Yaadein: Sunil Dutt’s unsung experiment

A still from Yaadein.Inspiration has a knack for striking on unexpected moments only to produce something so exceptional; it’s probably ahead of its time.  And the most novel film of Sunil Dutt’s creative career, Yaadein is a excellent example of this belief.

The actor/filmmaker was hit by such a bad case of loneliness after his family (wife Nargis and kids – Sanjay, Namrata and Priya) took off on a vacation, it sparked off an idea for a curious premise – how would a husband react if he returned to an empty house and learned his wife has left him for good.

Although this plot line would make little sense in the age of 3G cell phones, Wi-Fi technology and rampant social networking, Yaadein seems quite plausible in a time when even dial phones were a luxury only a select few could afford. But what truly makes Dutt’s first film as director stand apart is that it’s entirely his show — as the opening credit proudly proclaims — World’s First One-Actor Movie.

Even the popular website Flavorwire couldn’t overlook Yaadein, as one of the ten most memorable one-actor movies, along with Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and Andy Warhol’s Sleep. Sadly, Yaadein, which also made it to Guinness Book of World Records under the category ‘Fewest actors in a narrative film’, is awfully undervalued on its home turf.

yaadein2Dutt’s filmmaking may not be as prolific as that of cinematic greats like Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy or B R Chopra (under whom he delivered some of his best work like Mother India, Sujata and Gumrah) but clearly, the experience enriched his social sensibilities and technical know-how far more deeply than he’s given credit for.

With his banner Ajanta Arts already backing unique subjects like Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke and Mujhe Jeene Do, Dutt decided to up the ante even further by filming an experimental, black and white soliloquy, based on a story developed by his wife Nargis, referred to as Mrs Sunil Dutt in the credits.

As I earlier mentioned, it was Dutt’s desolation of not having the constant comfort of his family around, which triggered the thought behind Yaadein. And as you watch this enormously personal film, you begin to see how his anxiety must have extended into a lengthy conversation with his significant other and taken the shape of a full-fledged motion picture.

But like all his films, which bear a strong moral subtext, Yaadein too has one. To give you an idea, it begins with this excerpt from the Manu Smriti or Manav Dharmashastra, ‘The homes where women are respected are visited by Gods to their delightment. But where women are not respected even the good actions of other members become fruitless.’

yaadein3Details and explanation can be tricky to communicate when most of the dialogues are spoken by a solitary individual.

And so Dutt tactfully uses both monologue and colloquy with various characters on the phone to offer information, which eventually reveal names, a bitter fight that took place earlier in the day, his wife’s unerring reputation while drawing attention to his own transgressions.

While it’s never admitted outright, there’s a strong possibility, he may be carrying on with a woman from Monte Carlo named Shyama.  This open interpretation adds to the enigma of Yaadein, which unfolds through a series of flashbacks. With every return to the present, Anil (that’s his name in the film) finds himself in a brand new emotional state.

Initially, he goes ballistic and bad mouths her like an uncontrollable child, while none of his spontaneous loathing makes any sense. This certainly lends his ugly rage even more authenticity.  Gradually, his anger turns into regret, guilt, desperation, revived outburst leading up to a near-fatal nervous breakdown.

To accept the extreme nature of his actions, it is imperative to understand (and there are enough instances to enlarge the fact) that Anil is highly short-tempered, hyper and wrapped up in himself but a naturally passionate, flirtatious fellow.

A still from YaadeinLeft alone with nothing but memories of domestic bliss he took for granted, Anil staggers from room to room of his sprawling abode recalling how he first met his wife, Priya (voice of Nargis) at a restaurant where legendary cartoonist Mario Miranda’s sketches form the backdrop, playing out oddball characters accompanied by animated voices to give the illusion of the gentry around.

He remembers what attracted him to her, the romantic proposal in the rain, the birth of their kids – Geeta and Pavan, the banter caused by his late-night parties and lifestyle, how his growing up kids and their constant needs change the equation between the couple (Get twin beds for our room, she tells him), the strain on their sex lives, his frequent tantrums akin to an overgrown child followed by making-up/out sessions are conveyed effectively by a singular Dutt.

