Mere Apne

Mere Apne is a depressing picture of society's many failures in urban India (circa 1970), and the male leads - Vinod Khanna (Shyam) and Shatrughan Sinha (Chaino) as warring street thugs, as well as a big cast as their gang members (Asrani and Danny Denzongpa among them) - express both pitiable futility and small-scale joys among the rubble of their youthful dreams. Unfortunately, the first 45 minutes or so focus instead on Anandi (Meena Kumari), an almost unfathomably naive villager who finds her world turned upside down by the trials of the contemporary city.

Woooop! Woooop! Moral brick bat alert!

Anandi is confounded and distressed by what she sees as the horrors of the big, bad world - including trouser-wearing women who work outside the home and don't bother to braid their hair -

The end of the world as she knows it.
and her mumble-mouthed "hey Ram!"s seem to punctuate everything she encounters in her new home with her young relative Arun and his wife and child. Anandi's criticisms of their lifestyle fall on deaf ears, and she is often left at home to care for the toddler as the grownups are at work and [shock! horror!] eating at restaurants, but their servant (Leela Mishra) finally gives her the confidence boost she needs to move on.

She takes advantage of an offer from another young family who agrees to actually pay her for being their nanny. At this point in her adventures, she gets to know Shyam and his crew, and the movie gets much more interesting. They're basically good boys (you can tell because they befriend an elderly widow), but in addition to unemployment and frustrated educations, they lack moral guidance. This pairing of the sweet, lost boys with the sweet, lost grandmother is a nice, gently filmi story, punctuated with economic troubles, political corruption, and gang violence.

Thanks, dadima hotline!

The symbolism in Mere Apne is overt. One suffers for duty, as Anandi's husband (Deven Verma) implied her role to her on their wedding night.

Life in the city is hard. Anandi, a.k.a. Mother India, is initially overwhelmed by the modern and urban, but she finds her way and has plenty of advice and model behavior. Look how she's depicted on her arrival to the city: in a simple white sari in front of an upturned bike that looks an awful lot like the spinning wheel, carrying the future (in the form of a child), no less.

She also repeatedly offers a way out - "Beta, come back with me to my mango grove" she begs Shyam - but of course the youth aren't quite ready to accept. See what has happened to the bicycles at the end of the film, when a corrupt election ignites the gangs into a brawl.

The movie's overtly bleak message and vaguely "the past is better!" tone of Anandi kept me from really getting on board, even though the film makes it almost impossible to argue with its main point that contemporary life has a lot of problems. I don't want to say anything else about how the story finishes, but it's sad and basically hopeless: the elements of society are fragmented and the future is left abandoned to fend for itself.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I was much more engaged with Mere Apne when the story and camera were focused on Shyam and Chaino than on Anandi. Her truth-wielding bumpkin routine was so taxing, especially in its association with a downtrodden, mistreated, poorly educated woman. I'm not sure whether the movie wants viewers to laud Anandi, but it does seem obvious that we're supposed to grieve for her, and I just can't. As an individual, her struggle is sympathetic (and it was even in her flashbacks with a berating, abusive, restrictive husband), but what she represents seems neither admirable nor workable to me (granted my eyes are 21st-century American). I'm also not sure what Meena Kumari was doing with this performance; I gather from her biography that she was probably quite ill while filming this, and her mumbling and shuffling gave Anandi a jarring childishness.

However, the swagger and barely contained, dangerous despair exuded by Vinod and Shatrugan and their gangs were fun to watch and effectively communicate the potential of the generation on the brink of participating in the nation.

Everything about the stories of the young men is sad: they're good, smart, resourceful people, but circumstances have thwarted them and they feel forced into sketchy, and sometimes illegal, methods of making their way through an unfair, largely insensitive world. They know what they do is wrong, but they don't know what other options they have. They are confronted with the failure of all of society's systems.

Like many good 70s films, Mere Apne offers a hodgepodge of other small pleasures for the viewers. For example, one of the requisite flashbacks shows us the tale of Shyam and Chaino's enmity. They were once friends,

but Shyam didn't like the way Chaino talked to his girlfriend Urmi (Yogeeta Bali) and the two got in a horrible fight that cemented them as the enemies we see at the start of the movie.

