Saturday, August 23, 2014

Origins: Aag (1948)

Aag is:

*Full of self-harm
*Kinda visually disturbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Three-Course Countdown: Soumitra

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

3. Pratham Kadam Phool (1970)

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

Speed bump(s):

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

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

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

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

Worth it if you want... 

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

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

*Disillusioned Kolkata youth.

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

Where to find with subs: on Angel DVD

2. Khudito Pashan (1960) 

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

Speed bump(s)

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

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

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

Worth it if you want...

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

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

*More Tagore interpretations!

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

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

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

1. Ghare Baire (1984)

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

Speed bump(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth it if you want...

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Back to the 50's . . .

You know how it is... you hit that point when a lot of films on your rabbit trail aren't easily accessible--with or without subtitles. So you gotta move on, else you won't be watching anything at all. Moving on also satisfies one's curiosity AND lets old interests recharge for the right moment. And then there's the interests of other respected filmi-addicts--which increase the visibility and relevance of an era. Watching "cycles" really boil down to supply, demand, and popularity. Simple economics.

All this to say, I'm currently cycling back to the 50's. Apart from my own adventures in Bengali cinema of the 50's, there's been a lot of 50's Bollywood love in my (mostly online) vicinity. It's come at a good time, in a summer taken up by a lot of physical therapy appointments (i.e. I need films that aren't going to give me a laser-sound effect induced headache), and when I've been feeling the heat down my neck to complete a bunch of different subcontractor jobs and to beef up my Hindi grammar before classes start again. As per usual, the busier my mind, the more I want to lose myself in grey-scale universes, where light and shadow are easier to distinguish, and social commentary runs through narratives with both the rawness and the optimism of a newly Independent India.

In conversations with the blogger behind Raj-aur-Nargis and other Tumblr bloggers, I've revisited some films I watched earlier this year and last, and found even greater appreciation for Raj Kapoor's flawed genius. Whether it's the strength of his performance in Andaz, the dual faces of Raj in Shree 420, or the creation of anti-hero actually worth rooting for in Awaara--I am *starting* to better understand what Raj and Co. did that no one else could. There's no greater example of this for me than the myriad of contrasting ideals on display in Ramaiyya Vastavaiyya. I loved the song before (because of extreme levels of Nadira), but now I think it might be my favorite sequence in all of Shree 420 because of dichotomies and liminality! and heart! And of course, Chori Chori has been much adored already, and will remain one of those comfort films I go to when the world seems in a harsh and ill-humor. All cards on the table, I still have yet to see other early Raj hits like Barsaat and Aag, but now I feel ready to appreciate them.

I realized, though, that I hadn't found the right entry point of obsession to Bollywood of the 50's. In theory, I liked the music, the plentiful Urdu sprinkled about, the well of ideas springing from the Post-Partition intellectual milieu. I suspected there was a lot of magic to be found there (maybe as much for me as 70's Bollywood, *gasp*), but it was just beyond my fingertips. Raj Kapoor's entertainment value was a given. But it wasn't enough to stoke an all-consuming interest. And my interest in Dilip Kumar has been very intermittent: an infrequency reflective of the ups and downs of his own career, which is full of performances and roles that are just as likely to annoy as to impress. (Most recent annoyance: Yahudi. Why aren't you a better film? Why isn't this a better film, Bimal Roy?).

I had considered embarking on an ongoing project of tracking down films with Sahir Ludhianvi lyrics. But, as Akshay Manwani points out in his biography of the poet, Sahir was notoriously egoistic and usually demanded that his contribution take precedence over that of the music director's. Thus, through the 50's and 60's he bounced from artistic team to production house, from director to director, making as many enemies as friends. It wasn't till the late 60's and 70's that he found a home of sorts with the Chopras. The political symbolism and preference for bewafai laments may emerge as a constant within his work, but overall, "Sahir films" are wildly disparate and localized events, not an easily traced artistic path. I thought I might seek out whatever Waheeda Rehman happened to be in around the late 50's ... but that would require a lot of Dev Anand, which I wasn't ready for yet.

And then, amidst my loud complaints and lukewarm interest, Guru Dutt re-materialized.

