I have not yet seen every Salim-Javed movie, but I have seen a lot of them, more than enough to know just how good the duo is at telling riveting stories with a flawless balance of all the requisite masala elements. Kaala patthar ("black rock") is no exception, with superb drama, heart-melting romance, and moving arcs of redemption. This is one movie - yet another - that I wonder why I waited so long to watch, and immediately watched twice more.
The Dhanraj coal mine is a dangerous place, beset by accidents that all too frequently cost workers their lives. But it is also a profitable place, and its owner, Dhanraj Puri (Prem Chopra), minces no words in explaining that he values the coal more than the people who dig it out for him at such risk. His earnest new engineer, Ravi Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor), discovers that one of the active mine tunnels is dangerously close to flooding, but Dhanraj callously dismisses his concerns and insists that the men keep digging. Ravi enlists the help of a brassy young reporter, Anita (Parveen Babi), who writes an exposé on the terrible conditions in the mine. He also earns the trust of Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), a troubled mine worker whose fearless drive to heroism makes him both friends and enemies - including Mangal (Shatrughan Sinha), an escaped convict who struts arrogantly into the mining town. Meanwhile, Vijay finds solace for his restless, guilt-wracked psyche in the company of the mine's idealistic doctor, Sudha Sen (Rakhee). And Channo (Neetu Singh), a local girl who sells good-luck trinkets, must decide between turning Mangal into the police, or falling in love with him.
There is much going on in this multi-starrer to which that facile plot summary cannot do justice. Salim-Javed's evocative dialogues add a deftly poetic touch that make the moving scenes even more so. One of the best is naive Sudha Sen's introduction to the reality of the mine hospital, presented to her by the outgoing doctor (Sanjeev Kumar in a wonderful cameo). "Is hospital mein mariz nahin," he laments, "laashein aati hain - voh laashein jo abhi puri tarah mari nahin hain." ("There are no patients in this hospital, just corpses - corpses that are not yet fully dead.") Sanjeev Kumar is one of my favorite actors at any rate, and his pained resignation in this small scene is just magnificently rendered. In another standout scene - too lengthy for me to reproduce the dialogue here - Vijay and Sudha discuss the nature of dreams, and why the lost souls of the mining town so willingly pony up their hard-earned rupees for Channo's baubles. These touching scenes provide a perfect counterpoint to balance Kaala patthar's generous offerings of improbable, classic-style dishum-dishum.
Yash Chopra's visuals, too, are often arresting and symbolically loaded. Even the obvious visual cues, like the contrast between the grime of the coal miners on the one hand and Dhanraj's crisp suits and shiny cars on the other, are skillfully rendered and add texture to the story. Vijay, of course, appears in his first scene smeared with even more sweat and coal dust than his peers, suggesting at the very start that he throws himself into his work with a vigor and aggression that boils up from the depths of his character. The scenes of the mine's operations are also rich and compelling. The film opens with wide shots of the mine's ground-level works, enormous machines shuttling and processing mountains of coal while endless lines of grimy, exhausted men file into and out of the mine's mouth. These operations shots, reminding me of the fascinating steel-mill sequences that open Shyam Benegal's Kalyug, set the scene with a powerful evocation of the grit and heat of coal-mine labor. Another beautiful wide shot later in the film - one of the few that shows women working the mines too - sharply contrasts the women's colorful rural dress against the slate-grey of the ground they toil on and the deep black of the coal they carry on their heads.
(Click the image for a full-size look.) Even the background score - not something I am usually particularly clued into as a movie-viewer - adds both depth and levity as needed. In one excellent sequence early in the movie, a resonant long note in the score melts seamlessly into the call of the mine's emergency klaxon, a sound heard altogether too often by the beleaguered miners. (In that scene, the miners bolt energetically to the scene of the accident; later, they seem to drag themselves sullenly, with a resigned, "what is it this time" affect.)
Kaala patthar's three romantic threads span the full spectrum of masala pyaar. Anita and Ravi's courtship is jaunty and light; their banter provides the closest thing Kaala patthar offers to a comic side plot. (Like Salim-Javed's outstanding Deewaar, Kaala patthar has too much substantial story to tell to waste very much time on tension-breaking digressions.) Channo and Mangal's romance is somewhat shallowly motivated, the standard-issue filmi trope in which Channo's affections bloom after Mangal saves her from a pack of would-be rapists. But the facility of that is more than made up for by Vijay and Sudha's arc, which unfolds delicately and cerebrally. Sudha responds subtly and nonverbally to hints that Vijay is not what he appears to be - an outburst in perfectly cultured English, for example, that signals his educated, upper-class background. And it is genuinely moving as Vijay begins to make himself vulnerable to her, finally telling the story that haunts his disturbed sleep and allowing her to see "mere dil mein kamra ... jis mein main khud bhi nahin jaata" ("the place in my heart where I my myself don't even go").
I have already run out of space without mentioning so much else that makes Kaala patthar rich enough to reward multiple viewings - a super supporting cast, some terrific songs, Ravi's shiny moral certitude, Channo's slight tinge of melancholy even when she is providing naach-gaana and cheerfulness to everyone in the mining town. Instead of gushing further, I think I'll go watch it again, and recommend that you do the same.