I am very partial to well-made romantic films, and this one ticks all the boxes on my checklist for well-made romances: Dishy hero? Check. Melt-into-a-puddle romance? Check. A mature, grown-up couple? (No, I am not referring to their ages!) Check. Romance in the hills? Check! Coherent, well-crafted story? Check. Well-written dialogues? Check. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture!
Ravi Varma (Navin Nischol) is a busy industrialist of the kind that you wish existed in real life – he cares about his workers and the environment, and he is not always focused on turning a profit. When his friend Dr. Pinto (Suresh Oberoi) bursts in on an important meeting, flashing a chest X-ray on an overhead projector and uttering dire warnings about an over-tired heart, Ravi is un-moved. (He can see his lungs are all clear, in spite of his smoking. And he knows something Pinto does not – you cannot see the heart on an X-ray film!). He is BUSY! But Pinto insists that Ravi must reduce his workload and take a month off. When Ravi’s team also agrees with Pinto, an angry Ravi stalks out.
Pinto finds Ravi in a lonely corner of the house, with his inevitable cigarette. He must work, he explains to Pinto, what else has he got left? Pinto tries expostulating. One cannot run away from memories, he tells Ravi. The only way to be rid of them is to look them in the eye. Before Ravi can respond, he gets a phone call from Dr. Puri (Madan Puri). It turns out that ‘Papa’ Puri has found a prospective bride for Ravi, and will be in Bombay with her in a day. Ravi is not happy – marriage is clearly not his thing. Ravi takes a sad-background-song break and comes up with an idea to escape marriage – he’ll take Pinto’s advice after all! A few weeks’ rest, in a place where Papa Puri cannot find him, is preferable to being married off for life. So that is how Ravi comes to visit Mountain View, his hill-side bungalow in Darjeeling, after eight years.
What Ravi does not realise is that his eight years’ absence have brought a lot of changes to Mountain View. His caretaker, Hanuman Singh (Jagdeep), and the chowkidar, Buta Singh (Rajendranath), have turned the bungalow into a very profitable hotel. Whilst an unsuspecting Ravi is on his way to Darjeeling, Hanuman is briskly selling tickets for a New Year’s Eve party. Just then, a group of young men – Amit (Dilip Dhawan), Jaspal (Anil Kapoor) and friends – arrive at Mountain View Hotel, looking to stay for a couple of weeks. Hanuman starts checking them in when they’re interrupted by a visibly angry Professor Aarti Mathur (Shabana Azmi). She reminds Hanuman that her group has booked the entire hotel for the next few days, and he is not at liberty to take any other guests. She brings her group of (female) Botany students to Darjeeling annually, and makes sure they are not in contact with young men whilst they are under her care. When Hanuman reminds her that the women are not occupying all the rooms, Miss Mathur shoots back that if he lets the boys stay, she’ll put the police on to him.
Whilst Aarti and Hanuman battle over whether or not the boys should be accommodated at the hotel, Amit, and one of Aarti’s students, Aparna (Kiran Vairale) start chatting over Urdu poetry. Aparna ask Amit if he remembers Qateel Shifai’s latest poem. He does. As he recites the romantic Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain, main to marke bhi meri jaan tujhe chaahoonga, Aarti comes on the scene and mistakenly thinks that he is propositioning Aparna. A tight slap makes an immediate connection with poor Amit’s unsuspecting cheek. The misunderstanding is soon cleared up, not very amicably though, and the disgruntled young men depart. Unable to get hotel rooms, they pitch a camp outside the hotel gates.
In the midst of all this hullaballoo, Hanuman learns that Ravi is about to arrive! The ‘hotel’ needs to become a bungalow again – in twenty fours hours. How to do that? Aarti and her students must depart, pronto. Hanuman tries to evict them, but has to bow to the superior force – Aarti insists that the girls’ rooms are paid for, and they’ll stay, otherwise they’ll call the police! (The way she threatens police action and Hanuman bows to the threat, you’d think they have a lot of respect for the constabulary!) Hanuman must think laterally to get out of this jam, and he does.
When the girls return from their field trip that evening, they’re informed that Ravi, a previous owner of Mountain View, is coming to stay. Hanuman then proceeds to unfold Ravi’s sad tale – some years ago, the poor man lost his beloved fiancée in an accident. In his grief, he lost his mental balance. His fortune dissipated and Mountain View had to be sold off. He has just come out of the mental asylum now, and thinks he still owns Mountain View. Hanuman worked for Ravi’s family for years, and out of loyalty to them, he is going to look after Ravi now. The house will look exactly like it did in Ravi’s time, and everybody will pretend that Ravi is still lord and master here. Its the least Hanuman can do for his former master. Aarti is visibly moved by Hanuman’s generosity and promises to help with the subterfuge. Not even Hanuman’s account of Ravi’s violent behaviour with knives dents her determination to stay on and help!
