Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Different Fortunes (Разные судьбы /Raznye Sudby, USSR 1957)

Sorry Tsars and Tsarinas, St. Petersburg never looked better than this.
So, I'm finally going to write about a film I've been throwing out teasers about for months--Different Fates or Different Fortunes--a Soviet film from 1957 with all the right moves and none of the subtitles.

A qualifier, before I begin. I have recently considered trying to take up Russian again . . . just so I can better understand this film. If that doesn't convince you of the film's merits, I don't know what will. However, Hindi/Urdu is about all I can handle at the moment, so I must not be greedy/I must not be greedy/I must not be greedy (repeat ad infinitum). For now, I choose to be content with the dreamy, earthy beauty of the story as it currently is available to me. As I have learned elsewhere, sometimes subtitles ruin a perfectly good visual experience anyway, so maybe I'm actually better off.

If you don't believe me, at least trust Bert this friendly cabby. He knows whot's doing. 

Because, don't kid yourself, even though you've probably never heard of it . . . this film is heartache-ingly good (whether or not you know what they're saying) and what you don't understand with your mind you will feel deep in your gut and far past your dazzled eyes.

I can honestly say I've never before seen such "beautiful" industrial complexes in my life. This screen-cap does not do them justice. Talk about slick propaganda.

Basically, this film chronicles the trials and travails of four former schoolmates, who have seemingly just graduated and have found placements in different jobs across Russia. Look here for the very telling and subtitled (score!) version of one of the foundational scenes. Not only do the classmates' paths diverge, but they also choose very different moral paths (how ironic!). 

Tanya and Stefan, the boy who she can't/won't love.

For better or for worse, Tanya (Tatyana Piletskaya) is at the center of this little group, seemingly by virtue of being the object of everyone else's desires (or jealousies, in the case of the other wistful female lead, Sonja, played by Tatyana Konyukhova).

Sonja, watching Tanya fritter away the evening with the boy she loves.

One immediately realizes that although Tanya is certainly spoiled and narcissistic, yes . . . she is also clearly quite bright . . . and appears to be taking advanced studies, judging by all the books cluttering up her family apartment and her bed.

But the plot thickens, as the writers add a handful of hearts and stir to get that perfect, melodramatic consistency. Everyone here seems to be in love with someone who isn't in love with them. Mild-mannered Stefan (Georgi Yumatov) loves Tanya, but despite feeling flattered, she doesn't return his affection. Tanya is more interested in Fyodor (Yulian Panich), a wry-faced fellow with a strong presence . . . who looks like a grown up version of one of the Dead End Kids.

Of course, as soon as Stefan realizes that he isn't wanted/needed, he runs off to take a factory manager position in Siberia. Well, you know what they say, Siberia is the place you go to be purged of all those inconvenient, volatile, and socially unacceptable passions.

Like a hopefully puppy, Sonja follows Stefan into the circles of the Arctic. They also say that the pickins are slim in Siberia, so perhaps this woman has got her math right, after all.

Back in St. Petersburg, since she's not one for wasting time, Tanya quickly gets hitched to Fyodor.

But it's clear that they have issues. Not only do they seem to live adjacent to her parents, and not only does Fyodor have to take a cabby job to make ends meet to put Tanya through school (horrors!) but Tanya doesn't seem to to know how to take the proper attitude towards it all. Instead of acting like a meek, good little student . . . Tanya flits about, like a moth between flames, one moment acting the part of dutiful daughter, the next throwing out some sarcastic remark with a mocking laugh; as if she were a goddess thoroughly aware of her own status and unafraid of any challenges to her throne. In fact, according to one [albeit translated] synopsis, it seems that she also embarks upon an affair with a professor . . . which leaves her husband none too happy.

Not sure how I missed the affair, but perhaps the censorship board got to it, and it was only alluded via dialogue. I loved the brooding shots to accompany the marital quarrels, either way. 

Cue many scenes with her kinda sweet family acting worried for her, worried about her marriage, worried about the way she acts with her husband (for all I know, she really could be saying/doing some horrible stuff).

