‘Love triangles’ have always been a popular choice as it has the potential of bringing a big starcast together as well as being dramatic fodder for weepy romantic films. The genre is recognised by themes of duty, friendship and sacrifice. A character ends up with a past and a present purely due to circumstances out of their control. The genre has rarely ever dealt with intended adultery, as one might expect in some love triangles, but focuses on fate, tradition and destiny.
Yash Chopra takes the basic ingredients of a love triangle and adds an extra-marital relationship to give it that extra punch. In Silsila, fate still plays its cruel tricks. Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) is due to marry the pilot Shekhar (Shashi Kapoor) but he dies in a plane crash. Out of pity for Shobha’s unwedded pregnancy, Shekhar’s brother, Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) marries her and abandons his true love, Chandni (Rekha).
Silsila has very fine performances by the entire cast though Rekha is often distant and aloof. Her confrontation scene with Jaya is disappointing because her performance is flat. Her most effective scene is when she receives the letter with bad news from Amit. Jaya is more into her character (which has shades of her real life) and Sanjeev Kumar’s character is refreshing because he is not quick to be judgmental about his wife’s infidelity. There are memorable scenes such as the dinner party where all the four main characters meet and Amit and Chandni’s infidelity becomes glaringly obvious; not to mention the Holi celebration where the hard-to-remove red colours on Chandni’s clothes come to define the danger that she represents.
These scenes are effective because they represent a threat to the world of duty and respect that the narrative is trying to uphold. When Amit first meets his sister-in-law-to-be (but then turns out not-to-be) Shobha, he puts in the effort to make her laugh and smile. She makes note of their jovial conversation to which he replies, “Main apna duty nibhaa raha tha” (I was just fulfilling my duty). Duty, as well as the concepts of farz and karz, are established early on and run throughout the film as motifs.
Amit’s sense of duty is challenged when Shobha loses Shekhar’s baby soon after their marriage. With the death of the unborn baby, the reason for Amit’s dutiful act has now gone. “Hum azaad hain” (We are free), he asserts in a play’s monologue as his character denounces the false life of hypocrisy and entrapment (a performance to which he invites his mistress, Chandni). It is ironic that Amit does not follow the advice of his alter ego.
In the last act, Chopra chooses to criticise Amit’s very decision to take it upon himself to look after Shobha. One of his friends tells him that no-one had asked him to marry her, he chose to make the sacrifice. He chose to take the route of being god-like and should be consistent with his choice instead of pandering to earthly desires at the last minute. It is a scathing attack on him (and possibly all male martyrs in such melodramas) except that Chopra chooses not to develop it and more readily prefers the option of reaffirming Amit’s godlike status in the bizarre sequence of saving Dr Anand (Sanjeev Kumar) from an airplane crash.
The film wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to criticise the notion of sacrifice and duty that are dime a dozen in Om J Prakash’s films but chooses to follow that path itself. The ending becomes problematic then as it is not a happy ending at all. After Amit elopes with Chandni, Shobha says that she wants her husband to come back of his own will. He does come back but only when he hears that she is expecting his child. Is his return really out of his own will? (Note that Chandni never falls pregnant once throughout the entire time span while Shobha conceives twice. The ‘family planning’ dig at her by a female acquaintance is a hint that while Chandni may make a fine romantic partner, she doesn’t have the maternal quality that would support Amit through the ages.) His renewal of this marital bond could be termed a tragedy because it is inconsistent with the ideas that the film supports early on in the narrative (the notion of being free, not being entrapped). By returning to be the dutiful father of the child and resume his god-like status, Amit has only trapped himself further.
It is ridiculous that we are expected to accept that this is a happy ending. The only character who could truly and honestly be happy is Shobha. For everyone else, this conclusion is likely to create more frustrations. We are never shown how Chandni resolves her problems with her husband. For all we know, they may have divorced and Chandni has died a penniless and homeless wreck.
Another reason why the ending is a tragedy due to the portrayal of the romance between Amit and Chandni. It is not about lust, it is a lyrical relationship with touching poetry (Main aur meri tanhaai aksar yeh baatein karte hain…). The ending fobs off her as being the past and not the present but she IS his present. She is his present because she occupies his heart and thoughts. And this is not unrequited love either, she responds back to him with full vigour and commitment. One scene says it all. It is when Chandni first meets him in hospital after their marriage to their spouses. She enters the room with a bouquet of red roses. The wordless confrontation between Chandni and Amit is charged with tension and excitement. The subdued refrain of Dekha Ek Khwab… is perfectly placed and as Chandni reflects shyly on her bold move, the echoing line of “Kya kahoon ke sharm se hai lab seele hue” suddenly gathers another meaning. The body language is important too, both the characters are angled towards each other, focusing on the other, as if daring one of them to make the first move. This scene is the epitome of love – two people communicating without finding the need to speak.
This particular sequence says more about love than the Swiss fields in countless Yashraj films ever will. It is this scene that begins to explain just why Yash Chopra is considered the king of romance. Otherwise, his batch of love films are quite flawed in many ways, relying upon the old ingredients of Switzerland, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and poetry. Don’t get me wrong, the ingredients make up a charming dessert but I am never convinced by the cherry on the top. By the end of his films, I often ask myself if this newly united couple really deserve to be together (whether be it Silsila, Chandni, Lamhe or Dil To Pagal Hai). Only Veer Zaara had me convinced and that’s because I didn’t get the impression that either of them was just settling for second best.
Chopra likes to question order and old ways of thinking and this is not always easily suited to the romantic genre. You could argue that his Deewar and Trishul are more satisfying in this sense. But then I’ll save that argument for another time.