Well, this is a saaaaaaaaaaaaaad movie! If you want the happy edit, stop after the telephone booth song, fast-forward until the Valentine’s Day song, watch Hema yell in a nightclub, then fast-forward again until Hema and Amitabh are reunited and play straight through from there.
For large parts of this movie, our elderly hero Amitabh and heroine Hema Malini are terribly wise. They know what is right and do what is right and give lessons to others in what is right. That’s not the revolutionary part of this movie. The revolutionary part is that they also do what is wrong. They make mistakes, have poor judgement, scramble to fix things and fail, and then finally take an illogical scary romantic leap. They are people, just like anyone else. With a little more life experience and a little more wisdom, but that doesn’t make them perfect. Nor does it make them less human, they love just as deeply and hurt just as deeply as they did before.
I watched this movie early on in my Hindi film journey, and I was frustrated by a lot of things that, later on, I realized I was just plain wrong about. For instance, I found it insulting that we were supposed to believe Hema Malini as the same age as Amitabh and a mother of grown children. And then I learned that she is Hemaji, she just doesn’t age. I was also frustrated that Amitabh and Hema had such unrealistic expectations for their old age and never seemed to have talked about them with their children. But then I learned more about Indian society and discovered that it wasn’t as ridiculous as it seemed for them to just make this assumption without discussing it with their family.
What worked perfectly for me even in those early years was the second half of the film. That’s the story that is universal, and rarely shown in any film industry. Hema and Amitabh have been married for 40 years, they have 4 grown children, the young people around them see them as “cute” and their relationship as “sweet”. But it’s not “cute” and “sweet”, it is as deep and powerful as the passionate first love we see in college romances. No, it is more powerful than that. So powerful that it is invisible, like an ultraviolent ray, or a ultra low bass. You can’t see it or hear it, but somewhere down deep inside you can feel it. If you choose to, you can ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist just because it isn’t there on the surface. But that doesn’t make it go away, doesn’t make it less real.
Amitabh and Hema love each other so much that they don’t need big gestures to show it, they don’t need wild rebellion, they just need to be together. And when they are apart, they miss each other not in passionate weeping or threats of suicide, but in a constant inability to feel anything, to be fully alive and awake. At the end of the film, Amitabh says to Hema “I exist, because you do. You are everything. Without you, there is nothing. Nothing”. That’s the kind of love they have, grown so close together that to rip them apart is to tear their souls away from them, leave them empty and half a person.
(No subtitles, but the repeated refrain is “I am here, you are there. Where is life?”)
I don’t know any couples where she was a rich girl and he was a gunda who had to fight her father’s men to win her. Or a couple where they fell in love through a series of misunderstandings and foreign trips. Or couples where he fell in love at first sight and stalked her with large romantic gestures until she loved him back. But I know many couples like this, ones who married in their youth and slowly grew together over years until, in old age, to be apart even for a day was like death.
Everyone knows these couples. The whole old age system is structured with an awareness of these couples. At my grandfather’s retirement home, one of the big selling points is the dementia unit being on site. So when your partner can no longer live with you, you can stay in your independent living space and they can move just a few feet away. This makes no real logical sense, you still aren’t living together, and yet it is the norm for these couples to care about those few feet, to want to be sure they are still as close as humanly possible. Some homes even offer dementia care such that the partner can move in with the patient. Again, why? They have dementia to the point of needing full time care, much of the time they may not even know who you are, and yet the healthy partner still wants to be with them as much as possible. This isn’t a sweeping once in a life time romance, this is what most couples of many decades are like, to the point that elder care is structured to accommodate it. And at the same time the very fact that it is common, does not make it any less special, any less worthy of a film about the magic of this love.
Hema and Amitabh are the center of the film, but they aren’t the only couple we see. And none of the couples are the “usual” ones. Lillette Dubey and Paresh Rawal are a love story too, middle-aged and miss-matched and childless business partners and husband and wife. There’s a nice very young college couple Amitabh befriends, they are in love and happy without family objections or big thrilling misunderstandings. It’s a sweet small love story that is appropriate for their age. There’s Salman and Mahima of course, in love but taking their time and planning a life instead of rushing into things. And then there is the one normal filmi couple, Rimi Sen and her boyfriend who are wildly in love without family approval. And they are the weakest and falsest love story, love doesn’t have to be dramatic and romantic to be true, in fact the dramatic obvious love might be the only one that is false.
This attitude to romantic love carries over to familial love as well. Which, again, is an old familiar story. The fairy tale “Meat Loves Salt”, the Shakespeare play King Lear, they all deal with the idea that the child who expresses the least love is the one who might feel the most. The child who shows the most might in fact do the least. Look at what is done to know what is felt, not what is said.
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This plot takes a long time to get going. But it kind of works. We have to grasp what Amitabh and Hema’s life is to understand what they are losing, and why they make their mistakes. They are a couple that is living a happy life, he works at his humble bank job every day, and goes for walks with his friends and his dogs. She stays home and happily cares for their home and waits for him to come home. They have 4 sons, the youngest is still single, the next youngest is recently married, the oldest married for love at a young age and has a teenage daughter, the next oldest married at a regular age and has a working wife and a young son. Hema and Amitabh see their lives as settled and reliable, they love each other and their children and their children love them, their worries are over because they have successfully raised their children and completed the hardest parts of their life. They also have an adopted son, Salman, who they sponsored through his childhood and education. They did not raise him in their home, they don’t think of him as their “son” like their other children, have no expectations from him but are grateful for the respect and love he offers them. When he calls from his overseas job to introduce his girlfriend to them (over the phone) and ask for their blessing, they are surprised and delighted by the gesture.
Speaking of gestures, the most important part of this first hour is seeing the public and private ways Hema and Amitabh express their love. In public, Amitabh sings songs to tease her and she sings back, they are cute together and their children enjoy joining in the public fun of their love. In private, Amitabh never learned to tie a tie because they both like the ritual of Hema tying it for him every morning. Hema can’t sleep on a pillow, because after 4 decades she can only sleep on Amitabh’s arm. These aren’t things they share with their children, or with anyone else in the world. They are the little things that no one else would care about but which are everything to a couple that has been together forever. Their children think it is all big public gestures, they have no idea that there is a higher level to their love for each other.
Their children also have no idea there is a higher lever to their love for their children. Amitabh retires, and has no savings. They spent all their money on their children, weddings and first apartments and first cars and education. They never bothered to discuss this with their children, because they thought it was understood, they thought it was obvious that they weren’t just talking about love, they were doing love. But for their kids, it is all talk. They show up for the big parties and fun times and make a show of caring, but they don’t think about actually doing anything to show they care.
(This song is fun, but it is a whole different kind of love from what we see in “Main Yahan to Wahan”)
And so when Hema and Amitabh announce they are leaving their house and coming to live with their children, the kids immediately resent it and assume Amitabh and Hema made this decision out of a shallow desire to test their love, to have the appearance of doing the right thing. They decide to play a trick, to lie that they love their parents so much that they can’t decide who gets them first, and so Amitabh and Hema will have to be seperated. They think this is all a mutual game, Amitabh and Hema are testing them so they will test their parents in return and “win”.
This is the part I thought was ridiculous on the first watch. Why wouldn’t parents have sat down with their children and explained their retirement plan and lack of funds a long time ago? How could this be a surprise, and a secret? But then I learned more about Indian culture. Since the expectation is that elderly parents will live with/off of their grown children, it is entirely possible for Amitabh and Hema to have just assumed this was understood and there was no need to have a big conversation about how they spent all their savings on their children with the expectation that their children would care for them. And it is possible for their children to think they only wanted to do this because of a desire to fit within social expectations, not actual need.
