If you pay any attention at all to popular Hindi cinema, then probably you will have heard of Sholay, often considered the best-loved Hindi movie of all time.* There is huge respect and affection for this film—for its cast, director, music, and script. Sometimes omitted from discussions of Sholay is the fact that said script is…how shall I put this… very similar to a Hindi-language film from a few years earlier: Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village My Country, dir. Raj Khosla, 1971).
Both films make use of specific elements that are staple ingredients of Hindi cinema’s masala filmmaking recipe: revenge, romance, and male bonding. But they also experiment outside of that formula by foregoing narratives of lost-and-found relatives and extensive comic relief in favor of some more specific elements focused on action: isolated communities extorted by violent criminals; family members traumatized by said criminals now bent on revenge; other, more mild and good-hearted criminals who function as the film’s heroes. If you’re thinking “Ummm, I don’t watch any Indian movies, but I’ve seen some westerns,” then you’re ahead of me, because I don’t watch westerns, but people who do have written extensively about how both Hindi films have marked similarities from Seven Samurai and Once Upon a Time in the West. The plot is fairly simple: a down-on-his-luck criminal is convinced to help defend a village against a gang of ruthless bandits. Action set pieces are exciting, but the film’s heart is equally in the relationships the outsider forms with his new community and what those ties say about individual responsibility in an increasingly muddied modern world. (Spoilers will follow now, so if you want to see the film first, jump to the bottom to see it on Youtube.)
Leading off Mera Gaon Mera Desh is, in my opinion, Vinod Khanna (last seen on the Gutter in my most recent post on Hera Pheri) doing some of the tricks he does best as the relentlessly ruthless bandit called Jabbar Singh: being the “model of male nastiness” (Dinesh Raheja in Rediff) as the basically one-note but still very effective villain character against newly noble underdog Ajit (Dharmendra, who hasn’t been seen on the Gutter in a few years—shame on me!).
Why is Jabbar so horrible? We don’t know: he just is, and he petrifies the entire village. Vinod is so impressive at making Jabbar into someone you really fear, even though all he really has to work with is a cardboard character sketch. He even manages to do it with maybe three facial expressions, five tops, as he glares, menaces, threatens, and smolders with rage. I don’t really have anything more to say about him than that, but believe me, he’s really effective at scaring you with only a handful of variations on “pure evil.” Ajit, on the other hand, is much more interesting as a person. My experience of mainstream Hindi cinema is that the hero is not automatically more interesting than the villain, so it’s nice to see such care taken with this character, both by screenplay credit G. R. Kamanth and the more-than-capable hands of Dharmendra, the top-notch leading man for the heroic roles of the late 1960s and 70s that required both fists and charm. He transforms from the ultimate outsider—a thief and an orphan of unknown parentage, with no sense of his background or family—to the ultimate defender of all that is good in Hindi cinema’s version of India: sacrifice, personal vengeance, community action, the village. Along the way he picks up friends, a love interest (Asha Parekh as Anju), and, best of all, parents! They’re not perfect parents, just like Ajit does not start out to be the perfect son: his “father” has been made impotent by a war injury (with perhaps a hint of cowardice signified by the injury?) and his “mother” is insane and ostracized by the other villager. But through them, as well as Anju, he learns what affection and connection are and how powerful they can be.
What an arc! A pair of coordinating scenes at each end of the story demonstrates his growth. Ajit enters the film on an empty street, running away from people chasing him after he commits a crime…and in the film’s climax, he searches the empty streets of his adopted town, trying to take down the bandits all by himself as the villagers cower in fear. In his own words: “I didn’t know the meaning of duty before I came to this village…that duty is more important than one’s life. I want to convey this message to the naive, poor villagers. There’s only one way to send the message to the entire village.” And that way is to risk it all. And he really does take some huge risks, perhaps somewhat unknowingly, and suffers their consequences when he loses the two things that most clearly redefine his new life, a mother and father. This may be a small point, but I was struck by it: the visual motif of Ajit in the street is repeated in another pair. He first comes to the village after being summoned by a letter, and when he comes to town the residents are hiding from the bandits. “Where am I?”, you can see on Dharmendra’s face, as Ajit wanders confused through this strange place.
Not only does this foreshadow a later shootout, but it also complements the much happier, settled resolution at the end, where Ajit is surrounded by his new comrades and accompanied by symbols of order and justice.
The male lead characters are great—one overwhelmingly a single dominant impression and the other allowed to change, stumble, and learn—and, for once, their female partners are just as strong. Anju is the love interest of Ajit, but her character is a little more like Jabbar’s in that she is straightforward and uncomplicated. Anju is the feisty village belle we’ve seen a zillion times, but I for one like this heroine type well enough that I don’t mind her reappearance.
