Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Madness Part I: The Classics (Shree 420, Tarana, Andaz)

The titular movie madness is my own, I have to admit. My time traveling (and imaginary regional traveling) got a little out of hand this month. [Currently looking for a time-travelers support group.] I can claim no propitious consumption habits, nor can I say how I even managed to jump from filmi bed era to filmi era without respite (and certainly not remorse). I will admit that I suffered from an extreme inability to maintain temporal exclusivity, focus, or even to rest upon my multiple successes. "More, more," I said greedily, eating multiple decades for breakfast in the course of a week. As it is, I currently feel so full that I'm not sure what to write or how to write (just like food comas, there are film comas . . . it's a very serious problem, don't laugh). This is not so much a comfortable fullness as it is a sense of having consumed more in a short period than I can properly digest.

In lieu of complaining, I think I will take some time to reflect on the ups and downs of this heady month. Feel free to process with me (or pass judgment on my greediness, I really won't blame you if you do).

Shree 420 (1955)

Ok, so this film has to be mentioned, if not completely written up in recap fashion, because  . . . well, it goes without saying that this one is a must-see for a reason. It's one of the Giants of Hindi Cinema. So much so, that I avoided it. Maaf Kiijie!

I swear I really did expect it to be an intelligent film. I expected something socially relevant. I expected something silly. What I didn't expect was something consistently entertaining and heartrending. Maybe I had read too much in the way of annoyance by other American writers about the ineffectual nature of Raj's Charlie Chaplin impression for those familiar with the original character. [Someone feel free to comment on the ethnocentric ridiculousness of this statement and my internalization of it.]

What I found was a story that was justly praised for it's social relevance, but certainly didn't come off as overly sentimental. I found a story with a romance that, although not as fiery or feminist as Awaara, said something else that resonated with my experience. Something about the un-changeability of the idealists among us, and their struggles to support the realists . . . those who, to succeed, choose to wear more than one face. (In fact, rather than upholding honest, untainted idealist paths for all, the film actually seems to underscore the need for cheats who will cheat the system. Especially if the system itself is rigged.)

I can totally understand why Raj's two-sided innocent/cheat act might not always work for the modern (especially non-Indian) viewer. I can totally see why some people might find it over-the-top or obnoxious. But let's just say that almost all of it worked for me. It really did. Not even the lengthy Charlie Chaplin homage/copycat routine (depending on your POV) bothered me. I had already seen Awaara, and I still didn't find Shree 420 to be repetitive (the titular tramp doesn't pretend to be masoom for much more than one song in Awaara, anyway). And Charlie Chaplin's film, "City Lights" is honestly one of my most beloved films of all time, but I still loved Raj's own spin on the tramp.

Also, Nadira is now one of my favorite cinema vamps evah. 

Mostly, I connected with Raj's character's conflicting desires to both remain in a state of simple idealism, and also to survive in a harsh world. And it made perfect metaphorical sense that he would choose to wear two masks, depending on what the situation calls for. [Don't we all?]  For example, though he may choose to remain guileless with his lady-love, the same attitude almost gets him eaten alive by the vamp. And I literally gasped at the moment of pure Raj-brilliance when he switches consciously from the tramp-to the cheat at the first "rich people's party" he attends.

For me, all this was actually a great counterpoint to the arguably more straightforward message of City Lights. It is comforting to see pure idealism survive, if no where else, at least in an iconic character onscreen.  During one very rough period in my life, City Lights was exactly what I needed. It's cathartic to watch and feel a character NOT lose his idealism even when he should be beaten down and embittered by the world . . . as happens in City Lights. And yet, it is equally comforting to see a character's ideals develop and converse with the world, and beat the world at its own game . . . as in Shree 420.

And Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua has to be one my favorite song/picturizations I've seen thus far in Bollywood. It's a almost a standalone love story in itself.

Tarana (1951) 

In comparison to the other two films in this post, Tarana feels tiny and soundstage-bound. I haven't personally crunched the numbers, but my guess is that Tarana didn't have much of a budget to speak of. But no matter, because any budget would have gotten upstaged by Chemistry, anyway.

This film can basically be summed up in the screencap/bit of dialogue below.

Yes, I remember it, too. Good times.

