Sunday, November 2, 2014

The strange case(s) of Amanush and Kalankito Nayak

Most beloved actors/actresses have a cringe-inducing film (or four dozen) waiting to ensnare you, if you're not careful. The call of undiscovered delights pull you deeper into filmography frontiers, but the further you dig into undocumented catalogs, the more you put yourself at risk. Things are seen that can never be unseen, and we can all agree to forgive and forget and definitely never speak of them again. But there's no excuse for watching a film you KNEW was not representative of an actor's strengths, and then b*tching about it, anyway.

Thus, I have no one but myself to blame for Amanush (1975), however much I'd like to. 'Cause I knew darn well what I was getting into. In case you are out of the fandom loop, there are three [painfully obvious] reasons why it should be avoided:
   1. Uttam at any age is at a disadvantage when forced to communicate in English or Hindi.
   2. In Beth of BLB's words, "Color Uttam is not good Uttam."
   3. Even in black and white Bengali films, in the mid-1970s, his hero energy is rapidly deflating  ... though he retains his good-natured humor and continues to flash his boyish grin when given the opportunity.

But despite all these indisputable strikes against it, Amanush was a hit, and it's still spoken of in almost sacred terms in many quarters.* My Hindi-Urdu prof this semester told me the only thing of Uttam's he had ever seen was Amanush ... and this was said in such reverence that I had to take interest. I mean, curiouser and curiouser. [You can see how the cat got killed ... ]



As I was watching Amanush piece by painful piece, I was also working my way through Kalankito Nayak (1970), an Uttam/Sabitri/Aparna film that bears a lot of thematic similarities to Amanush and almost follows the plot of a typical Shakti Samanta "man-against-the-world" melodrama [think Amar Prem, Khwab, Ajnabee]. Thus it was impossible not to compare the two ... their differing emotional impact (on me) and how/why they chose to go in very different (probably industry-specific) directions. Note: There's nothing substantial to be found about KN online, so I can't say if it wielded any influence on Amanush. I doubt that it would have unless it was a hit, but then, who can predict that sort of thing?

A quick breakdown of the similarities and differences: 



*Amanush tells of a rural landlord's son Madhu (Uttam Kumar) who is betrayed by his family's employee and set up as a thief and father of village girl's illegitimate son. As a result, Madhu is rejected by his fiancee (Sharmila Tagore) and after serving jail time, loses his family land and becomes the town drunk. Because of the efforts of first-hostile, then sympathetic lawman (Anil Chatterjee), Mr. Amanush (half-human, half-beast) starts to climb up out of the muck. [Literally. He works in a mudpit.] Kalankito Nayak is the tale of a simple, recently married businessman Indrajit (Uttam Kumar), caught between helping a cast-off wife/prostitute (Aparna Sen) and the increasing suspicion and judgment of his family ... stoked by the manipulation of his crooked accountant/cackling brother in law.

*One is a Bengali film clearly using Hindi film tropes, the other is a Hindi film (primarily) using Bengali film actors.

*Both heroes have hostile, distrusting, but brainwashed ex-wives/lovers.



*Both feature Utpal Dutt as a scheming character working the system.

*Amanush is told partially in flashback, but other than a brief courtroom story hook at the beginning, Kalankito Nayak is a linear, chronological affair.



*The family is the enemy in KN (starting from the first horrible acts by the hero's mother, down to the hero's own family bringing him to court in the climax), and is easily comparable to the community's role in much of Amanush. Both heroes are essentially misunderstood creatures, cheated by their employees, unfairly ostracized by their social groups, and unjustly accused/punished by the law. Ultimately, KN's hero must do the right thing when everyone believes that his actions are wrong, and Amanush's hero must do the right thing when he no longer believes in himself.

A longer breakdown of the similarities and differences: 

You can't talk about Amanush or even Kalankito Nayak without comparing them to the most inescapable of Bengali story arcs, that of the Devdas-ian hero. In fact, in both stories, the only empathetic figure for a time is the golden-hearted prostitute.



As tends to be true of Bengali classic films, KN's characters act in less extreme ways than a comparable filmi hero (one night of drinking instead of a hundred) but will still undergo extreme consequences. When first ostracized by his family in KN, Indrajit begins to drink, but gives it up fairly quickly. Yet, the mere appearance of a alcoholism is enough to cause his reputation to plummet. The character's real struggle isn't alcohol, but society's quickness to judge.

In contrast, Amanush's protagonist is certainly an alcoholic, and must fight his own addiction as much as the ostracism of his community. I suppose this is a much bigger task, and yet I struggle to like Madhu. Much of the Amanush is one painful drunk scene after another, but by the end (if you're still watching), the alcoholism is conquered along with the accompanying hopelessness. Perhaps, for people at the time, this was an encouraging twist on the usual tale. "Hey, you guys! Devdas goes to rehab and actually gets the girl!" And on paper, I would guess that this is a commendable plot idea, to reject fatalism and embrace self-change. However, this idea is unraveled by the implementation. Most interactions between characters are overwrought (even by the standards of melodramas), probably because their motivations and complexities are crippled by the wooden dialogue.