I feel like I should just let his name sit there, and be whatever it means to you. You probably already have a strong opinion, and I'm still not sure if I possess the knowledge or the transparency to talk about his films yet. I just want to re-watch them. Over, and over. Yes, V.K. Murthy was a genius of a cinematographer, and yes, Guru was part of a greater movement of film craft that included Raj Khosla, Dev Anand, and Navketan Films. But it is Dutt's vision, his characterizations, his championing of the introverted intellectual, that speak to me most.

Sure, most everyone says he was a troubled and sensitive soul, but some people also remember him as a confident director who really cared about two-way collaboration. In this two part interview, Waheeda Rehman compared his and Raj Khosla's (whom she seems to have had a tumultuous partnership with) directing style. She admits in her courteous, but honest way, that Guru actually listened to her and took time out to explain what he wanted from her (and how she might be able to give it), rather than treating her like a problem to be solved.

My first Guru Dutt film was Pyaasa, and it was a lifetime ago ... if a lifetime was measured in filmi-watching. It moved me quite deeply, but, I didn't feel qualified to comment on it as a film at the time. Instead, it ended up in a post about roles for women in Hindi cinema. Kaagaz Ke Phool came much later in filmi-watching, at a time when I felt slightly more qualified to take it on. It helped that it was a fairly simple story compared to Pyaasa. Both of these films got under my skin, scratched at my assumptions about the world, and filled my thoughts for a long while after. But I was starting to develop a new assumption: that I knew who Guru Dutt was as an artist, and how often I could handle his films (roughly one every six months).

I SO wasn't ready for how happy Mr. and Mrs. '55 (1955) and Baaz (1953) would make me.

Besides the fact that it's funny as heck and reminiscent of domestically-oriented, high society screwballs like The Philadelphia Story ... Mr. and Mrs. '55 is full of interesting ideas, conflicts between middle class ethics and upper class snootiness, and achingly beautiful moments. So, basically, the same world as Pyaasa, but on antidepressants. Its farcical take on a romance just trying to get past everyone else's stupid battle-of-the-sexes mentality (*ahem* subtext) ... well, it had just the right combination of regressive and progressive ideals to keep me on the edge of my seat. Also, it was far less offensive and sexist than I'd been led to think it was. Really, I think the underlying points are clear by the end of the film, and they're NOT summed up as "female independence is bad."

Instead, the film says that "progress with a capital P" is sometimes just propaganda ... that women should be allowed to think for themselves ... that even if a parental figure tries to control a woman for "good" reasons, it's still not OK. (Take that, DDLJ!) For the sake of representation, it's too bad that Lalita Palwar's "feminist-esque" activist (who majorly got her female liberation and gender-separatism wires crossed somewhere) is such a monster, but Lalita DOES look good in a black hat. With the passage of time, one can label her character's beliefs as the convenient red herring they are, and just enjoy a mature actress getting a lot of juicy screen time.

Baaz needs no such caveats. It is a work of pure joy. Plus, it's got just the right amount of social critique to be meaningful, but not so much that it lags in energy or makes you want to swear-off polite society. It's inspiring and swashbuckling and sexy. It's everything I wanted in the Old-Hollywood pirate films I used to catch on TV, but never got. It does not make you work for your entertainment in the slightest, as it is technically quite impressive in both shot composure and editing. Also, Geeta Bali!!!!!! So in love with her, her role as  the pirate capitana (still can't believe that was a thing that happened), and the surprising amount of egalitarianism in the relationship between her and Guru Dutt's characters.

Where does that leave me? Or, as I asked while shaking my fist at the heavens at one point, "How pissed am I allowed to be at Guru Dutt for only being in handful of movies in the 50's? Like, what's a fair amount of anger?" For his 50's films, I've  just got Aar Paar and 12 '0' Clock left. That, and his  collaboration with Dev Anand. *Readers finally gasp: "Is she really going to finally get past this weird Dev hang-up?*
I guess we'll find out.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not the film I was looking for: Ashanti (1982)

Ashanti almost could have been the female Amar Akbar Anthony, except that it’s never quite sure how to get there. I don’t idolize AAA (I think Suhaag is by far the best thing Desai ever made), but AAA has obviously had an incredible impact on Hindi cinema. Not in the least because Desai borrowed a page from Waqt and upped the usual masala duo to a trio of leading men . . . while never losing sight of the arcs of key characters from the older generation. In a similar fashion, Ashanti also focuses a lot on the relationship between younger and older personalities, and includes the mind-blowing team-up of Shabana, Parveen, and Zeenat. Despite the presence of Rajesh as a textbook angry vigilante and Mithun in top comedic form, the majority of the action and antics belong to the female trio . . . as do the most moving emotional arcs. You can find an explanation of the plot (kind of Charlie's Angels-inspired) and a much more positive review here.