Correct translation or not, "incident" (after incident) is a good way to describe the romance between Dilip Kumar and Madhubala's characters in this film. The plot, the crazed villagers, the crazed forgotten fiancee, the cackling hero's papa (Jeevan) . . . it's all cranked up to 100, and yet, you mostly can't see anything but the two lovers at the center.

The plot is mostly nonsensical. Dilip's character, a wealthy surgeon, is stranded via commercial plane crash (from which he and one other woman seem to be the only survivors) in a rural village. A village that is only reachable by oxen cart in one section of the film, and then seems to be reachable by car later. The village belle (Madhubala) and her father take him in . . . and both are wooed by his cityfied manners and general charm. Though, throughout the film the father can never seem to remember if he loves his daughter and trusts the great doctor, or wants them burned at the stake.

Obviously, Dilip woos Madhubala quite epic-ly (I mean their characters, geez, I didn't say ANYTHING about their long affair beginning at this time) and by the end *spoilers* . . . though love may win, sanity is is proven to have no place in their claustrophobic, hyperventilating world. Also, any belief or pretense to chastity/societal mores pretty much goes out the window by the end as well. The last shot is the least subtle pan-away I've ever seen.

Andaz  (1949) 

Out of all the films mentioned here, this is easily wins a place among my *ahem* reviews. For, although it is highly entertaining, it's also a fairly offensive piece of propaganda.

My advice is to view it as just that, and just go along for the ride.

Cukoo shines as a supporting character, Nargis is in full-pouty heiress mode, Dilip is sexy, Raj is funny, the songs are excellent in terms of performance and story (if not exactly earworms after the fact).

*Brain stops working*
The story is actually extremely well-paced until the last twenty minutes, which is also, incidentally, when the propaganda takes over. Then, it's just a mess all over. Because of this, I have a feeling that the morality police may have gotten to this script. Such a drastic change in tone, although the earlier plot does forebode a bad ending for all (what good can come of a Dilip Kumar/Raj Kapoor/Nargis love triangle?), seems to point to external interference or pressure on the filmmakers.

I can just hear the conversation right now . . .

"What, the heroine (Nargis) is rich and wears trousers! What, she likes jazz? SHE HAS JAZZ PARTIES AT HER MANSION?! What, the woman keeps her previous engagement (to Raj) a secret from her middle-class admirer (Dilip) because she promised said first admirer (whom she is now bound to for the next seven lifetimes because she fell in love in 5 minutes) and second admirer gets humiliatingly friendzoned?!!! How dare she."

"Um. Yeah, I guess that happens. Kyun kharab hai?"

"Her fiancee and later husband will be hurt by this. His honor will be defamed. His wife has given some other man the wrong idea! Completely by accident! We must punish her. Her husband will do it. It is his right."

"Um, well, can we at least keep the whole character development thing where Dilip will play that amazing scene opposite Raj on the staircase where he tells the husband how ridiculous and without base his accusations are?"

"Yes, that is truly good cinema. Kya dialogues! Shabash. Just be sure to undermine it after that with a proper 40 lashes for the heiress, life in prison, something fitting."

"Thike, will do."

End scene.

"Isn't film-making a funny business? I can't stop laughing [Or are those tears?]" 

But really, you should watch this one if you haven't already.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Your Masala Medicine Cabinet Episode II: Surakksha (1979)

After 10+ years in the medical field, I can't help but approach life in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. I also wonder if sometimes masala is THE best medicine.

 In this ongoing column, I will match movies to maladies, while reserving the right to be completely and utterly and joyously mistaken at all times. 

Feel free to contact my representation, Pran & Sheroo T.W.B., Attorneys-at-Law, with all questions and complaints.

Signs and Symptoms 

Check all those that apply:
___1. You find yourself expecting major details to go awry in minor situations
___2. The only habit you manage to keep is that of consistent worrying
___3. You keep feeling as if you have misplaced something very important, but can't remember what
___4. You are so concerned about the long-range effects of daily decisions that you can't enjoy the now
___5. Everywhere you go, you assume that people are assuming the worst of your actions or intentions
___6. You can't sleep because your dreams are full of insoluble ethical dilemmas

Probable Diagnosis: 

Your Masala Prescription: Surakksha (1979) 

What you need is a film (almost) devoid of weeping mothers, lost children, suffocating courtesans, stifling morals, and plot twists you feel obligated to follow if you possibly can. You need a film that doesn't care too much. You need a film that is refreshingly callous towards usual humanitarian concerns, and yet somehow still manages to land on the right side of the fence in the territory of all that's good and holy. You need someone else to wear the ultra-tight pants for a change. You need . . . Surakksha.

