[Spoiler-y sentences throughout.]
Kicking off Khanna-o-Rama is Vinod doing some of the things Vinod does best: being the "model of male nastiness"* as the basically one-note but still very effective villain character against newly noble underdog Dharmendra in Mera Gaon Mera Desh.
I was talking about this film with veracious the other day, trying to understand what back story the film gives relentlessly ruthless dacoit Thakur to explain why he's so horrible, and she confirmed that all we really know about him is that he petrifies the entire village.
This line was never explained, at least not that I caught.
Vinod is so impressive at making Thakur into someone you really fear, even though all he really has to work with is a cardboard character sketch. He even manages to do it with maybe three facial expressions, five tops, as he glares, menaces, threatens, and smolders (with rage - but the other way too, obviously). I don't really have anything more to say about him than that, but believe me, he's really effective at scaring you with only a handful of variations on "pure evil."
Dharmendra's character, Ajit, on the other hand, is much more interesting as a person.
He transforms from the ultimate outsider - a thief and an orphan with no sense of his background or family - to the ultimate defender of all that is good in Hindustan: sacrifice, personal vengeance, community action, the village. Along the way he picks up friends, a love interest (Asha Parekh as Anju),
They're not perfect parents, just like Ajit does not start out to be the perfect son - his "father" has been made impotent by a war injury (with perhaps a hint of cowardice signified by the injury?) and his "mother" is insane and ostracized by the other villagers - but through them, as well as Anju, he learns what affection and connection are and how powerful they can be. What an arc! A pair of coordinating scenes at each end of the story demonstrates his growth. Ajit enters the film on an empty street, running away from people chasing him after he commits a crime...
and in the film's climax, he searches the empty streets of his adopted town, trying to take down the dacoits all by himself as the villagers cower in fear.
In his own words: "I didn't know the meaning of duty before I came to this village...that duty is more important than one's life. I want to convey this message to the naive, poor villagers. There's only one way to send the message to the entire village." And that way is to risk it all. And he really does take some huge risks, perhaps somewhat unknowingly, and suffers their consequences when he loses the two things that most clearly redefine his new life, a mother and father. This may be a small point, but I was struck by it: the visual motif of Ajit in the street is repeated in another pair. He first comes to the village after being summoned by a letter, and when he comes to town the residents are hiding from the dacoits. "Where am I?", you can see on Dharmendra's face, as Ajit wanders confused through this strange place.
Not only does this foreshadow the final shootout, but it also compliments the much happier, settled resolution at the end, where Ajit is surrounded by his new comrades and accompanied by symbols of order and justice.
I loved this movie! The male lead characters are great - one overwhelmingly a single dominant impression and the other allowed to change, stumble, and learn -
and, for once, their female partners are just as strong. Anju is the love interest of Ajit but her character is a little more like Thakur's in that she is straightforward and uncomplicated. Anju is the feisty village belle we've all seen a zillion times,
but I for one like this heroine type well enough that I don't mind her reappearance. As many other writers have noted, this film has many similarities to Sholay**, which it precedes by four years, and really, who doesn't want more Basanti!
She hates him at first, of course, but warms up soon enough, and she expresses her feelings once she realizes she has them. No shrinking violet, our Anju. Hurrah!
In "Sona Lai Ja Re" she seems to be dancing as much for her own pleasure, for the joy of being in love, as for any attempt at enticement.
(I don't remember if that interpretation holds up based on the lyrics, but just looking at her choreography makes me think she is reveling rather than trying to seduce, even if that effect is also present, because we all know that Dharmendra staring at a dancing woman while biting on something indicates a little somethin'-somethin'.)
Also, she has many great outfits with conical headpieces.
Even more wonderful is Laxmi Chhaya as Munnibai, a bad girl with a head of gold. Like Ajit, she considers different ideas and philosophies as the story unfolds; like Roma from Don, she is neither fully selfish nor selfless. I think this character might be the most nuanced "bad girl" I've ever seen. She does not make any epic sacrifices of more drama or danger than Ajit does, nor does she meet her end in a more tear-jerking way than anyone else who dies in the film. As we would probably expect for a 70s film, the vamp dies, but she dies the same way as everyone else, in a struggle between the villagers and the dacoits - and she's actually in the fight, taking up arms to defend herself, her friends, and her choices!
