Saturday, July 26, 2014

*Ahem* Reviews: Indrani (1958)

At first, this film seems to be about two students who get married rashly, outside of their respective castes, and then have to deal with the ongoing pressures of unemployment and disproportionate success. It also appears to be the cautionary tale of woman, Indrani (Suchitra Sen), whose education goes to her head. . . and needs to be taken down a few pegs before she can have the home she wants.

But let me tell you, even though I thought I'd seen this story before, it is NOT about what I expected it to be about.

On the one hand, Indrani is clearly set-up as the modern woman who goes a bit mad with her own independence, seizing all the power in her marriage and stepping on her husband's self-respect for good measure.

Compared to Indrani's hot and cold adoration and abuse, her husband, Sudarshan (Uttam Kumar) is a catch. His only faults being: his inability to confront people with his true opinions or decisions, and his related tendency to run away from problems. He's working on his PhD thesis; he's good tempered, poetic, hopeful. But he's also the slow burn kind of angry, which is the kind you want to watch out for. All the necessary elements for a morality play's final, judgmental curtain fall. Think Gone With The Wind: a woman dares to break the rules and the man she loves eventually breaks, too.

But on the other hand, the earliest ideals on display in the film are (A) equal  education for both sexes, (B) an indictment of the caste prohibitions against marriage, and (C) an honest look at how loving families turn hateful when those prohibitions are disregarded.

In their marriage, Sudarshan happily lets Indrani make major decisions, even when they turn out to be insulting or hurtful (like when she curtains off two rooms and assigns them separate bedrooms--saying that she will come over to his side when she feels like it, but won't allow him to do the same). And during the "shame" of his ongoing un-employment, Sudarshan doesn't blame Indrani's success. This clearly wasn't the "poor-me" male-arc of A Star is Born or any of its Indian equivalents.

By the middle of the film, I was starting to go crazy with all these perceived inconsistencies in the narrative and in the characters themselves.

Indrani's reckoning arrives (or so I thought) when not only has Sudarshan been maligned by the community for being dependent on his wife and mocked for taking a small tuition job . . . but Indrani herself has joined in the abuse, telling him that his pittance pay has caused her to lose face. Insult to injuries, Indrani's father, suddenly feeling like he wants to undo the whole disowning thing (because his roof needs fixing and his daughter has money) shows up, acts like the house is his and takes Sudarshan for a charity case boarder. Rather than standing up for himself, Sudarshan just leaves.

And this is where the writers' cards were finally revealed. Drifting around in a sort of hungry, zen sadness, Sudarshan is swept up into a grassroots regional improvement group. You know, just a few folks creating their own tiny subsistence community sans paisa, with lots of grand ideas about the value of manual labor and free childhood education.

Yeah, this film is about socialism. Surprise!

The monster here is not female liberation, but materialism. Indrani is being criticized for her love of wealth and prestige, not her level of education. The more her career gives her what she wants elsewhere, the less she appreciates what she has at home. Conversely, the less Sudarshan achieves, the less he asks for. Eventually, through leaving his credentials behind, and engaging in hard labor and social collaboration, he finds an intangible kind of fulfillment.

But if it was just about breaking Indrani's ego and greed, and the idolization of Sudarshan's new life, this film would have ended differently. [This is your cue to stop reading if you don't want to know.] When the lovers do eventually reunite, the humbling is NOT one-sided. I was dreading the "fall-at-his-feet" reunion, the credits rolling seconds later with some maxim about "loving your hubby right."

It didn't happen. Indrani is conciliatory, but firm. She doesn't spend time blaming herself, nor does she make any grand pleas or promises. She tells him she has left everything (true: she left her employment and applied for a "job" in the commune before even trying to speak with Sudarshan) and is ready to build a different kind of life with him. But it takes Sudarshan some time (and a small catastrophe) to conquer his own desire for independent success outside of his marriage (however much his efforts appeared to benefit the community first). . . as well as that nagging habit of leaving when things get tough (perfectly symbolized by his matured reaction to a crisis in the new commune). However, when they do reconcile, they renew their bond in a remarkably egalitarian manner.

Looking back at the progression of [downright gorgeous] songs and poetry, I was impressed by the way the lyrics of even the early romantic serenades perfectly set up the final conclusions of the film.

And the smallest of interactions (like Sudarshan ceding a job interview to another candidate who is more in need) served to plant the seeds of ideology long before the grand message's reveal or denouement.

