On 29 July Silsila (1981) completed 35 years and Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet to mark the occasion (“T 2331 - 25 years of 'Silsila' .. a film that was trashed by media as 'silly sila' .. today referred to as a classic”) brought to mind the film’s chequered history.
Considered to be a seminal romance film today, Silsila not only flopped at the time of its initial release but also its failure (like Bachchan noted in his tweet), was welcomed by most quarters. The film released at a time when Bachchan wasn’t on talking terms with the film press but the magazines would be rife with rumors about the actor’s alleged affair with co-star Rekha. While the press did trash the film, the ticket-paying audiences also rejected it. Looking back after thirty-five years one can safely say that Silsila was doomed to fail but destined to be a classic.
Silsila would be one of the greatest when it comes to Hindi films that missed the mark the first time around, but went on to become classics. What made Silsila intriguing was the inspired casting where producer-director Yash Chopra got Bachchan’s alleged real life paramour and his real life wife to portray similar roles. It was said that Silsila was originally envisioned with Smita Patil as the wife and Parveen Babi as the lover even though Yash Chopra wanted Jaya Bhaduri and Rekha. In an interview, Chopra says that Bachchan read his mind that the Patil-Babi casting didn’t make him happy and asked him for his ideal choices and when Chopra said Jaya and Rekha, it was Bachchan himself who said let’s try. (See video, Silsila is discussed at 52:10) In the same video interview, Chopra also says that even though both the women agreed he asked them separately if either would have a problem for “obvious reasons.” (Video at 56:24)
A decade before the release of Silsila another roman-à-clef of sorts Mera Naam Joker (1970) met a similar fate. Like Silsila, Raj Kapoor’s own life was said to have inspired Mera Naam Joker but the one key aspect that separated the two films was the way the narrative resolved itself. In Mera Naam Joker Raju (Raj Kapoor) loves three women (his teacher, an actress, and a Russian trapeze artist) in the course of his life but they all leave him for men, who unlike Raju love them for what they were and not what he imagines them to be. This somewhere resonated with the myths of Raj Kapoor’s famous rumored off-screen liaisons (Nargis, Vyjaynthimala, Padmini) and therefore like life, the film too became a paean of an artist temporarily falling in love with his creations.
In Silsila Amit (Bachchan) loves Chandni (Rekha) but destiny forces him to marry his dead brother Shekhar’s (Shashi Kapoor) pregnant fiancée (Jaya Bhaduri). Post-marriage Amit begins an affair with Chandni, who, like Amit is also in a loveless marriage. The viewers were more than aware of Bachchan and Rekha’s denial of the supposed affair in real life and at the same time, the sizzling reel chemistry said something else. Similarly, the audience also knew that Amit much like the actor who was playing him wouldn’t ‘leave’ Shobha for Chandni and therefore the suspension of disbelief was only an illusion for them. Was the reality too much for the audiences to disregard?
The real life surrounding a film’s casting at times unknowingly ends up playing a significant role in its destiny. Take the case of Kagaz Ke Phool (1959) where the story that was supposed to have been inspired by the life and times of filmmaker Gyan Mukherjee ended up looking like a quasi-biopic of producer-director Guru Dutt due to the casting of Waheeda Rehman. The film’s story of Suresh Sinha (Dutt), a successful filmmaker whose marriage is on the rocks, falling in love with his discovery Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) seemed too close to reality where it was assumed that Dutt’s own shaky marriage to singer Geeta Dutt and his purported affair with Waheeda had translated onto the silver screen.
Did Silsila’s biggest feature — its casting coup — somewhere end up becoming its Achilles heel? Did it fail to resonate with the audiences for they felt that the film was being used as a ploy to make a statement by the people involved – namely Amitabh Bachchan? In any case, the passage of time has been kind to Silsila and rightfully so as well. The sheer audacity of the film’s casting is what makes it worth a revisit and the commingling of the imagined reel and supposed real does inspire some great cinematic moments. More than being one of the better depictions of adultery in Hindi cinema, Silsila is also the best example of how sometimes a film should embrace momentary failure for eternal glory.