A Shiver *Ahem* Review: Dastak (1970)

I have thought for far too long about the various ways I could blog-slant this film. I thought about commenting on its gender politics (in a Filmi Women Series post that almost no would ever read given the seriousness of the topic). I also thought about comparing and *contrasting* (you'd think I liked that word or something) the marital relationship in the film with another middle cinema film about marriage, maybe Aavishkar (1973) . . . a slant which would have been both right and fair, considering the amount of screen time devoted to the married couple's problems and interactions. Also, in some ways it steals storytelling elements from suspense and horror. And finally, I could have fairly easily shoved it into the courtesan drama category--seriously, I have an argument filed away for that.

But I won't. I guess I MUST filter this film through an *Ahem* review format, because I even though I want to criticize it, and tried multiple times to pull it apart in other post drafts, I always lost my train of thought as soon as I went negative. This happened so many times, that it almost told me more about the story than anything I could have written about it. Because, when I write, over-protectiveness and mental blocks are usually either signs of anxiety or love for a story. In this case, I probably am feeling anxious about how much I like it.

Cause, you might not. And you'd be right to question its merits, its morals, its message . . . pretty much any of it.

The plot of Dastak is structured like a human fable or a parable. Two newlyweds (played by Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan), move to Bombay full of hopes and plans and the usual candyfloss dreams. But because of their finances, and because of a housing shortage (this story was originally penned and produced for radio during the housing shortage in Bombay in the 40's) this innocent, conservative, Muslim couple are compelled to take lodging in a red light district.

And of course, because this is also a horror film that happens to star regular people who turn into monsters (isn't that really what cinematic social realism is?), what they don't know about their neighbors just might kill them.

Unfortunately, this paan-selling landlord and his customers have PLANs for the new tenants. 

If Dastak is a human fable, it is a fable about marriage; about the pressures, both moral and immoral, from the couple's surrounding community, and the internal pressure of their own desires and ideals. This dual combination of psychological and social pressure is embodied by the constant knocking on the door ("Dastak" means "The Knock) the couple must endure before they are even properly settled-in, and are forced to endure ad nauseum there-on. This is not exactly a normal situation (thus the slightly fable-ish quality to it all), and the poor couple have no learned coping mechanisms or ideas about how to solve their distressing problem. For once the door is open, the knockers make lewd comments, enter without permission, and generally drive the newlyweds crazy.

Soon, the couple is forced to accept the bitter truth. That their rooms had come cheap for a reason. Apparently, a famous courtesan once "entertained" clients in their apartment. And because the dear, sweet, virginal (yes, virginal, I'll get to that in a minute) Mrs. happens to play the tanpura (a semi-scandalous legacy from her composer father), everyone in a two mile radius assumes that her bed is also for sale.

Ironically, however, due to public/cramped living situations and frequent relocation since their marriage, Sanjeev and Rehana's characters have not yet tied the knot in any physical way. They are clearly in love (oh-my-gosh-the-tension), but are shy with one another, and are clearly not comfortable (especially Rehana's character) with the transition of being in love to becoming lovers. 

The constant assumptions (that she is willing to give it up, and he is willing to sell her) wreak havoc on their psyches in different ways. Rehana's character (Salma) is boarded up all day in a suffocating flat, unable to go out or even open the windows for fear of abuse or attempted solicitation. Sanjeev's character (Hamid) just wants to pretend it all away . . . which seems OK for him . . . that is until he experiences a psychotic break from the constant stress. And unfortunately for Salma, this break ushers in her first sexual experience as a married woman, and it is neither pleasant nor in her choice of time or place.

A silent moment documenting the mutual shame and guilt from the above event. 
Yes, Dastak shows some disturbing realities (like abuse and marital rape and the destructiveness of outside rumors on one's own perception of a loved one) that it never properly resolves.

But it's also a compelling love story.

 (Who am I kidding? It's sexy, period.) 

This unusually, er, "frank" song/picturization may or may not be the reason I found the film in the first place. 
And earnest. Heartbreakingly earnest. It asks you to listen to its characters the way you would listen to your own heart, and after you've listened, to maybe judge a little less. It asks you to be a witness to these innocent characters' suffering . . . because no one else sees the extent of the injustice or the misery it has caused.

It's about freedom (remember I mentioned the courtesan thing?) . . . and the maybe not-so-unusual trials and travails of a woman who is allowed neither the (perceived) agency or autonomy of a whore, nor the respectable caged security of a wife. 

 . . . and whether or not we can ever be free from our community's expectations for us AND assumptions of us . . .

. . . And whether or not our own expectations for ourselves  . . . 

. . . may actually be the problem in the first place. 


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