Planet Bollywood
Namak Haraam
Producer: Satish Wagle
Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Starring: Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Simi Garewal, Rekha, Om Shinde, AK Hangal and Asrani
Music: R.D. Burman
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Genre: Social
Recommended Audience: General
Approximate Running Time: 146 mins
Reviewed by: Shahid Khan  - Rating: 8.0 / 10
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Public Rating Average: 5.15 / 10 (rated by 414 viewers)
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When rummaging through Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s list of classic films (which include “Golmaal”, “Abhimaan”, “Chupke Chupke” and “Anand”), “Namak Haraam” is perhaps not the first obvious film that would come to mind. This means that the film is quite underrated to a certain extent. Mukherjee has always been adept at portraying friendships or relationships that unfold in a compelling way onscreen. “Namak Haraam” is another example of an exploration of a male friendship.

The plot is a little inspired by the English film, Peter Glenville’s “Becket”. Vikram (Amitabh Bachchan) and Chander (Rajesh Khanna) have been close friends since childhood. They are so close that they regard each other as brothers. Vikram thinks of Chander’s mother as his own and calls her “maa” (his real mother passed away when he was little). Vikram’s father, Damodar (Om Shinde), has a mild heart attack and has to take a rest from his factory business. He requests his only son to temporarily take up the manager position and handle all the managerial duties. Vikram gladly does so and settles into his new role as a boss with ease. Along with this ease comes a certain degree of arrogance and pride.

The head of a worker’s union, Mr. Bipinlal (AK Hangal) asks Vikram for financial compensation for a worker who accidentally injured his hand in a machine. His plea is met with an outraged response from Vikram who does not see the point of paying a worker who was careless enough to damage his hand. At the advice of his father, Vikram later issues an apology to the union leader, albeit a reluctant one. His pride now dented, he runs back to Chander and emotionally regales the whole story. Chander concocts a scheme where they both can hope to get revenge on their new enemy, Mr. Bipinlal. Chander will work as a labourer in the factory (changing his name to Somu) and gradually contrive to make Mr. Bipinlal look stupid in front of other workers. Soon after that, he will replace Mr. Bipinlal as the leader. Once this plan is carried out, something unexpected happens to Chander alias Somu. He gets an intimate peak into the lives of his co-workers and is emotionally touched by what he sees. He witnesses their poverty, their pain and their struggles. Chander is taken aback and his eyes are fully opened. He sides with the workers’ union and Vijay is left fuming. This sets off a series of incidents that lead on its way to the tragic denouement.

This film examines what happens when two extremely close friends start supporting two different ideals. Vikram is a supporter of capitalism while Chander feels that the workers are underpaid and undervalued. Vikram cannot see why Chander is fighting for the cause of the poor. His reasoning is that everybody can look after themselves. He eschews anything to do with poverty and socialism, issues that even his love interest, Manisha (Simi Garewal), is passionate about. Later though, he is grateful to her for shedding light on his problems with his best friend. With her socialist stance, only she is able to understand Chander’s position. As well as a fable on friendship, the film looks at the barrier between the poor and the rich. The story suggests that the rich are blind to the trials suffered by the poor. After spending a long time waiting for his friend, an upset Vikram goes to the village (disguising himself) and spies on Chander to see what he is up to. Chander is having a good time in his fellow worker’s house and is teasing his new love, Shama (Rekha). Vikram looks through the window of the house and then walks away in anger. This mere moment symbolizes the barrier between the two worlds. A lot of rich people only want to glimpse at the world of the poor from the outside but it is not often that they want to be on the other side of that window. They will glance from the outside and then walk away.

Pre-“Dil Chahta Hai”, portrayals of male friendship has rarely been convincing in Hindi cinema. While the portrayal of the characters’ friendship has a dated depiction to it, one of the director’s remarkable strengths is to turn something clichéd into something genuine. Therefore, the two men’s devotion to each other is endearing to watch. I would argue that Mukherjee was actually aware of the trap that he could potentially fall into. He must have known that the friendship depicted is larger-than-life at times and so he added small touches to ground reality into it. When Chander begins to deliver a sermon regarding the harsh lessons that he has learnt, Vikram, like a real-life friend most likely would, tells him to stop talking as if he is in a movie. Mukherjee’s awareness keeps the friendship real enough to stop it from becoming too outlandish. Gulzar (who penned the dialogue), too, deserves credit here for the realistic tone of the conversations between the two protagonists.

While the film looks at the friendship between two friends, it also glances at the relationship between a father and son. Vikram’s distance from his father is demonstrated physically in the beginning portion of the film when he is living miles away from his father and hardly thinks about him until he has a heart attack. Only then is Vikram is forced to leave his friend. It suggests a distance between the father and son- a lack of bonding. Vikram taking over his father’s job is his only real chance to get to know him and to create a bond with him, which is why he takes Damodar’s advice too seriously. After the fight with Mr. Bipinlal, Vikram’s father tells him to never forget the humiliation when he goes to apologize to the workers’ union leader, the memory will be his strength. Vikram takes this advice too much to heart and this is spelt out in his subsequent determination to rid of Mr. Bipinlal from his workplace (using an elaborate scheme). The way Vikram adopts his father’s advice turns out to be his weakness with grave consequences. In a desperate attempt to impress him, Vikram loses his best friend and at the end it seems as if Vikram gets his revenge by punishing his father where it hurts the most- his heart.

Amitabh Bachchan displays the spark here that would later develop into a stronger image in his career (ala the Angry Young Man persona). If a different actor had essayed the role, it would perhaps be difficult to understand what the character feels so betrayed about. Bachchan brings across his character’s misplaced pride in his arrogance through the way he acts and the way he speaks. His now-familiar red eyes convey the depth of his feeling of being emotionally hurt and betrayed. The soft-spoken Rajesh Khanna is just perfect for the role of a man whose conscience tells him that there has got to be more to life than just playing and working. Bachchan and Khanna’s interesting approaches to their acting combine to make a great on-screen team. Check out “Anand” to see another superlative effort from the Bachchan-Khanna-Mukherjee team. The heroines are kept out of the main plot to allow the film to focus solely on the implications of the male friendship. Simi Garewal does register an impact in her few scenes with Amitabh Bachchan. Rekha has nothing much to do and since she was still a newcomer in this film, her acting is raw and her whole look (ie make-up and clothes) is undeveloped and bland. “Namak Haraam” is not particularly known for its music but there are some amazing songs by Kishore Kumar with a melodious score by R.D. Burman. I love “Diye Jalte Hain, Phool Khilte Hain” and “Nadiya Se Dariya”. These two numbers are wonderful, just wonderful!

The film went onto win two Filmfare awards for Best Dialogues for Gulzar and Best Supporting Actor for Amitabh Bachchan. While both awards were well deserved, the latter does not make sense as Amitabh and Rajesh share equal screen time. But it does signify the moment when Rajesh Khanna handed the bastion of superstardom onto Amitabh Bachchan. After this, the careers of both of the actors were never the same again. One star began to shine brighter while the other’s starlight began to dim.

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