However misguided though, one can't help but be impressed at the way Tanya keeps walking by her wild lone, like the cat in Kipling's story.

In the mean time,  Stefan has been moving up the ranks at the industrial plant, and Sonja makes some headway towards finally getting some.

In fact, as far as I could tell, Sonja seemed to be the real initiator here, despite her demonstrably meek ways around other women and her family. She also looks great no matter what, and IN no matter what . . . a trait future directors seemed to notice, as she ended up in more than a few high profile film roles after this.

Tanya, looking like the wrath of Hera in some deleted scene from Xena, TWP. And, wouldn't it be ironic if Hera was the one who cheated on Zeus, for once? 

Cutting back to Fyodor and Tanya, and the marriage has finally crumbled. They seem to get a very public and messy divorce . . . followed by Fyodor seeming to fall very ill. I think he might die, too, I'm not sure.  (Could this turn of events be any more Russian? I ask you.)

Stefan and Sonja must also face their own demons. Not sure what/who those demons are . . . but the scenes were very moving, nonetheless.

In the end, one thing is quite clear, with or without knowledge of Russian. If bad girls will be bad, bad things will happen to them, and worst of all they will be left alone to live with their own misdeeds and the large black circles under their eyes. "Leave her to heaven" and all that. Well, at least Tanya has the good sense to keep away from train-tracks.

I'd leave it there . . . hoping you'd be suitably inspired and go off and find this film on youtube. But I can't help but mention that the particular color quality of this film has sent me on more fruitless Internet searches in the last few months than I care to admit. Sure, I have seen several other similarly toned Russian films, but nothing scratches that visual itch the way this film does. This reddish, brownish, sepia tone has me crazy to find other comparable films. . . of which there are precious few. I haven't even found it in my beloved Bollywood, perhaps because I've barely found it outside the 1950's anywhere.

But I am happy to say that today (finally!!!) I think I found the right lead. Maybe I can actually sleep sound, now. It's a process called Sovcolor or Agfacolor.  And to read about that, I'll direct you to my other blog, xenographic mystic . . . where I am choosing to funnel all the pop-culture nonsense from around the world that I've been obsessed with lately. After all, I have to have some sort of mechanism to help Filmi~Contrast remain within the already expanded theme I founded it upon! Check back in a day or two and I'll try to post something condensed there with the rather scattered research I found about this fascinating (and under-documented) world film trend.

Until then, another lovely shot from this film to send you on your way. 

A Purr *Ahem* Review: Chori Chori (1956)

I watched Chori Chori (1956) recently, and may I say, it was a supremely pleasant watch. Exactly what I needed, too.

[Personal note: It's been a rough month; heck, it's been a rough week up my way in the wilds of Minnesota. A new job, real estate drama, multiple winter vehicle incidents, snowstorm after snowstorm, a sore throat that lasted two weeks, all combined in a whirlwind that has now transported me to a strange calm. If this place is not exactly the abode of zen and enlightenment, it is at least a place characterized by ample appreciation for the fickle turns of Murphy's law and the Fates. Also, I think my Hindi class is trying to kill me via past-tense construction. Wait, did I say that out loud? *Looks around with anxious deer eyes* No, this last month definitely hasn't made me paranoid . . . did someone tell you I was? Wait, I'm calm. I'm calm, I swear.]

This movie is the perfect example of why I don't spend a lot of time watching "serious" films. It's not that I don't appreciate things that SAY something IMPORTANT, it's just that I don't always like being shouted at, or told what to think . . . AND I get enough realism in my life shoveling my car out of snowbanks and working with sick people.

I'm happy to say Chori Chori takes pains to portray life as it ought to be. It wants you to believe that fathers will always choose their daughters' happiness over everything else . . .
that people thrown together in weird circumstances can find happiness together . . . and that the princess and the journalist can easily bridge their difference in social status and upbringing to form a lasting romantic bond (take THAT, ending of Roman Holiday).

Pretty much the only people who don't find happiness here are those out to make a quick buck at other peoples' expense.

This comic sideplot of the couple trying to get the reward money was actually comedic. Go figure. 

