Monday, January 26, 2015

An interview with A Place Like Me in a Girl Like This

About a month ago I wrote something to kick off a new series of language learner interviews "Language Loves Me" at the travelogue: a place like me in a girl like this. Mikaela (the woman behind the site) is a thoughtful interviewer, and it was fun to sit down and try to describe what:

*Hooked me on Hindi films
*Drew me to Hindi/Urdu study
*What keeps me interested

Along with a brief, loving examination of what (I think) makes Hindi/Urdu such a fascinating language AND where to go for language learning resources. Hope you enjoy it! The article can be found here.

P.S. I think Mikaela is starting a big Korean souvenir giveaway, so check that out, too!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bandhe Haath (1973)

I get why Bandhe Haath isn't as well know as it might be. This Amitabh isn't a full throttle star (it released a few months after Zanjeer) and the story lacks emotional focus. But still, there is much fun to be had with the right expectations. Those being, that this is something to heal the '80s or late '70s saturated brain ... when you are are pro-groove, but formula-weary.

Shyamu (Amitabh Bachchan) is a chor. He's been brought up in the house burgling profession, and he's pretty good at it.



But when his mentor in crime is injured, and Shyamu is mistaken for a respected playwright during a getaway attempt,  he gets a brief taste of the sharif-aadmi life.



And he likes it. He also really likes the stage dancer he is expected to work with, the luminous Mala (Mumtaz).

I don't think that was the idiom you were looking for


His mentor (Madan Puri) is worried and laid up with a broken leg, but still lays the guilt on Shyamu, threatening to rob the hospital where he's recuperating alone (!) if Shyamu doesn't help. Strangely, Shyamu doesn't actually give in. He wants out of the business. Guru-ji goes through with the risky job, and meets a bad end.



With the death of the elder thief, the police investigation spurs Shyamu to leave town. He discovers that the real playwright, Deepak (Amitabh Bachchan) is deathly ill AND a doppleganger.



After a crisis of conscience (how cool would it be to have this guy's life?), he dresses Deepak in his own shifty clothes and calls a doctor. But it's too late. Before he knows it, crafty Shyamu becomes the clever Deepak, sort of by default.



This means a cushy job at the theatre and a chance to "collaborate" with a very willing Mala.



Still, Shyamu has left more loose ends than he realizes ... and a dedicated and superfly police sleuth (Ajit) is on his trail.



I promised lots of style, and I don't think you'll be disappointed on that end. A release date of '73 means less manic action, but it doesn't mean LESS less.

Personally, I love soaking in the moment when the wedding cake mansions of the '60s cinema become the Bavarian gingerbread houses of the '70s...something I would date to films released in 1973. The juxtaposition of rosy lingerie and orange bedside lamps perhaps says it all. And speaking of lingerie ....



Note: What I want to know is why the heck older Hindi films are fine with bra appearances but my copy of Queen (2014) actually blurred out an unworn brassiere in one scene. Actually the n*pple hat and exposed cleavage were all left uncensored in in Queen, so now I have zero idea what goes through these censor's heads. Since when did underwear become more scandalous than the body parts it covers?

Ranjeet is also superfly in Bandhe Haath, but that was expected, I think
Besides the general attention to fun sets and costumes, Bandhe Haath is really in love with the blue lighting, right from the opening "chor" montage.



It's an appropriate atmosphere for a film about a cat burglar, I suppose, but it's also right pleasant on the eyes. (One of my least favorite aspects of the 70s is the films that seem to take place in a never ending noon, to the point where your eyes ache for a badly lit night sequence.)

 Mumtaz wears some fabulous stuff as usual (the early 70's Bombay styles were pretty good for a curvy figure), and she has several fun (if sort of WTF) tribal and rural-inspired stage dances.

In one of these dances, Amitabh appears in an Indian kilt. You heard that right. 


























But "Nahiin!" Mumtaz is not my favorite Mumtaz. She's so fun in films with spytastic intrigue (like Sachha Jhutha & Roop Tera Mastana) where she has more information than the hero (and thus more power), that I hate to see her exist to be pushed around by her feller's lies and shady past.



In general, I don't exactly appreciate the way the female characters crap-out (agency-wise) in the second half, but for once, some of the guys get their shit together, so, I guess it's not all bad.

