Hindi art films are often referred to as "parallel cinema," but it was watching the mainstream film Avtaar that made me feel I had stepped into a parallel universe. A parallel universe in which Rajesh Khanna is a mechanic with a healer's touch at fixing cars. A parallel universe in which flashbacks-within-flashbacks are a sensible way to tell a story. A parallel universe in which Shabana Azmi dances around trees.
Unfortunately, that last aspect - the most straight-up-dashing-hero-swooning-heroine romantic song picturized on Shabana that I had encountered the time I first saw Avtaar - was close to the most interesting thing about this movie, and even it was not exactly good, not compared to some of Shabana ji's full-on masala performances of the 70s.
Avtaar Kishen (Rajesh Khanna) is a hardworking, pious, salt-of-the-earth type of guy. He's an auto mechanic with a master touch. He is happy and satisfied with his life - he has a beautiful, adoring wife of twenty-five years, Radha (Shabana), and two grown sons for whose success he has toiled and of whom he is very proud. The domestic joy is fleeting, however - Radha and Avtaar's children selfishly betray them, leaving them destitute. With the help of their loyal servant Sewak (the name actually means "servant"), Avtaar gets back on his feet and builds himself a wildly successful business, which he then manipulates to exact revenge from his sons. On the more charitable side, he founds a home for elderly folks who have been abandoned by their children, and employs its residents in his company. His sons eventually relent and seek forgiveness - and Radha tires of estrangement from them - but Avtaar is a very proud man, there may be too much water under the bridge for this family to repair itself.
The message of this peculiarly bitter film seems to be: Old folks, don't trust your adult children, because they will screw you. I'm all in favor of moralizing about the lack of respect that each generation shows for the one that came before it, and I can understand the need for social dramas that address the problem of erosion of the family, but it seems like there are more productive ways to send the message than in an angry cautionary tale. The sense that the film's message is displaced is only enhanced by the fact that Avtaar and Radha, supposedly the elderly victims of youthful indifference, are played by a 40-year-old actor and a 32-year-old actress, made up - not very convincingly - to look some 25 years older. Why not give the roles to some neglected older actors? This, and similar details, lend the film an amateurish air, as it simply isn't a good enough movie for such details not to be distracting.
The music, which can sometimes be the sole redeeming feature of an otherwise unforgettable film, did little here to ease the squirming sense I had of suffering through a very bad movie in the name of fangirlish completism. The picturization of the aforementioned romantic song, "Din mahine saal," was clunky and inelegant. Another song, picturized on the members of the younger generation celebrating their freedom the annoying burden of their parents, was among the worst choreography and most embarrassing dancing I've seen in a Hindi film. The one picturization I very much enjoyed featured Avtaar and Radha (in their younger, flashback form) carrying their seriously ill baby up a steep mountain trail in pilgrimage. The song was pretty, and Shabana nailed perfectly a sense of exhaustion and despair. But apart from a very few such effective moments, unless you are a raving fan of one of its principals, this film has little to recommend it. I certainly am, and it pushed even my limits of tolerance.