This film may be collectivist propaganda, but it is also rather clever in how it uses a relationship as a microcosm for the problems of society and an eventual prescription for reform. Here and there, you might even find yourself nodding in agreement.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Catching Up

My perfectionist inner blogger is waiting. Waiting for me to stop watching films and write about all of them. All of them. Properly. Not just in bits and pieces. Until that happens, if you'd like, you can check out briefer commentary about my recently watched films and regional cinema exploration linked below from Halfway through the Dark.

1. Uttam and Suchitra

Why they work as a screen couple. Must see: Indrani and Trizama.
2. Bengali Lyrics

Differences between Bengali and Hindi poetry and why it's nice to have something different.

3. Subtext in Humjoli

Where all the queer women in Hindi cinema are. (Hint: Humjoli.)

4. What happens when you mistake lyrics in one language for words in another language . . .

. . . And neither language is your first language. Do you hear it too?

5. A Satyajit Ray interview

By Sharmila Tagore. 'Cause how could I not click on that? And highlights.

6. Conflicted about chemistry.

Why? Because of the underage thing, darn it.

7. Reveling in . . .

Sharmilee moments. Exhibit One, Two, and Three.

8. The Amazing! Silk Smitha! Workout

With a little help from a guest star.

9. Bollywood leading men

Why some of us prefer the THEN to the NOW. Conversation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

10. Aruna Irani 

As we rarely see her, and yet as very much herself.

11. Housecleaning

Mystic bleach. It's not the name of the song, but maybe it should be.

12. Lessons from Shabana

How to make yourself crystal clear without saying anything at all.

13. Recommendations: 10 Hindi films from the 70's and 80's appropriate for the old-fashioned viewer

There's a small, but vocal, group of bloggers on Tumblr who prefer the 50's era of Bollywood above all else. Though we don't share most of our *ultimate* favorites, we do share a certain sensibilities and academic interests. I'm all for being stretched in my personal film journey. As long as I can stretch someone else back--which is where the list comes in. This is a proper post for anyone who wants a real read. I didn't post it here because I wanted to save my Blogger editor energies for the films I've got piling up that I maybe, probably should write about before they fade from memory. AND if this list eventually appears here I will make some changes so it eliminates films of which I've already talked about extensively here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Retrospective: Filmi~Contrast is one year old today!

Mubarak ho! It's flashback time. . .

I came home from London last year in June, after a week spent alternately in delight (SO many hours at the British Museum and National Gallery and watching Bunty aur Babli back at the hotel room) and horror (bedbugs) and immediately broke to my closest friends and family the grim truth. "I'm going to take Hindi this fall," I said. "It's probably going to take me to my next step school-wise," I said even more carefully. "Got a problem with that?" I was kinda nervous to hear the answer.

It's nice to be beyond that.

Similarly, while the romantic in me already wants to idealize the early stages of obsession with Hindi films, the first months of writing about them, the humid mornings reading Rushdie on the patio, or the numerous nights last summer spent with *ahem* brandy, neat, and various world-shaking first watches . . . when you do the math, I am better off now. With the intent to prove just that, and in honor of Filmi-Contrast turning one year old today (I know, still so much ahead in its blog life) let's have a retrospective.

Last summer, before this blog began . . . 

1.  Confession: Shashi Kapoor was my be all, end all.

Up through July, anyway. I was aware that Shashi's oeuvre was fabulously represented [far, far better than I could manage] through other bloggers' write-ups, and so I made a conscious effort to establish my blog for other purposes. I tried my best to keep the Shashi talk to a minimum and try new things. Long term, I wanted to keep myself accountable to broadening my horizons, not just finding an obsession outlet. Lucky, too, 'cause not long after I attempted this, my fixation disappeared rather abruptly. It sounds odd, but because I didn't have first fandom claim, I felt I was encroaching upon someone else's imaginary boyfriend. I didn't want to be addicted to stolen goods. (Although, I still share the PPCC's documented fascination with the grey-templed Shashi.) In summary: my fangirl days are over, but his skill as an actor still gives me the chills sometimes.

2.  My definition of quality cinema was embarrassingly narrow.

One of the best habits I've ever stumbled into was to start reading smart, obscure film commentary, like that of 4DK or Teleport City. 4DK first exposed me to the Gunmaster G-9 films... pretty much as soon as I set eyes on Todd's edits, I was hooked. Of course, I haven't gone out to search for every crazy film I've read about, but it's empowering to see intelligent, brave folks exploring the no-budget, un-subtitled, commercial cinema of the world. I credit Shashi Kapoor and established Bollywood bloggers for enabling my classic filmi appreciation to take off. But this past year I've also explored older cinema from other countries: Russia, Japan, Greece, Italy, Egypt. It was good writers, tried and true cinema explorers who opened my eyes to the possibities. Because there is SO much more out there to love if one is willing to step out of one's snobbish, Westernized preconceptions of "good" art.

