Happy Sunday! And let me remind you of one of the all time greatest Hindi films, and definitely the best exploration of how “true love” is bad and selfish.
Silsila is such a remarkable movie. It is peak Yash Chopra. Everything he does well, done to perfection, and nothing he does poorly included. The use of stars, the use of mise en scene, of songs, of costumes, it’s all perfect. And it is also a perfect investigation of the sort of hard to define and hard to limit relationships that Yashji does so well.
(Amitabh and Jaya and Rekha are all related and kind of blur together)
Yashji’s weakness was when he tried to simplify things. Jab Tak Hain Jaan, a love that will not die or progress or have any complicated emotional layers to it, that’s a weakness. Chandni isn’t as good as Lamhe (yes, I said it!) because Chandni is about a young woman falling in love with a young man and that’s it, while Lamhe is about first love and later love and evolving love.
Silsila, meanwhile, is about the most complicated relationship patterns you can imagine. Love in all its shades and changes. People dealing with impossible emotional puzzles. And dealing with them in the way they happen in real life, not in big confrontations and speeches, but little every day moments, hidden heart breaks, unspoken words.
Because it is about real life, it also means no one in this narrative is entirely blameless. All 4 people in this story, 5 if you count Shashi, are culpable in what happens. The title means “chain” or “connection” and that is what it is about, how every little thing we do can effect someone else.
This film isn’t just the purest artistic expression of Yash Chopra, it’s the purest philosophical expression of Yash Chopra. After his death, story after story came out of how kind he was, how caring, how aware of other people’s feelings and how to make them feel better. And that’s what this story is about. How important it is, above all, to do what will cause the least pain to others. Not any abstract morality or social rules, but the individual people around you and what will hurt them.
Which is, of course, why it is so odd that Yashji had the particular caste he did for this film. Supposedly, according to Yashji himself in his final interview, it was Amitabh who did it. Yashji came to him with the story, prepared to cast Smita Patil and Parveen Babi, and Amitabh suggested “what about Rekha and Jaya?” Yashji didn’t think he could get them, but Amitabh said he would take care of it, they would both agree.
So, if we are taking this film as a statement of what has the most value in the world, then Amitabh is the one who failed. No matter what you believe was really happening or had happened between the three of them, it is certainly clear that at that point in time Jaya very much did not want to work with, or spend time with, Rekha.
(Although she also got to spend time with Shashi, I am sure that helped. Because Shashi was the best!)
But even if the real life situation was a lot of pain, I think I am still going to say that it was worth it. I’m not usually of the opinion that art justifies pain, but in this case the art is so wonderful and perfect, and the real life pain was (thankfully) a contained limited experience, so I think it was.
Seems silly to put up a SPOILER bar, even if you’ve never seen it most people know the basics of the Silsila plot, but just in case here it is.
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It’s a simple plot. Rekha and Amitabh are in love, Shashi (Amitabh’s brother) and Jaya are in love. But then Shashi dies, Jaya is pregnant, Amitabh breaks it off with Rekha with no explanation and marries Jaya to save her from shame. Months later, Jaya loses the baby in an accident, and coincidentally her doctor is Rekha’s new husband, Sanjeev Kumar. A perfectly nice man who is happy with his wife, although aware that she is not in love with him. Amitabh chases Rekha, and convinces her to start seeing him secretly. At the same time, he and Jaya are getting closer and closer. Jaya begins to see what is happening between him and Rekha but doesn’t acknowledge it, and Sanjeev does as well. Finally, Amitabh and Rekha run off together to visit old friends, who criticize them for walking out on their marriages. They return, and in a sudden flurry of events, Sanjeev is on a plane that crashes, Amitabh rushes in to save him, Jaya faints, and Amitabh learns Jaya is pregnant again and tearfully unites with her (finally) while Rekha has gone off with Sanjeev.
So, it’s a story of an affair. With the slight twist that the couple having an affair were in love before their respective marriages. And it ends with marriage being reaffirmed (as almost always). But it’s the way it is done that makes it so special.
Going all the way back to the first meeting between Jaya and Amitabh and Rekha and Amitabh. Jaya is Shashi’s girl, Amitabh is delighted to meet her and flirt with her and joke with her, he becomes her friend-by-marriage, sort of, and they get along really well right away. Amitabh gets drunk, Jaya smiles at him, it’s all very comfortable and familiar and happy. In contrast, Rekha is dancing at a wedding and Amitabh falls in love at first sight, while she shyly retreats, he follows her. And then writes her poetry and sends her roses.
