Pick of the Week: Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
The definitive political film of our times, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi tells the story of three college friends whose lives changes drastically following the state of Emergency being declared in the 70's. Piercing in its depiction of a pluralist India in those tumultuous years, the film remains relevant and relatable even today as it showcases the emotional and physical impact that systemic inequalities and political unrest can have in our lives.
Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is a film that articulates the romance of politics. Its three protagonists; Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) and Vikram (Shiney Ahuja) are in a love triangle. The very first time we see them on screen, as college students in New Delhi in the 70’s, we immediately see the two types of love that go on to consume their lives. One is their love for each other, the other is their love for the revolution.
The film spans seven years, from 1969 to 1976. The era is presented with contrasting visuals of two Indias; college students fawning over vinyl records and The Beatles are taken over by the rural landscapes of Bihar, choked with neglect and violence, highlighting the starkly different personalities the country embodied at the time. The backdrop is the Naxal Movement, the rise of Indira Gandhi’s government and the subsequent state of Emergency it imposed in what was irrefutably, one of the lowest, most horrific periods of India’s democracy. And yet, Mishra has made this film in an explicitly romantic fashion. The music and the poetry in the film is laden heavily with subtext, the title too borrowed from an Urdu poem by the great Mirza Ghalib. In an early scene with Siddharth and Geeta, a soft tune of Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi plays in the background, apt for the ambitious and passionate Siddharth who will soon embark on a revolutionary path, but also for Geeta, who yearns to have him to herself.
It is this deft interlacing of romance and idealism with wholesome, powerful characters, that makes Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi such a moving and relatable viewing experience even today. Siddharth’s character is intensely passionate and romantic. He is from a wealthy, upper class background but itching to shed his rich skin. His drive to change the country and his ‘commie’ aesthetic of beard, cigars and socialist jargon is so palpable that Geeta can’t help but fall for him. Kay Kay Menon is undeniably authentic in his portrayal of a student revolutionary. His character’s scorn towards the ‘Bourgeois’ and their lifestyle is ironic given his own upper class upbringing, but is not hypocritical. His belief and concern are honest but they are not inclusive of the people he is fighting for. Menon brings out all of this - the passion, the idealism, the ignorance and the eventual confusion - with an inspired air that mesmerises. Vikram on the other hand, who is from a lower middle class family, considers student revolutionaries to be a product of privilege and wants nothing to do with politics. He only has eyes for Geeta, and a wealthier, more secure future for himself. Shiney Ahuja too fairs astonishingly well as the conservative and quietly tenacious Vikram, a character who looks out first for himself and only then for others. His only weakness is Geeta and Ahuja is tragically convincing in his pining for her.
Many of us might find resonance in these two characters, who represent two ends of the political spectrum. The strongest character in the film however, is Geeta, the foreign return, who doesn’t live in the confines of ideology but rather does what she believes to be ‘the right thing’ on her own, without any expectation or resentment towards other people or even institutions. Her actions are not intense and aggressive like Siddharth’s, and yet neither is she cynical or shrewd like Vikram. Geeta doesn’t romanticise ideals, and doesn’t expect change on an exaggerated scale. The most resilient of the three, she allows her principles to be shaped by experience, not theory. Chitrangada Singh plays the part of Geeta, undeniably one of the strongest and most well-rounded female characters of recent times, with an impressive intelligence and maturity. The actor skilfully balances the bold charm of her character’s youth with a controlled and measured strength, reserved for her later years.
Political dramas in Bollywood are often driven by a hyperbolic idea of ‘the nation’. The country becomes the most important character in the film and the spirit of patriotism is expressed through extreme acts of self sacrifice. It is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or a tingling sensation of pride when a Sehmat in Raazi chooses her country over her own freedom, or when a Geeta Phogat in Dangal is awarded a gold medal, as the backdrop of the National Anthem moves everyone to stand up, for once not forced by norm but triggered by genuine pride.
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi too features a character who is willing to sacrifice a life of comfort. Contrary to the heroes of mainstream narratives however, he does this not to protect the honour or pride of a hyperbolised idea of his country, but for his own ideology, through which he sees the holes popular national narratives tend to overlook or disguise. Under Mishra’s capable direction however, Siddharth’s character also represents the shortcomings of the leftist ideology and the problems of armchair intellectualism. And it is because of this objective and grounded portrayal of its heroes that we never want to stand and cheer for this film; it doesn’t comfort us by showing a flawless messiah who will save our country, nor does it particularly highlight India as a country we can feel proud of. It doesn’t induce blinding emotions of pride or patriotism but instead, does something much more difficult; it makes you understand and actually feel the eventual disillusionment and despair felt by each of the characters, whether it is Siddharth as the burnt out revolutionary or Vikram’s weariness towards Siddharth’s ideology. In a more commercial or propaganda film, we would have probably had the satisfaction of seeing Siddharth achieve his romanticised ideals. We would have relished the feeling of watching a larger than life victory for the country, as it miraculously transforms into the nation of his dreams. Instead, what we get is a swift, realistic critique of not just authoritarian states, but also of leftist rebellion.
This iconic film may leave you feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, because it does not present a simplistic bipartisan view of India. The character arcs too are multidimensional and profound, and invite introspection, with hues of melancholy. Despite the romance and the small victories, the film doesn’t glorify the revolution as such either. In fact it does not glorify anything. But neither does it degrade anything and in what may seem like a breath of fresh air given the current political climate, Vikram is never chastised or portrayed in a hostile light for choosing to remain apolitical nor being explicitly patriotic. It does not show allegiance to anyone: not the State, not the ideology, not the revolution nor the revolutionaries (of the film, and of history). The film’s only loyalty is to that period of our history, what those years witnessed and the impact they had on the youth of the country. Free of labels like ‘anti-establishment’, ‘leftist’ or the more recently fashionable ‘anti-national’ because of how nuanced and impartial it is, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi remains more relevant than ever today, 15 years after its initial release and 45 years since its events took place; a passionate, timeless tale for those looking for a nuanced, textured version of life.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Sudhir Mishra is an Indian director and writer, known for socially conscious films such as Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003), Dharavi (1992), Calcutta Mail (2003) and Chameli (2003). He also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1983 cult classic comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron with the film's director Kundan Shah.