December 8 is the birthday of Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore– here’s looking at a gem of a film starring the two.
The Mumbai film industry does Hrishikesh Mukherjee a great injustice by constantly harping on about the many comedies he made in the middle-of-the-road phase of his flourishing career. However, the first half of his extensive filmography has a variety of dramatic films that flew in the face of prevalent trends. He was known to cast against type, tackle stories that were too understated for Hindi mainstream cinema, and yet his name never crops up in the list of art-house filmmakers. His films like Anuradha (1960), Anupama (1966), Satyakam (1968) were nothing if not artistic, but within the accepted conventions of popular Hindi cinema of the time.
Of the lot, Anupama is the most unusual, a near masterpiece of subtle emotions and ethereal love. But, it had comedy, beautiful songs and the best stars willing to work with Hrishida, because they knew they could trust him to make a wonderful film.
In a brief opening scene shot, with the economy he was known for (an expert editor, he edited his films in his mind as he shot them), it is established that Mohan Sharma (Tapan Bose) married late, and has a beautiful young wife Aruna (Surekha), whom he is besotted with. He is welcomed home—a lavish mansion—by her seated at the piano, singing Dheere dheere machal; which man would not be crazily in love with this radiant woman?
He is overjoyed to hear that she is pregnant, but she dies in childbirth and his life shatters completely. He hates the sight of his daughter, and leaves her to be raised by the maid Sarla (Dulari), who loves the child as her own. In his heart, Mohan realises that little Uma is not to be blamed for her mother’s death, and the brief flashes of brusque affection he can show her are when he returns home drunk, bearing gifts. But when sober in the morning he does not want to see her face.
As a result of his bizarre behaviour, Uma (Sharmila Tagore) is like a stunted bonsai plant. She does not speak, has a look bordering on wide-eyed terror at all times, and is only able to communicate with Sarla.
Mohan wants Uma to marry the son of his friend, Arun (Deven Varma), who has returned home from the U.S. after completing his education. His tenant is a jovial lawyer, Moses (David), who is also Mohan’s friend. Their third buddy is Suresh Bakshi (Brahm Bharadwaj), who also has a daughter Annie (Shashikala). This thoroughly pampered chatterbox, shares Uma’s birthday as well as her motherless fate. Both girls were raised by widower fathers, but the contrast between the two is glaring. Bakshi has brought up his daughter with affection, as opposed to Sharma’s cold, distant fatherhood. Annie treats Uma like a wounded bird, does not mind her disconcerting silence, or intrude on her solitude. It’s a depiction of a perfectly sympathetic friendship and a foreshadowing of the crucial role Annie will play in Uma’s future.
Arun has a poor, writer friend, Ashok (Dharmendra), whose mother (Durga Khote) and sister Gauri (Naina) he treats as his own family.
Mohan’s ill health necessitates a trip to Mahabaleshwar, where Bakshi has a bungalow. Everyone tags along, with Annie treating it like a picnic to be thoroughly enjoyed. Arun is quite dumbfounded by this madcap, and obviously smitten. Like Arun, Annie is not class conscious and affectionately orders Ashok and his family around to fit into her infectious plans for having fun.
Ashok meets Uma, as she strolls in the garden singing, Kuchh dil ne kaha and is intrigued by her silence. Uma glows under the maternal affection showered upon her by Ashok’s mother and actually manages to speak a few words.
On their return to Mumbai, Ashok goes to meet Uma, ostensibly to convey his mother’s invitation, but actually because he is fascinated by her, and a story is germinating in his mind.
A little explosion takes place in this genteel world, when Ashok is invited to Annie’s birthday party; he remembers that it is also Uma’s birthday and innocently drops by to wish her and give her a humble homemade gift. Her tears baffle him, and then he learns the reason for Uma’s unfathomable timidity.
The conversation they have in the garden, is like a small window opening into Uma’s soul. Uma’s father is not in the least put out by Arun’s desire to marry Annie instead of Uma; he has better proposals for her. But he is enraged by her friendship with Ashok, who does not match his stature. He is even more furious when Ashok rebuffs his offer of a job, expressing contentment at his life as a teacher and writer.
Annie, who behaves like a nitwit, actually has the insight to understand the love that is blossoming between Ashok and Uma and encourages it. Even the maid, Sarla, gently nudges the romance with an instinctive understanding of Uma’s emotions.
Then Ashok’s book Anupama, inspired by Uma’s story comes out. She reads it in one nocturnal sitting and when she parts the curtains to let the light in, it is as if the darkness has lifted from her cloistered mind.
He has given her the courage to break the hold her father has on her, and the confidence to take a life-altering decision to accompany Ashok to a new life in his village. Mukherjee was too sensitive a writer and director to end without redeeming Mohan Sharma. He watches his daughter from behind a pillar, tears streaming down his face. If Anupama had a sequel, perhaps it would have been about how the fractured relationship between father and daughter might have healed.
Mukherjee’s delicate plot was enhanced by Bimal Dutta and D.N. Mukherjee’s screenplay, Rajinder Singh Bedi’s powerful dialogue, Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics and Hemant Kumar’s timeless music that had musical jewels like Bheegi bheegi faza, Kyon mujhe itni khushi de di and Ya dil ki suno duniyawalon, the last picturised on a kurta-pyjama clad Dharmendra, a picture of scholarly dignity.
Anupama was dedicated to Bimal Roy, and its slight resemblance to Sujata is discernible. Audiences then had the patience and ability to appreciate a film that was tender and refined in its narrative, and left a lot for the viewer to interpret for themselves. Today that style of filmmaking has been lost, maybe forever.
(This piece is an edited version of a chapter from my book Take 2: 50 Films That Deserve A New Audience, published by Hay House in 2015)