Note: I really wasn’t planning to write about this film. When I first watched (last May) I had just reviewed something from the 80’s, something with Mithun; and I try not to dig myself into writing holes both for y'all's sake AND mine. I was just going to watch it and enjoy the silliness and move on to something else. But, no dice. Apparently more feelings occurred than I was planning on having. So I let my post sit, and here we are. 

Stylistically, the film reminded me mostly of AAA, the first half of Apna Desh or even Satte Pe Satta. Unfortunately, I don't mean that as a compliment. The common denominator between them is par for the course in masala, so I probably shouldn’t even mention it. I'm annoyed regularly by it, though, so I will. Whether because they didn’t have a decent cinematographer, or just didn’t have the budget to worry about lighting or shot composure . . . a lot of masala films from this period are filmed like second-tier westerns from Hollywood's studio era. By that I mean that they demonstrate little regard for shadow or angle or color in the majority of the picture.

It's not just about which direction the money is being thrown. Don (1978), for example, didn't spend much, nor did Surakksha, and yet the cinematography in both is able to create a hum of satisfaction in the audience. Good Pulp stokes the suspense with weird shadows, strange sounds, funky lighting, and uses quick cuts to keep ADD folks on track. Weak Pulp sets up an ostensibly exciting situation and expects you to "get it" without any assistance. I like low-budget, I swear. I just don't like boring.

It IS significant that the usual fight sequence standbys (like the impossible hero-jumps) here are given to the ladies instead... but most of Ashanti is the shaky-cam, pulp cinema version of filming by-the-numbers. When the angles ARE interesting in Ashanti, they are often combined with nausea-inducing zooms (I love zooms, so believe me when I say that these were ill-advised).

The one notable pulp cinematography sequence in the film. I wish there had been more of this.

Also similar to the matinee Western, there’s a washed out look to the Ashanti's picture (that I don't think you can blame on a badly preserved print, although the upload IS cropped); which paired with a general lack of concern for lighting and a lot of loud dishooming, makes for a watch that I probably should have combined with alcohol.

Of course, the reason to seek out Ashanti in the first place is the unusual protagonists: female action heroes ... and the stars behind them. There's female empowerment and gender role-reversal in spades. Even Mithun's character is by far the most traditionally "feminine" among the main characters, serving a supporting function, and needing "his chastity" to be rescued by the ladies more often than not. His character actually seems to prefer being the sidekick and has no shame in begging the various martial-arts-trained women around him to finish off the villains when he can't manage on his own. (He's also a drunkard, so between him and Rajesh's handicapped mentor, the available male allies are rendered symbolically impotent.)

Some of Ashanti's gags are plain hilarious, especially an institutional infiltration (Shabana puts on this snooty Begum act that is out of character--but so quirky and specific--that I wonder if she wasn't mimicking someone she knew, even her own mother perhaps?).

I could say that half of Ashanti is worth multiple re-watches. There are a lot of fun romps, if not exactly “good” cinematic sequences, and anytime Parveen and Zeenat were kicking ass together, my little 70’s loving heart overflowed. But then I'd also have to say that the other half annoyed me to no end.

Ashanti's slap-dash approach makes the movie unforgivably long (for me) at 2:40--especially considering that the action of the first 45 minutes could have easily been condensed into 10. Easily. [You know how I am about needlessly miserable masala prologues.] Given that the story is almost entirely focused on Rajesh’s harsh and uninteresting police inspector during that section, it’s even more incomprehensible to me. The only reason I kept watching was because the action was so overdrawn, that I couldn’t really skip any particular scene because I might miss an important bit of the set up. And there aren’t many songs to justify the run-time, even though they're all good fun. The "I'm not a drunkard, watch me drink" number with Mithun and Parveen is one of the best parts of the film. And I'm never going to say "no" to Zeenat + disco.