Ravi duly arrives the next day. On the way home from the station, Hanuman spins him a tale of how the girls and their professor were camping outdoors, and had to be given shelter at Mountain View to save them from the cold. Ravi isn’t too concerned. Its a big house and he only needs a little space. Let them stay, he tells Hanuman.
Back in Bombay, Dr. Puri finds Ravi gone and demands information about his whereabouts from Dr. Pinto. In the ensuing conversation between them it emerges that Ravi lost his parents in an accident in Darjeeling. When he later also lost his fiancée, Dr. Puri’s daughter, in a car accident, he was convinced that anybody he loved would die. Since then, he’s immersed himself in work and cut himself off from any close relationships. That is why Dr. Puri is so keen to get Ravi married – marriage will cure him for sure! (I wonder how they cure a sick person who is already married?)
In Darjeeling, Ravi, lost in reliving old memories, unwittingly lends colour to tales of his insanity. He tells Hanuman that he cannot face the rush of memories in Darjeeling, but he’d rather not return to “Dr. Pinto’s paagal khaana”. While the girls are deliciously scared, Aarti is deeply moved by his “plight”. Normally stern and reserved, Aarti is unexpectedly sweet to Ravi and keeps reminding the girls to treat him as a normal person.
When Dr. Puri unexpectedly arrives to take Ravi back to Bombay, Aarti thinks that he is being hauled back to a mental asylum. She is reminded of her mentally disturbed father who was railroaded into an asylum, against his wishes and hers. Deeply sympathetic to Ravi’s “situation”, she pleads with Dr. Puri to leave him in Darjeeling. When Puri is adamant about taking Ravi back to Bombay, she impulsively tells Ravi that she would like to help him. Ravi takes her at her word and sneaks into her room that night, asking for a hiding place! Aarti lets him hide in her room and the next day, takes him on their field trip, keeping him out of Dr. Puri’s clutches.
The misunderstandings created by Ravi’s “insanity”, and the enforced intimacy of staying in the same house, serve to bring Aarti and Ravi closer. They unwittingly reveal things about themselves that they normally keep hidden – Aarti is a sweet and loving person beneath her tough exterior and Ravi reveals the insecurities hidden under his busy businessman persona. By the time Hanuman’s subterfuges are finally revealed, midway through the film, these two are well on their way to a warm friendship, and more… It takes them a while to figure it out, though. Dr. Puri and I are way ahead of them there – our romance sensors are flashing green all the way!
The unfolding romance is a joy to behold. Both Aarti and Ravi are haunted by ghosts of the past and unable to believe that they can be happy again. In Ravi’s company, the reserved and old-before-her-time Aarti learns to loosen up. She slowly regains her joie de vivre and learns to be more optimistic. Ravi, for his part, learns to live in the present again. These two are clearly made for each other, but can they put their past behind them and reach out to each other? What do you think?
In following Aarti-Ravi’s romance, I’ve neglected to mention the other romance which is also brewing – there is the besotted Amit who continues to spout poetry at an equally besotted Aparna. I wonder what they’ll do when they run out of Qateel Shifai’s kalaams. They’ll need to find a new shaayar to take them through marital life! Do I recommend Ghalib? Faiz?
Shabana Azmi is superb as the ultra-responsible and taciturn Aarti. Her Aarti is strong, upright, and reserved, but she is also a very lovable person. When she thinks Ravi is about to be dragged off to a mental asylum, you can see how disturbed she is. When she begins to like Ravi, you can see it in her face, the faint smile she wears when she thinks of him, the way she looks at Ravi. Shabana Azmi has the knack of making her onscreen characters her own, and here, too, I cannot imagine anyone else playing Aarti any better.
Navin Nischol looks gorgeous in a tall-dark-and-handsome-hero way and is fairly good as Ravi. He broods to great effect and does convey Ravi’s insecurities and his growing interest in Aarti rather well. But he falls rather flat in the dramatic bits. Thankfully, there are very few dramatic bits, and Nischol is dishy enough for me to overlook them.
Jagdeep was jarringly un-funny – his Hanuman Singh was incredibly over the top in a film where everybody else was going in for an understated performance. Dilip Dhawan has been a favourite of mine since his TV serial days, and his Amit is pretty likeable. I wonder why Kiran Vairale didn’t turn up in more films – she was very cute here. The big surprise was Anil Kapoor – till I saw this film, I had no idea that he started out in bit parts.
Adapted from Come September, this film essentially follows the same plot, with some changes. The former was a romantic comedy, with the caretaker’s shennanigans and the resultant misunderstandings occupying centre stage. In Ek Baar Kaho, they are just a backdrop to the main story. All the leads are given interesting backstories and the film explores the developing relationship between them. So, while it stays quite close to the Come September plotline, its a very different film, and, dare I say, a much better one? (I love Come September, Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida, but I could do without 60s’ sexism.) So if you haven’t watched Ek Baar Kaho already, do watch! Its available for free viewing on youtube.