2013 is going to be the year of the revisiting (and in some cases, watching for the first time) iconic films.  The Sight and Sound Top 250 and IMDB Top 250 take care of world cinema. For Indian films, specifically Hindi, I did a small list for myself – my own picks for iconic films right from Raja Harishchandra to whatever shit is getting released today. After watching each film, I thought of putting down some words – not a review, not a criticism, not an IMDB trivia bit. Rather, describe a key insight that I may have gathered from it. Being a person with a fondness for things related to the humanities, most of these insights deal with the ideas present in the films. Observations on the technical aspects of the films are avoided because a) I am not qualified and b) There is enough material by experts and film students on the same. Remember these are the greatest movies.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath which features in my top 10 Hindi film list (I haven’t made an all languages list but if I do, I am sure it will feature in the top 50).

The intriguing opening scene
Image Source: http://toddstadtman.com/lucha-ankhen.html

In the context of the current rage (or outrage) against rapists and the screeching demand for capital punishment, the subject of this film from 1958 might seem extremely utopian and almost unreal. However, present generation folks who think this a story of a lunatic need not be outraged. Even in the 1920s, the fellow who did this project was called a lunatic by his peers. In short, irrespective of the times, if someone tries to do something that deals with humane treatment of groups like criminals, he or she will be called a lunatic.

The greatness of Do Aankhen Barah Haath is not the idea itself. Neither is it the production value which one must know is of the highest order (given the available technology of that time). The greatness of this film is in the successful marriage of the two. This is best explained by describing this particular scene which has got imprinted into my consciousness.

6 roughneck, seemingly incorrigible death row convicts have just been told that they will be released from jail and will have to go live in a farm with jailer Adinath. The screen fades out and becomes pitch black. There is a cut here of course. This black screen suddenly gets split down the middle as you realise they are the gates of the jail and they are being opened. Six silhouettes are walking out. You see their lumpen massess trudging out. No faces. Each one as unidentifiable as the other. As they cross the gate, they come into the sunshine. You see their clothes – they have changed their clothes from prisoner stripes to their own clothes. Each person is wearing a different shade (this is black and white, so cannot say different colour). As they come into the sunshine, they turn back and look into the camera smiling partly at the joy of being free and partly because they are amused at this whole idea of living in a farm. Now you can see each one of them clearly. Each one has his own unique features and personalities – Tamanna, Keshav, Kishen, Shankar, Hiroo and Jalia Nai.

The concept of the film sits in this scene – the transformation of the non-human criminal identified by serial number and his crime into a unique personality with a name, a swagger and a mind of his own. The story carries on of course and there are many events that occur. But this use of black and white photography, the screenplay and, shall I say, bindaas performance of the six actors playing the convicts make this scene extremely powerful. There are other powerful scenes too but this one, at the cost of repeating myself, is outstanding.

There are flaws in this film. The female lead character in the film is extremely strong. There is the obvious attraction to a woman for six convicts who have been living away from society. But instead of playing the victim, she stands up to them. But, she is the second person after the jailer to treat them as normal human beings. When one of the convicts gets his kids over, she is the one who teaches them how to take care of children and in the process kindling in them the hope that they are good people and they can lead normal lives. A half decent actress would have brought out the power of this character and the top actresses would have truly explored the many nuances of it. But V Shantaram had to choose his wife. Sandhya, the lead actress, is by far one of the worst actresses ever. Of course, being the wife of a producer-director helps getting acting jobs. But she does know how to dance which she had to learn before working on Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje.

In the end, does this film mean anything in this day and age? As a student of human nature (and one who has been using it in his trade for quite some time now), I can say that the premise of the film is not untrue. People do change – given the right environment, impetus and encouragement. And what was an experiment in the film can very well be made into a large project. But in the process of making it into a large project, there is a key element that usually gets lost out and therefore leads to failure. In the entire film, Adinath’s only weapon is his trust on the convicts and the faith he has on his theory that his good intentions will thaw the cold criminal mind. He does not carry any firearms, he does not lock the doors or fence the farm, etc. I am not sure whether in a large project, where many Adinaths are required to manage, coordinate and execute the plans, how many of them will be able to sustain that same level of faith and trust. That very few people follow Gandhism is not a reflection on the quality of the thought, rather it is the reflection on the strength required in the individual to live a Gandhian way.

Useful links:

Aye Malik Tere Bandhe Hum (SLYT)

A piece by Raghu Krishna from 2003 “The Eyes Have It” where he writes of the tugging of his heart by by the film.

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