The opening frames of Reshma aur Shera, a tragic story of family honor and vengeance set in rural Rajasthan, made me think I was in for depressing slog through the trials and tribulations of The Indian Woman, deified in theory but treated like dirt in practice. As the film begins, a voice (I think director/producer/star Sunil Dutt) extols women as the keepers and transmitters of the Indian virtue of sacrifice, sure to save the whole world from its woes. (Note the transition from the glorification of sacrifice to the assertion that India is the heart of such attitudes and behaviors.)
There’s not been a single era where the sarifices made by the women of our country, in order to glorify human beings and humanity, have not been written in golden letters. Be it a sacrifice of her husband, child, life, or her love sacrifice is another name for the women of this country. It’s the sacrifice by the women of our country that has kept the cultures of our country alive. It has spread enlightenment in the world. Hence this world, lost in the terrifying violence, enmity, and hatred, looks with a ray of hope towards our country and its culture for salvation. That is why it is only in our country that the women are looked upon as deities. And hence we dedicate this film to the women of our country.Any time I see a claim that "women are looked upon as deities," I'm immediately skeptical. "Prove it," I think. "Prove that the women in this context are genuinely respected." (This film, for example, depicts the meeting of its heroine and hero as her falling towards his feet and him saving her from falling on the ground.) Interestingly, the next words in the film immediately move to laying out the culture of the men of the feuding Singh and Chaudhury families. The senior Chaudhury boasts to the men of his village that he has just killed one of Singh's sons, leaving the other four Singh boys (Shera/Sunil Dutt, Vijay/Vinod Khanna, Jagat/Naval Kumar, and Chhotu/Amitabh Bachchan) for his "lion" (the startlingly cheerful and non-creepy Ranjeet as Gopal) to kill.
Hearty laughs and jovial back-slaps ensue. This is the attitude we're dealing with. Murder is something to aspire to and brag about. The context is macho to the extreme, and the equally extreme consequences of this culture are laid painfully bare. The film pulls no punches, either in the depicted violence or in its judgment of it.
After watching the film, I'm really not sure why the story is set up in this female-centered manner, because the essential lesson is, I think, pacifism and respect for human life and is not specifically focused on the power or virtue of women, either actual or romanticized. The relentless clan violence that runs throughout the film - and drives most of its characters and action - is indeed brought to an eventual halt by the youngest generation of women (Waheeda Rehman as Shera's star-crossed lover Reshma and Rakhee in a tiny role as Gopal's new wife)
Reshma and Shera meet at a fair, and I love this image of Waheeda getting to be carefree and full of motion as Reshma giggling on the ferris wheel. And Rakhee is so beautiful I had to put a picture in, even though she's on screen just for a few moments.
and sanctioned by Shera's mother (Sulocahana Latkar). But I'm not sure how significant their gender is, other than that by being women they are somehow less a part of the multi-generational enmity between the two central families/villages. That is, is their decision to strive for peace and calm instead of for revenge possible because they are women or because they are not adult men? The effect is the same, but I wonder about the differences between being defined as "X" instead of as "not Y." Anyway, more importantly, I think their decision is motivated by the despair of having their lives, and the lives of those they love, ruined by principles and values they can neither influence nor participate in.
Reshma rages against the goddess, who is as yet to provide a good answer for how she is supposed to get out of this tragedy; click on Rakhee above to see her making an excellent "crazy with grief" expression.
Only two adult men of the immediate Singh and Chaudhury families are standing when Reshma forges a new path; one of them is mute (and I think implied to be mentally impaired) (youngest Singh brother Chhotu) and brought to his knees by regret, and the other is completely out of his mind with grief and rage (Shera). Is the new way of living only possible because the old way is literally being killed off? While Reshma's bold decisions at the end of the film provide a little hope for a new way of living and new freedoms from the oppressive violence of the past, an attempt at such a choice while the patriarchs and older brothers were alive probably would have been silenced immediately (and perhaps permanently, given the fathers' quick tempers and penchant for blood).
