Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nikaah (1982)



The image above depicts Nikaah's heroine's second (!) wedding night, which occurs while her first husband is still alive (!). Also, the story isn't resolved by a death, imprisonment, or pregnancy. Can this really be a Hindi film? In short, yes, but maybe *Urdu* film would be more accurate.

[Since there aren't a million reviews of this film on other blogs, I'll summarize the plot before I pick it apart. Spoilers below, including a discussion of the ending, marked separately for those who want to be surprised.]


Old college-acquaintances, Niloufar (Salma Agha) and Haider (Raj Babbar) run into one another after a long stretch of lost contact. A poet in school, he's now a gainfully employed writer at a magazine, and he shares some mostly one-sided reminiscences about his crush on her in their university days. But Haider is suspicious when he sees Niloufar, who he knows married into money, dispute a small fee and take a bus home. He follows her and finds that she lives at a women's hostel. Kindly, he approaches her a few days later, asks her to a cafe, and entreats her to tell him of her real situation. She goes on to tell him what happened after his advances were rebuffed. Cue long flashback.

















Perhaps we should install some art on the ceiling to make these moments more interesting for us. 

Upon graduation, she had married her childhood sweetheart, Nawab Wasim (Deepak Parashar). It seemed a natural match, but right after their wedding night, the Nawab wins a bid to build a five star hotel in Mumbai. They travel to Mumbai together [ostensibly] for their honeymoon, but Niloufar ends up spending most of the the trip alone in their suite or on the breakers outside their hotel while her husband is off conducting business.


The "lucky break" business deal ends up taking the Nawab out of the house at all hours. Perhaps unused to so much responsibility, or just because he's a self-absorbed ass, Wasim repeatedly fails to show up for dinner dates, and movies, and parties. He also doesn't seem to know how to use a phone to let people know he won't be home. Expected to stay home and socialize or keep herself amused all day, Niloufar quickly starts to feel the effects of such an isolated, unreliable existence.

















Luckily she has one staunch ally in Iftekhar, who keeps making chai that she won't drink alone.


Whenever Wasim does come home, the newlyweds either fight over his tardiness, or some comment Niloofar has made about his frequent absences to their in-laws, which Wasim takes as a loss of face with his family. Over their first year of marriage, his temper tantrums grow more and more frequent, and her rejection complex deepens. Eventually, when he fails to show up for their first anniversary party, Niloufar breaks under the pressure and goes upstairs (gasp).









Gossipy guests take offense and leave, and Wasim comes home to an empty house and "massive" blot on his social standing. The two have a high-pitched argument, in which Niloufar dares to stand up for herself, telling him she doesn't deserve such treatment and that he doesn't deserve her physical affection.


This doesn't go over well with Wasim, who pronounces the dreaded, "Talaq, talaq, talaq." And just like that, Niloufar is out on the street. Still, she now has an ally and friend. When she is assaulted at her new job, Haider arrives just in time (diffusing the situation with nary a dishoom) and whisks Niloufar away for a good cry-chat on the steps. [Note: this man is like the elusive Rocky-Road of potential suitors.]



What, no covering of my head? You want to talk to me and help me process this? 

The rest of the year passes pleasantly, until her ex invites her for dinner on the date of their anniversary. When Niloufar doesn't show, Wasim has his own breakdown (which is very satisfying, I must say). But Niloufar is watching after all, and when Wasim begs her to come back, she walks out. Faithful manservant begs too, but she tells him she knows her path isn't with Wasim any longer.
















It's when she tells Haider the same thing that night in his office, that he is finally free to ask, "Could you see your path being with me?"



She can, and they decide to get married. Haider proves to be a polar opposite sort of spouse--attentive and funny and inclined toward playing hooky from work instead of staying out to all hours. They develop a playful relationship, and seem to have a lot of fun together. Still, there is much left to be sorted out.



Wasim hasn't given up, instead, he sees her marriage as an opportunity to fulfill the sharia requirement of halala nikaah: the woman's second marriage to someone else required before the first couple can get remarried. But does Niloufar feel the same? And more importantly, can Niloufar and Haider handle the shadow of her past relationship and the interference of her ex?

