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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Bengali Leading Ladies

I've rambled and raved a lot about those Bengali heroes. But what would they be without their partners in crime? As a relative newcomer to Bengali cinema (although, true to form, I've watched quite a few films in a short period of time) there's only five or six Bengali actresses that are even on my radar from the '50s and '60s, The rest are still footnotes in my imagination, even if I've seen them in a film or two.

Six sounds like a very exclusive club, but, it's really not when you consider that the hero position during the same period is dominated by three or four actors (which I would name as Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Biswajeet). There are occasional crossovers by Ashok Kumar, and if you get into artier cinema, there's a lot more variety in lead actors (Kali Banerjee is pretty interesting to watch, in my opinion), but I don't get the sense that a quiet social piece by Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen garnered the same public attention or adoration as a commercial romance by Ajoy Kar. Whereas, all of the women below could, I think, claim commercial success.

Here are the leading ladies, in order of my current experiences with and attachment to them. I'd like to sketch out, for the record, what I feel their strengths are, and which films best show their skills. Some of these ladies are still barely in my experience, but that's where y'all come in--you can advise me on what films to see next! Eventually, when I've seen twice the films I have now, I'd like to return to this subject and see how my feelings and opinions about them have been augmented by other performances or films, good or bad.

6. Madhabi Mukherjee

Honestly, except for Charulata, Madhabi is almost completely out of my experience. But Mahanager seems an obvious next step. I've started the film multiple times and I always stop for some reason. Maybe I'll correct that soon. I loved this Outlook piece with Madhabi and Soumitra on the occasion of Charulata's fiftieth anniversary.

What intrigues me about (what I've seen of) Madhabi is that she's not conventionally glamorous, pretty, or even pleasant in her expressions. This reminds me of Supriya Devi or even Waheeda Rehman, except that Madhabi seems to lack even their "nurturing temperaments" that would cover over these "sins." Instead of a womanly or girlish role model, she is fiery and unpolished (which I'm sure Ray must have been looking for in his casting process).

Any other Madhabi films you would recommend?

5. Sabitri Chatterjee

There's only one Sabitri film under my belt, Abak Prithibi. Perhaps it shouldn't even count because the film is about 90% concerned with Uttam and Tarun Kumar's characters, and about 3% driven by her character's choices. Sabitri's character is interesting, but the film is relatively brief, even for Bengali cinema (which is already briefer than its Hindi counterpart), and her one meaty scene is never really followed up upon. However, I quite liked Sabitri in it. She projects a kind of intense mental energy that carved out a memorable place in the film that her character hardly deserved. She's graceful, but not attention-seeking, making her brand of classiness far more approachable than that of Suchitra Sen (the textbook high-class dame of Bengal). She's considered one of Uttam's most popular leading ladies, but I've found their films hard to track down, even without subs. Perhaps I shall see Shesh Anka next.

Plus: Her CUTE GLASSES look and I'm so gone.

4. Aparna Sen

Talking to Beth of BLB, we admitted to a mutual "meh" reaction to Aparna and a ongoing inner question regarding the depth of her craft. She certainly made a name for herself as a director (so very impressive when you consider she started directing in the '80s, and cinema in any film industry is still notoriously a male director's game). But as an actress, I have yet to warm to her. Except, in the occasional song.

It's not that she's a xeroxed collage of other actresses. She's certainly not forgettable, and she brings a lot of energy (if not variety) to her roles. She doesn't seem like a copy of Sharmila or Suchitra, despite the penchant for bouffants. In my mind, she's the poster-girl for the modern woman: independent but also very moral in her own way. Her characters are usually self-possessed and removed from usual concerns of tradition or public opinion. All this *should* impress me, but I have to wonder if her characters hold back/seem independent because she doesn't know how to emote in more than a short range of potential feeling, not because the roles call for that kind of self-confident female.

3. Suchitra Sen

Everyone lines up to praise Suchitra. Like Elizabeth Taylor or Greta Garbo, she's as much a legend as an actress. And of course, she's best known for being half of the dream-couple of Uttam-Suchitra. But, of course, she made her mark as a solo lead as well.

I just saw Deep Jele Jai, which seems to be the solo performance she is most remembered for (beyond Aandhi, which Carla's recent review has convinced me is a must-see) ... and the performance the Bengali press still raves about. To me, this is an odd phenomenon. I realize that Uttam is not in the film (and it's not really a romance), and so, it stands to reason that you would actually get a chance to see Suchitra set free from the bounds of love scenes and family drama. I'm just going to ignore the arbitrary assumption that these elements would somehow restrict an actress' skills.

But, the fact remains: Deep Jele Jai has possibly the most insanity (both intentional and unintentional) per square inch of any Bengali film you will ever see. If it was the main thing I was remembered for, I think I might question my own contribution to history. It's sexist, pagol, terrifying, and seems to have been penned by a delusional Neo-Freudian sensationalist. So maybe let's not remember her just for that, K? However, all her powers of old-school melodramatics are at their most extreme, and it's just insane enough to be entertaining if you go in with the right mindset and prepare for the 5 Stages of the Experience. What Deep Jele Jai DOES prove, is that you can always count on Suchitra to keep you watching. The less sense the storyline makes, the more Suchitra's skills are likely to be cast into definition.

But of course, her more subdued roles (especially if they're not too preachy) are enjoyable as well. In the [relatively] sane Saptapadi or Chaowa Paowa, films with a lot of moments for her formidable personality to shine, she is sure to entertain and win a piece (if not all) of your heart.

2. Sharmila Tagore

My crush on Sharmila is no secret, and certainly knows no bounds of time or place. And I'd hardly be saying something new if I said that Sharmila tended to get more fascinating roles to sink her teeth into when working in Bengali films. It's hard to deny, even though I'm as much in favor of her Hindi films as any fan.

Note: Filmi-Geek has documented much love, perhaps even more than I, for her Hindi scandalous commercial cinema roles, and Conversations Over Chai has a lovely piece on her career as one of Hindi cinema's great divas.

It's quite entertaining to see her cosmopolitan glamour on display in things like An Evening in Paris (in which she is possibly my favorite Pran conspirator yet ... on par with Helen.) And obviously, she's an excellent partner for all those Rajesh Khanna melodramas ... gifting potentially weepy stock characters with strength and humor. But ....

Devi. Barnali. Apur Sansar. Aranyer Din Ratri. Nayak. I mean, these films are the work of two brilliant directors (Kar and Ray) but they are also the work of her genius. She carries so much of the weight of the stories. Ray films without her aren't as satisfying or as lovable. Nayak would be an existential fantasy without her. Apur Sansar glows with her enthusiasm. I don't know if I would have wanted to watch any other actress play the lead in Devi.

My favorite role of all, perhaps (if you made me choose), is that of the complicated sophisticate in Aryaner Din Ratri. A main attraction of Bengali films, for me, is the time devoted to conversation and exploration of philosophical concepts by the main characters. In general, there's not much analytic conversation Bombay films, and Sharmila is even more silent and watchful than the average Hindi heroine. It's not that she is a chatterbox in Bengali cinema. But in ADR, when she has a chance to speak, she speaks so well. It's really a joint performance, though. Sharmila and Soumitra use all the interpersonal knowledge of their past collaborations to create a relationship that breathes and steps out of the silver screen.

These characters are much more worldly than any of their past characterizations. The virginal hues are replaced by more adult tones. But, just like in Barnali, you can almost hear the machinery in their minds turning as they try to listen to one another and really hear. And as in Apur Sansar, they share a heady chemistry that I've never seen either of them conjure up with other actors. Beyond their gift of verbal expression, Soumitra and Sharmila share a talent for communicating through body language and in the relationship of their bodies to their immediate environment. When they as much as turn toward a window, it's almost as communicative as a paragraph of exposition. Perhaps this is what shouts so loud during Ray's protracted silences.

1. Supriya Devi

Early Supriya is my favorite Bengali actress (beyond Sharmila—who is really a trans-regional star) for a lot of reasons. One of them? She feels like a real person in her interactions with other people. Internal processing is evident in her face. In scenes with Uttam, given the chance, you see so many transitional feelings in her… so many uncertainties and wishes. She’s not playing an ideal or upholding a moral position first. She’s a person caught up in the questions and desires of a moment. And she very much has her own agenda.

Exhibit A (because you almost have to see a clip or a gif to get what I mean):

Of the films I've seen her in, it's clear she was at her best in the early 60s. Like other Bengali actresses, she is sometimes the victim of TOO-MUCH makeup, which restricts her ability to emote and react. And that trend seems to get worse in the late 60s. And when I say worse, I mean TERRIBLE. She could be emoting her heart out, but you can't tell with all the face paint in the way.

Oh honey. (Sabarmati, 1969)

My favorite Supriya role to date is Suno Baranari (pictured in the gif above), Surjasikha being a close second. Suno Baranari takes place mostly on a series of train journeys with an heiress and her poor escort--who is taking her to see her potential fiancee. As the film progresses, obviously the heiress starts to look forward to the journey more than the destination. (Hey, it's Uttam-on-a-train, wouldn't you?)

This is quite the dream role for any actress, because the heroine is allowed to transform from petulant and prejudiced (but smart) heiress, to a still-outspoken and brave woman who makes a momentous decision at the end of the film. This is a decision that nobody makes for her and flies in the face of what everyone has told her/tried to force her to do (including both her family and her love interest). AND, and, and, not only does she get to make that decision based on an interesting arc of self-discovery and on her own grit alone, but she totally schools the hero (Uttam Kumar) at the end, letting him know exactly why her way is best. Her character is messy and self-interested and yet, I still love her because she just wants to be happy. One can't blame her for that. When she's manipulative, it's not because she wants other people to suffer, but because she knows she needs to be underhanded and clever to navigate a patriarchal system.

As much as I love Sharmila, this is a role for a woman who isn't afraid to look less than perfect, or to come across as insecure or socially under-developed. Supriya doesn't portray the women I long to be, she embodies the women I am, warts and all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Bollylover's Adventures in Soviet Cinema: Part V

Because of the Cold War culture class I'm teaching this fall, I've been working my way through more Soviet films than usual. My favorite, if not the "best" of the lot? Clear Skies (1961): a love story between a military factory girl (Nina Drobysheva) and a pilot (Yevgeni Urbansky) during and after WW II. Beyond wartime romance, it gifts us with progressive concepts of marriage, a moving depiction of the returning POW's situation in Stalin's post-war regime, and a lot of carefully orchestrated histrionics.

Clear Skies was a polarizing film, winning prestigious awards (it won against Chaudhvin Ka Chand and other international entries at The 2nd Moscow International Film Festival) and attracting harsh criticism (from U.S. appreciators of Dir. Chukhrai's previous work).

Aesthetically, this is exactly the kind of Soviet film that led me to my Soviet film hobby in the first place. The colors are just right (and unique to Russian films of the '50s and '60s), and the rhythm of the story ebbs and flows symphonically. But, the most beautiful moments in this film are the personal ones. The moments of extreme loss or gain. Or, the poignant fallout of survival-driven decisions.

There's a lot of beauty to be found in watching the shy protagonist grow from a girl to a woman, in her voice, movements, and face . . . so much so, that even without the help of aging makeup she is hardly recognizable by the end of film. Yes, the war changes her, but even more than that, this transformation is empowered by her on and off again relationship with the ace pilot . . . her refusal to get married to decent "seconds" even when her lover is presumed dead and she has a child to support . . . and her choice to stick with her husband during the years of his suspicion and blacklisting from the party. All of this makes Nina's character a person one comes to love and respect.