It's mostly a very sad story. (You know things are bad when Amrish Puri is one of the more sensible people in a film.) The body count is high. The anger is deep and senseless. I've have read that the film flopped, and I wonder what specifically about it made it so unappealing at its release. Was its condemnation of violent, patriarchal honor codes simply unpalatable to most audiences at the time? Putting aside its lesson for a moment, its other significant story is the doomed romance of the title characters (Reshma is a Chaudhury and Shera a Singh) (and a much smaller one echoed by Gopal's engagement), and all the elements and details of the story are supported well and interwoven with much thought. Its script seems almost perfect, with quiet but careful attention to histories, character development (or deliberate lack thereof), locations, and movement. Two of my favorite details are special artifacts, a charm and a transistor radio, that become meaningful tokens through repeated presence, bringing a very personal and everyday scale to this otherwise quite epic story (you know how I love that!). The movie does have its filmi moments, like a forehead-clutching Nahiiiiiiiin! and some dramatic slips into near madness, but overall the intensity is well-paced and relieved sufficiently by moments of cute romance and light-hearted fun throughout its overall downward arc.
The world of Reshma aur Shera may be conceptually and emotionally bleak, but it is stunning to look at. The colors seem a little washed out and yellowed, but even with those problems, there are glowing purple night skies, dancing orange fires, sparkling silver jewelry, and vibrant whites that set off both art and dirt. (But it's hard not to think how much more amazing this would look if its colors were closer to Paheli's....) The Rajasthani architecture and villages (both grand and domestic) are as much a star as any of the characters, representing beauty and creativity in the doom-filled lives of the characters.
The landscape too is lovely, as the shifting sands add dynamic shadows and an uncertain foundation to scenes that seem straightforward at first thought.
Look how tiny and alone the people are in the middle of this sea of hot, harsh, mostly lifeless landscape - and what a parallel to the Singh/Chaudhury traditions! Recurring motifs of flames and circles link scenes visually. Not long after they first spy each other at the fair, Shera steals one of Reshma's bangles, and here he holds it up during a qawwal and imagines her dancing in its center, the focus of attention, hair loose and face in plain sight, instead of just peeping from the sidelines.
The moon and night sky recur significantly as well.
He returns it as the song ends; the next day, after their first real conversation, she fiddles with it as she dreamily reflects on their conversation
I don't usually talk about cinematography because quite frankly I do not understand with any depth what a cinematographer does, but there are lots of cool shots in this movie, and S. Ramachandra deserves a shout-out. Sometimes the camera is positioned so that you feel you're sitting right next to or across from a character; sometimes it's under a bench; sometimes it's between the strong, dark vertical lines formed by the legs of a pack of camels. (Aside: I loved all the camels in this movie - and all the cool noises they make! I had no idea camels were so growly.) Jaidev Verma's music dances and wails; as much as I love the regional instruments in some of Waheeda's songs, I think my favorite song might be the extremely saucy-sounding "Tauba Meri Tauba," a dancing-girl item number performed by a panting Asha and writhing Padma Khanna.
It's interesting to note that 70s regulars Amitabh, Ranjeet, and Vinod are all very early in their careers at this point, and seeing the first two in roles so different than the types they're known for later is fascinating - and a credit to their skills. Watching a nearly silent Amitabh Bachchan tremble for his life in front of a crowd of frail old villagers is a real sight. For the first time in my movie-watching career, I was not eager for the death of Ranjeet. And Vinod...well, he was in villain mode, dishooming in the hot desert sands and leering with menacing lust at the dancing girl.
And speaking of young, check out wee Sanjay Dutt as a qawwali singer!
As always, Philip Lutgendorf has interesting insights, and there's a gossip- and spoiler-filled review/making-of piece by Suresh Kohli in The Hindu.