Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rakhee-Lab I: Barsaat Ki Ek Raat

Filmi~Contrast has several "House Favorites."

On the hero end of things: Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, and Shashi Kapoor rank at the tippety-top. I also usually enjoy Rajesh Khanna and Naseerudin Shah. Some heroes took a little time to grow on me. I think the first thing I saw Rajesh Khanna in was Kati Patang (1970), and I was both annoyed and intrigued by him. But others, like Shashi or Vinod, never had to sell me on their hero-chops--I turned loyal immediately.

Amitabh as his young hero self didn't appeal to me until I saw Suhaag (1979), and then I didn't question him so much anymore. I knew he would eventually step out of gruff-mode and into hilarity-mode, if I just waited long enough. I like Shah Rukh most of the time, even when I don't like the film he's in. I also think Ranveer Singh shows a lot of promise to be more than just a pretty face.

When it comes to heroines, I always enjoy the spunk and energy that Vidya Balan and Preity Zinta and Neetu Singh bring to their roles. Rekha and Zeenat Aman also never fail to intrigue me with their otherworldly beauty, mystique, and naach-styles.

For the most part, the appeal of these actresses is not hard to pin down (or even to "pin-up" if you will). They light up the screen with their charisma and personality and match the willpower of the men with their own kind of agency.

However, I have one favorite that still mystifies me: Rakhee Gulzar.

She just doesn't seem to share much with the other actresses above. I also kind of loathed her in the first role I saw her in (Kabhi Kabhie), minus maybe two scenes where I found her really interesting (no prizes for guessing which two scenes). But just one film of hers later, I fell completely "in love." I should have known that anyone who can induce one kind of strong feeling can also induce another. In each new film I see, I find reasons to love her and reasons to dislike her. But I can't stop watching either way.

In an attempt to figure out why I find such a seemingly quiet and distant actress so magnetic, AND why I love to hate her and hate to love her . . . I am going to subject her films to the scientific process. Maybe it will finally make sense if I just watch everything she has ever done... (Feel free to disagree with my logic, here.)

Experiment #1: Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1981)

I thought I would start with a mediocre film to analyze here at the Rakhee-Lab. After all, a good film can make almost anyone look good. 

The primary hypothesis: Rakhee and Amitabh hold up as a couple in films that aren't Kabhi Kabhie. 

To be honest, what initially drew me to this film in particular was the Rakheetabh pairing. In Kabhi Kabhie their romance was the black hole of the film, dragging everything and everyone down with their poetic depression. However, after watching their understated romance in Kaala Patthar, which is all around one of the best movies I have ever seen, I thought they deserved another chance at love. 

The elements

Pretty tea-plantation on the mountainside:

We are NOT tea-pickers who dance. We are dancers who pick tea.
These bumbling baddies...with the Big Bad of the film, Kaliram, on the far right. 

This stranger riding into town with strange motives on a strange beast. 

Riding into town on a donkey. And you say I have a Messiah complex. I just don't see it. 
I don't know where I stabled this donkey, or why I rode into town in the first place, since I seem to like my Jeep for the rest of the film. 
A village caught under the local Smuggler Don's thumb: 

Rajni, this saintly blind daughter of the local tea plantation owner: 

Abhijeet, an inspector on a one-man mission to shut down the smugglers for good. 

Love with a stranger. . . who's spying on your lovesong for him: 

This song was kind of cute, even though Amitabh's character is spying on a girl who is singing about him, but can't see him. . .

Amitabh's character reveals himself to save her from hitting her head against a tree, thus sparking this delightfully facetious conversation: 

EXTENSIVE public shaming, in SONG, of the Big Bad that seems a bit excessive coming from the hero this early in the film.

This song is ostensibly to shame me for "bursting my drum" during our drum-off. But now that you're making fun of me for it, I think our drum-off was really a substitute for something else.
Private shaming of the good girl.

This lecherous Kaliram guy should be on the run, but instead has hung around waiting for the perfect night to get Rajni alone to rape her--which will also serve to hurt his enemy, Abhijeet. Although, for a blind girl without a white cane, her servant/helpers are NEVER around and seem to be the only people who can run stupid errands.
Of course Abhijeet saves Rajni, both from Kaliram and from the prospect of a future life alone in hiding from all the talk about the attempted rape. They start a new life together:

For those of you who might have wanted to see Kabhi Kabhie turn out a little differently. 

