Khanna-o-Rama has, justifiably, thus far been obsessed with Masala Vinod – the sneering, brooding, hunk of raw animal appeal that keeps its inner violence tethered on an excitingly thin leash. But those very qualities found him a niche in the world of a filmmaker leagues removed from the kind of cinema that set petticoats on fire.
As a director, multi-hyphenate Gulzar worked with Vinod Khanna in five movies: Parichay, Meera, Achanak, Mere Apne and Lekin. Each of them are fine movies but hardly ever get the attention reserved for the movies he made with Khanna’s contemporaries – Jeetendra (whom he directed three times – Parichay, Kinara, Khushboo), and the man most consider to be Gulzar’s true blue-eyed boy, Sanjeev Kumar (in Koshish, Namkeen, Parichay, Mausam, Aandhi, Angoor). Given that, I should perhaps have chosen to write about the only movie in which he cast all three – Parichay. It is a fine example of the wonders casting to strength can achieve in filmmaking.
I choose instead a movie that has long fascinated me – Lekin... (But…)
Produced by Lata Mangeshkar and featuring an outstanding soundtrack composed by her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Lekin… begins with the arrival of Sameer (Vinod Khanna), come to Rajasthan to take inventory of a long abandoned haveli. Once there, he bumps into the hauntingly beautiful Reva (Dimple Kapadia), a mysterious woman from the desert who wanders in and out of his life at will.
A friendship of sorts grows between the two, Sameer’s curiosity about Reva fitting into her odd desperation to share her story with him; their interactions with each other escalating by degrees to an emotional point as baffling to the audience as it is to Sameer. Shocked at his rapidly deteriorating mental and physical appearance as he is sucked into Reva’s hallucinatory world, Sameer’s friends (who include Amjad Khan) convince him to solve Reva’s mystery before it consumes him.
It’s a story packed full of drama featuring villainous rajahs, beautiful dancing girls (Hema Malini), heroic father figures, helpless damsels, heaping amounts of depravity and evil – and yet delicately told, its entire structure balanced on the atmosphere built by Manmohan Singh’s desert cinematography.
The lonely sand dunes, windswept and barren, are a setting made to appeal to the supernatural. Few in Hindi cinema can beat Gulzar’s record as writer of the female spirit who is as haunted as she is haunting. Although Reva draws immediate comparisons to that other Dimple Kapadia-starrer Rudaali (also written by Gulzar), she is in fact a character he has visited time again in movies as diverse as Namkeen, Ijazzat, Khushboo and Mausam to name just a few off the top of my head.
It is the character of a woman stuck in a specific window of her history, unable to unchain herself, seeking her freedom through the love of a man. She is an odd sort of succubus, sympathetic while being poisonous to varying degrees; she is only terrible in the way a drowning victim can be – she means you no active harm, just obeying her survival instincts.
In Reva, Gulzar makes the metaphor literal by making her a restless spirit who needs to have her story heard so that she can finally “cross the desert”. Sameer, more than half in love with her and fully cognizant that his is a love that was doomed before it ever began, is the man who pours his soul into guiding her in the right direction.
The best part of Lekin… for me is that I don’t think I can explain it beyond this point. For a movie that has all the ingredients of the kind of Rajasthan-based masala potboilers that were all the rage in the 1980s, Lekin… is satisfyingly ethereal and personal. There are loose ends and lyrics and panoramas that defy a standard reading.
If Gulzar hadn’t chosen to close the movie as he did, in fact, I would have been perfectly content with the interpretation that Sameer had a psychotic episode of some kind.
Papa Khanna continued and, indeed, continues to be steadily employed but Lekin… gets my vote as the last great movie he made.