Saturday, October 20, 2001

It was seven years ago. I was assigned to write an article for Mid-Day’s anniversary special on Bombay’s dancing bars.

I had a sense of déjà vu Saturday as I watched a grainy print of Chandni Bar on cable. The neon lights, the garish make-up, the garlands of money, the coquettish slap on a customer’s cheek with a tip just received, the lecherous men, and the dancing girls… all could have been straight out of the bar I wrote about so many years ago.

I would never have paid to watch the film in a theatre. But once I started watching it on cable, I sat right through it, all two and sundry hours of depressing celluloid. Mind you, it isn’t a bad film. In fact, it is an honest attempt at capturing a slice of life few people will ever experience. But, hey, give me Rush Hour 2, any day.

There are two outstanding sequences in the film, though. Chandni Bar is worth watching, if only for those scenes.

Mumtaz (Tabu) is a dancer in Chandni Bar. Potya, a local gangster, takes a shine on her, marries her and they have two kids. Marriage and parenthood have little effect on Potya’s ways. There are shades of Bhiku Mhatre in Potya’s character and his inexorable journey to an inevitable but tragic end: a fake police encounter.

Outstanding Scene Number 1: Bereaved and helpless, Mumtaz vows to shield her children from the sleazy underbelly of an unforgiving city. She turns to one of Potya’s bosses for help. He offers to send her to the Gulf as a concubine of a rich Sheikh. “In six-seven years you will have enough money to last you a lifetime,’’ he tells her snidely. The change of expression on the just-widowed Mumtaz’s face as the vulnerability and diffidence give way to a steely resolve is priceless. “Aap bhaigiri chod kar, badvagiri kab se karne lage (Have you given up being a don, and become a pimp)?” she asks quietly.

The don’s reaction is equally telling. He explodes with an impotent rage that comes naturally to all oppressors, be it a chauvinist, a don or a dictator. He raves and rants, fumes and frets, but he knows there’s nothing he can do to either hurt her or break her spirit. I mean you can batter a body into submission, but you can’t get another mind to respect you. Fear may force the oppressed to be obsequious, but deep down in their hearts they know their oppressor is a piece of shit. And the latter knows that too, and he knows also that all the pseudo-power he has is futile when it comes to controlling what other people think of you.

Outstanding Scene Number 2: Mumtaz’s son is falsely implicated in an extortion case. A police fixer agrees to have him released for Rs 70,000. Her savings tote up to a measly 25,000. Her friend and guide, Iqbal, tells her there’s only one alternative: approach her old customers for the money in exchange for a few hours of her time. (Tabu is, once again, outstanding in this scene). Her daughter overhears the conversation. While Mumtaz does the rounds of her former benefactors, her daughter dons the war paint under the strobes of Chandni Bar.

Just as Mumtaz returns to her doorstep, a white Maruti screeches to a halt outside. Payal, her daughter, steps out. As realisation sinks into Mumtaz of what her daughter has done, there is first an expression of shock, and then slowly her shoulders sag in a resigned acceptance of her fate. Payal, on the other hand, looks vulnerable, violated and almost guilty, as she gingerly hands over the money to her mother. They break down, sobbing, embracing… knowing that the only solace they will ever find is in each other’s arms.

The end, like the rest of the movie, is depressing. “I wanted to give my children a future. But I see nothing but my past mirrored in their lives,” says Mumtaz. The moral of the story: If you are a lady of the night, you and your generations to come are doomed to be prisoners of neon. Chandni Bar holds out no hope.

But I guess for a people fed on a non-stop diet of saccharine, a touch of bitter reality won’t bite.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?