Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)

Add together pithy social commentary + family comedy + deep belief in the inherent goodness in flawed people and what do you get? No, not a John Hughes movie. [Though, sidenote, I somehow missed seeing Pretty in Pink with all the other Hughes films and Brat Pack fare I saw in high school, and recently remedied that fact. I'm currently kicking myself for not being able to tap the youth power in that movie when I was actually a youth.]

No, I'm talking about a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film!

Kissi Se Na Kehna trades on the oh-so-relatable generation gap between an aging widower Kailash (Utpal Dutt) and his workaholic son Ramesh (Farooq Sheikh). Here to close and/or set this generation gap on fire is muslim uncle Lalaji (Saeed Jaffrey), recently returned from Lucknow. 

Also recently returned is Dr. Ramola MBBS (Deepti Naval), back to stay with her uncle for a time. 

After initially rubbing each other the wrong way, Ramesh and Romola fall into deep, awkward, middle-class attraction...the earthy anti-ethereal stuff that all Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee films seem to be made out of. 

Meanwhile, Kailash has had too much time on his hands, and too little attention at home, and with the help of his cadre of gossipy friends, sets out to find the perfect bahu for his son (but also kind of for himself). After a few hilarious encounters with ultra-hip, educated candidates, Kailash develops an allergy to all women who speak English and listen to modern music. (Utpal trying to understand why "patthar" translates to English "rock" and becomes music is just one of the many delights of this sequence.) Kailash decides that he needs a bahu who is educated in "sanskriti" and not the ways of the Angrez. Unfortunately, the only uncorrupted girls left are all back in the gaon, doing puja and dreaming of the days when they would have the pleasure of waiting on their future in-laws hand and foot. 

Luckily, clever uncle Lalaji (who was also the one to help the lovers get past their paralyzing shyness) sees the problem coming a mile away, and calls for a powwow to discuss options. After all, the two lovers are barely able to manage their own communication problems, much less able to plead their case. And, they're too distracted to realize what's going on to overcome the seemingly insurmountable fact: that Ramola is VERY educated ... just in all the "wrong" things. 

But, Lalaji comes up with a plan ... or rather, a farce. Ramola will be the orphan girl raised by the pandit from his native village, well-schooled in the Ramayana and Mahabharat. Her uncle will be the pandit, and no matter the lack of Sanskrit knowledge, as he can always play deaf. 

The plan works beautifully. Kailash thinks he's in father-in-law heaven. What he doesn't know is that Ramola's been schooled in a few tough Mahabharat questions and that delicious food she's served him is not bahu ke haath ka khana but is from a local shop. To him, she's practically an incarnated goddess. When Ramola sings, Kailash closes his eyes and sees her as Yashoda disciplining a naughty Krishna. [Oh the tangled web of mother fantasies in Hindi films...] He's smitten. 

Ramesh and Ramola get married and try settle into joint family existence ... but hey, this is still the middle of the film! The solution *seems* all very idyllic and clever... for everyone but the daughter-in-law, who is forced to hide both her flaws and accomplishments and speak in pure Hindi indefinitely. The burning question? How long will it take working girl Ramola to get fed up with the household duties and the pressure of lying to her needy father in law? Or will she contract some sort of Stockholm Syndrome and start to enjoy the restrictions (if not the lies) of her new life? 

As befitting Hrishikesh Mukherjee's middle-of-the-way philosophy, the answer is, of course, a little of both, a little of both. 

[Minor spoilers ahead.]

There are very few directors or writers who manage to give every character the benefit of the doubt ... to remain equally sympathetic to every actor in the narrative. However, HM usually does, and this film is an excellent example of how satisfying a unconditionally compassionate story can be.

KSNK doesn't demonize the older generation's way of life, but pokes gentle fun at it; showing how out of step it is with the present, but also revealing how both good intentions AND dangerous delusions continue to fuel it. The viewer's heartstrings are not safe here, as HM doesn't let you just write off the older folks as fools or villains. One feels the pain of Kailash and Co. in their feelings of "uselessness" and separation from the world of their children/grandchildren.