Also decent father alert


























The most surprising aspect of this film wasn't the occasional divestment of formula, but rather, the action. Shyamu's two fights with Ranjeet's gang come out of nowhere and run long, but they're 100% worth the screen time. The stunts feel anchored in space, the camera moves dynamically, and the set is used sort of like you would see in a good fencing scene; with choreography born of of furniture and prop placement, not just fancy footwork. Honestly, I couldn't stop smiling throughout. I don't usually think of Amitabh at this age as an action star, but clearly, all he needed was the right team behind him.




Across the board, Amitabh turns in an interesting performance in Bandhe Haath. [Fortunate for us, since he's the only story here, barring comic subplots.] It's not trademark anything (angry, humorous, or pompous), which is why this is the perfect film for anyone feeling Bachchaned out.



Chi, chi, chi. When you're tired of Bachchan, you're tired of life. Don't let it happen to you.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Safar (1970)

It's far too long since I posted anything on Rajesh, I admit, but it's almost as long since I saw anything of his worth seeing. This is my fault, probably, as I recklessly burned through a lot of his best stuff early on. So to those of you who've been waiting patiently for some RK loyalty* (especially respected readers Filmbuff and Suhan, who have urged me not to leave Rajesh too far behind), I hope this fits the bill . . .

The set-up: Promising medical student Neela (Sharmila Tagore) meets struggling artist Avinash (Rajesh Khanna). The two quickly develop an intimate friendship. But when Avinash's strange health symptoms prove to be terminal, he begs her to marry the elder brother of the boy she's tutoring, Shekhar (Feroz Khan) who has expressed interest. Neela agrees. It turns out to be a good decision at first--as the two share some explosive chemistry, and Shekhar seems to want her to pursue all her long-held goals. But since they don't share the special communication Neela has with Avinash ... their secrets and insecurities spell trouble ahead.

Despite some good performances and unusual themes, Safar is not an easy film to watch. It suffers from overly methodical pacing--there are fewer dramatic high notes than you would hope for in a plot including a love triangle, cancer, proxy proposals, a woman working her way through cardiology school, and an increasingly jealous husband. It tackles big topics, and makes big claims, and then misses by a mile. [The dialogue is credited to the same writer who did C.I.D., Aag, and Mard ... so it's easy to see how the verbal hits and misses would both be spectacular.] While not parallel cinema by anyone's definition, there's a devotion to realistic progression of events and conversations, and a dedication to letting events follow from each character's driving motivations.

Many moments that aren't especially well-crafted strike home JUST because they diverge a bit from formula. In tone, it reminds me the most of Dastak, released in the same year. Safar's clearly aiming at more of a commercial crowd (like I said, the plot elements advertise melodrama), has a budget for locations and side plots ... but still, its middle class sensibility and unique blend of traditional and modern ideals edge it nearer art house tearjerker than popcorn matinee. Looking at some of the earlier works by the director, such as Anokhi Raat (1968), the description of which screams experimental to me, it's easier for me to guess at what Safar is trying to accomplish: something thoughtful with enough tears and remonstrations to keep you in your seat.

Director Asit Sen was barely on my radar before this, although it turns out I've already seen a number of his films. Now, I'd like to watch more ... simply to tease out his similarities to other Bengali directors and the parallels between his various films. So far, its easy to see his preference for surprise twists! in the final third of the film (meh), the medical profession (gadgets and technobabble!), boat/river metaphors for death/life (kinda heavy), admirable women working  at various levels of social respectability--Sharafat's dancer, Amar Prem's prostitute, Deep Jele Jai/Khamoshi's nurse, and Safar's surgeon (refreshing), and women dealing with different kinds of social rejection or ostracism from their community (a standby theme in all of his films that I've seen). Even more curious is that while he worked with plenty of mainstream actors, as far as I can tell, it's his films with a focus on a central female's life that have remained popular.

