Friday, September 26, 2014

Bengali Leading Ladies

I've rambled and raved a lot about those Bengali heroes. But what would they be without their partners in crime? As a relative newcomer to Bengali cinema (although, true to form, I've watched quite a few films in a short period of time) there's only five or six Bengali actresses that are even on my radar from the '50s and '60s, The rest are still footnotes in my imagination, even if I've seen them in a film or two.

Six sounds like a very exclusive club, but, it's really not when you consider that the hero position during the same period is dominated by three or four actors (which I would name as Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Biswajeet). There are occasional crossovers by Ashok Kumar, and if you get into artier cinema, there's a lot more variety in lead actors (Kali Banerjee is pretty interesting to watch, in my opinion), but I don't get the sense that a quiet social piece by Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen garnered the same public attention or adoration as a commercial romance by Ajoy Kar. Whereas, all of the women below could, I think, claim commercial success.

Here are the leading ladies, in order of my current experiences with and attachment to them. I'd like to sketch out, for the record, what I feel their strengths are, and which films best show their skills. Some of these ladies are still barely in my experience, but that's where y'all come in--you can advise me on what films to see next! Eventually, when I've seen twice the films I have now, I'd like to return to this subject and see how my feelings and opinions about them have been augmented by other performances or films, good or bad.

6. Madhabi Mukherjee

Honestly, except for Charulata, Madhabi is almost completely out of my experience. But Mahanager seems an obvious next step. I've started the film multiple times and I always stop for some reason. Maybe I'll correct that soon. I loved this Outlook piece with Madhabi and Soumitra on the occasion of Charulata's fiftieth anniversary.

What intrigues me about (what I've seen of) Madhabi is that she's not conventionally glamorous, pretty, or even pleasant in her expressions. This reminds me of Supriya Devi or even Waheeda Rehman, except that Madhabi seems to lack even their "nurturing temperaments" that would cover over these "sins." Instead of a womanly or girlish role model, she is fiery and unpolished (which I'm sure Ray must have been looking for in his casting process).

Any other Madhabi films you would recommend?

5. Sabitri Chatterjee

There's only one Sabitri film under my belt, Abak Prithibi. Perhaps it shouldn't even count because the film is about 90% concerned with Uttam and Tarun Kumar's characters, and about 3% driven by her character's choices. Sabitri's character is interesting, but the film is relatively brief, even for Bengali cinema (which is already briefer than its Hindi counterpart), and her one meaty scene is never really followed up upon. However, I quite liked Sabitri in it. She projects a kind of intense mental energy that carved out a memorable place in the film that her character hardly deserved. She's graceful, but not attention-seeking, making her brand of classiness far more approachable than that of Suchitra Sen (the textbook high-class dame of Bengal). She's considered one of Uttam's most popular leading ladies, but I've found their films hard to track down, even without subs. Perhaps I shall see Shesh Anka next.

Plus: Her CUTE GLASSES look and I'm so gone.

4. Aparna Sen

Talking to Beth of BLB, we admitted to a mutual "meh" reaction to Aparna and a ongoing inner question regarding the depth of her craft. She certainly made a name for herself as a director (so very impressive when you consider she started directing in the '80s, and cinema in any film industry is still notoriously a male director's game). But as an actress, I have yet to warm to her. Except, in the occasional song.

It's not that she's a xeroxed collage of other actresses. She's certainly not forgettable, and she brings a lot of energy (if not variety) to her roles. She doesn't seem like a copy of Sharmila or Suchitra, despite the penchant for bouffants. In my mind, she's the poster-girl for the modern woman: independent but also very moral in her own way. Her characters are usually self-possessed and removed from usual concerns of tradition or public opinion. All this *should* impress me, but I have to wonder if her characters hold back/seem independent because she doesn't know how to emote in more than a short range of potential feeling, not because the roles call for that kind of self-confident female.

3. Suchitra Sen

Everyone lines up to praise Suchitra. Like Elizabeth Taylor or Greta Garbo, she's as much a legend as an actress. And of course, she's best known for being half of the dream-couple of Uttam-Suchitra. But, of course, she made her mark as a solo lead as well.

I just saw Deep Jele Jai, which seems to be the solo performance she is most remembered for (beyond Aandhi, which Carla's recent review has convinced me is a must-see) ... and the performance the Bengali press still raves about. To me, this is an odd phenomenon. I realize that Uttam is not in the film (and it's not really a romance), and so, it stands to reason that you would actually get a chance to see Suchitra set free from the bounds of love scenes and family drama. I'm just going to ignore the arbitrary assumption that these elements would somehow restrict an actress' skills.

But, the fact remains: Deep Jele Jai has possibly the most insanity (both intentional and unintentional) per square inch of any Bengali film you will ever see. If it was the main thing I was remembered for, I think I might question my own contribution to history. It's sexist, pagol, terrifying, and seems to have been penned by a delusional Neo-Freudian sensationalist. So maybe let's not remember her just for that, K? However, all her powers of old-school melodramatics are at their most extreme, and it's just insane enough to be entertaining if you go in with the right mindset and prepare for the 5 Stages of the Experience. What Deep Jele Jai DOES prove, is that you can always count on Suchitra to keep you watching. The less sense the storyline makes, the more Suchitra's skills are likely to be cast into definition.

