Summer special: Heat and dust and cinema
The one season Indian cinema is hesitant to celebrate is summer. Unlike the monsoon and winter, with their change of temperature, or spring, with its promise of renewal, summer has often turned up in our films as the season to be endured, or an excuse to head to the hills. Yet, though it may be less romanticized, summer probably reveals more about India and its citizens than any other season. Here are a handful of scenes which show the many colours of the Indian summer.
Songs of summer
There are four seasons in each year, goes a high-pitched but weirdly hummable song from the 1987 film Sindoor—Patjhad, Saawan, Basant, Bahaar—and the fifth is love (Paanchva mausam pyaar). Unsurprisingly, none of the four words is an exact synonym for summer. We don’t have a tradition of songs celebrating this season, we prefer to avoid mentioning it. True, many romantic Kashmir-set songs unfold in what would be summer for the Valley, but no one would label those as “summer songs” since the weather is cool by the standards of most of the rest of the country.
It doesn’t help that dhoop (sunlight) or garmi (heat) lyrics often have negative or regressive connotations, as in Dhoop mein nikla na karo roop ki rani from the 1985 Geraftaar, where Amitabh Bachchan, umbrella in hand, tells Madhavi not to walk in the sun because she’ll go from being gori to kaali.
The few times summer is evoked as a pleasant thing, one sees references to purvaiya, the climate-moderating summer breeze, and such songs are fittingly gentle and languid: Consider Dariya cha raja deva from Do Jasoos (1975), in which two lovers sing Purvaiya leke chali meri naiya to each other as their boats draw nearer (and we see them mainly in close-up or medium-shot, with the camera not trying anything fancy). Or the title song from Chupke Chupke the same year, where the lazy summer afternoon determines the song’s pace and the characters’ movements.
There are a few exceptions. Kajara re from Bunty Aur Babli (2005) has the line Tera aana bhi garmiyon ki loo hai, which likens a lover’s arrival to an oppressive summer wind and somehow turns it into a compliment. But it needs a
lyricist like Gulzar, with his knack for making bold, almost surreal juxtapositions, to pull that off. Don’t try it with your partner.
Summer days, drifting away
With the opening sequence of Charulata (1964), Satyajit Ray performed one of the toughest tricks in cinema—making boredom interesting. The titular character, played by Madhabi Mukherjee, wanders listlessly from room to room, fiddles with the embroidery, leafs through a book, spies on people on the street below with her binoculars. It’s a specific mood evoked here, one familiar to any Indian who’s felt time slow down and stretch on long, languid summer afternoons.
It could be said that Charulata’s married life has become one dreary summer day, with her husband too busy to pay much attention to her. The summer storm that announces the arrival of Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), her husband’s younger cousin, might well be an indication of the emotional squalls that will soon shake up her serene life.
Well, well, well
In Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (2015), two perpetual summer tropes—the awakening of love and Indians diving dramatically into water bodies—are combined and, through pitch-perfect cinematic craft, rendered new. Manjule builds an entire sequence around jumping into water: First, Parshya (Akash Thosar) dives off his boat and swims to shore; then, Archie (Rinku Rajguru) jumps into the well she has commandeered from a group of boys. Next, we follow Parshya, now dry and clothed but half-crazy in love, as he runs in slow motion through fields to the accompaniment of Ajay-Atul’s swooning Yad Lagla. The song climaxes with him running to the edge of the well and leaping off in one smooth motion, turning in mid-air as he descends to look at Archie. Rarely has the intoxicating madness of new summer love been as vividly conveyed.
Thirsting for escape
The line between “summer” and “winter” gets blurred in the Rajasthani town Lakhot, we are told in Navdeep Singh’s excellent film noir Manorama Six Feet Under (2007). Little wonder that though the film’s protagonist, Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), dons a protective jacket in the opening sequence, the scene itself thrums with the sights and sounds of summer: a blazing sun, dry land, withering trees. And in between all this, a very fetching mirage. As Satyaveer rides his motorcycle, the glamorous Yana Gupta, wearing a revealing ghagra-choli, appears in the middle of the road, strikes a sultry pose and begins pouring cool water over herself.
It’s the sort of image that in most films would easily be read as sexualizing a woman. Here, though, there’s a witty twist, which will become more obvious as the film continues—if Gupta is one object of desire, another is the water that is being used so casually. Dryness and ennui are major themes of this film; it’s about a water-deprived place that becomes unbearable in the sweltering heat. Escapism helps keep people sane—whether it is the pulp novels that Satyaveer writes, the promise of an exciting real-life adventure, or the mysterious appearances of a pink taxi. Or the woman on the road, enticing him with a bottle of mineral water: the ultimate, elusive summer drink.
Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s Heat And Dust (1983) makes it all too clear how taxing an Indian summer can be. “You’ve no idea how hot it gets,” Douglas, a British civil servant, tells his wife, Olivia. “It can drive you mad.” In an earlier scene, we get a throwback to the cooling solutions (albeit upper-class ones) of early 20th century India. Olivia is seated with the family of a nawab—she and her friend on chairs, the Indians on dhurries on the floor. The blinds on the windows are down, letting in slivers of sun. There are glasses of sherbet, and three kinds of pre-electric fans in operation: dainty hand-held ones, more elaborate ones wielded by servants, and a giant punkah, manually operated, swaying overhead. The scene that follows is also built around tackling the heat: a conversation between Olivia and Douglas while the latter luxuriates in a bathtub.
Another brief but memorable Raj-era scene comes in David Lean’s A Passage To India (1984). Two Indian men and a British woman chat by a stone pool and eat water chestnuts on a hot day, the informality of which is made even more striking by the dangling of bare legs in the water—enough to scandalize the woman’s possible husband-to-be, who breaks in on their conversation.
Cooling and class
One of the best-remembered scenes in Rangeela (1995) is the one where Munna (Aamir Khan) takes Mili (Urmila Matondkar) to a posh hotel restaurant to impress her. The effect is comical, though, because Munna is out of place in such expensive surroundings, ordering the same food he would in a dhaba. In a revealing moment, he tells the waiter, “Fan chalu kar (switch on the fan).” The waiter replies that the AC is on. “Idhar ghuma na (turn it this side),” an unabashed Munna demands.
Almost 20 years later, M. Manikandan’s sensitively observed Tamil film Kaaka Muttai (2014) offered a more poignant illustration of air-conditioning and the class divide. Having spent the entire film in pursuit of pizza—a never-before-seen vision glimpsed on TV—two young brothers from a poor neighbourhood in Chennai are finally getting their wish. The film milks every hard-won step as they enter the pizza parlour and sit down to be served. Before the pie arrives, the younger boy hugs himself and says happily to his brother, “It’s cold.” The suggestion that he has never experienced air-conditioning is all the more touching for being dropped in so casually.