Wednesday, November 27, 2013

4 Bollywood Things I'm Thankful For

It's about to be Hanukkah and Thanksgiving (here in the U.S.) and, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a LIST of things one is grateful for. Here's the Bollywood stuff that happened to come to mind.

4. The Curio Cabinet. . .

Sometimes YouTube is my favorite virtual place in the world . . . especially when I come across something like this: a Laxmi Chhaya & Madhumati fight *ahem* dance from Suhaag Raat (1968).

There are so many other puzzlers, like . . . 

"Woh Jab Yaad Aaye" from Parasmani (1963).

And also from Parasmani, "Hansta Hua Noorani Chehra." 

THAT song from Apna Desh (1972). "Duniya Mein Logon Ko."

I'm ever so thankful that in Bollywood, ridiculous can (and often does) mean awesome. 

3. Item Bombs

I actually have quite a bit of trouble sitting through films from start to finish. Anything can set off my ADD. A great bit in a film can have me Googling the stars or the composer . . . and finding myself deep into Wikipedia's explanation of classical raga structure fifteen minutes later. A bad film will make me want to start a different film. A story that's really worrying me--tugging my heartstrings--even that can make me go off the rails. (Come on, I can't help that I care so much about fictional characters!) Long story short (I'm sure I've already lost those of you who are ADD as well) "Item songs" were made for me, I think.

Bombshell: Cukoo. Song: "Ek Do Teen." Awaara (1950)

Bombshell: Aruna Irani. Song "Koi Mar Jaye." Deewar (1975). 

Bombshell: Padma Khanna. "Tauba Tauba Meri Tauba" Reshma aur Shera (1971). 

Just when I can't handle any more of something (the sad childhood prologue, the hero's losses, the heroine's sacrifices, the badly choreographed fight scenes, the wooden dialogue or EVEN the amazingly poignant dialogue), ENTER the Item Bombshell. Pretty soon, my heart is lifted, my brain is distracted in a good way, and I can move forward again. But even if you don't have my problem, the best item songs do move you forward, because they teach you something about the characters or the emotional context you didn't realize before.

2. Dosti in its variant (Amitabh-oriented) forms. . .

Oh the Bromance!!!

"Aye Yaar Sun Yaari Teri" Suhaag (1979). 

"Saa Re Gaa Maa Geet" Chupke Chupke (1975).

This year I'm thankful for the holy trinity (The Trinitabh?): Shashitabh, Vinotabh, and Dharmetabh. 

1. Catharsis

Actress Ann Marie Duff once said, "There's a catharsis in telling a miserable old tale; you get rid of demons."  Telling the tale, watching the tale, it's a similar process. Through story, we can be entertained. But we can also find peace, old-fashioned grit, new understanding, and hope. If we can feel with the characters, then we might also hurt, fall, and rise up tall with the characters.

When I need that kind of simultaneous "knock-down" and "pick-me-up," I go here. They may not all be objectively THE best, but I'm thankful that I found them, nonetheless.

Sharmila and Rajesh can't seem to catch a break (as usual) but this time, their characters are remarkably aware and forgiving, even when they both betray each other's trust. For once, in an industry run on stories about people misunderstanding each other till the bitter end, we see two people who see the worst in one another and don't walk away or levy a giant slap or call the marriage off.
"Na Tumse Huii, Na Humse Huii" Raja Rani (1973).

Zeenat's good and tired of Shashi's filmi madness, and pronounces a curse upon him. I mean, when you do you see a filmi wife actually tell her husband off? (And isn't there someone you kind of wish you could speak your mind to in a similar way?) Pretty much the best part of the entire film.
 Satyam Shivam Sundaram Scene (1978). 