But of course, her more subdued roles (especially if they're not too preachy) are enjoyable as well. In the [relatively] sane Saptapadi or Chaowa Paowa, films with a lot of moments for her formidable personality to shine, she is sure to entertain and win a piece (if not all) of your heart.

2. Sharmila Tagore

My crush on Sharmila is no secret, and certainly knows no bounds of time or place. And I'd hardly be saying something new if I said that Sharmila tended to get more fascinating roles to sink her teeth into when working in Bengali films. It's hard to deny, even though I'm as much in favor of her Hindi films as any fan.

Note: Filmi-Geek has documented much love, perhaps even more than I, for her Hindi scandalous commercial cinema roles, and Conversations Over Chai has a lovely piece on her career as one of Hindi cinema's great divas.

It's quite entertaining to see her cosmopolitan glamour on display in things like An Evening in Paris (in which she is possibly my favorite Pran conspirator yet ... on par with Helen.) And obviously, she's an excellent partner for all those Rajesh Khanna melodramas ... gifting potentially weepy stock characters with strength and humor. But ....

Devi. Barnali. Apur Sansar. Aranyer Din Ratri. Nayak. I mean, these films are the work of two brilliant directors (Kar and Ray) but they are also the work of her genius. She carries so much of the weight of the stories. Ray films without her aren't as satisfying or as lovable. Nayak would be an existential fantasy without her. Apur Sansar glows with her enthusiasm. I don't know if I would have wanted to watch any other actress play the lead in Devi.

My favorite role of all, perhaps (if you made me choose), is that of the complicated sophisticate in Aryaner Din Ratri. A main attraction of Bengali films, for me, is the time devoted to conversation and exploration of philosophical concepts by the main characters. In general, there's not much analytic conversation Bombay films, and Sharmila is even more silent and watchful than the average Hindi heroine. It's not that she is a chatterbox in Bengali cinema. But in ADR, when she has a chance to speak, she speaks so well. It's really a joint performance, though. Sharmila and Soumitra use all the interpersonal knowledge of their past collaborations to create a relationship that breathes and steps out of the silver screen.

These characters are much more worldly than any of their past characterizations. The virginal hues are replaced by more adult tones. But, just like in Barnali, you can almost hear the machinery in their minds turning as they try to listen to one another and really hear. And as in Apur Sansar, they share a heady chemistry that I've never seen either of them conjure up with other actors. Beyond their gift of verbal expression, Soumitra and Sharmila share a talent for communicating through body language and in the relationship of their bodies to their immediate environment. When they as much as turn toward a window, it's almost as communicative as a paragraph of exposition. Perhaps this is what shouts so loud during Ray's protracted silences.

1. Supriya Devi

Early Supriya is my favorite Bengali actress (beyond Sharmila—who is really a trans-regional star) for a lot of reasons. One of them? She feels like a real person in her interactions with other people. Internal processing is evident in her face. In scenes with Uttam, given the chance, you see so many transitional feelings in her… so many uncertainties and wishes. She’s not playing an ideal or upholding a moral position first. She’s a person caught up in the questions and desires of a moment. And she very much has her own agenda.

Exhibit A (because you almost have to see a clip or a gif to get what I mean):

Of the films I've seen her in, it's clear she was at her best in the early 60s. Like other Bengali actresses, she is sometimes the victim of TOO-MUCH makeup, which restricts her ability to emote and react. And that trend seems to get worse in the late 60s. And when I say worse, I mean TERRIBLE. She could be emoting her heart out, but you can't tell with all the face paint in the way.

Oh honey. (Sabarmati, 1969)

My favorite Supriya role to date is Suno Baranari (pictured in the gif above), Surjasikha being a close second. Suno Baranari takes place mostly on a series of train journeys with an heiress and her poor escort--who is taking her to see her potential fiancee. As the film progresses, obviously the heiress starts to look forward to the journey more than the destination. (Hey, it's Uttam-on-a-train, wouldn't you?)

This is quite the dream role for any actress, because the heroine is allowed to transform from petulant and prejudiced (but smart) heiress, to a still-outspoken and brave woman who makes a momentous decision at the end of the film. This is a decision that nobody makes for her and flies in the face of what everyone has told her/tried to force her to do (including both her family and her love interest). AND, and, and, not only does she get to make that decision based on an interesting arc of self-discovery and on her own grit alone, but she totally schools the hero (Uttam Kumar) at the end, letting him know exactly why her way is best. Her character is messy and self-interested and yet, I still love her because she just wants to be happy. One can't blame her for that. When she's manipulative, it's not because she wants other people to suffer, but because she knows she needs to be underhanded and clever to navigate a patriarchal system.

As much as I love Sharmila, this is a role for a woman who isn't afraid to look less than perfect, or to come across as insecure or socially under-developed. Supriya doesn't portray the women I long to be, she embodies the women I am, warts and all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Bollylover's Adventures in Soviet Cinema: Part V

Because of the Cold War culture class I'm teaching this fall, I've been working my way through more Soviet films than usual. My favorite, if not the "best" of the lot? Clear Skies (1961): a love story between a military factory girl (Nina Drobysheva) and a pilot (Yevgeni Urbansky) during and after WW II. Beyond wartime romance, it gifts us with progressive concepts of marriage, a moving depiction of the returning POW's situation in Stalin's post-war regime, and a lot of carefully orchestrated histrionics.