3. I had only seen one non-Hindi Indian film (Charulata).

I share the fear expressed by many bloggers--running out of good Hindi movies. It seems to me that there are two solutions to this:

1. Work on broadening one's tastes (in genres, eras, stars, etc.)

2. Explore other regional cinemas, and develop parallel watching routines. (This also works to slow down consumption of all the decent Hindi films of a certain type.) This is a project I hope will be under construction for quite a while. So far, I've found classic Bengali movies, arty or commercial, downright addicting. And I got through my first full Malayalam film recently, un-subtitled but quite beautifully shot. I have a feeling that it's hard to beat Malayalam films for use of lighting and color.

4. I had spent more hours researching classic Hindi cinema than actually watching it.

Classic cinema curation is a boon to the newcomer, and early Bollywood bloggers were game changers in that arena (you know who you are); painstakingly tracking down films they hadn't ever seen even a clip or a screen-cap from, jumping in blind, and then wrapping that film up in a neat package for the rest of us. After I saw two or three Bollywood films, I found the Bolly blogosphere, and couldn't believe my good fortune. I went on mad reading-binges (something I do whenever I need to grasp the wider context of a subject of interest). I vetted every film before watching, by standards I would laugh at now.

But right after I started this blog, I discovered Rajesh Khanna films. I'd heard a few people saying that Kati Patang was kinda progressive and worth a try. The music was a revelation (Thanks, early R. D. Burman) and there was something about Rajesh's early work that bypassed my critical brain and anxiety about being "let down" by a film. I found Sharmila's presence in a lot of these films to be a huge plus. I started watching whatever RK vehicles I could find with subtitles, good reviews or no. 

These days, that's par for the course. If I know I like an actor/actress/director, I'm ok just engaging with the film on its own terms, previous context or explanation be damned. Some bloggers joke that "subtitles are for suckers." Given experience in obscure film watching, I would say that sometimes "context is for suckers." Until after you've watched. Then, by all means, contextualize the hell out of it. The most rewarding films are often those you "discover" all by your lonesome, anyhow.

5. Nargis, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Pran . . . these folks were barely even on my radar. 

I could go on and on. The faces and personalities to discover, fall in love with, binge-watch, and research are nearly endless. And on the real life end of things, the people I've met and bonded with BECAUSE of our shared love of a star or an era. . . those relationships, whether they be long-distance or face-to-face, constantly enrich my life.

My sincere thanks to you all for a lovely year of conversation!


Note: I won't be allowing many gifs on this blog, if you're worried by the change. If, on the other hand, you want more, check out my updated and very filmi, Halfway-through-the-Dark tumblr.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

chemistry experiments: Inducting the Bollywood Newbie

Five things that seem to BREAK Bollywood first time inductions: 

5. The "out of date" factor. Did the film release more than a decade ago? Good luck getting your Bolly newbie to watch Bollywood with you again. [Oft-witnessed exception: DDLJ].

4. Story is too serious, or outright tragic. Even something with a lot of amazing songs and dance sequences (Read: Bhansali's Devdas or Dil Se) might warn people away because SADNESS, and feelings.

3. Length of film. Yes. 3 hours is a long time. Don't be afraid to fast forward for the sleepy viewer.

2. Offended sensibilities. Does the film in question have a song(s) in a temple? Are they explicitly devotional? Are children repeatedly treated with neglect or abuse? Does rape figure prominently into the storyline? Does the parental POV take up much of the movie and lean toward the hyper-traditional? Are the action scenes frequent, loud, extended, or hammy? Does the film support its characters being "punished" for seemingly minor infractions? [I could go on and on. This has been the hardest category for me to get around, especially when inducting family members. I can look past, forgive, and even be interested in all of these *depending on context*, but these elements rarely go over well with the un-committed.]

