A case for a thriller

As Neeraj Pandey’s new film Rustom nears its release date, the (in)famous Nanavati case is back in public imagination. The 1959 court case in which naval commander K.M. Nanavati was tried for the murder of Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover, inspired two Hindi films: R.K. Nayyar’s Yeh Rastey Hain Pyaar Ke (1963) and, a decade later, Gulzar’s potent interpretation, Achanak.

Unlike Nayyar’s rather straight and staid version, Gulzar used the story ingenuously as a means to delve into the human mind and turning it into a riveting moral battleground of sorts in which the judiciary is pitched against medical science.

Mounted like a thriller, the 90-minute song-less film moves goes back and forth in time as the director reveals things to the viewers, yet keeps bits to himself. Instead of drawing directly from the case, Gulzar pegged the narrative on a story by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who used to write the popular column ‘The Last Page’ in the now-defunct city tabloid, Blitz. Old timers would remember that it was the weekly tabloid which was accused of turning the public opinion in favour of Nanavati.

`In Abbas’s story, the protagonist doesn’t just kill the lover but he also murders his philandering wife.

Against the grain
In the film, Vinod Khanna, who traditionally used to shoot his way into a film, goes against his popular image and makes the entry on a stretcher. Shot through the chest, the doctor has given up on him, but Ranjeet Khanna survives multiple operations. The flashback tells us about his army background and how he used his training to kill the two most important people in his life. Instead of showing the act of killing, Gulzar smartly cuts to training sessions where Ranjeet learnt the trick to neutralise the enemy. The moral dilemma spirals when in a flashback, Ranjeet tells his wife Pushpa (Lily Chakraborty) how his medal reminds him of the people he killed during the war. How does such an emotional man bring himself to eliminate his best friend Prakash (Ravi Raj) and his wife? Do we adore a charming armyman or the trained killer within ?

Om Shivpuri who plays the cigarette-smoking doctor Chaudhary takes the quandary to another level. He and his team (Farida Jalal and Asrani) save Ranjeet only to see him sent back to the gallows. It says something about the criminal justice system which waits for the guilty to be healthy to be punished. Gulzar doesn’t come up with any clear-cut answer, instead opening up a debate. The moral impasse doesn’t come in the way of the pace of the thriller best exemplified by a sequence where dogs chase a barefoot Ranjeet.

Gulzar’s wordplay is legendary, as he has a knack for finding humour in the mundane. So, when the colonel father-in-law (Iftekhar) tells Ranjeet he is not only his sir but also his susar, it comes as a relief amid tense moments. Letters recorded on tape create an interesting romantic tapestry and give us a sense of the times when the cassette recorder ruled.

The film steers clear of songs but towards the end, in an emotional parting, in which Ranjeet and his father-in-law (who, incidentally, also wants to save him) salute each other, one can hear the tune of ‘Koi Hota Jisko Apna Hum Apna Keh Lete Yaaro’, the defining song of Gulzar’s directorial debut Mere Apne (1971). There is also a repeated use of ‘Sun Mere Bandhu Re’ (Sujata, 1959) as a refrain giving this battle of heart and mind, lyrical expression.

For Khanna, Achanak was an experiment sandwiched between his rustic dacoit image of Jabbar Singh in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Sarju in Patthar Aur Payal (1974). Here he was expected to underplay and he pulled it off very well, without reducing himself to a cardboard character. In the 70s, if Hrishikesh Mukherjee (who presented Achanak) was offering Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra roles that were out of their comfort zone, Gulzar was experimenting with Jeetendra and Khanna.

Years later, Gulzar again cast Khanna, against the tide, in Meera (1979) opposite Hema Malini. Bengali actress Lily Chakraborty could not make it big in Hindi films, but her natural performance made Achanak believable. Gulzar dared to show what Nayyar could not. Unlike Neena (Leela Naidu in Ye Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke) Pushpa is not given an easy way out. For instance, her drink is not laced when she is seduced.

A layered retelling
Technically it may have begun to look dated, but Achanak continues to probe and provoke. In an interview, Abbas, who wrote many of Raj Kapoor’s hits, described it as a fairly well-made film apart from the climax which he didn’t like. Perhaps, he didn’t like the way Gulzar moved away from the literal translation of his story, which talked about a heart transplant. But then that is the beauty of Gulzar’s works. The joy lies in peeling layer after layer and yet finding another layer waiting to be explored.