This is the first time I've seen Yogeeta Bali, so of course I had to look her up, and I gotta say, her personal history made me cry out "Mother of Mimoh!" in disbelief. My brain does not compute someone being married to both Kishore Kumar and Mithun Chakraborty.
This flashback offers the only real romance in the film and one of the very few female characters with more than two lines of dialogue, plus a hearty serving of mournful Vinod for all you emo sadists.

In "Haal Chaal Thik Thaak Hai," one of only two songs, Shyam's gang sings cheerfully sarcastically about the atmosphere of the country. This is a great, biting song.

Mehmood has a short, funny turn as the idiotic politician who employs Chainu to scare up votes. My own state's politicians are also idiotic and corrupt, and I loved this line about vote-garnering: "This is a list of all the dead people, but their ration cards are still alive.'

Apparently this is Danny Denzongpa's first role, and he's great as the chipper but violent Sanju in Shyam's gang.

Not sure what was up with the puppet. If I ever watch this movie again, I'll make a list of all the things it says to see whether it's voicing a particular line of thought or assessment of events.

Cheerful-looking movie posters on the street contrast with the frequent scene of violence.

I think I've claimed this for other films, but this scene is certainly a candidate for most absurdly fake blood.

Is it wrong that Asrani is really growing on me? He's really good in this as a hopeful Romeo who is bullied for pursuing a girl who lives in the other gang's territory.

The dozen or so gang members gave me some new faces and names to learn. Can anyone identify these two actors?

In this outdoor political rally, there appear to be no women present.

There aren't many women in this film at all, which I'd like to think is the filmmakers' way of commenting on gender discrepancies as one of contemporary India's problems.

One of the most fab shirts ever.

And some great sunglasses and hairstyles too.

70s zindabad!

For a more impressed take on Mere Apne, see this essay at Passion for Cinema.


SRG said…
The second actor is Kanwarjit Paintal, more commonly known as Paintal, the famous comedian in bolly movies.

I'm not so sure about the first one though, he could be Dinesh Thakur, Mandira Bedi's dad in the TV soap 'Shanti' ...

veracious said…
I really like Asrani in the 70's. Not so much in Priyadarshan films of modern times but 70's? YES. Then again, I do have a general soft spot for comedic actors anyway.

This seems like a movie I need to see. I remember reading the plot description on IMDb during my Vinod kick but deciding against getting my hands on it because because I thought it focused primarily on Meena Kumari womanpaining. While I respect her legacy a lot and love her in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam but in general I'm not very into movies about women being miserable/suicidal. You don't make it sound more appealling..

Should I watch it for Vinod, though?
Filmi Girl said…
Oh, poor Meena Kumari!!! She was so ill then... :(

I don't know if I'd watch this but I did enjoy your write-up... maybe I could just watch the Shotgun/Vinod scenes... hmm...
Anonymous said…
"There aren't many women in this film at all, which I'd like to think is the filmmakers' way of commenting on gender discrepancies as one of contemporary India's problems."

Or maybe the filmmakers just didn't think of putting some women in there :)

I love your point about making a woman who has been mistreated, not educated, taken advantage of, etc. the "beacon" for humanity. It shows up in so many films, and makes me see red---especially when it is meant as a progressive message. A society dependent on self-sacrificing, unhappy females for its success is a society I want no part of. It is so fundamentally regressive and inhumane that I can't forgive it even in a film that's 40 years old. (I haven't seen this film, so maybe that isn't the case here but it is in so many movies)...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SRG - Ah, well done! I think you're right about Dinesh Thakur - he is listed as being in the film, at least!

veracious - If I had to choose one of them to be the star of the film, it's Vinod, though he does not have super massive amounts of screen time. The Meena focus is really in the first chunk, and then the narrative shifts towards the guys (though she is friends with them at that point, so she's still around - but she's also left the house of eeeeeevil trouser-wearing, so there's much less commentary from her character). And, for what it's worth, she's not suicidal - it's more like she's distressed at the state of the big bad world. One of the things that was frustrating to me is that she seemed not to be miserable in her flashbacks that show her married to someone who is quite frankly an ass - I didn't get why that seemed to be fine with her but women working outside the home was distressing. Maybe it's a case of the devil she knew. Anyway. Yeah, see it for Vinod. He and Shatrughan have some great exchanges, and he does a lot of being oppressed by the weight of contemporary woes.