In terms of regional film-making grammar, I think Sen ended up making a Bengali film about a problematic marriage in Hindi. To back that up? First, there's the lack of choreographed songs. Most are in bedrooms and hallways--claustrophobic Bengali specialties. The rest are in mountain or river locations, accompanied by sedate activities. Then I'd say that the use of topical, metaphorical conversations to further the character's misunderstandings and their perception of deeply ingrained differences is a standard feature of 1960s Bengali cinema. As is the use of nuanced economic pressures at crucial points to undermine a character's mental or relational stability. In classic Hindi films, it is *often* enough that a person is (A) motivated by jealousy and (B) does something stupid. In '60s Bengali films, environmental stressors tend to be used with political pressures and family pressures to erode someone's judgment and push them over the edge. I think you could make Safar in Bengali with Uttam and Suchitra c. 1970 (think their Nabarag) and it wouldn't lose much of its essence as a story. It might even be improved by a shorter runtime. Regional trends aside, a film anchored upon conversation is hard to sustain across 2/12 hrs.

Possibly related: people talk a lot in a film ostensibly about bad communication. Accidental irony? Or clever juxtaposition?

This is a good performance from Sharmila. She's best, I think, in the more sensible (rather than moralizing) dialogues, in scenes with her teenage science student, and in her character's believable switch from sexy intellectual (with Feroz) to unguarded schoolgirl (with Rajesh) ... changes that fit these chemistry and emotion driven relationships (respectively).
Feroz as Shekhar, the high-flying
businessman and (eventually) suspicious husband, is perhaps the post powerful role in this story. Yes, I did just write that, I guess. I do love Rajesh's sensitive and tortured Avinash--but frankly, such a human, mesmerizing performance from Feroz was unexpected (given other things I've seen). Cool factor sure. Bluster and heroics I've watched. His angst I've appreciated. But for once, something self-contained and purposeful, without being overdone. In fact, I swear you can see him exerting directorial influence over his own scenes, as they tend to use blocking, physicality, and zooms to achieve an edgier effect than the rest of the film. Might have been a nightmare for Mr. Sen, but I find it compelling, so, whatever.

Still, all the actors get time on screen that is unusually naturalistic ... a chance for them to shoot from the hip. Feroz almost literally ... as he gets a Western inspired showdown scene with some creditors and guitar strumming accompaniment. It was also fascinating to see the proto-Rajesh and Feroz egos collide ... you completely believe that these two men would be of comparable interest to the same powerful woman. One is energetic and impulsive, the other weak and over-analytical. One offers excitement and romance, the other idealism and bosom friendship.

People have been telling me to see this film forever. One look at the plot summary and you'll know why I balked. "Unfair" is right. BUT, y'all were also right that this is prime material for Rajesh appreciators. He's still so new here that one is tempted to throw out a lot of cheesy descriptors like "fresh faced" and "earnest" and "bright." But when you compare this with the hardened Rajesh characters in The Train (1970) or Ittefaq (1969), his diverse talents at this stage belie those adjectives. His role in Safar--Avinash, the young artist with cancer--is filmi-gold . . . and thus effing tempting to phone in. But he didn't. All you really have to do is look at that spot in the upper right corner of the frame and spout wisdom, and you have *cough* every non-alcoholic filmi invalid ever and maybe a hit. And also something laughable to present-day eyes. Mostly, this is not laughable stuff. Even though Avinash is an uncompromising white hat, he's not without darkness or struggle. Because he's terrified of his impending death, his scenes of existential reflection scrape away his veneer of perfection. He hasn't really lived yet, so when he sings zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar? koi samjha nahi, koi jaana nahi [loosely: life's a journey, for what purpose is this journey? no one understands it, no one really knows it], you feel betrayed, too. And when he begs the girl he loves to marry someone else, it's not forced goodness. It's a desperate, panicky kind of logic--a bid for one person's happiness instead of two people's sorrow.

Unlike other musings along a similar topic (*ahem* Kal Ho Na Ho), the bride isn't given away. She's mostly in control. I don't think she would have married just anyone--she had already established a compelling rapport with Shekhar. In nearly every scene, she furthers her own will and opinion (usually in opposition to others). In the ongoing conversations about "trust" and "understanding" she always comes back to the fact that she trusts herself: her own perceptions. She's even supported in this by her VERY egalitarian family--who say she is "her own guardian" in major life decisions. [Likewise, Avinash isn't the self-sacrificial "ex" immediately ... he has to work through some occasionally hilarious reactions to his rival. And in a serious moment later, when he realizes Shekhar is being a tool (lez be honest), he doesn't instantly let him off the hook.]

