Bewarchi! Look at that, I watched a classic! And a Rajesh Khanna movie. All kinds of expanding horizons. Also, watch out! I go off on classism in this review and I didn’t enjoy the movie.
Oh dear. On the one hand, I can see objectively that this is a well-constructed movie with clever little touches, a solid narrative, and good performances. On the other hand, I am coming to it with an awareness of the current world and my place in it that, and with the experience of having watched many other movies dealing with similar themes, and that poisons it for me.
In 2013, the US Attorney’s office arrested and processed an Indian diplomat who was abusing her homecare worker. It was an open and shut case. The worker was in America on a work Visa, her employer had signed multiple legal documents promising to follow American labor laws, and had flouted them. Knowingly flouted them, she made her worker sign two separate work contracts, one to be filed in America, and a “real” one that she was told to keep secret during her Visa interview. The worker fled the house and went to stay at a Sikh temple and other places of sanctuary, at which point her employer filed a police report to force the police to find “her” servant. The American police said basically “are you crazy? She’s an adult person, she has the right to walk away from her job”. The employer then had her father back in India call her worker’s family in India and threatened them if she did not return to work, at which point they filed a case from their side for human trafficking. And in response to this whole story, a large part of the Indian media was SHOCKED at the insult to their noble Indian person. No, not the homecare worker, the employer. The middle class of India who run the media, the government, and the English language internet, cared deeply about this story and were up in arms in defense of an employers’ right to do as she wished with her employee. And were horrified at the idea of a middle-class Indian woman being arrested in America (while thousands of lower classes are arrested every day and no one cares). No one contested the facts of the case. To the eyes of the Indian middle-class, so far as I can see, there is nothing wrong in hiring a maid in India, flying her to your house in America, lying to the American authorities about her labor status, hiring the police to go find her when she leaves, and being personally insulted when she has the temerity to file a case.
And now I am watching this movie about a “magical” servant who fixes the problems of a middle-class household, and I can’t stop thinking about that story. This movie says that the middle-classes are the most importantly people In the World, and the other classes are put on this earth to serve them. That the most saintly good thing you can do is work dawn to dusk, for almost no money, in order to make their life easier and keep the household happy. I can’t relax and enjoy this very pleasant film because there is a little bit of grit in my mind that keeps saying “but, what message is this reinforcing for the audience?”
Here’s another statement that I have heard so many times, and bothers me more and more each time I hear it: “Everyone in India has servants”. Do you see the logical flaw with that statement? “Everyone” can’t have servants, because some people have to be servants. Do you understand? To say that statement, or to hear that statement, and not hear anything wrong with it, means that you yourself are guilty of classism. That in your mind “everyone” does not include the working classes.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are beloved because they tell “middle-class” stories. Not the fabulous fantastical rich, or the criminal struggling lowerclasses, but the boring middle-classes. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, middle-class people are people, and there are stories to be told about them. The issue is when it veers from “all people deserve to have stories told” to “these people deserve it more”.
This film definitely does that veer. First, because there is no real “conflict”. I should say because there is no real conflict, and because it is not pure farce. Mukherjee’s pure farces are delightful, he knows this is not an important story about important people, there is no lesson to be learned, it is just to laugh at and enjoy. This film has no conflict, but we are still supposed to care about what is happening to the characters in their conflict-less heaven.
Second, because there is no tragedy. Mukherjee’s middle-class tragedies are the most tragic, because they are middle-class. These are not dramatic desperate hopeless tragedies of the lower classes, or beautiful fantasy tragedies of the rich. It’s just every day sadness, a particular kind of bitterness at life.
And now we have this film. Not totally funny enough to be a farce, still with a lesson in it. But certainly not tragic enough to be a tragedy. So I am supposed to care about these characters learning a lesson, not just laugh at them, and yet there is no particular reason for me to care. And on top of that, the lesson and solution and magic dust on their situation comes from a servant! Part of the underclasses! It 100% crosses the line at this point, now I am supposed to worship middle-class values and life style above all else and care about the sustaining of this life style just because it is The Best.
I can almost forget that little bit of grit in my mind and just enjoy the film for itself because this is such a well-made enjoyable film. A large cast, 9 people in our central family plus Rajesh Khanna as the Magic Servant. Jaya Bhadhuri at the top of her charm offensive as the ingenue. Rajesh Khanna at the top of his charm offensive half smiling all over the place. The usual Mukherjee cast of regulars filling out the rest of the family. Lovely songs too, there’s a running gag about how film music now is just remixes of popular Western songs (another middle-class jibe, the Better people enjoy classical music not popular music), and the songs in this movie are melodic and timeless in contrast. The narrative is very tight as well, a series of incidents loosely tied together by a running theme of family learning to love each other and pull their own weight.
