Anand and Sahib, Bibi, aur Ghulam

Posted on May 13, 2011

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One of the interesting things I noticed in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is its take on the social location of the comic character. The comic character is, of course, Bhootnath.

In the film, Bhootnath’s career and the changes he undergoes mirror the traditional uneasy equation between comedy and its social location. Bhootnath is both the frame narrator and a character in the story. And yet, despite the fact that he is the central unifying figure, I felt as if I was looking at two different Bhootnaths — the middle-aged narrator and the young clerk in the flashback sequence. Bhootnath, the narrator, is a rich contractor and is played with solemn dignity by Guru Dutt; Bhootnath, the young clerk, is a bumbling simpleton who is overawed by the grandeur of the haveli and the enigmatic choti bahu. His comic potential is fully exploited through his mannerism and his verbal duels with the outspoken Jabba.

But as the movie progresses, Bhootnath’s character moves away from comedy to seriousness. Not surprisingly, this movement away from comedy parallels his rise from the position of a clerk to an important post in a major construction firm. He is no longer the butt of joke because as a member of the rising middle class, he represents the powerful social force that will ultimately displace the decadent aristocracy.

It is interesting to contrast this with the treatment of comedy and tragedy in AnandAnand is perhaps one the most successful attempt at bringing together the comic and tragic. The movie plays around with conventional ideas of tragedy  and comedy, not only at a plot level but also through its characters.

The two protagonists, Anand and Bhaskar are a study in contrast. Bhaskar embodies all those qualities which we normally associate with tragic characters—the deadpan expression, the stiff upright posture, the high seriousness. Anand, on the other hand, embodies all the qualities normally associated with comic characters— the brilliant wit, the elastic face, and lightness of movement. He breezes in and out of the movie, moving fast, talking even faster. He is here, there, and everywhere but this lightness of movement comes from a body that is diseased and dying. Anand’s body becomes a site where the tragic and comic are brought together.

Unlike SBG, Anand’s class location is never clearly stated. While Bhaskar keeps to his select circle, Anand moves across a wider section of the society, both in terms of class and religion. He makes friends easily and is always on the lookout for his “Murarilal”. But Anand is never allowed to slip into the role of the superman, he is brave but he is human. He has his bouts of depression and moments of regret.

The poem that Bhaskar reads out during the recording and the piece of dialogue that Anand recites further develops the contrast between them. Bhasker’s poem on death echoes the Hamlets and Lears. Anand’s piece of dialogue that he learnt from his Murarilal is equally tragic and profound in its implication but it is couched in simple language and delivered in mock-heroic tone and ends with spontaneous laughter. It is as if Hrishikesh Mukherjee was systematically dismantling the age old binary of comic and tragic.

One shot, although very brief, stands out for me because it cleverly encapsulates a key idea. It is a close-up shot of Anand crying but as the camera pans down we realize he is cutting onions! This brief shot brings to head and subverts what we, as audience, have been secretly waiting for – the slipping of the comic mask.  As audience, we are always trying to find the ‘real’ Anand behind the mask of gaiety and quickly hold on to these moments. It’s almost as if we can’t believe that a dying man can be so happy. The reason we do this is because decades of cinematic convention have led us to form a set of expectations, chiefly among them is the idea that death and laughter don’t go together. Another Rajesh Khanna starrer, Safar, too deals with death but unlike Anand it fulfills audience’s expectations. The point Anand tries to make is that there is no mask; the comedy is not used to mask the tragedy.

In the final scene, when the characters in the movie are mourning and Bhaskar delivers what seems like a movie-closing line, the dead man’s laughter disrupts the stereotypical response to death and puts things in a new perspective. Comedy finally has the last word over tragedy.

This is not to say that Anand is a great movie and SBG is a bad one.  Anand, while enjoyable, is embalmed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s brand of middle-class decency.  As for SBG, I will show my love for the film in the next post.

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I haven’t posted anything since I moved my blog to WordPress (and lost all of my Blogger comments in the process—discovered the export blog feature too late.) I am beginning to think that WordPress is not very conducive to creative endeavors.

Harvey of Harveypam’s Blog did a wonderful series of posts on Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Reading his blog, I suddenly remembered that I had some old notes on SBG and I thought – why not? So, for now, I have decided to write small pieces instead of my usual essay-length posts.

This is a shout for help all ye muses!

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Posted in: Miscellaneous