Note: I'd be interested to hear opinions from anyone who speaks Bengali about the Bengali version of the film. I'd like to think I'm far enough along in Hindi to know a well-written conversation when I hear it, and Hindi-Amanush doesn't deliver on that front ... no matter what all the nostalgic reviewers claim. But scripting processes are complicated, and I'm willing to entertain the idea that in moving between English, Bengali, and Hindi scripts ... or in accommodating non-native speakers, good concepts were watered down for easy translation.



As far as I can tell by subtitles (and by listening for repetitive phrases in the Bengali dialogue), Kalankito Nayak is minimalistic rather than simplistic in its ideas. This distinction doesn't necessarily make a film good, but I will say that I was far more engaged in the motivations of its characters than Amanush's ... as I could see a believable buildup to a point of view, good reasons behind misunderstandings, and the slow burn shaping the character from a weak man into a strong one. Both films attempt to do the latter, and I do appreciate a REAL arc (who needs a character that is perfect from point A to point B?) but Uttam's characterization is as bloated as his character in Amanush. In Kalankito Nayak, he pulls a bit of a Mem Saheb, his archetypal weak to strong hero (in my mind at least), and shows us a compassionate man who has weathered trials and come out the better for them in the end. I really believe that this is what Amanush attempted, and I must give it points for the effort. Perhaps if Amanush had been made even five years earlier, Uttam would have been able to overcome the bad scripting and still achieve that larger goal through force of personality alone.

The strongest bit of Amanush, in my opinion, is also the sequence truest to Uttam's Bengali persona and is, I suspect, a large part of why the film is often called "sensitive." I'm speaking of the progression of scenes on the riverboat in the second half.



The hero and heroine are thrown together long enough to show the heroine that her reject still cares for her (and is pretty much the only worthwhile dude around, even if that doesn't say much). It all culminates in a bittersweet song of lament, the hero's face toward the wind, finally freed from the censoring expectations of city and community, and virtually unaware that his beloved is listening. [Actually, now that I think of it, KN's only stand out song is a beautiful lament as well.] The piece works well in both Bengali and Hindi versions, and is also a sequence that would have fit just as comfortably in any commercial film from 60's Calcutta. I for one find it hard to swallow Bengali songs in pastoral settings, or those free of performance-logic, as I instinctively feel the actors straining to legitimize something so unleashed from reality. But, for whatever reason, on a boat or on the water's edge, suddenly, everything seems possible. My favorite Bengali songs (especially into the late 60s and 70s) are often on harbors, rivers, and beaches.



Perhaps it works because the crew and actors felt comfortable, or maybe because Shakti Samanta has a natural directorial eye for scenes on the water or near the water ... in fact, as I mentioned in my last post, he tends to work water-recreation, boats, and bathing suits into scenes in his films that would usually be shot in a forest or a garden. They're often standout sequences, too. Just think of the water-skiing song with Shammi hanging from a helicopter in An Evening in Paris, or the rowboat song on the lake in Kati Patang.

This is one of the only things Amanush does have over Kalankito Nayak ... an attention to beauty. Sharmila is somehow even more luminous than usual. Perhaps because she is without her bouffant, and because Samanta always frames her with adoration, as one does their chosen goddess. Her character has little to do except be a thorn in the hero's side, but she's still a presence. I couldn't help but shiver at one point when she emerged above deck, hair blowing around her in a whirlwind.


Related to this, Samanta gives Prema Narayan far more screentime than usual. She even gets a song all to herself for once! She's really the only person who is consistently likable in the film, acting as the audience's umbrella for the buckets of tears from the main character.  Perhaps this nonconformity is why the the retrospective in The Hindu [asterisked above] found her un-affecting and wooden. Her Dhanno might have been the faithful Chandramukhi to Madhu's Devdas, except for the part where she pushes Devdas to change and actually gets to dishoom-dishoom the group of hooligans abducting his beloved.  [I can't remember the last time I saw a woman come to the aid of another woman this way in a Hindi film. It was probably something with Aruna Irani and probably ended in her death.] This is another cross-point between the two films, the relationship between the two major female characters--the wife and prostitute--is not a hostile one. The Kalankito Nayak wife/call girl relationship is the more filmi (i.e. hopeless) of the two, while Amanush pleasantly allows Dhanno to be free of the usual pine, sacrifice, and die arc.

However hopeless her story, I must admit that Aparna Sen as "the loose woman who asks you to light her cigarette at a party, then languidly drapes herself across a couch as if she is in the last stages of consumption," is my favorite Aparna Sen.



