by Batul Mukhtiar
I was 5 when ‘Chetna’ released. And yet, I have this memory of its iconic poster. The bare legs of a girl spread apart, standing on a bed, forming an ‘A’ shape. The poster apparently was a tongue in cheek rejoinder by the filmmaker to the ‘A’ certificate given to the film by the Censor Board.
I don’t know from where I remember the poster. When I look at it again now, I see there is also a man between the legs. I have no memory of the man. But I do remember feeling a kind of thrill at seeing something I was not supposed to see. Maybe I was older than 5 when I saw the poster. Either way, I could sense this was something out of bounds for me.
‘Chetna’ is the story of a call girl, Seema (Rehana Sultan). A young man, Anil Dhawan (Anil Dhawan) falls in love with her at first sight, and follows her around, in a dazed state of love. He does not come across as a stalker, because most of the time he bumps into her accidentally. Anil is intrigued by her brusqueness more than anything else. The few efforts he makes to talk to her or locate her are also polite and within the limits of decency. Though I am a bit shocked that the magazine he calls for her phone number, gives it to him over the phone, with no compunctions. He sticks her photo in the magazine on his phone dial, spinning her every time he makes a call.
When his older, more worldly-wise friend, Ramesh (Shatrughan Sinha) sets him up with a prostitute, Anil is shocked to find that it is Seema. ‘Chetna’ then explores Seema’s and Anil’s ensuing love-story, their lives, their choices.
At the time of its release, the film invited great moral outrage, but strangely not from the Censor Board, who had only one objection: the bottles of Vat 69, the liquor of choice for Ramesh and for Seema’s friend, Nirmala (Nadira). The Censor Board objected to the promotion of foreign liquor in our films. They also cut a few shots of Seema’s bare legs.
No, the moral outrage came from a posse of filmmakers, 47 in all; Ishara’s peers who thought he was morally degenerate, for his even-tempered portrayal of a call girl Seema. Ishara had had difficulty even finding the finance for the film, until his editor Kunnu, gave him the money. He made the film for less than 1 lakh INR, and it became a hit. Perhaps that is what irked his filmmaker buddies.
Watching the film recently, it is difficult to see why it attracted moral censure at the time. Even in 1970 for instance, Purab Aur Pashchim (Manoj Kumar) and Mera Naam Joker (Raj Kapoor) offered more titillation in the form of the female body, than ‘Chetna’ does.
But of course, the difference was that the more respectable films and filmmakers propagated the idea of a good, virtuous Indian woman, while objectifying her with their camera angles. Whereas B R Ishara chose to explore the psyche of a woman, good/bad/ugly, keeping his camera angles innocent. As innocent as the film’s hero, Anil.
In fact, that shot of the bare legs on‘Chetna’’s famous poster is the only bit of provocative skin that you see in the film. Even when Seema removes her clothes and gets ready for her client, Anil,we hardly see her at all, certainly not her nudity, but only Anil’s disturbed innocence. She invites him to bed, says the distance will be covered sooner or later, because no man can resist a nude woman. For herself, she has seen so many nude men, that men with clothes seem like hypocrites to her. But Anil resists her. He asks her to get dressed and leave.
Ishara circumvents the lack of budget by using off camera voices for characters. Several characters like Seema’s father, a patient at the clinic, guests at a party, are only heard off screen, never seen, giving the film a kind of sparseness, an austerity. This austerity also adds to the lingering pace of the film. As do the use of extreme close-ups of Rehana and Anil. It becomes then, a detailed examination of the two characters and their journey as they negotiate their love story. The low production value of the film lends it a quaint simplicity that only enhances the chastity of the film.
In other films, like ‘Hawas’, I have found Anil Dhawan a clueless actor. His expressions change erratically from shot to shot, his body language is terrible. One is often left confused about his characterization. But B R Ishara knows how to work with actors, with their limitations. Anil’s character in ‘Chetna’ works because of the innocence of Anil’s face; he makes this good, decent, naïve character believable, given that we rarely ever see an Indian man like this on screen otherwise.
Rehana is not a great actress, but there is confusion and a complexity to her character, which reflects off her face. She drinks and smokes with ease, she carries off her lack of guilt about her lifestyle with a stoic impassiveness that is not usual in a Hindi film heroine.