This film is a straight-up retelling of It Happened One Night, and because of that, I won't waste much time explaining the plot.

I kinda liked Raj as Clark Gable more than I like Clark Gable as Clark Gable. 
Basically, heiress Kammo (Nargis) runs away from home to marry her true love (who everyone else knows is a money-grasping scoundrel) and along the way runs into journalist Sagar (Raj Kapoor), who is currently angling for his big scoop. After figuring out who she is, he offers to help her reach her scoundrel fiance in exchange for permission to print her sensational tale of romance and rebellion under his byline.

Grumpy faces. Adorable. 

Along the way, you can count on some amusing hi-jinks, subtle and poignant realizations growing on them (and you), and a songlist by Shankar Jaikishan that is bound to end up on your most played list.  What it won't feel like is frame-by-frame a carbon copy of the original. Definitely, absolutely not.

It's been a while since I saw the original Colbert/Gable film, but it seems to me that the original film achieved the developing relationship between the main characters mainly through arguments, gags, and battle of the sexes comedy . . . while this film uses the power of face, song and rural locations to portray the heiress's inner progression from spoiled rich girl, into a socially and inter-personally conscious woman.

It is only when she begins to appreciate the simplicity of the gaon (village) that she can find her place in the shehar (city).

This may smack loudly of populism, but it also a fairly classic backdrop for the arc of a hero's journey. And I'm certainly not going to complain that this time, the hero is a woman.

A powerful scene from Raj, when both he and the character
decide to become a tentative, self-effacing hero.
I said that this film harnesses the power of face. Sure, the best films (and especially those of the silver screen) all do that. But maybe because the actually conversations between the the would-be-lovebirds are less than satisfying, I didn't take much stock in what they said to each other. They were usually talking in circles around their real feelings, desires, and fears anyway . . . so I sort of just got in the habit of searching their faces rather than their sentences to figure out what was going on. Not to say that the dialogue is bad, far from it. But the Raj/Nargis bond, and the combined wattage of their screen presences, immediately blow out all the fuses of anything that dares try to distract from it.

This puppet song is a keeper.
I said this was supremely pleasant, and I say that because I can't really pick out a scene that I found grating to watch. And that's saying something. For me, most Hindi films have some scene that's not only unnecessary, but also irritating. For a lot of people on the interwebs that scene would be part of the ubiquitous and odious comic sideplots. For me, the comedy is sometimes less grating than screechy tragedy ad nauseum happening to secondary characters (which is why the masala prelude is sometimes a great burden to bear just to get to the rest of the film). Happily, the two major sideplots of this film are if not extremely funny, kind of fun at least. Both of those sideplots get songs that I actually enjoyed. And even Raj and Nargis's moments of oddity work to push the story forward. They aren't there just for laughs.

My two favorite songs/sequences in this film would have to be Aaja Sanam . . . which is near cinematic perfection in my opinion . . .

Nargis' face in this song breaks my heart. 

And the poignant third-person expression of loss (all the more poignant for its callously public setting) that is Man Bhawan Ke Ghar Jaye . . .

It's an eleventh hour sequence/montage song, too. [Love those!!!] Shiver-worthy stuff.

I love the fact that this film is pretty much devoid of big declarations of love. It's all about the little things here. . . and Kammo's journey from thinking that "love" is one big, all encompassing emotion . . . to realizing that it is actually the sum total of small ones. This is underscored by the song lyrics . . . which say precious little about love, but rather are concerned with the beauty of the current moment and blissing-out in the heady magic of the atmosphere.

Perhaps that's the best way to describe this film, too. Atmospheric and calming and serotonin-inducing. Like a perfect summer thunderstorm with none of the tornado warnings.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Woman's Place: A Glass and a Cigarette (Egypt, 1955)

Continuing with my Egyptian film interests, I decided my next pick would be something from the 50's: as long as it had belly-dancing, subtitles, and came in a Netflix sleeve. This led me to Sigarah Wa Kas (1955) . . . and to a protracted eerie feeling of deja vu.