The more I see of Shakti Samanta, the more I want to examine his films for his own personal motivations. Not because I idolize his work, but because I wonder why I am consistently drawn to his particular flaws in spite of myself. For example, when watching Shakti Samanta melodramas post-Rajesh craze, I still feel as if the stories are written for a Rajesh-like star. I've seen a few with Mithun that are basically just re-workings of different elements from Rajesh films (i.e. Khwab, Aar Paar). Watching Amanush, I felt the same ... as if Amar Prem's Anand Babu had just been given a more masala-appropriate backstory. Of course, Amar Prem was based on a Bengali story and a Bengali film, and Uttam played the Bengali film role of Anand Babu, so now my brain is officially exploding.



Also, whether it's 1975 or 1985, Shakti HAS to put his heroes in plaid shirts whenever the chance arises--and it seems to me that this is a small symptom of the interchangeability of his melodrama's male leads. It's not that Shakti is the only one to do this--most masala films feature a familiar hero--but after watching a few Samanta films in quick succession, one is tempted to ask, "Would this role have fit better on Rajesh, Mithun, etc.?" The bits of masala, such as the constant mudfights with Uttam struggling to lift the goonda up even as he yells "Ut, ut, ut!" certainly gave the mid-70s audience the action they were looking for, but unfortunately, cast a non-action hero (like Uttam or Rajesh) in an unappealing light. I'm just saying: casting, casting, casting is as important as location, location, location. Obviously Shakti Samanta knows the latter, but when his films fail, I think it's because he disregards the first. Surely some of Uttam's star power shines through in Amanush and led to its success, but it is so much the less when you know what he is capable of with homefront advantage.




When Kalankito Nayak fails, it is because it runs the risk of moralizing instead of entertaining. It doesn't completely succeed in winning your heart. It does ask important questions and gives a prescription for action ... a prescription I mostly agree with. I like that usual ideals--self-sacrificial wife and long-suffering prostitute--are given a semi-critical treatment. The film appears to say that the instinct to suffer instead of communicating one's needs is a dangerous and needless one. Like, "Ladies, if a progressive man (embodied by Indrajit) doesn't require this of you, then nor should society, and especially not you."



Both films emphasize the need for the law (the courts in KN, the local police in Amanush) to look beyond reputation or the appearance of evil. As in many masala films, we see that when the law listens to rumor and generally held "truths", it runs the risk of condemning innocents. But here, the community is as much at fault as the law. Neither the informal social control wielded by the family in KN nor the condemnation of the village in Amanush escape criticism. In Amanush, the lovers *spoiler* resolve their differences not when the estranged fiancee knows the truth, but when she is willing to stop caring about what the rest of the village will think of her. Via more or less painful paths, both films stress the importance of trusting the people you love, and not giving a damn about what society thinks ... 'cause, hey, society is wrong, more often than not.

In Kalankito Nayak, the newlyweds make a promise to one another to always talk through misunderstandings. Eventually, it is this promise that the wife returns to, realizing that sacrifice is not a good substitute for honest conversation. This summarizes (for me) the deeper impression that both stories leave: Listen before you judge ... you probably don't know what the heck you are talking about.

Somebody write in quick and tell me to apply the same logic to Amanush, I'm a judgy mess.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Those auteur films, and what I'd do [with?] them: Part I

I'd vacation at a Shakti Samanta film.

Forgoing the whirlwind European tour in which I would inevitably get mixed up with a plot to take over my twin sister's life or some other entrapment scheme while dressed in the most shocking of western outfits ... the itinerary will instead include a hill station, eye candy working at the tea plantation, some meadowed yodeling, and the plan to avoid members of the opposite sex during storms, strained impulsive marriages, and by all means necessary, the bedroom at my kotha.




I'd spend the weekend with a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film's joint family . . .

But first I'd need to learn (A) how to make good chai and (B) with which of the film's relatives I will need to use shudh-Hindi, and (C), and who currently has terminal cancer so that I can overcome my petty problems by way of absorbing their simple, down-to-earth wisdom. As a girl, I don't have to worry about mustaches that other people will see and judge me by, but I will have to watch out for my own naivete, attend to my studies, and wait for over-educated folks of all kinds to appear and cause trouble. If all else fails, I can always try to be Asrani.   




I'd marry an Ajoy Kar film . . .

But let's be clear that I'd be doing it out of the call of humanitarian duty to help it remember who it really is so that together we could make a social statement about the need for society to become more tolerant of outward differences ... knowing full well that I'd have to prepare for a long separation induced by my family's intolerance and its inability to compromise its deepest principles ... until we can finally be reunited on a train, a boat, or a motorcycle. 










I'd have an affair with a Raj Kapoor film . . .

