WTF ASIA 53: Roti Kapada aur Makaan (1974)
A movie takes a serious look at various social and economic woes hitting societyâ€¦and then tells an incredibly silly story.
Find it on youtube.
Bharat is the eldest of four siblings in a middle class family. Aside from some part-time singing gigs on television, he has trouble finding work despite his college degree. His father has retired, meaning that there is no money coming in aside from what Bharat brings in. His two brothers are still technically in college, but the threats of strikes and riots make that a rather meaningless statement. One of them considers turning to shady people in order to get some money, but Bharat admonishes him harshly for that. Bharatâ€™s sister is of marrying age, but there is no money to pay the prospective husbandâ€™s family, even though the father is friends with them. Responsibility falls on Bharat to provide for his family, but options are running out.
Bharat has a girlfriend named Sheetal. She sometimes helps him out with his singing gigs, but she has dreams for bigger things; things that Bharat cannot yet provide. Sheetal eventually lands a job as a secretary for a rich young businessman named Mohan. Mohan is a bit casually pushy and seems ignorant of the problems plaguing people like Sheetal, but he seems to be a window into a different world where such problems no longer matter. By the time that Bharat finally gets a job in construction, he and Sheetal have become literally and figuratively more distant.
While working at the building site, Bharat strikes up a friendship with Tulsi, an incredibly poor single mother whose father has lost his legs. Tulsi has grown used to the hardships and misery, but seems to cling to Bharat when he starts doing nice things for her. Of course, Bharatâ€™s job does not last very long after the government takes over the building project. His father is growing ill, making things worse. Tulsi tries to help the only way that she knows how, but Bharat wants to do things on his own. But that decision comes with desperate tactics, and his desire to remain true and honorable might fall by the wayside.
So, that all sounds quite heavy, I suppose. And, yes, quite a bit of this movie is rather serious. But boy is it goofy. There are some fundamental problems with this movie. Fundamental problems that make it really enjoyable to watch. I suppose that you could call it â€œso bad that itâ€™s goodâ€, even though I try to avoid using that concept. Maaaaybe guilty pleasure.
One pretty simple thing to talk about is the characterization. Most of the characters I can excuse as being mildly underwritten or just background characters or effective in their roles in the story. But there are few that got my attention even before the fundamental problems show up. The first is the main character of Bharat. He is supposedly a serious man in hard situation where cold reality clashes with his ideals. But, often, he comes across less as angry or bitter and more as just a stick-in-the-mud. Contrasting with that is Tulsi. Her life is much worse than Bharat, but she seems a lot more free-spirited, treating one traumatic experience as an annoying setback. Mohan may be meant to be simply pushy and ignorant, but he sometimes appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. That I am guessing that he was not meant to be that is what makes it funny. Then there is this Sikh character who shows up out of nowhere and acts like a force of nature. Perhaps he was meant to be a comic relief character like Sheetalâ€™s sister-in-law, but the presentation comes off as incompetent. I think that these characters, along with others, are simply meant to be symbolic of aspects of Indian society as opposed to actual people.
I am not entirely sure what went into the production of the movie. The 1970s was when the masala genre (throwing everything in there) really came into being in India, making this one of the early examples. So there is the serious drama about the ordinary Indian family struggling to make ends meet. Then there is pretty much everything else to prevent the movie from being a miserable slog. There is romance, there is crime, there is comedy, there is action, there is music. Not all of it worksâ€¦.particularly the crime and action parts. At least not from a storytelling standpoint. But from an entertainment standpoint, it is wonderfulâ€¦maybe because it is not completely coherent.
Unemployment and restlessness amongst the youth was a major problem in 1970s India. This movie tapped into those feelings. The title of the movie roughly translates into â€œFood, Bread, and Shelterâ€, a famous phrase back then that takes an ominous meaning in this movie. But instead of showing the audience what was out there, it showed what may have been a cathartic fantasy. Sure, there have been many stories that have tackled real-life serious issues with simplistic solutions and narratives that invite the raising eyebrows and the rolling of eyeballs. I think what set this one apart was how it snuck up on me. Sure, the movie had some elements that seemed silly throughout and a couple of the characters were a bit on the odd or troubling side. But the slow reveal of what this movie seemed to be saying about the plight of the Indian people got me chuckling. I donâ€™t want to give it away, but I will say that it comes across as simultaneously ridiculous and utterly mundane. When I finally realized what was going on, I dropped my jaw in disbelief. Really, movie? You are going in that direction?
Perhaps that is what audiences need sometimes. They need a bogeyman instead of entrenched institutional problems. They need their anxieties and miseries personified so that that person can get scolded and punched in the face. They need the symbolism and thematic threads pointed out. This is not because they are stupid; this is not because they donâ€™t know what is going on. Maybe they do know that what is going on in the movie is ridiculous, but it is a ridiculousness that gives them the emotional release that they need. It may make people feel that someone recognizes their issues and, barring being able to find the root cause or a solution, delves into fantasy for a bit. Maybe that fantasy is laughable, but if it makes the audience laugh, then that is something.
If I were to guess, I would guess that this movie was not necessarily meant to be as funny as it was to me. And maybe it was not to the Indian audiences of the 1970s, whose lives were mirrored in the movie. Since this movie did quite well back then, it must have been effective at something. The Sikh character whom I felt was hilariously bombastic may have been how Sikhs acted back then. The action scene that I felt were of dubious competence may have simply been exciting. That one particular death scene that lasted three minutes too long for me to keep from chuckling may have made them cry even longer. The frequent reference to a foreign country without saying its name may have been standard back then. The climax may have meant something to people back then that it never could to me. The plot twist over a major national crisis in India may have been a perfectly acceptable plotline back then. Or maybe they laughed at most of the things that I did along with things that went over my head. I donâ€™t know; I know little about audiences for any of the movies that I watch. I go by my own interpretation until someone shows me one that sounds better.
I donâ€™t know much about Indian movies pre-1980s, as I have seen only a few, but I have read that director Manoj Kumar wasâ€¦isâ€¦a bit of a prickly oneâ€¦and he might be insane. Also, he produced this film, wrote it, edited it, and starred as the lead. Soâ€¦yeahâ€¦I am not sure how much of his politics seeped into the storyline, though I do get the impression that he sabotaged his own story. The result may be a flawed movie, but it is engaging nevertheless. And that is why I cannot really make fun of it, at least not while watching it. As silly as it may seem sometimes, I like surrounding myself in its ridiculousness, as opposed to standing at a distance lobbing spitballs. Some find that latter more fun of an activity, and I may have fun watching them do that, but I personally find the former to be more rewarding of an experience.
Is this movie a good movie? In my opinion, it isnâ€™t. There are way too many flaws and problems that keep it from being that. Would fixing those problems make it a good film? Maybe, but I cannot guarantee that I would want to watch it all the way through, let alone more than once. Sometimes, it is the flaws that make a movie memorable and enjoyable. I am not be watching this movie in the way that it was intended, but I am certainly getting something out of it. And I am entertained. Maybe you will be too.