This is all so progressive that one starts to suspect Neela must be punished for her empowerment. In this story's domestic sphere, there isn't *quite* enough room for a woman who sees herself as an equal partner and unbound by traditional gender norms. Almost, but not quite. Her husband ends up interpreting her secret sorrows and work ethic as disinterest, and she pulls away in frustration when he declines to tell her of his struggles. They end up giving each other so much space that they feel shackled to one another. In this film's universe, she just can't have love AND a higher calling, she can't be a domestic goddess AND be a famous surgeon, and there's no way she can both have a male friend AND a husband. At least, *spoiler* that's what the ending seems to tell us by default.

It's not that Safar's ending is "unfair" in a traditionally sexist way, but rather, it's fatalistic where it could have been progressive. Instead of a strong woman who works through issues along "the journey of life," this is a strong woman hounded by other people's issues--problems she is expected to fix. Like in Amar Prem, Asit Sen doesn't really blame Sharmila's character for all the things that happen to her. If anything, she is deified in her chosen profession and in her good intentions. But of course, as in Amar Prem and Ray's Devi, the price for deity is more than any woman should have to pay.

*P.S. Y'all, this is my hundredth post, so I thought it would be appropriate to return to Rajesh. If Shashi provided the initial bridge to the classics for me, Rajesh is the one who kept me there ... providing a multi-film experience that was consistent enough to keep me interested when everything was scary and new. And because I'm dubiously contrary at heart, I needed someone who was sort of dusty and unwashed and unloved (as far as I knew, then) to explore on my own.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Ishara (1969)

Written, directed, produced by: Waheed Murad

Set-up and hook

Struggling artist Aamir (Waheed Murad) ...




 . . . meets Alia (Rozina), a wealthy family's ward, when he's "caught" fixing his bike in front of her hostel and brought before the headmistress for questioning.


Alia manages to avoids Aaamir for like a day, and then is properly wooed at a group picnic. It's not long before the two are sighing into each others pleasant faces and over long spiral phone cords and on shady park benches.



Well, when she can manage to ditch her family on the few holidays she has from her boy-hating boarding school, that is. And avoid snooping (ok, curious) friends.



More serious roadblocks to love may or may not include: oops, Aamir's female patron, Reshma, is in love with him;  and oops, Alia's aunt wants to get her married to the mustachioed heir of the house;


AND major oops, Alia feels beholden to her aunt and will probably say yes to mustache-cousin just out of gratitude.

Performances

where DID I leave my cell? never had this problem with my pink wall-phone
Story-appropriate (read: sweet). Errs on the side of heavy-lidded stares over shout-y theatrics. This is my first Waheed film, and I have to say that even if Aamir is pretty dull for an artiste-type (zero misbehavior), Waheed himself is charming. Rozina didn't make a huge impression, but she's adequate. Just don't ask me to pick the actress playing Reshma out of a line-up.

Perks

Lots of variety in locations and creatively edited sequences. Definitely isn't a point and shoot film, evidenced by the very first frame, a "first person" dolly cam angle down an alley spliced with Aamir's narration "This is the street where I live, etc." A few shots flat out surprised me, as I've never seen comparable angles used in same era Bollywood.


An album to own, honestly....
  • A piano ballad/sequence with three major characters lamenting their doomed love story, Main ik bhoola hua naghma hoon. [I love these on principle, and this is a catchy one.]  

Some heroes acting heroic!

*Aamir wins the gentleman award. Reshma keeps her head pretty well, for a spurned woman. But due to niceness overload, no one ever says what they need to say to get what they want. As a Minnesotan, I really know *ahem* nothing about this phenomenon.


Annoyances  

betrothed cousin was the only one allowed to be a little naughty 
Few. The comedy borders on comedic, with a funny sideplot about a classical music student who can only hit a proper sa-re-ga-ma scale when she's crying.

Gender stuff: the flip side to Aamir's consummate chivalry is over-earnest passivity. If you are looking for an action hero, look far, far away, or at the screen next door playing a Punjabi film. And the women--self-sacrificing, but mostly behind closed doors.

Picture quality: Not great, could be a lot worse. I expect some of the locations would be gorgeous, if you could see them properly.