Causes are explored, not just effects. Kailash feels neglected and so becomes demanding. He is blind to his own unreasonability, and this lack of self-awareness drives much of Kailash's actions throughout the film.

Likewise, the younger generation is so far removed from this mindset of good "Sanskriti" [traditional culture] bahus and "Seva, seva, seva" [service]  toward one's in-laws, that they are almost helpless against it. How can they explain that they must operate by different rules, when their parents have managed to isolate themselves from the pressures of the new social system? The youth live in a drastically different society than their parents and grandparents. Both genders work outside the home, are equally educated (and the woman is just as likely to be more educated than her spouse), and English is not just a symbol of rebellion or a mark of status but also a means towards social mobility and expanded techniques of expression. Hinglish is notoriously impressive in its ability to assimilate whatever vocabulary it needs to get the point across, so why would they limit themselves to one language or the other?

Of course, this is exactly what Ramola sets out to do. Unsurprisingly, it is just one more thing that alienates her from the world she has always known.

Sociologically or linguistically, it's fascinating to see Ramola change as she gives up speaking English. A hotly contested linguistic theory [The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis] claims that: 

  • One's language of birth actually controls the ability to conceptualize. 
  • Ideas only happen when we have the words to describe them, or when the language provides room for them to exist. 
  • Cultural values are reinforced by speaking the language of the culture and thinking in the language of the culture. 

Isliye, it makes sense from a certain perspective that when Ramola gives up English, and uses only Sanskritic Hindi, her brain re-orients towards traditional patterns of thought. So when we see her become the perfect bahu, obsessed with serving her father in law, choosing his welfare over her own, one could argue that she has become the person she pretended to be, aided by artificially altering her own thoughts ... OR that she was always that person deep down, underneath the modern woman facade.

HM leaves that mystery unsolved. What he does provide is a more personal motivation behind Ramola's seemingly uncharacteristic actions. She is an orphan, and has always longed for a home, parents, and the security of a family structure to call her own. Likewise, Kailash is widowed and spent much of his childhood motherless. He often blurs the line between goddess, mother, daughter-in-law, and wife in his actions and his dialogue directed towards Ramola. Despite one or two references to her wifely duties, the most important relationship in the film, thus, isn't between Ramola and Ramesh, but Ramola and Kailash--and their increasingly obsessive bond.

It doesn't reach "Devi" levels of creepy, however. Utpal Dutt's delivery always makes you feel that his character is somewhat facetious. He even breaks the fourth wall once or twice, signaling to the audience something to the effect of "Isn't this all hilarious? Isn't Kailash a little silly?"

The other thing that mitigates the noxious (thanks Bollyviewer for this apt descriptor) traditional flavor of the Ramola/Ramesh relationship, is the comedic guru character ... the golden-tongued, golden-hearted, and shrewd Lalaji. As the film builds to a climax, and Ramola is forced to reveal her true self in order to save Kailash's life (the lady doctor is the only doctor in the house, gasp!), Kailash disowns Ramola. At this point, Lalaji gives his misguided friend a stern talking to... with a speech that had me in tears with its poignancy and its brilliant philosophical points.

This alone makes the film beautiful ... because everything silly up to that point is effectively countered by Lalaji's harsh, but wise words. I think I will love Saeed Jaffrey forever, just for this role.

*P.S. While writing this I feel like I passed a language learning milestone. I desperately wanted to use the multipurpose word "apna" to simplify a sentence. But it wouldn't have made much sense in a mostly English phrase. Not really a big deal to most people, probably, but a big deal to me...