Therapeutic Regimen and Goals

1. Memorize the details of Aruna Irani this song. 

2. Always assume the worst has not yet happened. 

If I learned anything from this movie (and BTVS), corpses are not always what/who they seem, and buried doesn't always mean dead

3. Do not take seriously those who appear unimpressed by your sweet style. 

They probably will come around eventually (even if it's just to stalk you back).

4. Carry a pillow with you everywhere. 

Yes, it's nice to have something fluffy around when you need to relax. 
But also, assassin snakes are out there!

5. Practice sitting down as if you owned the place.

Don't sit on a chair (or a table for that matter) as if the real owner is about to kick you out.

6. When forced to perform against your will . . . 

Use the hostile environment to your own advantage. 

7. When in doubt, remember that whatever problem you want to get rid of may be a lot smaller than you think it is.

 In fact, it's probably a miniature.


Avoid tension. Just don't take it. Obviously.
  • Avoid masala prologues (even the tempting-to-compare and undeniably awesome Disco Dancer is not safe on this front). 
  • Avoid all tragedies. Even films/books/people sporting a tragic first half "only." That includes skipping breakfast (otherwise known as a tragic first half of the day).
  • Avoid spending too much time thinking about how you should be thinking about fixing something.
  • Avoid films where the words "bhool" "paap" "galtii or galat" are repeated in a self-flagellating fashion.
  • And VERY importantly, avoid any movie that includes the question: "Mera baccha kahaan hai?"

Yakeen, 1969. 

Explore other medicinal options:

If it contains a secret agent, a general disregard for prescribed sexual mores, crowds of gori fangirls, an enlightened understanding of what constitutes personal vs. public property (the more trespassing the better), and batsh*t crazy camera angles, it's probably a comparable therapeutic option. 

For more (actual) information on this prescription, see the following sources:

*Upcoming documentary special on the long, the short, and the legacy of the "Gunmaster G9" films. I can't wait for this one to release soon on a YouTube screen near me. See trailer here.

*Keith and Todd (i.e. the cool cinema professors you never had) talk at Teleport City and 4DK about Ravikant Nagaich, the eccentric genius behind Surakksha, The Train, Kaala Sona, Mere Jeevan Saathi, and other spy-ridden, experimental, and refreshingly callous 70's-ish fare.

Disclaimer: The Masala Medicine Cabinet reserves the right to apply a wildly personal definition of  "masala" to an infinite variety of "fake" and dubious sounding illnesses.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Busyness and Bawarchi (1972)

So, I've been busy the last few weeks, but not horribly busy. There is a difference. As with most things in my life, this distinction can be measured via cinema consumption. Horribly busy means that I'm not blogging, I'm not watching films, and I'm probably just watching NBC comedies with the 20 mins I get in the morning. Busy means that I AM watching films (sometimes segmented over a couple days), but don't have the time or mental energy to write about them. Until now, that is. (Hindi midterms are now over. Sigh of relief.) Condensed reviews and film thoughts to follow in the next week.

Essentially, don't approach this movie the way
these folks approach life.
Yes, I have been watching more movies from the 50's. BUT I ALSO broke my streak of disappointing 70's movies with a Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Rajesh Khanna vehicle, Bawarchi (1972). *Cue internal applause* I usually check my criticism at the door automatically during RK films, a mental state made easier by the fact that a lot of his stuff receives little positive attention these days. But this one is good. Even the wonky subtitle problems of my copy (how dare somebody un-syncopate Gulzar dialogue!) couldn't mar its cuteness. I'm sure somebody somewhere has compared Mukherjee to Frank Capra . . . because that's where my mind goes. Mukherjee's films are sweet and heartwarming in a similar way, with middle class aspirations and foibles at the forefront; daily joys, sorrows, and familial relationships providing both the humor and the overarching moral lesson.

The foible filled daily life here is centered in the Sharma household . . . a squabbly, eccentric, and often whiny joint family consisting of a patriarch and his sons (including Filmi-Contrast favorites, Asrani and A K Hangal!) and their (whiny) wives, and a couple grandaughters--one a kathak diva in training (Manisha, I think?) the other a neglected but joyful, Cinderella-like orphan (Jaya Bhaduri). Also, Master Raju, one of the cutest child stars ever (in my opinion), lends his stoic little face to the proceedings.

