classic film

Sai Paranjype’s ‘Katha’ is a fabulous fable about the most charming chawl in the world

The renowned filmmaker’s 79th birthday is the perfect excuse to revisit one of her loveliest films, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval.

In a community of defined roles, men go to office and buy vegetables on their way back home. Wives cook and make pickles. Children attend school, play cricket in the courtyard and caper in the common verandahs. Dim lights, poor water supply and common toilets add their greyness to Bombay chawl life. Here, a female graduate’s hope is only for marriage and a male post-graduate aspires only to be head clerk.

The grim stuff of many a bleak film gets a surprising lift in Katha (1982), in which director Sai Paranjpye touches this lower middle class chawl with her wand of wit and gives a dry spin to the fable of the hare and the tortoise. The animated credit sequence at the beginning shows the director’s name beneath a bright- eyed cat flexing its claws – clearly, every character in Katha is up for jabs. However, each little dig of humour, no matter how irreverent, is delivered with an affectionate twinkle.

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The song Kaun Aaya from Katha (1982).

A nagging wife never knows that her seemingly attentive husband’s ears are plugged with cotton wool reinforcements. Chinnakka (meaning little sister), the largest and most rotund resident of the chawl, is always encircled by vessels similar to her own shape and size. Bapu (father) is the bell-ringing invalid who cheerfully interrupts anyone at any time – whether to change a radio station or to have a bottle of churan handed to him. For all the bickering of nosy neighbours and for all the shortages they may endure, no one is ever shortchanged. They are, after all, a family of bhaus, bhais, akkas and mais.

There is much to love in Katha over and above its stellar cast – Naseeruddin Shah, Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval – each at their endearing best.

Innovative techniques capture individual quirks. Conversations cleverly summarise socio-economic details – jobs, education, money, conveyance, even the census – while the soundtrack remains focused on the pulse of the story and the chitchat of the chawl.

Ticklish class and cultural obsessions are tackled tongue in cheek. The chawl secretary (his room is kitted out with space-saving furniture, a refrigerator and a television thanks to a son settled in Canada) accentuates his Hindi speeches with English synonyms (“ekta” and unity, “manoranjan” and entertainment ) and has an unread Time magazine to display. At a higher society party, all conversations begin with an identically vacuous “How are you?” as if everyone is recuperating from a mysterious disease.

Women’s liberation gets both a smirk and a nod, but as a refreshing and humorous alternative to sexual harassment, there is a dream-sequence temptation of Adam – apple and serpent included.

Naseeruddin Shah as Rajaram in Katha (1982).
Naseeruddin Shah as Rajaram in Katha (1982).

The two male protagonists have significant names. Naseeruddin Shah is Rajaram Purushottam, the king of men and the best among men. Generous, kind and painfully shy, he proudly walks the straight and narrow. Even though he is almost ridiculous in his sobriety, we root for him from the very beginning.

On the other hand, there is the gleaming eyed Farooque Shaikh (Vasudev), a thieving magpie who steals money, rings, hearts and thunder. Vasudev prefers to be called Bashu and not by his real name, thus cautioning us that he is a confidence trickster. From the desi cigarettes with which he fills Dunhill cartons to his tall tales of being the grandson of a dewan, Bashu is a charming cheat. From Dadi Amma (Leela Mishra), the seniormost member of the chawl, to mothers of runny-nosed children and the children themselves, Bashu knows how to play to the gallery. His repertoire extends to the impertinent daughter (Winnie Paranjpye) and the trophy wife (the glamorous Mallika Sarabhai) of Dhindoria, and finally, to Dhindoria himself.

Farooque Shaikh as Vasudev in Katha (1982).
Farooque Shaikh as Vasudev in Katha (1982).

Deepti Naval is the vulnerable and inexperienced Sandhya who stands between Rajaram and Bashu – in doorways and otherwise. She must choose between the glib and the good. In choosing one she realises how much she has taken the other for granted.

Paranjpye’s film is not about teaching lessons, but about happy endings for all. Rajaram wins his well-fought day. Sandhya, at first stirred silly and then shaken wise, is not doomed to disgrace. And Bashu whizzes out to conquer new horizons with his chutzpah. Katha is still about those who win – through foul means or fair.

Katha may lose out on flashy foreign locales, item numbers, chartbusting songs and super-speed storytelling. But the hare and the tortoise do not really need to run the same race.

Deepti Naval as Sandhya in Katha (1982).
Deepti Naval as Sandhya in Katha (1982).
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.