While watching this film . . . at some point I pressed pause and exclaimed, "This is soooo a Susan Hayward kind of thing." It wasn't just Samia Gamal's hair. It wasn't just her character's helpless downward spiral. And it wasn't just the smoky air of black and white tragicomedy--the melodramatic bar set for all Lifetime movies to come. No answer appearing, I shook off the weird hallucinations of Susan Hayward's face superimposed over Samia's, and tried to concentrate on the story.

Hoda even lights Mamdouh's cigarette for him, and it doesn't make him
 happy. Insert your chosen meaning here. 
The story is fairly simple. Almost gratingly so at times. Hoda (Samia Gamal) is a crazy-famous cabaret dancer and film star. Her talent is undeniable (I mean, this is the legendary Samia Gamal, so, duh) and she practically rules Cairo.  But to everyone else's surprise (including her best friend, played by the fabulous Princess Kouka), she decides to give it all up for her soon-to-be husband, the rising (and broke) young surgeon Mamdouh (Nabil al Alfi). Along with dance, she decides to give up her other great loves . . . cognac and

After marriage, it soon becomes clear that Mamdouh feels guilty and embarrassed (hubby has two feelings at the same time! Oh no!) that she (A) gave up her life for him, and (B) that they are living in her flat and existing on her savings. Hoda rushes to make him feel better by detailing her plan--which consists of using her savings to BUILD hubby a hospital of his own so that he doesn't have to compete with other surgeons. This turns Mamdouh's pout into a prim little smile, and in the next frame we see the shiny new building, already open for business.

I  really want to see Dalida in a Sadistic Nurse spin-off movie. 
But Trouble is on the horizon, and her name is Yolanda (Dalida), the new Head Nurse. She just wants Biswajeet, ahem, Mamdouh, really darn bad. And because he's Biswajeet a simple soul, he doesn't get wise to her designs upon him until it's too late.

Sensing the intensity from Yolanda, Hoda soon gets it into her head that Yolanda and her husband are having an affair. Of course, she's right to suspect Yolanda . . . but instead of waiting for any concrete evidence, Hoda starts drinking again. And when she starts, she just can't stop. Let the Lost Weekend spiral begin!

Despite,  some excellent maneuvering from Hoda's bestie (who has a great relationship with hubby and POWER over everyone else) . . .

. . . Hoda can't seem to look past her own suspicion and hurt, except when she drinks, that is.

It will take losing all her relationships (except for the best friend, who is too awesome to do anything remotely un-loyal) and the near death of a loved one to bring Hoda to her senses. Because, of course, Hoda just needs to realize that drinking is not the answer and everything will be hunky-dory again.

So, I looked up Susan Hayward pretty much as soon as I was done with the film, of course.. I was thinking yeah, didn't she do something along these lines?

This shot is a nice stand-in for a "Mind-Blown" gif. 
I grew up on a pretty steady diet of Old Hollywood, and so I have a lot of random movies jostling about in my subconscious. Every so often I get into a conversation about 1930's or 1940's cinema, and I can't believe the amount of trivia I start pulling out of my *ahem* darker orifices. Clearly I spent way too many afternoons watching AMC documentaries and sensationalist 'E' Channel specials. Anyway, after a quick jaunt to Wikipedia, it turned out that Susan Hayward didn't do a film like this.

She did THIS film.

A Glass and a Cigarette must have been based on the plot of Hayward's 1947 film, "Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman." The only major deviation from that film, plotwise, as far as I can tell (because I don't remember this film consciously) is that the vamp is less vampy, and the heroine's final punishment less graphic in the Egyptian version.

I was kinda lying when I said that I was just looking for a film with belly-dancing and subtitles, etc. I was also looking for a strong female vehicle, and the little I had heard about this movie suggested that this might fit the bill. And on one level, I was right. This film is dominated by women from start to finish. When the male characters register on the one's mental screen at all, they usually can be located on a spectrum between flat, irritating, and offensive. But not one of the three male characters with any significant dialogue can begin to compete with the female power triad. Amusingly, they all also fall into one of the standard female film archetypes (for young women at least): the flawed heroine, her sensible best friend, and the vamp or evil seductress. Even Hoda's child is a girl . . . looking like some costume designer's conception of Shirley Temple.

