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Sunil Dutt’s one-actor movie Yaadein is an oddly apt watch in these isolated times

Sunil Dutt's National Award-winning directorial debut shows his prowess as an actor & filmmaker, and his willingness to take risks.

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When Sunil Dutt’s wife, Nargis, had to attend a film festival in the Czech Republic as a judge, and took the kids with her, little did they know that it would end up making him a Guinness World Record holder.

Inspired by the loneliness of an empty house, Dutt decided to make a movie about a man who returns home from work one day to find that his wife has walked out on him and taken the children with her. The rest of the film is a soliloquy on marriage, parenting, rage, sadness, remorse that even earned a Guinness World Record for fewest actors in a narrative film — one, himself.

It was a risky move for any filmmaker, but especially for someone like Dutt, who had made his name as an actor and even dabbled in production, but had never directed a movie before.

A movie about a man who doesn’t look for his angry, upset wife, or even send her a message, but stays in his house the entire time and talks to himself and the audience, might seem anachronistic in an age of smartphones and social media. But then again, we never imagined staying alone at home in lockdown for weeks on end with no other human presence, either. So actually, Sunil Dutt’s 1964 film Yaadein (whose story is, interestingly, credited to Mrs Sunil Dutt, not Nargis as she was professionally known) was not only ahead of its time cinematically, but also oddly prescient.

Easily one of the boldest and most experimental movies in Hindi cinema history, the National Award-winning Yaadein is the movie to watch in the week of Sunil Dutt’s death anniversary.

Also read: Raat Aur Din, directed by Satyen Bose, was the perfect swansong for Nargis

Clever art direction, cinematography & editing

“The homes where women are respected are visited by Gods to their delightment. But where women are not respected even the good actions of other members become fruitless.” The movie opens with this quote, attributed to the Manu Smriti.

It’s an interesting choice, given that what follows is not quite as respectful to women. Anil (Sunil Dutt) comes home in the evening to find the house empty. He panics, but then reassures himself that his wife, Priya (Nargis, who appears in silhouette in the last few minutes of the film) must have just taken the kids out for a movie. 

His initial panic isn’t unfounded, though. When he goes to make himself a drink, he finds a letter from her at the bar saying that she has left him and taken the kids, because she finds it untenable to continue this marriage (presumably, she left it there knowing that it was one place her heavy-drinking husband would look). 

What follows is a creatively shot, edited and designed retelling of Anil and Priya’s marriage, from the time they met to his infidelity and abuse. Using a black-and-white template even though colour had long come to Indian cinema was just one way to make good use of space, light and shadow to create a mood. Other clever ploys like Mario Miranda’s sketches to give a sense of other people’s presence, as well as tight camera angles and flashbacks in which we can hear but never see other people, add to the mood and help us piece together what might have happened to break this marriage. 

We find out that Anil isn’t the nicest man. He’s self-centred and given to fits of rage, and stays out all the time when he finds his wife is busy with parenting and cannot give him the attention, and sex, he feels he deserves. Even after she leaves, his first reaction is the shame he will face and how he can perfectly well manage the house on his own, as though she was nothing but a housekeeper. (In the first few minutes in the kitchen, he floods it, throws food items around in a tantrum, scalds his hand and breaks some crockery, but that’s beside the point.)

But Anil’s childish tantrums, we learn, are part of a larger set-up. Human beings aren’t perfect, we know, and Anil’s immature, entitled anger soon gives way to a more reflective mood, which soon gives way to reminiscence, remorse and so on. Each mood is so carefully calibrated, each scene is crafted to show us different facets of his personality — his gregariousness, his charm, his adoration for his children (the scene in which he tells them a bedtime story is absolutely delightful, even in its underlying sadness).

And watching this film during a lockdown means that each scene and frame remind us of the fragility of human emotion in a difficult time, the crushing loneliness of talking to oneself, the emptiness of Anil’s house a reminder that many people are in a similar situation and the only difference is technology.

Also read: Sadma is an achingly beautiful story about a love that defies labels

One-man masala film, way before the term became a staple

There is an almost theatrical quality to the movie, the way space is used and the way Dutt modulates his voice in different scenes. It almost feels like an acting workshop in which he is demonstrating every emotion or rasa. From rage to laughter to a frightening breakdown, this film has it all.

Typically, when we think of a typical Bollywood masala movie, we think of how it has everything — action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy. The 1970s is when the advent of the masala movie happened, with Nasir Husain’s Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) and was perfected by filmmakers like Manmohan Desai.

But Yaadein, which is as far from mainstream as you can get, actually has all of these things, and they’re all packaged in one man. The one thing masala element it doesn’t really have much of is music. Vasant Desai’s score is used sparingly and to great effect, most particularly in a lovely song sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Dekha Hai Sapna Koi comes at a point when Anil is especially vulnerable, and it is placed just when the tense, taut storytelling needs a bit of a breather.

There are some movies that you can watch again and again, because they’re comfortingly familiar or because they have great songs or because they’re just great fun. Yaadein isn’t one of them. It will make you uncomfortable and it will shake you. But each time you watch it, you will learn something, notice something new. A smile, a certain play of light and dark, maybe a particular movement that you hadn’t spotted before. And that is its real beauty.

Also read: Nasir Husain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen is all about the music


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