***



From the opening "epic" prologue about women and their unfair lot, Nikaah sets out to tell the other side of the story. And not only that, it tries very, very hard not to ruin this goal in the last act.

In fairness, before we go on, I want to be clear that "favorite actor" stepping stones probably won't lead you to Nikaah. For 70's film lovers, Iftekhar can be seen now and then in a magnificent red beard and dark manservant's achkan or expertly brandishing a towel and chai platter. Asrani appears briefly to advance either the comedy or the dramatic stakes, and gleefully takes the the male lead in a magnificent [really kinda feminist] wedding qawwali. But the male leads in the film as a whole didn't excite me at all, I admit. And at first, it appeared my assumptions were confirmed. Raj Babbar and Deepak Parashar demonstrated the liveliness of set pieces spouting poetic dialogues. By the end of the first half, it seemed clear that the relative unknown in this equation, Salma Agha (a Pakistani actress and talented playback singer who went on to win the playback singer award for Nikaah's lovely Dil Ke Armaan) did less acting with far more results.



But it turned out that Nikaah faithfully follows the emotional journey of Niloufar. She barely thinks of the kind, but sometimes ridiculous Haider in the beginning, as her whole life is wrapped up in her first marriage. So, neither do we. But as she gets to know Haider over the second year, he becomes more attractive. And by the third year, he's the perfect contrast to Wasim, and a breath of fresh air for the audience. He comes home early, leaves late, asks her where she wants to go and follows through, and is all together a fun person to actually live with. Basically, this is a rare moment when good writing and casting actually support one another ... as Raj Babbar successfully creates a character the audience can love and even be surprised by. Even, dare I say, a role model.

And this is something that not every "strong woman" film can boast. There are a lot of classics with women of steel, women of God, women of the kotha ... women who overcome every difficulty, and never give up. Men have these films too, countless films full of heroic conquest. But only rarely comes a film that models strong male-female partnership, with men who are strong enough to sacrifice their ego for the little daily indignities and negotiations, and women who expect to be treated not like goddesses or martyrs, but like human beings. This is what Nikaah champions--the value of mundane goodness.












Why yes, both the men are framed under inscriptions spelling out the name of the Prophet, while the woman is centered beneath the name of God. What does it mean? You decide.

Driving these points home is Nikaah's ending, which at first looks to be a textbook filmi climax (even narrated in a meta fashion in a penultimate scene). But Niloufar isn't going to be punished for remarrying, either by society or fate or human weakness ... even if the set-up looks to do just that. Because of course, Haider mistakenly finds a note from the ex and a melancholic diary entry by Niloufar, puts two and two together, and thinks his wife wants to remarry Wasim ... and he takes it upon himself to give her up.

















It's also been a while since I've seen a non-Ma character so expertly use melodramatic religious performance to call out the wayward men in her life. 

The woman in question will have none of it. She tells Wasim that she isn't going to be treated like "property," and tells Haider that she won't be given a "gift" she doesn't want or allow him to be a "martyr" for her. In an epic showdown, she tries to leave both of the men. But Wasim saves the day, proving a voice of truth (for once). He notes, rightly, that while he wanted her for his own happiness, Haider is only interested in giving her happiness.



And a film that only wants happiness for its twice-wedded, independent, and childless heroine is definitely a keeper.

9 comments:

  1. BR Chopra's heroines were always very strong women, Miranda. Even in the most commercial of his ventures. Even if they, unlike Niloufer, lived within the parameters of tradition. They have agenda, they have will of their own, and none of them are martyrs. I cannot think of any contemporary film-maker whose women characters have been so, consistently, strong.

    I loved Nikaah; even though I thought of Deepak Parasher as a wet noodle and Raj Babbar as not much better. (Though the former at least made a good clothes horse. *grin) I'm just thinking that if it were made today, there would be such a hue and cry about how it denigrates Muslim theology!