 Five years down the road, a new life is coming.

On the nose song about having everything they ever wanted, naively synchronous with the release of Big Bad from prison. 

Way too many boring scenes about painfully one-dimensional baddies that actually take up at least a third of the film:

Final catalyzing agent: The Big Bad gets released from prison and is still out for rape and blood and bad guy things. 

This scene was scary and scarring. Consequently, for once, the cause of miscarriage in a movie made sense. 

The reaction: Epic Beatdown by Bachchan


  1. I do not like it when Rakhee plays blind. I realize it's a favorite masala trope, but within the first three frames of a random song I saw from this movie on a stroll through Youtube, I figured out that she was blind, so obvious were her movements. And it never got more subtle. I mean, maybe it would have helped if the fine scriptwriters or production team had actually given her a cane so she didn't have to do THIS all the time.                                                                                                    
  2. Rakheetabh DID indeed turn out to be the best part of this movie. Primary hypothesis supported. They managed to bring a fun sensibility to all their conversations, even if their songs together were pretty forgettable. In this conversation, Abhijeet assures Rajni that although he's excited for their coming baby, he doesn't see her just as a mother, but as his lover still. 
    We are still having flirty, facetious conversations after five years of marriage. 
  3. Also, I do not much care for movies where attempted rape takes up SO much of the storyline. 
  4. Rakhee should definitely be given as many humorous dialogues as possible. Her deadpan delivery was one of the best parts of this film. 
  5. Rakhee does not dance in this film. She also does not really dance in the other films I have seen her in. Strange. Further research is necessary. Maybe in Sharmilee? 

Experiment #1: Conclusion

I realized something important about Rakhee when I watched this film, ironically enough through my irritation about her character's blindness. Though I enjoyed her character's gutsy style (for being blind, she doesn't expect other people to take care of her, which tends to get her into trouble), I hated the limitations on Rakhee herself in this film. It was a bad move to make someone so observant act blind.

To me, Rakhee excels in "reacting" rather than acting. I love to look for the subtle but important changes in her demeanor during conversations or emotional scenes. I also always get the sense that she is painfully observant and sensitive towards everything going on around her . . . that every little emotional beat hits her heart and shakes it up. But of course her characters tend to hide this sensitivity, which makes you actually care about her suffering or her internal processes a lot more.

I have more Rakhee coming from Netflix, and we'll just have to see if those particular films warrant another day spent at the Rakhee Lab. I'm sure, however, that I'll need a lot more research and experimentation to figure The Quiet One out. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cleopatra Goes to Bollywood, or what I am spending time on instead of the critical post I promised . . .

So, until I finish my longer post on the parallels between the decadence of "Devdas" (2002) and Cleopatra (1963), the question I can't get out of my head is this: If Hindi cinema had tried to tackle Cleopatra, what would it have looked like? And who would have starred in the three major roles?*

Trying to cast different actors from different eras in the same hypothetical film might just break my brain. In self defense then, I think I'll have to stick with one era. While the early 2000s seems to have been the decade for sweeping historical epics (Lagaan, Devdas, Umrao Jaan, Asoka), the Bollywood aesthetic and actors I enjoy the most are all found about 25-30 years earlier. So, let's offer some straight up Masala to Queen Cleopatra and see how she likes it.

1. Cleopatra. 

The challenge: Well, since you are playing one of the most high-profile woman in history, you probably already have an idea of what you have to do. Problem is, so does everyone else. You must be simultaneously seductive, persuasive, clever . . . and be able to look even more beautiful when you are angry than when you are happy.

My pick: 

Zeenat Aman

She was often accused of trading on her looks, but that's a common insult applied to many unbelievably beautiful women in the film business. (And probably Cleopatra, too!) Whatever paper-thin roles she might have done, she also proved (like in the above scene from Satyam Shivam Sundaram), that she could hold in her own in a scene where she had to stand up to the hero, and Shashi Kapoor's (albeit dubious) hero at that.

Runners up: Rekha

2. Mark Antony

The challenge: Your nobility has to match your ambition. We must always feel that though you have a burning desire to, umm, rule . . . you want it because you believe you are the best person to be king. You are charismatic, and you kind of know it (maybe a little too well). You need to portray a believable struggle between romantic feelings and personal goals.

