What was it like to be a young, educated Indian in the late sixties & seventies? What was the circumstance of your daily life, watching the hopes, dreams & desires of so many shattered by a corrupt regime? What did it feel like to be helpless in the face of such extreme brutality, darkness & despair?
Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi tries to answer some of these questions. Using the incredibly tumultuous political landscape of 1970's India, when the Naxalite movement was in its early years, when Indira Gandhi had started tightening her grip on power, and when Delhi had begun its descent into the nefarious web of power broking, coteries and political intrigue that marked it through the 80's and much of the nineties (and from what I've heard, has started to resemble again under the current regime) the story tracks the lives of three individuals - Siddharth (KayKay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) & Vikram (Shiney Ahuja). Siddharth & Geeta are a couple, but whose relationship is ended by Siddharth's political activism and desire to move away from the sloganeering & banner waving of the city, to a more participative approach by fighting with the Naxalites in the villages of Bihar & West Bengal. Vikram is the lower middle-class son of an idealistic Congressman, madly in love with Geeta, but unable to gain her attentions as anything more than a friend.
Through the ups & downs of the six years between 1969 & 1975, the story tracks how the three are continually separated and brought back together through circumstance. Against the backdrop of the political upheavals of the time, each of the main protagonists is woven in a tightly crossed web of friendship, sex, emotional interdependence and love with the other two. Reaching out to each other at the most unusual of times, the letters that the three write to each other form a recurring leitmotif of the narrative. Siddharth's letters to Geeta are about idealism, a desire for revolution & changing the system. Geeta writes to both Siddharth & Vikram, talking about love to the one, and of confusion to the other; often interchangeably. Most importantly, all of them write about their desire & urge to make sense of the despair that surrounds so much of their daily lives.
And yet, despite the darkness, there is hope & a need to bring change that keeps them going. But perhaps more than the desire to change the world is the desire to understand themselves; the need to accept their own aspirations and shortcomings that make the three lead characters so amazingly human, believable and empathetic. Siddharth is driven by an ideology, but also perhaps a fear of failure; Geeta doesn't want to change the world, but she is drawn further and further into the movement through her love for Siddharth, until finally the movement becomes the greatest of her all loves. Vikram is the money minded "fixer", the man who plays the power circuits and gets things done. He is driven by his love of Geeta, for whom he goes to extreme lengths, even if only to help her meet a fugitive Siddharth. But he is also motivated by what he describes in a letter as a need to make it. "You guys are all trying to get out," he writes in a letter to Geeta, "while I am trying to get in".
There are some beautiful moments & dialogues in the movie; scenes that are brief, often only glimpses, but enough to bring enough colour to the narrative. A subtle shot of a man's silhouette against a rising sun in a field in Bihar; red blood on grey stone cladding swept away by a barefoot sweeper after a communal riot in Meerut; the blare of sirens as a fleet of white Ambassadors drive down a tree lined road; these are enough to capture the moment.
But what Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi does best is talk about the lost generation of India - thousands of young idealists, for whom the only option was to stand up and be counted in the protests against a regime that was seen to be oppressive, exploitative & corrupt. People who went to fight in the villages, endured police brutalities, and often died unsung, almost pointlessly. People who are easily forgotten because to remember makes what they died for equally remembered, and some memories are easiest to deal with by forgetting.
In so many ways, watching this movie was an incredibly emotional experience for me. Starting out as it did in Delhi University, filmed extensively in my alma mater of Hindu College, the film started out by bringing so many amazing memories - of times well spent with friends, hours whiled away on the lawns with endless cups of tea, the faint remnants of the morning's fog still adding a cold nip to your breath. Extensive panning shots of Library lawns, the front of the building, VT, Hindu hostel & the chemisty faculty brought those days, now so long past, right back.
But that's not all; the scenes of the movie relating to Bihar were probably equally resonant, but for completely different reasons. For my family, the Naxalite movement was never a good thing; hailing from a landowning family, my idea of Naxalism is stories of the village house being barricaded from within; of hearing stories of small private militias that were springing up all over the countryside; of my aunt, barely aged 7, grabbing a bhaala and following the men of the house as they ran to tackle another confrontation (she was spotted by her uncle who promptly sent her packing.) Conflict, you see, is never unidimensional. Naxalism was never an easy nut to crack; the issues that it tackled were so complex that it was never going to be black & white.
And then of course, the scenes of the Emergency. I was spared the anguish of those times by being safely born after what many have called the darkest period in India's democratic history. But I grew up hearing such stories - of how my grandmother hid the local student union leader in the bathroom, while she went out to deal with the police who had come to check the house on an anonymous tipoff. Stories of my uncle who was a closet journalist during those years, knowing where the secret printing presses were hidden in Kamla Nagar behind the university in Delhi. Stories of a cousin whose grandfather was an opposition party leader in Assam, and who described watching her grandfather being interrogated in his own living room by the same police inspector who would salute him until the day before.
This is a brave movie, for tackling the complexities of the issues it chooses to, and it succeeds in humanising the issues. Go watch this movie - it will make you think, it will chill you to the bone, and it will break your heart. And when its all over, it will make you think all over again.
I know that I am.