Sharmila Tagore made a career playing living embodiments of female sacrifice and suffering. In movies such as Amar prem and Aradhana, her characters endure a lifetime of loss and debasement, rewarded at the end with the exalted recognition of mother-worship. Gulzar's Namkeen ("salty") offers an alternative perspective on this theme. Delicate, quiet, and sad, Namkeen is a shifting blend of flavors to slowly savor - part salty, part sweet, and part tangy, like the three sisters of the family it portrays.
Nimki (Sharmila Tagore) is the mortar that holds her fragile family together. She looks after her younger sisters, the mute, sweet Meethu (Shabana Azmi) and spirited Chinki (Kiran Vairale). Together the three sisters care for their aging Amma (Waheeda Rehman), a troubled, frail woman bordering on senile dementia. Geru (Sanjeev Kumar), an itinerant construction hauler in the family's village for a brief contract, rents a room from the family, and before long bonds of friendship and even love develop between Geru and each of these women.
Namkeen unflinchingly delivers the raw hardship of village life for a family of women living without a man. The men of Namkeen are rootless wanderers; Geru's job takes him from town to town, and even the three women's father Kishenlal leads a traveling dance troupe that only rarely passes through the village. The women are rooted to the village but that rooting is their downfall. Amma scrapes and sells cow dung to get by, but fertilizes nothing within her own household; her daughters take on the rough physical labor of pounding spices, a quintissential domestic chore, but the spices are for other people to cook with. Geru's fellow construction workers, as they come and go, pause to harass and badmouth the women. Only Geru forms a connection, and even his is mercurial, expiring with his contract.
Each woman frames her own escape from these strangling roots. Meethu's youthful escape is into poetry, which gives her some joy, but her muteness renders this joy solitary. And it is inadequate as she outgrows the naïveté of youth; her ultimate escape is only through madness and death. Chinki's departure appears on the surface more voluntary - she flees to join her father's dance troupe - but there are hints of abuse and coercion in Amma's wild fear of him, which solidify with Chinki's transformation into hard bitterness after joining the troupe.
Nimki, though, finds no escape. She makes relentless sacrifices for the family. When Geru shows interest in marrying her, she first tries to deflect his interest to Meethu, willing to pass her own chance for escape on to her sister. Then Nimki refuses Geru outright, insisting that she cannot leave her mother and sisters behind. I read that Rekha was originally cast in the role of Nimki, replaced by Sharmila Tagore at some point in production. I am very glad this change happened. With any other actor, Namkeen would have been a straightforward, sad tale of the hardships of village life for women. The casting of Sharmila elevates it into commentary on her canonical mother-goddess roles; it makes the reference, comparison, and contrast explicit. Unlike Sharmila Tagore's other long-suffering goddesses, Nimki's self-conscious sacrifice does not bring apotheosis. Nimki loses everything, and her endurance is rewarded with almost nothing. Only a chance encounter that drives Geru back to the village rescues Nimki from utter loneliness and obscurity. Although Geru saves Nimki from an utterly tragic ending, their salty-sweet reunion has the air of a narrow escape, not the inevitable due of a sanctified mother goddess. Namkeen's is a more balanced look at life's suffering, more real and less allegorical, than the almost religious fables of movies like Amar prem and Aradhana.
The beauty of Namkeen as a film comes through in its quiet use of detail to convey relationships and themes with subtlety. Amma's anxiety and confusion, Meethu and Chinki's sense of humor, Nimki's grounding competence are all illustrated by gentle domestic vignettes that are thoroughly engaging. In early scenes, Geru struggles grumpily to adjust to the raw simplicity of life in Amma's home while the sisters look on in amusement, able to help but declining to offer. At first Geru thinks basic hospitality and necessities are not forthcoming, until Nimki arrives and puts everything in order. Geru's growing affection for the sisters, too, is gently portrayed, in an outstanding performance of Sanjeev Kumar, one with a low center of gravity that is nevertheless not overly heavy, and reminds me once again why he is my favorite male actor in Hindi movies.
Indeed every note in Namkeen is perfectly struck, from Chinki's wry smiles to Amma's crooked spectacles to Nimki's resigned labor. The dust of the village fills the camera but never obscures the colors of village life. It is simply a beautiful movie, presenting the balanced flavors of life that blend and interact to build complexity from simplicity. Part tangy, part salty, part sweet.