Ghulam- Spaces, Memories and the ‘Deewar Reversal’

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In a crucial scene in Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam quite a few characters participate in a local meeting to discuss the violence in the neighbourhood. There is Fatima (Mita Vashisht), the Muslim lawyer who plays an important role in the protagonist Sidhu’s (Aamir Khan) life. Then we have a Tamilian vegetable seller, and a crippled Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh. And of course Sidhu himself is presented at the meeting as a Maharashtrian identified by his last name Marathe. Taking the context of Bombay’s linguistic  and cultural hybridity amidst a compressed landscape of architectural chaos, Ghulam presents the urban crowd not as an abstract force but as a multicultural presence. The presence of the crowd and urban chaos are relationally structured around the Marxist idea of ‘empty space’. By contrasting ‘real’ space (the space of the crowd, the street, and the home) with fetishized ‘empty space’, Ghulam creates a conflictual movement between the ‘everyday’ present and the ‘traumatized’ past. This is most vividly imagined in the scenes on the river-bank (‘ghaat’).

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5 comments on “Ghulam- Spaces, Memories and the ‘Deewar Reversal’

  1. Thanks fr that lovely piece– think this is an original point and haven’t heard or read about the deewar/ ghoulam connection before
    Will read this properly later –but esp liked the post on Henry lefebevre…keep it up m8

      • Hey, this was such a good read, thanks. You made me see things in a new light and make connections I hadn’t made before. The Deewar connection I hadn’t thought of but you are so right about the reversal, the brothers’ conflict, the part memories play. Even with the reversal of the father’s situation. While Vijay carries the wound of his father’s mistreatment, Sidhu realizes his father wasn’t the hero he thought he was.
        Also made me want to revisit On The Waterfront, it’s been a while since I saw that. Will have to read again and process some more.

      • Thanks a lot Anu, I am happy atleast one person took pains to read my read my random ramblings :). On ‘On The Waterfront’, a better reworking of this was Mahesh Bhatt’s Dutt starrer Kabza which in my view has one of the finest performanes of Dutt and Rawal. I prefer this to Ghulam (which is incidentally a film I like a lot) not only because Dutt (to my mind of course) makes for a better lead but also because the script by Salim Khan and Bhatt’s direction was much better. Just check out the first sequence of the film and you will realize what I am saying

        “While Vijay carries the wound of his father’s mistreatment, Sidhu realizes his father wasn’t the hero he thought he was.”-

        This is such an astute observation. And thinking of this I can’t help but remember Ramesh Behl’s Bachchan-Randhir-Zeenat starrer Pukar. In case you have not seen the flick- it’s set in the pre-independance portuguese-ruled Goa. Sriram lagoo, playing one of the revolutionaries, is wounded in a chase by the police and in an act of mercy-killing, is shot by one of the other revolutioaries played by Om Shivpuri). A young Bahchan who accidently watches his father’s die thinks that Shivpuri backstabbed his dad. Growing up he develops a deep-seated grudge against the revolutionaries and helps the police nab them. And then you have the usual tale of things getting cleared out and so on. The point here is how a certain ‘memory based on misinterpretation’ makes the guy completely anti-national. And i remember feeling very uncomfortable as a child seeing AB, out of all people, play ‘anti-national/traitor’ for the most part. Remember he is the same actor who, famously in Saat hindustani, actually played one of the of the 7 guys who rebel against the Portuguese in order to free Goa!

        On the subject of ‘fathers and memories’though this is shamelessly self-serving here are some older extracts-

        1) From my Vijeta piece- https://minorquibbles.wordpress.com/saurabhs-take-on-vijeta/

        “Nihalani, like in his earlier 2 films, carves out characters which are ‘haunted’ by their past- In the opening scene itself a sleeping Nihal suffers a flashback to Partition-era Punjab and we see that most of his family was murdered in the rioting. And it is immediately followed by one more nightmare where he envisions his son buried under the sand in the battle-ground. It was as if the son’s death was a poetic justice for the horrors inflicted on the father (and the preceding generation of India). Angad’s rite of passage ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note
        If Angad’s growing-up is the foreground theme, then his father’s is the background one. While the plot centers on Angad, it is book-ended and constantly informed by the story of Nihal. The very first flashback-scene deals with the massacre of Nihal’s family in the Partition-era Punjab and the last scene, likewise, features the resolution to Angad’s plotline. In this way, the movie is a lot like the great Mississippi Masala, where the child’s coming of age is cast against the broader historical angst that the father brings with him. The relationship between Nihal and Angad is one of the film’s big emotional hooks. Initially, Angad is full of resentment for Nihal’s past infidelity and Nihal’s treatment of his wife. Indeed, Nihal is a very flawed man: he is the self-pitying patriarch, throwing his weight around, quick to remind everyone of how hard his life has been, and, when that doesn’t work, using the slow poison of guilt. The arguments between Nihal and Neelimi were painfully evocative, mostly because they were so real. The film works to show you how alienated father and son initially are, so that, in their moments of closeness, it’s all the more poignant. Alas, expect no weepy reconciliations here.”

        2) Some other comments-

        “The Deer Hunter is my single most favourite hollywood movie. And i was ecstatic to find the poster of the film in the dead actor’s house in Talaash (in the scene where Aamir goes to the actor’s house to inform and inquire her wife regarding the death). There is also a poster of Eraserhead there and I strongly feel that Reema Kagti was somewhere inspired by themes of both films but particularly that of The Deer Hunter. A correspondence could be established between the motifs and the central protagonists of both films- both movie are about ‘closure’. as in about closing the chapters in life and trying to move on. They are also about the catharsis that precedes the closure. Deer Hunter has soldiers accepting their defeat by dehumanizing their enemy. It was about how they adjust to failure and handle the self blame. In Talaash too, the principal protagonist is coping up with self blame and somehow finds a solution. And then there is the theme of ‘disillusionment’ common to both films
        When I first saw The Deer Hunter I found it emotionally shattering. And to my mind it is the greatest epic film in Hollywood after The Godfather.”

        “Deewar picks up where Zanjeer left off in many ways but it tends more toward the ‘mythic’ in the guise of near-realistic drama. And we know the rest of the history. However zanjeer is the only Vijay film with a kind of ‘horror’ moment to it by way of the nightmare. How would Vijay deal with a ghost? How would he fare if he had to pass through his own underworld (land of the dead)? Kaala Pathar has an underworld of sorts but what if Vijay had encountered spirits in the coal mines?!
        Vijay in Zanjeer is haunted by a nightmare with very ‘gothic’ coordinates. The horseman through the fog, the dangling chain, the horse bellowing and so on. A level of angst pervades the film. I’ve always felt this was Mehra’s purest film. It certainly isn’t a very hard line to draw from Zanjeer to DMD and now Talaash (amongst lots of other Bombay movie milestones).


        And just like Abzee pointed out with respect to the 3 Aamir films, I would say that in Kaala Patthar too Vijay Pal Singh has to go to a ‘foreign land’ (mines) in order to deal with those visions and memories (and notice how for people like Vijay, who hail from a well-to-do family from Bombay, Bihar in any case is culturally foreign). And if we were to talk abt KP in noir terms (and to extend ur ‘spirits in the mines’ point further) probably Vijay is searching for those haunting dreams and memories in those mines but in the same manner in which Rosie remains a mystery for Surire Vijay’s memories too remain an “elusive phenomenon … always just out of reach”. And I say ‘out of reach’ because inspite of Vijay saving people from the disaster he is ultimately unable to save Mangal so his path to redemption is not fully completed”

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