1. Finding the lead actor(s) laughable, subsequently unable to take story seriously.

For this reason, I never start with painfully fugly film years, hit or miss stars, or time-locked actors (like Rajesh Khanna, Anil Kapoor, or even Shashi Kapoor). I would say the same thing about actresses, but they seem to be "less" of a factor in a newcomer's experience than the charismatic male lead. Being romantically interested in women doesn't necessarily change that watching trend, from what I've seen. Male characters usually drive stories. And the actor playing the character that drives the story is going to make or break how you relate to it all. That said, let not the main actress be (a) whiny or (b) wooden, or (c) ugly. That could be detrimental to the first-timer's impressions. `

Five things that seem to MAKE Bollywood first time inductions: 

5. Club/Pop music. People like it, I guess. [I'll be over here, talking to R.D. Burman, thanks.]

4. Glossy picture quality. By my third Hindi film, I had already dropped this requirement, more's the luck. But you can't expect most new filmi explorers to do the same.

3. Romance. You know, the tried and true hilltop, multiple-sari, neck canoodling, ends in a rain song love story. It's a stereotype for a reason.

2. Tight editing. Something like Jodhaa Akbar might appeal to the newbie with already wet toes (or niche interests), but the grand biopic scope of the thing makes for some slow scenes and some very drawn out ideas. Same goes for a romance like Veer-Zaara; even though it was my second Hindi film, I can't say I would recommend the slow burn and flash-back framing for the newcomer. Plus, it seems unfair to suggest films that don't have re-watch value for me. If I don't care to give it six hours, why should I ask anyone else to give it three? They're more likely to stay awake for SRK's Don or Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

1. Charismatic male lead.

Read: Shah Rukh. His appeal is *nearly* limitless, in my experience. Even for the non-smitten, he seems to win the uninformed and confused over through straight-up hypnosis. Though, I've seen a few people immediately gravitate towards Ranbir or Hrithik instead. You know, the 1-3%.

Bonus Round: The target viewer's personal aesthetic, niche interests, genre leanings, world cinema experience really does matter. Trying to pick out a Hindi film for a lover of Eastern European cinema and dark social commentaries is a lot different than choosing one to show a middle-aged Scandinavian on a Sunday afternoon. And a much younger sibling? I would suggest picking something funny in any Indian language. Just do. Or something with interesting CGI and worldbuilding (my youngest brother is obsessed with the fictionalized past depicted in Maghadeera, which tickles me to no end).

* * *

After spending nearly a year writing about what makes all these films compelling to me, it's natural to think about what creates an appeal for others (especially when trying to convert friends and family). But I have to admit, when it comes to one's first experience with the Hindi film industry, it all might come down to luck.

Would I have gotten the instant Bollywood Brain if my first movie hadn't been Fanaa? It may not make it to a lot of best-of lists, but it does have most of the individual elements I want in a Hindi melodrama. It relies on a lot of tropes [blindness, unwed motherhood, separated lovers, mountain reunions] that you can find in the melodramatic masala of movies like Khwab, Daag, Aradhana, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, etc. It's got Urdu couplet recitation (albeit rather dumbed down) that entranced me the first time I heard it . . . and made me instantly interested in studying the language formally. It's technically a muslim social, too: not that common in Bollywood anymore...but one of the genres I love in older films. And the scope was suitably large to woo me into (idealized) Indian culture beyond Mumbai or Delhi. I can see the problems in the film, but I'm so very glad it found me. I can't imagine a better introduction [for me], especially when faced with the options of other Netflix accessible, more recent films.

So yes, I will continue to scheme up better ways to make others see what I see. What else are we gonna talk about otherwise?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Kamal Hai?! Bindiya Songs

Ok, it's probably just me, but singing to/about the culturally weighted mark on your forehead seems like a strange use of poetic license. Maybe it's no more strange than likening a lover's voice to that of the bulbul (popular from time immemorial), or a heroine spending an entire song saying "Mujhe chod do!" and in the last line changing her tune to "Aaja, meri baahon mein" (otherwise known as filmi-flirting). But still, this particular trend mystifies and intrigues me.

Here are a few that popped up in my memory (and in my YouTube travels). Feel free to educate me as to (A) your favorite bindiya song, and (B) what IS this about?

5.  Meri Bindiya Teri Nindiya (Lamhe, 1991)

Along with other songs on this list, singing to one's bindiya is here the opening of a larger cosmetic ballad. No worries, Sridevi's kajra, bangles, and hair will not be left out of her self-serenade. Perhaps this is just the filmi equivalent of singing in the shower . . .  a way to glamorize the daily beautification grind.

