“Thousands of desires, each worth dying for… many of them I have realized…yet I yearn for more.”
— Mirza Ghalib
India is a mystery for contemporary historians. Reeling under a century or so of colonial subjugation, extreme poverty, a non-existent social structure and more importantly, a vicious Hindu-Muslim conflict; no one in their right minds believed that this nation would last as long as it did. On 15th August 1947, when our forefathers led by Pandit Nehru made a tryst with destiny, they had an “idea of India”, a secular, liberal, democratic republic. And surprisingly enough, we continue to be one even today.
But that is not to say we never faced challenges, some which even threatened our very existence. The most potent among them would probably be the 1975 Emergency, imposed by Ms Indira Gandhi, and the nation-wide anti-government protests led by Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan (known as the JP movement) that preceded it. The darkest period in our country’s post independent history, this attack on democracy brought India to its brink.
The sad part is, young India knows very little of these times — and the struggle that the people mounted in a quest for equality and change. One of the reasons might be the lack of quality cinematic works depicting these times. How many movies can you think of, which chronicles the tumultuous times of the 70s in India? None, I presume.
That is exactly why, when I saw Sudhir Mishra’s 2003 art-house film ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ (A Thousand Desires Such), I was completely blown away. A commentary on the Indian political atmosphere leading up to the Emergency, this romantic drama focuses on three Delhi University students, their dreams and aspirations amidst the turmoil around them. Theatrically released in India in 2005 after being screened at numerous film festivals internationally, the movie received universal critical acclaim, and is today a regarded as a modern classic.
Titled after the famous couplet by the legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib,’Hazaaron Khwaisein Aisi’ is essentially about human desires, and how they are influenced by people and times. Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon) is a young revolutionary, inspired by the Fidel Castro and Mao, who joins the Naxalite movement, in an attempt to end all discrimination and injustice by the state. Geetha (Chitrangada Singh) is a sheltered middle-class girl confused about her life, and in love with Siddharth. Vikram (Shiney Ahuja) is the son of a middle class Gandhian who wants to make it big, and is madly I love with Geetha. How their lives transform, beliefs mold and passions change, in the politically volatile 70s form the crux of the story.
Right from the very first frame, I realized that there is an earnestness and honesty in the filmmaker, which reflected in his work. There is no overt melodrama, cinematic flourishes or pitched sequences. Instead, the proceedings are very mellow, with the script and the performances doing all the talking. The screenplay, co-written by Mishra himself, is taut and displays a strong control over its characters; their conflicting ideas are depicted with a sincerity that floored me. We care for the people we see, though stop short of loving them, as they are not great people. They all have their flaws, but the sheer realism ends up emotionally moving you. Though there is a strong political undercurrent of naxalism, revolution and state excesses; this is a story of people, and their lives in the backdrop of these difficult times, which ends up making a greater impact.
Technically flawless, the movie’s soundtrack is worth special mention. Without typical Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, this soundtrack, composed by debutante Shantanu Moitra, is soulful and heart-wrenching. It complements the story, leaving a tremendous impact on the viewer.
Without the performances that the movie had, it would have been half as good as it turned out to be. Kay Kay Menon in one of his finest performances till date, completely gets into the skin of Siddharth, and portrays him with the layers and depth the character deserves. A man driven by the fire in him, and his eventual transformation is wonderfully effected by Menon. Shiney Ahuja too impresses in his debut, as the no-nonsense power broker in the corridors of the government. A man you might loathe, his redemption is in his unflinching love for Geetha, which eventually transforms his life.
But the movie belongs to Chitrangada Singh, playing the ethereal Geetha. With her exquisite beauty and commanding screen presence, she gives an exceptional performance in her debut. The pain and emotions are evident in her eyes and the tears that roll down her cheeks. Her transformation is the most touching and emotionally moving, and her grace is a rarity in today’s Bollywood. Definitely one of the best female performances I have ever seen.
All in all, ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ is one of the few overwhelming cinematic experiences that Bollywood has given me. It has a story that deserved to be told; a true story ! Yes, this is a tribute to those countless students from Delhi University; educated, elite, rich students, who left their promising futures to effect a change; to end injustice and inequality once and for all. Yes, their means were flawed, but at least they believed in something. They had a fire in them, a burning desire and unflinching faith in an idea, an idea greater than any individual. It is this intellectually charged environment that is missing in contemporary Indian institutions. Universities, where once ideas floated and freedom and liberalism were the catch phrases; has today turned into breeding grounds for right-wing fanaticism.
Sudhir Mishra has made a masterpiece: a bold, gritty story about those dark times, without ever losing sight of its characters. In fact, it is a story of desire, longing, love and lust. And it is this human touch that makes ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ such a memorable watch. It doesn’t shy away from taking names and events (Who dares to name Ms Gandhi and the Congress party?). Sadly, this gem has been buried under all the trash that Bollywood keeps churning. So this piece is my propaganda, to get as many people as possible to watch this movie, and experience it. In fact, I am going to go so far as to say that ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ is, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest Indian movies of the 2000s. So, please, please, watch this one! And after that, if you still don’t feel the way I do; well go ahead, sue me !