Also, the Mithun bits were some of the easiest sequences on the eyes. No, not just *that* way. A lot of his scenes were shot at night, which gave some dynamism to the picture quality, and Mithun was frankly the only person to consistently pull off comedic dialogues in the whole film (Parveen wasn't too far behind, though).

Watching something like this--it's clear that Mithun could change up his characterizations drastically when he wanted to--certainly a lot more easily than his later cookie cutter films might indicate. I seriously doubt that his lines hit home because he had better material to work with. He just knows who the character is and has fun with it.

And then there’s Rajesh who--I will be the first to admit--just can’t keep up with the rest of the cast. Thankfully, *ahem* he was supposed to be crippled for the better part of the film. The pity factor + facial hair + role as mentor does him a favor and makes him semi-watchable. It’s not that he’s bad, but he’s mostly running on hero fumes.

And yet, Rajput was released around the same time (in which he plays another highly-motivated lawman) and even though I winced through some of his scenes in that movie, I ended up liking his character more and more as the film moved along.

His character in Ashanti, on the other hand, is hardly sympathetic at all. The inspector is driven by nothing but revenge and justice from the first minute to the last, and you never really warm up to him. In Rajesh's hands, the lead character felt wooden and forced; merely a central agent to bring the different characters together. This could be more a writing and casting mistake than Rajesh’s problem, per say. After all, Amitabh could have done this role-and it still would have been one-dimensional. But Amitabh is more fun to watch being angry (obviously) and self righteous, bottom line. My ideal casting choice would have been Vinod Khanna or Feroz Khan (can't you just see it?!) as the Charlie to the Charlie's Angels, but that’s neither here nor there.

As far as the women go, I have zero complaints. Except that I wanted more!

Which leads me to my last thought. If you feel like I’m ripping this film apart unfairly, I think I should point out that if a film prompts this much frustration in me, it’s usually because it means that I liked it enough to actually bother to be upset. I'm *cough* downright greedy, I guess. It feels like this was a wasted opportunity for greatness. (The CAST ALONE, oh my gosh!) I so very badly wanted it to be a little more suave, a little better thought out, and a little less noisy. These folks (all of them) deserved something better. They probably had a fabulous time on set, though!

A final suggestion: If you want to see this, skim a summary of the plot, then start around 35 min in. From there, watch any scene with one of the three female leads, with Amrish Puri, or with Mithun . . . and skip ahead through everything else. You won’t miss much, and you might enjoy yourself more. It's also currently available on YouTube (legally) with English subs.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

File Under? Saptapadi (1961)

Saptapadi probably isn't the be all-end all of Bengali popular cinema of its time.

There are other films with better soundtracks. Saptapadi only has two songs, one of which is kind of a mistep. There are certainly others with better dialogues exploring philosophical and social topics. Even just out of the director's other films, Barnali easily wins in this front. The style is inconsistent between the 3-ish acts. The beginning brings to mind Ray or Ghatak, the last 30 minutes, a wartime romance such as Hollywood turned out in spades in the 40's. The middle is something nearing a perfect balance between the two; that is, if you don't mind Shakespeare in the Park or whispers of impending doom. Also, disturbing content warning: Chhabi Biswas again terrifies with deeply misguided religious ultimatums. [I formally request that Ray's Devi be re-categorized as a horror film so that everyone knows to watch with a friend and not late at night alone, thanks.]

My smile is SO bigger than yours...
But . . . I'm fairly certain that the director Ajoy Kar (also of Saat Pake Bandha and Harano Sur) is a genius, though. Because, despite the fact that I was pretty sure it was all going to end horribly, I couldn't stop watching. Even when I hated moments of it, I loved that I hated it. I loved that it had the ability to make me miserable and wildly happy in a ten minute block of time. It is a film that deserves its very own category. While this might just be the de facto answer when one can't invent the right box to hold something, I do think that Saptapadi is unusual for a lot of reasons. Maybe it won't seem as special after watching more Bengali cinema or delving deeper into the context of that cinema (my copy of Gooptu's "An Other Nation" should be arriving any day now), but I doubt it.