Steal car and drive recklessly to scare your opponent? Check.
Use your wiles to turn him on, too? Check.
Headbutt and punish the real villainess? Check.
All of which leads me to believe that Kouka is basically Catwoman.
The women are the only memorable subjects here . . . and their problems and triumphs are the only thing the story hangs its hat upon. In that, it could be called female-centric. But, for a female centered film that thrives on every kind of female performance (on stage or off), this film also tries its best to localize women's ultimate potential in the home.

Even the best friend, sensible as she is, spends the entire film trying to get a husband, and the only possibility in ALL of Cairo seems to be the lecherous old architect who sexually harassed her upon their first couple of meetings. [Note: She harasses him back for the rest of the film, which ostensibly stands-in for his reform, but I was not amused when they ended up together. Gross.] Samia's drinking and smoking is condemned because it endangers her home (literally, when it comes to her poor cigarette disposal), not because it lowers her own quality of life.

So the unusual topic and the unusual subject(s) are perhaps not so unusual. Perhaps all the charismatic women are just there as a pretty scaffolding. Perhaps they only exist to prop up a crumbling traditional facade. Hmmmm.

One can really see Samia's command of body language and movement
in this portrayal of fraying-at-the-mental-edges Hoda. 
My guess is that alcoholism (especially among the female population) was perhaps a hot-button issue, even a slightly taboo topic in the Middle East at this time. So, even if the pulpiness of the topic and its telling was an effective hook to get people in seats . . . the earlier debauchery guaranteed that Hoda must undergo a significant and (non-titillating) spanking by the end.

As in many Bollywood films I've seen, the pulpiness itself necessitated a moralizing resolution. Hoda doesn't die, but neither is she given the chance to find some sort of moderation in her life. The story petrifies as she moves downward. Her character becomes more and more of a calcified symbol of self-destructiveness, rather than a true portrait of pain and addiction.

What was I expecting you ask? I mean, this is the fifties. Psychology was still the domain of patriarchal Freudian psychoanalysis; sociology was hardly even a recognized science yet; and "The Feminine Mystique" was still just a twinkle in Betty Friedan's eye.

And as much as I know that Betty Friedan would have something to say about the ending . . . oh, so much to say . . .

 . . . One also has to put this film in context--in regards to its American origins and its re-arrangement to appeal to Egyptian psyches.

Watch this movie for the dances, the women, 
and the head-butting scene.
Despite my frustration with this film's idealization of domestic values, and the corresponding uselessness (Mamdouh) and lecherousness (the old architect) of the male leads, I can't help but feel that that the revolutionary subtext of this film well overshadows the maintext in the end.

When the final screen appears, the film's primary verbal messages--that a woman's place is with her husband and family, that children need two parents, and that women should trust their husbands to be faithful--rest on a shaky foundation at best. Because in the end, what you remember is the women doing life, doing friendship, doing careers . . . and looking a damn sight better than the men, too.

Plus, on a meta level, all these women belied the message of the film by virtue of BEING IN IT.

So, sure, I technically prefer my female-centered viewing to include kick-ass women and egalitarian relationships with the menfolk, but this wasn't too bad either. Ultimately, what I'm going to remember is Kouka headbutting her best friend's worst enemy, and pulling her fiancee out the door by the ear. Oh and the dancing. Nobody in their right mind could watch this film and think, "Hmm, I think Samia Gamal should retire." Nobody.

All of which to say: this film is a lot more than the sum of its sexist parts. And pretty, to boot.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Beautiful and Sometimes Painful: Mehbooba (1976)

The hero/villain pairing of Rajesh Khanna and Prem Chopra returns here in yet another Gulshan Nanda book-to-screen vehicle. Only this time, instead of Asha Parekh (Kati Patang),  Zeenat Aman (Ajanabee), or Sharmila Tagore (Daag), the woman at the center of the tale is played by Hema Malini.