FG - I'd be interested to see some of her other later films to try to figure out whether her acting style here is a result of illness or something she and/or Gulzar chose deliberately for this role. I don't think this is a great film, but it's interesting, and it has a lot to say.

Memsaab - Yeah, you're probably right - for some reason I was trying to be generous :) That PFC essay really made me rethink some of my reactions to this film.

Your second point - RIGHT ON! I think this particular film does not use the basic "uneducated, taken advantage of woman=grieved-for Hindustan" thing in quite as an extreme way as you're talking about, but it certainly seemed on that path to me. It's also interesting how fast the "now" representatives (the young men) take her into their fold - they are a little bit amused by her, but basically they're thrilled to have someone look out for their food needs and listen to their tales. So, you know: MAAAAAAAA (and none of the guys seem to have parents of note, being either orphans, almost-orphans [Vinod's mom abandoned her family! nahiiiiiin! how evil!], or forced to move out of their houses because of interpersonal issues).

There's more I want to discuss about this point but it has to do with the very end so I don't want to spoil it for people. But yeah. I think you'd see red.
Bollyviewer said…
Its been a while since I saw this film, so my memories are rather patchy, but I dont remember Meena being self-sacrificing and weepy. She is, to begin with, but she learns to look out for herself pretty fast. The scene that always stays in my memory is that she looks like a helpless, simple, old woman, who is offered a home in a young relative's house - and she stuns the said relative (and the viewer) by asking how much she'll be paid! So, if she does symbolise modern India, then the symbolism is that India is learning to adapt fast!

Also, if I remember correctly, Urmi ditches Shyam when she learns that he has friends like Chaino (a big bad goonda) and thats what starts their enmity. Kind of interesting that Shotgun's very presence exudes villainy of sorts that cannot be tolerated even for Vinod! ;-)

For the rest, the movie just reflects the problems of the Indian youth (men mostly, because the women will be taken care of, or beaten, by men!) of those days. The 70s were times of very high unemployment and socio-political unrest. And I thought this film did a great job of capturing that mood on celluloid.
Bollyviewer said…
PS: Dinesh Thakur is the bearded guy in front of the poster of Anand in the screen cap just above the 'fake blood' one.
Anonymous said…
Is it just me, or does the unknown guy look a lot like Abhishek Kapoor, the director of Rock On? Maybe it's his DAD!
lapetitediva said…
The first cap of Yogeeta reminds me of the pre-makeover Rekha. In fact, for a moment, I thought it was her until I saw the words "Yogeeta Bali".
Cindy said…
This film was too unhappy for me, but I definitely thought Vinod and Shatrughan put in really good performances. Like you, as I wasn't as much on board with Anandi. (And, after seeing her flashbacks, I decided that I'd pick the present, despite its problems, over the past.) I cried at the end of the film, but that was entirely due to Vinod.
Rum said…
I think I'm prone to liking any Gulzar movie and this one is one of his first films, and I dont feel Meena Kumari's character was that weepy , she just had a culturee shock i would say! Loving the Funkadelic shirts Shatru wears and am determined to make a crazy dress from those materials, and after watching this film i searched Vancouver for those seriously coool glasses Vinod wore and I FOUND THEM!!!!
Shalini said…
Gulzar is generally considered a "sensitive" filmaker with feminist sympathies, but after going through most of his movies, I've come to the conclusion that he's pretty traditional in his outlook on women. So, I think the idealization of the uneducated, bumpkin, suffering woman in Mere Apne *is* Gulzar's doing and one of the many reasons that I ultimately found the film - boring.
Banno said…
Definitely, the gang wars were more engaging than Anandi's sob-sob stuff. I never did like goody-goody women.

The unknown actor is not Dinesh Thakur. But his name escapes me.

As for the resemblance between Yogeeta Bali and Rekha, they were great friends at one point of time, and gave each other makeovers. I think it was during Rekha's Vinod Mehra stage, if I remember right from the loads of filmi mags I read as a kid.
Anonymous said…
Here's something to cheer you up!

Because it's always Amrish season.
VR said…
The 1st actor is Yogesh Chhabra and the 2nd one is Paintal
VR said…
Yogesh Chhabra and Paintal are these 2 actors
Thank you! I have seen Paintal in many things since but STILL don't recognize Yogesh Chhabra.

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