Clear Skies was a polarizing film, winning prestigious awards (it won against Chaudhvin Ka Chand and other international entries at The 2nd Moscow International Film Festival) and attracting harsh criticism (from U.S. appreciators of Dir. Chukhrai's previous work).

Aesthetically, this is exactly the kind of Soviet film that led me to my Soviet film hobby in the first place. The colors are just right (and unique to Russian films of the '50s and '60s), and the rhythm of the story ebbs and flows symphonically. But, the most beautiful moments in this film are the personal ones. The moments of extreme loss or gain. Or, the poignant fallout of survival-driven decisions.

There's a lot of beauty to be found in watching the shy protagonist grow from a girl to a woman, in her voice, movements, and face . . . so much so, that even without the help of aging makeup she is hardly recognizable by the end of film. Yes, the war changes her, but even more than that, this transformation is empowered by her on and off again relationship with the ace pilot . . . her refusal to get married to decent "seconds" even when her lover is presumed dead and she has a child to support . . . and her choice to stick with her husband during the years of his suspicion and blacklisting from the party. All of this makes Nina's character a person one comes to love and respect.

For his part, Yevgeni Urbansky steals the film out from everyone else's feet, despite his syncopated presence in the narrative. He's an unforgettable performer, handling the quiet moments with *almost* as much care as the scenes of building emotional pressure. He also manages to keep in perfect step with the lead actress' transformative arc; managing to communicate a believable difference between the cocky flyer of the film's first half, and the slow-to-heal victim of the second. Tragically, Yevgeni died not long after this film released . . . an accident on a film set, it seems. (Just watch him fell like ten trees on-camera in 1960's The Kommunist, and you'll get a decent sense for the risks he was willing to take as an actor.) Most of his (few) films are now considered classics, so it's truly fascinating to wonder what Soviet cinema would have become if he had lived. Of course, it's also possible his star would have faded along with the types of melodramas he excelled in.

Despite it's status as a follow-up film to the much darling-ed Ballad of a Soldier (1959), you will not find "Clear Skies" in the Criterion Collection's half a dozen films (including BoaS) from this Soviet period. It's bright where you expect it be dark, happy when you expect it to be sad, and more concerned with the aftermath of war than you would expect a story "about an ace pilot" would be. Along with some similarities in subject matter and female POV, it shares the some of the technical bravery of "The Cranes are Flying" but with the added bonus (for me at least) of a lush Sovcolor palette (it's listed as "Magicolor," but I'm 90% sure this is from Agfacolor derived film stock).

However, I'm sure everyone else, everywhere, would say that The Cranes are Flying is also a far superior film.

In terms of technical perfection, I would agree with that assessment. But Clear Skies has something else going for it. Something you can't capture with protracted silence, tilted panning shots, or an elongated shadow on a wall. Optimism. This film has it. In spades.

Me and optimism go way back, and I like optimism best when grafted to a story of love overcoming hardship. And, in case you were wondering, given the fact that this is Soviet-made, I really don't mind if some propaganda finds its way in to the mix. The more idealogical inspiration, the merrier.

If you choose to see this one, keep in mind that...

*It was meant to document an emotional story of war veterans and their families, not break all the rules of filmmaking for the sake of it.

*It won't change all your preconceived notions about what a camera can do. It excels as an impressionistic portrait, not an abstract study.

*Not everyone appreciates the "lesser" version of Technicolor (Sovcolor, a two-strip rather than three-strip developing process), either, although it is refreshingly different to those overused to Hollywood gloss and excess. It's also reminiscent of the earthy tones used in previous decades of Russian and Soviet art.

*It is both a product and a celebration of the lessening of censorship under Khrushchev (even going so far as to present Stalin as a menacing figure), but it never pushes the bar too far.

*Prescriptively, this is an emotional critique, NOT a political critique of a certain era of Soviet life.

*Descriptively, it tells the story of the political persecution of believers, rather than dissenters. The main characters are all orthodox in their communist sentiments, but they are persecuted by the higher-ups in spite of that fact. Persecuted, but not destroyed, the film takes pains to tell us.

*As you see in a lot of Hindi or Bengali romances of the time, the love story is a stand-in for bigger cultural problems and struggles ... and the triumph of the lovers over their "small problems" is also a triumph over the public's trauma and conflict.

*Since it aims to inspire, be sure that ideals WILL trump reality in the end.

But honestly, those looking for an easy, high-culture-friendly "art film" should go elsewhere. 

The generally harsh reactions to this film (by the same people who love similar Soviet fare) once again betrays the "elite" film-goer's tendency to misunderstand melodramas. Or at least those that can't be excused as a technical achievement, and/or happen to be melodramas released after 1955 . . . outside of the U.S. But, come ON, cinephiles. Melodramas are just as important as dramas (and, of course, the line between them is very fine indeed), and this one is told better than most. If it's Gone With the Wind, or a similar throwback to a fantastical history that never happened, people will flock to support hyper-magnified expressions of war, love, or survival.  But if it's a film like Clear Skies, which actually fulfills the need for [then] contemporary stories and contemporary catharsis, not so much.

