Try watching Asit Sen's Khamoshi to find out for yourself how to decide on a movie's merits.
I was talking with someone recently about various aspects of movie-reviewing, and one of the things that came up was the idea of unevenness and inconsistency: that it’s possible for a film to be transcendentally beautiful in some ways while at the same time containing scenes that are embarrassingly awkward or silly; or that a single aspect of a movie (a performance, a brilliantly written scene) can be so high-quality that it’s at variance with the elements that surround it.
A few days later I saw Asit Sen’s 1969 film Khamoshi (a remake of the Bengali movie Deep Jwele Jaai, made by the same director), which is an example of just such a film. It contains such bizarre shifts in quality that it’s almost like you’re watching two separate movies, each unaware of the other’s existence.
I had heard a lot about Khamoshi before, but I was inspired to search for the DVD when I saw the beautifully filmed song sequence “Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi” on a TV channel. As it happens, this four-minute scene brings together the three finest things about the film: Hemant Kumar’s music, Kamal Bose’s stunning black-and-white photography, and Waheeda Rehman’s luminous, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance as a nurse who begins to lose her own emotional equilibrium as she cares for mentally ill patients.
Well, that’s a checklist of the good stuff in this movie. But alarm bells rang when I discovered that the setting is the “National Psycho Analytical Clinic” (sic), run by a Colonel sahab who works on the assumption that women are capable of any magnitude of sacrifice for mankind. Accordingly, he develops a unique form of psychiatric treatment wherein beautiful nurses are encouraged to provide maternal or romantic care (or both, simultaneously) to handsome young male patients, especially the ones who feel betrayed by their girlfriends or mothers (or both). It took cinema a fairly long time to learn how to portray psychiatric care with sensitivity and intelligence, and this movie will probably not be remembered as one of the milestones along that route. Anyway, the Colonel’s approach to healing launches Khamoshi on its twofold path. On the one hand there’s Waheeda Rehman as Nurse Radha, her eyes more expressive than pages of dialogue, weighed down by the emotional demands of her job, haunted by the memory of what happened the last time she fell in love with a patient and by the realisation that she might be falling into the same trap again (with a new patient played by a young Rajesh Khanna). On the other hand there’s Colonel sahab and his two stooges (played by Iftekhar and Lalita Pawar) walking purposefully about the corridors, discussing which patient they ought to administer an “electric shock” to next. Attempts at comic relief involve patients making facial gestures lifted straight from the Dummies’ Guide to Playing Mental Patients.
It’s difficult to explain how all the puerility can coexist with the delicacy of the Rehman performance or with some of the restrained directorial and cinematographic choices made by the film (such as the decision to show Dharmendra only fleetingly, or in the shadows, in his crucial guest role as Radha’s earlier ward). But they do coexist; some of the scenes between Rehman and the pompous Colonel sahab are a textbook demonstration of how the sublime and the ridiculous can share the same frame. This makes Khamoshi a confounding film that presents a special challenge to a reviewer. But it’s also a reminder that many of the flaws in our mainstream movies can be tracked to the need to make each film a khichdi of different elements — from slapstick comedy to emotional drama — instead of an internally consistent whole.