Mili & Jurmana — Mukherjee’s & Bachchan’s twin secrets

There’s a deep trauma at the heart of both films. Repressed in Mili, always on the surface in Jurmana. In the former it foregrounds the story, in the latter it comes about in the film’s ‘real’ time. In either case it erupts at the heart of bourgeois sociality and it calls into question all ‘values’ within this edifice. Mili has the structure of a mystery. In this most quintessential of middle class apartment buildings with all its human warmth and camarederie alternating with pettiness and hypocrisy there emerges the ‘dark ogre’, fairy-tale-like, who occupies the top perch and who spends most of his time gazing into the heavens with his telescope. A prince, haunted by scandal, becomes an ogre. The mystery begins exactly here. It is never made clear whether the mother was guilty of adultery or not. Her confession to her tortured son maintains her innocence but he cannot know for sure. His father believes otherwise and extinguishes the secret forever. The son withdraws from the world.

In Jurmana another scandal comes about. Then there is atonement. Even if there is a seemingly neat resolution at the end one gets the sense of having been exposed to a profound disturbance. If Amitabh Bachchan is a kind of ogre in Mili in the later film he is a smooth villain. In each instance a trauma brings about his dark side. Also in each case the love of a woman either idealized as a beautiful soul or as virginal innocence rescues him. But Mili remains open-ended and Jurmana leaves one with a sense of unease.

These films are too sharp and too finely etched in all respects to only be simplistic indictments of a social class or even didactic morality tales. These stories are properly fables of violence staged as part bourgeois romance, part quasi-detective drama. One thinks of Ray’s Chiriakhana. But if Ray’s film is still indebted to a 19th century model of detective fiction Mukherjee presents a similar universe but removes the ‘master figure’ of the Holmes-like detective-quester. In both Mili and Jurmana it is precisely the lead male protagonist who cannot decode the meaning of his universe until very late or who can only do so when aided by the principal female protagonist. In neither film can the male figure come to peace with himself and get reabsorbed into the existing social framework without accidentally falling in love.

Jurmana stages a bet between two modes of being in the post-Emergency state of the late 70s. The older and traditional ‘native’ type represented in Vinod Mehra’s character and who is also associated with small town mores. Then Bachchan’s character who graduates from ordinariness to extraordinary corporate success and who becomes alienated from the ethos of small town life. The two characters start out as friends and then meet as rivals for the same woman who again quite easily represents traditional Indian notions of the feminine. In this sense too the resolution seems somewhat dark. Prophetically the film closes the door on the Vinod Mehras of India. It was entirely an inspired decision on Mukherjee’s part to cast Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Mehra for these two parts.

In Mili as much action takes places on staircases or ‘in between’ floors as it does within apartments (or flats). The crucial scene occurs on the former when a threatening Bachchan is forced to turn away and disappear into his ‘lair’ when the scandal is evoked by a child. It is as if this his one vulnerability, the specter he cannot confront. His father represents another corporate type and his life is twinned with the terrible act of violence he ultimate commits. The ‘fallen’ women are equally important for the world of each film. In fact it is hard to think of two other films in the entire history of Hindi cinema that give so much space to them within a ‘normal’ framework and then proceed to humanize them. Bachchan’s mother in Mili (though the mystery is always operative here, one never really knows what happened), Aruna Irani’s character in the same, Dolly in Jurmana with the touching final gesture of returning Bachchan’s payment. These women ‘fall’ because of the systems they inhabit. In Jurmana the logical step forward is taken after Mili and the principal protagonist is herself the ‘ideal’ and the ‘fallen’ woman. Here it is literally a shift in perspective that brings about the change.

On a more personal note both films have forever been among my very favorite ones and Amitabh Bachchan’s performance in each is really extraordinarily fluid. He is so sharp an actor in each, so quick (in Kurosawa’s sense of the term which is to say without sacrificing subtlety) and so completely triumphant that one almost misses the timber of these performances if one is not watching closely. It is always easy to appreciate the more commercial performances because the characters and the situations are always pitched to a certain key (though Bachchan’s gift was that even in these he could be pitch-perfect and yet summon up his deepest reserves of performance). But films like Mili or Jurmana are so delicately constructed that the lead actor here has to be very perfectly attuned to this fact. In either film (and this is not to take away anything from some of the other fine performances) it is Bachchan who provides the first tremors, the principle disturbance in those worlds. His is the character who is in each case out of sync with his environment and the films then become about his path to self-realization and ‘normalization’. It is commonplace to assert that Bachchan has extraordinary moments in films like Deewar or Don or Amar Akbar Anthony or Mukaddar ka Sikandar or a host of others. One agrees entirely with this. One could hardly ever run the danger of over-praising these performances. But what one is always in danger of neglecting is his performance in films like Mili or Jurmana which are second to none in his oeuvre. The films themselves are among the director’s very finest works and far more sophisticated and advanced than some of his more heralded films. Mili and Jurmana are exemplary films but also at our present ‘Indian’ crossroads important cautionary tales in more ways than one. The repressed always haunts…


20 Responses to “Mili & Jurmana — Mukherjee’s & Bachchan’s twin secrets”

  1. masterpraz Says:

    “But what one is always in danger of neglecting is his performance in films like Mili or Jurmana which are second to none in his oeuvre.”-so true…and an excellent piece Satyam and two very fine films!