Because of their general cheapness and ill humor, the Sharma family uses up servants and cooks like other people use paper towels. As the film opens, they have just lost another servant, but nobody seems to realize it until they don't get their morning tea and crumpets. (Wait, that might be the plot of Mary Poppins. I'll check on that and get back to you.)

Cut to the local household servant employment agency, and we find out two things via Gossip and the Radio. (A) That the Sharmas are impossible to find servants for, and (B) there is an escaped prisoner or thief or something out and about posing as a domestic and cleaning out family safes. At this point, I wasn't sure if this was a horror film or a reworking of Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day.

But it turned out my earliest guess was closer. Enter Rajesh Khanna as Mary Poppins. . . a wandering cook who knows everything . . . fixes both psychological and practical problems almost before they happen . . . manages to get crotchety ol' Grandpa out of bed (with a Mukherjee version of the veritable Golden Ticket) . . . and very well might be after the family jewels.

I couldn't even get a non-fuzzy s-cap of this.
Asrani never stops moving in this song (watch here). 
If you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it. But it's quite amusing, and there's so much going on here (and so many enjoyable performances by secondary characters) that you don't have to be an RK fan to enjoy it. It might even increase your appreciation for your own family . . . if only in realization that they COULD be the Sharmas.

Bonus: Asrani sings. No, Rocks Out. Just imagine a rockabilly/folk song that starts with "Good morning, good morning . .... O Papa." This somehow answered a secret prayer of mine. Thank you, Mukherjee. Just, thank you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Filmi-Lab: Madhumati (1958), Dilip Kumar, and Time-Travel Equations

I was going to just write about Madhumati, but I realized that most of the things I had to say revolved around Dilip Kumar and current thoughts about filmi eras.  Also, although Madhumati is a good film all 'round, I feel like I can't add much to Dusted-Off's review, and my guess is that this film is high up on the list for anyone who prefers Hindi films from the 1950's, and thus, my voice won't mean much in the scope of things . . .

So, a warning. This post contains emotional content. I would hate to be THAT blogger who carelessly leaves her feelings out in the sun, not noticing when they start to rot and cause property values to plummet. Or worse, the blogger who lets her emotions be that relative that stays longer than two weeks, uses all the towels, and drains all the milk cartons. Thus, I give fair warning while STILL attempting to do justice to my personal experiences of late. For, at times, one's life and the films one watches spiral into one another and cause weird chemistry explosions in one's brain. And those results need to be Documented, dammit. For posterity, and truth . . . So, consider this a Filmi-Lab Results post. Yeah, that sounds better than "Filmi-Feelings and Whether or Not I Should Have Them."

Hypothesis 1:
There is a Hindi film from the 70's to fit every mood.

Experiment 1: 70's Movie Night in Illustrative Screen Caps

Expectation of bliss. 

Dharmendra, my dear, I've never felt this close and yet so far from you. 

Aims for another 70's film. 

I love you but I feel like we're not communicating right now, and this
isn't your finest moment. 

Pauses halfway through and reaches for a book. 

Ponders why a book about Hindi films is getting the job done better
than a film itself.  

Hypothesis 1: Inconclusive results. 

Hypothesis 2:
There is a Hindi film from some era to fit every mood.

Experiment 2: 50's Movie Night(s)

 Wonders if anything will fit one's mood again ever. 

Cynically wallows in the remembrance of past passion.  

Lets optimism win out. Tries a couple different 1950's films. 

Mojo returns. 

Hypothesis 2: Supported, requires further field testing

My Proposed Equations:

1. Life lacking a certain spice  +  More time   x   More sleep      =   ↑ 70's movie appreciation

2. Life moving too fast   -   Sleep   +   Over-stimulation    =    ↓ 70's movie appreciation

3. Overstimulated brain   +    Desire for simplicity    =   ↑ 50's movie appreciation

My Conclusion:

Barring my run-ins with world pop-cinema of late, my most pleasant Hindi film experiences have been equivalent to a cuppa and a warm breakfast nook and a rambling book where everyone mostly lives and the bad guys can all be recognized by their handlebar mustaches. I think that Bilbo Baggins at almost any point in his adventures would understand. Films from 1950's offer a measured cinematic experience more often than not, while the frenetic romps of the 70's can induce a headache even when I'm not low on sleep. And when I am . . . when life feels like sciatica because everything occurring in one's immediate vicinity seems to hit a nerve, perhaps it isn't the best idea to immerse oneself in a cinematic acid trip.

