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
*Gross*

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?

4 comments:

  1. For some strange reason I have a 2 in one DVD that has both mehbooba and Kudrat - both based on re-incarnation themes but of a different nature.

    Kudrat is one of my all time fav movies esp for Rajesh Khanna and Vinod Khanna (the stylish jackets they wear) - simla's stunning scenery as well as the songs and Hema of course. Please do give it a go if you have the time.

    As for mehbooba, R.D's songs are famous. On my 2nd watch after ages, i actually liked the 2nd story better ie the romance bet the modern singer and the gypsy girl. The gypsies have their own social customs and rituals and do not take kindly to towns folk messing up with them. My favourite songs are parbat ke pechey esp for the scenery and chalo re - again for the scenery. Hema's costumes were pretty good as the gypsy girl and they do wear bead necklaces. I personally feel that they looked good on Hema.

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    1. I know you've mentioned Kudrat before . . . and I do have it on my list to see eventually. As much as I like RK, I think my brain kind of explodes thinking of him winning the girl away from Vinod . . . in 1980 no less! At some point, I shall give it it's due however, for the cast and location if nothing else.

      I have a lot of mixed feelings about Mehbooba--maybe because there were so many good moments, and yet I can't exactly say it was a good film. It felt far too choppy to me--and I think that really has to do with surgically attaching a reincarnation story to the original novel. I think I would have been fine with either story singly, but not mashed together like this. It probably doesn't help that I've seen far better reincarnation movies lately (i.e. Madhumati). Parbat ke Peeche is really the best song of this film by far, I think, both in the stunning scenery and the strength of the melody/lyrics, and because Hema is just breathtakingly gorgeous. (Plus, I think singing on a mountain meadow is something Rajesh could do successfully in his sleep by 1976!)

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  2. LoL - singing on a mountain meadow in his sleep RK. I re-watched The Train last night mainly for the songs and couldn't help cringing at the song picturisations esp the RK - Nanda duets - i have heard those melodious songs on radio before but never knew they were so badly picturised. Rajesh was quite handsome in The Train

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  3. Oh gosh, I do kind of like the picturization of Gulaabi Ankhen, but the really trippy song in the garden with Nanda right before the final fight . . . soooo bad! And Nanda's lone song is pretty bad, too. Super forgettable. However, I do like all the item numbers with Helen and Aruna Irani. I have a feeling that that particular director (who also did the cinematography) had NO idea what to do with the standard "romantic" number.

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