YOU be happier! no, YOU!
Weepiness level: low, even with the multiple depressed shaadi se pehle folks.

Coherence: Pieces are missing from this print. How random people are socially connected in this movie is a mystery, maybe because of subs; maybe Aamir just knows people 'cause he's a friendly dude.



Oddities

we are a 50 year old boy band! whoever heard of such a thing?!
*A music teacher's daydream about a long-haired, aging pop group known as "The Bugs."

*The fact that none of the boarding school girls seem to have anything to study except love notes...no, I guess that seems about right.

*Aamir is virtually never seen at his patroness' house. Why have a patron if you aren't going to paint at their beautiful studio? I mean, if you can't ignore the cougar crush-vibes, then maybe you shouldn't be an artist at all.

Verdict: Watchable. Downloadable. Maybe lovable. 

Don't leave! How can I be sure to meet another Pakistani film as nice as you?
If you like fluffy 60s romances with a lot of a good humor, boarding school gags, and breathless puppy love a la Annette and Frankie, then the film as a whole might appeal. 

Note: Generally, I don't find Pakistani films with subtitles, so if you've seen the film and want to correct a plot point, please do so in the comments. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

This is me outside my Comfort Zone ... 2014 and 2015 Resolutions

Last year I challenged myself to 8 filmi things outside my comfort zone. Let's see how I did.

An Evening in Paris (1967)
1. Shammi Kapoor

I watched a grand total of one Shammi film: An Evening in Paris (1967). And I watched it for Pran and Sharmila, I have to confess. Still more interested in him as a person than as a star.

2. Dilip Kumar

I watched 5 Dilip Kumar films, but floundered after a less than awesome experience with Yahudi (1958), and repeated failures at getting through Naya Daur (1957). Tarana (1951) was probably my favorite of the lot, just because it was strange and romantic and I hadn't seen anything else like it. I think he's too much in my comfort zone now, actually. Need my perception of him shaken up.

The Cranes are Flying (1957)
3. 1940s and 1950s Naushad songs

I watched that Movie Mahal documentary on Naushad. Plus Andaz (1949). Does that count? The more 50s films I watch, the more Naushad I'll get down the line, I suppose. Also, I'm planning on seeing Aina (1977).

4. Russian movies without subtitles

Watched some short films without subs. But since I saw quite a few Soviet classics for the first time this year, I don't feel so bad.

5. Shaw Brother's films and classic Hong Kong cinema

Saw 10 or 11 Chinese films, including a couple of Shaw Brothers flicks (A Cause to Kill, The Mermaid, The Lady Professional), several mainland Chinese cinema films from the 60s (Two Stage Sisters, and the 1961 version of The Red Detachment of Women), and some more recent kung-fu classics.

The Red Detachment of Women (1961)
6. Sridevi

If you hadn't noticed, I went from total Sridevi-virgin (and mystified by her popularity), to extreme Sridevi fangirl this year.

7. Other (non-Shahrukh) Khan vehicles of the 90s

Errrr, Karan Arjun might not count for Salman, since it was also SRK. But I did see two Aamir/Juhi films: Daulat Ki Jung (1992) and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1989).

8: Mastering the basics of a non-Devanagari Indian script

Learned the basics of Urdu (whoohoo!) But my Bengali is spotty. SO MANY conjunct consonants, and complicated pronunciation/spelling compared to Hindi. Although, give me a transliterated phrase and I have found that I usually am pretty good at pronunciation--so I must have absorbed something from all those Bangla films.

So on then, to this years list!


Things outside my comfort zone that I wish to make a little less so this year . . . 



Shaheed (1962)
1. Pakistani cinema

Honestly I think this is the hardest of the lot. Beyond the budget issues, the intermittent existence of the industry, unknown stars, and cultural specificity, almost nothing is subbed. So, if you don't speak Urdu, you must be prepared to go through most films (outside random fan-subbed things) missing a fair amount. It's absolutely fine if you're dealing with an action-adventure, or something short and pulpy. But as far as I can tell from a lot of YouTube browsing and some reading, most Pakistani films are super-long exploitation flicks, or fast-dialogue-based comedies, or violent tragedies. STILL. I must conquer. I watched the classic Shaheed (1962) this year, and have my eye on a couple of things that look like cult-classics in the making. Also, if other people with no Hindi-Urdu can do it, I do not have the right to complain. Early Pakistani films with Noor Jehan might be an calm way to start checking the box, and I have a couple of early Waheed Murad films that look to fall on the sensitive side. Any Pakistani films to recommend?