The fact that Clear Skies dares to be intense AND hopeful doesn't make it "less" of a cinematic achievement. Not all the important stories are the cynical ones. 'Course, if you watch Hindi films, you already knew that.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Catching Up: September Edition

In order to keep posts here more uniform (and let's be honest, uniformity requires a lot of editing time), I usually end up posting my micro-commentary, comparisons, and comedic attempts on halfwaythruthedark, and sometimes Twitter. I will hopefully have time to write-up the recent films I've seen here again in a week or so, once classes and new working hours sort themselves out.

Until then, quick links to and summaries of some mini-posts. 

Bengali cinema commentary:

* In the grain of previous filmi-women posts on F~C, re-visiting Saptapadi and applying the question: Is Suchitra Sen's character as "liberated" as everyone has made her out to be? Here.

*A lot of director Ajoy Kar's films are ethical treatise masterpieces, probably. Here.

*Moral of the story: What NOT to say to an Indian auntie. Here.

*How to seduce a workaholic husband. Here.

*How to resist an offer of a smoke from those charismatic Bengali heroes. Here.

*Bengali Cinema and book fetishes. A couple of explanations here and examples here.

Hindi cinema commentary:

*Shashi Stalker Observations: Can you find the common thread between Shashi roles? Here.

*Did Yash-ji steal some inspiration for Kaala Paathar from Dev Anand's Baazi? Here.

*Eating crow. Ok, ok, Dev Anand. Here.

*How classic films may/might be viewed in India or by Indians today. Do you have an opinion on this? Here.

*Raj Kapoor's "hidden meanings" [actually probably not-so-hidden] in "Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua." Here.

*Sharmila looks into your soul. Here and here.

*Occasionally, bad cinema prints don't bother me. Here's why.

*Possibly my favorite camera move in Pyaasa. Here.

*My favorite child actor in Hindi cinema. Beyond baby-Shashi, that is. Can you guess who? Here.

*Was the Censor Board awake for Amrapali (1966)? Here. Was I awake for it? Not sure. Here.

*One actress I will probably never warm up to, and her modern cinema counterpart. Here and here.

And ... the rest ...

Classic American cinema commentary:

*Extensive Q&A: favorite decades, favorite actresses, how to deal with problematic favorites. Here.

*Hiding a cinema crush from yourself can be done for a very long time, but not forever. Here.

*The most useful gif I've stumbled upon in a long time. Here.

French cinema commentary:

*Connections and parallels between Pepe Le Moko (1937) and The Third Man (1949). Plus, why haven't I heard of this film before? Here.

*One of the most hauntingly beautiful films I've ever seen. Hint: It's a fairy-tale adaptation from 1940's France and probably everyone already knew how awesome it was except me. Here.

*Where the best insults are... Here.

Pakistani cinema commentary:

*So ... I finished my first Pakistani film and wrote about it. A little. Here.

*My favorite song from the film. Obviously, Faiz Ahmed Faiz lyrics aren't to be sneered at, but there's also something to be said for a smoky atmosphere and a bewafai song. Here.

*A shocking cabaret sequence in a Pakistani film. Here.

Any recommendations of other Pakistani films to check out? There are a lot available online, but it's hard to know where to start. I think I could live with the 60's Pakistani aesthetics, going from early YouTube perusals. As far as I can tell, it's all mostly unsubtitled except for a few Noor Jehan films, which probably have all been subbed by fans. But at least I can understand enough Urdu to follow plots, which makes them slightly less work to watch than unsubtitled (and probably really awesome and deep) South Indian socials. Masala, well, we can all follow that, language barrier or no.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gender Role Blueprint: Uttam Kumar Melodramas

The type of melodramas and socials Uttam Kumar did in the late '50s, early '60s are the Bengali film equivalent of milk and cookies before bed. They're not terribly long and offer an instant escape into a softer world of clean collars and even cleaner ideals. For me, they fit a niche quite near that of early '70s RK/Sharmila or Dharm/Hema films: a romantic, affective, and soft lit world just right for a crowded schedule and a tired brain. These Uttam films also share something the best of the Sharmila or even Hema starrers have: female heroes. With a Bengali twist, of course.

Here are several examples of this Bengali twist from my recent Uttam watches ... followed by a summary of the common threads between them. [This is a long post, but hey, I want to spotlight the films, too, not just their gender roles. At the end of the day, we're all here to be entertained first, edified after.]

Pothey Holo Deri (1957)

Suchitra Sen is a millionaire's daughter who decides to help the poor local doctor (her beau) to go abroad to finish his F.R.C.S. She even sells her inherited jewels on the sly to make it happen. After the secretly-engaged lovers are separated by an ocean, FAKE letters and FAKE marriage reports come between them. The heiress is disowned and disappears. (Bet those jewels started to look real great in hindsight.) But suffering to prove one's love is an essential part of the Uttam/Suchitra romance.

Memorable for:

*The filmi medical "anxiety disorder" Suchitra finds herself in when she believes her long-awaited lover to have jilted her ... an illness that involves psychosomatic paralysis! and a coma! It apparently can be solved by a renewal of honest communication, but only if it is delivered in epistolic (not conversational) form. Add it to the collection of murky filmi medical cures.

*A wealthy patient/fangirl who manufactures a disastrous relationship between herself and the engaged doctor. "The best thing I saw in my Europe trip is you..."