Shashi can be betrayed, too. This time Sharmila is the culprit (at least as far as Shashi knows), and he's been quietly putting up with 7 years of shame and hardship all by his lonesome. I never thought roller skates would be a good medium for a soulful lament about betrayal, but it just works for me. Especially with "imaginary Sharmila" hanging around looking FAR TOO happy with herself. In other news, this song (not the scene) seems to be quite popular with very random people who've never seen the film. People are always commenting on it when I have it playing. So much so, that it either answers to "Jaanti ho?" Or "Samaya," during car trip song requests.
"Na Koii Dil Mein Samaya" Aa Gale Lag Ja (1973). 

I love it when characters are forced to celebrate something that they don't want to celebrate. (Maybe I'm just not a party person, and I appreciate it when other people don't see the point, either.) 
It's even better if they can place the blame on the right person with a wink and smile. Dharmendra starts off proud, and ends up all guilty (he gives great guilt-face). Plus Prem Chopra trotting about looking suitably smug (with 2/3 of the information necessary to understand the irony), and Helen (who is omniscient of course) dancing to the beat of lies and intrigue. It's positively perfect. So much so, that if the film had ended here, I might have been OK with it. 

And of course, this . . .

Dying for love never looked so good. This song is so powerful on a spiritual and emotional level, it's almost a religion in itself. It certainly gets rid of my demons. 
"Ae Mohabbat Zindabad" Mughal-e-Azam (1960). 

What has Bollywood given to you this year? Well, whatever you are celebrating, mubarak ho! 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Back in the USSR: A Bollylover's Adventures in Soviet Cinema Part I

I've always enjoyed culture and places a la Eastern Europe . . . and one of the best traveling experiences of my life was backpacking through the Balkans (Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia) five years ago.

India? Nope. Sarajevo, Bosnia . . . a city highly influenced by Persianate/Ottoman style. 

Ugly communist architecture inexplicably turns me on, and the Slavic languages always manage to hold my attention longer than I expect. I almost went into Russian or Southeastern European Studies, but somehow, my brain couldn't handle the chill, if you will. Immersing oneself in a language or a culture is an intimate thing . . . and it places one in a vulnerable emotional/mental position. Just like marrying a person, one has to be able to handle large doses of of a culture to commit to studying it and enjoying its company in the long term. 

Tsar Sultan Eavesdropping, 1905. (Ivan Bilibin)

So, Russian studies/Balkan studies didn't happen. We dated, we broke up. No big deal. I found Bollywood and Hindi and the riches of South Asia. I'm much the better/happier for it. 

Surprisingly, however, my journey through Hindi cinema has led me back where I started . . . to Soviet Cinema, AKA the Cinema of the Soviet Union. 

I've realized that Bollywood Brain is an excellent jumping off point for enjoyment of other world cinema. It's a happy pill that protects one from the slings and arrows of OTHER people's problems (whoever that sociological "other" may be). Furthermore, the discipline one gains from watching obscure Hindi films is useful in any obscure cinematic endeavor. I'm not exactly at 4DK level of obscure--but I certainly watch things now that I would have never considered watching a year ago. Best of all, after being mentally strengthened by the rich diet that is Hindi Cinema, I now feel I can handle short journeys into the cold. Below is the record of one such trip. I'll keep you updated on the ongoing forays as they happen! 

For now . . . 

The Girls -- Девчата (Russian language, Soviet Union, 1961). 


The Story  . . .

Tosya (Nadezhda Rumyantseva), alone and just out of culinary school, arrives in a logging town somewhere deep in the black forests of Russia. She has apparently been appointed as the new canteen cook for all the lumbermen. However, she also seems rather naive to the toughened inhabitants of the tiny town. She hasn't brought a pillow or EVEN proper snow boots with her. (Horrors!)

Tosya makes herself comfortable immediately (somewhat to the distress of her housemates). The audience immediately realizes that this is a girl who doesn't know the meaning of fear . . .  and doesn't worry about how other people will perceive her. She's consistently upbeat, never stops moving, says the wrong things, and touches other people's things without asking. However--nobody really minds--because she is SO adorable and well-meaning. 

Well, almost nobody minds. The glamorous and cynical housemate, Anfisa, immediately takes a dislike to Tosya . . .perhaps because Tosya is everything she is not.

