Why JP Dutta’s Yateem (1989) comes closest to a classic Western in the context of popular cinema
Right from the sparse narrative, the stark locales, the gritty camerawork and the minimal dialogues, Yateem is an exceptional cinematic experience that unfortunately never got its due.
Editor's note: Whatever happened to watching a film, just because? When was the last time you watched a film, just because you stumbled upon on it, or heard someone mention it in passing? We're so used to reviews, previews and a barrage of recommendations — it almost feels like it is impossible to enjoy watching a film without it being topical. And so, here's a new column we're introducing — Films, Just Because — where we talk about films, just because.
Most cinemas, irrespective of the region they hail from, are invariably categorised into the same broad genres. Even when it comes to the extremely specific ones such as the Western, which is unique to Hollywood and American film, cinemas across the world experimented with and even adapted it. The Western found a new home in the Italy in the form of the Spaghetti Westerns and in India, too, the daku films of the 1970s such as Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and then Sholay (1975) introduced the ‘Curry Western.’ But the genre, however, has not been as organic when it came to Hindi films. Of course, there have been films like Kala Sona (1975), Wanted (1984), and Zalzala (1988) amongst a few more that tried to make straight Westerns but the whole cowboy hat and saloon et al simply missed the mark. In spite of the trappings there have some films whose narrative managed to capture the ethos of the Western while being rooted in the realm of popular Hindi cinema and among these JP Dutta’s Yateem (1989) comes closest to a classic Western in the context of popular cinema.
Yateem revolves around a police officer Shiv Kumar Yadav (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a widower, who adopts a bandit’s son after killing the brigand in an encounter. The orphan is named Krishna (Sunny Deol) and while Yadav tries to raise him as his own son, Yadav’s mother (Dina Pathak) never accepts him. Krishna is taunted by one and all for being a daku’s son and he would have run away had it not been for the compassion shown by Gauri (Farah Naaz), Yadav’s real daughter. Yadav sends Krishna to the police academy and by the time he returns as an inspector, Yadav had remarried. Yadav’s much younger new wife Chanchal (Sujata Mehta) treats Gauri as the servant of the house and is also having an affair with Girivar Mathur (Danny Dengzongpa), the local police chief. Chanchal takes a liking to Krishna and sensing that the childhood friendship between him and Gauri might brew into something serious, tries to evoke brotherly love for Krishna within her stepdaughter but fails. Krishna is torn between his love for Gauri and his loyalty to Yadav but before he can take a call, he is posted to Fatehpur Sikri, the very place where his adopted father had killed his real father. Yadav is worried that Krishna might come face to face with Daku Purkhiya (Amrish Puri), the leader of his late father’s gang, and learn the truth. Chanchal tries to entice Krishna but when he rejects her she gets him jailed for raping her. With Krishna out of the way, Chanchal then tries to get Gauri married off to Girivar...
Written by JP Dutta, at first glance Yateem seems familiar and reminiscent of films such as Mujhe Jeeno Do (1963) and Parvarish (1975) where the element of nurture versus nature in the life of an outlaw or his/her offspring formed the heart of the story. What makes Yateem truly unique is the manner in which the bleakness of the western permeates into the mise-en-scène. Right from the sparse narrative, the stark locales, the gritty camerawork and the minimal dialogues, Yateem is an exceptional cinematic experience that unfortunately never got its due. Dutta’s penchant for the hopelessness that engulfs not just his narrative and their setting but also his characters and the lives they live or hope to escape from is on full display here. And, what makes it even better is that unlike Ghulami (1985) where the narrative is far too simplistic or Hathyar (1989) and Batwara (1989) where it’s somewhat stylised, Yateem is the perfect blend of all elements JP Dutta.
Intriguingly enough Yateem’s script also fused components of a B Movie with the main narrative. During the golden age of Hollywood, the term ‘B Movie’ denoted low-budget commercial movies that were intended for the bottom half of a double feature and had a very typical style where ‘sincerity and sensationalism’ were merged. Dutta’s Yateem is unpretentious when it crams sex and violence, hope and despair and does this with a mainstream finesse and the edginess of an independent film at the same time. There are a few sequences in the film that even today would awe the viewer for the sheer candour with which they are executed like the one where Gauri believes that she is dying only to be laughed at by Krishna who tells her that she has ‘come of age.’
At the time it was originally released, Yateem was not only overlooked but also almost instantly forgotten. Perhaps the era in which it released was one where the audiences were not in the mood for either the straight action or the cheerlessness of the daku films as seen by the debacle of Dacait (1987). Later, with the revival of romance films such as Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and the emergence of new action/drama with Parinda (1989) and Ghayal (1990) also could have kept people from revisiting Yateem. Besides the universe that Yateem creates the film’s cinematography by Ishwar Bidri is reason enough to warrant a re-look. Watching Yateem in this day and age makes you realise just how often we end up looking over the shoulder to see what was left behind as we seemingly move forward.
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