Millennial Review: Yash Chopra’s ‘Mad’ Thriller ‘Ittefaq’
‘Ittefaq’ (1969) is a compelling murder mystery in dire need of a mental health sensitivity manual.
In a pivotal scene in Yash Chopra’s Ittefaq, a Murphy radio blares an urgent announcement on a rainy night in Mumbai as a young woman called Rekha (played by Nanda) shuts the doors and windows.
With a remake of the film, starring Sonakshi Sinha and Sidharth Malhotra, hitting the screens, here’s a review of the 1969 original.
“Aaj sham paagalkhaane se ek paagal bhaag gaya hai. Yeh pagal bahut khatarnaak hai Iss pagal ne apni biwi ka khoon kiya hai…” In 2017, listening to this dialogue reminded me of how far we’ve come on mental health issues in India. It’s also a line which defines the Rajesh Khanna and Nanda-starrer — a compelling murder mystery in dire need of a mental health sensitivity training. In a
Too long to read? Listen to the story here:
A Murder and ‘Filmy Madness’
Ittefaq starts in a confusing manner, with the first few minutes of the film filled with trippy sequences of symmetrical graphics. An unnecessary long chase sequence later, we arrive at a room with a dead woman on the bed and a few policemen somberly looking on.
The dead woman is Dilip Roy (Rajesh Khanna)’s wife. A famous artist, he is immediately implicated in the murder of his wife, thanks to the eyewitness testimony of his sister-in-law, Renu (played to vampesque perfection by Bindu). While testifying in court, he is deemed to be ‘mentally unfit’ (possibly due to the shock of his wife’s death) and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Rajesh Khanna might be known for his restrained acting in classics like Amar Prem, but in Ittefaq he hams it up like no one’s business. He breaks into hysteria, grimaces in shock, breaks into murderous fury, sulks like a child, looks questioningly at walls — basically Indian cinema’s acting cues for ‘pagal’.
In her appearance on Koffee with Karan, Shabana Azmi reminisced about how a director of a South Indian film once briefed her on a role of a mentally challenged character by saying “Madam, she is mad.” When Azmi asked him on details of the kind of madness — ‘schizophrenia or psychosis’ — the director panicked and said “Madam, just play filmy mad.”
Yash Chopra and Rajesh Khanna seem to believe in ‘filmy mad’ too with a large chunk of the film’s logic premised on Dilip Roy’s unpredictable madness but without any clarity on what the mental illness is.
For instance, when an investigating police officer meets with Dr Trivedi, a psychologist in-charge of Rajesh Khanna’s character at the psychiatric hospital, he just refers to Dilip Roy’s disease as ‘pagalpan’ — setting the template for everyone in the film calling Roy ‘pagal’ and attributing murders, angry outbursts & physical violence to ‘pagalpan.’ Among many outrageous dialogues, Dr Trivedi says “Kabhi kabhi pagal bhi akal waali baat kar dete hain” to a roomful of laughter!
According to Ittefaq, madness implies a return to infancy, unpredictability and an affliction which doesn’t deserve place in civilised society. It’s a lack of sensitivity and ignorance towards mental health which is jarring to watch in 2017.
It All Happened One Night
Dilip Roy runs away from the hospital and forcefully enters a woman’s home. Rekha is a married woman who’s alone at home while her husband is away for work in Kolkata. Initially, the dynamic between these two characters is defined by a desperation to escape the confines of the house. Rekha wants to call the police about the ‘pagal’ (sigh!) murderer who has entered her home and Dilip is a wrongfully accused murderer who wants to avoid the police.
Both Rajesh Khanna and Nanda play the desperation of these two characters so well that you become engrossed in the cat-and-mouse game between the abductor and the abductee and slowly become familiar with the hidden nook and crannies of the house they are trapped in. This is essential since the entire second half of the movie is set in one location — Rekha’s house — and the architecture of the house is an important clue to unravel the mystery of two (gasp!) murders.
While Rajesh Khanna’s Dilip pleads his innocence in his wife’s murder, it is soon clear that the mistress of the house has some secrets of her own. Played with a perfect mix of despair and enigma, Nanda’s Rekha is unlike most Hindi film heroines.
Once she is done doing everything to inform the police about the ‘pagal’ (sigh!) murderer, she starts to befriend him. From a confrontation between an abductor and an abductee, there is a sudden friendship between Dilip and Rekha aided by glasses of whisky and Rooh Afza.
Nanda alternates between a paragon of virtue (an adarsh bhartiya naari) and a mysterious manipulator with ease — ensuring the viewer knows only what she wants us to know. Her intensity matches up with Rajesh Khanna’s aggression and as the trailer for the new Ittefaq makes it clear, it’ll be very difficult for Siddharth Malhotra and Sonakshi Sinha to match up.
A ‘song-less’ film, with Salil Chowdhury as a music director, Yash Chopra won the Filmfare award for Best Director for Ittefaq. The cinematography and frames are experimental, with shaky cameras and extensive use of light & sound. One shot of a shadow courtroom stands out for its breathtaking imagery and a clever representation of the oppression of law and the despair of an innocent accused of murder.
A thriller is as good as its script and Ittefaq is engaging enough — though by the end you know which version of the story to believe, partly due to Rajesh Khanna’s on-screen star power which you sense can’t afford to be tainted by a proven murder charge.
If only the filmmakers were as cautious about representing mental illness on-screen.
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