[Directed: Gulzar/ Produced: N C Sippy, Raj N. Sippy and Romu N. Sippy / Story by: Indra MitraScreen lay & Dialogues: Gulzar/ Edited: Waman Bhosle Gurudutt Shirali/Camera: K Vaikunth / Lyrics: Gulzar/ Music: Salil Choudhury /Playback: Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey,Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar / Cast: Meena Kumari, Vinod Khanna,Shatrughan Sinha, Paintal, Asrani, Danny Denzongpa, Yogesh Chhabra, Dinesh Thakur, Sudhir Thakkar, Sumita Sanyal, Deven Verma, Ramesh Deo, Abhi Bhattacharya, Asit Sen, Keshto Mukherjee, Leela Mishra, A.K. Hangal, Master Chintu, Baby Geeta, Kamaldeep, Shyamlal Malik, Amina Karim, Mehmood and Yogita Bali.]
Gulzar’s first directorial debut was literally a frame by frame remake of the National Award winning Bengali film Apanjan by Tapan Sinha. Apanjan was based on a story of Inder Mitra, and the film was both a commercial and critical success. Gulzar had been called to Kolkata to translate the script for a Hindi remake under Tapan Sinha, who most obdurately insisted on using the same cast, and then dropped out of the film. Gulzar bought the rights, rewrote the screenplay, lyrics and displaying a master’s stroke chose Salil Choudhary as the music composer.
Mere Apne might have been a remake but it remains one of the few original mainstream Bollywood films in 70s highlighting disgruntlement among youth when it was reaching its peak and would find a safety valve in the JP Movement three years later. The Nehruvian years of heady idealism were gone and the largest employer in the nation, the government was beset with waffle, favoritism and red tapism. The film was Gulzar’s first stab at political realism and it would take him another quarter of a century to attempt it in Maachis (1996).
An ailing Meena Kumari remained the steadfast lead despite her bad health in the film. Mere Apne was released on 9th November 1971, the shooting was completed in 40 days, and Meena Kumari died four months post its release on 13th March 1972. Her dedication to the craft later brought effusive praise from her young co-star Vinod Khanna,“I learnt so much. She was in poor health but completed the movie. We would be happy sitting at her feet and just listen to stories of her experience in Indian cinema. She was an institution,” a rare case of reel life merging into real life!
Danny Denzongpa, Asrani, Paintal, Sudhir Thakkar and Dinesh Thakur – all fresh from the FTII, Pune – added lustre to the cast with their senior Shatrughan Sinha from the institute chewing scenery most compulsively in a short but effective role. Other veterans in the cast’s muster roll were- Deven Verma, Asit Sen, Keshto Mukherjee, A. K. Hangal Yogeeta Bali and Mehmood, making Mere Apne the most cast heavy film in the filmography of Gulzar.
Shatrughan Sinha in 1971 had 13 releases including guest appearances but Mere Apne was coup d’grace for him. Chetna had heralded his rise that year but Mere Apne as the year closed consolidated his place as that rare villain who was cheered and clapped at his entry on screen or when he pulped the hero. He was perhaps was the first villain to have college girls as fans and songs were filmed on him despite being a blackguard in films like- Rampur Ka Lakshman, Bhai Ho To Aisa, Babul Ki Galiyan and Blackmail.
Debutant director Gulzar provided the opportunity to Vinod Khanna for his switch to hero roles from Mere Apne onwards. Interestingly the role of angst ridden Shyam was offered to FTII gold medallist of the acting class, Navin Nischol, who after the success of Sawan Bhadon, was on a signing spree and did not have the required dates for Gulzar’s project.
Vinod Khanna brought a rare sensitivity to his role of the brooding leader of street gang in his Mere Apne (1971) who is jilted by his lady love. The audience enjoyed the sparring between Vinod and Shatrughan Sinha as rival street gang leaders with Allahabad — the birthplace of India’s first Prime Minister — as the theatre or rather boiling cauldron of their frustrations, campus politics, unemployment, ennui and the culture of violence and gangsterism.
Vinod Khanna led a more urbane and more educated street gang in the film whereas his rival is illiterate and understands only the language of violence. His college degree gone waste as a petty clash with his friend-turned-rival Chhainu (Shatrughan Sinha) lands him in jail thus negating any chances of having a professional life. Gulzar crafted Vinod Khanna’s with a blend of sesnsitivity and toughness in direct contrast with rough and hewn Chhainu portrayed by Shatrughan Sinha.
Vinod Khanna it is rumoured had once complained that the majority of the cast comprising of FTII graduates had ganged up against him and he felt like an outsider. Vinod Khanna however formed rock solid bond with Gulzar leading Shatrughan Sinha to comment, “Gulzar has adopted Vinod and disowned me,” as the poet- director helmed in as Achaanak, Meera and Lekin. Gulzar and Vinod worked as father and son in the film called Jallianwala Bagh (1977) helmed by Balraj Tah. In a role reversal of sorts, Gulzar faced the camera for the first time, and Vinod Khanna was a big help.
Asrani would go on to do some of his most memorable films with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. He recalls that Gulzar was nervous because he was making a debut and Vinod Khanna already a hit villain was making an entry as a hero in the film. At the film’s premiere in Delhi. Gulzar seated next to Asrani gripped his hand the moment the film started, and the applause after the film ended moved Gulzar to tears. Asrani told his senior at the institute Shatrughan Sinha that it was the first time in his life that he had noticed the audience clapping when the villain bashed up the hero! Shatrughan Sinha was ecstatic!
Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand was wonderfully seeded in Mere Apne, Meena Kumari’s character is called Anandi Bai, the sponsored programme of Anand on radioand the film’s poster on the wall abovewhen the rival gangs clash, was a homage to his mentor Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand for which Gulzar contributed dialogues and lyrics and which released in the same year as Mere Apne.
The two out of the four songs that have become synonymous with Mere apne are- Koi hota jisko apna hum and Haal chaal theek hai both written by Gulzar and set to tune by Salil Choudhury. Salil Choudhury went on record crediting S.D. Burman for having spotted the spark in Kishore Kumar early in his career. Salil Choudhury realized the tremendous potential of Kishore after having had dismissed him in Naukari (1954) seventeen years earlier and then have the maverick playback render the haunting- Koi hota jisko apna hum apna under Chaudhary’s baton. The lyrics of satirical Haal chaal theek hai indict the post-independence euphoria of a just and better India having fizzled out leaving a ruling class are knee deep in corruption and the educated youth who remain unemployed –circumstances which are evergreen even today!
Mere Apne was released during a year that saw films like Anand, Amar Prem, Guddi, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Tere Mere Sapne and Caravan hit the marquee! Mere Apne, a classic well ahead of the times, one of the landmarks of Indian cinema and one of few films to present the dilemma of educated unemployed youth, a turbulent issue relevant even today, got no nominations nor any awards at the Filmfare or National Awards.