Repression in Ghajini and Kaala Pathar


The interesting thing about Ghajini is that even though the protagonist loses his memory the emotional trace survives and this is what enables him to reconstruct his memory every single day. There is something about this idea that also feeds into an older masala paradigm (remember how often those films were concerned with loss of memory!) of trauma and repression. What is repressed might be forgotten in a very conscious sense but the ‘economics’ of the mind makes an absolute ‘forgetting’ definitionally impossible*.

I am reminded of Kaala Pathar (where even if the story was inspired from Conrad’s Lord Jim**, the substitution of the Dhanbad coal mines for the Malayan jungles was a good stroke). The final reckoning comes about in the ‘cave’ (mines) where Bachchan must deal conclusively with all of his ghosts (much as all the films other strands finally converge here.. this was a film much ahead of its times.. the central ‘character’ in the narrative is the physical setting of the film and it is the coal mines that connect all the relatively disparate strands of the film.. this is a remarkable move.. the only ‘unity’ in the story is brought about by a certain ‘site’). Here of course the trauma is remembered all too well, all too often and yet it is nonetheless repressed in another sense which is why it returns to Bachchan only as nightmare. But Bachchan must engage with this nightmare world to exorcise those ghosts. He keeps descending into the coal mines. Finally the apocalyptic moment at the end unleashes the flood(gates) once more. Again the unconscious is always operating surreptitiously.

At the same time and at a literal level each element of the plot as it is encountered on the surface finds its complement underground. I have already referred to the obvious Vijay example but Mangal too after escaping from jail twice in the film will finally be imprisoned in coal mine having learned a few truths. One woman loses her lover in the flood, the other gets him back ‘redeemed’. The ‘engineer’ Shashi Kapoor who discovers rather unpleasantly that the workings of this underworld ultimately lie beyond the realm of calculation. His leg gets caught under a rock and he has to be rescued. Even the minor characters are involved in this dynamic. MacMohan, the ‘artist’ of cards, cannot perform a trick when he needs it most. In the final analysis the climactic moment is a kind of battle-field where character is tested. Only ‘heroes’ pass the test whether they survive or not. There is something a little Homeric about this film. There is an interlinking of character and destiny in this that recalls an ancient paradigm.

*more in a related vein in my review
**In the Conrad story the ship that is abandoned is actually carrying Muslim passengers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

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5 Responses to “Repression in Ghajini and Kaala Pathar”

  1. [part of an exchange on Bachchan’s blog]

    I do believe though that Kaala Pathar is one of India’s greatest commercial films. Even in Amitji’s extraordinary oeuvre there isn’t a persona that can cross the one in Kaala Pathar. Even within the angry young man archives I would call this the absolute summit in terms of pure physicality. The film did well but it wasn’t the kind of blockbuster that it was expected to be (at least relative to price and so on) or wasn’t comparable to Trishul in this sense. But looking at the film this isn’t surprising. This is a rather dark film overall. I’m not a fan of the ending. It might have made for an even better film for Vijay to perish in the coal mines. I also don’t like the pro-government message very much. The film advances the absurd idea that corporate-run coal mines are bloodsuckers (probably true!) but that govt-run ones are running a Scandinavian welfare state (please!). Leaving aside these blemishes though it’s a very masterful mix of the epic and the smaller moment. I am always impressed when filmmakers achieve this because this is very hard to get right in just about any art form. There are countless such failures in the history of the novel. One of the reasons War and Peace is justly celebrated is that it strikes such a balance. The whole epic scale of the work which is then punctuated throughout by these lyric moments. Sholay does this. You have the grandest action sequences, the most expansive kind of drama and then those scenes of the Jaya bachchan character blowing out those lamps with that soulful melody in the background (Amitji and so on)… actually I like these scenes more than anything else in the film (literally). Kaala Pathar too does this. Sanjeev Kumar’s brief moment or the rain-drenched scene with Amitji and Raakhee with the umbrella and the conversation that ensues (possibly my single favorite in the film). Just beautifully handled. Yash Chopra once suggested that if the film did not live upto expectations in the box office sense it was perhaps because there wasn’t a single story-line and that a number of them came together. But I’d disagree with that assessment. Such a film could never be the absolute blockbuster of any age. Leaving this aside the stories come together very well because the real ‘hero’ of this film is the coal-mine. It is the prism through which every character and story is looked at. I think it’s completely and even seamlessly ‘unified’ in this sense. One of the issues though might be that the problems it raises, the commentary it generates is often so profound and so ‘existential’ if you will that then blaming Dhanraj Puri for all of it seems too easy. And this isn’t necessarily a trap Sholay falls into. The latter has a Moby Dick kind of structure. For the Thakur (who in many ways is as scary a character as Gabbar) the great white whale he wishes to hunt and at any cost is Gabbar. A lot of the film’s deeper meanings come out of this essential structure. With Kaala Pathar though it’s the opposite. And perhaps this is what the writers or the director could not completely account for. Nonetheless I consider it one of the greatest commercial films.

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    • I went back and back and got the context. Very interesting commentary on the 3 significant movies. You brought out the merits of Kaala Patthar beautifully.

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        • KAALA PATTHAR is quite an under-rated movie and I completely agree that AMITABH brought a FANTASTIC new edge to his angry young man persona. There was so much of pathos and mainly angst-within-that-pathos in his role and this could be executed beautifully ONLY because it was Amitabh enacting.

          This was a very very strong film and I do not know how it fared at that time but it holds up quite well even today. The problem with the movie is completely cinematic and hardly thematic. The main problem with it is the SONGS. The songs – though valid narratively for Shatru and Shashi’s characters – were really a dead-weight on the film. This film was so narratively focused that the songs beyond a certain point really were dead-weight. The inclusion of songs were ridiculous beyond a point and almost managed to almost pull the punch out of the film. This film is paradoxically both a success and a failure for the director.

          Needless to say, Bachchan’s role of compensating-for-an-entire-life-time a societally-considered ‘cowardly’ act with acts of selflessness in the dark depths of coal-mine that metaphorically act as Bachchan’s tortured soul is classic stuff. What a performance that was!!

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          • It fared well but relative to the scale of the film it didn’t fulfill blockbuster expectations the way for instance Trishul did.

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