*A sequence of love/affirmation letters from Suchitra to Uttam's character while he's in school.

*A lovely seaside recovery cottage. You can't go wrong with some Uttam-by-the-sea.

Does she get credit?

*Uttam's character attributes all his success (somewhat truthfully) to his beloved's emotional and financial support ... multiple times throughout the film.

*Suchitra's heiress also does quite well supporting herself as a teacher (until she goes mad). This self-sufficiency is obviously meant to show that even though she was brought up in privilege, her character has been proved pure enough for our unadulterated, working-class hero.

Sabar Oparey (1955)

A recently lawschool graduate (Uttam Kumar) finds out that his father is not dead (as he has believed since childhood) but is still in prison for a murder he did not commit. Instantly, the naive but determined fellow rushes off to solve the mystery and clear his father's name. Along the way, he meets a charitable woman (Suchitra Sen) who decides to help him in his cause.

Memorable for:

*A lovely song or two.

*Courtroom Drrramarama.

*A convoluted mystery that Uttam's later Byomkesh avatar would have solved in a day...but then again, this hero is better at lawyering than gumshoeing.

*A store clerk who unabashedly lusts after Uttam. [I love these little nods to Uttam's fanbase.]

*Suchitra taking in Uttam *gasp* into her home, pooh-poohing the blight on her reputation, when he has no place to go. (Actually, I've noticed that Bengali films, perhaps more attuned to housing shortages and transportation problems, often take a pragmatic view of women and men spending the night together.) She also pays his bills and rescues him in a series of tight spots.

*An extended look at an innocent prisoner's release and return home. It's not just the usual happy "hug-it-out and put faces to names" schtick of most courtroom dramas. Much baggage.

Does she get credit?
*Yes. A lot. It's also quite clear from the audience's POV that without her help, Uttam's character would have (a) starved, (b) probably ended up in jail, (c) never solved the mystery (d) never cleared his father's name.

Mem Saheb (1972): 

A poor journalist (Uttam Kumar) falls in love with the daughter of a well-to-do family (Aparna Sen). Over the course of the next several years, the two keep their relationship on the "down low" while they work on establishing their separate careers and financial independence. She becomes a history professor, and he eventually moves to Delhi for work. Over time, his self-esteem and confidence is improved by his girlfriend's confidence in him, and for once, the woman has the satisfaction of conducting the successful "Pygmalion effect" experiment. Things don't end that well, but hey, the Bangladeshi Liberation War happened.

Memorable for:

This is the odd one out of the group...

*It was released in the '70s

*It doesn't have Uttam at his most "physically" dazzling

*It isn't the usual three act--falling in love, falling into trouble, resolving both love and trouble--plot

*It has an age-disparate romance I actually approve of

*Not sure if I love Aparna, but she's certainly a PRESENCE, you know? Aparna's character is VERY independent. If there were a Bengali version of  The Rules, she probably wrote it. She doesn't take stock in traditional social customs, but she follows her own code to the letter. She is completely ok with going on overnight trips with the journalist on the sly, or staying at his apartment unchaperoned when she visits him in Delhi. BUT, she doesn't actually sleep next to him (even if there seems to be significant snogging going on during the daytime, so much that it embarrasses the poor people who happen to be around), thus following her own rules.

*In the first half of the film, there's a controlling uncle that everyone is scared of, in charge of the family finances and marriage contracts. Yeah, Aparna's character wasn't putting up with that nonsense. When she doesn't respect his ego enough to go through with the marriage he plans for her, he leaves in a huff. Nobody misses him. AT ALL.

*I love how the journalist starts off mousy and shy, and kind of socially crippled, and becomes more and more attractive of a person the longer he is with Aparna's character. Not only is this a reversal of the usual gender roles, but it's a lot of fun to see Uttam slowly and surely turn up the movie star charm as the movie wears on.

Does she get credit?
Yep. The whole film is concerned with her progressive influence on the life of Uttam's character.

Surjasikha (1963):

Told mostly in flashback, a brilliant surgeon (Uttam Kumar) explains to a younger surgeon why love and career don't mix. Back in the day, faced with his pick of lofty positions, he decided to take a job at a rural hospital. He soon finds himself faced with nothing but corruption and incompetence, and realizes that he is in desperate need of an equally brilliant O.T. nurse. Local teacher and secret! nurse (Supriya Devi) seems to fit that bill. For a while, the hospital grows almost as fast as the super-partnership of the head doctor and and his favorite assistant. When rumors start flying around about the two being so "close", they decide to get married (!) to stop the wagging tongues. Despite his training in *ahem* human biology, the doctor is resistant to all aspects of domestic life, and the marriage isn't consummated. Of course, when things finally heat up between the two, a secret! pregnancy and pregnancy nausea may derail everything the doctor *thinks* he has built.

Memorable for:

*This is an all around tight film, probably had an even tighter script.

*INTENSE protagonists living in the fast lane of his/their hospital dream. Uttam's surgeon eats and breathes being a doctor, comes home at all hours, and depends on his nurse/wife as a colleague rather than a domestic partner. In fact, he does not respect domestic pursuits at all, often using "household" or "domestic" as a dirty word. [This is pretty fascinating stuff, I think.] She puts up with all his weird until she starts "getting some", or as her character puts it, "until we became close." Then, with her own biology taking over (ahhh, old school pregnancy ideas), she loses her stomach for surgery and starts to prefer knitting socks to knitting sutures. This causes a near-fatal spiral of CRAZY, but it's also hilarious and satisfying to watch this heady, ambitious doctor try to deal (badly) with feelings for his wife that he didn't expect, and to watch him try to get anything done at the hospital without her.

