Saurabh on Vijeta
Vijeta is a film which has stayed with me since I first saw it more than a decade back with my father (incidentally).Another superlative effort from the auteur, the film remains a very sharp and hard-hitting work even now. Cleverly masquerading as a coming-of-age story, the film came across to me as a sharp take on the ‘angst’ in the society and also touches upon the prevailing ‘generation gap’ in the late 70’s and 80’s of India. Under any other director this could have ended up being Bollywood’s Top Gun (though in any case the Tony Scott film came later) but Nihalani uses a not so uncommon trope to make a telling statement on a larger issue- how personal crises are often a microcosm of the generational conflicts and conflicting visions plaguing a nation state
For the uninitiated Vijeta, on its surface, is about a young Angad Singh (Kunal Kapoor). As his mother, Neelima (Rekha), describes him, Angad is an Angry Young Man. He has just failed out of another boarding school, much to the consternation of his stern father, Nihal (Shashi Kapoor) and he is angst-ridden, aimless and toying with the idea of suicide. Home is a toxic place, where Angad’s parents engage in nasty arguments – the residues of Nihal’s past infidelity – and the battle lines are drawn – Angad sides with his mother and resents his father. It takes a visit from his maternal uncle, Arvind (Om Puri), to kick-start Angad’s adulthood. Arvind, with his ruler-straight posture and meticulous precision, is a military man. After being shown around the warboat Arvind works on, Angad is inspired: he wants to join the air force too! While his mother and grandmother (Dina Pathak) agree to the idea, Angad’s father is adamantly opposed. After more oppressive tension, Angad is finally allowed to go. The rest of the film follow his slow awakening and maturation as he transforms himself from an emo punk into a responsible, sympathetic and brave young man.
But beware as this coming-of-age tale is not for the Wake Up Sid generation- the crisis here is not resolved over a Sushi Dinner (EMAET). Another film which tried to tread a similar path was Lakshya- but the ‘character-arc’ of the protagonist here never sucked the viewer unlike Vijeta and so I often ended up asking myself whether the plot ever justified the need for a protagonist to ‘grow-up’. But Vijeta does not offer its characters or its viewers any easy answers. Nihalani, like in his earlier 2 films, carves out characters which are ‘haunted’ by their past- In the opening scene itself a sleeping Nihal suffers a flashback to Partition-era Punjab and we see that most of his family was murdered in the rioting. And it is immediately followed by one more nightmare where he envisions his son buried under the sand in the battle-ground. It was as if the son’s death was a poetic justice for the horrors inflicted on the father (and the preceding generation of India). Angad’s rite of passage ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note
And as much as the film is about growing up, it is also about the current standing of the nation-state. So when we see Nihal, always reluctant to hear his son’s views, casting doubts on his decision to join the NDA, it seems as if the preceding generation is hesitant to hand over the baton to the succeeding one. It demands the present India to prove its mettle first and rightly so since the ‘Modern Indian’ of 80’s never dared to build upon the Post-Independence Nehruvian Vision of a Nation State. And so through the journey of the protagonist, Nihalani also puts forth a vision where the selfish vagabond Indian will mature too. And through the Air Force (and also via Om Puri’s naval officer character who guides Kunal), Nihalani makes a rather valid point that when the government and the countrymen are stuck in a rut, the ‘outsider’ i.e. the Armed Forces have to show them the way.
Anger has always been an undercurrent in Nihalani’s works whether it was Aakrosh or Ardhasatya. Here too both Nihal and Angad are volatile people. But unlike the earlier 2 films where the protagonists struggle against the social order and the corrupt moral policies, here they have their own inner demons to fight with. Here Nihalani approaches the characters in a ‘humanistic’ fashion. He takes time to build up their environments via small, human details: the devotional Raga, Man Anand Anand Chhayo (sung by Lata) is a perfect example, showing us Nihal and Neelima during their morning routine. Nihalani’s use of dreaming and foreshadowing is also excellent.
And just like Smita Patil becomes the ‘voice of reason’ for Om Puri in Ardhasatya when she recites the titular poem to him, here Neelima acts as Nihal conscious keeper and in one remarkable scene tells him- Neelima intervenes and tells him- “you understood yourself and the world through the partition, let him fight his (Kunal) battles to understand himself”.
If Angad’s growing-up is the foreground theme, then his father’s is the background one. While the plot centers on Angad, it is book-ended and constantly informed by the story of Nihal. The very first flashback-scene deals with the massacre of Nihal’s family in the Partition-era Punjab and the last scene, likewise, features the resolution to Angad’s plotline. In this way, the movie is a lot like the great Mississippi Masala, where the child’s coming of age is cast against the broader historical angst that the father brings with him. The relationship between Nihal and Angad is one of the film’s big emotional hooks. Initially, Angad is full of resentment for Nihal’s past infidelity and Nihal’s treatment of his wife. Indeed, Nihal is a very flawed man: he is the self-pitying patriarch, throwing his weight around, quick to remind everyone of how hard his life has been, and, when that doesn’t work, using the slow poison of guilt. The arguments between Nihal and Neelimi were painfully evocative, mostly because they were so real. The film works to show you how alienated father and son initially are, so that, in their moments of closeness, it’s all the more poignant. Alas, expect no weepy reconciliations here.
And Nihalani’s masterstroke here is using ‘religion’ as a focal point in his commentary over the nation-state angle. The story is told from the perspective of a character belonging to a Minority (Sikh). But also important here is the ‘allegory regarding the sacrifices an individual or a generation has to make for the general good of nation-state- Nihal’s mother, Dina Pathak offers her first grandson (Angad) to the Sikh religion, as is the practice in many Punjabi families as a ‘mannath’. So, Angad is brought up as a Sikh boy. Religion also creates a chasm between the father and the rest of the family- While Nihal’s nightmares show that he used to live as a devout Sikh, when he wakes we see that he’s shed the ‘dastar’ and wears only the ‘kara’. His ‘secularism’ (so to say) is emphasized further: he’s a bit boozy and he works on (self-described) “low-grade” films featuring cheesy Western song and dances. Meanwhile, Angad has been raised as a devout Sikh, and Neelima sings devotional song at dawn and listens only to classical Hindustani. Also seamlessly blended is the theme of a ‘pluralistic India’- Angad’s fighter pilot buddies are a Hindu, a Muslim (K. K. Raina in a knockout performance as Kunal’s cricket playing buddy in the Academy), and a Christian – these guys aren’t caricatures. Furthermore (and interestingly!), the second most prominent religion in the film is Christianity.
The canvas is very broad – with discussions on war, rioting, Partition, patriotism, death and so forth. Similarly, the dialogue becomes progressively more and more large-minded, with pilots, fathers and wives-to-be all discussing heavy-handed issues like death and bravery over their tea. The film is far more effective when, instead of talking about these things, the characters did what real people do – petty arguments, easy-going chat – while perhaps thinking about the larger issues.
And finally Nihalani, the cinematographer has never been better before or after. The scene where Kunal takes his first solo flight is spell-binding- it is also the scene where the ‘real flight’ of the protagonist takes place. Equally superb is the ’sunrise’ following Nihal’s nightmares in the opening sequences. And then there are those scenes of night lamps working their magic on the characters.