New Delhi: In most of Gulzar’s films, women pack a punch. Khushboo (1975), his sixth film as director, was also based on a ‘strong woman’ and her capacity for love but not at the cost of her pride and dignity.
Based on Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s — it is his 145th birth anniversary on 15 September — novel, Panditmoshai, Khushboo is set in a village. Here, Kusum (Hema Malini) stays with her brother Kunj (Asrani) and looks after an old rich ailing lady. Brindavan (Jeetendra) is a doctor from another village who has been called to treat her.
Kusum and Brindavan have a past — their marriage was fixed during childhood, a common practice during that time. But due to a property dispute, they had to move apart. Kusum and her mother were also disrespected by Brindavan’s family in his absence when he had moved to his uncle’s home for a while to complete his studies.
Years pass but Kusum has refused to marry anybody else. This is not a case of suffering silently though — she does so by choice.
Brindavan, however, has moved on. At the time when the two meet in the village where Kusum now stays, he is a widower with a child named Charan (Raju Shrestha). When Brindavan realises that Kusum feels wedded to him and has remained unmarried for this reason, he starts to feel guilty and wants to marry her.
Brindavan’s mother (Durga Khote) also is ready to consider making Kusum her daughter-in-law, but Kusum is the one who is holding back this time — she cannot forget the earlier rejection and does not want to be taken for granted. She loves Brindavan’s son and would love to be a mother to him, but she won’t be the ‘suitable girl’ this time around easily. She’ll do without a man, even a man she loves dearly, but will keep her pride.
Kusum’s tussle with Brindavan’s mother is also interesting to watch. When Khote visits Kusum’s house and leaves her traditional kangan quietly for her as a sign of acceptance, she returns it.
“Chhodi hui ladki ko koi wapas le le, is se bada maan kya milega usey?” (if one takes back a girl who was ben set aside, can there be greater respect shown to her than this?), Khote tells her son, clearly put out by Kusum’s rejection of them as a family.
Kusum raises a moot point — the question of consent — in a conversation with her friend Manorama (Farida Jalal): “Koi raaste par thodi baithi hoon, jab jee chahega chhod jayenge…meri marzi kuch nahin” (Am I sitting on the road that they will leave or accept me whenever they want…is my opinion not important?)
A new kind of feminist
Kusum is a layered character. She is quietly rebellious, feminist. Gulzar presents her with all his nuanced understanding of a woman’s character. At a time when women did not have much say in a lot of matters in their lives, especially when it came to relationships and matrimony, Kusum is shown exercising her choice freely.
What makes this film stand out is also the choice of actors. Jeetendra and Hema Malini were both stars of the mainstream industry at that time. Khushboo was released in 1975, also the year of Sholay‘s release — and Hema Malini’s Basanti in Sholay is as different from Kusum as chalk is to cheese.
In an interview, the actor said that with Khushboo, Gulzar had presented her in a completely different way. He had given her a new image — both were to continue their association with Kinara (1977) and Meera (1979).
“I was too young to realise what kind of a strong character I was playing in that film (Khushboo), but this changed my image — I didn’t have to wear bell-bottoms and fancy wigs or run around trees,” she said.
In Khushboo, Hema is dressed in simple cotton sarees with minimal makeup. She emotes with her eyes. ‘Doctor’ Jeetendra comes with thick-framed glasses, looks serious and earnest. Not an odd couple at all — why on earth did they not do more such roles?
Gulzar and R.D. Burman’s combination is a favourite with many music lovers. This film is another great collaboration between the two. The joyous ‘Bechara dil kya kare’; the melancholic semi-classical ‘Do nainon mein aansoo bhare hain’, or the iconic ‘O majhi re’ are just phenomenal.
This film is a must-watch if you like life on the slow and songs that you can hum all day.
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)