*This is a fascinating twist on the Bengali ideal of a romantic partnership. On the one hand, the film endorses their working partnership. But the woman wants more, and wants the freedom to have a family, too. One can't really blame her. And she doesn't say that she wants to give it up for good. The problem is that she doesn't explain that her abstract dream of a family is quickly about to become a concrete reality (until it's too late).

Does she get credit?

*Amusingly, Uttam's character repeats this whole "I need you" and "You're indispensable to me" line over and over. The moral arc of his character is not to realize that he needs her, but to realize that he needs her as more than a colleague, and that she has the right to have a family, even if that complicates his big, humanitarian dream.

*Slight spoiler* When she faints in an operation and again tells him she wants out, the surgeon has one violent moment. But it's enough for the spunky nurse. She moves out, leaving him an acidic letter telling him he's lost the right to be her husband and the father of her child (Surprise! You WERE going to be a dad, not anymore). I have never, ever, heard this kind of dialogue from a woman to her husband in a Hindi film, FYI.

*I won't spoil the end completely for you, but hint: The ultimate ideal here is not just a romantic working partnership, but a familial working partnership. All the frustrations and melodrama go out of their way get us to this end goal. It's a pretty awesome extension of the usual formula.


There is nearly always a turning point in these Uttam melodramas where the hero must realize his complete and utter helplessness sans his heroine. Not the helplessness of depression or loneliness, but rather, the helplessness you would experience if you were missing half your limbs. Sometimes this is verbalized in a situation of triumph (when the hero looks back and sees the woman's instrumental assistance at every turn) such as Sabar Oparey, or more commonly, when the woman disappears and the man must try to bumble through life without her (Surjasikha, Mem Saheb, Pothey Holo Deri).

Uttam's onscreen lady loves are allowed to voice opinions at every turn, display messy personality traits and decision-making power, and engage in more of a 50/50 life partnership with their romantic interests. More specifically, the women are usually caught up in helping Uttam's character succeed in a career, or to help him build a life they can both share, or to assist in fulfilling a mission of justice. Though the woman may or may not have a career "of her own", she is vital to most plot points and in picking up the hero slack ... essentially functioning as a co-hero. In fact, the strength of their partnership--the depth of loyalty, communication, and patience exchanged between the lovers--is more often than not the stated goal of their struggles, and the story itself.

And, ok, so these women aren't all yearning to remain "independent" in the modern sense of the word. Probably because even this semi-fantastical landscape is harsh and unyielding. People are more likely to "make it" together, we are told. Thus, "independence" is discouraged, even painted as THE fatal choice or a character flaw. This is a film culture that prizes collectivism, not individual ambitions. But the woman aren't exactly invisible appendages, either. Their personalities don't disappear into the men they support. All are portrayed as active in public life in some way; going out to build their own careers, developing skills and thoughts of their own--on top of being the person that the man attributes all his success to! These women are romantic partners, not romantic objects.

This is rather different from the hero's "I can do it all" machismo of many Hindi film romances, and the relative compartmentalization of the Bombay heroine into chronologically more and more "useless" roles (i.e. The beautiful victim, then the nagging wife, and finally the unnecessarily self-sacrificing Maa). At least in most of the '70s films I've seen (which may not represent the women of the '50s or '60s, but it IS the filmi area in which I have the broadest experience to draw from), the gender role blueprint is nearly always:

1. The man against the world
2. The man and his best (male) friend or brother against the world
3. The woman as his secret muse, problem to solve, or elusive object to attain

There are exceptions. Action films sometimes afford a better place for the whip-cracking masala heroine with a tongue to match. But in melodramas [of which I've seen more than I'd like to admit] the woman is more likely to be the question than the answer. Which is exactly why these Uttam socials--where a mutually heroic, male-female partnership is emphasized as the solution to most of life's problems--feel so revolutionary, and so very satisfying.

Recommendation for further research:
Is this mutual-support ethic replaced by a more cynical view of male-female partnerships in many '60s and early '70s films of Soumitra Chatterjee? If they don't end in tragedy, they are still characterized by an emotional distance between spouses and conflicting life goals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Origins: Aag (1948)

Aag is:

*Full of self-harm
*Kinda visually disturbing

For all that, I didn't dislike it. Calling it quits didn't even cross my mind (which it usually does because I'm an easily distracted movie viewer). It does NOT hold up well next to Raj's later work, and yet there are scattered elements here that strike home before spinning out of orbit. If The Kapoor Family: Origins is the soap opera you wish aired every afternoon in your living room, this is not a film to miss, but you can skip the commentary. If, however, you are above soapiness and prefer the *higher* pursuits of "research" and "curiosity" you may also have opinions on the following:

*Are there any catchy tunes here? I don't think so, but there are certain verses and refrains that catch you unawares. It's certainly pleasant to the ear. It's not Shankar Jaikishan, so perhaps that says enough.