Right away there is a contrast of choices. Jaya is the easy comfortable happy funny fun choice. Rekha is the stunningly beautiful romantic overwhelming choice.
Well, not “choice”. That’s kind of the point of the film, Amitabh never had a chance to make that choice. He knew two women, met them around the same time. Jaya was never on the table for him, because she belonged to Shashi. Rekha was the one for him. But then Shashi dies, and suddenly Jaya is the only choice, he HAS to marry her.
The rest of the film is about Amitabh working this through, finding a way to make that choice, He tries to rewind, to go back to Rekha, but he doesn’t let Jaya go. It’s not just that he doesn’t break the marriage, he is clearly all in this marriage. We see it in little moments, casually changing clothes in the shared bedroom, sitting in the tub while she washes her face in the bathroom, making plans to go to dinner together. They are married in every way, not at once, but in tiny little hints that slowly increase through out the film as we see that their relationship is progressing.
Amitabh picking Jaya at the end and letting Rekha go isn’t because his relationship with Rekha was always doomed, or because he was in love with Jaya all along. If Shashi hadn’t died, Amitabh might have married Rekha and been very happy as they slowly built a life together. And he certainly wouldn’t have started an affair with Jaya because he was so overwhelmingly drawn to her. But when Jaya was an option, not with Shashi. And when he spent time with her and slowly built a life with her, then there was nothing in his shallow flush of passion with Rekha that he would pick over that.
Jaya, on the other hand, always felt like she had a choice. She could choose to mourn Shashi her whole life, or she could let him go and fall in love with the man who she married. And she chose to fall in love. And she chose to tell Amitabh she loved him, truly. And most importantly, she chose to let him choose. Kept it from him that she was pregnant because she wanted him to choose herself and their marriage for herself, not because he felt forced into it.
And then there’s Rekha. Like Amitabh, she never really had a choice. She was in love, and then just as suddenly he stopped loving her and she was alone. She was married off to a nice enough man, but she held herself off from him, never revealing how she felt because that had only brought her heartbreak. Amitabh breaks down her barriers again, only to reveal that (like Amitabh) she had learned to love her spouse, and now she was willing to show that love.
It sounds terribly regressive to say that love will always come after marriage. But, in some ways, it is true. There is an intimacy built in to having a life together, a bond will almost always form. It may not be the strongest bond in your life, you may be able to fight against it and form something stronger, but it also cannot be written off as though it never happened. You can’t go back in life, only forward.
This is the complicated situation they all find themselves in. But on top of this situation, in which their are no easy answers and no one is living the life they really wanted (even Sanjeev Kumar would prefer a wife that he knew loved him), there is the question of how they handle the situation. And that is where the judgements happen. Amitabh and Rekha do not handle themselves well. Especially Amitabh.
Over and over again, they take risks of revealing their relationship. Their still present love for each other, perhaps even acting on that love, could be forgiven and understood, but allowing that love to be visible, to humiliate and break the hearts of their spouses, that is not forgivable. That is wrong, because it causes harm to others that could have been avoid.
On the other hand, Jaya’s choice to cover for Amitabh to protect his public pride, that is a remarkable sacrifice, giving up her personal happiness for the sake of saving others from humiliation (her husband, Rekha, even Sanjeev Kumar). Sanjeev’s choice to acknowledge and give tribute to her sacrifices is remarkable as well, taking a moment from his own pain to see hers and understand her struggles.
In the end, that is why Amitabh has to rescue Sanjeev. Because he has been selfish, and uncaring, and damaging. And he needs to make up for that by being as unselfish and sacrificing and caring as he can be. Followed by rushing home to his wife, to finally admit that he loves her and should make her the first priority of his life (instead of only caring about himself).
Now, of course, the question is whether you can ever forgive Amitabh? Either the character, who got drunk and danced with his mistress without caring how it looked or made his wife feel. Or the man in real life who suggested his rumored mistress to play his mistress, his wife to play his wife, and then wrote and sang this song himself.
(Forgiving Rekha is a separate matter. She had A LOT in her life, check out my relevant post here)