Mere Apne is a depressing picture of society's many failures in urban India (circa 1970), and the male leads - Vinod Khanna (Shyam) and Shatrughan Sinha (Chaino) as warring street thugs, as well as a big cast as their gang members (Asrani and Danny Denzongpa among them) - express both pitiable futility and small-scale joys among the rubble of their youthful dreams. Unfortunately, the first 45 minutes or so focus instead on Anandi (Meena Kumari), an almost unfathomably naive villager who finds her world turned upside down by the trials of the contemporary city.
Woooop! Woooop! Moral brick bat alert!
Anandi is confounded and distressed by what she sees as the horrors of the big, bad world - including trouser-wearing women who work outside the home and don't bother to braid their hair -
The end of the world as she knows it.
and her mumble-mouthed "hey Ram!"s seem to punctuate everything she encounters in her new home with her young relative Arun and his wife and child. Anandi's criticisms of their lifestyle fall on deaf ears, and she is often left at home to care for the toddler as the grownups are at work and [shock! horror!] eating at restaurants, but their servant (Leela Mishra) finally gives her the confidence boost she needs to move on.
She takes advantage of an offer from another young family who agrees to actually pay her for being their nanny. At this point in her adventures, she gets to know Shyam and his crew, and the movie gets much more interesting. They're basically good boys (you can tell because they befriend an elderly widow), but in addition to unemployment and frustrated educations, they lack moral guidance. This pairing of the sweet, lost boys with the sweet, lost grandmother is a nice, gently filmi story, punctuated with economic troubles, political corruption, and gang violence.
Thanks, dadima hotline!
The symbolism in Mere Apne is overt. One suffers for duty, as Anandi's husband (Deven Verma) implied her role to her on their wedding night.
Life in the city is hard. Anandi, a.k.a. Mother India, is initially overwhelmed by the modern and urban, but she finds her way and has plenty of advice and model behavior. Look how she's depicted on her arrival to the city: in a simple white sari in front of an upturned bike that looks an awful lot like the spinning wheel, carrying the future (in the form of a child), no less.
She also repeatedly offers a way out - "Beta, come back with me to my mango grove" she begs Shyam - but of course the youth aren't quite ready to accept. See what has happened to the bicycles at the end of the film, when a corrupt election ignites the gangs into a brawl.
The movie's overtly bleak message and vaguely "the past is better!" tone of Anandi kept me from really getting on board, even though the film makes it almost impossible to argue with its main point that contemporary life has a lot of problems. I don't want to say anything else about how the story finishes, but it's sad and basically hopeless: the elements of society are fragmented and the future is left abandoned to fend for itself.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I was much more engaged with Mere Apne when the story and camera were focused on Shyam and Chaino than on Anandi. Her truth-wielding bumpkin routine was so taxing, especially in its association with a downtrodden, mistreated, poorly educated woman. I'm not sure whether the movie wants viewers to laud Anandi, but it does seem obvious that we're supposed to grieve for her, and I just can't. As an individual, her struggle is sympathetic (and it was even in her flashbacks with a berating, abusive, restrictive husband), but what she represents seems neither admirable nor workable to me (granted my eyes are 21st-century American). I'm also not sure what Meena Kumari was doing with this performance; I gather from her biography that she was probably quite ill while filming this, and her mumbling and shuffling gave Anandi a jarring childishness.
However, the swagger and barely contained, dangerous despair exuded by Vinod and Shatrugan and their gangs were fun to watch and effectively communicate the potential of the generation on the brink of participating in the nation.
Everything about the stories of the young men is sad: they're good, smart, resourceful people, but circumstances have thwarted them and they feel forced into sketchy, and sometimes illegal, methods of making their way through an unfair, largely insensitive world. They know what they do is wrong, but they don't know what other options they have. They are confronted with the failure of all of society's systems.
Like many good 70s films, Mere Apne offers a hodgepodge of other small pleasures for the viewers. For example, one of the requisite flashbacks shows us the tale of Shyam and Chaino's enmity. They were once friends,
but Shyam didn't like the way Chaino talked to his girlfriend Urmi (Yogeeta Bali) and the two got in a horrible fight that cemented them as the enemies we see at the start of the movie.
This is the first time I've seen Yogeeta Bali, so of course I had to look her up, and I gotta say, her personal history made me cry out "Mother of Mimoh!" in disbelief. My brain does not compute someone being married to both Kishore Kumar and Mithun Chakraborty.
This flashback offers the only real romance in the film and one of the very few female characters with more than two lines of dialogue, plus a hearty serving of mournful Vinod for all you emo sadists.
In "Haal Chaal Thik Thaak Hai," one of only two songs, Shyam's gang sings cheerfully sarcastically about the atmosphere of the country. This is a great, biting song.
Mehmood has a short, funny turn as the idiotic politician who employs Chainu to scare up votes. My own state's politicians are also idiotic and corrupt, and I loved this line about vote-garnering: "This is a list of all the dead people, but their ration cards are still alive.'
Apparently this is Danny Denzongpa's first role, and he's great as the chipper but violent Sanju in Shyam's gang.
Not sure what was up with the puppet. If I ever watch this movie again, I'll make a list of all the things it says to see whether it's voicing a particular line of thought or assessment of events.
Cheerful-looking movie posters on the street contrast with the frequent scene of violence.
I think I've claimed this for other films, but this scene is certainly a candidate for most absurdly fake blood.
Is it wrong that Asrani is really growing on me? He's really good in this as a hopeful Romeo who is bullied for pursuing a girl who lives in the other gang's territory.
The dozen or so gang members gave me some new faces and names to learn. Can anyone identify these two actors?
In this outdoor political rally, there appear to be no women present.
There aren't many women in this film at all, which I'd like to think is the filmmakers' way of commenting on gender discrepancies as one of contemporary India's problems.
One of the most fab shirts ever.
And some great sunglasses and hairstyles too.
For a more impressed take on Mere Apne, see this essay at Passion for Cinema.