But I'd be sure to wear protective facial masks when around anything flammable and would spend the majority of my time honing my ethereal singing voice to become more perfect than I could ever hope to become as a purely physical being. Sure, I would have to cut my hair short to accommodate all the erotic hair pulling, but that would be ok as I will always be able to wear pigtails and trousers until I am expected to be the one who gives the Raj Kapoor film a reason to overcome its baser instincts. And for that, I only need a wig, someone who knows how to properly wrap a sari, and to start smiling up at that mysterious corner of the sky where all good film girls seem to encounter bliss. This all will amuse me until a younger, less eccentric film comes along to steal me away.





I'd go to school at a Satyajit Ray film . . .

Taking beginner courses on Soumitro, and an independent study on Sharmila, while majoring in social lens construction and deconstruction. Class days are brief, yet manage to occupy one's free mind for some time after. Having to go somewhere on my off hours, I will end up in the community parlor or music room, where some sophisticated person will be Rabindrasangeeting their way into some dissatisfied person's mind. Downsides: The window seats at Ray university are always taken by some student or other of long gaze and few words. Upsides: People think [too much] before they speak. Things to get used to: Physical space is more important than ever,  one's placement in a room is all but the difference between helplessness ...



and agency.






Friday, October 24, 2014

Stages of Film Fanaticism

Step 1. Try safe things, stop lots of things, mostly watch films that look pretty with one or two favorite safety-nets stars. 






Step 2. Crazy forages into film writing/review catalogs to see what's out there. In actual film watching, tries a few new and alien things based on multiple positive recommendations.


Step 3. More literate in favorite elements of films and given era's best bets, therefore able to make informed decisions about less known films that may go against trusted authorities. Still triple checks every film summary and agonizes over cast lists and and ages of beloved stars. More researching than watching.



Step 4. Acquired tastes have ballooned into expanded tastes. Like really expanded. Lots of experimentation.



Step 5. Enlightenment. Otherwise known as the sweetspot between obsession and apathy. Summaries and subtitles are for lesser beings. Eras viewed as porous ... one era appears to bleed into the next with different buffets of delights [and potential food poisoning] appearing year by chronological year. Happy to try anything once, but quite unapologetic about likes and dislikes. Small positive elements are elevated to huge perks. AKA Film Judgment Bar = [now] extremely subjective. Happy place to be, but fanatic will appear snobbish to those in earlier steps and will likely feel that no one (ok, maybe one or two people on the other side of the world) likes what he or she likes. Secretly takes pride in this idea. This step is really a coping mechanism to quench the insatiable thirst for new experiences. However "inferior" these new experiences may seem at earlier steps, they suddenly seem like the only important thing to do after other options have been exhausted.




[Era by era, region by region, niche by niche, this process may be repeated ad nauseum. Also, film fanatic can sometimes lose place in steps and revert to earlier step a la "watcher's block."]

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Marutirtha Hinglaj (1959)

There was a moment early into this film when I began to furiously take notes, something I rarely feel compelled to do until after watching. The first of those scattered thoughts? "This film has more conscience than it knows what to do with!" But I also wrote that I didn't expect its conscience to continue to resemble my own. We are all familiar with the curse of a film's concluding minutes, when all one's ethical hope is dashed. But in that cynicism, I think I may have been proved wrong.

Marutirtha Hinglaj is a self-conscious and often sentimental portrait of a group of pilgrims headed on a long journey through the desert to reach a goddess's shrine at Hinglaj (beginning from Karachi, Balochistan) and the nearby volcanic shrine of Baba Chandrakoot. Both holy sites promise that a pilgrim can be washed of all his sin provided that (a) he work out his penance through the harsh desert journey, and (b) that he confesses his sins truthfully upon reaching the first shrine.

As befitting such religious journey stories (The Canterbury Tales might come to mind), the would-be devotees are a rag-tag bunch, from many different walks of life and castes; of both Muslim and Hindu faiths. Along the way, the larger group rescues two dying travelers (Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee), who claim to have been trying to catch up and make the pilgrimage themselves. It is clear from the flavorful euphemisms and shocked behavior that the group does not consider these two to be respectable company. However, they are in need, and the kind ascetic/monk, if not the sour pandit, convince the rest that the right thing can only be to take them along and care for their safety.

After some public histrionics between the two apparent lovers, Pirimal (Uttam Kumar) relates their sad tale. It turns out that they are married, but not in the eyes of "most"of society. Once upon a time, she was a young, abandoned wife; he was the [con man] astrologer who had been hired to find the missing husband of several years. They fell in super-cute puppy-love, and decided to run away together. Tragically, they found no place where they both could belong. When trying to walk in merchant class circles, they were turned away because of the apparently *obvious* caste difference; and when they tried to make money through street performance, Kunti (Sabitri Chatterjee) was repeatedly propositioned. Finally, they decided to travel with the pilgrims, but left too late, and were robbed and [Kunti] raped by dacoits. Perhaps because desert treks are boring, the romance and drama of their story wins over even the more judgmental travelers.