Recommendations for Further Research:

Right now I have several more black and white films sitting on my desk, beckoning to me with their simplicity . . . and with their Dilip Kumar.

And thus, we get to those other thoughts I mentioned. Those gushy thoughts. Though I have fairly broad appreciatory powers for men and women (which extends to my favorite actors and actresses), I feel like I give quite a bit of space to women/actresses on this blog. Nargis, Hema, Rakhee, Sharmila, Zeenat. . . I love them and I sometimes I crush on them and sometimes I want to be them. So, I'm not going to apologize that it's a feller's turn. Plus, I mentioned back in January that I wanted this year to contain A LOT more Dilip Kumar.

I'm going to say something that kind of shocks me (if not you). I'm still in the throes of realization about it, so pardon the sensationalism I'm sure will bleed through the next paragraphs. Dilip Kumar might be the best actor I've seen since . . . I'm thinking, I'm thinking. Well, since that moment I re-watched Sharmilee with my sis and realized how brilliant Shashi was in it. Or maybe since I saw American Hustle and realized anew that Jeremy Renner is a freaking genius. All of which means that when I say Dilip Kumar is one of the best . . . it places him in very good company.

I DO realize "best" is an arbitrary qualifier. To be clear, when I throw around the "b" word here. . . I am considering the deployment of craft, not charisma or confidence. Plenty of actors in Hindi films use their star power and experience wisely.

To clarify that distinction between method and talent, I'd say that that Dilip's screen persona reminds me of what you would get if you crossed Sanjeev Kumar's projection of intellectual awareness with Vinod Khanna's emotive physical presence. And in contrast, I would offer up actors such as Amitabh or SRK . . . both of whom are undeniably talented, but are also able to stay afloat purely by the buoyancy of their formidable personalities if they so desire.

I don't think Dilip Kumar had the same luxury. Sure, he was attractive in his own way and had a certain kind of presence. And sure, he was known for his tragic roles, and I bet he learned how to easily manipulate er, elicit a empathetic reaction in his audience. But as an audience member, I feel more than empathy. If anything, I am just impressed with the variety of reactions he conveys while remaining firmly planted in the same characterization. I have an uncle who, when passionate about a topic, says that he feels X or Y "in the gut of his heart." As odd a picture as that may paint, it's what I feel when I watch Dilip act. I relate to the intellectual process going on behind his face, and I relate to the damned sensitivity of his characters.

I feel like I need a new word to describe the Dilip slouch.
Madhumati, for all of its commercial twists and turns, is a film that spends a lot of time with the male lead; time that the director (the sensitively attuned Bimal Roy) uses almost as brilliantly as Dilip Kumar. The story is two dimensional, and yet the Roy/Kumar power couple gives us something fully formed and corporeal. Something able to cast a long shadow into the future. [Everybody and their mother has copied this one, including, obviously, the production team behind Mehbooba.] But if anything turned this story from a mass "reincarnation" entertainer into a visceral plea for love and nonviolence, it was the many reincarnations of Dilip's effing face. That face registers all the little moments, not just the big ones, and you never feel that his character can see into the future . . . as a lot of masala heroes seem to be able to do. Instead of knowing that he "must win" the woman or the fight for justice, he alternately flees from and embraces the momentary uncertainties.

And by planting his performance in the
"character's" present, rather than the arc of the story, he also places himself firmly within the Method branch of acting techniques. Whether or not Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler would approve, Dilip's character in Madhumati is devastatingly human, embodying all the strengths and weaknesses that humanity entails. And, so, while I love the stylized unreality so common to Hindi films (and Hindi film acting), I also appreciate deviations from that norm. Dilip's deviation also happens to be very easy on the eyes.

In summary, I think I found my custom 50's cocktail: One part Sanjeev, One part Vinod, one part a different era's sensibilities entirely. Except that DK's persona is best served neat and warmed over a slow flame, like my favorite brandy.