She hates Ajit at first, of course, but warms up soon enough, and she expresses her feelings once she realizes she has them. No shrinking violet, our Anju. In “Sona Lai Ja Re,” she seems to be dancing as much for her own pleasure, for the joy of being in love, as for any attempt at enticement. Just looking at her choreography makes me think she is reveling rather than trying to seduce, even if that effect is also present (it is a truth universally acknowledged that Dharmendra gazing at the heroine of the film in a certain way indicates a little somethin’-somethin’).
Even more wonderful is Laxmi Chhaya (the star of “Jaan Pehechan Ho,” aka, the song in Ghost World and the Heinekin commercial) as Munnibai, a bad girl with a head of gold. Like Ajit, she considers different ideas and philosophies as the story unfolds. Unlike many other women characters generally, she is neither fully selfish nor selfless. I think this character might be the most nuanced “bad girl” I’ve ever seen. She does not make any epic sacrifices of more drama or danger than Ajit does, nor does she meet her end in a more tear-jerking way than anyone else who dies in the film. As we would probably expect for a 1970s film, the vamp dies, but she dies the same way as everyone else, in a struggle between the villagers and the bandits—and she’s actually in the fight, taking up arms to defend herself, her friends, and her choices! In one scene, Munni reconsiders some of her plans as Ajit talks about what he’s learned from living in the village. A bit of sheer fabric separates them, a thin but lingering cloud. As he speaks, she begins to see him in a different way than she did when they met, and he still doesn’t realize her real identity or allegiances.
However, this role isn’t all feminist awesomeness. As is too common in Hindi films, in a rage our hero insults her with implications about her status as an insider in the bandit band, which was the thing he valued most about her when she offered to help him. He was perfectly willing to be hand-in-hand with her then.
But it’s so exciting to see such a complex female character who isn’t a love interest! Especially played by Laxmi Chhaya, who is usually a vamp with just a few scenes at best, doing a great job in a full role that gives her so much to work with! She’s a more complicated antagonist than Jabbar, so much so that I wasn’t sure what decisions she would make and reconsider by the end of the story. And fear not: Laxmi gets three great songs! “Aaya Aaya Aatariya Pe Koi Chor,” “Apni Prem Kahaniyan,” in which she balances her allegiances, and “Maar Diya Jaaye,” in which everyone’s fate shifts with her dance.
In an extra dollop of atypical writing, we never see Munnibai and Anju screeching at each other. In fact, each helps the other out at critical moments. Sisters unite!
I’ve admitted before that I am easy to surprise, so I would love to know whether other viewers felt the suspense I did during the High Noon-style climax. I was so tense! My stomached also flipped over a few times as one of the bandits nearly rapes a woman in the fields after shooting her brother when he tries to protect her. Ultimately, she decides how to handle her attacker—agency seldom written for women in Hindi films. This quick inversion from target to fate-decider was fascinating! I found myself yelling at the screen a lot, desperate for Ajit’s (and, eventually, Munni’s, and his mother’s, and the villagers’) gamble to succeed and for Jabbar’s mindless, almost unconscious terror to be stopped.
My two criticisms of Mera Gaon Mera Desh are issues I have with many films. The useless police force frustrated me no end, leaving this poor village paralyzed as Jabbar and his men arrogantly kill whomever they want. The other is the moral lesson referred to in the film’s title. While I expect at least a little preaching in my 70s films, this particular one should have been left implied by the story and not articulated flat-out in the last few frames. After the bandits are defeated, the leads and surviving villagers discuss their success with the police. “Our village is a part of our country,” Anju says. “Every man, woman, and child of the village will be its guardian.” The police officer answers “I’m happy this village has awakened. Tomorrow it will be another village. Thereafter the entire country will be awakened. Then there will be peace in the entire country.” Sticking up for your (collective) self has its uses, but a nation full of vigilante justice isn’t tenable. The way the idea is stated here is almost like a Gandhi-approved infomercial for a successful society: it’s that easy! Act now!
I swear I’m not trying to be contrary for its own sake when I say that I prefer Mera Gaon Mera Desh to Sholay. Its mix of elements just works a little better for me, and it’s generally a little warmer and less bleak. But you should watch both and tell me what you think! Mera Gaon Mera Desh (with English subtitles) is available on Youtube for free, and Sholay (also with English subtitles) is on Youtube (for rent starting at $2.99), Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.
* Some people also call it the best-loved Indian movie of all time, though that assumes a ubiquity and “national” status of Hindi-language films, an idea that deserves to be (and is) debated by people more knowledgeable about the big issues in contemporary Indian culture than I, especially in the 2020s fascist-leaning political world.
Beth Watkins also likes things a little spicy.
Leave a Reply