Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pakistan Film Reviews: Lakhon Mein Ek (1967)

There's something to be said for trans-border romances. Or rather, nearly everyone has something to say through them. Just like Desai seeks to resolve deep social rifts through separated brother motifs, trans-border romances can speak to the ache of helplessness and loss people feel when separated from loved ones by arbitrary lines on a map.

Even more often, in Hindi cinema, I feel this sort of Partition echo is sublimated into rural/city romances, where two people find a connection despite their differences, but are torn apart by the fatefulness of space and local politics. In this category, some sugary Mithun and Ranjeeta Kaur romances (Rajshri, all) immediately come to mind, as well as a lot of Dilip Kumar film plots from the 50s. And when I say sublimated, I don't mean there isn't inherent meaning in conflicts of clan vs. clan, or caste prohibitions, or urban vs. rural lives being worked out through cinematic romance. But it does seem that Partition memory might be the larger conceptual touchstone that turns localized story-lines into something universal for the viewer.

[Spoilers below. It's hard to discuss this film without them.]

Pakistan's Lakhon Mein Ek (1967) gives us one of those satisfying moments in cinematic history when such subtextual story-lines become maintext. Starting from the first days of Partition violence, the story follows two Hindu and Muslim families in Kashmir, whose families are joined "by chance" in the chaos.

In self defense, the Hindu patriarch flees to India, but is accidentally separated from his young daughter, Shakuntula.

One of the better moments of Talish's probably signature theatrics
Luckily, she's saved from a mob murder and adopted by her Muslim chacha (Talish). Muslim uncle's son, Mehmood, is lost and wakes up in a field hospital with amnesia. After running away from the hospital, he's adopted by a jolly Kashmiri lorry-walla, Dildar Khan. In a pleasing conceptual triangle, the two families are split over India, Pakistan, and the liminal space of the border roads. Thus, we're free to jump forward ten or fifteen years to when the kids finally get interesting.

Mehmood has 150% more style than substance, but at least he tries.
Mehmood (Ejaz Durrani) is now the jolly lorry driver, and is accompanied  in his adventures by a slightly senile Mr. Khan. Shakuntula (Shamim Ara) is [unsurprisingly] a beautiful and dutiful adopted daughter, and has taken over the shepherding work from her uncle. One day, her sheep block the road and force Mehmood to stop and wait for the shepherdess to pass. They hurl insults, but instantly realize they have a connection.

After some convoluted events, Mehmood manages to stick around town for a bit, in order to romance Shakuntula, and frolic in the jaw-dropping scenery.

Poor little lamb doesn't get to frolic ...
This doesn't go over with the lecherous village astrologer, who instantly schemes to break the two lovebirds up. Unfortunately, in this conservative world, all he needs to do is talk to Muslim chacha and throw some shade at Shakuntula's honor. She's immediately confined to her home, at her uncle's weepy insistence that he is the temporary guard of her family's izzat until his Hindu friend returns. [Ok, but GAG.]

Lecherous astrologer also tattletales to Mr. Khan, and Mehmood is then chastised for "hugging" a Hindu girl and thus taking her honor, and is ordered back on the road. [Gag me again, but the anti-hug rant is hilarious in a way, too.] Oh ho, but Mehmood can't possibly drive safely in such a state of grief, can he? [To you 99% of lorry drivers who actually keep your emotions in check on the job, I am sorry. Cinema has done you ill.]

A better view of KITTEN here
One accident later and he's back at the rural hospital, where he loses his recent memory but remembers his real parentage. Poor Mr. Khan... who adopts a stray cat in place of his the son who has erased their years together. [It's cuter than Mehmood and probably won't be amnesia prone, so maybe it's a good trade.]

Poor Shakuntala, too, who must woo dear Mehmood all over again. However, this time he has the benefit of remembering their childhood romps. Unfortunately, the new adult romps are interrupted by the massively inconvenient return of the Hindu patriarch, a broken but kind man, who has been stuck in an asylum for years. Shakuntula is immediately ordered to return with him to India. [Why he would want to go back is beyond me, as the film makes it clear he been ill treated primarily because of his loyalty to Pakistani friends.]