4. Teri Bindiya Re (Abhimaan, 1973)

Here, singing an ode to your bride's bindiya is:
*An excellent way to establish your new bride's suitability to your friends upon their first meeting
*A subject which will ensure she will be able to join in at the chorus [for of course, she has sung to her bindiya alone at home many times]

3. Bindiya Chamkegi (Do Raaste, 1969)

If you need to temper a seduction song with a foreshadowing of domestic bliss, singing about your bindiya might just do the trick. Although, judging by RK's reactions, he's not exactly fooled. [Bonus points for the intentional circular imagery throughout this picturization.]

2. Mathe Ki Bindiya Bole (Lahu ke Do Rang, 1979)

Here, the bindiya on Helen's forehead is conspicuously absent. I can only assume that it speaks for her character's displacement: she has neither the legitimacy of Indian wifehood nor the stability of Indian residency.

1. Naina Mere Rang Bhare (Blackmail, 1973)

Here, as an unfairly rejected wife, Rakhee's character sings a song of longing and hope as she adorns herself and the bedroom for the evening. Although not "just" a bindiya song from beginning to end, it follows the "cosmetic self-serenade" theme. Both the first and last songs on this list are songs of preparation, but while the Lamhe number is full of a youthful trust in beauty, this one is a desperate incantation--a woman begging the traditions of beauty to do their magic against all odds.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In search of: The Hindi Romantic Comedy

There's something to be said for the finely executed, vaguely familiar, and deceptively simple, rom-com. I'm just really picky about them. It's a hard gig to pull off being both romantic AND comedic at the same time, without falling into the bottomless pits of dumb humor or overwrought drama. I approve of probably half on this list, mostly cause there's a wide range of years considered. (In case you were wondering, leaving out the films I like but I don't think belong on the list . . . my favorites are: Roman Holiday, The Goodbye Girl, When Harry Met Sally, Imagine Me & You, and Music & Lyrics.)

I must confess that all this time, my inner Julia Stiles has been sitting around, sneering internally; cynically observing that classic Hindi rom coms didn't exist. I mean, we all know a standard "two people lie to each other and make hijinx and almost love and then nearly escape separating forever over the dramatic revelation of their deception" plot when we see it. And I didn't see much of it. There are a whole lot of lovers separated by parents, the law, villains, or illness (the usual Shakti Samanta offerings) . . . but not the kind of happy nonsense I was looking for. Ok, Ok. There was also Chori Chori, and various Mod romps from the 60's that I hadn't exactly warmed up to yet. And in the 70's there was the breathless Caravan and the clever Chupke Chupke. Everything else I considered centered on too dangerous of stakes for comedy club membership (Sharmilee, Anamika, Raja Jani); or retained the humor, but spun the plot sideways towards masala madness (Suhaag, Satte Pe Satta, Tum Haseen Main Jawaan). The result of both? A plot gone far, far away from the original romantic deception setups.

Don't get me wrong, I liked what I had. But I was greedy, so the question hung around the back of my mind stubbornly. Was this the one genre that even masala couldn't quite digest?

But folks, I found an 80's romcom that made me believe again.

Pasand Apni Apni (1983), is a Mithun and Rati Aghnihotri film . . . directed by Basu Chatterjee. (Yes, turns out Chatterjee worked with someone other than Amol Palekar, I was amazed, too.)

This the quirky tale of a pragmatic Cinderella and her Prince Charming-in-disguise. . .

The Set-Up:
Geeta (Rati Aghihotri), a well-meaning, but unlucky chorus dancer is about to get kicked out of the play by its delusional and neurotic director Sriram (Utpal Dutt). Mostly because she hasn't yet been paid (no one has), and her landlord has taken to waylaying her when she leaves for work . . . making her habitually late.

One morning, well aware she's on her last strike with the performance company, she prevails upon a private driver on the side of the road to give her a lift to work. What she doesn't know? The driver works for local corporate heir, Sandeep Anand (Mithun Chakraborty); a generous chap who just doesn't have enough time in his day to field all the girl/friends who keep calling to chat him up.

When she arrives, the car is recognized by the director's right hand man--who promptly "connects the dots." Their troublesome Geeta MUST be Anand's serious girlfriend. Why else would she have the use of his car? He and director Sriram immediately find the angle. Sriram will promote Geeta to lead dancer, enabling them to casually wring out a promise from Geeta that her wealthy boyfriend will become their struggling company's patron.

But Geeta too finds the angle. Cleverly, she indicates, but does not confirm outright that Anand is her boyfriend. She accepts the lead, and manages to more than double Sriram's offer of an advance salary. Immediately, she goes home, pays the landlord, and then tells the landlord in her best "we are not amused" manner that his behavior has been vulgar and unnecessary.

