Article Hindi

Revisiting Mere Apne (1971): Gulzar’s directorial debut about disillusioned youth resonates even today

The film, released 50 years ago, starred Meena Kumari, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Before the Angry Young Man burst on the silver screen with Yash Chopra’s iconic Deewaar (1975), poet and lyricist Gulzar’s directorial debut, Mere Apne (1971), portrayed the angst of the urban youth and their simmering frustration.

An adaptation of Tapan Sinha’s Apanjan (1968), Mere Apne is a staunch comment on the discontent brewing among the youth as socio-economic conditions in the country worsened, resulting in growing gang violence. This despondence was also seen in films like Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) and Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971).

Anandi (Meena Kumari), an old widow, is living a contented life in the village. She is brought to the city by a supposed relative (Ramesh Deo) on the pretext of taking care of her. Instead, it turns out, in the materialistic city that uses and spits out people, they only wanted a free maid.

Dejected at the heartless treatment, Anandi leaves the relative's house to come and live with an orphan boy and his sister. Loving and caring by nature, she becomes an adoptive grandmother for the local gang of youths who are unemployed, disenchanted and shunned by society.

One of these lads is Shyam (Vinod Khanna), whose rival is Chennu (Shatrughan Sinha) and his cronies. Once friends, now bitter rivals, the two gangs protect their turf and regularly get into scraps with each other.

Shyam’s gang is primarily made of college students who are unable to complete their education because of strikes and postponement of exams. Disillusioned and finding no employment or promising future in sight, they have become good-for-nothing wastrels, hanging about at street corners, looking for trouble. They are used by rapacious politicians for their own purposes and the rival gangs clash, leading to an unintended tragedy.

Mere Apne reflected the cynical mood of the country which, after almost a quarter century of independence, was reeling from unemployment. A comment on the state of the youth, cynical and frustrated at finding no jobs or even hope of employment, the film conveys the simmering rage at the socio-economic and political conditions in the country.

When the collegians are told about the cancellation of their exams, they start breaking the classroom furniture out of sheer frustration and, in a piercing comment on the situation, one of them plays the tune for Iqbal's 'Saare Jahan Se Achha' on the mouth organ. In another moment, the satirical song 'Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai' has the lads singing, “BA kiya hai, MA kiya / Lagta hai woh bhi ainvey kiya / Kaam nahi hai varna yahan / Aap ki dua se sab theek thaak hai [We have done our BA and MA, but it all appears to be in vain, there are no jobs to be had, otherwise by your grace everything's great].'

In this dog-eat-dog environment, Anandi emerges as a ray of sunshine for the lads, a mother figure. She restores a familial bond, enveloping them in her world and creating a sense of belonging which touches them at their very core. Shunned by their families, the young men are used to being labelled and cast out, whiling away their lives.

A comment on the breakdown of the joint family structure, the film’s title invites us to contemplate who are the people we call our own. Anandi’s own so-called family uses her and she ends up taking care of total strangers, nurturing them and enabling them to think of an alternative future.

The rural-urban divide is evident as the village is seen as the epitome of good values, tradition and plain old decency, but the focus is on the people. When Anandi learns that the street urchin is a beggar because he is an orphan and there is nobody to care for him, she says that in the village, the neighbours would have ensured that he did not go hungry. Similarly, through her reactions, the film throws light on social concerns like the neglect of elders and the lack of respect for them and the increasingly aggressive behaviour among the youth, all of which are, sadly, prevalent today.

Interestingly, when Anandi sees that urban women cut their hair short, dress up like men and become salaried employees, she exclaims and marvels at the ways of the city but, remarkably, there is no judgement made. This is the sensitivity and careful balance that was to imprint Gulzar’s future work as well.

Meena Kumari as Anandi is the emotional core of the film and the climax leaves us feeling hollow. Meena Kumari inhabits the role so completely that it is difficult to imagine that she was not as old as the character she was portraying. Through flashbacks, we learn about her youth and her life with her husband, as she comes alive in the retelling of those moments.

Khanna is fabulous as the dashing ruffian with a tender heart and he played a sensitive hero for the first time in this film. Apparently, the role was first offered to Navin Nischol who did not have the dates required for the shooting. Khanna’s earlier film, Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), saw him play a dacoit. The film and Khanna's Jabbar Singh were hits. Mere Apne enabled him to bring out the dichotomy between the sensitive man that Shyam is and the gangster that society has, in many ways, forced him to become.

Shatrughan Sinha, too, is impressive in the negative role he plays. Each of the supporting cast was carefully chosen and together, they bring to life the film's milieu. Deven Verma as the opportunistic city man, Keshto Mukherjee, Paintal, Asit Sen, Asrani, AK Hangal, Mehmood are part of the ensemble cast while the dashing Danny Denzongpa made his debut with this film. He plays one of the college lads who is also a ventriloquist.

Fifty years after the film was released, Mere Apne brings home the concerns of the urban youth as, even today, the same problems persist. The simmering resentment at the government’s failure to provide gainful employment continues and remains one of the country's enduring problems. A dismal state of affairs indeed.

Click here to watch Mere Apne.