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    1. Deepak Parashar is eminently replaceable, and while this doesn't help the viewer, it does fit the plot pretty well, right? Raj Babbar is hit or miss for me so far, and this was definitely in the first category, as I found him pleasant and believable. "Clothes horse." well, *chuckle* he does dress up nice.

      I am going to need to see more of BR Chopra ... I just can't express how much I enjoyed this depiction of female life or how impressed I was by how far it goes to respect her as a distinct human being with separate needs from her husband(s). But what made that even better was the idea that it CAN be a two way street--people can both get what they need while respecting a level of individuality. And the little details that back up the lack of this in the first marriage helped--like Wasim's treatment of Niloufar's journalling, even ripping it out of her hands at one point. Classic narcissist, lol.

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    2. Oh yes, and as far as films denigrating theology--it's always a fine line. One probably wouldn't have to look too hard for a film that wouldn't suit conservative Hindus.I think progressive Muslims would probably approve of this one, but it's not going to suit the hardliners. In general, you can't make films for that crowd, tho, at least not films everybody else wants to see.

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  2. One probably wouldn't have to look too hard for a film that wouldn't suit conservative Hindus

    Oh, yes. I'm always taken aback, and not a little amused at what can cause people to have conniptions. Apparently, 'OMG' created enough of a controversy amongst the Hindu hardliners even though it was based on a Gujarati play (Kanji Virudh Kanji, which was based on 'Man Who Sued God) that had run to packed crowds.

    I think stupidity and intolerance and bigotry are religions in and of themselves. They certainly cut across class, culture and religious lines.

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    1. OMG is so good tho, I'm glad it didn't succumb to social pressures or calls for censorship. I think I've already shown it to two or three people ... beyond its meaningful critique, it's just so entertaining.

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  3. I would love to read what you think of BR Chopra's "Karm" Miranda. It has Rajesh Khanna, Vidya Sinha and Shabana. Suffers from the curse of the last 10 minutes but I don't know of ANY Hindi film which dealt with what it did in terms of the relationship of Rajesh and Vidya at the start of the film. Other than one or two, songs are meh and Rajesh suffers from his bad hair syndrome of the mid 70s except for some scenes. May not be accessible because of the central conceit (?? don't know if that's the right word) but oddly compelling. Lots of gray in the characterization across the board I'd say. Do see it if you can. It's on youtube.

    On "Nikaah", the songs were HUGELY popular. And Salma Agha was on the cover of most of the film mags with her cat's eyes and virulently metallic makeup! I think her mother is related to the Kapoors, Raj's cousin or something.

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    1. I will give Karm a try, Suhan. Altho, I don't know what I think of Rajesh Khanna and Shabana as a pair ... the age difference feels more pronounced than it actually is to me. But "central conceit" is a good hook, if only if I am curious to see what it is. "Cat's eyes" is also a good descriptor. I think, personally, the qawwali is by far the best of the songs, altho I enjoyed them all.

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    2. Like all the others have said, this movie was famous for its songs. Apparently it was a super hit. I haven't seen the movie. However, I did see a song being picturised on Salma Agha and Raj Babbar in a car on a beautiful December morning during sunrise along the famous landmarks of my city Hyderabad . I was on my way to an early morning class and noticed BR Chopra in a second car while the song was being filmed. I am told that the movie was mostly made in Hyd. I read some where that Salma Agha actually met BR for a chance to sing in movies (with her distinct nasal voice - lol). It seems he told her that she would not only sing but also act in the movie. Deepak Parashar was a dead wood clothes horse! Raj Babbar did have a string of success those days. Umrao Jaan is the only movie where i liked Raj Babbar where he played the role of a bandit.

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    3. I would think that memory would be better than seeing the finished film :)

      "Distinct and nasal" yes. Definitely. She sounds like she trained in the Noor Jehan and Zubaida Khanum tradition, for sure.

      Was that Raj Babbar as the bandit?! That was the best part of the film, lol, but I had no idea who RB was at the time.

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