Actor Anupam Kher’s recently published autobiography Lessons Life Taught Me, Unknowingly is a collection of vignettes about his formative years in Shimla, his time at the National School of Drama in Delhi, his early struggles in the Hindi film industry in Mumbai and his later success in Bollywood and Hollywood. Kher exercises the prerogative of the memoirist and cherry-picks from his extensive filmography. One movie gets the maximum attention: Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh (1984).
The prologue of the autobiography is about Saaransh (Kher calls it a “watershed”). Several pages across chapters are devoted to the making of the film and its impact on the actor (“it became a trajectory for the future – it gave me a life to live and directed me on how to live that life”).
Mahesh Bhatt’s poignant study of aging and death was released in 1984, two years after Kher made his debut in a small role in Muzaffar Ali’s barely-seen Aagaman. Kher had been doing the rounds. He had been rejected for the role of Jawaharlal Nehru in Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982) and had a non-speaking part in Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984).
Mahesh Bhatt affectionately called the actor “duffer”. One day, Kher writes, he called Bhatt to scout for work, and was told by the flamboyant filmmaker, “It’s you . . . duffer! Where have you been . . . where had you disappeared to? You duffer, you are playing the main role in my next film as a director.”
Bhatt had made his debut with the crime thriller Manzilein Aur Bhi Hai in 1974. In 1979 came the hit Lahu Ke Do Rang, with Vinod Khanna and Danny Denzongpa as step-brothers. By 1982, Bhatt had made Arth, inspired by his extra-marital affair with Parveen Babi. Arth inaugurated a new phase for the filmmaker, one in which he sought to make realist dramas about unconventional subjects with minimum formulaic elements.
Saaransh is a film about old people made by young people. Bhatt was 36 at the time, and his leading man was 28. Kher’s ability to portray vastly older characters came from his experience in plays directed by Amal Allana (she also designed the costumes for Saaransh), he says in his autobiography.
For Saaransh, Kher modelled himself on his grandfather, Amar Nath Kher. He chose not to dye his already dwindling hair, and arrived on the sets with a bald pate with a patch stuck on it and a walking stick. “That stick is still in my office, hanging on the wall as a precious memento,” Kher writes.
In Saaransh, Kher plays BV Pradhan, a retired school principal who lives with his wife Parvati (Rohini Hattangadi) in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park neighbourhood. The film opens on a tender close-up of a sleeping Pradhan, who shakes himself awake and shuffles to his writing desk to compose a letter to his only son, Ajay, in New York City.
Only, it has been three months since Ajay died in a mugging. Pradhan and Parvati are struggling to come to terms with Ajay’s absence. Parvati has sought refuge in a holy man, who tells her that her son will be reborn imminently.
Pradhan is a self-described atheist with no time for mumbo-jumbo. A now-stooped but still upright Gandhian, Pradhan refuses to pay a bribe to claim his son’s ashes when they are finally sent to him.
The plight of the Pradhans is aptly summed up in a plangent song with the refrain “Dard ka doosra naam hai zindagi” (Life is endless suffering). They contemplate suicide – what point is there in living any longer? An interruption is offered by their new tenant Sujata (Soni Razdan), whose boyfriend Vilas (Madan Jain) is the son of politician Gajanan Chitre (Nilu Phule). Sujata is pregnant, and Vilas is too cowardly to break the news to his father, especially since an election is round the corner. The Pradhans find a new mission – to protect Sujata even if it means taking on Gajanan and his goons.
The senseless violence that claimed Ajay so many miles away arrives at the Pradhans’ doorstep. Gajanan is unmistakably modelled on Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, and his thuggish ways extend to the rest of the city. The film’s Shivaji Park setting is especially significant – it is the crucible of upper-caste and middle-class Marathi culture and lies a short distance from Shiv Sena’s headquarters.
By the 1980s, Shiv Sena was well entrenched in Mumbai, and the scenes in Saaransh of seemingly random terror unleashed by Gajanan are all too familiar. Something larger is dying in Pradhan’s city – its cosmopolitan spirit, the rule of law, public decency. Adeep Tandon’s rich camerawork, which creates warmth and intimacy in the indoor scenes, gets a harsher tint in the outdoor sequences when Gajanan’s foot soldiers wage war on the helpless Pradhans and Sujata.
The screenplay, by Bhatt and Sujit Sen, underscores the director’s ability to handle grown-up themes with sensitivity. The clash with Gajanan provides Saaransh with its momentum, but the movie is more powerful when it slows things down and examines the relationship between Parvati and Pradhan.
Saaransh isn’t afraid to ask uncomfortable existential questions. Even without Gajanan’s antics, the movie is an effective exploration of a search for meaning and hope in a crumbling city. The suggestion that suicide can be an honourable way out is rare in films about the aged. The moment when Sujata and Vilas are driven away by Pradhan before Parvati can claim Sujata’s child as a reborn Ajay is another instance of Bhatt’s ability to stare truth in the face, however harsh.
Bhatt gets fine turns from Soni Razdan, Madan Jain and Suhas Bhalekar (he plays the Pradhans’ neighbour). The peerless Nilu Phule is suitably malevolent as the frequently drunk despot, whose “Vilaaas” intonation might have been funny if it weren’t so chilling.
Anupam Kher’s performance is unimpeachable, especially in the scene when he loses his nerve before a minister and weeps, “I don’t see any hope for this country now.” He is matched all the way by Rohini Hattangadi, who was 33 years old at the time. Hattangadi’s eyes acquire an otherworldly glint as Parvati becomes obsessed with Ajay’s resurrection. Pradhan’s battle is with the world; Parvati’s is more internalised.
Saaransh set Kher on a long and fulfilling career, but the role that announced his talent almost went to Sanjeev Kumar, he recalls in his autobiography. Bhatt had decided on Kher, but the producer, Rajshri Productions, wanted somebody with more heft. Would Kher work better as Pradhan’s friend Vishwanath instead?
Kher barged into Bhatt’s house and let fly. “I took him to a window, from where the road was visible,” he writes. “I then told him in a loud voice: ‘Do you see that taxi down there? My luggage is inside it. I have decided to quit Bombay. I will go anywhere . . . Delhi, Lucknow, Shimla, Timbuktu or even to hell. But I want to tell you one thing before leaving—Mahesh Bhatt, you are a fraud . . . number one fraud. You are also a cheat . . . a cheat of the worst kind. For the past six months, you have been telling me that I shall be playing BV Pradhan’s role. Now, suddenly, you ask me to switch over to the other old man’s role, which has a very limited scope! I have already told my entire family . . . and everyone I know that I shall be playing the main role in Saaransh and now I am being relegated to a side role.’”
Bhatt stuck to his guns (and paid the taxi fare, Kher recalls). The actor was paid Rs 10,000 for the film, and many more lucrative offers followed.
“It is both a blessing and a bonus that nearly 35 years later, I am becoming like Pradhan,” Kher writes, somewhat disingenuously. “Today, if I am able to speak up for my country, vocalise what I believe is right or wrong – it is because of what I have somewhere imbibed from BV Pradhan.”
Kher’s pro-Bhartiya Janata Party turn in recent years has actually put him firmly in the Gajanan Chitre camp. It is hard to reconcile Kher’s bilious ultranationalism with the person who name-checks such intellectuals as Federico Garcia Lorca, Anton Chekhov, Balwant Gargi, Ebrahim Alkazi and Girish Karnad in his autobiography. Where did that man go? Somewhere in Shivaji Park still lurks the ghost of BV Pradhan and the actor who played him with unerring honesty.