Reshma Aur Shera is one of my favourite films in any language. I don’t often like romantic tragedies as all too often I feel I’ve wasted my time watching people I don’t care for as they do idiotic things that could have been avoided if they weren’t so one dimensional or stupid. But each time I watch Reshma Aur Shera, despite knowing what is going to happen next, I fall in love with it all over again.
The love story is simple but engaging and Waheeda Rehman and Sunil Dutt light up the screen with their chemistry and brilliant acting. The tragedy comes from the spectre of death in a tribal feud set against the hope for change. Producer, director and star Sunil Dutt and writer Ali Raza created a full context for the lovers and that sense of place and family, the depth of the characters, makes their predicament feel more immediate and of consequence. It also makes the film entertaining beyond just the romance, and it isn’t all gloom and despair. There is joy, fun and beauty too.
Reshma (Waheeda Rehman) is the daughter of Chaudhury of Pochina and Shera (Sunil Dutt) is the eldest son of his enemy, the Chaudhury Sagat Singh. These families have been picking each other off for years.
They meet at a fair in Jaisalmer, at the Durga Puja (she is also the presiding deity of the story). Shera fancies Reshma on sight and, like a good girl, Reshma coyly avoids him. The fair is wonderful looking, and I had moments of feeling I was watching a documentary rather than a set. There is so much to see with Reshma as she darts around enjoying the amusements, the snacks and the shopping.
The ecstatic music of a qawwali brings them face to face again, and in this heightened state a deeper emotional connection forms. I love this picturisation as it takes the viewer deep into the scene, with the vocals conveying the intoxication and pain of love. And it features a very young Sanjay Dutt (who developed his unique sense of rhythm early on it appears).
Once they discover each other’s identity, Reshma asks Shera to sacrifice her at the altar – a blood sacrifice not a marital altar. She wants to protect her brother Gopal (an outrageously handsome Ranjeet), and offers her life in place of his. Shera had already rescued Gopal from his own brothers earlier that day, proving himself honourable if unpopular with his kin and further impressing Reshma. Shera is determined their love will succeed and Reshma wants to believe. They meet in the temple before leaving for home, and decide that they can have each other and bring about an end to the feud if they are careful.
Back in their villages life goes on, except that Shera and Reshma sneak into the desert to meet at night. Despite the stalker-ish beginning to the romance, it is a passionate mutual attraction and they both have a share in conversations about their future.
Family and friends are an important part of who Reshma and Shera are and why they do what they do. And the supporting cast is so impressive – Vinod Khanna as Shera’s nasty brother Vijay, Amrish Puri as an elder in Shera’s village, Jagant and Sulochana Latkar as Shera’s parents, the dashing Sudhir as the qawwali singer, Padma Khanna as an uninhibited nautch girl, Ranjeet as Gopal, Rakhee in a small but high impact role as Gopal’s wife, just to name a few.
Waheeda Rehman is simply amazing. Reshma evolves from a pretty young thing, giddy with excitement, to a more sombre young woman passionately in love with an enemy. She realises she should send Shera away for good, but cannot sever their bond. Finally running out of options, Reshma challenges Durga to prove herself by taking on life as a woman on earth and see how that feels. Waheeda is just magnificent as she demands help in return for all the sacrifices to the goddess. And Durga does give her an answer.
Despite a ponderous voiceover at the start of the film extolling the Indian woman’s virtue of sacrifice, Reshma is not a passive sacrificial offering but rather uses herself as a means of creating change. When she makes up her mind, she does it to save Shera and stop the feud from claiming everyone she loves. She is determined and forceful, a far cry from the blushing girl she was at the start. It’s a challenging role and she delivers a beautiful characterisation.
While I initially thought Sunil Dutt looked a little too mature to be Shera, he has a certain appeal and even plays some unexpectedly goofy and sweet moments. He transforms from a lad about the fair to a future leader challenging his own father. His internal conflict is evident – the Rajput sense of honour and the man who wants a happy and peaceful future with the love of his life. Shera seems to benefit from the close relationship he has with his mother and his respect for Reshma, being prepared to think outside the heroic norms. But where Reshma suffers loss after loss and creates a solution of sorts, Shera reverts to type becoming as vengeful and bloodthirsty as his father and brothers.
Chotu (Amitabh) is a mute and is neglected by brothers Vijay and Jagat unless they need his sharpshooting skills. He worships Shera who treats him kindly and seems to be his only friend. Amitabh’s performance is beautiful, quite restrained and very moving. Chotu is a sad and confused young man, following his father’s path. He is ultimately responsible for killing Reshma’s father and brother, and that sets the final train of events in motion. While Sagat Singh takes the boys to a brothel as reward, Shera swears vengeance on whoever the killer was.
Their mother (Sulochana Latkar) emerges as a powerful force. Initially she wants Shera to follow his father’s order and kill Gopal, putting her sons above all else. But once things implode, she takes matters into her own hands to save what is left of her family. She takes Chotu to Reshma’s village and offers him as a sacrifice. The confrontation in Reshma’s home is gut-wrenching. Chotu is traumatised and disgusted at himself, and Rakhee as Gopal’s widow faces a life in ruins. He wants to die, can’t bear the pain of betraying Shera and knows he is doomed. This sequence is the one that gives me a lump in my throat every time. I can identify with the motivations of all the characters, and it seems impossible to reconcile their needs.
Creative versus destructive energies underlies much of the character interactions and is often divided on gender lines. Not that the women are all about popping out babies and nurturing – I mean that their energy seems more focussed on preserving their homes, and on renewal and regeneration. They might destroy something or someone, even themselves, to achieve it but they have a positive goal rather than just aiming for obliteration of an enemy. The action in the film may generally follow the men but the women are making choices that drive the story. It’s also a film rich in symbolism and visual themes. The motifs of fire and circles reinforce the cycles of destruction and rebirth.
The cinematography is beautiful, and S Ramachandra captures the harsh light, the muted earth tones and the vibrant fabrics of Rajasthan. The costumes and jewellery are stunning, and the buildings look real and lived in, with glimpses of details in kitchens and bedrooms. Plus – lovely music by Jai Dev, choreography by Gopi Krishna (assisted by one Miss Saroj Khan), and playback singers Asha, Lata, Manna Dey.
My DVD is missing about 20 minutes of the complete film so there are a couple of large gaps, one of which probably shows the killing of Reshma’s family. It’s so frustrating but the story is still clear and you can fill in the gaps.
The first time I watched Reshma aur Shera I was stunned. I immediately wanted to watch it again but as with any decision about true love versus a passing fancy, I decided to give it some time. Love it is. It is such a captivating film, and a beautiful work of art. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 5 stars!
Katherine at Totally Filmi is coordinating a month long celebration of women in Indian cinema. Links will be collated at Delicious so keep an eye on that page for lots of other articles and blog posts to be added throughout March.