Vinod Khanna, Saira Banu's 1974 film Aarop highlights the importance of fearless journalism

Gautam Chintamani

October 24, 2018 15:11:08 IST

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 column we're introducing — Films, Just Because.

Journalism has rarely been depicted in a realistic fashion in popular Hindi cinema. Barring New Delhi Times (1986) or perhaps the more recent Peepli [Live] (2010), the portrayal of journalists has largely been stereotypical. Ever since the onslaught of satellite television in the early 1990s, journalism in films has focused on television as opposed to print. But even with hundreds of news channels and almost two and a half decades since television’s proliferation, there has been no major change in the manner journalism is depicted onscreen. It’s perhaps due to this trait that films about alternate media or journalistic endeavours that are off the beaten track are still far away from attracting the attention of mainstream cinema. While one still awaits a contemporary film about social media or say a powerful Whatsapp group that takes on the establishment, Aarop (1974), a film about a small town newspaper that becomes the only recourse for the common folk, warrants a relook.

Vinod Khanna in Aarop. YouTube screengrab

Vinod Khanna in Aarop. YouTube screengrab

Aarop might not be in the same league as New Delhi Times or Peepli [Live] or even Main Azaad Hoon (1989) but that shouldn’t be a reason to not consider it. Directed by Aatma Ram (the legendary Guru Dutt’s younger brother), Aarop features Vinod Khanna and Vinod Mehra along with Saira Banu and the iconic Rehman. The film is set in a small place called Nandganj where Subhash (Khanna) runs an independent paper called ‘Mashaal’, which is dedicated to fighting for the rights of the common people. The film starts with Subhash being sentenced to six months imprisonment for writing the truth about the nefarious plans of the local big-wig Makhan Lal Singh (Rehman). Subhash refuses to apologise for writing the truth, and on his way to the jail, entrusts the paper’s daily operations to Ravi (Mehra), a lawyer and his friend.

Inspired by Subhash’s fiery ideals, Aruna (Saira Banu), the local teacher, joins the newspaper and soon Ravi falls for her. The paper’s owner Dhondu (Johnny Walker) and the sales manager Kuwarelal (Khesto Mukherjee) along with Ravi and Aruna manage the affairs but with Subhash in jail, people like Singh and his moll, Kanchan (Bindu), are free to run amok. Even the city’s municipal corporation is hand in glove with the likes of Kanchan and remains mum when the townfolk complain about her gambling den. When Subhash returns, he vows to shut down the gambling parlour as its addiction is ruining homes.

Things get worse when Kanchan’s right-hand man Caesar (Gulshan Arora) burns down Subhash’s press, Makhan Singh entraps Dhondu in a debt that leads to him taking over his press and consequently, the ouster of Ravi and Aruna. The otherwise composed Subhash cracks and decides to kill Kanchan but before he can do anything, someone else bumps Kanchan off and pins the murder on him. How Subhash, Aruna, and Ravi fight back and find the actual killer forms the rest of the tale.

There is a certain honesty in Aarop’s narrative that helps it rise above the trappings of being a typical mainstream Hindi film from the 1970s. There are hero-heroine songs as well as the other standard comic set pieces courtesy Johnny Walker, Keshto Mukherjee, and Paintal, who plays an ever-ready photographer and an eager eavesdropper, and even three Bindu dance numbers, but Aarop still, intriguingly enough, makes a strong enough statement about society’s moral corruption. The film’s story or characters might appear dated today but their essence is timeless. The scene where Subhash galvanises hordes of people and leads them right into a city council meeting demanding a closure of Kanchan’s club lest people take the matter into their own hands could be shot frame for frame today and not look out of place. In fact, through most of the film ‘Mashaal’ appears to be somewhat like Twitter or any other contemporary alternate media because it questions, challenges, and at times, even overpowers the traditional way of functioning.

A still from Aarop. YouTube screengrab

A still from Aarop. YouTube screengrab

In many ways, Aarop’s Subhash is a precursor to the standard Hindi film journalist that became popular in the 1980s and 90s. In their paper ‘From Romeo to Rambo: Popular Portrayals of Journalists in Bollywood Cinema’, Ruhi Khan and Danish Khan argue that over a thirty year period between the 1980s and now, the popular depiction of journalists in Hindi cinema can be boxed into two broad categories. In the first one, the journalist makes powerful enemies and takes on the bad guys as seen with Vinod (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir (Ravi Baswani) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), investigative journalist Srikant (Shekhar Suman) in Tridev (1989) and ‘kalam wali bai’ Megha (Dimple Kapadia) in Krantiveer (1994). While these journalists, more often than not, pay a heavy price and even die, the second group sees their work change the course of events and emerge triumphant like in Guru (2007), or Kurbaan (2009), Kabul Express (2006) and No One Killed Jessica (2010.

The microcosmic nature of Aarop’s script perhaps owes its origin to the real-life documentary films that Aatma Ram made before he joined his more illustrious brother’s production house. Aatma Ram was based out of London for a few years and his affinity with global cinema, too, could be attributed for its Ace in the Hole-esque small-town dynamics or the Blow-Up-like plot element with the photo being enlarged to find a mysterious shooter from behind Subhash of Aarop. The latter Michelangelo Antonioni tribute of sorts also forms an integral part of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.

Today, the power of TV news has transformed journalists into demigods but ironically when it comes to depicting them on film, it’s still a scribe’s basic integrity that makes for a compelling tale. Aarop has lots in that department made better by the presence of Vinod Khanna and topped off with an old Lata Mangeshkar-Kishore Kumar classic ‘Naino mein darpan hai, darpan mein koi…' (lyrics: Maya Govind, music: Bhupen Hazarika).

Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 15:11 PM