What distinguishes a respectable person from a less respectable person? It’s not written on anyone’s forehead, says a paan-shop owner to Hameed. Hitherto, Hameed and Salma had felt thankful to the paan-wala for procuring for them a house; and providing an opportunity for them to escape the slums they had lived in. However, this question is a response to Hameed’s accusation at him for giving them a house whose previous occupant was a courtesan named Shamshad. The dream of a ‘clean’ house and ‘clean’ neighbourhood – the home of sharif/respectable grihastha/householder family comes crashing down for the young couple when every night someone or the other knocks at their door asking for Shamshad.
Written, directed and produced by Rajinder Singh Bedi, the film Dastak (1970) is one of the finest gems of Hindi cinema. At one level, it is about the city of Bombay which draws migrants from the villages – luring them with the promise of a better life – and consigns them to occupations they had never imagined they would undertake. For Hameed, the effort to remain an upright clerk; to occupy a home in a sanitized neighbourhood and to have an intimate and private world of his own with his lawfully-wedded wife turns out to be a nightmare.
The search for a home animates the film; but also reminds us that homes do not come without the remnants of memories from previous occupants. They are not absolute and ahistorically formed places; but need a carving out of a world from amidst other worlds. Hameed and Salma (played by Sanjeev Kumar and Rehana Sultan) are perhaps the most convincing, real and moving conjugal pair I have encountered in Hindi cinema. When they enter the new neighbourhood, Hameed walks in with dreams glistening in his eyes, carrying lovingly his wife’s tanpura.
An accomplished singer, Salma’s first song in the home, “Baiyaa na dharo o balamaa” stirs the neighbourhood to feel and witness a sensuality reminding them of Shamshad days which they want to re-live and revive. The leering men in the neighbourhood gaze into the house all day; luscious hungry clients knock the door and we go through the film, shaking with trepidation like the young couple, at every single knock and gaze.
The idea that lurks imperceptibly is that there is no pure intimacy that is not vitiated by something that threatens to turn beauty into animal sex; a village girl’s tanpura into a courtesan’s indolent instrument; a wife into a slut; a husband into a pimp. And all this must happen so that more paan is sold; more desires are fulfilled; and a neighbourhood can rightly claim the life and body of a woman who is meant to live quietly with her husband.
The ‘social distancing,’ so to speak, the hygienic utopias are but dreams that the poor cannot afford in a city like this; and as spectators we both fear and wait for Salma to turn into the person she fears she might. She says to Hamid, “Hum woh naheen jo shuru mein the. Yeh jo hamare ird gird ho raha hai, kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki main who ho gayi hun.” (We are not the people we were initially, and what surrounds us will probably make me what it wants to me to.) Her sensuality is awakened; while her body shakes like a leaf. Do we remain immured to our surroundings, is respectability but a matter of economics, and are projects of sanitization always ferociously held because they are threatened so much?
Should you want to, especially after reading this column, taste a small flavour of this highly layered film, you must at least watch and listen to this song – an extract from Majrooh Sultanpuri’s longer ghazal, sung by Lata Mangeshkar in her finest voice, and composed by one of our best, Madanmohan.