This week, as Habib Faisal’s Do Dooni Chaar completes 11 years of release, an assessment of the film celebrating the Great Indian Middle Class.
Do Dooni Chaar is director Habib Faisal’s heartfelt tribute to the Sai Paranjpye brand of cinema. With gentle humour and a searing earnestness, Do Dooni Chaar chronicled the lives of a middle-class Punjabi family in Delhi. It’s a small family of four — Santosh Duggal (Rishi Kapoor), a maths teacher at a local high school, his wife Kusum (Neetu Kapoor), a homemaker and their children, elder daughter Payal (Aditi Vasudev) and son Sandeep (Archit Krishna).
Their one-bedroom apartment is choc-a-block with appliances that have run their due course and beg to be upgraded, as Kusum repeatedly reminds her husband. College-going Payal feels out-of-place without the latest gadgets her friends seem to easily afford. She wants an iPod, but is unable to get her hands on one. Her younger brother, on the other hand, laps up the opportunity to make some quick cash by betting on cricket matches.
Do Dooni Chaar does not have scheming and sniggering villains. The film plays out like vignettes of a lived-in world where the micro-struggles of a family find precedence over fistfights, political discourses and high-octane confrontations. The family, having long outgrown in size to travel by scooter, just wants to upgrade to a car. The car is the symbol of their desire for upward social mobility. But with a salary barely covering their daily expenses, the family finds it increasingly difficult to pay off the instalments.
The central conflict is established pretty early in the film. After dedicating his entire life to the education sector, Santosh struggles to come to terms with his inability to afford a luxury item. His wife and children oscillate between being empathetic to their father and getting frustrated over repeatedly getting quashed under a system designed to only benefit the rich. His daughter reminds him from time to time that the duty of a father is not just paying the bills and the school fees in time. It is also to ensure that his children are happy. She is tired of waiting for the day that they can go to a cafe without having to worry about paying extra for a bottle of water. Thus, when a rich student with bad scores approaches him to reconsider his marks in exchange for wads of cash, Santosh is tempted.
At one point in the film, Santosh wonders whether teaching as a profession is indeed viable in a country that acknowledges their contributions only on Teacher’s Day. He fails to procure a loan from the tutorial institution he had been working for, neither has he had the opportunity to save.
Faisal delicately crafted a tale of financial duress oft-faced by those whose jobs are touted to be the noblest ones. Santosh straddles two jobs to make ends meet, travels in a decrepit scooter that his students take great pleasure in destroying with markers, and sacrifices his own desires to accommodate his family’s.
The film also spotlights the conditions that perhaps make one opt for less-than-honest means of survival. Faisal ensures his characters remain relatable even when they wrestle with their conscience. Beyond its theme, though, the film is witty and heartfelt, with not a smidgen of didacticism about the “ideal” way of life. It’s not a morality tale, but neither is it a sob story.
A lot of credit for making the film as endearing goes to the lead couple, late Rishi Kapoor and his wife, Neetu Kapoor. They shed every ounce of starriness to seamlessly blend into the milieu, rolling their eyes at cribbing neighbours or schooling their son for his waywardness. Rishi Kapoor infused in Santosh the regularness of a man holding on to the last strands of hope that he has not failed as a father, a husband and a teacher. Neetu Kapoor, who had taken a sabbatical from movies almost three decades ago in 1983, was a far cry from her boisterous and fun on-screen image. Although she had a cameo appearance in the previous year’s Love Aaj Kal, here the actor unfurled her true potential as a partially disgruntled, but immensely supportive wife and mother. As heartbreaking as their tale is, the film itself is ensconced in tender humour that hinges on being farcical at times, but never crass or outlandish.
There are films and shows that transcend temporality. Do Dooni Chaar is one such gem that feels like a warm, assuring hug every time one revisits it. It’s tragic that a film on the plight of teachers hits so close to home even 11 years after its release. Yet, its authenticity does not bog down on you. It makes you think, perhaps reassess your own voluntary and involuntary actions in life. Isn’t that what a film is supposed to do anyway?