Geeta has enough money to support her family, finally, and Sriram has a grand patron to brag about to fend off his creditors. Everything is going smashingly. Until the paan-chewing tailor Ismail, after getting antsy waiting for his payment for the play's costumes,  decides to bring his bill straight to Mr. Anand himself. Ismail's "allegations" do not go over well at the head office. However, the bill does find its way to Sandeep and his uncle (Ashok Kumar), along with the "Geeta hai Sandeep ki girlfriend" rumor.

Uncle is offended, but Sandeep is intrigued. Who IS this girl who has the moxie to attach his name to her purchases and his person?

Inspired by his uncle's advice to send a clerk, Sandeep dresses up as an "ordinary" office drone and sets off to do his own sleuthing. First, Sandeep tracks down the tailor and tries out his "normal guy" skills. But it's a no-go.

After getting the run-around from the tailor, Sandeep heads to the drama company . . .

 And from there, finds out that the company is holding a teaser performance and a press conference. Sandeep arrives just in time to (A) catch a glimpse of Geeta's dance skills (which are mediocre, but are nicely bolstered by her fiery personality) . . .

. . . and (B) to hear the news that Mr. Anand has decided to become the financial backer of the company due to his ambiguously special relationship with Miss Geeta.

Hilariously, as the crowd of akbarwallahs clamors for Sandeep Anand to appear in person, Sandeep waits to see how Sriram and Geeta will wiggle out of the situation. Sriram decides on doublespeak, while Geeta goes full-Hema and leaves the stage in a storm of haughtiness.

Sandeep follows her to her dressing room, where she is concerned with getting the hell out of Dodge before the reporters can ask too many more questions. When she realizes that Sandeep has come regarding the tailor's bills, she quickly changes her tune. Immediately she prevails upon "the clerk" to hide the bills from Mr. Anand, "his employer." Quite the wheedler himself, Sandeep persuades Geeta to go out for dinner with him. She only has one stipulation: that they go to a cheap restaurant.

During the course of conversation, Geeta admits (haughtily still!) that she doesn't know Sandeep Anand, and in the same breath, makes "the clerk" her confederate. And the "clerk" doesn't mind, considering that he has now gone from intrigued, to something else entirely.

Just for a second I have to mention the *ahem* sexy glasses, mmkay? Just to get it out of my system.

But Geeta isn't having that sort of nonsense, not yet anyway.

Before he knows it, Sandeep is swept up into an elaborate scheme (half of his own devising) to keep Mr. Sandeep Anand and Co. in the dark, while convincing Sriram and his creditors that Mr. Anand is indeed the patron . . . keeping Geeta in the money.

Plus: Hijinx! Impersonating one person impersonating another person who happens to be yourself! Fooling lots of greedy, grumpy old men! Ex-girl/friend drama! Banter! Spunky outbursts outweighing tearful outbursts!

The rest of the film is a kind of mixed up, gender-reversed Roman Holiday . . . with the prince pretending to be a pauper to take the lady out on the town, get to know her, and help her resolve both the personal and practical in her life.The lady in turn gives the prince a taste of simpler pleasures, and lessons in how to function without restaurants, taxi cabs, or steady income. Also, stately disco. Demure Disco. It's a thing. Apparently, you just need Mithun, a cotton sari, a few stolen swing moves, and a nice restaurant.

But eventually the truth will out, and when it does will Geeta be as forgiving of Sandeep's lies as he was of hers? Will everybody's cherished fantasies come crashing to the ground?

Why it works:

My only distinct feeling about Rati Aghnihotri before watching this film was that she was rather interchangeable with other "secondary" actresses of the period. But if it was possible to take back that feeling, I would. There's a lot of good material here, and I'm impressed by how much she she doesn't waste it. Because Mithun often outshines his romantic leads in terms of screen presence (although it helps that he almost always has more to do), I've come to count on his pairings with Sridevi (rare) and Ranjeeta Kaur to match his physical energy on screen. I will have to add Rati to that list now; although, from my limited experience, she doesn't seem to rise above bad scripting (in other films) as successfully as she takes advantage of the good (in this film).

But even on paper, this character is definitely a steal from an actor's POV. She's a proto-Meenakshi (from 2012's Aiyyaa): a working girl with real problems and a lot of spunk. (Although, in this version, it's Sandeep who has the corner on the elaborate musical fantasies.) She doesn't have any use for people who've had it easy. She's very much anti-richfolk . . . a point of view that is both an ongoing gag and a serious barrier to a potential relationship.

