General consensus is that the 1980s were the worst years for Hindi cinema. It’s not an untenable argument — from the socially conscious films of the 1950s to the frothy romances of the ’60s to the musical masala entertainers of the ’70s, India suddenly went into the realm of bloody revenge dramas, gaudy costumes and loud soundtracks. There were exceptions, of course, but they didn’t define the decade.
One of the people who suffered in this new wave of Bollywood was music composer R.D. Burman. The man who had given countless hits across genres, from brooding romantic ballads to fun, flirty party numbers, using everything from electronic rock to folk elements, suddenly found himself out of favour in the new scheme of things.
And it showed not only in the films he didn’t get but also the awards. Despite churning out hundreds of movie scores, many of which are still favourites, be it at parties or on a Sunday morning at home, Burman won only three Filmfare Awards, and one of them was posthumous, for 1942: A Love Story (1994). But the last film for which he won the award during his lifetime is one of the exceptions to ’80s Bollywood: Shekhar Kapur’s directorial debut, Masoom (1983).
With Burman’s tunes and lyrics by Gulzar (who also wrote the screenplay), the soundtrack of this film actually has just four songs, but each one is a gem, and beautifully deployed to bring out the mood of this family drama. On R.D. Burman’s birth anniversary, here’s a flashback to Masoom.
A mature, muted take on infidelity & marriage
Adapted from American writer Erich Segal’s novel Man, Woman and Child, the film tells the story of how a man’s discovery of an illegitimate child from an old extramarital affair turns a family upside-down.
D.K. Malhotra (Naseeruddin Shah), a successful, happily married architect who lives in a plush Delhi home with his loving wife, Indu (Shabana Azmi), and their two adorable daughters, Winky (Urmila Matondkar, in her debut as a child actor) and Mini (Aradhana). They’re a happy, cosy family that seem to be the envy of their friends.
Indu and D.K. laugh and joke and flirt with each other, they talk to each other as real partners, they dance with their friends at parties where D.K. bursts into song. It’s a regular family that feels less like a movie cast and more like people one could know.
But early on, you know this won’t last. D.K. has brought home a puppy, without telling Indu, because she doesn’t like dogs. He and the girls are hoping that the pup’s cuteness will melt Indu’s heart and she will allow them to adopt him. But the dog shatters a family photo, and you know it’s a metaphor for what is about to come.
D.K. receives a letter from the headmaster of his old school in Nainital, saying that Bhavna (Supriya Pathak), a young woman D.K. had slept with during his school reunion about a decade earlier, has died, leaving behind her and D.K.’s son, Rahul (Jugal Hansraj, also debuting as a child actor). The headmaster, who has known Bhavna since she was a little girl, is now old and ailing, and can’t take care of the boy, so D.K. has to take responsibility for him.
D.K. is stunned to find out that he has a son (Bhavna had ensured he never found out because she didn’t want to disrupt his family life) and Indu is heartbroken and angry to find out that he had cheated on her, and that, as she says, the last several years have been a lie.
Rahul, who is unaware that D.K. is his father, comes into the Malhotras’ home and life. Mini and Winky, also unaware of the truth, grow fond of him, and D.K., who always wanted a son, is smitten with Rahul, whose sweet, shy smile and big, sensitive eyes could win over anyone. But Indu, who adores children, can’t bear to look at him since he is a reminder of her husband’s unfaithfulness. Every time she finds herself softening towards him, like when he builds her a gorgeous wooden box for her bangles, something inside her stops her from reaching out to this quiet boy who is completely innocent in all this and craves only a mother’s love.
One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes is shown through a song, when Indu is singing her daughters to sleep and Rahul, alone and scared in his new surroundings, gazes longingly at them from outside the ajar bedroom door.
Rewatching this movie that’s almost 40 years old, one is struck by just how ahead of its time it was, not just in subject matter, but also in treatment. There is no melodramatic chest-beating, no villainising, no Machiavellian plotting to get the child out of the house, just an understanding that even people we love, and who love us, are flawed and make mistakes. D.K. is a loving husband and father to his girls, and that doesn’t change just because he also, obviously, wants to do right by his son, who, as he says to his friend Suri (Saeed Jaffrey), also has a right over him, just as the girls do.
Perhaps this overall progressive, mature tone is why one is willing to overlook the few things about the movie that do jar in today’s times, such as D.K.’s desire for a son, and the fact that he does things with Rahul that one never sees him do with the girls, like go hiking and horse-riding.
The versatility of R.D. Burman
Special mention must be made of the children. It is rare to see kids in Bollywood movies who aren’t annoying, cutesy, smart-mouthed brats or too trendy, but here again, Masoom is an exception. All three kids are utterly adorable, and that is largely thanks to how natural they are. They’re not trying to be anything other than regular kids who struggle with maths, squabble with each other, play in the garden and welcome everyone with openness and warmth.
Their friendship with Rahul is incredibly sweet, and to encapsulate it, R.D. Burman moves away from the more lyrical, ghazal-like quality of the rest of the soundtrack to give us a fun song that, to this day, is every child’s favourite.
But perhaps the prettiest, and most wrenching song, is Tujhse Naaraaz Nahin Zindagi. There are two versions, one sung by Anup Ghoshal and one by Lata Mangeshkar. The first comes when Rahul, in all his innocence, tells D.K. that even if he finds his father, he wants to continue living with D.K., and asks if he can call him Papa, a question that shocks D.K. with its simplicity and complexity.
The second comes when Indu is coming to a decision about Rahul. In both situations, Gulzar (whose lyrics for this song won him a Filmfare as well) and Burman outdid themselves in creating a mood of utter perplexedness, confusion and bewilderment at the vagaries of life.