Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tu Tithe Mee - old people are not all tragic characters

Warning: This is going to be a rambling post, and incidentally it is not about Baghban. So you may skip directly to the fourth paragraph and lose out on nothing.

Whenever I hear someone talk about what a sweet, sad and touching film Baghban is, and how it makes parents reflect on their sad, imminent future, it makes me realise how little we Indians demand of our movies. Give us a kind old couple with golden hearts, a bunch of selfish kids who relentlessly mistreat them, a motley bunch of friends who help the old couple pull things together, and watch us wet our hankies. Like in many things, my dislike for Baghban stems not so much from the film itself - I think Hema Malini was looking gorgeous, and the improbability of having a teenaged granddaughter within 40 years of marriage (hastily explained in the opening scenes as a result of both Amitabh and his oldest son having married very early - what the heck?) or a man claiming to have worked 40 years in a bank which was established less than ten years before the film was made - these are all goofs that we have long forgiven Hindi cinema for.

My bias against the film comes from the fact that the story is so time-worn - I’ve seen half-a-dozen films in the Doordarshan days with similar sad tales of old people - two of them had a 40-something Rajesh Khanna play much older characters. Now there is nothing wrong in re-adapting an old plot with a new look. The thing is, Baghban adds nothing to the story by way of interpretation. The sons and daughters are all like one big, insensitive monolith. The two happy-family songs in the family at the beginning and the sudden turn-around in all the characters as soon as they learn that their old father is broke after retirement, has all the depth of a Madhur Bhandarkar film. In real life, when old parents move in with their sons and bahus after many years of both couples living independently, there always are domestic problems, conflicting lifestyles and a difficult phase of adjustment. This does not happen because either the parents or the children are bad people, but because they are different. But again, Baghban is not a psychological study, it is a Hindi film with an emotional story. And there comes the main source of my prejudice - just a few years before Baghban, there came a Marathi film called Tu Tithe Mee, whose traces are all too evident in the later Hindi film. And Tu Tithe Mee is such a gem.

I watched Tu Tithe Mee film many years ago, and don’t remember a lot of details, including the names of any of the characters. And yet the fresh approach of this film to many familiar plots and situations is so unforgettable, I can almost relate the story, scene-by-scene. I’ll call the leads by the names of the excellent actors who played them - Mohan Joshi, aka Babbanrao Kadam from Vaastav, plays the retired patriarch of a small joint family, and Suhas Joshi, who was Chandrachud Singh’s mum in Josh, plays his simple, nine-yard-sari clad wife.

When Mohan retires from service, he looks forward to spending some quality time with his wife, something the couple missed out in the years of looking after their children. They belong to a generation where responsibility took precedence over romance, and had never learnt to express their feelings to each other. Now looking at the sweet flirtations of young lovers in their neighbourhood, Mohan feels there is no harm sneaking some time away from their children and grandchildren to roam around in parks, give flowers and hang out with friends of their age. Of their two bahus, one has a job and one is a housewife, and the family lives in a general harmony, with the elders unobtrusive and the youngsters appreciative of their support. But when the younger son gets transferred to Kolhapur for work, neither bahu wants the burden of running a household without the elders’ help. So the two young couples hatch this brilliant solution: the mother would live in Kolhapur with one bahu, and the father would stay back in Mumbai. This decision is imposed on the elders without taking their wish into account and, when they had finally found the time for each other, the old couple is forced to live apart. How they convey to their children the need for each others’ company despite their love for the children, forms the rest of the story.

There are many commendable aspects to Tu Tithe Mee. While the actions of the young people in this story come across as selfish, these characters are not outright condemned. In fact, they are so used to the parents’ loving submission to their own needs, that they have long forgotten that parents have their own emotional needs and life beyond their children. Part of the blame is on the parents who, in line with their own upbringing, have always put their children first.

There is a touching scene early on when Suhas, annoyed at her husband’s sudden transformation to a love-struck teenager, reminds him of a cheesy letter she wrote to him early in their marriage, when she was pregnant with their first son and separated from her husband for the first time - he never replied nor mentioned that letter to her, thus stubbing the rather bold move on her part. In reply, Mohan pulls out a tattered piece of paper from under her pillow - the very letter in question - which he recites to her verbatim.

Now before you think this is one big perfect-family bore, cut to another letter, later in the film from Mohan to his wife now living in Kolhapur. It is just the kind of formal, dry communication you would expect from a man of his age and bearing - except for the ‘I LOVE YOU’ inserted after every sentence. The wife, by now playing along, reads out a censored letter to her beta-bahu, and cutely complains about how her husband has written about everybody but herself. The amused son conveys her remark to Mohan over the phone, and thus the old couple manage a clever wink-wink at each other under the children’s nose. The film is sprinkled with cute, funny, witty moments - be it old man and woman lying to their children to sneak out on dates just for the kicks, the old woman’s jealousy over her husband’s friendship with his classier childhood girlfriend, the seventy-something lady from their senior citizens club breaking into a sensuous dance at one of the clubs’ gatherings, and not to forget Suhas Joshi’s inimitable drunken showdown!

In terms of social message, the film teaches by example rather than being preachy. The loneliness of many of the older characters is understood, but not squarely blamed upon the younger generation. A more comfortable solution is presented by senior citizens supporting each other to achieve some degree of self-reliance. Suhas and Mohan’s household is in a happy equilibrium without any TV-serial showiness or pretentious pairi-paunas in the morning. Elder bahu leaves for office just like the men, leaving her daughter to the efficient care of her mother-in-law and younger bahu.

Most importantly, the film manages to portray the delicate balance of relationships within a family, the love and respect that is evident in small acts of largesse and adjustment in everyday life rather than hollow speeches, cringe-inducing hug-fests and glitzy naach-gaana. Something totally lost to the sensibilities of the makers and lovers of Baghban. But then that would be asking for too much.

A small aside: If you remember the completely pointless sequence when Amitabh and Hema Malini, having decided to get away from their thankless children, meet up at the fictional small town where for some reason they had decided to spend their honeymoon all those years ago, the manager of the hotel where they stay is played by Mohan Joshi. At the time my mother and I were so convinced that Baghban is a sort of remake of Tu Tithe Mee - there was also some talk about such a remake with Amitabh Bacchan when the Marathi film first made news - we thought of Joshi’s inclusion in the cast as some sort of tribute to the original. A worse tribute there never was.

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