However, the other girls quickly step in and essentially tell Tosya not to mind Anfisa's attitude. It certainly doesn't bother Tosya for long. She soon settles in at the canteen . . .

 . . . and attends the Saturday/Friday night social scene of the little town. Almost immediately, she manages to step on some toes, and not by way of her dancing, either.

Within 10 minutes, Tosya gets a quick, culture-shock-esque lesson on the power dynamics of the small town. She helps hang the portrait of the "star" lumberjack in town, Ilya (the Russian equivalent name to Bollywood's Ram or Raj--a hero's name if there ever was one). Immediately after, Ilya walks in with his lumber crew, to an awed, red carpet treatment by the entire room. This is a guy who expects to be treated like royalty.

Ilya is the guy in the fur hat. I mean, the guy in the fur hat that's second from the left. 

Instead of coupling off, Ilya (Nikolai Rybnikov) stomps over to a checkers game, and proceeds to act like he owns the room.

So much so, that he even tells his friend to stop the record player . . .  making everyone in the room stop dancing, so he can concentrate better on his next move!

Tosya, who's ended up dancing with another girl in order not to be a wallflower, doesn't take kindly to the removal of the music and stomps right over and turns it back on. This is quite to the surprise of the crowd of dancers--who are obviously used to catering to Ilya's whims. (Note: throughout the film she tries to make simple household tasks fun, often through music and dance . . .  quite like a Disney-heroine . . . or a Russian fairy-tale-heroine, I suppose.)

After a short battle of wills, Tosya is "made" to wait to turn the music back on, and told to watch the "amazing" checkers move. Ilya wins, but is intrigued by the minx that dared to challenge him . . . He asks her to dance.

Tosya is still incensed and in a brilliant stroke, manages to take his ego down a notch in front of everyone. (I won't ruin it for you, it's really a perfect scene.)

His wounds still smarting, Ilya makes a bet with his logging rival (they bet a Cuban hat and a Reindeer), that he can make the firebrand Tosya fall in love with him.

From there on, the plot is rather recognizable, with some lovely Russian twists. I mean, we all know the basic story. "Playboy makes bet that girl will fall for him. They really fall in love and he reforms, but she finds out about the bet and leaves him . . . he has to find a way to get her back, etc. etc." But I didn't care that I knew what the "end result" would be. I was thoroughly entertained trying to see how they would get there.

The Standout-Bits

1. Chemistry, chemistry, and well, charisma. This story is really very simple (as Wikipedia points out), but the interaction (both scripted and acted) between all the characters sets it a notch ahead. The two leads are delicious. Ilya is a hero and a playboy, and Tosya is a feisty ball of energy. Neither has much respect for authority . . . and both are larger than life in everything they do. The latter aspect of their pairing really sold it for me. Even though the town (and film) is full of funny little characters, you certainly can't imagine these two being happy with anyone else. 

2. The balance between humor and melodrama. The sequences and gags are all quite funny . . . 

 . . .but also manage to achieve the right amount of pathos. During several scenes in the last act, both leads spend quite a bit of time moping around (during their separation) . . .  and although you have to laugh at their antics, you also feel for them. It's a good balance. 

3. The Coziness Quotient. I really enjoy films that can make the winter seem like a magical thing, not the blustering, biting, inconvenient thing that I as a Minnesotan know it can be. Not only do the characters seem to mind the cold less than they perhaps should . . .

But here the cold and the character's indoor cozy social gatherings go hand in hand. You need the deep freeze to appreciate the embrace between two people sharing a coat or the space in front of a stove. Overall, the watching experience is  akin to spending a weekend at a winter retreat with friends. Fun and laughter and jolliness abounds. For all the highs and lows of emotion it portrays, this is a very lighthearted film . . . and is bound to put you in a good mood.

Why you (Holly/Bollywood watchers) might like it . . .