My pick: 


Perhaps he doesn't have the Shakespearean/dramatic chops of say Naseerudin Shah or the aching sensitivity of Shashi Kapoor. But hey, he's got the jawline. Which I should have perhaps mentioned counts for extra points when it comes to Antony. (If it were truly up to me, I would say that Shashi could much better manage the snappy dialogue. But he just doesn't have the "look," nor do I see him as a world conquering type.)

Runner up: Vinod Khanna

3. Julius Caesar

The challenge: You are above all a man of wisdom and experience. A man who has been through war. You know when a plan is feasible, and when it is not. You are a strange mixture of civilization and barbarism. You're also ready to stop trying so hard and settle down. That is until a woman clouds your vision.

My pick: 

Shatrughin Sinha

Dude knew how to address a crowd. Remember those scenes in "Aa Gale Lag Jaa?" He could really work a room! As it is hard to compete with SS's brand of theatrics, once his name came up, he instantly got the part.

Runner up: None

Bonus round: Octavian

The challenge: Most of the time you should be petty without showing much emotion. Be more than a little self absorbed and odd. When you have bided your time, you will surprise people who have disliked you with the depth of your ambition and self-preservation in a tight spot. Talk about loyalty, but expect people to fold because you are holding all the cards. Be extraordinarily fond of exhibitionist monologues that achieve your ends.

My pick: 

Photo courtesy of this blog.
Karan Johar!

OK, so I didn't follow my own rules laid out above. But, he'd be perfect, right?

Till next time!

*I'm hardly the first to do a post dedicated to recasting a Hollywood movie in Bollywood. Thanks for the inspiration Old is Gold and others!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Decadence . . . Or When to Dust Off the Old Guillotine

Storm clouds gathering over Versailles
This is a filmi post. But I have to talk about something else first. It's relevant, I promise.

There's something about a freakish show of wealth that gives people violent headaches. Maybe it's an allergy to gold filigree, maybe it's just jealousy of a life dedicated to luxury, maybe it's just anger at seeing massive spaces dedicated to the showcase of status, but in my experience, nothing makes us want to pick up our torches and pitchforks like a glimpse of life in the upper echelons of society.

(Occupy Wall Street could be seen as but a recent and relatively uneventful version of this tendency towards picketing the places of the rich. It wasn't exactly Russia circa 1917, however.)

Like most Americans, I am caught between populist sympathies and bourgeois aspirations. I love a beautiful, civilized, decorative space as much as anyone, but when that space doesn't belong to me . . . when I can't have access to it whenever I'd like . . . I am sometimes stricken with an urge to boycott private property.

That belongs in a museum. Donate it or I will donate you. 
(Then I quickly remember the Bill of Rights and how it works most of the time and I sort of calm down.)

Entrance to the Hall of Mirrors
I don't think I really examined this urge in myself till rather recently, during a visit to Paris. Maybe it was Versailles, or the constant protest marches, or the protest march that shut down all the trains when I tried to get to Versailles and left me sitting in a platform with a view of a garbage heap for four hours . . . but by the time I walked about a mile INSIDE the palace to get to the Hall of Mirrors and the audience halls and multiple bedrooms of the Sun King and his descendants, I was about ready to flip a lid; purely out of historical sympathy with the French revolutionaries, you understand.

Much fuss is made now about how the Palace and the Gardens of Versailles are the property of the people, and are a grand testament to the power of the people. You see it on signs everywhere. Parisians are desperate to proclaim: "Look what we scored from those old royals! What horrible people they were. We will charge you a fee if you aren't French and you can see for yourself what horrors they got up to inside. It was horrible. What waste. Did you see the golden bits? But we will certainly keep spending French Euros trying to restore the horrible gardens to their original horrible glory for the use of the not-horrible French Republic."

The Gardens and Palace of Versailles 1746


I really need someone from the fifteenth or sixteenth century to weigh in on this post (so if you know anyone, hook me up), because I wonder if the inner rage we feel when we visiting places like Versailles is purely a modern, post Enlightenment phenomenon. In the ongoing Age of Revolutions, perhaps we have only a limited tolerance for obvious displays of wealth in physical structures and man-made objects. People can possess as much as they like in the way of jewels and objects and art and cars, but they really shouldn't let anyone know how much they have. Not that showing off these days is illegal, exactly, but it certainly is rude. I guess you can still have your palace, as long as you keep it well-hidden.