Despite the support of the compassionate monk and passionate appeals from Pirimal, Kunti almost immediately shuns the company of her beloved, telling him she has taken a vow of asceticism and feels that their sufferings are a direct result of their "sinful" love. This is too much for Pirimal, who starts to experience worse and worse bouts of [filmi] madness. While hilarious on an Uttam Kumar fandom level, this proves devastating during the journey's touch and go survival scenarios. More and more, the conscience of the group is tested, as they are forced to choose between the well-being of the majority, and the safety of struggling individuals.

[Spoilers ahead.]

Fair warning, this film doesn't bore, but it might offend in places. I mind not, as long as there's something to pick apart and the story is tight enough to actually satisfy. I would put Marutirtha Hinglaj in the same category as Oh My God (2012): commercial fare simultaneously aiming to reinforce and critique religious beliefs.

Beyond being entertained, I was moved by this film. It may be a bit dated, but there's so much to think about here, that I will probably be dwelling on this story for some time. As it was based on a real life-inspired travelogue by Bengali author Kalikananda Abhadut, AND shot in the desert, it hangs on urgent questions of life and death. The parallel moral journey is thus impossible to dismiss. When belief and devotion play out in extreme survival scenarios, it seems important to take them seriously.

For some reason, I've never considered the ingenious nature of the pilgrim narrative in its ability to be a microcosm of the issues of society as a whole. Perhaps such a religious journey is more likely to be taken by people of middle to lower financial status, but beyond that, you can pretty much include any "caste" of characters you like ... any social problem ... any moral dilemma.

For example ... the same ascetic who vouches for the protection of the oft pagol Kailash also acts as a confessor to some of the travelers, which leads to some shocking revelations, such as infanticide ... a sin one of the pilgrims hopes is not too big for the goddess or Baba Chandrakoot to cleanse. Though horrifying, it seemed to me a brave topic to bring up and condemn--considering that the practice is still common in many places--but I've never heard it talked about it in an Indian film before in a serious way. Cackling masala villains often try to do away with the infant son of their enemy, but this film tackles the baser motivations of murder ... a man *simply* wanted to preserve or raise a child from his own lineage, rather than his brother's, and is haunted by this choice for the rest of his life.

"Paap" or "sin" is, understandably, a central question of the film. Is there such a thing as too big of a sin to forgive? Is it a sin to leave a priest's body behind in the desert, without the proper rituals? Do people suffer because their "faith is being tested," as the kind ascetic [a la Book of Job philosophy] maintains? Or do they suffer because of their trespasses? If you do something out of compassion or love, can it be a sin?

The central lovers act out these questions on a very personal stage. In the height of Kunti's emotional self-flagellation, Pirimal tells her that they don't need to repent, as she believes. Instead, he says, "Wrong! They've taught you the wrong things...How can love be a sin?"

Perhaps the film's most morbid moment best sums up its symbolic punch. When the pandit falls ill and unable to walk during the longest stretch between wells, a barely sane Pirimal (someone the pandit did nothing but shun) offers to carry him through the night to save his life. But at some point, the priest dies, and in his exhaustion and determination, Pirimal does not realize. The pandit's post-mortem grip nearly chokes Pirimal to death.

Ultimately, "sin" and "holiness" are portrayed as gray areas. The much hoped-for monastery that the three would-be monks/nuns are directed towards turns out to be a desert mirage. The resident Brahmin is clearly the least loving and most expendable person in the group of pilgrims. The super-spiritual guide who seemed to be in charge of all the important pilgrimage rituals [if he had an official title, I didn't catch it], and performs them with a terrifying perfection, is the first to raise arms against a pilgrim "refusing" to confess at the first shrine. Once again, it is the ascetic who stays his hand.

And, just as the kind monk doesn't judge anyone, viewers are similarly expected to be open minded. There are two sides to every belief, every moral position. For all the unquestioned devotion of certain pilgrims, there are also angry accusations and doubts. Through such moments, the film pushes the viewer to question, "Does God really punish us? Or are society's unjust rules the cause of our ills?" The final minutes of the film seem to advocate the latter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)

Add together pithy social commentary + family comedy + deep belief in the inherent goodness in flawed people and what do you get? No, not a John Hughes movie. [Though, sidenote, I somehow missed seeing Pretty in Pink with all the other Hughes films and Brat Pack fare I saw in high school, and recently remedied that fact. I'm currently kicking myself for not being able to tap the youth power in that movie when I was actually a youth.]

No, I'm talking about a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film!



Kissi Se Na Kehna trades on the oh-so-relatable generation gap between an aging widower Kailash (Utpal Dutt) and his workaholic son Ramesh (Farooq Sheikh). Here to close and/or set this generation gap on fire is muslim uncle Lalaji (Saeed Jaffrey), recently returned from Lucknow. 



