AGAR TUM NA HOTE
Starring: Rajesh Khanna, Rekha, Madan Puri, Asrani
Directed by Lekh Tandon
Music by R.D. Burman
I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures this time around...the DVD itself looks pretty crappy, and something funny was happening with the scan lines.
What does Bollywood do best? They take a group of well-meaning people with their own individual problems and hang-ups and complicated backgrounds. Then they arrange these people in a strategic way so that their otherwise benign traits begin to clash. Some of them end up fighting with each other. Some get wounded by the ones they love. And in the middle of the mess there's always a stoic character, one who's been put in a terrible situation but still -- on the basis of her good nature and fortitude -- manages to make the best out of the awful things that have happened.
Somehow, Bollywood does this very well, even in the worst movies. "Agar Tum Na Hote" isn't a great film...it's cheap and manipulative, and when it comes to maneuvering the characters into doing those awful, inevitable things it occasionally screws up. But with this in mind it stirred up my inky-black emotions and got me crying, thanks to the heart-breaking finesse of the plot, the strength of the principal actors, and a wonderful score by R. D. Burman (ouch, that haunting Hame Aur Jeene Ki...!)
The movie is, in a nutshell, the story of a businessman named Ashok Mehra who -- through his refusal to deal with the death of his wife -- turns his daughter into a tiny, deluded nutcase. There are some global, established childrearing do's and don'ts in this world, and you don't need to be Dr. Spock to understand them all. I'd like to outline one of Ashok's childrearing mistake in the hopes that it will be a valuable lesson to widowers everywhere:
Please, when mummy dies, DON'T tell your daughters that mummy's "coming back." Now, I know it's hard for people to deal with the death of a loved one, especially when that loved one is Rekha. It's PARTICULARLY hard to explain death to a small child, and as the child gets older phrases like "she's in a better place" or "she's visiting auntie in Lahore" just don't cut it anymore. Still...Ashok...WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU THINKING?
After lying to his daughter about this issue for eight years it's no surprise to anyone when the unbelievably cute Mini turns into a biting, kicking, piano-abusing feral girl much like the Wild Child of Aveyron. I'm sure Ashok didn't do this on purpose -- he loved his wife an awful lot, and maybe spending those years telling his daughter that mummy was coming back was some sort of useful therapy for him. In other aspects of his life Ashok is really quite a sweet, normal man (so normal, in fact, that he does what every other Indian man does when his wife goes into labour: he sticks a big picture of an ugly caucasian baby on the wall. Seriously, this is an ongoing thing in Bollywood, I'm not making it up).
As an aside I would also like to point out that Ashok has got a "woodsy wall-mural" in his office, a strange trait shared with most Bollywood businessmen (as first pointed out by BollyMike...we didn't believe him then, but we believe him now). I've always associated these murals with basement dens and rumpus rooms...you know, the ones with no windows or airflow, requiring a "fake view" to keep you from feeling claustrophobic (which is fine until the mural gets coated with nicotine from trapped cigarette smoke). If anything, the "simulated forest view" in Ashok's inner sanctum shows his painfully human side: it reinforces that people have flaws, such as bad taste.
His wife's death is just the beginning of Ashok's trials, and the "Agar Tum Na Hote" writers must be commended for finding new ways to torture him. Without additional complications he would have ended up a morose, somewhat disconnected young businessman, screwing poor people out of their money and jet-setting around the world trying to find a governess who'll put up with his daughter. Yes, the movie might have ended that way, and that would be bad enough. But Ashok's big mistake -- the one that starts all the complications moving -- is launching a line of cosmetics.
As he tells his executives, "Our promotion must be the best! The Best!" And he's not kidding. He hires the handsome, devil-may-care photographer Raj Bedi to create a series of advertisements for him, and even allows him to find his own model. A few days later, while taking pictures of driftwood, Raj spots a woman named Radha frolicking with a horse on the beach and he decides she'd be perfect. Can you see this coming? Do I need to tell you that Radha looks exactly like Ashok's late wife? Would it help if I mentioned that both women are played by Rekha? It's obvious that somebody is going to end up heartbroken in the end, and it won't be the horse.
Speaking of animals, Raj has a slimy sidekick named Chandu (played by a man who, amazingly, found time to play EXACTLY THE SAME CHARACTER in Himmatwala, which was also released in 1983). He's sort of a satyr-like reincarnation of Pan, adding to the plot by gleefully manipulating others for his own selfish reasons. Amazingly, he's the closest thing this movie comes to a villain -- nobody pulls a gun on anyone in "Agar Tum Na Hote," nobody kidnaps children or sells adulterated food to poor villagers at exorbitant prices. There's just poor, self-absorbed Chandu, all alone in his uncomfortably tight trousers, making everybody else's life miserable.
But not everything Chandu does is destructive. During their first photo session together he so flusters Radha that she almost gets blown up in an explosion...but is saved by Raj, just in time. Thanks to this misadventure (and possibly because Raj pounced on top of her to protect her from falling rocks) the two fall in love and get married. But in a Chandni-esque turn of events Raj is paralyzed when he falls from the roof of a factory, and in order to pay for his treatment (and keep his plutonium-powered thermos filled) Radha is forced to get a job as a governess for Mini, Ashok's wild-child daughter. And since the position is only open to unmarried women, Radha hides her Mangalsutra...leading the amazed and delighted Ashok to think she's single. Round and round it goes, the vast, karmic wheel of Bollywood plotlines...
After Radha saves Mini from a hit and run by two mentally-handicapped men in a speeding car (it looks like the passenger is trying force-feed the driver alcohol, but it's difficult to be sure and even more difficult to understand), things begin to get very complicated indeed. Ashok is so smitten with Radha that he's begun fantasizing about her being a puppet, which is a bad sign but results in the film's stand-out dance sequence: Rekha doing a charming, playful marionette impersonation...the only chance she really gets to let loose and have fun. And she doesn't have much time for fun, since her bedridden husband hates Ashok (in fact, he holds Ashok responsible for his injuries and misfortunes), and the lovably evil Chandu is just waiting for a chance to tell Raj who his wife is really working for...
From this point on there aren't many chuckles or light moments in the movie. Except for a few forced situations (Ashok's treatment of his daughter in particular) the filmmakers just let things move towards their obvious conclusion, and the message -- as always in these sorts of films -- seems to be "my goodness, isn't life a struggle, but aren't there some wonderful things about living as well?" The positive life force in this movie is incarnated in the ridiculously cute, absolutely charming Mina, who can laugh and cry more convincingly than most adults in Western films (and certainly more convincingly than their child-actor counterparts). She's an adorable little girl, even when acting bratty and putting amphibians in Rekha's purse, and this means a lot coming from somebody who was glad when Newt died in Aliens 3. Rekha herself plays the sober, wary, devoted and stoic Radha to the hilt; she needs to give a strong portrayal because the events of the story hinge on her and her decisions. And Rajesh Khanna -- whose acting I normally find wooden and a bit annoying -- is excellent as well, particularly when he needs to be strong for his daughter's sake but finds himself unable to do so.
Looking back, I'm having a surprisingly hard time remembering the details about the film. Maybe it's because I've got a lot of other things on my mind, or maybe it's because I'd previously seen a version without subtitles and got my impressions mixed up. But I think it's really because the movie -- for all it's logistical flaws and sloppy execution -- made an emotional impact that overpowered the nit-picky particulars. That might not be the ideal impression to make, but I think it's what the filmmakers were really going for: making the audience cry without worrying exactly why. This, at the very least, they accomplished.