By Aseem Chandaver Aug. 15, 2018
Everyone remembers Manoj Kumar’s Clerk for that iconic scene where Ashok Kumar recovers from a heart attack thanks to a shot of nationalism. But Clerk, the story of a government servant who loves the system irrespective of all its ills, is like a beta stage for modern super patriots.
If you aren’t particularly fond of the weird and wonderful, you must have probably missed the news of a mysterious sarcophagus being unearthed in Alexandria a few months ago. When word spread that one of the exhumed bodies could belong to Alexander the Great, a set of people had an interesting request: They wanted to drink the liquid that was oozing out from his tomb so that they could gain the powers that made Alexander almost undefeatable on the battlefield.
Believe it or not but I could relate with those crazy dudes because that’s exactly what I wanted to do when I discovered the HD version of Clerk, the 1989 cult masterpiece on a streaming website. You see, I was desperate to taste the genius of writer-director-actor-producer, Manoj Kumar’s twilight years. After all, it takes extraordinary skill and a maddening vacuum of ingenuity to be the first filmmaker in history to carefully craft a film about virtuous nationalism, victimhood, and self-inflicted celibacy of a sarkari clerk.
Clerk ranks among Bollywood’s dubious classics and is probably our answer to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. By that, I don’t intend to imply that Kumar is a bad filmmaker or an actor. But it’d be fair to assume that at the fag end of his career, Kumar let his vision run free without a quality or logic check – just like the last two decades of Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand’s career for instance.
Like a true bhakt, Bharat also upheld the tradition of being unable to process rejection and labelling women as inherently loose and characterless.
The film came at a time when the actor had just capped off two other terribly awesome movies: Kalyug Aur Ramayan where Kumar was the reincarnation of Hanuman, and Santosh, a film in which he made Prem Chopra sit on Hema Malini’s back. And he completed the holy trinity with Clerk, where he played Bharat, the quintessential urban bhakt. Since it’s 1989, you could label it as a beta stage for bhakts, but Bharat echoes all the formidable qualities and aggravated fursat that one may encounter in a modern bhakt. He’s a government clerk who loves the system irrespective of how it has made him and his family a fossil, bringing them to the point of hunger, or “thaali mein aansoo” to be exact.
It’s astounding how watching a film of a particular era unknowingly ends up reflecting the present mood of the country with polarising characters who capture a peculiar essence of the discord. One of the first dialogue that Ram (Mohammad Ali), Bharat’s brother utters in the film is, “Jab bill bada ho jaaye na toh dil chota nahi karte.” It’s a reaction to the paltry pension he gets as a pilot that’s not even enough for him to pay his brother’s fees. And yet he lectures Bharat to be thankful, instead of questioning the exploitation. If you thought that was theatrical, picture this unforgettable scene that has long acquired a priceless reputation in the hallowed halls of WhatsApp groups. In it, their father (Ashok Kumar), a war-veteran is having a heart-attack and doctors refuse to visit their house, because creative liberty in a capitalist dystopia toh banta hai. Just when all hope is lost, Bharat comes to the rescue by suggesting that if they play “Kadam Kadam Badhaye Jaa,” it might ease his irregular cardiovascular system.
The ensuing scene is a work of art, nay, a moment in time as mesmerising as the discovery of gravitational waves. After the song is played, Ashok Kumar has a nationalistic version of “Isko toh maata chadh gayi” and does march past on his bed and makes his mourning family dance with him. Think about it: Is it any different from BJP spokesperson and hate siren Shefali Vaidya ascribing the easing of a difficult pregnancy in a foreign land, to the magical powers of the national anthem? I wish she and Bharat were friends.
Like a true bhakt, Bharat also upheld the tradition of being unable to process rejection and labelling women as inherently loose and characterless. After being rejected by Rekha for a much affluent Shashi Kapoor during college, Bharat becomes as asexual as a fake egg paperweight in government offices. As a result, he routinely throws shade at Anita Raj whenever she tries to establish any human contact, and tells her to cover up during her gymnastics training. And more importantly, he inexplicably covers his own face whenever Rekha tells him to get his game up.
With every passing minute in Clerk, Kumar’s deshbhakti trajectory takes bizarre leaps: He croons about the difficult life of a clerk with the lines, “Ek kameez jo tann ghasti hain, usein sabun bina dhulata hoon”. He wraps Anita Raj in a flag and makes her twirl in it on August 15. And in the most ignored scene in the history of ignored scenes, he makes Om Shivpuri’s character commit incest to prove that upper-class society is completely immoral.
You might be wondering what a borderline B-grade movie made by an ageing filmmaker that goes to such theatrical extremes has anything to do with right-wing fanboys and girls of today. To be fair, it’s not a specific layer, scene, or character, but the film’s entire narrative. In Clerk, the indefatigable, stubborn, and unchanging attitude shown by Bharat is representative of anyone and everyone who makes dialogue impossible. One who takes immense pleasure in not just brandishing his or her patriotism, but also guarantees that he distinguishes the “anti-nationals”. Clerk is a sepia-tinted mirror that truly predicts a generation.
Aseem masquerades as a writer. But would've enjoyed a job that entails operating a fog machine or being a costumed ghoul or victim in horror films.