Also recently returned is Dr. Ramola MBBS (Deepti Naval), back to stay with her uncle for a time. 



After initially rubbing each other the wrong way, Ramesh and Romola fall into deep, awkward, middle-class attraction...the earthy anti-ethereal stuff that all Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee films seem to be made out of. 



Meanwhile, Kailash has had too much time on his hands, and too little attention at home, and with the help of his cadre of gossipy friends, sets out to find the perfect bahu for his son (but also kind of for himself). After a few hilarious encounters with ultra-hip, educated candidates, Kailash develops an allergy to all women who speak English and listen to modern music. (Utpal trying to understand why "patthar" translates to English "rock" and becomes music is just one of the many delights of this sequence.) Kailash decides that he needs a bahu who is educated in "sanskriti" and not the ways of the Angrez. Unfortunately, the only uncorrupted girls left are all back in the gaon, doing puja and dreaming of the days when they would have the pleasure of waiting on their future in-laws hand and foot. 







Luckily, clever uncle Lalaji (who was also the one to help the lovers get past their paralyzing shyness) sees the problem coming a mile away, and calls for a powwow to discuss options. After all, the two lovers are barely able to manage their own communication problems, much less able to plead their case. And, they're too distracted to realize what's going on to overcome the seemingly insurmountable fact: that Ramola is VERY educated ... just in all the "wrong" things. 



But, Lalaji comes up with a plan ... or rather, a farce. Ramola will be the orphan girl raised by the pandit from his native village, well-schooled in the Ramayana and Mahabharat. Her uncle will be the pandit, and no matter the lack of Sanskrit knowledge, as he can always play deaf. 



The plan works beautifully. Kailash thinks he's in father-in-law heaven. What he doesn't know is that Ramola's been schooled in a few tough Mahabharat questions and that delicious food she's served him is not bahu ke haath ka khana but is from a local shop. To him, she's practically an incarnated goddess. When Ramola sings, Kailash closes his eyes and sees her as Yashoda disciplining a naughty Krishna. [Oh the tangled web of mother fantasies in Hindi films...] He's smitten. 



Ramesh and Ramola get married and try settle into joint family existence ... but hey, this is still the middle of the film! The solution *seems* all very idyllic and clever... for everyone but the daughter-in-law, who is forced to hide both her flaws and accomplishments and speak in pure Hindi indefinitely. The burning question? How long will it take working girl Ramola to get fed up with the household duties and the pressure of lying to her needy father in law? Or will she contract some sort of Stockholm Syndrome and start to enjoy the restrictions (if not the lies) of her new life? 

As befitting Hrishikesh Mukherjee's middle-of-the-way philosophy, the answer is, of course, a little of both, a little of both. 

[Minor spoilers ahead.]

There are very few directors or writers who manage to give every character the benefit of the doubt ... to remain equally sympathetic to every actor in the narrative. However, HM usually does, and this film is an excellent example of how satisfying a unconditionally compassionate story can be.

KSNK doesn't demonize the older generation's way of life, but pokes gentle fun at it; showing how out of step it is with the present, but also revealing how both good intentions AND dangerous delusions continue to fuel it. The viewer's heartstrings are not safe here, as HM doesn't let you just write off the older folks as fools or villains. One feels the pain of Kailash and Co. in their feelings of "uselessness" and separation from the world of their children/grandchildren.


Causes are explored, not just effects. Kailash feels neglected and so becomes demanding. He is blind to his own unreasonability, and this lack of self-awareness drives much of Kailash's actions throughout the film.



Likewise, the younger generation is so far removed from this mindset of good "Sanskriti" [traditional culture] bahus and "Seva, seva, seva" [service]  toward one's in-laws, that they are almost helpless against it. How can they explain that they must operate by different rules, when their parents have managed to isolate themselves from the pressures of the new social system? The youth live in a drastically different society than their parents and grandparents. Both genders work outside the home, are equally educated (and the woman is just as likely to be more educated than her spouse), and English is not just a symbol of rebellion or a mark of status but also a means towards social mobility and expanded techniques of expression. Hinglish is notoriously impressive in its ability to assimilate whatever vocabulary it needs to get the point across, so why would they limit themselves to one language or the other?

Of course, this is exactly what Ramola sets out to do. Unsurprisingly, it is just one more thing that alienates her from the world she has always known.



Sociologically or linguistically, it's fascinating to see Ramola change as she gives up speaking English. A hotly contested linguistic theory [The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis] claims that: 

  • One's language of birth actually controls the ability to conceptualize. 
  • Ideas only happen when we have the words to describe them, or when the language provides room for them to exist. 
  • Cultural values are reinforced by speaking the language of the culture and thinking in the language of the culture. 

