Dekho Na: The Act of Looking in Hindi Film

The first Hindi film I ever watched, Fanaa, had a lovely number in the middle entitled: "Dekho Na" or "Look Now and See." Of course, it's meant as a stroke of poetic-irony because the heroine CAN'T see, at least not in the literal sense. "Dekho" was one of the first Hindi words I learned to pick out, and man, does it get dropped a lot. (Along with "Suniye," or "Suno," a polite request to "listen.") Obviously, looking and listening are pretty important in Hindi films, and also happen to be the most important job of the viewer . . . so I'm not surprised that those requests/demands stand out to me.

However, there's a lot of other layers of significance to looking in filmi stories. Not just "a look" in the singular (which is obviously crucial as well), but the act of looking itself. For instance, one could argue that a look of desire is a passive kind of looking. Not so much an act, as a state of being. It's important, but it doesn't necessarily immediately achieve an end, other than to potentially give the object of one's desire fair warning!

Dil Se (1998)

Here I'll count down my top five "Acts of Looking" upon which the wheels of the plot turn. 

5. Looking Everywhere But at the Person Trying to Talk to You

When one person won't look at another in a Hindi film, it's surely a sign of deep disappointment, guilt, or maidenly shyness. And you can also be sure that it signifies a soon-to-be ESCALATION of EVENTS. 

Deewaar (1975)
The disappointed person will probably seek out full-fledged punishment of the other person for misdeeds.

Masoom (1983)
And the guilty may madly grasp for some sort of redemption . . . 

Devdas (2002)
. . . or a fatalistically tumble towards self-destruction, Devdas-style. 

Shehzada (1972)

 And in the case of maiden shyness, well, it usually works pretty darn well (and fast) for Rakhee in all her films. (Girl knows what to do with a wedding-veil, I'm just saying.) 

4. Looking as Unspoken Conversation

Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978)

Aradhana (1969)

This is THE most important mark of soulmates--be they brothers, friends, or lovers--that they know each other's thoughts with a look. Nothing really needs to be voiced or even sung. They just know. 
In fact, this paragraph itself is already too long. Moving on.

3. Looking As Silent Confrontation

        This is one of the most bone-chilling of all looks--the look of silent accusation by the close friend,                                                                                                   lover, or family member. 

Sharmeelee (1971)
Parvarish (1977)

This usually happens when a loved one has committed an act of betrayal, or has at least proved "worthy" of suspicion. When this look happens, beware. Warranted or not, justified accusation or no--violence and/or death and/or imprisonment probably will soon follow. 

2. Looking But Not Touching Or Taking 

This is a crucial moment in the filmi-romance of course. A gentleman is (usually) distinguished from the goonda by his restraint, after all.

Kaala Patthar (1979)

However, this type of looking reaches even greater heights of significance in the Dacoit Drama. 

Kuchhe Dhaage (1973)

When an outlaw chooses to suppress his natural urge to steal and take whatever and whoever he wants, you know he's been transformed somehow. When he wants the woman, yet walks away instead of throwing her over the back of his horse, you suddenly know he has changed his ways. Which probably also spells his demise (dacoits make too many enemies to give up the saddle and rifle safely), but that's OK. Better to reform and die than transgress and live, at least, so the Bollywood mythos tells me. 

1. Looking at Someone and Finally Seeing Who They Really Are

Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

Perhaps the most essential part of filmi-grammer is the Big Reveal. Whether it's the discovery of a long lost sibling/parent, or the realization that someone long hated never deserved one's enmity, or the sudden grasp of true worth in a person one mistreated . . .this act of looking--the look of realization--is my ultimate favorite. It means that no matter what else happens in the last five minutes, you can go to bed with some little satisfaction, some resolve to an old injustice or injury or misunderstanding. 

What "Looks" do you love? What significant acts of looking did I leave out? 


  1. Wonderful post, Miranda, which made me think in a new way about the act of looking in films. Since Laura Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" a lot has been written about "the gaze" and its objects (usually female) and subjects (usually male). But "looking" implies a more reciprocal exchange, and suggests a greater range of potential meanings.

