Rajesh Khanna’s Haathi Mere Saathi, Ardhashir Vakil’s tribute to a bygone era..
[I have often referred to the first chapter of Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy as a superb example of the paraphernalia associated with the 'balcony' in Indian cinema once upon a time. This wonderful segment in an otherwise mediocre novel is remarkably evocative and recreates the screening of Rajesh Khanna's successful Haathi Mere Saathi in a Bombay cinema. Rather fortunately I have managed to locate an online link for this chapter. It is only about 8 pages long and can easily be digested online. Would love to hear impressions from those who lived through that Rajesh Khanna peak period, as unluckily I did not, and equally those to whom this offers an introduction to the unfamiliar]
I was eight when I encountered the friendly elephants. Perched on a padded seat, in a theater jammed with human bodies, I watched Rajesh Khanna, lead actor in the film, as he urged his noodle-trunked mates, Rani and Soni, to push his broken-down Jeep. Bodies swayed to the melodious hit song.
Chul, chul, chul, mere haathi
O mere saathi
Chul re chul khatara ki…
Chuliya, motor car
Dhakka de, mere yaar…
As he sang, Rajesh leapt from one end of the open-top vehicle to the other. Sometimes, during the song, he pretended to be driving, tooting the horn and swiveling the steering wheel. Then he would jump up, turn around, arm extended in front of him, and serenade the elephants, while cocking an eye at his lead lady, who sat in her pink sari, eyes laden with mascara, coyly surveying the scene. The packed cinema murmured approvingly, sighed and shifted in their seats. In the darkness, women smiled at their children, and the occasional cry of a baby was swiftly smothered by a melting brown breast. Men wandered into the aisles and headed toward the toilets to smoke beedis. They hawked paan juice on the bespattered walls and emptied their bladders into the tall urinals.
I looked to my left and caught Mrs. Verma patting her oiled black hair, a vacant half-smile on her face. This had been a difficult film to get tickets for. Mrs. Verma had needed to phone one of her filmi friends who happened to know the deputy manager of the Nandi cinema, and he, after some fussing, oohing and aahing, had promised four cheap tickets in the front stalls.
The film had been on release for nine days. Every one of the twenty-two cinema halls in Bombay in which it was showing displayed the familiar black and white signboard on its entrance steps: HOUSE FULL.
As the song faded and the Jeep jump-started into the trickling sunset, my arms pimpled at the prospect of two-and-a-half hours of unfolding drama. Momentarily, I worried about the popcorn and masala chips in the interval, then I allowed all thought, sound, even smell, to seep steadily away from my screen-fixed consciousness. My head settled, as in a comfortable vise, my eyes swam from image to image. The dialogue, the scenery, the minor characters, the clothes, the different voices — I followed them all with painful concentration.
The hero, Rajesh, meets the heroine, Tanuja, at college, little suspecting that their parents are plotting their marriage in the background. The sequence of scenes leads up to the formal visit of Rajesh and his parents to the home of their prospective in-laws. The two sets of parents and one widowed white-sari’d grandmother are seated in the sparsely decorated living room. The heroine’s family is respectable but not very rich. As the idle chatter continues, the audience anxiously awaits the entrance of the bride-to-be with the tray of tea. Her mother assures the hero’s parents that she is educated up to “intercollegiate,” but not interested in pursuing her studies any further. Grandmother extols the virtues of the dead grandfather and sheds a few artificial tears, before explaining that the only mission left in her life is to see her beloved granddaughter happily married to some nice young man from a well-respected family. Just then, in minces Tanuja, having held herself back at the door for a moment. Her father extends his arm encouragingly. “Aao beti, aajao idher.” A little sitar music, the hero’s surprised face, his parents’ immediate admiration. Dutifully shy, tea tray awkwardly balanced in her hands, she meets Rajesh Khanna’s eye with a little stutter of delight.
“Kya hai beti? Is anything wrong?” inquires her mother.