Even Shatrughan Sinha, as Anil’s older friend, Ramesh, is natural, at ease. His suggestion to Anil that his lovesickness for a woman is unnecessary in an age when women can be bought for 5 rupees to 5000 rupees is delivered in a no-nonsense way. He says “bhatakne se bahakna achcha”. (It is better to be lost than wander aimless).
Ishara also uses voices to put into words, Anil’s state of mind or to guide him towards a course of action. It is almost as if the voice of God speaks through other characters.
For instance, when Anil, sick with love for Seema, is summoned by his doctor friend, a voice (a patient) moans, “God, give me some medicine for this pain.”
After Anil comes back from his encounter with Seema, having found out that she is a call girl, he is confused, agitated. His servant boy, Daddy fights with the dhobhi (washerman) about a shirt and it’s dirty stains. The dhobhi says “Yeh daag nahin jaayege, kameez dusre rang me rang do, daag chchup jaayege.” (These stains won’t go away, but you can dye the shirt in another color, it will hide the stains.) This prompts Anil to resolve his confusion and propose marriage to Seema.
Anil’s proposal of marriage is one of the most progressive I have seen in Indian cinema. He says, “Jo kuchch bhi aap hain, jaisi bhi aap hain, aap ki taraf se main ne koi pavitrata ki pratima nahin banali, jis ka toot jaane ka darr ho.” (You are, as you are, simply you; I haven’t created some image of you as an idol of purity. There is no fear of the statue being shattered).
This to me is the most liberating idea of the film. Because isn’t it this pratima (image/statue) that we have been fighting against for so long? The ideal of mother, goddess, sister, wife, good/virtuous woman?
Anil’s proposal is a far cry from Sai Paranjpye’s hero (Chashme Buddoor, 1981) crying out, “Tum jaisi ladki se bhagwaan bachaaye”. (May God save me from ‘a girl like you’). In Sai Paranjpye’s celebrated film, Siddharth (Farukh Shaikh) is completely disappointed in his Miss Chamko girlfriend, Neha (Deepti Naval) when he suspects that she may have also dated his friends, Jai (Ravi Baswani) and Om (Rakesh Bedi). The tales his friends have told him are innocent enough, a jaunt in the park, a visit to her house, but in Siddharth’s mind, Neha becomes tainted. A girl who can date more than one man, ‘a girl like you’, is not fit for a good man, not fit to take home to mother.
This notion of one man/one love has always been glorified in Indian cinema, where female virginity is at a premium. I didn’t take it amiss when I saw the film on its release, but watching it again, now, I realized how much these notions of love, virginity and wafadari (loyalty) had affected us in our own choices of relationships and life. How guilty we were made to feel about being attracted to more men than one, how we were judged if we dared to walk out of a relationship.
This is reflected in Nirmala’s (Nadira) comment on Anil’s proposal. She says, “Hum jaisi aurato ko maa aur bahen kahne wale bahut mil jaate hain, biwi kahne wala koi nahin milta.” (There are many men who are willing to call women like us mothers and sisters, but no one to call us wife). Men can afford to be kind and generous to fallen women, but never at the cost of their own masculinity.
Nirmala, very sensuous, but older, provides Seema a respite from the cynicism of a call girl’s life. Seema thinks the idea of love is false; she is not willing to trust a man. Nirmala says, No, what we are living, “Yeh jhooth hain. Chehre ka namak. Jab utar jaata hain, tab sacchai saamne aa jaati hain. Pyaar aur mohabbat sacch hain.” (This life is false. Sex appeal. When it fades, then the truth is revealed. Love is real.) Nirmala whose sex appeal is fading, talks of going to a party and dancing all night, hoping to attract attention from some one. As she drinks (Vat 69) in broad daylight, her hands trembling, she says to Seema, “Tum mera beeta hua kal ho, aur main tumhaara aane wala kal”. (You are my past, I am your future). She advises Seema to marry Anil. If things don’t work out, she says, you can always get divorced.
By casting a maverick but respected actor in the part of Nirmala, B R Ishara lends a weight to her words. Nirmala is experienced but not cynical, practical and yet, believes that love can exist. She acknowledges that the life Seema and she live is based on sex appeal and money, but there can be another way, an equally or more truthful way to live.
Seema accepts Anil’s proposal, but she remains a little dizzy, like her photo on the phone dial, which keeps turning, turning as life dials her. She is confused about herself.
She marries Anil with eyes open. But when she first encounters the marital bed decorated with flowers, the flowers and bed swim in and out of focus before her eyes, can she be so naive as to start her marriage as if her past does not count?
Anil is sensitive enough to understand, he is willing to give her time. He does not want to know details about her past, but acknowledges that she might want to share it.
Seema is matter-of fact about her past, as she recounts her story to Anil. Her parents were very poor. In college she envied the girls arriving in the latest cars, chauffeur-driven, dressed up in the latest fashion, the latest jewellery. Boys had eyes only for girls like that. If they looked at poor girls like her, it was only with sympathy. When she was offered the chance to be a call girl, the money was attractive. Her lifestyle became first “Ek craze, phir meri aadat, aur phir meri zaroorat”. (A craze, then my habit, and then my need). She is matter-of-fact about drinking, smoking. Anil does not blame her; he does not moralize or presume that he is saving her, but simply listens, as one might, to the story of any other person. Seema too does not transform overnight into a ‘good woman’, touched by the love of a good man. She continues to drink and smoke, she takes her time to settle down into the routine of a stable, married life.
Slowly, she begins to love Anil, to accept his love. Just when she is ready to remove the embargo on sex between them, Anil has to go out for a week, and in his absence, she finds out she is pregnant from a past sexual encounter, she says “meri kokh mein zahar hain”. (I have poison in my womb). She wants to abort the child, start her marriage with a clean slate, but the doctor refuses to help her.
She is completely derailed by this fact, not trusting Anil’s love, to be able to include a child that is not his. She wants him to shout at her, blame her, throw her out of the house, hate her. She says, she would find the strength to live if he hated her; his love only seems like pity. She feels that “insaan shaitaan ke saath jee sakta hain, jaanwar ke saath jee sakta hain, par devta ke saath nahin jee sakta”. (Man can live with the devil, with an animal, but he cannot live with a god).
It is this confusion in Seema, which confuses me. On the one hand Ishara sets up an unconventional heroine, unapologetic about her past. Her “vices” are not advertised for sensational effect, but are acknowledged matter-of-factly. Anil in a way is the writer-director’s alter ego, since he takes a similar stance while listening to Seema.
And yet, Ishara also does spend a considerable amount of time setting Seema up in the familiar cliché of a golden-hearted prostitute, seeking solace in temple, church, dargah (shrine), a do-gooder who helps people with their studies (the doctor), setting up their business (the mechanic), looks after a spoilt sister, a sick father. Once she is married, she wants to find solace in the feet of her husband. (Even though these seem highly unclean).
So it seems to me that Seema too reflects Ishara’s own confusion about women. On the one hand, his ease with sexuality and women, on the other, a falling back on familiar patriarchal tropes.
An interesting article in the Hindustan Times (not credited) quotes Ishara saying, “I have always believed that the only place for a man in a woman’s life is between her thighs. And that was the basic idea of Chetna too.” In the article, Ishara recounts that after Chetna’s release, the editor of a film magazine, an outraged lady, asked him in the course of an interview, “Mr BR Ishara, why do you think every woman is a prostitute?” Without missing a beat he’d retorted, “I don’t think every woman is a prostitute but I do think that every prostitute is a woman. And being a woman, she is as much a human being as a man. She has needs too… And desires.”
But Seema is not able to reconcile her desires. The end she chooses for herself is the easy way out, for her, but also for the filmmaker. Even a bold filmmaker could not be bold enough to show a call girl happily married, living happily forever after? Or maybe that was too much to expect in 1970?
‘Chetna’ with all its failings, is at the least, an attempt to understand the psyche of a woman, outside the realm of what society considers right for her. It may not take a clear stance, but its judgment is not clouded with prejudices or preconceived notions of a good Indian woman – or moralistic depictions of sex work. It gives the woman the right to make her own choices, no questions asked.
That’s Adult all right.
Batul writes scripts, looks for producers, makes films when she gets the money, blogs while she is stewing on the lack of money to make films, makes stews because we all have to eat, and pretends to exercise every now and then.