This is a lie. Or is it?
This is true. Or is it? She's tricky!
In this scene, Munna reconsiders some of her plans as Ajit talks about what he's learned from living in the village. I love the sheer fabric separating them, a thin but lingering cloud - as he speaks, she begins to see him in a different way than she did when they met, and he still doesn't realize her real identity or allegiances.
This role isn't all feminist awesomeness. As we've all seen many times, in a rage Ajit insults her with her status as an insider in the dacoit band, which was the thing he valued most about her when she offered to help him. He was perfectly willing to be hand-in-hand with her then.
But how exciting to see such a complex female character who isn't a love interest! And how exciting to see Laxmi Chhaya in a full role that gives her so much to work with! She's a more complicated antagonist than Thakur, so much so that I wasn't sure what decisions she would make and reconsider by the end of the story. And fear not: Laxmi gets three great songs! "Aaya Aaya Aatariya Pe Koi Chor," "Apni Prem Kahaniyan," in which she balances her allegiances, and "Maar Diya Jaaye," in which the fate of everyone story shifts with her dance.
As an extra dollop of awesome, we never see Munnabai and Anju screeching at each other. In fact, each helps the other out at critical moments.
How should we treat them? Like this:
I've admitted before that I am easy to surprise, so I would love to know whether other viewers felt the suspense I did during the High Noon-style climax. I was so tense!
My stomached also flipped over a few times as one of the bandits nearly rapes a woman in the fields after shooting her brother when he tries to protect her. Ajit shows up in the nick of time and beats up the bandit, but he hands her his gun to let her decide the ultimate fate of her attacker.
This quick inversion from target to fate-decider was fascinating! This is a scene that troubles me ethically - in the real world, vigilante justice rarely seems like a good idea - but was extremely emotionally satisfying in the context of the film. I found myself yelling at the screen a lot, desperate for Ajit's (and, eventually, Munna's, and his mother's, and the villagers') gamble to succeed and for Thakur's mindless, almost unconscious terror to be stopped.
Fortunately Ajit and his Chuck Taylors were on the job.
My two criticisms of Mera Gaon Mera Desh are ones often seen elsewhere. The useless police force (led, to my surprise, by Sudhir!) frustrated me no end, leaving this poor village paralyzed as Thakur and his men arrogantly kill whomever they want. The other is the moral lesson referred to in the film's title. While I expect at least a little preaching in my 70s films, this particular one should have been left implied by the story and not articulated flat-out in the last few frames. After the bandits dacoits are defeated, Anju, Ajit, and the surviving villagers discuss their success with the police. "Our village is a part of our country," Anju says. "Every man, woman, and child of the village will be its guardian." The police officer answers "I'm happy this village has awakened. Tomorrow it will be another village. Thereafter the entire country will be awakened. Then there will be peace in the entire country." Oh! Well now that you put it that way, I'm sure national peace will be a snap! Sticking up for your (collective) self has its uses, but a nation full of vigilante justice doesn't really strike me as tenable. The way the idea is stated here is almost like a Gandhi-approved infomercial for a successful society: it's that easy! Act now!
I have no idea what they're looking at. The camera stays on them as their gaze wanders - are they uncomfortable asserting the end of the story? It's so weird!
Two irrelevant but amusing points before we end. First, my DVD (I forget who by, unfortunately!) had no use whatsoever for apostrophes, leading to text like this:
"Villagers whore such cowards, their childrenve to meet with such fate."
Elaborate contractions, yes; punctuation, no. Second, what is up with the poor pantsless boy?
(I had a picture of him without his pants, but Memsaab's warning about unsavory site traffic made me think twice.)
* Description from the Rediff profile by Dinesh Raheja.
See Bollywood Food Club's excellent comparison chart for further discussion of the similarities between the two films.