1. If you are one of those people who watches Sharmilee (1971), or Fanaa (2006), or Lootera (2013), and just want the Himachal Pradesh or Kashmir cozy/snowy bits to go on and on . . . then this might be for you.

Sharmilee (1971)

2. If you want to see something that crosses the snow and the precocious innocence of Gold Rush (1925), and the battle of the sexes humor of Harvey Girls (1946) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) . . . then this might be for you.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

3. If you like your heroines plucky, entrepreneurial and nurturing (quite the combo). . . with a gift for physical comedy and a habit of standing up to tough-guy types (like Jaya Bhaduri or Neetu Singh), this one might be for you. Heck, if you want to see MORE female driven stories of any sort, then this one might be for you.

Zanjeer, 1973. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Casually Filmi: 5 films with a permanent place in my re-watch pile

It's Milestone week . . . and I am thinking back on my first 100 Hindi films.  

I'm not the kind of person who watches a film, really likes it, and then never feels the need to return to it again. It goes without saying, then, that on the way to a 100 Hindi films, some have found their way into my DVD player more than once. And maybe surprisingly, I have found that it is often the flawed films that I find myself returning to for an easy evening's entertainment. Maybe it's because I don't have to get all dressed up to go out on the town with them. They meet me where I'm at. They aren't masterpieces, and that's ok, because sometimes masterpieces are hard on the dil.

"What do you mean by telling me I'm 'not super re-watchable'?!"  (Junoon , 1978)

There's something wonderfully . . . uncomplicated . . . about films with the following qualities:
*Films that aim to entertain first, and preach (if at all) later.
*Films that lean toward the cheerful side of melodramatic, a sweet spot I've always enjoyed.
*Films in which exotica abounds, chemistry pervades, and yet manage not to be so scandalous that I couldn't watch them with my mother (who maintains rather Victorian sensibilities) if I wanted to.
*Above all, films that put me in a good mood--which is no small thing.

"I CAN BE relaxed, honey, I swear! I'll try harder. You'll see." (Masoom, 1978)

Anyhow, this is my list. Every one of these films is, pardon me for saying it, "lazy" in some way. Maybe "casual" would be a better term. They're all films that sit at the back of the class, forget to do their homework, rarely suffer the teacher the time of day, but at the end of 3ish hours of run time, squeak by with an A- against all odds. Eventually, each of these films deserves an individual post, but for now, THESE are the films that (for me at least) succeed without trying.

5. Shehzada (1972)

Shehzada is a solid, Capra-esque fable about the things that actually matter in life. But I'll be honest. When I re-watch this movie, I mostly skip all the"warped, frustrated old woman" grandmother scenes. The real gem of this film is the onscreen relationship between Rakhee and Rajesh's characters. They're funny, a little crazy, refreshingly playful with one another, and their dialogue and song picturizations practically crackle with chemistry.

Although the pale/half-naked jaunt above is mostly played for humor, overall, the romance in this film walks the perfect line between sexy and hilarious. Just when you feel like it might be getting too serious, too melodramatic, the rug drops out and Rakhee and Rajesh's characters start having some hilarious squabble over hypotheticals. If you need proof, look no further than the rain song: Rim jhim rim jhim dekho.

4. Lal Patthar (1971)

I think I already spent quite a bit of time hyping this movie. Mostly, I'll say, when I'm in Aristocrat Exploitation Flick Mode, this perfectly hits the spot.

Also, in other news, Raaj Kumar is officially my choice for "Best Celebrity to Spend an Afternoon Smoking Hooqa With."   I'm also completely obsessed with this song--and the obsession doesn't seem to go away no matter how often I watch it. But since I've posted that before, I'll leave you with one of the many delicious love triangle/quandrangle songs: Meri sej sajaa do.

3. Caravan (1971)

Gosh, this one is soooo good. I watched it recently, so I can't say I've had a lot of time to re-watch it--but considering my general reaction of overall satisfaction, I think it's going to stay on this list.  The plot isn't anything special--except for the fact that it takes normal tropes (woman escapes from murderous husband, hides in plain sight among societal outcasts, vamps go from bad to repentant, etc.) and manages to infuse new life into them.

