Heer Ranjha – The Cinema of Chetan Anand

Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha remains the quintessential interpretation of Waris Shah’s Heer. Screenplay written by Kaifi Azmi, the film is delivered in poetical verse, making it one of the most unique and original pieces of work to come out of Hindi cinema. Written in 1766 by Waris Shah and supposedly based on a true story, ‘Heer Ranjha’ has come to symbolise Panjab and the themes of resistance within it. Ranjha is of course played by the legendary actor Raj Kumar and Heer played effectively by the stunningly beautiful Priya Rajvansh.

In a recent interview film director Paolo Sorrentino commented that “it is no longer possible to amaze the viewer with plot or content”. And yet Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha (admittedly it was made in the late 70’s), even when viewed today, does exactly that; amaze the viewer with plot and content. 

Chetan Anand gives Heer the strength that Waris bestowed within her – a rarity in the cinema of Bombay today where female desire is akin to that of a delinquent and often seen in the form of a juvenile rendition.  Aside of the characterisation which I will come to later, Chetan Anand hardly uses dissolves, fades, fast cuts to tell the story. Instead, he confidently uses prime lenses, tracks, long takes and possibly a single camera to shoot, I cannot verify this, but having viewed the film on numerous occasions, you get the sense of intensity that you can only get from a single camera shoot giving the viewer a sense of the work being emotionally energetic.

In his characterisation, Chetan Anand clearly show’s desire from Heer’s point of view as well as that by Ranjha’s. We see in Heer a powerful, fully developed, balanced, ordinary and at times an extraordinary female who confronts her husband, declaring that she can only give herself to Ranjha; we see her challenging the Kazi; Heer questions her father’s love; Heer runs to meet Ranjha oblivious of her surroundings visually playing Waris Shah’s profound refrain “Ranjha Ranjah kandi ni mein api Ranjha ho gai” (in the midst of desiring Ranjha, I have become Ranjha) and finally we see Heer defying her mother. Here Waris tells us that courage is not enough and Heer’s fate is undone by Kaido her uncle and the Kazi, his partner in crime, who trick her into agreeing to marry Saida – Chetan Anand succeeds in conveying Waris Shah’s message that authority is inherently corrupt and justice for the defenceless is difficult to find.  

In the song picturisation “meri dunya mein tu ayi (when you entered by world)”, sung  by Ranjha to Heer when she comes to meet him in the dead of night, Chetan creates an erotic and luscious emotional imagery exploring innocence, love and desire, when Heer and Ranjha become one.

Towards the end of the film in the sequence when Ranjha finally comes to wed Heer, Chetan Anand heightens the drama of Heer’s jealous uncle, Kaido working himself up to blend poison in the sweetmeats that he would feed Heer in due course against that of the sheer joy of the festivities going on in the rest of the house; track shots lit with colour make it seem like a festival of colours. This is interspersed with Heer being beautified and embellished as a bride to meet her Ranjha. A rainbow of earth colours make up the sequence until we finally see Heer standing against a pure white backdrop, dressed in deep reddish pink looking delicious, like a cerise liquorish ready to be popped into your mouth. Ranjah’s sister-in-laws are mesmerised by her beauty and captivated, bumping into each other trying to catch a glimpse of her – and all this without dialogue and a sentimental musical score.

A deeply under-rated film maker – Chetan Anand has left us with a visual poem from which we can all learn about truth and what the mystic’s like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah were trying to impart: that authority fundamentally gets in the way of enlightenment and a truthful living. Waris Shah’s Heer was in essence a severe criticism and questioning of the motivations of religious orthodoxy and a firm belief that “We are in God and God is in us”.