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.

5 comments:

  1. Miranda, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films are incredibly heartwarming; whenever I need to feel better about humanity, a Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie is sure to do the trick. And Bawarchi is one of my favorites -- great review!

    But I'm intrigued that you compare Mukherjee to Frank Capra, who is often invoked as a warm-hearted sentimental filmmaker. But we've rewatched several Capra movies recently, and I find a very dark undercurrent in many of his films that I don't find in those of Mukherjee.

    In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town a crooked lawyer tries to cheat Gary Cooper out of his inheritance; in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington the Senate is portrayed as utterly corrupt, controlled behind the scenes by rich men who make sure that their interests are always served; in Meet John Doe, a "grassroots" political movement is shown to be instigated and manipulated by an unscrupulous media; and in It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey is driven to contemplate suicide because of the systematic thwarting of his dreams of escape and the evil machinations of Mr. Potter.
    So I don't think Capra really deserves his reputation as an idealistic, sentimental director.

    And I'm not sure I see anything equivalent in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's movies. Khubsoorat, for example, may be a parable about the Emergency, but the parallels are made in the gentlest possible terms. The focus is on family dynamics and individual foibles, not on rampant corruption, sweeping conspiracies, or individuals crushed by the powerful and wealthy, as in Capra.

    So if you want to feel better about humanity, I'd definitely choose Hrishikesh Mukherjee over Frank Capra.

    Best,

    P.

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    1. P, thanks for providing such a great counterpoint. I answered to both comments on Capra/Mukherjee below. I've been following your posts on old Hollywood, Jean Arthur films, and Pride and Prejudice recently, and have been subsequently inspired to get around to some Jean Arthur this year. Also, I have OPINIONS on the Greer Garson version of P&P (and loved your take on that), so I will comment on that soon :)

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  2. Miranda, I am so glad to find a fellow 70s fan-atic! I followed a link from Pessimississimo's blog, and am so glad I did. :D

    Pessimississimo makes a very good point about Capra's large canvas. His characters are usually out to reform the world and tackle big issues. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, on the other hand, tends on concentrate on a few individuals and their day-to-day concerns - a smaller canvas that is more easy to relate to. I think Namak Haram is the only one of Mukherjee's films that comes close to tackling a larger canvas, and is rather dark overall. Mostly though, Mukherjee's films are guaranteed to lift up your spirits.

    I remember watching (and liking) Bawarchi when I saw it as a teenager, long ago. But now, I'm not sure I can work up the suspension-of-disbelief required to accept Jaya Bahaduri as an award-winning dancer! Plus, I must admit that Rajesh Khanna is not my favorite actor. (I hope we can still be friends!)

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    1. Bollyviewer, so good to make your acquaintance! I'd like to say finally, because I discovered your informative and often hilarious "Old Is Gold" during your hiatus last year and was quite dearly hoping you would return to blogging about the 70's again :) I will admit I read through quite a few of your posts, and enjoyed every bit of it. I probably first read a proper summary of Mukherjee's work on your site, actually, now that I think of it. As far as a lack of proper Rajesh appreciation goes, I think I can manage to look past it. ;D A higher loyalty to the 70's will ALWAYS trump more petty personal tastes, of course. . . So excited for your new location at Masala Punch and future fan-aticizing, geeking out, etc :)

      [Combined Capra-Mukherjee conversation continued below . . ]

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  3. Ooohhh, counterpoint! I love it. I'll respond to the Capra-Mukherjee conversation in tandem:

    P, you make some really excellent points here, and when I read them yesterday, many thoughts were certainly provoked :) Though of course I've seen a lot of Capra over the years, there's only like 3 or 4 films of his that I've seen semi-recently. Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are both pretty far back in my memory, and so I definitely concede a better knowledge of those films to you.

    Heartwarming does not necessarily equate with sentimentality. And likewise, sentimentality is not the same thing as optimism. I think my mistake was to equate those three things, and therefore, to equate the two director's bodies of work. After consideration, I would say that Mukherjee mostly falls into the first two categories, while Capra is more likely to fall into the last. And furthermore, even though Capra is optimistic . . . I would say he is more optimistic about the the potential of individuals, rather than the potential of society as a whole.

    As for how "dark" the two directors are . . . I think it might depend on the film one chooses to focus on. However, here again I would say there is a difference between portraying the darkness of societal corruption and exploring the darkness of death or social dysfunction. I think Mukherjee clearly had an interest in finding meaning in daily sorrows, death being one of them (Mili, Anand). And while I don't think Mukherjee discounts widespread corruption or greed . . . the message I get from his films mostly is that a lot of social problems are rooted in misunderstandings between well-meaning people, rather than pure acts of evil.

    Bollyviewer, speaking to your elaboration about the social canvas of both director's films, my instinct is to agree with you (from the handful of both director's films I've seen). The lives of Mukherjee’s protagonists ARE indeed extremely easy to relate to coming from my own version of a middle class background . . . and only rarely seem to deal with the ethical questions of unequal distribution of wealth. Namak Haraam being one of those rare cases, I think it's still an important departure from how Capra would have told the same story. Strangely, I think Capra would have been more optimistic in writing its ending. Grassroots movements and corruption-exposing heroes go through a lot of trouble in Capra films, but in the end they mostly succeed. Mukherjee almost seemed to be more “realistic” in his sense of the (blood) sacrifices that would need to be made to effect change.

    I'm just spit-balling here, but I wonder if Mukherjee was actually disinclined to tell those kinds of stories very often because he found it difficult to retain his sentimentality (and certainly his own brand of optimism) on a larger scale. Whereas, it seems to me that Capra believed and/or found inspiration in the ability of an idealistic individual to stand up to the Mr. Potter’s of the world.

    Now, hopefully I don't get in trouble for making yet another comparison ;) but as I just finished watching Shree 420 (after watching series of other Raj Kapoor films from the 40's and 50's), I think a better case could be made for Raj Kapoor’s--for better or for worse--similarities to Capra. Or perhaps that he was trying to emulate Capra in his own way. One can say whatever one likes about Raj Kapoor's controversial later work, but in the 50's he was certainly trying to say something about social problems, and about the individual's role in changing those social problems. Of course, it goes without saying that Chori Chori is clear remake of Capra's It Happened One Night. Shree 420 kind of reminds me of what you'd get if you combined aspects of Capra’s Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life with Chaplin's Modern Times.

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