Soon after, the happy couple are circling the wedding pyre seven times. Strings of champa flowers, like pretty white curtains, cover their blushful faces. Two songs take care of their courting and their honeymoon in Kashmir. Rani and Soni, the hero’s pet elephants, form the backdrop for the first song, the Himalayan mountains for the second. In the log-fire dining room of the luxury hotel in Gulmarg, Tanuja and Rajesh giggle cozily about when to have children, their preferred sex and their names. These were the bits, like some of the song sequences, where I got a chance to look around me, take a break from all that intense concentration. My anxiety about eats in the interval increased. I had sixty paise in the pocket of my shorts, perhaps just enough to get me a small packet of popcorn. My eyes were on the screen, but my head was filling up with Punjabi samosas, Five Star chocolate, chutney sandwiches, Smarties, peanuts, Mangolas, and then — Prem Chopra appeared. A whisper travels through the crowd, “Prem Chopra…Prem Chopra…Prem Chopra aya re…dekho re Prem Chopra…villain number one sala!” On the screen is the man with the most evil leer in the cinema world. Black oily mustache feathery under his nose, tapering to a thin line at the corners of his mouth. His cheeks are puffy and arrogant, his hair is slicked-back black. His suit is vivid purple and his broad tie sits garishly on his red shirt. But it’s his eyes that do the most damage: black dots of fire, shining and crackling from hell. He pauses, allowing the audience to recover from his presence, saunters up to Sharmila — the character played by Tanuja, who, despite the warning music, has not noticed his arrival — and hisses breathily.
“Arre, Sharmila! Tum idher? What a nice pleasshuure to see you here.” This is the devil himself. He slurs and smirks, and uses heavily accented English words. The crowd loves him. Rajesh suddenly looks forlorn, like a pink-faced cherub. Tanuja tries to speak, but all I can see is the fright in her eyes. Prem strokes his cheek, leans to one side, and asks with exaggerated solicitude: “Arre, won’t you introduce me to your young friend?” His tongue flickers and licks his lips like a cobra. Tanuja just manages a reply. “This is my husband, Kamal.” Swallowing hard and looking at Prem all the time, she completes the formal introduction. “And this is Dhiren, Dhiren Kapur.” On her last word the music rises to a crescendo, “Taaaeh, Taaaeh, Taeh, Taehhh!” As the trio remain frozen in their separate amazements, across them flashes in huge blue letters:
Everyone stood up and no one could move. Usha Verma turned immediately to her two sons, Navnish and Avnish. Her eldest son, Rajnish, had generously given his ticket to me.
“Avnish, have some popcorn, hain? Shall I bring you a samosa? No? Acha chulo, Fanta pee lo. Navnish, you will have some popcorn, no?” Enviously, I watched this careful display of motherly affection. When my family went to the cinema, to see films in English, I pleaded with my mother, “Please can I have fifty paise for popcorn…pleeeze? The chicken rolls here are really tasty…I’ll only have one.” Her stock answer was, “We’re going home for dinner. It will spoil your appetite. You don’t need it.” With my mother, I was always fighting a losing battle. With Mrs. Verma, I had to maintain a balance between embarrassment and anticipation. I knew Usha Aunty would offer me popcorn and drinks, which I would greedily accept, like the cinema ticket, without having the money to pay for them. But first she would take her time spoiling her children, with repeated offers, from which they would nonchalantly pick something. In the end, she would buy them everything anyway. I would have to wait, accompany her out, and accept her eventual offers with a shy shake of the head, as if to pretend that I was not desperate with hunger.
Straightening the pallu of her sari, with a jingle of her bangles, like a graceless Kathakali dancer, Mrs. Verma turned to me and said, “Chulo, Cyrus. Coming with me?”
Mrs. Verma was all color and smiles. She had a plump oval face caked with powdery foundation. She was often to be seen sitting in front of her dressing-table mirror, correcting a tint, dabbing her cheek, or spraying some fragrance on her neck. On her table she had a host of artificial stick-on bindis to choose from, hundreds of glass, silver, brass, and gold bangles that lay on special stands on either side of the mirror. Today she has on her forehead a dark blue dot encircled with tiny petals of white. Her chubby forearms seem strangled by colored bangles. Her hair is tied in a bun and round it is a small garland of fake orange flowers. From her ears hang a pair of gold enameled stars that stand out in the gloom of the theater. Her lips are painted chocolate red. By far the most important aspect of her face, unless caught in a moment of utter privacy, is that she is always smiling. To get to know Mrs. Verma, one needed to comprehend the hundred variants of her smile.
