I was going to watch Uphaar, but that wasn’t available anywhere. So then I was going to watch Guddi, but I couldn’t find my DVD. And so, with every other door closed to me, I was forced to turn to Mili. The film I bought 4 years ago and have been avoiding in fear of the sad bits.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee was and is something special. He manages to make movies that take melodramatic plots and make them everyday. And therefore all the more touching, it doesn’t feel like unreal perfect movie people going through these things, but real imperfect people just like us.
And because he made different movies, he had a different kind of cast. This film is an interesting combination. Aruna Irani, a character actress and item dancer. Jaya Bhadhuri, IIT graduate in acting and India’s sweetheart. Ashok Kumar, Hindi film’s first true Star turned character actor in old age. And of course Amitabh Bachchan, charismatic poet’s son with the deep voice and rich delivery and the sudden massive success just as this film was releasing. Along with the usual gathering of Mukherjee character actors.
All of these actors, wherever they came from, were brushed with the Mukherjee magic, their habits changed, tics taken away, and practiced performances and star magic all removed and just the real person left behind. They don’t feel all the same as each other, you can still tell Aruna Irani from Jaya from Ashok Kumar. But they feel like they exist in that same real world that the rest of the film does, people who have complicated but not glamorous lives.
The heart of this film is two love stories, Ashok Kumar and Jaya Bachchan and Jaya and Amitabh. Two very different kinds of love. Ashok and Jaya share a love of father and daughter, not the usual kind we see that only appears related to big dramatic declarations revolving who she will marry, or sometimes vengeance for who has hurt her, but the every day love. The father who gets up at night and puts on his glasses and holds her when she has a nightmare, the daughter who teases her father and laughs at his jokes. They are two actors perfectly in synch, separated by decades in age but otherwise the same. Both with enormous charisma, and enormously subtle acting. They feel like a father and daughter in that way as well, separated by age and gender but otherwise very similar.
And then there is Jaya and Amitabh. Two more different people it would be hard to find. He is tall, she is short. He has a loud deep voice that he raises in anger, she has a light high voice full of laughter. Most of all, he has this bitter angry broken core to him, while she is full of brightness and joy.
And yet, they are drawn to each other. The screen comes alive when they are together. It’s more than just sexual, and more than just intellectual, it is some immediate spark and bond that comes between them. And it is there in all their films, even Silsila when Amitabh is “in love” with Rekha, his conversations with Jaya are the most interesting parts of the film. Straight through to Ki & Ka, the best part of the movie is seeing them share screen space again. Late in the film, Amitabh tells her that he could never marry another woman, it would be ridiculous for him to ever be with anyone else. This film was being made around them time they married, and that line almost feels like a conscious nod to the audience, because we can see that Amitabh really COULDN’T marry anyone else. There is something special there between them.
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The outlines of this plot are as familiar as anything, a tormented “bad boy” who is saved by a saintly “good girl” only to learn she is dying. And, in a final touching sacrifice, declare his love for her and his desire to marry her even if they only have a few days together. Blah blah, Love Story, Ek Villain, A Walk to Remember, ten million other films.
But what makes this film different is that they don’t feel like character types at all, or even characters, they just feel like people. And sometimes bad things happen to people and they have to choose how they will handle them. All kinds of bad things. Starting with the lowest, Aruna Irani. In a filmi kind of movie, she would be the tragic fallen woman. But in this one, she is just a woman who made mistakes and is trying to find her way out of it, quietly, on her own. Her whole story is in the background, as is the story of her true love, Jaya’s brother, the war hero. All we see is a moment between them at his welcome home party, where he talks about the irony of going to war and winning a medal when he intended to die, and she caustically talks about her series of love affairs since him and how they have left her feeling broken inside. We can fill in the gaps, a love affair between then, her tempted by the wealthy man who ended up breaking her heart, him going to war in misery, her feeling unworthy of him or any decent man and starting a series of affairs, and now here they both are, with this chasm between them. Which is what happens in life, you have a random party meeting with your ex and your heart breaks again a little all over again. And then life goes on. Jaya’s brother goes back to the army, returning when his little sister is dying with no time to think of his broken heart any more. Aruna is revealed to be the building society’s secretary, competent and responsible, the one Ashok turns to when he needs a guardian for Jaya while he is out of town. And she may have said she feels “dead” when she spoke to her ex-boyfriend, but we see in the warm strength she gives Jaya, and the heartbreak she feels over Jaya’s illness, that she is alive. No need for a big speech over it, or that “filmi” moment of revelation, it’s just there.
