'Mere Apne': Why Gulzar's Debut Continues to be Relevant 50 Years Later
Gulzar's directorial debut Mere Apne stars Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, and Meena Kumari.
In Elio Petri's Academy Award-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), the all-controlling Inspector asks if the phone line of a particular subversive student is tapped. His subordinate's response is "Of Course, Chief. Since May 1968."
This is a reference to a period of popular civil unrest in Europe, especially in places like France and Italy. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the world over saw protests, movements, or revolutions. The educated students were at the centre of these insurrections.
India, too, saw movements that shook the very foundations of a young democracy. The Naxalite and Navnirman movements saw wide participation from the disgruntled youth of the nation. This was a voice of protest against the prevailing conditions and a call for change. Midway through Gulzar's directorial debut Mere Apne (1971), based on a story by Indra Mitra and a remake of Tapan Sinha's Apanjan (1968), the youngsters are seen singing:
"BA Kiya hai, MA kiya,
Lagata hai woh bhi aivay kiya,
Kaam nahi hai warna yahan,
Aapki Dua se sab thik thak hai"
(We have done BA and MA, but it feels like there is no use of this degree. We don't have any work to find but it is all fine by your grace.)
One of the central plot points in the movie is the rivalry between two gangs of unemployed ruffians, led by Shyam (Vinod Khanna) and Chhenu (Shatrughan Sinha), respectively. They are treated as an unwanted nuisance by everyone around them, barring their "Nani Ma".
However, while society is quick to indict them, the youngsters are essentially products of the socio-economic circumstances of the day. As referred to in the lyrics above, the mismanaged education system and lack of employment become an important factor in creating these 'broken' youngsters.
The lack of communication between those in power and these 'broken' youngsters is reflected in the college scene where the students are engaged in a heated argument with their principal. While the problem could've been easily resolved had there been engagement from management's end, they refuse to listen to the students and tell them to leave the premises.
This enrages the students who set about to destroy the college property. In the end, there is no solution to the problem and at the same time, the youth can now be branded as reckless and aggressive. Compounding these issues are the failures experienced at personal front, as shown through Shyam's unfulfilled love-life or the broken relations that these 'bekaars' share with their family members. Left to fend for themselves economically and emotionally, they engage in criminal activities and find employment under corrupt politicians.
Under these circumstances, they find some honor among the locals. But ultimately, this respect is a product of fear. It evaporates when the youngsters need real help. When the two factions are engaged in a battle of life and death, their "Nani Maa" seeks help to put this madness to an end, but the response she gets is "…arey i kaun si nayi baat hai, aapas mein mar-mara ke thande ho jayenge (What is s0 new about this? They will kill each other and then cool off.)”
The one person who treats them as merely small 'bachchas' is Anandi Devi (Meena Kumari) or "Nani Maa". She becomes one with them because they share this commonality of 'social loneliness'.
She is shocked at being out of place in present-day society, a feeling that is shared by many of the elderly. Her societal attitudes are outdated, given how she comments adversely against her so-called Bahu for not wearing a saree or keeping her hair short. But the viewer is also made to understand where she comes from and why she is brought to the city in the first place.
In the flashback sequences, it is shown how Anandi Devi was threatened with a beating on the very first night she met her husband. However, gradually she grew to know him and make peace with her life. It seems that she has never left that life behind her, for time and again, she implores others to help her return back to her village.
She was living a lonely yet satisfactory life in her village when her 'relatives' bring her to the city. However, she rediscovers loneliness when she finds the ulterior motive behind this action. She gradually learns the hard way that economic factors at play determine the position of a person in the modern societal order.
Nevertheless, she doesn't leave her old ways. She tries to assist those who have been left behind in this new hierarchy, whether they be the misled youngsters whom she compares favorably to "Swadeshi Dakaits" she knew back in the day, or the helpless orphans who are treated as beggars by society.
"Nani Maa" comes to represent the past of the country. The tragic loss that she had to face at a young age is not too different from the tragedy our country faced at its birth. This past had different values to the one it is confronted with in the present, and the reality of today eventually becomes too much for the aspirations of yesterday. The pain is compounded as a return to older values and principles of a simpler "Gandhian" life is nigh impossible.
The rival gangs come to represent the reality of the youth of the 1960s and 1970s. These unloved and unemployed "angry young men" seek to take out their frustrations on those around them. This could be the lecherous villain Chhenu misbehaving with a girl or the two gangs setting the city on fire with their rioting during the election phase.
The two kids begging on the streets, Babbu and Tini, are the country's future. They are chided by everyone but for the likes of Shyam and "Nani Maa". They suffer from the issues of poverty, hunger, and lack of education. Towards the end, we see the kids are left to fend for themselves, even as the past is lost and the present is in disarray.
Even fifty years since the release of the movie, it doesn’t seem that the issues of the past have found a fitting resolution. The social movements and unrests of the 60s and 70s were never quite able to achieve their immediate goals. The Total Revolution called for by Jaiprakash Narayan fizzled out by the mid-70s, while Charu Mazumdar's "Spring Thunder" has denigrated into madness which has been disowned by those very people who were once a part of it.
On the other side, despite the change in governments over the years; poverty, unemployment, education, and other challenges remain to be faced by the Indian society. We still see the misguided youth falling for petty criminal activities or engaging in meaningless violence.
The youth of Mere Apne has thus, continued to live on whether on or off the screen: one can see them in the friendly faces of Arjun's friends in Arjun (1985) or the abominable goons who are encountered by Major Chauhan in Prahaar (1991).
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.