Of Gulzar’s filmography, Parichay (1972), Aandhi (1975), and perhaps Koshish (1972) get top of the mind recall, but only a true Gulzar fan would remember Namkeen (1982).
The film was based on a short story, Akal Basanta, by the Bengali writer Samaresh Basu, whose novels have been chosen by several respected filmmakers to adapt for the big screen.
The film is set in a remote village in Himachal Pradesh, where a truck driver Gerulal (Sanjeev Kumar) is looking for a temporary abode till his work at a construction site is completed. The local dhaba owner Dhaniram (TP Jain) drags him to a derelict house, where four women are struggling to survive in a largely hostile male environment, helped along by the kindness of a few.
The old matriarch (Waheeda Rehman) makes dung cakes to earn some money, which she sells to Dhaniram. Her daughters ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Nimki (Sharmila Tagore), Mitthu (Shabana Azmi) and Chinki (Kiran Vairale) pound masalas for the dhaba.
The mother, dressed in black rags and peering through foggy round glasses, is both sharp-tongued and forgetful. She lives with a strange fear, that makes her flinch whenever she sees Gerulal and ask him who he is, and what he is doing in her house. He has to remind her each time that he is the tenant who lives in the room upstairs.
In spite of their grinding poverty, the daughters dress in colourful ghaghras and there is much laughter and music in the house. But before Gerulal warms up to them, they start off on the wrong foot.
The room is a dump. There is a lizard malevolently perched on the rafter that annoys the man. When Gerulal tries to fix the non-functional bulb, Mitthu and Chinki fetch him whatever he asks for, and then inform him with a straight face that the bulb won’t work, because there is no electricity. He is taunted by their irrepressible giggles. He is willing to forgo the advance, rather that stay in that house. “I can’t get along with women,” he complains to Dhaniram. “I get scared.”
Over the next few months, he willingly becomes the man of the house, the male support they never had and their cherished confidant. He learns of the mother’s past as a nautanki dancer, the reason for Mitthu’s muteness, the fear that the daughters will be taken away by Amma’s old lover Kishenlal (Ram Mohan) and the girl’s father, to be shoved into the disgraceful life she left behind. Whenever the travelling dance company comes to the village, Amma becomes hysterical.
Gerulal is attracted to the gentle Nimki, but she cannot make a life with him, leaving behind her old mother and sisters. Still, all of them see Gerulal as a saviour who will protect them and keep out the evil that lurks at the door of a household of women.
One day it’s time for Gerulal to move on, and suddenly the link of dependence they had forged with him snaps. He never looks back, carrying on with his itinerant life, but the women’s lives fall apart.
Some years later, he chances upon Chinki dancing at the nautanki. The sprightly girl has become an embittered young woman, who broke her mother’s heart by leaving with her father, because she could not bear the thought of the loneliness and sacrifice that lay ahead of her. From her he learns of Mitthu’s descent into madness and eventual death. Nimki has been left alone to fend for herself, greying prematurely and grieving silently for her wasted life.
Excerpted with permission from Take-2: 50 Films That Deserve A New Audience, Deepa Gahlot, Hay House.