Monday, October 05, 2015

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

My latest publication in the magazine Spark is on the use of the hand written letter as a device plot in Hindi movies. Enjoy!

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

“Run, Tuffy, run,” you shout at the white Pomeranian tearing across the screen, holding the fate of the sacrificing lovers in his little mouth. This was 1994, before Facebook and WhatsApp and text messaging and SnapChat and Instagram and any other current ways of sending messages was invented. Tuffy was using his gentle mouth to hold on to a good old-fashioned handwritten letter. The handwritten letter has long been used as a plot device in Hindi films. Tuffy was only the messenger. He couldn’t have spilt the beans to Rajesh about Prem and Nisha. No, only the letter could have. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please hark back to the 90s and watch ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’. For Tuffy’s sake.)

The letter has always served as a simple yet effective way of subverting what would have been a normal story in a Hindi film. No matter how simply and clearly a letter is written, its purpose is usually to confuse and confound and get either the sender or the recipient in trouble.

Take the case of Nirupa Roy in the movie ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’. She is down and out with an illness and is riddled by guilt that Pran has to spend all his income to cure her. So she writes the suicide note which she leaves with her children and goes on her mission to end her life. All hell breaks loose. She who doesn’t want to live gets crushed under a tree, loses her eyesight and is very much left to live on. Pran, who does want to live, takes his three children away from the goons trying to kill him and promptly loses them to give rise to, “Amar, Akbar, Anthony”. The only one to benefit from this letter was Manmohan Desai, who used that two paragraph letter to his advantage. Why Manmohan Desai, even Sanjay Leela Bhansali made sure that when he wanted a twist in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, Ajay Devgn catches Aishwarya Rai reading love letters written by Salman Khan.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Think of a letter in a film and the first thought that comes to mind is a love letter, not a suicide note. Sooraj Barjatya, who directed both ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, must have been traumatized by a postman in his childhood. To extract his revenge, he made sure that letters in his films were delivered by a dog and a pigeon respectively. When Bhagyashree sends her first letter of her first love to Salman Khan in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, the pigeon (Handsome. Yes, that was his name) must have put down some terms of his own. No letters were seen in transit in that movie after that.

Sometimes, these letters have the oddest of set up for being exchanged. Consider the movie ‘Lunchbox’. Capitalizing on the rare mistake that the six sigma efficient Mumbai dabbawallahs made, a relationship formed on letters was initiated in the movie between an accountant and a neglected housewife. The film should have been titled ‘Letter with butter’. Talking of mistakes, when the postal department does commit a mistake, confusion ensues. In ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’, the letter gets delivered to a neighbour with the same name.

Some of the silliest plots come from the silliest of mistakes made in writing these letters. When we were taught to write a letter in our 3rd standard class, the first thing our English teacher mentioned was ensuring there was a To and a From. Clearly, that was not the case for the person who wrote the letter in the movie “P.K.” and turned Aman ki Asha into Aman ki Niraasha for the Indian Anushka Sharma and Pakistani Sushant Singh Rajput. It was equally silly of them to believe the letter was intended for them, but then we wouldn’t have the oddest love triangle involving an extra-terrestrial now, would we?

No one expects Hindi movies of being compliant with logic, but even the most hardnosed Bollywood fan would be scratching their head as to how a one-year-old can read a letter! Or a two-, three-, four-, or five-year-old. But Anjali, that little girl in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ who was entrusted by her mother at age 8 to get the other Anjali back with her father (Rahul, you must have heard his name!), was also left eight letters by her mother before she died. The expectation was that each letter was to be given to her on each of her birthdays. If she wrapped up great life lessons in her letters, she didn’t set it up such that they would be private for her daughter. Even her mother-in-law would have learnt a thing or two.

The use of letters in Hindi film songs has also been exemplary. Consider ‘Likhe jo khat tujhe’. A brilliant song where the letters metaphorically become flowers and stars. If the lyrics of the song are anything to go by, surely, those letters must have been a masterclass in writing. The subject of letters can also get googly-eyed NRIs all mushy and teary when Pankaj Udhas sings ‘Chitthi aayi hai’. I can aver that many a reverse brain drain happened on account of that song. Perhaps Rajendra Kumar wasn’t entirely sure of what effect his letter would have on Vyjanthimala in ‘Sangam’. So he followed up a love letter with a word of caution serenading her with “Yeh mera prem patra padh kar ke tum naraaz na hona” (Please don’t be upset after reading my love letter.)

Times have evolved and movies like ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’ involve e-mails while movies like ‘Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge’ show the protagonists using Facebook. But there is nothing like a letter to stir up the pot (or the plot in this case). I’ll rest my case with an example where the Big B is involved. In the movie ‘Muqaddar Ka Sikandar’, Sikandar (a.k.a. Amitabh Bachchan) tries to profess his love to Kaamna (a.k.a. Rakhee) through a love letter. Because Sikandar himself is illiterate, Vishal (a.k.a. Vinod Khanna) transcribes the letter for him. But when Kaamna mistakes the letter as actually being from Vishal, it sends the movie hurtling towards a tragedy and giving the famed baritone a chance to shine through it all. The movie was made better with the letter.