Atma Ram’s Aafat: Navin Nishcol-Leena Chandavarkar starrer is a well-crafted procedural drama
Editor’s note: 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 — where we talk about films, just because.
While cops and robbers both have been the mainstay of numerous popular Hindi films, a sustained view into their worlds that would form a better part of a film’s narrative has been rare. The procedural drama has never really enjoyed a sub-genre like status as it does in Hollywood or other cinema — be it European, Japanese or Korean — despite the detective genre enjoying mainstream interest routinely from the 1950s with Apradhi Kaun? (1957), Gumnaan (1966), Intaqam (1969) in the 1960s and Manorama Six Feet Under (2007) or Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) in the recent past. One could argue that Ab Tak Chappan comes close to being one of the best procedural films made in mainstream Hindi cinema but it remains more invested in the soul of the lead character as opposed to the procedural talents that he possesses. But, while police and law dramas still have some degree of procedure thrown in for good measure, crime rarely gets any attention beyond the perfunctory and it’s in this light that discovering Aafat (1977), a barely recalled 1970s’ urban crime thriller, becomes a thing of joy.
Watching the opening credits of Aafat (1977) — where the first shot shows a knife cutting the belly of a dead fish to retrieve stolen diamonds and then the intricate fashion in which smugglers peddle the stash with a police informant Jagpal (Mac Mohan) on the trail — shows how this little known urban crime thriller is clear in its intent to do something different. The plot of Aafat isn’t important and, beyond a point, neither is the story. But it’s the narrative with a few inspired set pieces and the array of characters — which on the face seem typical of both the genre as well as the era in which the film was made — that make this nearly forgotten film worth a re-look.
Following the growing smuggling and drug-related crimes in Bombay, Din Dayal (Nazir Husain), an influential and respected businessman, uses his sway in Delhi to get a special CBI officer Inspector Amar (Navin Nishcol) on the case. Din Dayal’s nephew, the sole heir to the family’s fortunes has become an addict and he personally requests Amar to nab those who are hell-bent on ruining the youth of the country. Amar gets the lead of a newspaper’s editor Balraj (Sajjan) from Jagpal but before he can reveal more information, an assassin — hired by the secret gang of Shera (Amjad Khan) — kills him. Amar lands up at the newspaper and meets Mahesh (Mehmood), the paper’s crime reporter and his childhood friend. Although Balraj is keen to share the details of the gang’s modus operandi. he backs out the moment he gets a threatening call from Jenny (Faryal), the gang’s resident moll.
Amar decides to come back later in the night to investigate Balraj’s office but finds him dead and bumps into a mysterious woman (Leena Chandavarkar), who overpowers him and runs off with the evidence that Amar was looking for. Later, Amar finds out that the mystery woman is in fact a cop named Inspector Chhaya and she is also investigating the same gang. Mahesh and Amar track Rajni (Jayshree T), the courier for the gang who is given drugs in exchange for her work and who also turns out to be Chhaya’s younger sister. Amar doubts the commissioner Hardayal (Kamal Kapoor) to be in cahoots with Jenny, Shera, and the ilk. Along with Mahesh and Chhaya, he too inches closer to unraveling the mystery.
Things promise to fall into place when Amar finally meets Champa (Prema Narayan), a street dancer employed by the gang of smugglers, and she gives him vital information about a consignment due in few days. But seeing a hung-over Champa leave Amar’s hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, Chhaya imagines the worst and decides to go her separate way to solve the case. After numerous crests and troughs, the mystery gets solved and so does the confusion between Chhaya and Amar.
The meandering screenplay fails to seamlessly string the narrative together but a few things being stilted to the extent of hilarity notwithstanding, Aafat is thoroughly enjoyable. The ease with which Navin Nischol embraces the proceedings and his general effervescence is a treat to watch, as are most of the scenes featuring Mehmood and some of the set pieces such as the one where Amar and Chhaya are trapped in a burning library. The dialogues are campy, especially gems from Amjad Khan such as – Meri maut khanjar ki shakl mein mere panje mein qaid rehti hai (My death? My death’s imprisoned within the knife I wield in my hand) and Meri awaaz ka gramophone record banalo aur jukebox mein lagakar sunte rehna (Make a gramophone record of my confession that you have recorded and play it on a jukebox) and other one-liners that Mehmood throws across the film.
The only weak link in the film is Leena Chandavarkar. More so, the abject lack of chemistry between her and Navin Nishcol. In scenes with even the slightest hint of sexual tension, Chandavarkar shifts gears to become cold and distant and Nischol then interprets the scene from a comic point of view – he even lovingly refers to Chandavarkar’s full figure in bovine terms. The near sibling or buddy aspect of the leads is hardly an issue thanks to Nischol and Mehmood’s camaraderie, Jayshree T and Mehmood’s scenes and the crackling intensity between Prema Narayan and Nischol in a handful of scenes. By the end, you can’t help wonder if the film needed a traditional female lead.
At a basic level, Aafat might appear escapist, and even stupid but scratch a little and you’d notice how it features a pack of emancipated female characters for a film from the 1970s. Usually in popular Hindi cinema, whenever narrative strives to depict any kind of liberated female character, it willy-nilly resorts to typical symbolism to convey the point. But Aafat doesn’t seem to possess any such imagery and even does away with the perfunctory ‘look how far us women have come’ dialogues. The four primary women characters – Chhaya, Rajni, Champa, and Jenny – are shown doing things that one would ideally be associated with independent, free-thinking 1970s’ women but neither do they make a fuss about it nor do the men patronize them. Take for instance Chaaya’s run-ins with Amar. In every single pow-wow, even though Amar disagrees with her, he never doubts her professional skills as a policewomen; or Jenny’s decision to seek a partnership with Shera once she realizes that it’s the likes of her who actually do all the dirty work for the faceless boss; or Mahesh’s decision to enlist Rajni and her pals from the Judo club to take on the gang of smugglers for the simple reason that they would be more proficient. Even when Champa, the supposedly standardised amoral street dancer, confesses that she couldn’t care less for the memory of a dead Jagpal, who loved her, she isn’t judged or sermonized either by Amar or even the narrative.
Directed by Atma Ram, Guru Dutt’s younger brother, the film’s wafer-thin veneer of modernity is just perfect and Ram’s credentials as a documentary as well as ad filmmaker seem to come in handy. Aafat might pale in comparison to Shikar (1969), Atma’s Ram’s most recognized work, which incidentally was a well-crafted procedural drama too, but this one deserves to be unearthed along with his Aarop (1974), a drama about corruption in journalism.