A DEATH FORETOLD
After watching films day in and day out for years on end, one thinks there's little that can inspire shock or awe. But it's not true. Take, for instance, this Smita Patil film I'd missed watching for nearly 30 years. It was first released in 1984 with an adult certification—hence seeing it then was out of the question. And I may have stayed untouched by it forever but for my equally film-crazed uncle who had spent considerable time trying to source a particular Asha Bhonsle song from the film which he remembered fondly. After scouring the Lamington Road footpath and exhausting every possible source on the internet, he had all but given up, when I miraculously discovered a VCD of the film on Flipkart.
And so Durai's Pet Pyaar Aur Paap arrived at my doorstep. The cover has a prominent mug-shot of Amitabh Bachchan towering over everyone else, even though he only has a guest appearance. But the main cast includes Smita Patil, Raj Babbar and Aruna Irani, who my enlightened uncle later informed me, won a Best Supporting Actress Filmfare Award for this role. The film is dedicated to then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi for her relentless efforts towards eradication of poverty—this isn't a barb, but a genuine, if inexplicable tribute. Incidentally, Mrs. Gandhi was shot dead around the same time that PPAP released.
In it Smita Patil reprises her National Award-winning role from Chakra as a gritty slum dweller who lives with her drunk rickshaw-puller father (over-done by unknown actor) and oppressed mother (Sulabha Deshpande is a starring role) along with a brood of siblings, all equally useless. Young Alok Nath plays Smita's estranged brother led astray by his wife (Sushmita Mukherjee sulking and ranting through her 10-minute part) who doesn't want to have anything to do with his impoverished family.
Aruna Irani is a ragpicker and Smita's neighbour in the slum with a huge crush on Amitabh Bachchan (precursor to the Slumdog Millionaire homage)—in her introductory scene she's in close-up and offering to 'give it to him', before the frame opens out to reveal a poster of Bachchan which she then kisses on the lips. In a random sequence towards the end, she has a brief sighting of her idol. If you were around in the '80s, you'd know that Bachchan once burnt his left hand lighting Diwali crackers. This film was shot soon after and he talks about the accident in film.
The supporting cast includes Amjad Khan as a kohl-eyed Hyderabadi cycle-repair shop owner hopelessly in love with Smita and given to playing old Hindi film songs like "Main shayar to nahin" and "Mere sapno ki rani" on his gramophone each time she emerges from her hut. She snubs him and goes off to join Aruna in rag-picking. And a shocking special appearance from pot-bellied, unshaven Mehmood as a crippled beggar with Mukhri as his flunky. His scenes are of no consequence to the main story, so one has to assume he's supposed comic relief, although looking at him made me cringe.
Aruna introduces Smita to Raj Babbar, a truck driver (rare case of perfect casting) who gets instantly smitten by her. He showers her with kindness and generous gifts (he's a particularly wealthy truck driver), she finally falls for his charms and ends up alone with him in his truck. Now one has seen all kinds of suggestive imagery for the act of copulation, but this one is truly baffling. They sit in the truck, they talk, he draws closer, she smiles shyly, they hug, she gets pregnant!
In fact, till the ensuing outrage from everyone around her, and Smita's own sheepish silence, one didn't know that embrace was symbolic. Smita's mother is a woman of solid middle-class morals and kills herself under a train, while the father thrashes her and neighbourhood aunty (Tanuja in possibly the worst role of her career) demands she reveal the identity of her secret lover.
Meanwhile we learn Babbar is already married (to Moushami Chatterjee who is made to surmount her Bengali accent and deliver Punjabi lines). Smita feels even more ashamed, but refuses to expose him—because her love is, after all, pure. She gets heavily pregnant and that's when Asha Bhonsle sings the song that started it all, to reveal her inner turmoil.
Now to the film's prophecy. Smita goes into labour and is rushed to hospital. Moushami exhorts Babbar to do his duty by his lover. There is news that she has developed a high fever. Babbar is running around on the streets when someone accosts and informs him of her death. He turns to the side of the street and bursts into tears. Lying on the ground is Smita's bedecked body, her newborn son wailing besides her. That single image shook me out of the stupor induced by this otherwise senseless ragbag.
The same sequence would play out in Smita's life two years later when she developed post-pregnancy complications and a high fever, was rushed to hospital and died, leaving behind her newborn son. But for this chilling irony, the climax of PPAP would have been just another melodramatic resolution to a mediocre, exploitative film of no consequence.