All of which leads me to my question of the day: How much is too much in a film/cinematic setting?

In other words, would a less modern audience pick a fight with Devdas (2002)? 

Yet another adaptation of the classic Indian novel named for its protagonist, Devdas was directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (an auteur with an obsessive tendency to bejewel everything in his reach), and it has both been criticized for its gilded visual style/record-breaking production costs, and praised for its undeniably shocking beauty.

Yes. This house was built for the movie. It did not exist before.
Been praying for 10 years that Devdas would come home to me. Should have prayed that he would stay . . . 

I'm the hero, right? Wait. What is it that heroes do again? You must have heard I'm London-returned. London doesn't have a "School for Heroes." I hear there's one in Jaipur. 
Does this lighting make me look doomed to you? Be honest. 
 The film is also fairly controversial within the Bollywood blogosphere. If you haven't seen it, here are some reviews with both excellent synopses, and a variety of view points (here, here, here, and here,). The PPCC calls it "overwhelmingly opulent," and "shameless" in its "decadence."

The courtesan district must dazzle, no? Oh yeah, this was all built for the film as well. It's not a bigature. 
Now let's be fair. Devdas is not the only film to have literally created a world for its characters to live in. Peter Jackson's LOTR films were also unbelievably expensive, and their production team also built mini-towns all over New Zealand. See the most expensive films adjusted for inflation.

But while LOTR was certainly opulent in a fiscal sense, it did not actually celebrate opulent lifestyles. This may be a key difference. When you're doing a film about the exploitation of women, you have to decide whether or not you are also actually exploiting women in your very depiction of the problem; and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people felt that Devdas blurred the line between depicting empty, wasteful decadence and becoming empty and wasteful in and of itself.

That's probably what a lot of people feel, and I wouldn't blame them. They wouldn't be the least wrong to celebrate the death of the violent, drunk, wretch of an aristocrat at the end. Perhaps in Devdas' character they see a dying aristocracy, and feel both satisfied by his tragic end and angered by his paramour's marital imprisonment.

You people belong in a museum.
I can't argue with either of those reactions. It it certainly fair to watch the film, and say, as I did when walking through Versailles, "Sorry, but your days were always numbered, folks."

That's what the pharaohs said. And Rome. And those pesky Brits? Yeah, maybe you remember making the sun set on their empire, too. 

Yet I don't feel that way. I am moved by Devdas. There, I've said it. Jack's out of the box. It's not just because of the fabulousness of it all. It's not just because the songs are worth multiple viewings (even Filmi Geek agrees . . . and she's a hard sell). Devdas' tale certainly comes off as a morality play about selfishness and stubbornness and the perils of traditional marriage customs, but it's ALSO about wanting more and MORE possessions, and wanting to possess people, and what dark things happen when you get love confused with ownership.

Ye gods. I can't believe they're foreshadowing my ending so early in the film.
I haven't read the book/seen the other film adaptations as of yet (and don't know what's plucked from the original text and what's new here), but what strikes me about this particular film is all the facetious dialogue that is devoted to (A) Gambling, (B) Looting/Thieving, (C) Accounting/Arithmetic, (D) Banking/Usury. That doesn't even count the drama surrounding inheritance, jewelry, bride-price, landlords, and the new-money vs. old-money dynamics. Make no doubt about it, Devdas' family Eats, Sleeps, and Breathes Wealth. It's where their attention goes. It's why Paro is so easily written off as a match for Devdas (even though there is more behind the refusal). She's too expensive (as Paro's family will exact a bride price from Devdas' family upon their marriage), and doesn't come from the right familial background. They're also all paranoid about any little piece of jewelry or inheritance being stolen from them, even as they lose their crown jewel, Devdas, right under their nose.

My relationship with you, sister-in-law is one of the few times in this story that I seem pure or at least guileless. At least you can't call me materialistic.
Sister-in-law wants Paro's bracelet, the only piece of jewelry she CANNOT have that you see here.
Sister-in-law is refused bracelet. Paro must pay, but with Devdas' life. Makes evil sense, does it not?
Sister-in-law cannot take a joke. Also, thinks everyone is stealing from her because she is a thief and that's what she would do. 