She thinks highly of herself, and is quick to take advantage of any perceived deference to her person. She doesn't ask for things, she expects them. Watching her slowly unravel as the the big performance day grows closer and the lies take on greater weight shouldn't be humorous (I usually am too easily embarrassed for characters to like these sort of plots), but it is. She's funny without being a "comedic" character, as her reactions are only funny from the perspective of someone in-the-know (which the audience has in Sandeep). Through Sandeep we see her even more warmly, and even her web of lies starts to take on an endearing glow. And like Hema in certain roles, she walks the perfect line between confident and casual, from the way she condescends to the way she eats. I'm sure Chatterjee pushed for that realism in the first place, but she falls into the prescribed naturality with gusto.

Mithun is obviously known for being the disco dancing action hero, rather than a romantic lead. His filmography is a lot more complicated than that . . . still, the image remains. But there are a lot of advantages to expanding one's view of him.

The great thing about Mithun being cast in this role is that where another actor might go with "angry" as a motivation in a scene, he goes with "amused." When somebody else might go smug, he goes sensitive. And the intentional ease Mithun brings to a lot of his films (especially of this period) works well with Chatterjee's vision of a man gleefully engaging in a lengthy and convoluted drama all for the simple goal of getting to know someone he's interested in. Most importantly, he's just as comfortable playing the boy-next-door as he is the suave playboy, and it's a lot of fun to see him blur the lines between the two.

All of that praise for the actors and writing aside, I think that this also stands above the usual Bollywood romance because the standard gender stereotypes are reversed. For once, the woman is rough-edged and flawed, and the man is charming, with a mysterious aura of calm about him. She makes the mistakes, he tries to fix them. She's sensible, he's the dreamer. Add the signature Chatterjee bit of earthiness, relationships that hit close to home, and comedy that works 90% of the time . . . and you've got a rom-com you can file on the elite, V.I.P.'s only, casually filmi re-watch shelf.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If you love something, cage it: Baghini (1968)

Let's say you enjoy Bengali films well enough. You have a high threshold for bad picture quality and subtitle problems. And you like Soumitra Chatterjee and Rakhee Gulzar and will watch either in pretty much anything. And if that's all true, it's also a given that you also browse YouTube like a pro. If you are all these things, you probably will happen upon Baghini (Tigress, 1968). When you do, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what THAT was all about.

[Chotthe Thakur] or Chiranjeeb (Soumitra Chatterjee) is currently the overeducated/undersocialized head of a bootlegging gang that the local police chief is strangely obsessed with taking down. Thakur is obsessed with doing good by his own people . . . the women and men working the late boozerunning shift. They also seem to be people living on his ancestral lands, but that's rather vague. One of those people is Durga (Sandhya Roy), the newly orphaned daughter of one of the Thakur's moonshiners.

The young woman on whom the film turns, from first to last frame, and the Tigress of the film's title.

When first we meet Durga, she is telling off her father and other village men . . . and chases them out of her house. She soon makes up with her father, who apparently has been trying to get her married and settled down. When he has the poor sense to mention his plans again, she replies, testily:

But she is not all bite and scorn. In a haunting pastoral number sung by a wandering sage, she is compared to Radha, burning up with passion by the riverbank. For the audience, there's an added value to this song--though being sung over her in a montage sequence, Durga clearly hears it all. She knows she is being versified, and appreciates it. She knows she is something special. 

It's an idea that certainly comes to her mind a few days later, as she sits on the same riverbank watching her father's ashes smolder. . . the sole emissary of her family into the next generation. 

Obviously, this is a woman carrying the weight and potential of a lot of metaphors: wild predator, sensualized lover, orphaned daughter, mother goddess. Unfortunately, the film doesn't know what to do with this boiling pot of symbols. (I mean, would you?) 

Enter Soumitra to try to bring some needed focus. Running from the police one night, he finds himself hiding out in Durga's hut. She tells the police off and discourages them from searching her house. It's a lucky break for the Thakur, who turns out to be a strange mix of civilized [he is a college educated, former revolutionary according to the police] and outlaw. 