2. 1980s classics

Chashme Buddoor (1981)
You know how it is. You're talking to someone who grew up in India in the 80s, and they mention all this stuff that sounds horrific at first, but the WAY they talk about (so very fondly) makes you want to get in on the experience. That means Naseeruddin Shaw and Anil Kapoor and Farooq Sheikh (who I started getting into last year) but ALSO Sunny Deol (snore) and Raj Babbar (?). It means things like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Nikaah (at the top of my list) and more masala-oriented stuff like Sharaabi and Mard and Dayavan. So yes, I've seen some of the classics (Masoom, Mr. India, Chashme Buddoor, Ram Lakhan), but mostly I've watched films based on actor binges. What classics mark the 80s in your memory?


Khaidi (1983)
3. South Indian cinema

Telugu seems the most accessible cinema, then Tamil, then Malayalam. I'd like to see important things in each of these industries, but lovely things in Malayalam based upon conversation aren't subbed, and so, one is likely to end up watching loud and shiny masala or melodramas in Tamil or Telugu. Either way, I'd like to see more. I think I'll start compiling a list of classics, and try to make it through them. If you think it is worthwhile without subs, or available with subs and WORTH seeing, now's your chance to start getting in your votes, lol. Until you tell me what to see, I'll probably be over here watching Silk Smitha and Chiranjeevi until my brains fall out.


4. Actors who changed my mind last year but haven't quite won my heart

Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958)
Jackie Schroff and Meena Kumari have probably never been mentioned in the same sentence. But honestly, I went from near-despise to hearty appreciation of both of them last year. Jackie in several Subhash Gai films and Meena Kumari in a handful of films from her earlier career. After some good experiences, I realized my problem was with their later work, not the actors themselves.

Plus there's Dev Anand, who in the 50s no longer makes my disgust list (after seeing Baazi) and Kishore Kumar, who switched from my naughty to nice/awesome/aur de do! list. Also, in a strange twist, I recently went from hatred of Priyanka Chopra, to unexpected appreciation. She was interviewed in a recent Rajeev Masand roundtable, and I couldn't help but admire her gumption and eagerness to encourage up and coming new actresses. Still not sure what to make of this polar shift, I'll have to keep y'all posted.


A Traffic Controller on Crossroads (1986)

5. North Korean cinema

I know, I know. But the one North Korean film I watched last year was good fun. I have a strange fixation on propaganda cinema. And it doesn't hurt that quite a few DPRK films are available with English subs on You Tube via various archives.


6. Bengali films from "arty" directors that aren't Satyajit Ray

Suchitra isn't impressed. Yet.

Ya know. Ghatak and Sen, mostly. And more Tapan Sinha (top of my list is Jhinder Bhandi, for obvious reasons). I haven't seen ANY films from the first two, I'm ashamed to say. Note: After 13 of his films last year, Ray is no longer out of my comfort zone, even if certain of his films still will be. In fact, a lot of his films push you right out of the nest after three minutes. I think I can partially credit Ray with making me a lot braver in my cinema choices than I used to be, or at least, more comfortable with quiet explorations of ideas and social situations.


7. Read more filmi-biographies and scholarship

There's a bunch of them, with widely varying degrees of awesomeness. I know Jerry Pinto has some good ones, and there's a Rajesh Khanna one I want to read (rec'd by Suhan), as well as something on Satyajit Ray. There's also a book on the Progressive Writers Movement that I want to get a hold of ASAP. What do you think should be at the top of my list?


2 States (2014)
8. More current Indian cinema

Y'all, I probably saw like 10 newer Bollywood films (from the the last 20 years) in 2014. As much as I don't regret burying myself in the past (gosh it's fun), I realize that being conversant in the times has its merits as well. The good news is that I marathoned a bunch last week (Queen, Shahid, Dawaat-e-Ishq, 2 States, Kai Po Che, and Miss Lovely), so this resolution is already off to a good start.