It sounds ridiculous on paper but the passion comes across through deft camera angles and Dutt’s exuberance, which sometimes could do with toning down a little, keeping the viewer engaged for a good 113 minutes.

Dutt, aided by Akhtar-Ul-Rahman’s dialogue, Omkar Sahib’s screenplay, S Ramachandra’s brilliant camerawork and Essa M Suratwala’s sound, ensures Yaadein doesn’t slip into a monotonous mood even once. He introduces moments of romance, intrigue, style, comedy, melodrama, meaning and warmth that combine to portray the significance of his nostalgia and the extent of his vacuum adequately.

Every prop (art direction by Sudhendu Roy) has a story or stylish input to offer. Be it the sitar, the cosmetics, the comb, the hair pin, the walls, every object conceals an anecdote underlining the emotional value of one’s private space.

A still from Yaadein.The fascinating play of shadows, silhouettes, voices (from Raaj Kumar to Rajendranath) and the constantly fluttering transparent curtains lend Anil’s turmoil a wispy ambiance, a perceptive audience.

Dutt’s untried narrative doesn’t fall on straightforward devices like songs to create an impact but makes concession for the haunting Vasant Desai melody, Dekha hai sapna koi sung by Lata Mangeshkar at the most vulnerable leg of Yaadein.

Films often portray sentiment, insecurity, fear as a woman’s prerogative but Dutt’s Yaadein, an intimate exploration from the point of view of the husband proves men are just as susceptible to hurt and there’s nothing unmanly about needing your family.

Sure, he is accusatory and harps about a wife’s responsibility but most of his remarks are born out of mindless anger (and a guilty conscience). His past actions suggest he dotes on his kids, telling them bedtime stories about a tiger and goat even as they paint his face in one of Yaadein’s only laugh out loud moments.

And there are times when Dutt is shown canoodling with a sketch, brought to life by Nargis’ enticing voice, even as he consummates their relationship without any visible presence of his partner. It’s a delicate stage but Dutt’s blatant lust and the cosy positioning of Ramachandra’s camera pull it off. The camera, in Yaadein, is not very different from a person; it breathes a life and temperament of its own. It’s only fair the cinematographer was rewarded with a Filmfare trophy along with Suratwala (sound recording) for their contribution to this one-of-a-kind creation.

When I saw Yaadein as a kid, I was too young to understand the symbolism or the need to use balloons or silhouettes in place of actual people. When I watch it today, I discover so much wisdom in the film’s social commentary.

A still from Yaadein.Nothing is as it seems in Anil’s universe, which is more or less, a broad-scale version of how he’s viewed life all this time. And so sketches in the backdrop are people who are reduced to caricatures of themselves, painted balloons at the party represent people who are all gas, little substance and the reason why we never see any of his family members is because they’ve almost turned invisible from Anil’s neglect.

All this builds up to provide the most unforgettable scene — his frightening collapse in the children’s room amidst those numerous wind-up toys. This is stuff of sheer awe.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, despite its out-of-the-box imagination Yaadein didn’t work at the box-office but garnered some international recognition by winning the Grand Prix at the Frankfurt Film Festival.

Its failure didn’t prevent advocates of ingenious cinema from patting Dutt’s back.

During a Sunil Dutt-special episode of television series, Jeena Isi Kaam Hai hosted by Farookh Shaikh, the late actor recalled hosting its premiere at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir and recording everyone’s response. He vividly remembers how impressed his colleague, friend and neighbour Dilip Kumar was after the screening. ‘He was totally floored. Aisa kaisa ho sakta hai ek hi actor throughout? He really admired Yaadein’s (concept of) one man, one set.

And that’s exactly what Yaadein is – a one-man show. Dutt, who shot the film in less than 50 days, succeeds in holding the viewer’s attention for a little less than two hours with his steady antics and enthusiasm (so as to not question the loopholes like why doesn’t he simply step out and go looking for his wife or call the in-laws).

A still from Yaadein.From bathroom singing to reciting stories like a typical dad to strip teasing for his disinterested wife to a hilarious attempt at making tea in a modular kitchen to playing cupid between a pair of people, er, inflated balloons while slowly slipping into stark space, Dutt juggles these extremes on screen and calls the shots behind it rather admirably.

It’s a pity and ironic that few remember this.

This article was first published on rediff.com.

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