to watch!

    Dipali – THANK you! Somebody with proper feeling! 😀

  15. kk

    October 6, 2009 at 7:21 am

    I think I saw Namkeen when I was about 13 or 14 and it’s remained one of my favorite Gulzar movies. It’s so simply made and yet so evocative.

  16. E Pradeep

    October 6, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Guess, you don’t have too many movies with protagonist names like Gherulal…Enough to classify this as a non-commercial movie:)

  17. sachita

    October 6, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    This was a lovely review, Amrita. Havent seen this movie. but reminds me of neighbouring family from the past, a family of 3 daughters, the youngest of the daughter was 50 when I met them. 2 of them widowed, one’s husband ran away and her kid ran off after some time. Everyone living under the same roof with the mother included.

    “limit tattooed on their destiny” – seems right for them.

  18. Amrita

    October 7, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    KK – that’s what I loved about it too!

    EP – lolz, yes, the Gherulals of today will have to live without seeing their names on celluloid.

    Sachita – it’s a leeetle bit happier than that family, I think. Plus the first act is really quite delightful because that’s when you don’t know that the guillotine is waiting around the corner. Sanjeev Kumar is cho cute!

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