Desert Island #15: Amir Khan by SNS Sastry

Can a film say as much about a singer as the music itself, to the extent that it can be regarded as a bona fide part of their oeuvre? When Jim Jarmusch cast Iggy Pop and Tom Waits (thank you, lord, for Tom Waits) in Coffee and Cigarettes, it was an eccentric take on two eccentric (to put it kindly) people that works because it riffs off exactly these eccentricities. “I delivered a baby this morning, about 9 o’clock.” “The beauty of quitting is that, now that I’ve quit, I can have one. Because I’ve quit.”

In 1970, the experimentalist filmmaker SNS Sastry turned his lens to Amir Khan, the famously avant garde vocalist. Sastry was on the staff of the Films Division of India, at a time when the sarkari machinery was surprisingly catholic in its tastes despite serving, as all such bodies do, as the propaganda arm of the government (e.g. see S. Sukhdev’s “After the Silence” (1977), a film that incongruously combines an indignant social conscience with praise for the Emergency). Sastry’s 20 minute shorts exploited cubist montages of protagonists and perspectives — both visual and sociopolitical. Even when clearly commissioned to make a film in the “national spirit”, Sastry managed to imbue it with a certain multifaceted, ironic whimsy, as in his classic “I am 20” (1967), a documentary on people born on 15th August 1947. Other films served as meta-narratives on the nature of documentary itself.

It is quite likely Amir Khan made it to Sastry’s list of subjects by government fiat. The result, however, was neither propaganda, nor hagiography, nor history, but a uniquely modernist take on a modernist artist. It concerns itself not with the story of Amir Khan but with the experience of Amir Khan, in the wave of a hand by a train window, the indulgence of street food, fragments of domestic life, philosophical ruminations, and a background of seen and unseen music. Perhaps more than anything else, the film conveys a sense of fragility — of a transformational (but classical) musician, who simultaneously straddled several worlds, as one rather vulnerable part of a changing sociopolitical fabric.

Amir Khan died at 61 in a road accident in 1974, Sastry at 48 in 1978. Their premature deaths bookended the trauma of the Emergency, inflicted by a cruel state that sought its own glory in the art of the former and through the art of the latter. It is fitting that the film itself is bookended by a haunting poem of Josh Malihabadi on finding meaning in our brief sojourn between birth and death in an uncertain world. But another couplet of Ghalib, which makes an appearance halfway through the film, is perhaps more telling:

ranj se khugar hua insaan to mit jaata hai ranj
mushkilein mujh par padi itni ki aasaan ho gayin

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