In her company I was horribly nervous. Determined to please, servile in every way. “Usha Aunty, you think Prem is hiding some secret?” I asked. I wanted her to acknowledge me as an amateur aficionado of Hindi cinema. I knew all about Hindi films from magazines like Stardust, from song programs on the radio, from the hoardings dotted around the city, and from listening to filmi gossip.
Mrs. Verma’s smile broke into a laugh at my question. She seemed amused by my interest, but not amused enough to reply. She surveyed the crowd in the stalls canteen, her smile curled downward. “Let’s go up to the dress circle, hain?” I followed her up the stairs, comparing her black and white floral sari to the Western clothes my mother wore. As we mounted the stairs, people stared at us unashamedly. In the dress-circle canteen, I was amazed by the din of voices. I recalled our last family outing to the Sterling, to see Patton. The canteen at the Sterling was crowded and smoky, but the noise was whispering, the faces all familiar. Here at the Nandi, the atmosphere was more like Bombay Central Railway Station. The racket of voices, the clatter of trays on the counters, the brutal way in which people pushed past you, the shouts across the room, the open-mouthed chewing of paan.
It all made me feel like a child. Frighted. But Mrs. Verma was by me and there was business to be done. I could see the aerated drinks, row upon row, black, yellow, orange, red, and translucent, stacked on the mirrored shelves behind the frenetic sellers. I could smell the fried samosas. The taste of salted popcorn made my mouth dry. I wanted anything and everything. I knew Mrs. Verma would buy too much and I would get all the leftovers. The vendors shouted over the tumble of voices. I could see money and food being exchanged at tremendous speed, but the crowd remained clotted around the marble-topped counters. Some didn’t buy anything, they just stood around watching the greedy and the rich. They may have been hungry, but this was not the kind of food they ate.
The smile twitched on Mrs. Verma’s face. “Acha, Cyrus, yaar. Shall we forget it? There are too many people, no?” I looked pleadingly at her. She took pity and handed me a ten-rupee note, saying, “Okay, go and get some popcorn and masala chips and two Cokes, hain? Will you be able to?” I assured her I would. This was the kind of job I loved. Half the size of those in front of me, I pushed and muscled and squeezed like an oil slick wending its way through the gaps between arms, bums, Terylene shirts, and women’s bare stomachs. The gray and white streaks of the fake marble counter came into view. I bawled at the man serving, thrusting my ten rupees in front of me. “Aaaaaay, do Coca-Cola, do masala chips, aur teen packet popcaaarn.” The unshaven vendor shot me an irritated glance, as he continued to serve the other hecklers. “Chulo bhai, jaldi karo na, film start hone vala hai,” I called out. Eyes fell upon the money and the little hand that held it. I had an audience. I hauled my torso onto the counter and reached out with my hand. The irate vendor rushed up, shouting at me to get down off the counter, “Heeey chokra, kya kar raha hai? Chulo, neeche chulo.” I could hear members of my audience laughing. This could get serious, though. The vendor was not amused. Turning to the sulky woman next to me, he politely asked, “Hah, kya chaheye aapko, madam?” I waited patiently. He would get to me in the end.
“Where have you been?” Avnish asked. The two boys looked bored and uneasy. Mummy coddled them. “Are you too hot? Sorry, I couldn’t find any ice cream. Here, Cyrus managed to squeeze through and get you a Coke. That’s what you wanted, na, Avnish?” I offered up the popcorn and the wafers but they shook their heads. Suited me fine. Mrs. Verma took one of the packets of popcorn from me and lovingly tore open the waxed edge. She held it out to Navnish. “Try a bit of popcorn, bete. Nahi? Kyon, you don’t like it? Acha, never mind. Mangola le lo. No? That also you don’t want?” Mrs. Verma leaned back in her seat with a wry smile and a shake of the head. Navnish sulkily took a crisp and asked for a Coke but there wasn’t any left. “I don’t like sitting downstairs,” he said. “I only like sitting in balcony or dress circle.”