I must warn you, this is a reincarnation tale. So, if you dislike supernatural love stories that take place across multiple births, if you couldn't care less to learn where Farah Khan gleaned her material for Om Shanti Om, and if you lack tolerance for bad 70's hair, read no further.

Once upon a time . . . there was a crooner named Suraj who was popular.

I'm not kidding, the first 10 minutes of this film take pains to show us just how many ladies want to get into Suraj's pants, house, pocket, next hit song . . .whatever. Because this is important (I'm not sure why). Perhaps it sets up that Suraj has material wealth and copious amounts of chest hair, yet possesses little real happiness.

[Note: I can forgive Rajesh for this, given that around this time in the U.S. people were inexplicably mad for Burt Reynolds and his macho displays of man-fur. Also, if you've seen Abhimaan, you'll recognize Asrani's turn as the the lethargic pop star's right hand man, whose primary job seems to be fielding all the *ahem* 'pankhi' calls.]

At a party to celebrate his awesomeness, Suraj receives an antique tanpura as a gift . . . a tanpura that apparently belonged to a famous courtesan.

Apparently the court dancer's name was Ratna . . . and if you thought she might be an important person in this story, you'd be right. Suraj, however, doesn't realize the significance of the gift just yet. That is, until he is starts hearing things that aren't there . . . namely a lone woman's voice.

But there's no time for hallucinations in Suraj's schedule. It takes an untimely monsoon, a grounded plane, and a flooded road to slow Suraj down long enough for THIS to happen.

That's right. It's Ratna. Not the courtesan, the chowkidar's daughter, or so she claims.

Suraj is kerflummoxed by his FEELINGS.

Ratna's ghost/memory/reincarnation? (we don't know) embarks upon a ghostwalk/Mahal-homage . . . always remaining ten steps ahead, one minute on boat, one minute in a garden . . . and singing all the way. Ratna leads Suraj to the old palace of Chandangarh. And you guessed it, Chandangarh stirs up a whole host of memories for Suraj.

Enough memories to take up the next hour or so in a flashback.

Apparently, Ratna and Suraj were once star-crossed lovers in the Chandangarh court. He was a court singer, she danced to his songs. You can't get a better condensed taste of the strengths of this film than by watching this amazing dance sequence: Gori Tori Paijaniyah Man.

They seem made for one other, and he proposes. There's only one problem . . . Suraj doesn't remember that he is already married.

Sure it seems like something one would remember, but apparently he was only seven or eight at the time. 

"Or bless my love of ten years?"
#Creepy child marriage religious ultimatums

His child bride (Yogeeta Bali) remembers him perfectly, however (just like a elementary-school-age girl to remember a fake wedding), and has apparently been waiting all these years to re-connect with him.

This doesn't sit too well with Ratna, traditionally-oriented courtesan that she is, and she ends up taking herself out of the running for Suraj's hand.

Through some slick maneuvering, the child bride manages to attain "adult wife" status . . .but not her suhaag raat. Before she can be unveiled (i.e. before Rajesh is stuck with her for the next seven lifetimes), Suraj and Ratna try to run away. But things do not end well.

Thus the need for another birth to get it all right.

Suraj proceeds to take a leave of absence after his big flashback in the palace . . . and decides to go visit his friend in the mountains near the mahal.

Little does he know that his lady love will be there, too . . . or that their second courtship would be filled with so many masala roadblocks and fake guitar playing.

[Yes, this WAS kind of painful, but not in the way the lyricist meant. And Rajesh's fingers do not change position on the frets even ONCE in this song, lol.]

If I sound a little annoyed, it's because from the re-birth on, the story tries a little too hard. The main reason to watch the second half is Hema and the mountain scenery. Hema gets a few moments to play with knives and be her fun Basanti-esque self, and we get some beautifully picturized moments and songs against magnificent backdrops. This song, for example, was adorbs and catchy.

A note on the difference between Nanda's original novel and the film: Apparently the second half of the film (i.e. the post-reincarnation bits) was not part of the original published work. The novel ends tragically, with no masala magic to right the wrongs or reverse the ruling of fate. For more on those differences, look to this very intelligent IMDB review.

