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Khalid Mohamed re-evaluates B.R.Ishara’s game-changer 'Chetna'.

Updated: Dec 4, 2023


Chetna(1970)


For sure, he had an USP. Sex, lies and the exploitation of women at different levels of the social strata were his preferred themes.


Unshackled from the formulaic narrative devices, he became the quintessential enfant terrible, simultaneously establishing himself in the Bombay film bazaar, as an outspoken and one-of-a-kind votary for a change in the status quo or unequal gender relationships behind closed doors.


That this distinctive writer-director, B.R. Ishara (1934-2012) hasn’t been accorded his deserved status, isn’t surprising though. All too frequently, we’re subconsciously recalcitrant about hearing out a singular man, with a voice that refuses to be muzzled.


To re-evaluate Ishara’s angst, as it were, I sought out to locate his widow, the powerhouse actor Rehana Sultan. Traced to a modestly appointed apartment in a Juhu back lane, she was stoic rather than bitter about the director whom she had married in 1984, aware that life with him wouldn’t be a bed of red roses. Predictably enough, roles from other film production banners virtually dried up for her after the marriage with Ishara, who was older than her by 16 years.


Today, at the age of 73 she is unemployed and longs to be return to acting fray full-time. Opportunities haven’t rung her doorbell ever since she was cast by Sudhir Mishra in Inkaar (2013), only to find several of her scenes deleted. Ah, hard luck stories do abound in the purely self-centered realm of filmmaking.


Before returning to the insoluble predicament of Rehana Sultan, the National Award-winning actor (for Dastak, 1970), permit me to recap the ascent and as it happened, inevitably, the descent of B.R.Ishara.


No top marquee star names, but for Shatrughan Sinha, who was just about finding a toe-hold as a bad guy in the Bombay movies – had featured in Ishara’s bootstrap-budgeted Chetna (The Awakening, 1970) – which was barely marketable.


Besides the Film and Television Institute, Pune, graduate Shatrughan Sinha, the lead protagonists toplined in a doomed love story of a sex-worker and a young man from a ‘respectable’ family -- were enacted respectively also by FTII graduates Rehana Sultan and Anil Dhawan.


Before Chetna, B.R.Ishara, the writer-director had authored the script of the crime drama Insaaf ka Mandir (1969) featuring Sanjeev Kumar and Prithviraj Kapoor, besides helming the commercial turnips Awara Badal (1964) and Gunah aur Kanoon (1970).


The story goes that B.R. Ishara (born Roshanlal Sharma) had run away to Bombay from Kotli, a smalltown in Himachal Pradesh. He had worked as a tea boy with film units, and then as an assistant director, till Nargis Dutt noticed that he had the potential of graduating to an independent filmmaker.


Despite the odds, Chetna became a trailblazer as well as the mega-surprise hit of the ‘70s, a decade steeped in orthodoxy. One key reason for its success was undoubtedly its poster, showing the sex worker, Seema (Rehana Sultan) standing with her legs apart, as an invitation to the young man, Anil (Anil Dhawan) whose self-righteous moral standards were written all over his face and posture.


That poster alone majorly seduced the audience, including a bunch of us college boys, to make a beeline for Chetna which had opened at the Naaz cinema in Bombay. Buying tickets in black (‘Dus ka pachas’), that jampacked screening made our jaws thud to the floor.


At that point, any depiction of sexuality and themes revolving around a sex-worker (as opposed to the clothed-to-the-hit courtesan) were strictly taboo. And here was an ‘adults only’ breakaway which had been luck by chance cleared by the usual fuddy-duddy Censor Board.


Incidentally, Ishara was to continue the theme hinged on non-marital sex and the hypocrisy attached to it, in most of the 35 films he had made during his lifetime, including the relatively tame Ek Nazar (1972) with Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri.


Tame essentially because the heroine was strictly of the trapped-by-the-kotha strereotype. Jaya Bhaduri was miscast as the kotha girl. All that Ek Nazar had going for it was the Laxmikant-Pyarelal song Patta Patta Butta Butta Haal Hamara Jaane Yeh, adapted by Majrooh Sultanpuri from a ghazal by Mir Taqi Mir.


To return to Chetna, Ishara had been technically inventive, he had shown the way that a major section of the film could be shot at one stretch in a rented bungalow, fluidly photographed and with minimal set décor.



And if a party scene had to be depicted it could be conveyed by focusing on the facial expressions of just two characters reacting to the guests amidst the revelry. How? Just dub in the party sounds of the loud chatter and clinking glasses later. Although music didn’t play a key role in his films, Chetna was remarkable for the Sapan-Jagmohan composition Main Toh Har Mod Par.


Clearly, the only issue I have with the film today, is that the ending was way too defeatist. The sex-worker, finding herself pregnant, ends her life ostensibly to prevent the child’s father from bearing the wrath of his family and from ‘society’ in general.


Besides that, Ishara’s approach throughout had been iconoclastic. Unarguably, here was a ‘bold and daring’ work, which instantaneously inspired a slew of imitations (Do Raha,1971, for instance)


Snag is that Ishara became way too prolific with the success of Chetna. Of his oeuvre of 35 films, Zaroorat (1972), Charitra (1973) introducing Parveen Babi and Salim Durrani, a near-replay of Chetna, Baazar Bandh Karo (1974) and Ghar ki Laaj (1979) were his other accomplished works.


