On Utpal Dutt’s Death Anniversary, a Millennial Reviews ‘Gol Maal’
(This piece was originally published on The Quint on 15.06.17 and is being republished from our archives on iconic Indian actor Utpal Dutt’s death anniversary.)
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal (1979) is a film that I’ve been asked to watch several times, especially by my parents, who sold it to me as a “must-watch comedy”. So naturally, the least I expected from it, when I finally watched it at the age of 23, was a few laughs. Well, can I just say that, during the course of the 2hr 24 min film, I didn’t laugh even once?
Gol Maal’s humour is of the typical slapstick variety, with slightly exaggerated acting in parts, and a crude moment or two thrown in, like Bhavani Kumar’s (played by Utpal Dutt) assistant picking his nose in the presence of the office receptionist. But that’s plain disgusting. In which universe is nose-picking funny?
‘Mooch’ Ado about Nothing?
When I started watching the film, little did I know that a moustache could cause mayhem. In fact, the way I see it, the film at some level is a war of moustaches - a metaphor for the power dynamics between men in a patriarchal set up, and the desperate need for men to conform to society’s construction of masculinity.
I think my point can be amply justified by the fact that all hell breaks loose when in the film’s last quarter, Bhavani Shankar realises that his future-son-in-law and employee, Ram Prasad Sharma’s (Amol Palekar) moustache is fake.
Amol Palekar’s character has the unenviable task of leading a dual life, all because of a lie he told his boss Bhavani Shankar to escape his wrath, and now he’s stuck playing the role of his “twin” brother, the flamboyant and irreverent cad Laxman aka Lucky. You ask, where does the moustache come in, in this scenario? Well, it is a simple moustache that distinguishes the twins.
Ram has a pencil moustache, quite similar to that of the lobby boy Zero Moustafa in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), while Laxman is clean shaven. And why is this distinction important apart from the obvious - that is to be able to tell the twins apart?
Good Boy Ram
Meet Good Boy Ram, the very embodiment of sanskaar, and the apple of his boss’s eye. Much before Ram had to create a twin brother to cover up a lie, Ram was already leading a dual life. You see, Bhavani was the sort of nationalistic patriarch who didn’t approve of anything that defied “Indian culture” and tradition. So the music-loving, sports buff Ram had to fake his way to a high paying job at Bhavani’s firm ‘Urmila Traders’, at the cost of shedding his identity.
Ram had to quite literally take on the persona of his namesake, the Ramayana’s titular character, with qualities that would certainly win him the affections of a bhakt. Ram would don a kurta-pajama with a Nehru jacket to work, with his hair styled with - no, not Brylcreem, but oil, to say nothing of his ability to break into shudh Hindi while with his boss.
Throughout the course of his time at Bhavani’s firm, Ram had to feign ignorance of sports and music, because Bhavani didn’t approve of the youth’s inclination towards what he thought was frivolous.
Bad Boy Laxman
Laxman, on the other hand, was the diametrical opposite of his “twin”. He indulged in everything that Bhavani disapproved of. Lucky was always decked out in Western wear - the flamboyant colours and bell-bottoms of the 70s, smoked cigarettes, indulged in sports and music and was mostly quite irreverent in that he was seldom afraid to call a spade a spade.
In fact, he ironically tells Bhavani once, that one must never call a blindman blind, a lame person lame, and the aged old. This rhetoric reminded me of the populist, politically incorrect rhetoric in the age of Trump. And guess who wins the affections of Bhavani’s beautiful daughter? Laxman of course. Because women like bad boys, right? So much for trying to shatter stereotypes.
Patriarchy: 1, Feminism: 0
Let us look at the film’s female characters. Ratna (Manju Singh) is the ever-obedient, doting sister of the hero. At some point in the film it is established that she too is pursuing higher education like Ram, but one never sees Ratna going to university (she’s apparently doing an MA) nor does one see her engaging in any activity other than attending to her brother’s needs, which includes encouraging his dual life. Ratna is even seeing tending to Ram and his friends -- serving them at a picnic. Oh, and did I mention:
He is the supremely patronising uncle of Ram and Ratna, and has presumably been their guardian, after their parents’ death. Despite being a parent figure to both siblings, Doctor Mama is only interested in Ram’s life and career prospects and never so much as asks Ratna about what she wants to do with her life.
Somehow, the only tangible discussion that one hears about Ratna’s future is that of her potential marriage (no surprises there), for which Ram has to arrange funds - another reason why he was aiming for a high paying job. One hears of Ram’s successes - his examination results for example, but one never gets so much as a glimpse of Ratna’s life beyond the domestic sphere.
Even the Film's Only Chance at a Feminist Narrative is Subverted
The film’s other important female character, Urmila (Bindiya Goswami) is the so-called “modern” daughter of the conservative Bhavani Shankar, and is often seen in Western wear, and defies age-old traditions by playing the role of an empowered woman in a college play, much to her family’s chagrin. She chides them for their regressive thinking and carries on with her play rehearsal. At this point, one imagines Urmila to be a strong, independent woman.
Of course, one knows that Ram and Laxman are one and the same. But Urmila’s appeasement of her patriarchal father totally negates her former rebellion and strong-headedness. As for Bhavani Shankar, being the quintessential patriarch, it comes as no surprise that he did not allow his daughter to choose her life partner and thought it his right to choose on her behalf. Bhavani’s attitude towards his daughter is only a reflection of a larger social problem, something women face even today.
So, What Works for the Film?
Amol Palekar as Ram and Laxman is quite endearing and seamlessly segues from one role to the other. He has an easy charm, and stands in stark contrast to his boss. While I can’t say Utpal Dutt is at his best, having watched him in roles such as that of Maganlal Meghraj in Satyajit Ray’s iconic film Joy Baba Felunath ( 1979) , Dutt does try his best to portray the odd mannerisms and behaviour of an eccentric patriarch, and for that, we must give him his due.
By the end of the film, Dutt is in full form and one sees him deliver witty dialogues as only Dutt can. Sample this -- Dutt’s retort to a policeman:
The film’s other redeeming factor is its music, by the evergreen RD Burman, not to mention, Kishore Kumar’s baritone in Aane wala pal conveys just the right emotion - a dash of nostalgia, with an eye toward the future. The music is simple yet meaningful, something we often lack in our soundtracks today. Also, if nothing, the film certainly teaches you how to prepare for a job interview. You can take a cue from here:
Watch Gol Maal not for its humour, but for Amol Palekar’s effortless acting, and the chemistry between his Ram and Dutt’s Bhavani Shankar. Frankly, they have more chemistry than Laxman and Urmila, but certainly not more than Bhavani and his moustache. Also, for all the Amitabh Bachchan fans out there, watch out for Big B in a cameo, as himself. Bachchan was as dashing then as he is today.
Oh and, did I mention the film’s true hero? Look out for Bhavani Shankar’s Chevron meets Walrus moustache, which pretty much is the centre of attraction for the better part of the film.