Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor, which was released 15 years back on this day, was an example of what good cinema was supposed to be. Here’s examining why the film has stood the test of time.
In the closing scenes of Dor, filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor recreates what is touted as one of the greatest romantic scenes in Bollywood history — the final train sequence in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Only, Kukunoor’s protagonists are not lovers pining for parents’ approval. Meera and Zeenat are seizing the one opportunity to break the shackles of patriarchy and claim their freedom.
Released in 2006, Dor is a stirring portrait of sisterhood forged in the most challenging of circumstances. The story follows Zeenat (Gul Panag), a Muslim woman who travels from her home town in Himachal Pradesh to locate Meera (Ayesha Takia), after Zeenat’s husband is blamed for the accidental death of Meera’s husband.
The film’s title is symbolic. The dor (string) that has legitimised the bond of love between Meera and her husband Shankar is also the snag that has imprisoned Meera. When her husband brings home the moolah, she is the ghar ki lakshmi. However, the same goddess is held accountable for bringing misfortune to the household after her husband’s death. She loves dancing and eating rasgullas, but as a widowed woman, has been stripped of all agency and freedom. Her identity is tethered to her husband before and after his death.
Kukunoor juxtaposes Zeenat’s cross-country journey from Himachal Pradesh to Rajasthan with Meera’s confinement inside a dark room with all windows shut. She is permitted to step outside her room to fulfil her quotidian duties. Once a day, she escapes the haveli to visit the nearby temple to tie scarves in memory of her husband. She has resigned to a life of eternal servitude, but she manages to steal moments of comfort in the great expanses of the deserts of Jodhpur. Cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee captured stunning visuals of Himachal Pradesh and Jodhpur engrossing you enough to recognise its magnanimity against the diminutive existences of humans. However, at no point do they distract the audiences from the narrative proper.
There is not a moment of chest-thumping didacticism in Dor. Meera’s rebellion is as subtle as that of her grandmother, a woman who has spent all her life in shabby navy-blue robes, denied every opportunity to live. “How can we expect men to be kind to us, if we don’t exhibit solidarity for one another?,” she says nonchalantly, as Meera curls up against her remembering how no human has even touched her since she was widowed.
Despite a film on male lovers lost, Dor passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. Meera and Zeenat discuss how their lives are dictated by oppressive patriarchal norms where women are expected to even broadcast their grief, lest they be called cocky. They ruminate on how women internalize their suffering to an extent that they unwittingly censor themselves.
Men on the other hand, Zeenat observes, gallivant around with new wives if the same fate of enforced singlehood befalls them. They explore Jodhpur together, sneaking in a dance to Kajra Re or feasting on jalebis at a local sweetmeat shop.
The discourse on gender is foregrounded through Bahrupiya (Shreyas Talpade), too, Zeenat’s companion for the ride. He is perhaps the most gender fluid character in the movie, but even Bahrupiya is bemused at the thought of traditional gender role reversal, wherein he stays back at home and Zeenat scouts the place for information.
It is important to study the film in context of the year it was released. 2006 was the year of Rang De Basanti, another trailblazer about resisting systemic oppression. Yet, never had a film on empowerment been so subtle in its disposition. There were no guns or fiery speeches in Dor, no declarations of azaadi. What was there, was an empathetic tale of women who brave their circumstances to break the cycle of subjugation.
What Dor also successfully did was celebrate interfaith comradeship without an iota of fanfare. Meera gives her red headscarf, the symbol of union for a Hindu woman , to Zeenat. As a gesture of gratitude, Zeenat presents her amulet to Meera. They are aware of their religious differences, but it never seems to pose a difficulty in identifying with one another.
Beyond its themes, what a repeat viewing of Dor 15 years since its release made this writer realise that Shreyas Talpade needs to grace the silver screen so much more than he already does. His Bahuroopiya mimics every possible Hindi cinema legend during the film’s 147-minute runtime. But it is in the most understated scenes, like when he confesses his love for Zeenat in a drunken stupor, that Talpade proves how versatile he can be.
Dor was not the money-spinner its flashier counterpart Rang De Basanti proved to be. But even with a grave core, Dor was a sensitive, heartening and a thoroughly unpretentious coming-of-age drama that refused to let its characters settle for any less than their worth. Dor was a roaring victory.