“Theek hai,” Mrs. Verma consoled. “Okay, next time balcony, hain? I couldn’t help it this time, everything was completely full. Sethi sahb ne kaha hai, pukka, he will get the tickets for next Friday’s show.”
Wrinkling his nose, Avnish complained, “There’s a horrible smell down here?”
“Badbu aa rahi hai, Avnish? Hah, I can smell it also,” said his mother. From her handbag, Mrs. Verma took a scented airline napkin, ripped it open, and passed the wet towel to Avnish. The hall lights dim and the action on the screen abruptly begins.
At first, my attention is split between the masala chips I grope for in the dark and the faces on the screen. Soon the story sucks me in with its lurid and beckoning colors. A landscape of snow-clad mountains and silvery rivers lies beyond the log-fire interiors of Rajesh and Tanuja’s honeymoon motel. Every twenty minutes or so there is a song. A courting song, a honeymoon song, a sad song, a love duet. Most of the songs for women in Hindi films are sung by the tireless nightingales, Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle. The music is invariably composed by that famous father-and-son duo, S.D. and R.D. Burman. Between them they have produced more than 20,000 songs. All this making music together produced its own happy ending. In real life Asha Bhosle and R.D. Burman fell in love and got married.
It becomes apparent that Prem Chopra’s arrival in Kashmir has punctured Rajesh and Tanuja’s honeymoon bliss. He knows secrets about Tanuja’s past that will embarrass her and he loses no time and wastes no subtlety in painting the picture to Rajesh. Rajesh is desolate. He asks Tanuja for the whole truth. She wails and cries, saying what happened between her and Prem was not her fault. As she recollects aloud, the audience is afforded a flashback of events in which Tanuja appears, sporting a knee-length college skirt and pigtails. A younger-looking Prem manages to seduce her. When the story is over and Tanuja is kneeling by his feet, Rajesh swears that he will exact revenge. He will tear, limb from limb, the vicious dog who dared defile his holy wife. Then Tanuja begins a mournful song in high-flown Urdu that I found difficult to follow. I could see Mrs. Verma, her chin tilted upward, her eyes aglow with moisture, utterly engrossed by the lyrics.
Sitting in my skimpy blue trunks, I felt the underside of my thighs wet with the sweat collected between them and the cheap plastic covering of the wooden seats. The man on my left was chewing a mixture of betel nut and paan; a heady smell, both sweet and slightly rotting. Across this wafted the flowery perfume worn by Mrs. Verma, not altogether masking the bodily odor from her armpit. Several rows behind us a baby was crying and I could make out the jingling of its mother’s bangles as she attempted to rock it back to sleep. I wondered how many babies there were in the audience and what pleasure they were gaining from the film. What a sound it would make if they were all at once to start up and howl.
But it was the elephants and the “deeshum-deeshum” fight scenes that held me in the strongest rapture. Rani, Soni, and their darling baby, Moti. They were the ones who saved Rajesh’s life in his final combat with Prem. Rani, who swept him away in her trunk from an onrushing truck driven by Prem; Soni, who got shot between the eyes but delivered the final revenge by crushing the villain under his hoof, accompanied by cheers from the audience. Rajesh, Tanuja, Rani, and the baby elephant shed copious tears at Soni’s funeral.
Those were the pictures I carried in my head as we drove home, past the pool of lilies on the edge of Bandra. Women washed their clothes in the blackened water, bare-backed children swam in the brackish soup. I imagined having my own tame elephants as playmates: Moti and Tingoo running to greet me in the garden of our house on the beach, frolicking together in the salty water of the sea, sticking their trunks over the parapet of my bedroom window, nuzzling my cheek with the snail-like flesh on the tips of their snouts.