I ADORE this song

It's possible that my low expectations going into this one made it all the more special. But then again, I'm trying to think if I've seen some of the things this movie does anywhere else . . . and I'm coming up cold.

Exhibit A, B, and C to support this? This well-known song of course: Piya tu ab to aaja . . . or the "Monica! Song " as one of my friends calls it.

Asha Parekh and Jeetendra are supremely amusing and in their best tongue-in-cheek comedic mode, Helen is perfect as usual, and yet . . . Aruna Irani's stark-raving mad gypsy routine upstages the whole film . You really have to see it to believe it.

Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction, too, Asha. Here's a longer taste: Dilbar Dil Se Pyare

2. Alibaba Aur 40 Chor (1980)

I've seen/read half a dozen adaptations of this story (hasn't everyone?) . . . but I never enjoyed it before the way I enjoy this Disco Soviet Masala version.

It's got oodles of fun performances from Zeenat Aman, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Prem Chopra, a see-through Cave Jinn (from the notoriously unreliable Cave Jinn Casting Company, I suppose), and a bunch of hairy Uzbek actors + Mac Mohan as the titular 40 thieves. 

Some people go to Satta Pe Satta to fill their hairy men quota, but I go to this film. They also seem to be acrobats. 

Hema and Dharmendra are also in full domestic cuteness mode around 1980 . . . which amounts to the cinematic equivalent of curling up with an afghan and a cuppa in front of the fire.

And each of the songs is super memorable. . . especially the Zeenat & 40 Chor in a fabulous disco cave scene . . . nonsense lyrics never sounded so good! Khatouba Khatouba  . . .  And the rather similar song in the tavern--only this time, Zeenat allies with Hema to keep all the hairy men distracted with song and dance . . . Sare Shehar Mein . It's extremely catchy, and you can't complain about a song with BOTH those leads.

[Note: I always think of this as the MEAT song. It's so rare to see it at all in Hindi films (given the general hegemonic attitude of vegetarianism) that I literally felt nauseous seeing so much blatant evidence of meat-eating.]

Also, I never get tired of seeing Zeenat seek out revenge (or wear fancy headdresses, for that matter).

Don't expect this film to say anything important or meaningful, other than, "Please watch me with copious amounts of alcohol in your system." This a perfect film for a lazy Sunday morning, or an *ahem* sharab-filled evening with friends. Plus it got brother approval, which puts it a notch ahead.

1. Hera Pheri (1976)

This film is my ultimate definition of entertaining and easy to be with--it's like the perfect boyfriend in filmi form. It's a groovy masala romp with a satisfying twist on the usual tale of friendship and betrayal . . . painted on a paisley canvas made of flares, very short-shorts, and a whole lot of incense (burned both in earnest and in fun). 

Sure, I never really talk about it. That's the first sign of something being super important to me, I guess. Still, when anyone asks me for the name of my favorite Hindi film, if I'm feeling honest, I answer, "Hera Pheri."

I suppose that this movie probably has a lot of flaws. But I'm really bad at seeing them. I guess the female leads are super forgettable, and there's some laziness in the production department. However, I don't care. I take a cue from Vinod Khanna's character, roll my eyes, and just enjoy the madness.

This has got to be one of my most re-watched Hindi films (maybe up there with Daag and Kaala Patthar) and I still love it like the day I first saw it. Albeit that day was months ago . . . but in the span of Hindi movie watching time, it's held its own. It was my favorite then, and it's still my favorite now, so be careful what you say about it in my presence ;)

I'll leave you with what I see as the ultimate "casually filmi" song. There is nothing here that should add up to perfection . . . it really should be stupid, by all rights. And yet--it manages to be perfect, without trying, as Amitabh and Vinod disguise themselves as ascetics and pull a fast one on their rivals: Waqt ki hera pheri hai.

Which films do you re-watch the most? Which films always meet you where you're at?