*Is it possible that Shashi Kapoor gave the best performance of the film

*Is it just me or is there some really experimental camera-work here for Bombay in the '40s?

*Why all the self harm? Most everyone here threatens to hurt themselves (or their art) at the slightest conflict or disappointment. As if this will fix all the trouble. Veiled social commentary? Or lingering teenage angst? I've read a few things that say that Raj intentionally avoided any reference to Indian social turmoil; instead trying to address the young generation's hopes and struggles. 

*This *seems* like an insider view into young Raj and Nargis, AND Raj's family. Given that films and theatre were still not respectable professions in the ’40s, it may be a fictionalized version of the Kapoor struggle and ethic. Knowing even a little about Privthvi Theatres players and the Prithviraj Kapoor dream (that Shashi and Jennifer later realized) makes this feel even more autobiographical. This story is a colossal effort of persuasion: essentially one long argument for Theatre (and by extension, youth self-direction) as a worthwhile goal. Or, is it more likely that Raj may have been making a "sneaky" statement about the worth of film as a medium to his theatre snob father? (I've had some conversations with Raj hobbyists that would suggest the latter.)

*I did not expect this film to be about a man's struggle to join the theatre . . . or that the love interest would be a name rather than a face for the majority of the film. The original Nimmi, the beloved Nimmi of Raj's character's childhood disappears, and so he keeps naming the woman in his life after his childhood sweetheart. (Creepy.)

Raj's love interest, "Nimmi" appears to me to be just a symbol for the all-consuming topics of THEATRE and following one's dreams. The Nimmis invariably disappear on the night of the big debut performance, and of course, when one fake Nimmi (Nargis) doesn't go, but actually professes her love ... Raj's character decides to destroy the debut performance and the theatre himself. (Oh, and sets himself on fire. So there's that.) Complicating the matter is the main character's ideal for his friend (Prem Nath), who he believes should be with fake Nimmi. Nimmi won't be allowed to decide for herself (obviously), and her ideal relationship doesn't mesh with the ideal of the man she loves. Time to press the button marked "Destruct." 

Similarly, earlier, Raj leaves everything he has ... his education and his family rather than pursue anything but his dream. Every time something doesn't fit the main character's ideal (play, career, woman, relationship), the solution is to BURN IT DOWN. (I was warned.) But, in another light, not giving into the established paths--especially one's parent's ideals and plans--was a gutsy move for 1948. Heck, it's gutsy now.

Aag is self-indulgent, and yet, I'm inclined to humor its whims. That's what you do with youth, don't you? 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Three-Course Countdown: Soumitra

Since I have a bunch of Bengali films to catch-up on, I figured I would borrow BLB's formula of grouping the Uttam/Soumitra starrers separately. And this "what to expect" countdown format has met with previous reader approval, so I will just continue it here.

3. Pratham Kadam Phool (1970)

Two people (Soumitra Chatterjee & Tanuja) get married w/out financial independence and the support of the woman's family. But will the pressures of joint family existence and limited funds destroy the marriage?

Speed bump(s):

Monstrous mother-in-law may induce PSTD. Tanuja's character suffers from both blandness and entitlement. Listless soundtrack.

I've only been watching Bengali films for a short time. But I already feel I've seen this plot recycled a fair bit. The parents of a middle class to upper class woman make an engagement without her consent ... while all the while, their "surprisingly" modern, educated daughter is off building her own future and her own romantic partnership. The two marry or continue their relationship in defiance of their parents wishes, and have to deal with the fallout of poverty, bad accommodations, etc.

actual subtitle, suspect (circular) reasoning
I'm not sure what to call this cosmopolitan, bank account-conscious, youth-oriented romance, but it definitely IS its own category. It's also not a plot I've seen much in Hindi films (which more often than not are concerned with "bringing the parent's 'round" to the lovebirds' point of view), so I have to wonder if it is unique to Bengali cinema of the '50s-'70s.

This film doesn't seem to exemplify either the best or worst of its class. It just sort of slaps a bunch of
mundane problems on the griddle and proceeds to scramble them into something rather unsatisfying. There's certainly something worthwhile in the portrayal of the "small misunderstandings turning into big misunderstandings" arc, especially when the woman is allowed to HAVE misunderstandings ... to run off petulantly and then return to her old household position without ingratiating herself at everyone's feet. For me, it also felt like a semi-realistic window into the daily struggles of Bengali middle class existence. However, I didn't especially enjoy the view.

Worth it if you want... 

*Domestic Soumitra. There's a lot of mussed dhoti/kurta action, and a lot of bedroom scenes attuned to both the irritation and intensity of a relationship playing out in a small space. AND Soumitra studies. A LOT.

*A feller who looks like a genetic combination of Dev Anand/Uttam Kumar [confusing] and acts as the third party in a perceived love triangle

*Disillusioned Kolkata youth.

*Claustrophobic domestic drama. The dynamic between all the bahus and the mother-in-law and the seven or eight year old son of the oldest brother & his wife (who likes his new auntie best) may appeal to the Indian TV serial addict.

Where to find with subs: on Angel DVD

2. Khudito Pashan (1960) 

A tax accountant (Soumitra Chatterjee) moves to a rural town and rents the local haunted mansion against the local's warnings. Did I mention it was haunted? And like in any proper Indian haunting, there's a beautiful, incorporeal lass involved.

