The recent film Talvar has been described as an objective presentation of competing scenarios in the Aarushi Talwar murder case, but this is a bit misleading: the narrative that the film most clearly endorses is the one uncovered by CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan) about a drinking binge that got out of hand in the servants’ quarters. The scenes recreating this scenario would have sent a chill through many middle-class viewers: a lower-class man unrelated to the family, living in quarters within the flat; the blitheness, or blindness, of his employers, who barely registered him as a sentient presence and didn’t realise he might have friends over late at night; the possibility that these men might set their sights on the “baby” of the house.
But calling Talvar alarmist — a caution about a clash of cultures, a warning to the genteel “us” about the grubby “them” — would be too simple. Because in that same narrative, the main servant Khempal (a stand-in for the real-life Hemraj who worked for the Talwars) is depicted as a benevolent, avuncular man who does everything he can to protect the young girl (“Meri beti jaisi hai”). In that sense, Khempal isn’t so removed from a familiar archetype of the Hindi-movie servant, one that all of us can picture when we remember movies of the 1970s. It’s another thing that the Raghu chachas and Ramu kakas of a bygone time, ancient retainers, doddering about with their dusting rags, would never be seen in the vicinity of a bottle of rum or whisky.
Or wouldn’t they?
In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1975 Mili, the tortured Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan) shifts from one apartment to another, elderly manservant Gopi in tow, to escape his past; but since he finds no peace of mind, there is plenty of liquor-guzzling, and naturally, Gopi is the one who brings out the flasks and bottles. The relationship between the two is sharply observed: Shekhar’s angry outbursts might be cringe-inducing, were it not for the fact that the old man gives back as good as he gets — while also serving as Shekhar’s protector against the intrusion of other people in the building. They are almost like squabbling spouses.
The more typical family retainer in films of the time was the genial, subservient old man in a joint-family setting — the one who would pick the children up from school, and generally keep the home fires burning. You could be sure of his decorum-ensuring presence — polishing some knickknack or other in the background, waiting for bitiya’s instructions to bring chai, if an unmarried boy and girl happened to meet at one of their homes with no other family member present.
For all we know, he was born with that dusting cloth attached to his shoulder. And our broad memories of those scenes lend heft to the idea that such films (particularly the Middle Cinema, represented by the work of Mukherjee, Basu Chatterji and Gulzar) were “innocent” and of a “simpler” time: that such servants belonged to the Old India of clearly defined class roles, where such a person wasn’t expected to transcend the circumstances of his birth; that the New India of the past 20 years is a more egalitarian (therefore, more precarious) place where the lower-class man of the household might be a Laxmikant Berde on buddy-buddy terms with rich kid Salman Khan.
There is something to this view, but it can create a simplistic Then vs Now binary, while failing to recognise that things haven’t changed all that radically in our society, and that many of those old films were sharper than you think. Consider the celebrated character actor AK Hangal, who in the popular imagination is more associated with the generic family servant than any other actor is.
In Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), Hangal’s character operates well outside the cliché. In his mildly salacious opening scene, he comments wryly on current lifestyles, while apparently massaging Sanjeev Kumar’s buttocks. It’s two in the morning and Kumar’s character — a newspaper editor — is in bed, proofing reports. “Mujhe toh lagta hai ke aap logon ki duniya hee kuch ulti-pulti hai (God intended us to work during the day and sleep at night and here you are doing the opposite thing),” the old servant says with a disapproving head-shake. Later, he is a sounding board for the restless lady of the house, played by Tanuja; when he calls her “bahu”, this alienated child of the modern world feels like she belongs.
Anubhav was a formally experimental film — especially in its naturalistic sound design, overlapping dialogue and handheld-camera shots — that belonged more to the New Wave of the period than to narrative filmmaking. But even in films that looked much more conventional, sly things were done with the class divide and with the role of a servant as someone who could be a sutradhaar, a life-changer, a fount of wisdom or even a God-figure simply by virtue of being around all the time, managing the small but important things (It isn’t just chance that so many of these characters were named Raghu or Vishnu or Ram).
In a movie as frothy as Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke, for instance, role play is employed to show what might happen when class lines get blurred and a society’s safety nets fall away. “Driver insaan nahin hota?” asks Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) when accused of getting a little too cosy with the family chauffeur; the fact that the “driver” is really Sulekha’s husband in disguise doesn’t nullify the larger resonance of this question. (In another funny but pointed scene, a businessman looks directly at his childhood buddy but doesn’t recognise him, because the latter is wearing a driver’s uniform.)
Meanwhile, the servant-as-bhagwaan idea had its clearest realisation in Bawarchi, where the title character, played by Rajesh Khanna, is strongly associated with the God Krishna: he emerges from a beautiful, misty setting (Vrindavan) and heads straight towards a house divided (Hastinapura) to set things right; in one dream sequence, he even plays saarthi or moral guide to the confused child of the house.
Hindi movie servants didn’t have a good time of it in the 1980s, when they were usually embedded in a slapstick comedy track that ran alongside the main one; it is hard to say what social commentary may be found in all those scenes where Shakti Kapoor ran around in striped pajamas with his naara (drawstring) hanging out, or in the Johnny-Lever- channelling-Jerry-Lewis interludes. And later, in the world of the post-liberalisation “multiplex film”, people from what was once designated the Servant Class either became invisible — no joint families, no retainers — or were now the protagonists of stories about quick social climbing (or wanting desperately to climb), from Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! to Kanu Bahl’s Titli.
But even as our cinema becomes self-consciously progressive, breaking away from its past traditions, there is still space — even in urban stories — for the honest, well-written depiction of the old-school servant. One of this year’s best films, Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, has the cantankerous Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) in a love-hate relationship with his household help Bhudan. In a nod to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema, Bhaskor was named after the character Bachchan had played in Anand 45 years earlier. But his scenes with Bhudan may remind you of the Shekhar and Gopi of another Mukherjee film, jousting with each other across class lines, affection and impatience running hand in hand.
Jai Arjun Singh is the author of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves