Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nikaah (1982)

The image above depicts Nikaah's heroine's second (!) wedding night, which occurs while her first husband is still alive (!). Also, the story isn't resolved by a death, imprisonment, or pregnancy. Can this really be a Hindi film? In short, yes, but maybe *Urdu* film would be more accurate.

[Since there aren't a million reviews of this film on other blogs, I'll summarize the plot before I pick it apart. Spoilers below, including a discussion of the ending, marked separately for those who want to be surprised.]

Old college-acquaintances, Nilofar (Salma Agha) and Haider (Raj Babbar) run into one another after a long stretch of lost contact. A poet in school, he's now a gainfully employed writer at a magazine, and he shares some mostly one-sided reminiscences about his crush on her in their university days. But Haider is suspicious when he sees Nilofar, who he knows married into money, dispute a small fee and take a bus home. He follows her and finds that she lives at a women's hostel. Kindly, he approaches her a few days later, asks her to a cafe, and entreats her to tell him of her real situation. She goes on to tell him what happened after his advances were rebuffed. Cue long flashback.

Perhaps we should install some art on the ceiling to make these moments more interesting for us. 

Upon graduation, she had married her childhood sweetheart, Nawab Wasim (Deepak Parashar). It seemed a natural match, but right after their wedding night, the Nawab wins a bid to build a five star hotel in Mumbai. They travel to Mumbai together [ostensibly] for their honeymoon, but Nilofar ends up spending most of the the trip alone in their suite or on the breakers outside their hotel while her husband is off conducting business.

The "lucky break" business deal ends up taking the Nawab out of the house at all hours. Perhaps unused to so much responsibility, or just because he's a self-absorbed ass, Wasim repeatedly fails to show up for dinner dates, and movies, and parties. He also doesn't seem to know how to use a phone to let people know he won't be home. Expected to stay home and socialize or keep herself amused all day, Nilofar quickly starts to feel the effects of such an isolated, unreliable existence.

Luckily she has one staunch ally in Iftekhar, who keeps making chai that she won't drink alone.

Whenever Wasim does come home, the newlyweds either fight over his tardiness, or some comment Nilofar has made about his frequent absences to their in-laws, which Wasim takes as a loss of face with his family. Over their first year of marriage, his temper tantrums grow more and more frequent, and her rejection complex deepens. Eventually, when he fails to show up for their first anniversary party, Nilofar breaks under the pressure and goes upstairs (gasp).

Gossipy guests take offense and leave, and Wasim comes home to an empty house and "massive" blot on his social standing. The two have a high-pitched argument, in which Nilofar dares to stand up for herself, telling him she doesn't deserve such treatment and that he doesn't deserve her physical affection.

This doesn't go over well with Wasim, who pronounces the dreaded, "Talaq, talaq, talaq." And just like that, Nilofar is out on the street. Still, she now has an ally and friend. When she is assaulted at her new job, Haider arrives just in time (diffusing the situation with nary a dishoom) and whisks Nilofar away for a good cry-chat on the steps. [Note: this man is like the elusive Rocky-Road of potential suitors.]

What, no covering of my head? You want to talk to me and help me process this? 

The rest of the year passes pleasantly, until her ex invites her to the haveli on the date of their anniversary. When Nilofar doesn't show, Wasim has his own breakdown (which is very satisfying, I must say). But Nilofar is watching after all, and when Wasim begs her to come back, she walks out. Faithful manservant begs too, but she tells him she knows her path isn't with Wasim any longer.

It's when she tells Haider the same thing that night in his office, that he is finally free to ask, "Could you see your path being with me?"

She can, and they decide to get married. Haider proves to be a polar opposite sort of spouse--attentive and funny and inclined toward playing hooky from work instead of staying out to all hours. They develop a playful relationship, and seem to have a lot of fun together. Still, there is much left to be sorted out.

Wasim hasn't given up, instead, he sees her marriage as an opportunity to fulfill the sharia requirement of halala nikaah: the woman's second marriage to someone else required before the first couple can get remarried. But does Nilofar feel the same? And more importantly, can Nilofar and Haider handle the shadow of her past relationship and the interference of her ex?


From the opening "epic" prologue about women and their unfair lot, Nikaah sets out to tell the other side of the story. And not only that, it tries very, very hard not to ruin this goal in the last act.

In fairness, before we go on, I want to be clear that "favorite actor" stepping stones probably won't lead you to Nikaah. For 70's film lovers, Iftekhar can be seen now and then in a magnificent red beard and dark manservant's achkan or expertly brandishing a towel and chai platter. Asrani appears briefly to advance either the comedy or the dramatic stakes, and gleefully takes the the male lead in a magnificent [really kinda feminist] wedding qawwali. But the male leads in the film as a whole didn't excite me at all, I admit. And at first, it appeared my assumptions were confirmed. Raj Babbar and Deepak Parashar demonstrated the liveliness of set pieces spouting poetic dialogues. By the end of the first half, it seemed clear that the relative unknown in this equation, Salma Agha (a Pakistani actress and talented playback singer who went on to win the playback singer award for Nikaah's lovely Dil Ke Armaan) did less acting with far more results.

But it turned out that Nikaah faithfully follows the emotional journey of Nilofar. She barely thinks of the kind, but sometimes ridiculous Haider in the beginning, as her whole life is wrapped up in her first marriage. So, neither do we. But as she gets to know Haider over the second year, he becomes more attractive. And by the third year, he's the perfect contrast to Wasim, and a breath of fresh air for the audience. He comes home early, leaves late, asks her where she wants to go and follows through, and is all together a fun person to actually live with. Basically, this is a rare moment when good writing and casting actually support one another ... as Raj Babbar successfully creates a character the audience can love and even be surprised by. Even, dare I say, a role model.

And this is something that not every "strong woman" film can boast. There are a lot of classics with women of steel, women of God, women of the kotha ... women who overcome every difficulty, and never give up. Men have these films too, countless films full of heroic conquest. But only rarely comes a film that models strong male-female partnership, with men who are strong enough to sacrifice their ego for the little daily indignities and negotiations, and women who expect to be treated not like goddesses or martyrs, but like human beings. This is what Nikaah champions--the value of mundane goodness.

Why yes, both the men are framed under inscriptions spelling out the name of the Prophet, while the woman is centered beneath the name of God. What does it mean? You decide.

Driving these points home is Nikaah's ending, which at first looks to be a textbook filmi climax (even narrated in a meta fashion in a penultimate scene). But Nilofar isn't going to be punished for remarrying, either by society or fate or human weakness ... even if the set-up looks to do just that. Because of course, Haider mistakenly finds a note from the ex and a melancholic diary entry by Nilofar, puts two and two together, and thinks his wife wants to remarry Wasim ... and he takes it upon himself to give her up.

It's also been a while since I've seen a non-Ma character so expertly use melodramatic religious performance to call out the wayward men in her life. 

The woman in question will have none of it. She tells Wasim that she isn't going to be treated like "property," and tells Haider that she won't be given a "gift" she doesn't want or allow him to be a "martyr" for her. In an epic showdown, she tries to leave both of the men. But Wasim saves the day, proving a voice of truth (for once). He notes, rightly, that while he wanted her for his own happiness, Haider is only interested in giving her happiness.

And a film that only wants happiness for its twice-wedded, independent, and childless heroine is definitely a keeper.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Catching Up: Hindi and Bengali Reviews

I have got into some questionable habits this semester ... rushed survey reading over leisurely film watching, listening to educational podcasts more than listening to music, trying to read in Urdu more than listen in Urdu, and searching YouTube frantically for documentaries to show my students instead of digging for that elusive one film I just heard about with English subtitles. This is not to say I haven't watched any films ... when I look at my watchlist from the last three months, it's extensive. A lot of it is international cinema rather than Indian cinema, but hey. So let's do some catching up! (So I can move on.)

[No plot summaries today. That’s the best thing about “mini” reviews. I'm not obliged to give something one can often get on Wikipedia or other, senior, blogs.]

Bengali films 

I must say I've neglected my Bengali interests most of all, of late. Forgive me, dear Mahanayak and Supriya-ji. I DID watch Ray's Pratidwandi (1970) ... and liked it quite a lot. It was angry and helpless and explosive, but still managed to entertain. I can't say the same for Jana Aranya, which pushes a bunch of my anxiety buttons and is destined to wait for the day when I can stomach the second half. (I guess I am impressed at how often it manages to trigger my worry and frustration as a younger person in an unstable economy, so, shabash?)

Ok, and I also saw Shesh Anka (1963), a thriller starring Uttam and Sharmila. It's been written about extensively elsewhere, and so I was sort of spoiled as to the outcome. Still, I enjoyed how it integrated aspects of Hitchcock's Rebecca and some of the tropes of his work in the 50s with a South Asian filmi moral code. The scenes with Sharmila and Uttam driving about on dark country roads are fun just for the witty repartee, but might also send chills up your spine. As they pause at a train-crossing, Uttam has an inadvisable (and fabulous) fit in the driver's seat, and you really start to wonder what kind of man it is that Sharmila's character has decided to marry. 

And then I saw Lookochoori (1958), a romp with Kishore Kumar in a double role as a set of Bengali twins trying to make it in Bombay. This allows for a wealth of Bong-centric humor, fish-out-of-water gags, and some peak period Kishore-as-actor song picturizations. Also, look out for Anup Kumar as an envious office clerk with aspirations to be just like his happy-go-lucky co-worker. This reminds me that I really enjoy "Kumar brothers" inside jokes, and I think someone (not me) should write about meta-humor in their onscreen collaborations. 

Hindi Films

Dear Shashi, baristas are nice in Minnesota. Actually, most everyone is.
In interest of providing some shock factor in this post, I will admit the following: I did not see English Vinglish (2012) until a month ago. No joke, but maaf kar do, anyhow. Overall, the film left me a bit cold. The first word that comes to mind is "commendable," which doesn't portent good things. Yes, it does combine hot button topics, "woman's empowerment" and "Indians in the U.S." and "second language learning" together in a competent way. You never have time to get offended over little inaccuracies or exaggerations, because the film moves fairly quickly, and has built-in temporal suspense. (Oh no, but will she learn English in three weeks or not? Oh no, but her family has come early! Oh no, but the *wedding is on the same day as graduation!)

But for all of the empowerment, it's a bit sad, too. It's especially sad in it's truest moments. This woman isn't going to be as downtrodden as before, but she's also locked into a social situation that is never going to give her the opportunities she deserves. She's going back to India, and yes, doors will open to her through English skills... but it seems to me that her family will never give her much room to spread her wings. Once a condescending and controlling husband ... probably always so. 

*Note: Are desi weddings EVER as chill as the one in English Vinglish? Wait no, are non-desi weddings ever as chill as this? Because this was the least believable aspect of the film for me. English in three weeks? (Maybe, when you've spent a lot of time around it). Families having a change of heart? (Well, filmi comeuppances are nice fantasies and I won't complain too much.) BUT. Wedding days (much less the month beforehand) are madness and the sister of the bride definitely would NOT have time to help aunty with her problems, much less drive her to school or try to make up for her absence ... etc. etc.. 

I enjoyed Hasee To Phasee (2014) quite a lot (even though I felt the actual plot was not as strong as the characterizations), but then so did everyone else, I think. Both the hero and heroine are unconventional in a non-glamorous way. They're still over-the-top film characters ... but near enough to resemble the messy person you feel like on the inside. (Or maybe that's just me.) It's a story that delights in human imperfection ... and seems to make the case that love of imperfection is real love ... or perhaps, that when you love someone's flaws (not just their socially acceptable facade), you know you have found something real. Also, coming from a society (like India) that too often prizes a narrow range of male/female qualities, I appreciate a film that advocates for broader tastes. 

Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) has finally been conquered. Now, to bitch about the work involved. Hmm, yes, Waheeda and Guru should have a hard subbed "Warning: Electricity!" in the screen below them at all times. And Johnny Walker was (surprise! or not) the most sensible person of the bunch. But I can't get past a deep hatred for Rehman as a "sympathetic" figure. He's not. Sorry. Just, you can't make me feel for him. His characters are irritating and repulsive, and best when playing to those strengths. And the "humorous" Muslim social side plot is only bearable because of Johnny Walker. Can someone just edit out like 70 min of this film? Thanks, much. 

Ha. I see what you did there. 
Purab Aur Paschim (1970). Can you hear that sound? That's me chuckling and snickering uproarously through the first two hours in this three hour mess/masterpiece (OK and sort of crying in the last hour). It's the textbook example of a film desperate to be both technically innovative and morally conservative. I know I'm not saying anything new, this film is notorious for its tie-dyed traditional propaganda. Also, can we talk about the brilliant dichotomy of condemning sexual and moral "decay" while all the while showing as much of it as possible? It's a time-tested formula in Bollywood (and probably old-Hollywood, too) but I've never before seen a Hindi film from the 70s that both glorifies and demonizes "immorality" in such perfect synchronization.

Actually, most things in this movie arrive in perfect syncopation. You'd be hard pressed to find another film of this era more attuned to the marriage of score, shots, and script. It's a pleasure to watch, and wherever it lacks in likable characters (you know, when Pran, Madan Puri, and Ashok Kumar aren't around) it will so thoroughly drench you in verbal or visual symbolism that you can't possibly walk away without feeling something.

This was also the film that *almost* made me like Saira Banu ... if only in contrast to Manoj Kumar's pompous Bharat. Is it possible that Bharat is the corporeal manifestation of an entire generation of desi-parent's secret fantasies? Actually, transplant his patriotism to America, change his religion to Christianity, and he fits pretty well with the good-Christian boy next door mythos. "No person he can't convert! No woman he can't win! No temptation he can't resist! All while mysteriously finding time to graduate with honors!" For all that, Manoj is believable in the role (make of that what you will).  

Actually, the idea of hero as missionary or moral leader is probably one of the most important themes, here. The film is an important, if black and white, view of culture shock, partition memory, second generation immigrants, and value shifts in diaspora populations. It's also a prodigal son story, multiplied by ten. Yes, those who have been living abroad have been tainted ... but roots are powerful, and old values and ties can easily prevail against Western vices and fads and you know, that whole rapey thing you acquired abroad. The Ganga can wash you clean, if you so choose to repent ... and luckily your abandoned wife (or, you know, country) won't ever divorce you or remarry.

In Purab Aur Paschim, Bharat (the place, not the character), is the well of all that is pure and good and transformative, both for Indians AND the West. This conceit is perhaps a peculiarity of the age ... when the avante garde thing to do was to mix in a little sitar and Hare Ram Hare Krishna into everything, stir, and rake in the popularity (and cash). While the film doesn't completely miss the humor in this phenomenon, it also seizes the moment. It veers oddly evangelical along the way to calling lapsed believers/patriots, etc. to repentance.
Or, perhaps it's just an elaborate after-school-special starring Pran. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Aurat Raj (1979)

You know that one subset of B films in international film industries dedicated to providing a "titillating" reversal of gender norms? I'm talking about all those films proclaiming "Island of Women!" "Kingdom of Women!" "Female Planet!" and so on. The one where a bunch of manly astronauts land on a planet with no men, populated with castration-happy Amazons and are made into slaves. (I think Star Trek--TOS used this one multiple times.) Despite the power swap of it all, the trope is generally just another avenue for fantasy. "Men ostensibly being exploited by women" becomes another brand of female exploitation. I honestly expected Aurat Raj (Woman Rule or Woman Kingdom) to be the same, but I was wrong.

A long-suffering wife (Rani) is daily beaten and cheated-on by her drunken husband (Waheed Murad). But when he brings home a mistress, it's the last straw. First she tries to get a divorce, and then decides to go BIGGER, and take her grievances to the streets. Led by the oppressed wife, the majority of wives and mothers rise up against their husbands, fathers, father-in-laws (notably, Sultan Rahi), cheating boyfriends, pimps, etc. and take over the country. First by campaign, then by violence.

Finally, a mysterious bomb goes off and turns the men into badly rouged, hirsute, high-voiced, dupatta wearing ... well, men. But also, and more importantly, victims. All. And the women? Transformed into devil-may-care, growly, tight-trousered, leering, smoking, and rapey politicians, soldiers, and goondas. Rani becomes General Jinjur (seriously, though, right down to the art nouveau helmet and epaulets) *ahem* I mean the supreme leader of the Aurat Raj.

Before you can say "just deserts," all the losing husbands are forced to entertain (not what I'd call it, but still) the new leader with song and dance. General Rani (I'm going to call her this because I didn't catch a name) doesn't accept her husband at first, and he's forced to do a number of humiliating seduction dances to win her recognition. She acquiesces after her ego has been stroked enough, but the minute another man shows up at court with a sob story (set upon by rapey females who have ripped his kameez), she casts hubby off. Immediately, he's captured and forced into the life of tawaif (in one of the best parody sequences of the film).

While all this is going on, we're shown snippets of many other emblems of the new order: women accosting and assaulting men in the street, roaming female dacoit bands, women abducting men on their wedding day, women saving men from rapists and the men falling in love with their saviors, women convicts duking it out in prisons and then going full yeh dosti ...

In other words, in maybe a dozen major film scenarios in which South Asian films have traditionally cast men as the subject and women as the object, the tables are turned. Basically, instead of an exploitation fantasy, we find ourselves down the rabbit hole of filmi tropes, the world turned upside down to reveal social problems and sexism in a humorous way.

This VERY strange film was the brainchild (written, directed, produced, etc.) of Rangeela, a jack of all trades Pakistani comedian. Apparently he was inspired by a short story about matriarchal societies and by his own progressive politics. An intensely personal project, it was also a massive financial disaster, AND a film the government censored pretty darn fast. You can read more back story here, if you'd like.

Personally, I've never been in such a muddle about a film as I am about Aurat Raj. It might be brilliant, and it might also be one of the worst things I've ever seen. Almost every pro could be a con (and vice versa) depending on how you look at it...

Waheed Murad and Rani
Pro: apparently a popular pairing in the late 60s and late 70s, they do have a lot of screen presence.

Con: they don't get to use their own voices (or interpersonal chemistry for that matter), for the majority of the film, and Waheed is almost unrecognizable in his feminine avatar. 

The rapid editing and trippy cinematography
Pro: because it keeps things moving, and at least we're not staring at grass grow.

Con: because the film didn't need that many shots or the stock footage and half the time we don't know where we are or who we are with.

The songs
Pro: about half served the parody goal very well, the best being maybe the early battle-of -the-sexes qawwali and a call-to-battle chorus at the end.

Con: the other 8 or 9 numbers are kind of grating and repetitive.

The voice swap
Pro: it does make the power transfer more humorous and effective.

Con: you get tired of it after five minutes.

The clothes swap
Pro: men wearing the burkas and churidars and the women wearing the ultra-tight flares, military
costumes, and leather jackets does serve to add two necessary qualities: humor and sex appeal.

Con: IF you have a high tolerance for ugly (in the first case) and the culturally specific novelty (in the second).

Note: while there's clearly a fetish factor to all this ... the gender reversal is not sexualized in the way the "Island of Women" international cult trope would be.  The girl-fights are shot like guy-fights ... with scowls and kathunk slaps and flips. All the women are exaggerated in their masculinity, just as the men are in their femininity. It looks better on the women though...oh so much better. Waheed Murad is the best looking of the fellers even in horrifically baggy lavender salwar-kameez. However, this is not saying much. They are a grotesque bunch.

The vignette style narrative
Con: we spend a lot of time with folks we don't necessarily care about, in the name of a funny or pointed skits.

Pro: we get a lot of amusing nuggets out of it, like all of the scrappy female street fighters (who I have a feeling were mostly the same three woman dressed up in different funky hats and jackets), gun happy dacoits, and a bandit who licks her machine gun as an intimidation tactic. 


Power corrupts
Con: the downside of the aurat raj is that it is instantly as oppressive and exploitative as the male dominated version. This is certainly an interesting way to showcase the trials of the average woman in a misogynist world (and certainly would make a great SNL skit), bu it doesn't particularly make women look good (except in the aforementioned costume department).

Pro: it seems to say that in patriarchy or matriarchy, male or female rule, gender inequality and victimization is not OK. In fact, the film ends with a stamp of approval on the frame that "fixes" this inequality. Even with an "it was all a dream" cop-out at the end, the film doesn't soften the message. In fact, both in the dream and out, it's the husband who apologizes, learns to fight for both parties, and begs for reconciliation. I don't know about you, but my inner radical feminist can go home now. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Funky Bollywood--The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema

If someone had told me three years ago that I would fall in lust for Bollywood films, I would have heartily laughed it off. Likewise, I would have scoffed at the thought of Bollywood B films from 40 + years ago getting stuck under my skin. Given that I know a fair few cinephiles who won't give Indian films the time of day, I'll make a wild generalization and say that we Western film buffs react this way because we have no idea what we're missing.

Unfortunately, if you pick up the average cast-off Bollywood tome at your local Half-Price, you'll probably walk away unenlightened. Mother India, Pyaasa, and rain-drenched saris will fit too easily into already established inner dialogue. And perusing a Great Important Film list will only sour the that negative conversation further. Poverty? Visible sighs? Lists of "unreadable" and "unrecognizable" names? Long-winded explanations of subaltern subtext? NO KISSING? No thanks.

What some of us really need is not just a Top 100 or a Bollywood 101, but a Bollywood Genre 101. A hook, not a net to capture all us non-conformists and connoisseurs ... ok, ok, snobs. Something to lure us in with the strange and unusual and yet oddly nostalgic. Something that promises easy excitement and popcorn potential. Something evenly patterned but generous with the thrills to keep us ADD stimulation seekers in one place even minus browsing capabilities. Like that weird movie marathon you find on television when your Wi-Fi isn't working.

Luckily, Todd Stadtman, of Die Danger Die Die Kill and Teleport City, has produced just such a "Gateway Drug" (as he puts it) for my favorite genre of all, Bombay's addicting '70s urban action cinema. Ok, yes, he omits most of the '70s mustachoied dacoit dramas, the melodramas, the family socials, the HM comedies, etc. But the book is all the better for it. If you're not ready to bite, let me sweeten the pot. (This is a masala-heavy cinema blog, so I reserve the right to mix my metaphors as much as I like.)

"Funky Bollywood" is divided into four main sections: 

  • A "Starcast" introduction laid out like a cast and crew spread in one of those magazines you can buy for $20 but just read at Barnes and Noble instead. It's fun and snappy and outlines both the reaches of each star's power, and the unique niche they filled in the '70s industry. For those of you who might be wondering, BOTH Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan are included in the seven featured "Heroes." And although Todd omits some of my favorites (like Rakhee), he does include Zeenat Aman and the Telugu star Jyothi Laxmi, so you can see that this isn't any old best actress list from the Times of India. Here you'll also find profiles of playback singers (Kishore Kumar), screenwriters (Salim-Javed), composers (Kalyanji-Anandji), supporting players (Pran), directors (Prakash Mehra), and those hardworking professional villains (Jeevan). 
  • A succession of movie reviews, guided by both Todd's personal sensibilities and his abiding commitment to give spectacular failures a seat at the table, too. (If nothing else, the rest of the films look better in comparison ...)
  • An "interval" gallery (YESSSSS)--with all the photos and posters you could want (even though the rest of the book is well stocked with visuals)
  • And finally, the second half of film reviews. Includes spotlights on two genres within the action genre: spy films, and westerns. 

Also, like a good masala film, Todd provides a snappy prologue and epilogue to bookend the action, and a set of symbols/key to help you keep track of the Bombay storytelling tropes (doubles, bromance, etc.) in each of the films.

On a more personal level, I have two comments: 

1. Seeing an ode to my favorite era of Bollywood (and some near unknown films to boot) in lively print and color does my heart good.

2. I don't have to content myself with looking at the pictures, because I actually enjoy reading the minutia of Todd's commentary. Now that I wrote that, it sounds far more condescending than I intended. But we've all sat through the dry academic tomes about Bollywood (or at least, we've tried). A lot of them serve as better reference books than commuter train reading. But while Funky Bollywood is a deceptively educational book for the beginner, and certainly a refresher of familiar territory for the long-time fan, it aims to entertain first. Here, it's worth quoting Todd's breakdown of KSR Doss' cult "revenge" film, Rani Mera Naam:

"Is it trashy? Stupid? Gaudy? Lurid? Indeed it is. But, also, like its heroine, it commits these crimes in pursuit of a worthy goal."

Anything this book lacks in SERIOUS COMMENTARY (meh), it makes up for in wit and aesthetics, and in its not-so-secret goal of filmi evangelism. Also, you might find a new favorite among Todd's motley selection of urban thrillers. I'm going off to make some lists (OK, YouTube playlists) right now.

"Funky Bollywood" seems to be everywhere in San Francisco, but you can get yours on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Forty-First (1956)

This review is part of "The Russia in Classic Film Blogathon," hosted by Movies Silently. Check out the movie and blogroll here.

Some movies beg the accompaniment of a list or two. Female revolutionaries? Check. Wait, no, Female *snipers.* Check. (Probably a pretty short list, that, unless you count exploitation cinema, which abides by a whole 'nother set of rules.) Propaganda film? Check. Russian civil war story? Check. Sovcolor remake of black & white Soviet silent film? Check. Furthermore, the story is rich with nationalist and patriotic trope-ry.

Because you can head here for a more detailed plot summery, I will keep my retelling brief. Instead, I'd rather focus on this film's connections to international cinema and the questions it raises for me about the expectations for women in nationalist narratives. [This post will be rife with spoilers, as it's impossible to say anything about this film's message without discussing the final scene. You have been warned.]

It's the *ahem* Soviet propaganda version of 1918. The war between the Whites and Reds has not yet been resolved. [The important thing to remember is that White is bad and Red good in the Soviet imagination.] Maria (Izolda Izvitskaya) is a hardened sniper in the Red Army. She and her company are marching through the Karakum desert, when she spies a rival army caravan from afar and picks off two of the soldiers, giving her forty total kills. Uncharacteristically, she misses the man who would have been her forty-first, Lieutenant Otrok (Oleg Strizhenov).

Swiftly, the survivor is captured and discovered to be carrying some mysterious war intelligence for the White Army. This makes him a valuable prisoner indeed, and Maria is tasked with watching over him. But because he looks and acts rather like Cary Elwes dashing, is both charming and well-educated, and because she's the only women for hundreds of miles probably, a tentative comradery grows between them.

On his part, he seems to enjoy her shaky attempts at revolutionary poetry, and tries to hold back his laughter at her expense. She has a certain glow, it must be denied. (I need to get me some of that socialist realism make-up, it makes one look invincible.) And yes, she's rough and uneducated, but he comes to respect her dedication to the cause. Still, a shadow hangs between them, as she is bringing him to his death. However, not before they are shipwrecked on an island alone together (you'd have to be there, it sort of makes sense), and they finally let themselves fall into tempestuous cast-away love. Obviously, such bliss must be sacrificed--there's a war on, after all.

Helmed by one of my favorite directors, Grigori Chukhrai, and released in 1956 at the beginning of the Kruschev Thaw, the characters here are still bound by the severity of Soviet ideology. But, take note, these folks are characters, not puppets, with believable motivations and semi-believable actions. It's definitely not a pure propaganda film about the early Lenin years like 1959's Kommunist with Yevgeny Urbansky, nor does it share the ambiguities and moral questions of Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying (1957), the maddening unfairness of war expressed in Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959), or even the mild Stalinist critique of his later Clear Skies (1961). It falls somewhere in the middle. Yes, each of Chukhrai's films within this period are intensely personal accounts of war and the aftermath of war, and The Forty-First is no exception. But by sympathizing with the enemy (and even more literally, with the enemy's stories and story-telling) while STILL advocating a personal sacrifice for the larger mission, The Forty-First digs its heels into safe territory.

It's still near enough to no man's land to provide some thrills, however.

*Biggest spoilers below*

Of course, I'm hinting at the fact that although romance is allowed temporarily, it's doomed to be ended by Maria's final act: shooting Otrok when he is about to be rescued by a White Army ship. For those of you feeling some deja-vu, you have good reason. It's a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to Fanaa (2006), in which *spoiler* a Kashmiri woman kills her would-be militant husband, instead of letting him be air-lifted out to support large-scale terrorism.

Both stories trade on doomed romance that transcends earlier loyalties ... for a time. Both emphasize rejecting a beautiful enemy for a more beautiful country. Both use the desert island trope: one on an actual island, the other a snowed-in Kashmiri lodge. But while the protagonist in Fanaa has to kill the father of her son, and thus destroy her family (or save it, depending on your point of view), Maria was never a nurturing figure to begin with. It's easier to understand how her military training would take over in a moment of crisis.

I don't mention this because I think it's easier to execute one's lover than one's husband (Sophie's Choice much?), but it surprises me that in both cases, the Indian and Soviet ideals for the average woman (mother, wife, worker) are being superseded by the "higher" call or "need" of one's country. A film from India in the 50s, especially in the rather socialist Mother India (1957), sure. And in Soviet society in the 1950s, absolutely. Obviously, society trumps the individual in socialist narratives. But in Fanaa? An Indian film from the last dozen years? That's SO 60 years ago, guys. I guess nationalism and patriotism still need the same kinds of stories to achieve their ends, no matter to what country you pledge allegiance.

Following on the heels of that thought, it's important to note a similarity in the "means" not just the ends of this kind of fatalistic patriotism. Without artistic value, persuasive cinema can't keep people in their seats, much less spur them toward a certain kind of action. Both of these films trade on natural beauty to create an atmosphere of enchantment, even in, nay, especially when framing personal tragedy. The visuals of love and loss conjure up fairy tales, not history books. And in this, we see both the sneakier subtext of patriotism (the land is oh-so-important in national propaganda), the transformation of natural space into supernatural space (where anything can happen), and the dueling romanticizations of country vs. lover. Maria chooses the first, of course. Given Chukhrai's flare for "Romance with a capital R," one can almost understand why.

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.