40 Years Later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal is Still the Best Film About Middle Class Indians

Bollywood

40 Years Later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal is Still the Best Film About Middle Class Indians

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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n the first scene of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal, Ram (Amol Palekar), sings the song “Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai” with a bunch of his friends at a house party of sorts. Unlike the typical Bollywood segue into a processed song and dance sequence, Ram actually sings and not just in mushairas or with actresses he must romance. In the second scene, he is dropped home by a friend – riding pillion like a normal person – during which, he tells him that he would like to watch the football match between New York Cosmos and Mohun Bagan. Within the first two scenes Mukherjee’s film situates its protagonist in a somewhat sophisticated, elusive, urban space where machismo seems as secure as it feels redundant.   

The 1979 film follows the web of lies Ram weaves to keep his job, despite being under constant scrutiny from his hard-to-please authoritarian boss Bhavani Shankar (the inimitable Utpal Dutt). Dutt, in a typically provocative way plays the moustachioed, moralistic patriarch of the film – a man of very strong likes and dislikes. His desk supports a sign that reads “Work is God” and in one scene, he tells his assistant that the only thing stopping youngsters from leading the nation is their interest in sports. Ram, the quintessential victim of Shankar’s contempt therefore, finds himself in the unenviable position of pretending to be someone he isn’t. His uncle, who puts in a word for him with Shankar, advises him that “cinema, hockey, cricket, music ki baat matt karna”. But agnostic at heart, Ram lies to Shankar to watch a hockey game where he is spotted by his boss, setting off a hilariously over-the-top spree of lying that leads to not one, but two pairs of twins being faked.

There is plenty to be admired about Mukherjee’s film beyond its tomfoolery. Foremost of which is the creation of a protagonist who despite being pressed by the familiar requirements of earning a living, has a touch of sophistication to him. He has hobbies like watching hockey and football, reading Elizabethan literature, and listening to music on the radio. Lean, slightly mousy, and unheroic, Ram embodies a male protagonist that is to an extent elusive in Bollywood even today. His interest in sports, cultural recreation like reading and singing, is only reserved in Hindi cinema of today for people who either treat it like their sole passion (Rockstar, Gully Boy, Tamasha) or who indulge in it for the mere tokenism of male bonhomie – think overenthusiastic friends watching cricket on the sofa to perform their masculinity. Hindi cinema knows only its crusaders, not the passengers. Yet Gol Maal treats its male protagonist as a person whose interests and hobbies exist without any culmination of greatness.

“Golmaal hai bhai sab golmaal hai”

An artist and writer in real life, Patekar eloquently essayed a character whose complexities did not bog him down or force him to brood like people given to interests in art usually do in Bollywood. He is neither conservative, nor anarchic, resembling pretty much the entirety of middle-class men in India. Which is why the twin brothers he plays in the film – Ram and Laxman – contrast extremely well as polar opposites. Neither is close to the real Ram, but they are absurdist exaggerations that would be normal fare in other Bollywood films of the time.

Through its intricacies and hints of middle-class rebellion Gol Maal even addressed the politics of its time: Ram, for one, refuses to yield to the tyranny of his comically stern boss and his bluff feels recognisable for its middle-class dissent. The film’s title song itself embodies a kind of middle-class existentialism when it says “Paisa kamaane ke liye bhi paisa chahiye”.

Then there is Mukherjee’s camera. For films that existed before Gol Maal, its lived cities were either the chawls, the site of extreme poverty that betrayed class prejudice, or the bungalows of Bombay, so lavish that they constricted the freedom that the characters demanded. Mukherjee on the other hand, shot the film inside his own Bandra house in 40 days. Its restricted spaces and limited horizons therefore feel far more relatable.

It’s precisely what universalised Gol Maal’s characters despite its ludicrous story: their modest, yet urban setting. For a majority of India, you’d assume that Gol Maal’s subtle rejection of middle-class philistinism might have gone unnoticed in the shade of its punchlines and yet it remains relevant even 40 years on. Not just for its unforgettable music or performances, but for its quiet view of the city that people get by doing a little more than just drinking weekends away and a little less than fist-fighting the choicest villains.

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