Hindu papa confused by the judgy locals and grosssssss pandit
Biggest *spoilers* below.

Shakuntula tries to elope with Mehmood, to her credit, but to his credit [I guess?] Mehmood listens to his father's pleas to let Shakuntula have the Hindu life she was meant to have, and to not dishonor their families. [Fair enough, although why he's not in a puddle over giving up someone who's effectively his daughter is a mystery to me.]

Of course, India STILL does not treat them well. Shakuntula is a social outcast. She is apparently tainted because of her years spent in Pakistan. Her father wants to get her married, and enlists a super-creepy pandit to match-make. [I mean there are some scary pandits in Hindi cinema, but this one would definitely twirl his mustache if he wasn't required to shave it off.] The only man who wants Shakuntula is the local rape-y forest ranger. To appease her father, Shakuntula marries him anyway. Things do not go well.

The appeal of this film to the contemporary viewer is pretty obvious. A view of Partition from the other side. A Hindu/Muslim romance. Lorry-love. [I swear, this is a whole genre, akin to Westerns or swashbucklers.] The simultaneous propagandization of the Indian state AND humanization of individual Hindus. But also of note:

Time and memory erasure 

10 or 15 years pass and the adults are older, but really no different. They haven't grown as people or
changed in loyalty or taken new paths. I guess this fits the idea youth has of elders--that of a static generation without adaptive qualities. Think of all the strong/weepy masala mothers who change little as time lapses and their sons grow older. Hindi films tell stories like this, and I expected the adults wouldn't change too much. What's interesting is to to see the same theme play out in Mehmood's (a young man) loss of memory. South Asian films LOVE the amnesia trope, but to write a son with two fathers, neither of whom can he remember concurrently, seemed a pretty obvious symbol for Kashmir. [But, you tell me.]

Blood ties as trump cards

Should you be loyal to your roots? Or to your experience? Your parents? Or your caregivers? There's a lot of symbolism going on here ... with multiple adoptive parents ... all of whom are cast aside or cast themselves aside when the biological parents return. I could be wrong, but this feels very fatalistic to me ... as if all of what has happened has been an anomaly that the universe must put right. Hindus belong on their side, Muslims theirs, and Kashmiris, you're just bound to be forgotten, what rum luck, sorry.

Women as symbols of family honor

GAG. But as always, it's interesting to see how some films subtly undermine the tradition by showing (A) how easily it can be manipulated, (B) how easily people's intentions and actions can be misunderstood, and (C) how badly it works out. Also, while the older generation is against mixed marriages, the younger generation is SO over that.

Justified violence is still destructive

It's hard to explain unless you've seen the end. But the film is not gung-ho about violence, even when it's used for self-defense. Based on a few scenes in the film, and the climax, I would guess that somebody behind the film was advocating for pacifism, or at least, making a case that while the men are off fighting, it's the women who suffer. Coming on the heels of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, this seems significant.

Hinduism and Islam are given equal respect 

Hinduism as an individual's religion is caricatured here, but in a sweet way. While the details feel a bit exoticized, Shakuntula is not simplistic in her lonely devotion. She prays as fervently in her wilderness temple as any of the Muslim characters do in private. She even has an encounter with Krishna in the guise of her beloved. This all feels progressive, even if it may prompt a few smiles from actual Hindus. [As I'm sure the caricature of Christians and Muslims often does in Hindi films.] I don't think there's actually a single scene in a masjid, all of the religious scenes are in tiny mandirs. Don't get me wrong, the depiction of the Hindu religious establishment and Indian society itself is extremely negative. But in a Pakistani film in the '60s? Giving us a chaste, near-perfect Hindu heroine, and letting her dream of her Muslim beloved as Krishna seems moderately gutsy to me.