  2. An excellent piece Satyam. Milli in particular is one of my favorites from Hindi cinema. I love the thumbnail frame of the first video here. The old man standing in that field of light within that room almost looks like a stand-in for the sand falling in an hourglass. A very expressive shot.

    In general Milli is one of my favorite Hindi films in terms of its look as well. The apartment complex here seems to hearken to the more stark and impressionistic set pieces of “Jaagte Raho” which also happens to be one of the all time gems.


    • Thanks much.. yes Mili is the one I too like more within this pair.. interesting juxtaposition you bring about with Jaagte Raho. Coincidentally I used the apartment building image from the film the other day..


  3. Thanks, Satyam. Agree completely with your comments on the two films.
    Reminds us how great HM was and both films were extremely good. A lesson in good film making. One does not need to say much about AB’s performance in both, but one does tend to forget these two gems and while I know you do not regard it as highly, I would add Bemisaal to it too. It is a trio for me not a twin. May be about time you revisited Bemisaal.


    • I should.. I am fond of Bemisaal.. in some ways it is the most enigmatic of Mukherjee’s films but I’ve never quite understood why Mukherjee introduced the double here..


  4. Yup, the whole Sheetal track was not needed and even if Hrishida felt it neccessary, should have been played by someone else. It was partially enigmatic by design. It also was an evolution of HM and Vinod Mehra was such a perfect foil for Amitabh’s character in these films.


    • again one of Bachchan’s very fluid performances.. the ending ‘repeats’ Namak Haram’s. So Mukherjee clearly had Bachchan play out certain themes in the films they did. The odd ones out in this sense are Alaap and Abhimaan.


  5. Great article satyam.

    Mili is also one of my favourite movies from Amitabh. Amitabh also counts the movie as one of his favuorites.


  6. Satyam,

    I recently saw Mili on TV and immensely liked it. especially the song that Jaya and kids are singing on the terrace. What are your thoughts on Manzil..have it on the DVR but yet to watch it. The song rimzim gire sawan is pretty good.


  7. Thanks. read your comment. excited about Manzil now.


  8. Yes. I have seen it but dont recall much except the song “Jhootha kahin ka mujhe aisa mila” sung by Neetu Singh with Rishi bound by ropes…I think.


  9. Excellent and thoughtful piece satyam — although I am not sure what you mean by Jurmana being “post-Emergency”: is it that you see the figure of the “corporate hero” as a post-Emergency figure? (i.e., in the sense of the Emergency as the “moment” where the Indian state lost its “emancipatory” political promise; henceforth the promised emancipation would be the “private” ones afforded by capital…)

    Also, I do not agree that one does not know the truth about amitabh’s character’s mother in Milli: I think the mother’s letter is presented as her truth, i.e. I feel the director privileges her innocence. [Haven’t seen Milli in a few years, so this is my tentative impression; would have to re-visit the film to be sure].

    These are certainly two very fine films, as rajen said they testify to Hrishida’s position within the Hindi film pantheon. Bemisaal, I must say, is very much the third for me…


    • Your first paragraph here corresponds to my sense of things. It is almost as if the Emergency brought things to a head. beyond the Emergency there could only be one path forward. No more the tension of existing between the old and the new. And yet these corporate figures from Trishul to Jurmana seem to eventually return to the fold of ‘family values’. perhaps these are prophetic films.

      On the second para I don’t think there is no independent verification of the mother’s letter in the film though the son clearly believes it or wants to believe it.


    • Went back and looked at this. It is certainly true that the mother’s letter is presented as proof of her innocence. The son certainly believes it to be so. And she is also named Seeta and likens her fate to that of her more illustrious namesake. To this degree one would be justified in believing that her version of events is the truth.

      On the other hand given normal film conventions of not leaving even a shadow of a doubt Mukherjee clearly chose to not clear up the matter any more than this. Plus so much of the film in concerned with gossip and rumor. The residents of the apartment building constantly indulge in this. And it is this that led to the tragic turn of events with Bachchan’s parents in the film. But again as with any rumor it is hard to disprove things. So while one might reasonably assume his mother does in fact speak the truth the power of the scandal and the ensuing trauma depends on the lack of the truth being made completely transparent.


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