The part that I find most remarkable, and least “filmi”, is how Amitabh’s tragedy is handled. He is the new tenant in the building, in the terrace apartment. And he comes with scandal, the son of a wealthy man who killed his wife’s lover, the wife then killed herself, and the man was hanged. Amitabh left an orphan. The layers of his life peel away slowly. He is up late at night, playing sad songs on his tape deck (oh tape decks! Oh the 70s!) and drinking. Jaya hears the music and is drawn to the stairs to him. She goes to him the next day, and they immediately fight. She tries to get him to allow the children back to play on the terrace, he refuses. He also abuses and tries to fire his old servant. But then, the first layer removed, the servant tells Jaya he will never be fired, he is Amitabh’s only family, the one who raised him after the death of his parents. Amitabh may pretend to be angry and cruel, but it is all a pretense.
The closest to a moment of drama is a few days later when Amitabh has a bad night and tries to kill himself. Jaya holds his hands to stop the bleeding, he abuses her. But then comes to apologize to her the next day and allow the children to play on the terrace again. He enjoys them playing, tells them stories, and they ask about his telescope. Jaya is curious as well, he invites her to come back that night to look at stars. And, slowly, they become closer and closer over a serious of late night stargazing sessions. Until, the culmination of the tragedy of Amitabh’s life, he shows Jaya a photo of his mother and the letter she left to be given to him on his 18th birthday. And there is no resolution there. She says she is innocent of everything and hopes he will believe her. And Amitabh passionately tells Jaya that he does believe her, he believes his mother was innocent.
And that’s all we learn. In another film, there would be a lengthy investigation and reveals and so on, we would learn that there was an elaborate misunderstanding that ended in tragedy, the man Amitabh’s father shot was to blame for everything, and so on and so on. But in this film, what matters is that Amitabh believes her and the tragedy of his life is that no one else does. And once Jaya shares his beliefs then his tragedy is resolved. That is all he needed.
And that’s kind of all Jaya needs too. Jaya is sick, we know that from the first time we see her. There is a casual mention of a doctor and pills she must be sure to take. But she doesn’t seem very sick. She isn’t worried, and Ashok isn’t terribly worried either. But slowly, in the background of everything else that is happening, the worry grows. Her brother comes back and Ashok tells him that the doctor doesn’t have any new options. There is mention of “Transfusions”. Jaya gets sick and has to stay in bed. And then she never really gets out of bed. Amitabh sends her flowers and a note every day, and she sends a note back. Not deep poetic perfect dying angel notes, but sweet little young girl in love notes. And Amitabh writes to her not as a tormented “bad boy” type, but as the normal shy young man he always was underneath.
Jaya knows she is dying, but she has chosen to live until she dies. To be in love, to be happy, to be with her father. There is one devastating moment, when she first finds out through an overheard conversation. She covers it up, but later that night she stumbles from her bed to Ashok’s, waking him, and asking if she can sleep there that night, and curls up in his arms like a little girl who is trying to forget a nightmare. And after that, she never tells him, she accepts the fantasy and the show everyone puts on around her. Because that is who she is and that is what she wants.
Amitabh is the one who knows her best and knows that is what she would want. There is something between them that no one else shares, the same thing that drew her up the stairs to watch his shadowed figure the first night in his apartment, the same thing that drew him to watch her dance with the children on his terrace every day. They are so different in every way, but the exist only for and because of each other. Ashok tells Amitabh the truth about Jaya and tries to warn him away from her, to avoid heartbreak. But Aruna Irani confronts him and challenges him to stick around instead of running away. And so he does, he listens to his heart and does what he knows Jaya would want from him, visits her and is smiling and happy and confident. Giving her the same joy and strength that she gave to him.
And so he decides to marry her. Knowing they may only have days together, but hoping he will find a way to have years with her. Telling her that he is sure because an astrologer told him his wife would live for 80 years. And she is the woman who has to be his wife, why would he marry someone else when he is in love with her? Just as he chose to have impossible faith in his mother’s fidelity and innocence, and she supported him, he is choosing to have impossible faith in her survival, and she is taking the leap with him.
And the audience must take that leap as well. Watching this film, the chemistry between the actors, the little moments, the songs, it is easy to get swept up in it. But the biggest most unique part of the film is the beginning and ending. It opens and closes with Ashok Kumar watching the plane that is taking Jaya and Amitabh to Switzerland. That is the resolution, the decision to hope and to try, even when everyone says it is hopeless.
It’s not just in the conclusion, it’s in the way the film is built to allow for that hope. All along there have been references to the possibility of going abroad for treatment. And the disease is “pernicious anemia”. Which did, in fact, have a miracle cure. Discovered right as this film was made, the distillation of B12 to allow for stronger treatments. It is possible that Jaya could go to Switzerland, could get this new experimental treatment, could survive to be the old woman that Amitabh dreamed of being with his whole life. It’s up to the audience to make that same decision, if they will believe the sad ending or if they will choose hope.