Obviously, what this film lacks in entertainment value, it makes up for in social significance. You can see it in a beautiful subtitled print on tommydan's YT channel.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)

Once in a while, I hear about a film that seems AMAZING and I immediately decide to save it, lock it down, keep it secret and safe until such time as I choose to give it its due AND avoid any spoilers if I can help it. Occasionally this backfires. Not every film can live up to such high expectations.

But Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) is worth the wait. I've been saving myself for this one for SO long (in Hindi film time anyway) that the abstinence campaign perhaps made the consummation sweeter. Pardon the horrible analogy. Seriously, though. In this case, I put it off because there's only so many top tier Indian westerns, and after seeing Kucche Dhaage and Sholay so early on, I needed to keep one for the road.

Lots of folks have gushingly summarized its plot, so I don't think I will write it up in full. However, the uninitiated should see it for:

1. Cinematography. Raj Khosla, duh.

2. The location. The village being attacked (by the perhaps most iconic Vinod Khanna dacoit of all) is satisfyingly anchored in space. The town looks and feels like a 3-D puzzle, the dimensions provide both suspenseful exposure and claustrophobia, the action flowing through the stacked houses and cobbled streets like rats through a maze. It reminds me the most of French-Italian films shot in the Algerian Casbah, like Pepe Le Moko or The Battle of Algiers. With action like this, who needs an original premise?

3. Time. There's lots of time devoted to well-crafted conversations, to deeper emotional realizations, or to suspense. This certainly speaks to the level of care behind the camera and in script development, but whoever edited the film knew what they were doing, too.

4. Music. I think there was actually a background score? Somebody can correct me if I'm wrong, and perhaps it was lifted from a lesser known spaghetti western, but it works. I love hearing tense guitar-strumming during emotional moments, rather than whining strings.

5. The performances.

*Thankfully, Dharmendra inhabits this serious avatar's manly attire without adding a halo.

*Asha Parekh is fun and flirtatious and sometimes gets to join in the events to the point of MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

 *There's a poor 7 or 8 year old kid who runs around naked from the waist down in the first half of the film. I mention it, because I wonder if he ever lived the role down.

*Laxmi Chhaya makes you believe in her ill-fated character's choices, weighting potentially forgettable scenes with raw physicality and angry resignation.

*Vinod is as good at being evil as I expected ... once again impressing me with his ability to use horsemanship as a dramatic accessory... especially as an instrument of intimidation.

*The secondary characters are weak and in need of a savior, but still lovable enough to make you root for the town's continued existence. Just when you think, "Gosh, let this town of cowards rot," you're pleasantly surprised by a show of comedic bravado. Few "bandit-ravaged township" Westerns manage this. (The Magnificent Seven with its cloying farmers and villagers comes to mind.)

Caveat: The biggest downside to the film is the violent treatment of women. But, that's a blight on most contemporaries in the genre. I don't like it, but this film doesn't seem to like it either.

I'll leave you with the best use of innuendo I've seen in a seventies film in a while...

Dharmendra's character first visits the house of his new employer/uncle/adopted baap. The rishta of it all is convoluted. The important thing is, D's character has a new lease on life and is being served food by his new village girl crush.


They start flirt-bickering via a discussion of whether or not Dharm can handle spicy food, but dear Work Uncle [naively] puts his foot in.


Ummmm.


Yeah, that was my reaction too.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana (2014)

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana has a bunch of traits that double as both flaws and strengths:

1. The massive Aiyyaa (2012) hangover. Look no farther than OSO's plot: Girl stalks boy, boy doesn't seem to be interested, girl holds on to her hopes, eventually-maybe-probably finds boy IS into her after all. (I feel like others have mentioned this similarity already, pardon me for rehashing it.) But the imaginary relationship Pooja (Nazriya Nazim) builds with the much older and more serious Giri (Nivin Pauly) is less magical here than in Aiyyaa (read: more painful). Mostly because we've all been Pooja at one time or another in our youth, and we also know it's called a "crush" for a reason...