Speed bump(s)

Half of this film is Soumitra walking slowly through shadowy corridors, sometimes following ghosts, but mostly sounds. Not especially cheerful.

As is Soumitra's wont, he once again manages to make his own face look like a stranger to the audience. This is not the soulful Apu, or the moody intellectual of Barnali. It's a man with an obsession, who we find interesting because of his obsession, not because of anything special about his own personality. He's essentially a paper-pusher, and there's something delightful in watching him struggle to focus on his pile of documents when there is A HAUNTED HOUSE visible from his office window.

So, yes, I liked the film as a late-night "thriller" with a relatable hero. But even more, I liked it for the analogies that grew upon me later. Not to put words in Tagore's mouth (chee chee chee!), but this story about a fixation on a past world that you can see, but never actually touch, this feeling that you belong to another time, this romance with a person and a place long gone over the mundane realities of the present ... it applies über well (maybe uncomfortably so) to classic film obsessions.

Worth it if you want...

*An atmospheric, aristocratic ghost story, with less plot and canoodling than Madhumati, and (a lot) less Madhubala than Mahal. Ok, no Madhubala at all. I wouldn't want to put out a false advertisement. [Though, a charismatic female lead would have elevated this film from good to really good.]

*Waifish Soumitra, staring at the horizon for hours on end, and waking up in all sorts of strange places.

*More Tagore interpretations!

*Some sensitive camera-work from Tapan Sinha and crew.

*Kathak dances and a mughal-ish costume drama that Makes. You. Wait. For. It. (But you will probably appreciate it when it finally gets going.)

Where to find with subs: Angel YouTube channel, full movie available to rent.

1. Ghare Baire (1984)

Civilized local zamindar (Victor Banerjee) is a cultured progressive, and wants his educated wife (Swatilekha Chatterjee) to have a chance to to stretch her wings. After some encouragement, he introduces her to his visiting friend, a swadeshi leader (Soumitra Chatterjee). This being Soumitra, it doesn't take long before sparks fly, both inside and outside the mahal.

Speed bump(s)

Kissing. Is this going to be a problem for you? Be honest. Also, I have the feeling that Swatilekha is not necessarily an actress with broad appeal.

There are multiple dilemmas here, embodied by the three main characters:

1. The zamindar. He wants his wife to become a full person, a full citizen, a woman with choices. Not in a small way because without the choice to love someone NOT him, what value does her love have? Similarly, he wants to see the liberation of his Motherland; but he knows that this will mean his own displacement and much suffering to the poor and landless before it brings prosperity.

2. The swadeshi leader. He talks a great talk, and his speeches rouse the people to move, both for good and ill. He doesn't care which--as long as things shift and change. He professes to be a near-ascetic, casting off the comforts of the Raj. But in secret, he siphons off money and indulges in many cultured habits. He is friends with the zamindar, and stays at his mansion for free ... all the while stirring up the people against him and wooing the lady of the house.

3. The wife. She is caught between her commitment to her husband and her fascination with her husband's friend, between the comforts of her life and the demands of swadeshi, and between supporting her husband's house and her lover's movement. It's invigorating (both for her and for us) to be set free for a time, able to use her mind in a game of wits/flirtation with another sharp intellect. And it's the ill fortune of her time that she must pay for even these simple pleasures, that she must be caught between a comfortable cage and a perilous freedom.

If you haven't seen this film, it's probably clear that someone will have to sacrifice something here ... and it probably ain't gonna be the politician.

Television audiences today are mad for political dramas. House of Cards, Scandal, even Game of Thrones ... they all promise titillation and current commentary, dipped in a heavy marinade of cynicism. Our news cycle may be politically obsessed, but we don't idolize our current leaders, we see them as people, just like us ... maybe even more prone to weakness than the average person. Weakness? "Hopefully!" a million viewers answer. Obviously, the Internet generation, and even the post-Woodward & Bernstein generation takes for granted the political figure's vulnerability to media exposure. But that doesn't mean that past generations trusted their leaders a whole lot more than we do. No matter when we live, it's in looking back that our gaze petrifies--that we tend to immortalize rather than humanize the great leaders of the past. In Ghare Baire, we have the rare privilege of experiencing both a contemporary critique by Tagore, and a hindsight critique from Satyajit Ray.

For Satyajit Ray, and perhaps Tagore before him, idols are dangerous things to have. But in this story, there's at least one thing more dangerous than an idol: freedom. Here we are told that there is a dark side to every leader, and a risk involved in even the smallest of liberations. Perhaps this is an easy thing to say on prime time television or in a gotcha news item, but it's not easy to say when you are talking about outdated issues that have already been "settled" (like independence for countries and, you know, the female sex).

And, for anyone who's ever worked in politics, in grassroot movements (*ahem* me) I imagine you understand the naive adoration of the protegee for the leader, the messiness and expense of causing a tempest in a teapot, and the disillusionment that comes after realizing that you were so caught up in the romantic fervor of revolution that you forgot the people who are really, truly, real.

Worth it if you want...

*To never look at the world the same way again.

Where to find with subs: For select Satyajit Ray classics, sometimes my Hulu Plus Criterion access is exactly what the filmi doctor (who's inevitably either my estranged lover or sorrowful family member) ordered.