As in Daag and Kati Patang, you don't have to scratch far beneath the surface here to discover some mildly progressive ideas . . . though mostly in the flashback section (which makes sense, considering the second half was non-Nanda, so to speak).

The relationship between Ratna and her Ustad is portrayed as one of mutual trust and support, rather than exploitation and submission. Not only does her Ustad look out for her (when he thinks that Suraj is a married womanizer), but he lets Ratna have her own voice at every opportunity . . . and pushes her to retain her dignity even after being rejected by Suraj.

And her relationship with Suraj, though not very well crafted (on a storytelling level) is pleasantly open and egalitarian during their early romance.

Suraj himself is semi-progressive in his past incarnation . . . as he doesn't put much stock in tradition, his arranged marriage, or Ratna's tainted upbringing in a brothel. In spite of his family telling him to "sacrifice for everyone's good," Suraj refuses to give in to such sentiments.

However, the showdown between the two women (lady love and former child bride) at Shiva's temple is really the most interesting part of the entire film (barring Hema's epic seven minute Baratanatyam dance sequence).

Even though Yogeeta Bali's character technically has the "first right" to Suraj, she doesn't turn out to be the longsuffering sacrificial character I expected her to be. Though initially she comes off as religious and meek, she turns out to be more of a pious little snake.

Ratna, with her courtesan guilt complex (and the shame she feels when barred from temple as a dirty woman) is no match for the good Indian wife . . . the wife who has social customs, her rich father, and the morality police backing her up at every turn.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film did not support the good wife over the good courtesan, or even treat them with equal respect. Despite her traditional values, the wife is portrayed as selfish and manipulative. And despite the fact that the courtesan is good . . . she is rejected by the religious establishment. Plus, it was a nice change of pace seeing two women of a similar age (in a 70's masala film) interacting with one another and showcasing their personal decision-making power . . . even if they were ultimately enemies.

I do have a couple of gripes about this film.

One, even as a Rajesh appreciator, I have to say I kind of wanted to see someone else in this role. I don't particularly take issue with his onscreen chemistry with Hema, and he looked better than I expected him to look in a post '74 film, but this story really needed an actor with a darker persona to pull off the spooky atmospheric quality that this film tried-ever-so-hard to attain. Even in his somewhat podgy '76 avatar, this seems like more of a Sanjeev Kumar role to me. Sanjeev could project the "I'm being haunted by spiritual forces beyond my understanding" madness in his sleep . . . while from Rajesh, the same emotions seem strained. Rajesh is much better at portraying everyday, temporally-locked, petty misunderstanding-oriented romantic melodrama.

Hema was really the only one who could pull the ridiculous necklace off. 
Two, the simultaneously patriarchal/matriarchal society of gypsies in the mountains near Chandangarh was just too too much (for me). The silly gypsy trope may work in a comedic romp like "Caravan," but just doesn't fly in a supernatural drama. For one, the costumes looked like they were ripped from a really bad Hollywood movie from the fifties. For another, the customs of the people moved from anthropologically ridiculous to downright laughable in zero to 60 seconds. Which was unfortunate, considering the importance of those customs to the masala twists in the second half. It didn't help that Prem Chopra was not even a little bit intimidating (which really undermines the hero's inevitable triumph), and that the "engagement necklace" that men and women of the tribe gave to their "one and only romantic choice once in their life" looked like a Sunday School craft time reject. If the director/scriptwriter were trying to be socially conscious, they failed in an epic Star Trek "tribal episode" kind of way.

Three, this film just SHOULD be better than it is. From the mahals to the mountains, it has great locations; mostly stellar music (though the central "Mere naina sawan bhadon" reincarnation song didn't do much for me), interesting cinematography (but only in certain sections, making the visual style feel very disjointed), and Hema Malini at her most goddess-like levels of beauty and fame. Unfortunately, when a film has all those great elements, the flaws can become all the more difficult to just blink away.

On the whole, I think this film itself deserves a second reincarnation. How would you recast it?