One of the things that sets it apart is the Bengali/Anglo-Indian, Hindu/Christian, romance. Unlike later Merchant-Ivory stories with similar themes, Saptapadi is the tale of two Bengali-speaking protagonists, Krishnendu and Rina. The culture gap, then, is more of a sub-cultural gap. It's not THAT far of a jump between them. Both characters have been presumably brought up in Bengal. Both characters attend the same school. Both are well-fed and well-clothed (though Rina Brown seems to have money to burn). The questions of whiteness and brownness (and whether it's actually at all relevant to their lives) is dealt with in earlier stages of their relationship. Ironically, even their college performance of Othello serves to erase their perceived differences. Krishnendu donning blackface in order to play the brooding Moor . . . after he has already been called "blackie" numerous times . . . is a hilarious way to show color as a spectrum, rather than a convenient false-dichotomy. One also gets the feeling that the problems of Desdemona and Othello represent a conflict that "other people" will project upon them, not a race dilemma they actually feel personally.

Obviously, then, the eventual chasm between them must begin at the fissure of religion; more importantly, parental religious strictures. At first, when one of the two is asked change religion, it is handled nonchalantly. One character says "The only religion I believe in is the religion of mankind. There is no difference between temple and church in that religion." Progressive, right? Unfortunately, this early humanistic philosophy doesn't manage to make it out of the film undiluted. It's muddied by Rina and Krishnendu's fathers' use of religion as an instrument of manipulation. By way of resolving that interference, the role of religion in the character's inner journeys later becomes similarly forced.

Terrifying Chhabi Biswas. Don't let him in, honey, don't! 
Yet, humanism is still present in symbol, if not in substance by the final minutes.

*Slight spoilers ahead*

One member of the couple converts to the other's religion, and the other member turns out to be less different in "race" than it may have appeared. The bridge between them is built through a natural weakening or merging of the qualities that had once differentiated them and a magical letter resolving all misunderstandings. These denouement lines are heavily drawn, but the picture is still an encouraging one. "People are not all that different," the film seems to say. "It is only their worlds that keep them apart." 

There's something about Ray's films that makes matinee idols feel like the everyday Joes you see on the commuter rail. OK, Nayak is literally about just that, but you know what I mean. Ray exercises a formidable democratizing force in his films. Big stars instantly transform from gods to men. For his camera does not worship, but reflect. Perhaps because of this, neither Soumitra or Uttam's first appearances on my radar (both in Ray films) convinced me of their individual worth. Ray's story was all that mattered. And when all must be sacrificed for the sake of the story, sometimes (most of the time maybe?) an actor's charisma is the first to go.

And this is exactly why you can't just watch art cinema, or serious cinema of Bengal. 'Cause then you'd seriously be missing out on a treasure: Uttam Kumar. It's clear from my brief wanderings in silver-screen Kolkata that Uttam's best avatar didn't quite make it much past Nayak. Even in the latter, his perfection is waning. But in Saptapadi? He practically eclipses everyone else. Even Suchitra (whom I like without reservations) struggles to out-sparkle him, an attempt that is not aided by the shaky writing for her character. There are a lot of great things about him that I can't put into words yet, but I am impressed by how he is able to be completely present in a scene with his lead actress and tease out the humor or the pathos in the tiniest of interactions. And because he's tuned into the scene, he doesn't repeat the flashes of charm or engaging mannerisms in the same order. Also, he knows how to wait for the right moment to reveal said charm. Timing, ladies and gentleman. The man had it in spades. Though you may [and probably will point out] that he is the most revered actor of Bengali cinema for a reason, I will counter with the point that there are many *cough* MGR *cough* other regional superstars of the period that I do not "get" in the slightest.

Obviously, I'm still hyperventilating about this film. I'm sure everyone who has seen it is going to roll their eyes and say, "Of course you liked it. It's drama, melodrama, melody ... it's Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen at the pinnacle of their onscreen-partnership. It's got an inter-cultural relationship, a college-storyline, a motorcycle song, and hot doctors. And Anglo-Indians and Shakespeare and swing-dancing."  Well, I did like it, OK? You don't have to be so smug about it, all you hypothetical readers. Gosh.