2. The tendency to invest in detail. The movie sets up all the characters that surround Pooja with a series of humorous, collage-esque, snapshots. Sort of like Cranford crossed with Clueless. Or a pleasant short story you read at the coffee shop on Saturday morning. You might question the overemphasis of quirky town-staples, except that these characters collectively make up the heroine's psyche. Pooja's father and aunt, more than anyone else, bridge the divide between sketch and home video. But BECAUSE OSO spends so much of it's relatively short runtime with secondary characters and Pooja's limited first person perspective, we never really get to know Giri beyond his reputation. We know Pooja intimately (or as well as we can know her in a film trying to be a bit tongue-in-cheek), and we see her build a rapport with multiple side-characters, but all of this only casts a brighter light on the lack of a rapport between the "lovers."

3. The attempt at  showing long lasting platonic relationships between men and women. Good, but underdeveloped, just like the romance. Also, one of the reveals sours this theme... and you end up feeling that one of the friendships was just a red herring.

4. The idea that everyone experiments with life, and sometimes it takes a while to find the right recipe. It's hardly a subtle theme. Pooja's aunt is a specialty winemaker always mucking about in the cellar with a different brew, her father is an amateur chemist trying to discover a miracle drug, her mother is a cooking fanatic and is always trying to perfect new recipes. All of this should add up to a film that recommends experimentation--and I think it tries. I *think* we're supposed to realize that there's a time to experiment and wait, and a time to just go all out and order exactly what you want off the menu.


5. The runtime. As much as it's nice to see a film that isn't weighted down with excess and flash, we couldn't everything we wanted in the film because it was too short. Yes, at two hours with only a couple musical sequences (which are definitely not big performance numbers), somehow OSO doesn't have enough time to pull off a satisfying romance. Or maybe it veers off formula too much and then doesn't know how to get back to the main road.

Nothing substitutes for relationship-building. Aiyyaa manages to make me feel as if the two leads will get along splendidly once the conversational barrier is finally broken near the end of the film...most probably because it breaks its own limited (if fantastic) perspective once or twice to show us a glimpse of what the object of the heroine's desire really thinks of her. Even with more dialogue in Nivin Pauly's hands than Prithviraj ever got in Aiyyaa, and certainly a role with clearer motivaions, I can't get away from the feeling that Giri and Pooja might actually be mismatched. It's not that he's poor and she's rich, he's Hindu and she's Christian, vagerah vagerah, but that I don't see anything but respect between them. And sure, respect is SOMETHING, but their vastly different daily jobs and interests (so painstakingly set up) might prove to be a bigger hurdle than any differences in social status.

5. The progressive politics. The ethics of the film are magically-scaffolded into place. Like a
YouTube video with a disabled comments section, the film puts forth a semi-feminist and pluralist ideology with a happy-go-lucky spirit, inviting no internal criticism. Still, it seems quite remarkable in its devil-may-care approach to female-empowerment, parenting, inter-caste and interfaith relationships, and dowry critique. For me, the best moments ebbed and flowed with the presence of Pooja's father (Renji Panicker), an absentminded doctor, and also the film's clearest moral voice: especially in the themes of hands-off parenting and religious pluralism. Despite her sometimes reckless ways (especially in his community's eyes), he never rebukes his daughter EXCEPT when he feels she is being untrue to herself (in her quest to get the boy she wants). And no matter what she asks for, he gives. Perhaps indulgently, but also as a vote of confidence. And *spoiler* to the end, he's proved right in his assessment of her character.

I guess this is one of those dishes that's missing something, but definitely worth trying on your way to something better.

Note: If there's one, single, unmissable moment in this film, it's Pooja's fantasy of a potential groom viewing (instead of the usual bride viewing scene), with Nazriya literally reversing the masculine gaze and Nivin playing the bashful candidate serving tea to the visiting family. It's not that Pooja doesn't retain something nearing this agency in the rest of the film, it's just that I cared about it more in the guise of farce than dumbed down into a formal drama.

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.