Punjab 1984 – The story of a mother

If I had to encapsulate the theme and emotional power of Punjab 1984 in a few words, I’d never be able to ace these couplets from the movie’s soundtrack :

Haadh Diyaan Paindeyan Ch Vichchdi Hai Chaan Bann Ke Bedard Haakma Tu V Vekh Kade Maa Bann Ke Mudh Aa Ve Laadleya Ghare Ammi Udeekdi

Mere Pind Di Oh Paun Nu Suneha De Dyo Mainu Lorriyan Sunaave Kitte Maa Banke Ni Main Kujhe Wich Aunga ‪‎Swaah‬ Bann Ke Ni Main Kujhe Wich Aunga ‪‎Swaah‬ Bann Ke

That’s all Anurag Singh’s Punjab 1984 is, and all it had to be, a story about a mother looking for her son. The film opens with a brilliant scene during the attack on Golden Temple, a scene so poignant, I’d have to look long and hard to find anything which matches its simplicity and sincerity while depicting such an important and sensitive event for millions of Sikhs around the world.

The movie then movies to a year and a half later, with Kirron Kher as the main character of a mother looking for her son. Like she says, she used to be worried that he returns home in time, and she still is. The opening credits carry a serene sense of  her morose life, her daily routine, as she visits the police station daily, and waits for news about her son. This is of course not a unique or isolated case. It is the story of upheaval in the lives of countless families in Punjab during the period of the Khalistan movement. It is the true story of thousands of mothers, whose sons went out on a day as ordinary as any, never to be seen or heard from again.

The methods used by the police to suppress insurgents during this period, and politics of the situation is well documented and well known(Click here & here to read more). Family feuds, and personal grudges intertwined into the political war that was underway. Many policemen misused the sanctioned power. As the general sentiment goes, who watches the watchmen?. Our protagonist’s story is one such incident, with a land hungry neighbour, and a power hungry policeman. The mother’s powerlessness in the situation is reflective of our own impotency in face of political power even today, especially today.

The backstory moves briskly, with the serviceable blend of a happy go luck protagonist, loving mother, strict father, ‘love at first sight’ song and dream sequence before getting to the actual meat of the plot. Of course the mother is portrayed as righteous as any can be found in the breadth of the hindi or punjabi film industry, without any flaws or intricacies of a human. She is perfect, kind to any and all, even to those who have wronger her. The only humanizing characteristic she possesses is her loss, and her resolve to find out what happened to her son. But Kirron Kher’s acting truly liberated the character and saved it from crossing over to the territory of melodrama.

The moments chosen to elucidate the mother’s situation are a step away from the cliche’d moments we’re used to witness in movies. Here, they’ve used small moments, dialogues, to evoke the sense of loss and frustration. A moment that particularly stood out for me was when she has to go through the pictures of boys recently killed in Police encounters and shootings. The camera lingers on her face as she is handed the album, and it is kept steady, as we feel her hesitation. She slowly starts to look at the album. The camera still lingers but zooms in a little, as we feel along with the mother, the fear before the turn of each page, and the small respite before gathering enough courage to turn the page again. The scene transitions to reveal a few glimpse of some of the victims. As the mother reaches the end of the album, she hides a smile of relief behind her chunni. The acting by Kirron Kher is top notch in this scene. The direction and photography is particularly masterful. Frankly, I was surprised with this level of finesse in a punjabi movie.The film is so engaging that when the words ‘intermission’ appear on the screen, I had to check my watch to confirm that 90 minutes had indeed slipped by.

The second half starts strong with an incident inspired from real life, and a terrific scene, where the mother learns that her son might have died. Her son’s friend informs her that her son might not be bound anymore, he is finally free. The agony and restlessness is brilliantly depicted using the mother’s reaction. The director might have overstayed to milk the scene for some extra tears, nevertheless, it’s a very powerful scene. Why couldn’t it have stayed that way? The movie changes gears and the story starts to falter, like the writers were unsure where they should go from here. Then scenes start to fall flat, emotions and melodramatic dialogues start to fly high and it completely derails in the last thirty minutes.

Spoilers

The plot shifts to the going ons of the present day as the drama and body count starts to rise. There’s some unnecessary resolution of the land acquisition plot. Granted, it did set the whole plot in motion, but the follow up and resolution fell flat, and frankly, felt unnecessary. Also, the romantic sub plot overstays its welcome and acts as a distraction sometimes. But it still adds to the realness of the movie, and works to a certain extent. The depiction of the ‘movement’ is cheapened to cheap ploys of a couple of power hungry politicos. But of course, our hero saves the day, and how.

After this point, the movie goes from being a grounded representation of the reality of Punjab to generic masala fare. The last thirty minutes might be inspired by any number of the mainstream ‘100 crore club’ bollywood movies. I literally cringed at the Salman Khanesque moment when the ‘hero’ challenges the arresting officer (the villain in this case) and throws away his gun to have a hand to hand fight.

At first, I balked at the writer’s poor choice to go this route, but then it occurred to me, that perhaps the writer had was so deeply emotionally invested in these stories and so frustrated with the powerlessness of the common man, or even his helplessness as a writer, that it was a chance for him to let off some steam, to exact some revenge. It was a masturbatory exercise by the writer, where he was literally bashing the shit out of such policemen and the system and the movement who were responsible for such mishaps. Whatever the reasons were, in my opinion it nullified all the respects and dedications it wanted to pay off to the victims and their families, a message so explicitly stated at the end. It was almost an insult, that those boys weren’t strong enough to change their fate, or fight to survive… only if they’d been heroes. Anyway.

The film climaxes when our protagonist finally returns home with his head and chest held high, just as he had envisioned it. It should have been a touching and a much needed emotional payoff, but I was still barfing from the last fight scene. The movie ends with such a weak and tailored scene, that it seemed like they cobbled it together at the last minute when the writer finally gave up on the story. The only saving grace of the climax was the acting of Diljit Dosanjh and Kirron Kher, which supplied some much needed emotionality, and grounded it to a certain extent. The haunting lyrics of the song ‘Swah bann ke’ also help.

Apart from the acting, the cinematography and editing are considerable well done. The movie has a bleached look with a yellowish tinge used effectively to illustrate this bleak period in Punjab’s history. The frames, shots, and length of scenes are mostly perfect with the camera lingering just long enough to leave an impact. The music of the film is very strong, especially the songs ‘Sawah bann ke’ and ‘Ammi udeek di’. It’s the first time I’ve seen music so well used in a Punjabi movie. Here it’s not a distraction, but helps further the story forward and acts as a beautiful supplement to help effectively portray the emotions of the characters. Overall, I would say that it’s a must watch, even if for the beautiful first half.

P.S. If you want to listen to the songs, click here.

P.P.S. For a political analysis/review of the movie, read this.

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