And yet, that ugly spot in my mind remains and I can’t fully enjoy the film, can’t make myself blind to the underlying assumptions it makes about who are the people that matter and who are not.
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There is a middle-class combined family of 9 people. Grandpa Haridrinath Chattopadhyay, who is retired and elderly. The oldest son A.K. Hangal, who is about to retire from his office job. The oldest daughter-in-law Durga Khote who struggles with foot pain. Their teenage daughter Manisha who is studying dance. Then the orphaned daughter of the second oldest son, Jaya, who is in college. The third son who married for love, is a teacher, and has a small son and a wife Usha Kiran who complains. And the fourth son Asrani who is a bachelor and writes film music by turning Western songs into Indian film music. They can’t keep a cook because they refuse to pay the market rate, and they have 9 people at home who do not help with the house work in any way (except for Jaya). And then the Perfect Cook appears, Rajesh Khanna. He takes below market rate, works from morning to night, manages to make delicious food with no supplies, and also gives helpful wisdom to the household. He reconciles the bickering daughters-in-law, and makes the brothers appreciate each other. He brings breakfast on time so the oldest son can get to the office early and have his job extended past retirement so he can keep bringing in money. The only problem left is that Jaya wants to marry her college boyfriend and the family isn’t ready to approve. Rajesh arranges for them to be caught flirting and a big family fight that makes everyone remember how much they love Jaya. And then he steals the family jewels from under Grandpa’s bed just so the boyfriend can “rescue” them and be a hero. The family learns the truth of this plot when the boyfriend confesses. And they also learn that Rajesh Khanna is an educated professor, and an orphan, who has decided to roam the world teaching lessons to middle-class households so they learn happiness.
There is a tease of a slightly different plot here. Early on, we learn that a prisoner has escaped jail, an educated man who tricks his way into households by pretending to be a servant and then stealing their wealth. It seems as though that is who Rajesh will be, the educated thief. And I kind of loved that idea! Here is a guy being kind and helping the family, but still keeping an eye on his own goals. We get to see a middle-class family learning to love each other thanks to lessons from a Magical Servant, with the ultimate lesson that no one exists purely to serve others, and they were blinded by their own classism to accept without thought his willingness to serve them without regard to his own happiness.
But instead, we learn that Rajesh is a college professor who quit his job to travel around being a servant and helping people just from the goodness of his heart. Two problems with that. First, the idea that “of course” he couldn’t just be a servant and be that wise and knowledgeable and saintly. He had to be part of the educated classes to have any kind of goodness in him. And second, that his backstory is “I realized true joy comes from serving others”, and his reaction to that was to go out and find middle-class families to help be slightly happier. Is the best way to serve humanity bringing morning tea to rich men in their beds as they sit on a chest full of gold?
Let’s go back to that chest full of gold. It is used as a convenient plot device, Rajesh is suspected of stealing it, the “bad” children stay around in hopes of getting part of it. But no one ever questions the reality of what it means. Wealth isn’t just something to be hoarded and kept, or desired. It can also be used. If the problem of this household is that they can’t keep a good servant so everyone is hungry and over-worked and tired, perhaps the solution is to use some of that wealth that is hoarded and pay more money for a better servant. This film never thinks to ask that. Ancestral wealth is there to be kept and locked up. The worst thing someone can do is steal that wealth. It should never be used to spread around and make life better in the moment.
Over and over again, this film goes up to a line of questioning and instead pulls back and says “no, the old unquestioning way is the best way”. For example, part of the reason the household is unhappy is that there is simply not enough money, or manpower, to keep the large combined household going. Rather than a Magical Servant showing up, they could split the household. AK and Durga could move to a smaller place, he could retire, she wouldn’t have to run up and down stairs and hurt her feet. Kali and Usha could move out too, she could have time to take care of their household and also spend time with her son, and she wouldn’t worry about her son seeing AK drinking at night (one of the causes of the family fights). With all those people gone, Jaya could enjoy going too and from college without being asked to help with chores, Asrani the youngest wouldn’t feel the need to hide in his room so much, and everyone would have more time for Grandpa. But instead of this solution, everyone has to learn to “adjust” and forgive each other. Happy ending is AK getting another three year contract instead of retirement, Usha taking on the job of caring for Durga, and Jaya just expecting a little bit less out of life because she is an “orphan” and therefore should be less indulged.
I guess my problem is that I can only accept a film in which the servant is the title character if it is a revolutionary film. The happy ending for the lower classes is not to continue being part of the lower classes and serving the higher. The happy ending is a revolution, the low to become high and the high to become low. Avoiding that, and yet making our main character a cook, has no logic to it.