On the morning of his all-important job interview at Urmila Traders, Ram Prasad (Amol Palekar) — the protagonist of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1979 classic Gol Maal — gets a visit from Doctor Mama (David). He is not the real mama (maternal uncle) of Ram Prasad and his sister, Ratna, but a family friend, and a parental figure to the two young, orphaned siblings. He proceeds to reveal to Ram Prasad secrets about his interviewer and proprietor of Urmila Traders, Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt), that will help him get the job. “He is a man of strong likes and dislikes,” says Doctor Mama. He tells Ram Prasad what answers to give during the interview — but more importantly, what not to say.
As we see, Doctor Mama’s advice helps him considerably. Ram Prasad is not a bad chartered accountant — he detects mistakes in the balance sheet he is asked to examine in the interview, and soon after joining the firm, finds out that a lender has been charging it unfair interest on short-term loans. But, only knowledge of accountancy would not have got him the job, and certainly not the high salary of Rs 850 when the usual pay for a fresher was Rs 500. He knows the right answers about his subject, but he also knows a little more that his competitors at the interview do not.
Like most other young men, Ram Prasad takes a keen interest in sports and is a singer of some talent. He also subscribes to contemporary western fashion. But he knows better than to reveal these to Bhavani Shankar. He appears for the interview in a kurta-pyjama and Nehru jacket because Bhavani Shankar prefers swadeshi costume. (He borrows these clothes from his friend and actor Deven, played by Deven Verma.) He also feigns complete ignorance of sports, claiming that his father had advised him not to take any interest in extra-curricular activities in his youth. As Doctor Mama informs us, this is the exact advice Bhavani Shankar’s father had also given him.
Dressed and trained like this, Ram Prasad’s interview becomes the performance not only of an interviewee but also of an actor. “Even if you were not a chartered accountant, you would have earned well by working for a drama company,” Doctor Mama tells him, after he lands the job. In The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Jai Arjun Singh argues that David and Verma often play puppeteers in Mukherjee’s cinematic universe: “David had a special function… storyteller and participant, he comments from the side, provides avuncular counsel, even manipulates a plot.” Singh argues that David’s able successor and collaborator in many of Mukherjee’s films was Verma. In Gol Maal, he not only provides Ram Prasad with costume and make-up (a false moustache; more on this later), but also a false mother, Mrs Srivastava (Dina Pathak)! David and Verma together perform the function of metis — or cunning intelligence — helping Ram Prasad always stay a step ahead of imminent disaster.
In their ground-breaking Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne describe metis as: “an intelligent ability… emphasis… on practical effectiveness, on the pursuit of success in a particular sphere of activity: it may involve multiple skills useful in life, the mastery of the artisan in his craft, magic tricks, the use of philtres and herbs, the cunning stratagems of war, frauds, deceits, resourcefulness.” The aspect of being “cunning” is not immoral or inferior; at the heart of metis is the desire to overcome overwhelming odds. In the case of Ram Prasad, this involves getting a good job and marrying the love of his life, Urmila, who is Bhavani Shankar’s daughter.
Quite obviously, no Doctor Mama or Deven visited Palekar last Friday (February 8) before his speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai. No one told him what not to say. So, while reminiscing about the work of artist Prabhakar Barwe, he began criticising the decision of the Ministry of Culture scrapping the NGMA’s advisory committees. Several newspapers and organisations reported that his speech was repeatedly interrupted by artist Suhas Bahulikar and NGMA Director Anita Rupavataram. “Are you trying to stop me from speaking and applying censorship to my speech,” Palekar had reportedly asked before hurriedly summing up.
Censorship is, in fact, a running theme of Gol Maal, which in my opinion is a stringent critique of the Emergency (1975-77). It is referenced at least once in an early scene. An overwhelming Bhavani Shankar imposing his “strong likes and dislikes” on not only a hapless employee like Ram Prasad but also his daughter (“You will not marry him whom you like but him whom I like.”) is ridiculed mercilessly. Singh writes: “There are revealing interviews where he [Mukherjee] says he had been so depressed by Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial Emergency (which must have seemed to him like the final nail in the coffin of the Nehruvian dream) that his creative urge was at its lowest during the period.” As Singh also points out, Mukherjee made rather sombre films at this time, returning to form with a full-blown comedy such as Gol Maal only two years later.
Censorship is, of course, no laughing matter. On Thursday (February 14) writer Nayantara Sahgal — a veteran at being censored — referred to the Palekar incident and declared: “The government is behaving exactly like Hitler’s Germany.” This is, frankly, an onerous comparison. But the Fuhrer is referenced frequently in Gol Maal as well. Very early, on hearing from Doctor Mama about the idiosyncrasies of Bhavani Shankar, Ram Prasad moans: “Kaun kambakht kehta hai ke Hitler mar gaya? (Which idiot says that Hitler is dead?)” Bhavani Shankar’s obsession with moustaches is reminiscent of Hitler’s own, famous upper-lip hair. In the denouement of Gol Maal, the two usual suspects of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s world are at it again.
“If you have to shave off your moustache, will you turn from Bhavani Shankar to Popat Lal?” begins Deven, “That little Hitler, with his toothbrush-like moustache, and what an idiot he turned out to be.” David adds: “Sharafat bhi koi chidiya hai jo moochho me ghosla banati ho? (Is civility a bird that builds its nest in someone’s moustache?)” They apparently manage to convince Bhavani Shankar as well. In the last shot, all the men in the family photograph — Deven, Doctor Mama, Ram Prasad, and even Bhavani Shankar — are clean shaven. One only hopes that we can get rid of censorship as easily with a little foam and a good razor.