For his part, Yevgeni Urbansky steals the film out from everyone else's feet, despite his syncopated presence in the narrative. He's an unforgettable performer, handling the quiet moments with *almost* as much care as the scenes of building emotional pressure. He also manages to keep in perfect step with the lead actress' transformative arc; managing to communicate a believable difference between the cocky flyer of the film's first half, and the slow-to-heal victim of the second. Tragically, Yevgeni died not long after this film released . . . an accident on a film set, it seems. (Just watch him fell like ten trees on-camera in 1960's The Kommunist, and you'll get a decent sense for the risks he was willing to take as an actor.) Most of his (few) films are now considered classics, so it's truly fascinating to wonder what Soviet cinema would have become if he had lived. Of course, it's also possible his star would have faded along with the types of melodramas he excelled in.

Despite it's status as a follow-up film to the much darling-ed Ballad of a Soldier (1959), you will not find "Clear Skies" in the Criterion Collection's half a dozen films (including BoaS) from this Soviet period. It's bright where you expect it be dark, happy when you expect it to be sad, and more concerned with the aftermath of war than you would expect a story "about an ace pilot" would be. Along with some similarities in subject matter and female POV, it shares the some of the technical bravery of "The Cranes are Flying" but with the added bonus (for me at least) of a lush Sovcolor palette (it's listed as "Magicolor," but I'm 90% sure this is from Agfacolor derived film stock).

However, I'm sure everyone else, everywhere, would say that The Cranes are Flying is also a far superior film.

In terms of technical perfection, I would agree with that assessment. But Clear Skies has something else going for it. Something you can't capture with protracted silence, tilted panning shots, or an elongated shadow on a wall. Optimism. This film has it. In spades.

Me and optimism go way back, and I like optimism best when grafted to a story of love overcoming hardship. And, in case you were wondering, given the fact that this is Soviet-made, I really don't mind if some propaganda finds its way in to the mix. The more idealogical inspiration, the merrier.

If you choose to see this one, keep in mind that...

*It was meant to document an emotional story of war veterans and their families, not break all the rules of filmmaking for the sake of it.

*It won't change all your preconceived notions about what a camera can do. It excels as an impressionistic portrait, not an abstract study.

*Not everyone appreciates the "lesser" version of Technicolor (Sovcolor, a two-strip rather than three-strip developing process), either, although it is refreshingly different to those overused to Hollywood gloss and excess. It's also reminiscent of the earthy tones used in previous decades of Russian and Soviet art.

*It is both a product and a celebration of the lessening of censorship under Khrushchev (even going so far as to present Stalin as a menacing figure), but it never pushes the bar too far.

*Prescriptively, this is an emotional critique, NOT a political critique of a certain era of Soviet life.

*Descriptively, it tells the story of the political persecution of believers, rather than dissenters. The main characters are all orthodox in their communist sentiments, but they are persecuted by the higher-ups in spite of that fact. Persecuted, but not destroyed, the film takes pains to tell us.

*As you see in a lot of Hindi or Bengali romances of the time, the love story is a stand-in for bigger cultural problems and struggles ... and the triumph of the lovers over their "small problems" is also a triumph over the public's trauma and conflict.

*Since it aims to inspire, be sure that ideals WILL trump reality in the end.

But honestly, those looking for an easy, high-culture-friendly "art film" should go elsewhere. 

The generally harsh reactions to this film (by the same people who love similar Soviet fare) once again betrays the "elite" film-goer's tendency to misunderstand melodramas. Or at least those that can't be excused as a technical achievement, and/or happen to be melodramas released after 1955 . . . outside of the U.S. But, come ON, cinephiles. Melodramas are just as important as dramas (and, of course, the line between them is very fine indeed), and this one is told better than most. If it's Gone With the Wind, or a similar throwback to a fantastical history that never happened, people will flock to support hyper-magnified expressions of war, love, or survival.  But if it's a film like Clear Skies, which actually fulfills the need for [then] contemporary stories and contemporary catharsis, not so much.

The fact that Clear Skies dares to be intense AND hopeful doesn't make it "less" of a cinematic achievement. Not all the important stories are the cynical ones. 'Course, if you watch Hindi films, you already knew that.