    Some other memorable looks to add to the ones you show in your post (I tried to link directly to the key moments in the following YouTube clips, but it may not work, so I've given the time range as well):

    1. In Anupama (1966), when the doctor descends the stairs to tell Mr. Sharma (Tarun Bose) that his wife has died giving birth to their daughter, he can't look him in the face (from 5:30 to 6:18):

    2. In Vivah (2006), during their first meeting Prem (Shahid Kapoor) and Poonam (Amrita Rao) steal looks at one another, neither wanting to be caught looking by the other, but both aware of the other's glances (from 3:25 to 4:10):

    3. In Chauduvin ka Chand (1961), Mohan (Rehman) hides to cast "furtive amorous glances" at Jamila (Waheeda Rehman) (from 0:44 to 1:00, although the entire song is about looking and concealment):

    4. In Mughal-e-Azam (1960), the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala) lifts her veil to permit Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) to gaze at her—and to look back at him (from 0:00 to 0:20):

    5. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol) meet for the first time in eight years; in the first, unguarded moments, Anjali's eyes express so much pain and yearning along with her joy that Rahul doesn't quite know where to look (from 0:00 to 1:30):

  2. Thank you, P! You've added some intriguing looks to the list. I really had to let these simmer a few days to gather my thoughts about them. After all, a social theory geek can't help but draw common threads (even if those threads are rather flimsy).

    In Anupama and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, seemingly opposite situations occur. In Anupama, the doctor cannot give any message but hope--but neither can he completely deliver the message of pain. They cannot look at one another because communication has failed them completely in the weight of such a painful situation. Ultimately, what the doctor fails to communicate through words, he says through the avoidance of the widower's gaze.

    But, in KKHH (and one of my favorite moments of the film), Rahul and Anjani DO want to look at each other . . . want to believe that hope has come, and pain is in the past, but they don't know how to describe this hope(and dare not take the risk of speaking of it) and so the conflicted delight in their awkward (but daring glances) speaks for them.

    I feel as though these scenes are actually two sides of the same coin. (And like a medallion with the Head of Janus, one side looks at the past and the end of a relationship, while the other looks forward to a relationship that might finally begin.)If there is a connection between these two, it's complicated, and I'm not sure how to condense it. What would we call this two-faced, situationally dependent, Act of Looking? In lieu of a better description, I think I'll be melodramatic and call it "The Look that Mediates the Crossroad of Hope and Despair . . ."

    As for the other three films, I love that you brought in several examples of--and varying degrees of--"The Look That Might Not Be Allowed." In Vivah (which I still need to see--I really have no excuse since it's legally streaming in several different places, except that I've been burrowing into the 70's of late) there's a delicate mutual deference in their attitude towards one another . . . a deference that I think is partly due to inexperience. How should one conduct oneself in such a situation? I'm betting in their minds, the rules are hazy. Brazen staring is out--but stolen glances WILL be had (and of course, they surely could have got away with more!)

    I would put the exchange from Chauduvin ka Chand in the middle ground of this potentially questionable and subversive of kind of look. While major staring is certainly happening here, the song simultaneously casts doubt on the appropriateness of this staring--esp. this appraisal of the woman by the man. But, I'm assuming the rebuke is somewhat tongue in cheek, especially since the woman are doing plenty of staring of their own!

    And on the far end of the spectrum of "The Look that Might not Be Allowed," it seems we have a prime example of a very forbidden, very public, and very brazen shared gaze--and mutual summing up of one another. I haven't seen Mughal-e-Azam, but doesn't war occur because of the relationship that begins in this moment? Maybe this belongs in a whole 'nother category--"The Gaze that Launched a Thousand Ships."

    This is such a fascinating topic to me, because there are so many looks in films that we take for granted, yet achieve vital purposes both plot-wise and emotion-wise.

    Lastly--one could of course factor-in "our" look as viewers. Where has the audience been told to look in each of these scenes/shots? I thought it was extremely telling that in Anupama, the doctor of course couldn't look at the new-widower, but neither could the camera! Almost immediately, as the doctor walks out of view, the camera pans up to a bird's eyes angle that obscures the mourner's face. Therefore, the audience is also put in a similar position to the doctor. We also literally cannot see the grieving man in full--and so are forced to forsake him just as the doctor did.

  3. Out of the five "looks" you mentioned, Miranda, my favorite is also the "Big Reveal". However, I am also a fan of the "Silent Confrontation" because it almost always promises dramatic music and a deliciously entertaining scene later on in the film.

    Thank you, this post was very interesting and it's nice to have names be given to the nameless scenes that tug on my heartstrings.

    1. Glad you liked it, fellow contributor :) Yes, the silent confrontation is deliciously fraught with goosebump-raising music and that tension in the air you could cut with a knife. Never get tired of it.


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