Isliye, it makes sense from a certain perspective that when Ramola gives up English, and uses only Sanskritic Hindi, her brain re-orients towards traditional patterns of thought. So when we see her become the perfect bahu, obsessed with serving her father in law, choosing his welfare over her own, one could argue that she has become the person she pretended to be, aided by artificially altering her own thoughts ... OR that she was always that person deep down, underneath the modern woman facade.

HM leaves that mystery unsolved. What he does provide is a more personal motivation behind Ramola's seemingly uncharacteristic actions. She is an orphan, and has always longed for a home, parents, and the security of a family structure to call her own. Likewise, Kailash is widowed and spent much of his childhood motherless. He often blurs the line between goddess, mother, daughter-in-law, and wife in his actions and his dialogue directed towards Ramola. Despite one or two references to her wifely duties, the most important relationship in the film, thus, isn't between Ramola and Ramesh, but Ramola and Kailash--and their increasingly obsessive bond.

It doesn't reach "Devi" levels of creepy, however. Utpal Dutt's delivery always makes you feel that his character is somewhat facetious. He even breaks the fourth wall once or twice, signaling to the audience something to the effect of "Isn't this all hilarious? Isn't Kailash a little silly?"



The other thing that mitigates the noxious (thanks Bollyviewer for this apt descriptor) traditional flavor of the Ramola/Ramesh relationship, is the comedic guru character ... the golden-tongued, golden-hearted, and shrewd Lalaji. As the film builds to a climax, and Ramola is forced to reveal her true self in order to save Kailash's life (the lady doctor is the only doctor in the house, gasp!), Kailash disowns Ramola. At this point, Lalaji gives his misguided friend a stern talking to... with a speech that had me in tears with its poignancy and its brilliant philosophical points.


This alone makes the film beautiful ... because everything silly up to that point is effectively countered by Lalaji's harsh, but wise words. I think I will love Saeed Jaffrey forever, just for this role.

*P.S. While writing this I feel like I passed a language learning milestone. I desperately wanted to use the multipurpose word "apna" to simplify a sentence. But it wouldn't have made much sense in a mostly English phrase. Not really a big deal to most people, probably, but a big deal to me...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Old Really Is Gold

Since there's been some bad luck with broken DVDs and dud-rentals of the Hindi films I was planning to watch (and rather than write yet another post about Bengali films ... y'all are gonna get tired of those if I don't switch it up), I'm going to sketch out some other recent thoughts.

I've had a few lively conversations with my new Hindi/Urdu teacher this semester about films ... partially because he went to film school in Mumbai and "knows" people. We found that we both like Mithun and Sridevi (one can spot the 80's Indian generation a mile away by these markers) lekin 50's filmon ke bare mein hamare khayyalon alag-alag . . . I was surprised to hear that mere teacher ko Geeta Bali to boring lagta hai.[Pardon the messy Hindi attempts, one has to start somewhere.] But my teacher at least likes older films, if not all the old stars. The rest of my class, not so much. This has made for some interesting conversations and arguments about what filmi songs and lyrics should be used in class.

The bewilderment of my classmates in regards to my tastes have made me realize I need to learn to better articulate why am I not likewise bored. In the heat of the moment, it seems like such a big task to explain the appeal in a concise fashion, and I never even know where to start.

Here's what I do know. 



I like the old-school ethics...

There's a sweetness or goodness in the characters of many older films. Even when the values portrayed are opposite to mine, sometimes I can't help but love the characters for having values to begin with. Moral dilemmas are actually difficult to solve. Cherished traditions are thrown off with much effort. Sex is a whisper or a closed bedroom door. Betrayal is not a ten-dollar word. Friends are friends because they care about one another, not just because they like the same discotheque.

I'm generalizing I suppose. The kotha-goer of one film generation is the club-goer of another's. One could argue that in both lifestyles, time and lives are equally wasted. Or one could chock up both onscreen environments to the need for fantastical spaces, unreal locations that exist for the purpose of over-the-top performance: especially talent-centric dance and music.

But in most older films, there's a general agreement that the kotha is not the ideal. Nature is an ideal. Clean air and clean pastures. But only when inhabited by folks trying to to live well. There's no better example of this than Pakeezah. For all my struggles with the film, I like that it is about a woman who wants more than a lifetime of entertaining strangers, or dancing for other people's pleasure. And a man who wants more than the unending blandness of beautiful panoramas. Perhaps it is not the "old" values then, that I appreciate, but "old" dreams. Such things get lost in the shuffle when there's too much neon and too little reflection.


I want to take part in another time ...

Familiarity breeds discontent, and thus older films in other languages industries are doubly satisfying. I *think* I know what's available in English, and therefore I am not as interested. Whereas, Hindi or Bengali or Soviet films offer all kinds of uncategorized delights. Furthermore, the lost world depicted in these films is ripe for analysis and pseudo-possession. It's a world almost nobody wants anymore, and one I get to be part of, for a short while at least.