  1. Kisi Se Na Kehna is a 'minor' Hrishikesh Mukherjee film. In my opinion, it didn't reach the heights that the Master did with other films such as Golmaal and Chupke Chupke, two of his finest comedies. In this film, as in Chupke Chupke, language is used to show the division between the traditional and the modern. As with Om Prakash in the latter, here, Utpal Dutt plays that role of a character who feels that 'Bharatiya Sanskriti' can only be safe in our villages. There is a delicious sense of irony in this characterisation - Utpal Dutt was one of the foremost English theatre personalities in Bengal (as well as a doyen of Bengali theatre) and was also part of Geoffrey and Felicity Kendall's touring Shakespeare theatre company.

    I've watched this film a long time ago, so I do not remember all of it - but I definitely didn't like Deepti's character arc much. I do remember thinking that Mukherjee had somehow sold out to the prevailing ethos. The eighties weren't the sort of era in which his films had the same boxoffice pull, so it seemed like he had given in to commercial diktats. To be honest, I much preferred his Rang Birangi, which incidentally came out the same year. Have you watched that?

    I also loved Naram Garam which was released a couple of years earlier. Utpal Dutt was a riot. :)

    1. If by "minor" one means "under the radar," I agree. I didn't even realize this was an HM film until I was already 6 or 7 minutes in. Then I suddenly got the overwhelming feeling that it was Hrishikesh's style and pacing everywhere, and realized exactly what I was watching.

      Chupke Chupke is more pleasant watching, certainly. It's hilarious and sexy and progressive, with all the indefinable extras that work together for a classic. However, KSNK has a tight script, tight editing, and tight plotting. The story never derails, and that alone was refreshing to me. The message initially *seems* overtly traditional. However, as I said above, Utpal's character gets quite the comeuppance. Unfortunately, I think Deepti's character needed a similar talking to, if a more gentle one. Her about face into Bharatiya nari-dom is very jarring, even if the film technically makes fun of father in law and bahu, it's also rather indulgent to their traditional whims. And it helps their case that Utpal is so funny, and like you said, knowing his English theatre background (which I found out about because of his dubbing in Saptapadi), you can't help but laugh at the disparity between his character's views and the real man.

      That said, this was some of the best crafted (if lacking some magic) Hindi films I've seen in a while. I've started and stopped some painfully mediocre fare lately.

    2. I agree with you about Deepti's character's volte-face. However, I think it is almost inbred in us - by 'us', I mean, girls/women of a certain generation. However 'modern' you are, the traditions you grow up with never quite leave you. And somewhere, when you are forced to play that role, you do enjoy it, at least in the beginning. It is one of the inherent contradictions of my generation, and the one that came just before me. So, while Ramola irritated the life out of me, I could understand where she was coming from. Plus, there was also the fact that she had nothing to rebel against - Kailash genuinely loves her as she is (the girl underneath). So the feeling is, why hurt him? I actually liked those contradictions, and understood them. When I quibble, it is because I usually hold Hrishikesh Mukherjee to higher standards as in Anupama, for instance. I don't think there is a single HM movie that I have actually disliked. I really should watch this again.

    3. I quite appreciate your more personal perspective on this, Anu. What it reminded me of, in a distantly related fashion, is how I [still] act with relatives and family friends who came from the ultra-conservative Christian denominations that my family was part of when I was a kid. As I got older, my parents went more middle of the way, and I went somewhere else entirely. But like Ramola, I see myself acting like a completely different person when I'm around those people. Either I'm just not saying anything at all (because anything I would say would contradict their ideals--or offend a way of life they are perfectly entitled to) or I am embracing any part of myself that would be acceptable to them so that I'm not exactly deceptive. If they weren't nice or caring people (as you pointed out astutely about Kailash) I wouldn't feel such a strong need to adapt to their strictures, I think. But as it is, you don't want to damage a relationship or blame someone who is kind but set in their ways, however separate your actual life is from their ultra traditional world. It's unlikely they would change their worldview at this point in their lives. Marrying into that kind of conservative family, however, would be A LOT of work.

      I feel like this just as meaty and layered as other things I have seen from HM, but not quite as lovable or heartrending, perhaps because the characters were a bit less likable than his usual protagonists. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up to things like Anupama and Golmaal. I've seen a handful of HM films, I think, but not those two.

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