An old widow moves from her village to the city, is baffled by the coarseness and amorality that she encounters there, and finds her place as a surrogate grandmother to a clutch of antagonistic ruffians, bringing tenderness and compassion back into their jaded lives. Summarized in this way, Mere Apne sounds cloying and even simple-minded. Add in one bit piece of information - that Mere Apne is a Gulzar film - and you know you can expect more. Mere Apne, Gulzar's first as writer/director, is a remarkably rich story, knitting together several thematic strains with deeply moving delicacy.
Anandi (Meena Kumari) is taken to the (unnamed) city by Arun (Ramesh Deo), who claims to be a relative of hers; he insists that he could never leave an aunt of his alone when he has the means to care for her. What Arun and his wife Lata are really after is cheap child care to support their lively middle-class lifestyle. Anandi slowly becomes aware that she has been duped - the final straw is when another man approaches her with the same story that Arun had used, word for word, hoping to bring her into his home - but not before she has been thoroughly shocked by the coarseness and crassness of the city and its inhabitants.
This shock veers too far toward cliché - indeed, Beth calls her a "truth-wielding bumpkin", and she's not wrong. There is overkill, such as when Anandi, seeing Lata in smart trousers on her way to the office, asks with alarm why she is wearing her husband's clothes. But there is nevertheless trenchant comment in the way Anandi is by turns neglected and then exploited by her younger relatives, who only think of her languishing alone in her village when they need something from her. Arun and Lata are obsessed with convenience and comforts like restaurant dinners, but they refuse to extend their good fortune so far as to allow Anandi to share a mouthful of food with a street waif.
But the meaningful contrast here is not between city and village values, or traditional and modern values. Rather it is between narrow views of community and family and broad ones. Anandi is shocked by Lata's modernity but I don't think the film's point is to condemn that modernity itself; rather, it's to condemn the coarseness, the erosion of compassion, that seems to have come along with it. Anandi finds that lost sense of community among two warring factions of disaffected young men. Led on one side by Shyam (Vinod Khanna, young, buff, and hopelessly appealing) and on the other by Chaino (Shatrugan Sinha, less young and buff, but as delightfully morally complex as any Shotgun character), these boys have given up on finding any kind of employment, much less slick office jobs like Arun and Lata. They cannot finish school because local political machinations keep causing their college to close. Instead, the young men have signed on as thugs for opposing politicians, and the two groups clash in that capacity, with a measure of proxy for a personal dispute between Shyam and Chaino. These boys join Anandi, along with her little street waif and his disabled sister, in a kind of impromptu family; her expression when Shyam addresses her as "Nanima" for the first time is one of the film's most affecting moments. Where Arun and Lata abuse even those they claim relation to, these disenfranchised folks make connections with strangers.
Where Meena Kumari is ill and muted - Mere Apne is one of her very last movies - and playing someone twice her age and even more muted, the young men bring the film its vitality, and in its best moments, their straining against the system that holds them back lends vivid energy. This is not seen as much in Shatrughan Sinha sneering with a switchblade or a gun as it in the song performed by Shyam's gang, "Haal Chaal Thik Thak Hai," which seems jarringly out of place until you realize that the lyrics are thoroughly sarcastic. Shyam's gang includes an extremely young Danny Denzongpa, whose character Sanju always has a puppet perched on his hand. The puppet represents Sanju's creativity, and also expresses uncomfortable truths with inappropriate bluntness. (Sanju also always has a satchel slung over his shoulder; later in the film, this innocent-looking prop is filled with homemade bombs that he tosses in political riots.) When the puppet is destroyed, it represents an end to Sanju's aspirations, and he is anguished by its loss.
Also among the boys are some actors one normally associates with comic roles, Paintal in Shyam's gang and Asrani in Chaino's. They are not here for comic relief, though; instead, Gulzar archly gives the comic roles to Mehmood and Asit Sen as the rival political leaders fighting a bitter election campaign. Their buffoonery points up the stupidity of the system in which greed takes advantages of incompetence to squander the potential of the once eager, now disillusioned young men who populate this film.
And so Mere Apne is a rich film taking on many social evils – the double-edged sword of neglect and exploitation of old people, the erosion of traditional values, the waste laid to the younger generation by the corruption and violence of politics. Though Anandi begins the film as a stereotypical village bumpkin, she comes to represent a uniting principle that can set the country back on a prosperous path, provided it is not left to decay. And when Anandi is struck down senselessly, it is more than just an individual's tragedy. It is a representative tragedy that reflects an entire generation's sense of hopelessness.