With high glamour actors like Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman (Prem Shastra 1974) and supernatural subjects like Milap (1972), a ‘snake film’ with Shatrughan Sinha and Reena Roy, blatantly plagiarised from Hollywood’s Cult of the Cobra (1955), he had strayed from his forte of an iconoclast.



B.R. Ishara


Moreover in 1984, motivated by numerology, he had even changed the spelling of his name to B.Aar Ishara. His last film Hukumnama (1996), spotlighting Mukesh Khanna, was a calamity after which he never got his mojo back. To add to the director’s bag of troubles, he was stonewalled by several legal cases from debt-demanding distributors.


His health was declining, and Chetna had become a distant memory which was no longer mentioned in the same breath as Ishara, blockaded on multiple fronts.


Over now to Rehana Sultan. How did she cope with such abject circumstances? Plus, given her reclusive nature today hasn’t she become a rare-to-approach actor?


“I’m surviving. I’m okay, just about,” she retorts. “Please don’t make me out to be a bechari. All I need is work in the movies or television, to make ends meet. I’m fortunate enough to have a roof over my head. I had bought this apartment at the suggestion of (the revered lyricist-poet) Sahir Ludhianvi. Never ignore security he had told me, or some day you could find yourself on the road.”


“The building’s called Parchhaiyan,” she laughs lightly, “which is quite appropriate for someone who’s now living in the shadows.” A gold medallist graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India’s 1968 batch, she’s 73 now and is convinced that she can effortlessly slide into mature roles, be it those of mums, mothers-in-law and badi bahens.


A TV serial which had focused on her, stopped production midway, because of financial problems. As for essaying the role of Chitrangada Singh’s mother in Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar, she states, “Of my 12 to 13 scenes only a couple were retained in the final edit. In fact, Sudhir could have dropped all my scenes, the part was quite dispensable. After that, there have been no acting offers. So here I am twiddling my thumbs.”



Rehana Sultan


She speaks in chaste Urdu diction since she comes from a conservative Baha’i family of Allahabad. The decision to accept Chetna – dealing with the rehabilitation of sex workers – must have required guts.


To that, she responds, “Not really but I was apprehensive because Ishara saab had called me over to Astoria Hotel for a script discussion. A hotel meeting sounded much too shady. So he came over to my place, reclined on the sofa. I was shocked that he put his feet up on the coffee table. Chalo, I ignored that, I liked the story and quoted a huge signing amount for those days. He handed over Rs 50,000 immediately.”


The daring nude scene of Chetna didn’t unnerve her. Her hairdresser had covered her up with her long-flowing tresses. “More than the camouflaged nudity it was that one shot showing my legs, used in the poster, which became a talking point,” she rewinds.


Next: she acted in over 30 films, but chose to become lazy -- “aaram farmaane ki buri aadat pad gayee” – after her marriage to Ishara, whose black-and-white photographs wallpaper her apartment walls.


The marriage lasted 27 years right till Ishara passed away. “He would be so stressed out every day and had panic attacks,” she remembers. A paralytic stroke later, it was diagnosed that a terminal illness had set in.


Eyes misting, the Chetna of yore narrates, “By the way, it must have been the world’s strangest wedding proposal. Ishara saab said, ‘Look I’m not marriage material, maybe you’ll leave me within a year but if you want we can give it a try, let’s go ahead.’ He wasn’t a typical Bollywood filmmaker. He didn’t believe in saving money, he’d travel in an autorickshaw or taxi, and say that Rehana is my only property.”


She breaks for coffee and biscuits and continues, “As you know, saab made many bold films. But if some of them were lousy and stale, like Bazaar Bandh Karo, he would accept my criticism right away. I acted in quite a few of his films including Yeh Sach Hai and Maan Jaaiye which perhaps didn’t get sufficient attention. He often ran into censor trouble but never buckled under pressure.”


The actress retreated into the fringes. Ishara strived to work till his last breath. “But how could he last?” his widow asks. “He would smoke at least 120 cigarettes a day. He was a ticking bomb.”

The Writers’ Association helped the writer-director monetarily through his extended hospital treatment.


“Danny Denzongpa, Shatrughan Sinha and Rajesh Khanna helped out as well,” she adds. “Yet the end was near. Moreover Ishara saab was fed up, not only with the sort of writing offers he would get but was also disillusioned with the philosophy of J Krishnamurti whom he had once deeply admired.”


I want to know if Ishara left behind any means of subsistence for her. “No, saab left nothing for me,” is her answer. “I only have this house. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want us to have children. He’d argue, ‘Why bring another machine into this world?’ He did produce some films but he had many so-called friends around him. Both of us were absolute idiots about business matters. There was nothing left in the bank.”


She concludes,“By the time we realised that, it was much too late. Our story was bound to have a sad ending. And to think it had started so sensationally with Chetna…but then sensations don’t last forever, do they? Let me say, I hope and pray that Ishara saab is remembered.Not many do.”

















Khalid Mohaned is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwrier, producer & zfilm director.

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