Namkeen A Film by Gulzar (1982) A film review by Sunil Deepak (2003)
Title: Namkeen (1982), Director: Gulzar, Actors: Sanjeev Kumar, Sharmila Tagore, Waheeda Rehman, Shabana Azmi, Kiran Vairale; Music: R. D. Burman.
Namkeen (literally, Salty) is one of the lesser-known films from the sensitive poet, writer and director Gulzar. For a long time, it didn’t find any distributors for commercial release and was finally released on Doordarshan (Indian state TV). The same fate awaited some other films of Gulzar like Libaas, even if these films could boast of the some of the best acting talents from Indian cinema. In those days there were no multiplexes that could show films for niche audiences.
Namkeen has four of the best actresses from Bombay cinema along with formidable Sanjeev Kumar. In this film Gulzar explores once again the theme of lonely young woman, living in a isolated falling-down house, her desperate wait for a man, slowly inching towards suicide. He had already touched on this theme in "Khushboo", in the cameo of Kamala, living with her old grandmother waiting for her husband to come home and the role of Kamala was played by Sharmila Tagore. Namkeen seems like an extension of this same theme, where Kamala is replaced by Nimki, played once again by Sharmila Tagore.
The film starts with a truck-driver, Gerulal (Sanjeev Kumar) coming to live in a rented room in an isolated old house in the mountains of Kulu and his interactions with the four women of the house. Jugni, the mother, an ex-dancing girl from a nautanki (rural musical theater), forgetful, blunt and paranoid, played by a delightful Waheeda Rehman. Nimki, the eldest daughter, is the house-keeper, looking after everyone, making sure that the house runs, is played by Sharmila Tagore. Mithoo (Shabana Azmi), is the second daughter, a poet with swings of moods, full of laughter and depressions, she also has speech disability. Finally, Chutki, the youngest daughter, full of life, sensitive and pragmatic, is played by Kiran Vairale.
Slowly, presence of a man in the house changes all of them and he starts assuming the traditional patriarchal role of carer and protector, even if Nimki resists it in the beginning. He is attracted to Nimki and plans to marry her. Slowly the relationships between the different characters are built up and Jugni’s past comes out – her exploitation by her alcoholic husband, her fear of losing her daughters to nautanki (traditional Indian theater) and her hopes for a marriage of her daughters.
Then, suddenly the work for the truck-driver is over and he must leave for another place. He asks but Nimki to go with him, but she refuses to leave her sisters and her old mother.
Three years pass and one day, during his travels Gerulal meets Chutki, the youngest daughter, dancing in a nautanki. Remorseful, he comes back to the old house in the mountains and finds Nimki living alone, waiting for him. The old mother and Mithoo are dead and there is nothing to stop them from being together. “Let us leave the past here and think of our future” says Gerulal, as he walks away with Nimki to the truck.
All the main actors in the film are very good, especially Waheeda Rehman and Kiran Vairale. Sharmila tagore and Shabana Azmi are also ok, even if in some scenes they do look artificial and too sophisticated for the role. Sanjeev Kumar is competent as usual.
However, Waheeda Rehman looks too young to be the mother of the three, especially of Sharmila Tagore. In the close-ups, her face is too young and when Sanjeev Kumar, who must have been older to her, calls her as mother, it seems a bit strange. However, Waheeda is a wonderful actress and in scenes where she is not in close-up, she fits the role perfectly.
Now a bit of film gossip that I remember reading in some magazine while Gulzar was making this film. Originally Rekha was supposed to play the role of Nimki, however at that time, she was in a reclusive phase and didn’t want any interaction with the film press. It seems that a journalist came on the set and Rekha wanted him to be sent away, however Gulzar (director) didn’t accept it, and asked Rekha to leave the film. When Waheeda found out that Rekha has been replaced by Sharmila, she was not happy as she felt that she and Sharmila were in the same age group and she should not play mother to her. It is true that in the flash-back scene, showing Waheeda as a dancer in the nautanki, she does look as young/old as Sharmila. Perhaps, this scene and the song were included in the film by Gulzar to placate Waheeda?
The film has beautiful photography and the scenes shot in the dark, with light from the lantern are very good, especially the scene where the mother tells the truck-driver about her alcoholic husband, with Nimki sitting behind them. It has been lit from the back and creates wonderful ambience.
Some of the initial scenes with the truck-driver trying to switch on the light or the scene where all of them slip down on the floor freshly coated with cow-dung are very nicely done and Shabana Azmi is really wonderful in these scenes.
The film has music by R.D. Burman. However the music is just all right, nothing very special except for the haunting Phirse aayio badra videshi, sung beautifully by Asha Bhosle. But the picturization of this song on Shabana Azmi is not very imaginative. Even if the fog and the green mountains look beautiful, they do not convey the pathos of the music. Shabana looks contrived in this song.
At the end, the happy ending looks a bit forced. However, in spite of a few weaknesses, it is a delightful film, worth seeing for the wonderful acting of the five main actors and for its sensitive look at man-woman relationships in a family.