Yes, Amitabh and Hema made a mistake. They did not honestly talk with their children about their situation. They also did not raise their children to understand that love requires sacrifice and understanding, not just taking and taking. But anyone can make a mistake. They don’t have to be perfect just because they are older, and the pain of the punishment for their mistake should not be ignored because they are older either. Instead of having a big party and celebrating Holi when their kids visited, they could have sat down and had an honest conversation about retirement planning.
Hema and Amitabh agree to a trial separation, 6 months spent with their two oldest children in separate households. We can understand why they do it, they have no other choice for one thing, and for another they assume that their children must have a good reason for it. Most of all, and this is another human mistake, they don’t know how painful this separation will be until they do it. Young folks, they think they will die if they are apart for a day. The kind of love Hema and Amitabh have here, they can’t even imagine the pain of being apart because it will be so deep.
And so we have the heartbreaking hour of the film that shows them apart and abused by their children. Hema is put in the maid’s room, left home alone and ignored all day. Amitabh is forced to share a room with his grandson, disrespected over and over again. But the greatest meaning of this section is not the lack of love from their children, but the depth of love they feel for each other. There is scene after scene that shows a different kind of love from the big dramatic type we usually see. Amitabh doesn’t wear a tie for 6 months, because he will only wear a tie of Hema puts it on him. Hema writes him a letter about how she has a hard time putting on make-up in the morning, because what is the point if he won’t be seeing her? And of course the first night apart, Hema waiting up because she cannot go to sleep until he calls her, and Amitabh wandering out on the streets in the rain looking for a phone booth because he knows she will be waiting for his call.
It’s heartbreaking, but special. And then their reunion is even more special. 5 minutes on a train platform after 6 months apart, that turns into them simply walking away together with nothing because they have learned that they literally cannot live without each other. It would have been easy for the film to skip this part, to go from their horrible abusive children to finding their wonderful adoptive son again and starting life fresh. But first, they have to choose each other. This isn’t a story of abusive children, this is a story of love between a couple. Even if they hadn’t found Salman, they would have been fine on their own so long as they had each other.
That’s a radical statement. For a culture that puts such a priority on the parent child relationship, on the formal rules for how family’s are supposed to be, to have this couple say “I don’t care about the children, I don’t care about the rules, we are eloping together at age 60 because we love each other more than we love the people we are ‘supposed’ to love” is revolutionary.
That’s the mistake they made at the beginning. They thought that they were “supposed” to live with their children, that they shouldn’t love each other that much in old age, that it wasn’t right or proper. And then they learned that their children didn’t love them, and that they loved each other far more than is “right” or “proper”.
Which brings me to the ending. It’s an odd ending. Hema and Amitabh are reunited, they find Salman and learn that it is possible for a child to love and revere his parents, they start life fresh together with the friends they made along the way, you can build your own family in your own way and life goes on. But then there is a tag, Amitabh writes a book about their experiences and it is a bestseller. He gets to give a big public speech. And in this public forum, Amitabh owns their unconventional choices. He recognizes Salman, their orphaned adopted son, as his son. And he gives a speech about his life that goes from a discussion of old age and children to a public emotional declaration of his love for Hema. They are no longer pretending the shallow “cute” kind of elderly love, and they are no longer pretending that their ungrateful children love them, they are owning their choices publicly. That’s the message, don’t think about what you “should” be doing or feeling, show what you really feel and live your life with honesty and you will be happy.
Which is also what this, my favorite scene in the movie, is about. Rimi is Hema’s granddaughter, if she is in danger it is “supposed” to be her father who cares and saves her. But he doesn’t care, and Hema does, so she overcomes her fear and sense of what is right and goes out and does what her heart tells her to do. And Rimi loves her for it, loves her because of who she is and what she does, not because she is “supposed” to love her. Maybe if Hema had broken the rules of expectations a little bit while she was raising her sons, they would have loved who for who she is and seen her for who she is.