Sense and Shameability: 

Next to this family of mercenaries, Paro's family is like a baby bird that just fell out of its nest and has absolutely no concept of how vulnerable it is. A fateful night of hoped-for betrothal shows how quick they are to trust, and how VERY quick Devdas and his family are to take advantage.

Naivete Exhibit 1: Of course Choti-Ma wants Paro to marry Devdas! We are practically family already!

Naivete Exhibit 2: Just because I am dancing for you in the dark, doesn't make me a courtesan. But I know you would never cause me shame and tell someone about this. 
Naivete Exhibit 3: Just because my grandmother was a courtesan doesn't mean I can't do her dance for you. I know you wouldn't try to shame me. 
Naivete Exhibit 4: Devdas will listen if I say no.  I'm not going to get raped tonight. 

The Mixed Up Files of Devdas' Psyche:

There's a lot of commentary that views Devdas as a symbol of a lost generation, a man caught between modernity and tradition. He can't reconcile one with the other, and so becomes inert, unable to live in either world. Delving into that idea further, I would say that Devdas' family brought him up to view everything in terms of possession

But Dev went off to London and read some romance novels and now he also believes in love. It seems like a better deal. He goes home and trivializes the mercenary lifestyle around him, but still continues to reap its benefits. Instead of yearning for shares in the inheritance, like his brother and sister-in-law, he yearns for childhood friend Paro. 

However, he fails to understand the rules of the game. While Paro soon realizes she is nothing but a commodity to be bought and traded and adjusts to this fact . . . 

 . . . Dev holds to his twisted illusion of romantic love. He still treats her like an object OF COURSE,  but stupidly doesn't realize he has to PAY to use said object. In a world where LOVE = POSSESSION, Dev's actions are a constant trespass. Stupidly, he doesn't see that Paro has a price, and that he has tried to use her for free until it's too late. And when someone else buys what he wants, he decides to rough up the merchandise BEFORE it can be passed to its next owner. 

Nice play on the wife's vermilion thing there, Devdas. 

Math is Hard:

Appropriately enough, the running joke between the lovers throughout the film is that Devdas is bad at arithmetic, while Paro improves at arithmetic exponentially in each scene. It IS a nice metaphor for Devdas issues. He really doesn't understand the equation he must follow to get what he wants. 

1. Dev wants X = Possessing Paro

2. But acts as if X (Paro is his) were already true by ignoring:
(A) sexual mores
(B) betrothal rules
(C) parental disapproval
(D) tradition of bride-price
(E) danger of tarnishing her reputation

3. I'm also not very good at math, so I I'm already losing my train of thought here, but basically, X is negated by A-E. 

In an ironic twist, while Devdas is against paying for a bride (but is OK sleeping with her before her wedding to another man), he is completely alright with paying a courtesan to be his sexless companion. The guy really just can't do the math. 

Said courtesan is a whole 'nother psychological study.
I'm Chandramukhi, the goddess, no the REKHA, of courtesans. I can have all the money and sex that I desire . . . 
 ...behold my kingdom . . .
But I think I'd rather watch this wastrel brood and drink himself to death in my quarters. 

Despite her dubious bhartiya nari tendencies, for me, Chandramukhi still manages to be the antidote to the poison in these characters lives. She is not possessed by anyone or anything (except perhaps by her profession). Money is not her motivation, nor is romantic conquest. She loves Devdas, but doesn't try to own him. While everyone else tries to grasp at life, or pine for what they couldn't reach, Chandramukhi gives selflessly, and enjoys the current moment, however painful.

Everyone in this film loses . . . and probably go on losing after the film ends. Everyone except Chandramukhi. Arguably, she never really thought she could have Devdas in the first place. And I'm pretty sure she had enough common sense to move on with her life after his death. Devdas may have devalued her, but I don't think she ever devalued herself (unlike Paro). I also think there's a chance that Chandramukhi goes back for Paro, helps her ditch the emotionally dead husband, and they run off into the sunset, Thelma and Louise style. But even if that doesn't happen, Chandramukhi will be fine. Even as a courtesan, she is the only person in this film that is truly independent, free from the need to possess or be possessed. In Indian cinema, Courtesans and Gurus are only separated by a very fine line.

NEXT TIME, a contrasting look at another film famed for it's decadence. Remember that list of most expensive films of all time? Well, Cleopatra (1963) STILL ranks at 15. And she . . . I mean . . . the film . . . sure looks the part.