They strike up a banter that is probably flirting in their world--a fiery argument with a lot of "Is this appropriate?". . . "I'm not married" . . .  "Why should I tell you's" and "how stupid do you think I am" thrown back and forth. The Thakur goes on his shadowy way, and Durga is left with the beginnings of a plan. It's cemented the next day, when she starts to receive offers both for unwanted marriages (all the available men in the general area are vile) and prostitution gigs. It seems like a good time to take up her father's old position in the Thakur's liquor smuggling gang. 

I was really excited about this turn of events. Two antiheroes for the price of one! One of them a virginal young woman? (Instead of the usual courtesan?) Not to mention the wife of the Iftekhar-like police chief, who spouts some pretty interesting dialogue about criminals having good "reasons" for what they do . . . and then accuses her husband of only fulfilling his duty blindly/fanatically. 

But, by my tone, you can probably guess that this film didn't really carry these themes to fruition. Lots of spoilers ahead.

Once again, either the censors demanded a moralistic ending (if you guessed that this film ends in Bengal's version of Central Jail, you'd be right). . . or two different people were responsible for the two halves of the film. What could have been an interesting commentary on good criminals/bad cops theme . . . was either screwed by the subtitles or just plain screwed. Because one never really understands why the police chief is so set on taking down Chiranjeeb's gang, or why he is so inappropriate in his methods/bad at it. Half of Baghini's scenes involve policemen forcibly entering people's homes, stabbing their merchandise to find smuggled goods, and detaining people without cause. (Their actions are decidely similar to the goondas who keep storming into Durga's home, but the meaning in this is left for the audience to suss out.) Also, there are a whole lot of convoluted scenes of Soumitra trying to rearrange smuggling schedules and payment transfers. 

 Thakur indulging in 'ol college pastimes. Finally, a scene I understood.

Durga's role in the black market business is also annoyingly vague. Maybe that's my ignorance, but it's possible that this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Perhaps we are supposed to feel her own identity crisis, her confusion about her place in the world. She's part of the gang, but she's also important to the Thakur for other reasons. Reasons that he never says aloud, except to ask her not to leave him. Perhaps he thinks the sunset bike-rides say enough? 

There being nothing to write home about and no home to write to, she channels all her frustrations into gaining the Thakur's trust and setting up her usual stalkers [yes, they practically consider it a job] to be shown up by the Thakur on several occasions. She's trying to point out that she has a very influential angel on her shoulder, understandable. However, the film seems to condemn her as a "tease" . . . as this only fuels one of the stalker's feelings into a frenzy. A frenzy that leads to *spoiler* an attempted rape and his death by Durga's hands. 

A brief moment of happiness as she tries on new clothes with her black market wages. I'd like to see Sandhya in a role where she gets to smile more often, she is stunning. 

If you're so inclined, you could have some long conversations about the scenes spotlighting women in the community who have been used, abused, and cast aside by men in the smuggling industry . . . or the storyline of the saintly, enlightened woman who is ignored by her husband (the police chief). And there's a lot of goings-on about dowries (that I didn't completely get), how nobody ever has enough money to get married. These women must choose between starvation, or "partnering" with black marketeers until they wear out their welcome and are cast off at a brothel. (But there's really only one courtesan in town of note, and that's the blink and you'll miss her awesomeness, Rakhee.) 

And this is where Thakur junior's arc is given precedence over Durga's. While Durga schemes to keep from being raped [how dare she] and to keep the Thakur from being caught red-handed with the biggest shipment of them all . . . Chiranjeeb is growing more saintly by the day, and secretly setting things in motion to give up smuggling and arrange for the the comfortable life of some of the women in his gang. He also seems to be planning to marry Durga. But he doesn't tell her, of course. 

People who insist on maintaining large personal bubbles are bound to have communication problems. 

Things seriously go south on Durga's final smuggling trip. Durga kills the attempted rapist, and of course, this is MURDER capital M [no such thing as pleading self-defense in Indian films, ever!] and of course she will go to jail or be hanged for it. Or so the police say, with a sad twinkle in their eyes. They're just happy that someone is going to jail. 

Chiranjeeb has grand visions of taking the fall for Durga (he really is a nice guy at the end of the day) but she's already confessed. The only thing left is to visit her behind bars and finally express his feelings. With vermillion and some pat words about how they will buy their future with a few years of jail time. *Ahem* HER jail time. 

The tigress: doubly tamed. 

So yes, although the women in this film are flesh and blood . . . and their hardships and survivalist choices are presented as something they cannot really be blamed for [props], there is no alternative presented. Except to suffer for other people's crimes and hopefully find someone nice who will wait for you to get out of jail.