New movies often bore me on a certain level because they show me what I already know. They depict a world I recognize, with accoutrements of daily life that are close to my own. And even if I wasn't bored by these elements, my aesthetic tastes have always run towards the past. I was that weird kid who pretty much exclusively listened to classical or orchestral music (even at 9 or 10 years old). Not because it was mandated, but because I preferred it. It certainly wasn't something my parents taught me. I still remember that first time, around eleven, that I heard Rhapsody in Blue on the radio. It was more like Rhapsody in Me. Something similarly magical happened the first time I heard the Suite from Carmen or the Overture to Tannhauser, etc. etc.

I also watched the classic film channels dutifully up through high school. Any biographies of golden-age stars that the local library carried were consumed (leading to some disturbing reading: don't ever pick up Esther William's autobiography unless you want to be disenchanted) ... as was any sort of documentary that might be airing on the period, sensationalist or no. (I still find myself spouting trivia from those years of information gathering, things that my parents would know, maybe, but none of my friends could even guess at.) I was obsessed with history and historical novels, sort of switching back and forth between ancient history and twentieth century history in phases. I went through that awkward high school stage (ok, what childhood stages aren't awkward) where you try to dress kind of vintage and totally fail.

It's hard to make any sort of argument (that holds water) about this array of "old" things being "better" than their counterparts in the present. But I will say that we can't really control our own sensibilities--it's really the other way 'round. The "discovery" of Hindi films definitely bulldozed me into an unrecognizable person for a time, similar to what I've seen happen to friends when they like, get married, not just discover an artistic industry. But I've been into world music as long as I knew it existed, and I watched all the Hollywood musicals I could access in middle school ... and so Hindi films were an extension, a fulfillment of earlier loves, not something entirely new or out of character.


I am moved by love as resistance...

When cosmopolitan protagonists move easily between male and female circles, it's hard to believe (even if it accurately depicts the modern experience for many) that women and men somehow can't make their relationship work because of societal restrictions. Thus, social dramas and family dramas have become romantic comedies--where the focus is localized on the neuroses and petty misunderstandings of the main romantic interests.

Just spotlighting Deepika Padukone's recent films, it's easy to see this trend. In Chennai Express, "overcoming one's own immaturity" acts as the central romantic conflict instead of a caste difference or even the red herring of a North/South cultural divide. In Finding Fanny, choosing to stop waiting for the perfect relationship or proposal and just *ahem* "be together" takes the place of the lovers' triumphant reconciliation after years apart.

In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the rather old-fashioned heroine (short-shorts do not a modern woman make) encapsulates the ideal Indian woman who is happy with her home soil, and pines after someone who clearly doesn't deserve her. The hero wants to travel, to see the world, to run away.

This all seems rather like a throwback to older ideals. The primary difference being: this new generation is not being forced by parents or community to take on old roles. If anything, the hero's parent (Farooq Sheikh, stealing the film away) is an exceptionally permissive figure, giving his son freedom to wander and find his own path. In contrast to the past era's optimistic endings, as YJHD's credits roll, we are not confident that Deepika's Bharatiya nari has the ability to scrub the muck of the world from her fiancee's feet, nor do we necessarily want her to try.

Ram Leela might be the "best" of the lot, managing to mix old and new ideals together into something that we can care about, if not always love. For the old, we get lovers from separate warring clans, a trope that almost never fails to tug heartstrings. For the new, we receive a dis-empowered power couple, playing both the victims and the perpetrators in their own passion play. It's at times an odd artistic piece (what's with that "head lice" song as one friend calls it?), but it sticks with powerful, tried and true ideas, and it possesses the inter-actor chemistry to give them life. It's an egalitarian dream in the midst of a patriarchal hyper-reality, and this somehow works. Ultimately, it's also a good example of the most compelling reason to watch recent films: Progress. For all the shallow gloss out there, sometimes we get things like Dedh Ishqiya or Queen (the latter of which I haven't seen but seems to have blown a lot of the female stereotypes and story arcs out of the water); both valiant attempts to change the public discourse and the public's "proven" taste.

And yet ...

I'd rather watch Tarana or Amar Prem get it wrong, than see Dedh Ishqiya get it right. If I want interesting estranged lovers (or just because it's a day that ends in 'y'), you're going to find me in front of Saptapadi or Daag. And if I want to see love as a metaphor for social revolution or resistance against oppression, I'll watch Mughal-e-Azam for the tenth time. In all fairness, it was probably easier to believe in resistance once-upon-a-time when there was something visible to resist against (society, censorship, or family), and it may have been easier to inspire with a recent memory of independence spurring filmmakers and storytellers on. But that could also be the rosy tint of hindsight speaking.

Either way, the stilted metaphors that held currency in the past are more powerful for me than the casual prose of the present. I guess like my clothes comfortable and my stories corseted.