Friday, May 30, 2014

*Ahem* Review Countdown: Dirty Diamonds

Every so often, you look at your watched films list, or your screencaps, and you see a growing file of favorites that you feel reluctant to recommend to or watch with others, for whatever combination of potentially objectionable factors. This is doubly annoying, because favorites clutter up our brain space if they aren't shared  . . . and lots of hypothetical folks are missing out by not seeing these films [with us], obviously!

So, here are a few of the films that I want to rave about endlessly and bring to every movie night . . . but don't, because they contain some "rough stretches of road," in content or quirks.

5. Gumnaam (1965)

Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" on Bollywood crack.

Speed bump(s): the Manoj Kumar pout, the Nanda pout, Mehmood antics, plot holes, Your-Favorite-Characters probably won't make it through the film.

Don't be fooled by this film's long list of stumbling blocks. This is the least objectionable of the entries on this countdown, perhaps because the overall tone is consistently reminiscent of flashy Hollywood thrillers of the 50's (which makes it more palatable to an American audience, at least).

Why I am not turned off:

*I find Manoj Kumar ridiculous, but in an amusing way. An ensemble thriller film is the perfect place for him in my opinion, because he's so naturally melodramatic and self-obsessed in his characterizations in the first place. Plus, he always seems to be purposefully channeling Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, which tickles me, considering that that character is such a wet blanket.

*Nanda has some great facial expressions and isn't a size two. Enough said.

*My two favorite characters are "present" until the last twenty minutes or something. Close enough.

*Ahhhhhhhgh I'm in love with Pran and Helen together and I want to travel the world with them.

*The pleasant WTF content of this film is high enough to overcome initial frustrations, I think, and therefore, I will probably feel OK about forcing my friends to watch this one.

4. Sharafat (1970)

A courtesan (Hema Malini) who isn't really a courtesan is treated like one and might actually be high born *gasp*. Dharmendra doesn't agree with her unfair treatment and probably will sustain a few head injuries while sticking up for her (as a pacifist, so less dishooming than usual).

Speed bump(s): courtesan tale, slow sections, preachiness.

Why I am not turned off:

*I like courtesan films when I'm in the right mood, and I love it when they skip the tragic ending. This is a softer, creakier, and much filmier version of Pakeezah in some ways. It's the story of a "maiden courtesan" trying to keep her services list to Dancing Only. She is also the unrecognized daughter of a well-known, upstanding citizen (Ashok Kumar) . . .  who also happens to be the patron of Dharmendra's character, a teacher at an all boy's school. And what more do you need to know than Dharmendra as ethical and bookish prof?!

*The intellectual/philosophical arguments that Dharmendra and Hema's characters dive into with one another are quite enjoyable. It's always nice to see some angry nerd chemistry in Bollywood now and then.

*Hema's dance skills are at their best when she gets to be the morally superior outsider, doing some shaming (rather than shameful) kathak or a bit of passive aggressive bharatnatyam.

*The priggish morals here are balanced by semi-enlightened social politics. For all the preaching, at least 75% of it is worth listening to.

3. Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)

A Kashmiri boy (Shashi Kapoor) falls in love with a girl (Nanda) from the Big City. Expect lots of Pardesi longing songs and and pretty vistas and pastoral naivete.

Speed bump(s): widespread stupidity, The Noble Savage, reactionary morals.

If you've seen this one, you probably fall into one of the following categories:

1. *Throws DVD out window* Why did I waste my time at this patriarchal shrine?!
2. Awww. Good songs. Good memories. (Typical desi reaction, probs).
3. What an enjoyable little artifact. Emphasis on "ARTIFACT."

Why I am not turned off:

*I fall into the last category. I didn't expect to like it and found the first 30 minutes silly and boring. And then found the rest of it silly and fabulous.

*Shashi as the noble savage who grows into a nobler savage shouldn't work. But it does. And it's a feat to take a character whose irrational possessiveness and anti-Westernization stance are actually the core beliefs of the film and make him lovable. Manipulative or not, it helps that his world and his personality are both far kinder than the family and ken of the heroine.

*My favorite "pardesi" song is here. [Only rivaled by this pardesi song. Both are recurring melody motifs in socially reactionary romantic dramas, which makes me want to trace the cultural history of pardesi songs.]

2. Dhuan (1981)

Shady underworld boss (Amjad Khan) attempts to defraud a widowed Rani (Rakhee Gulzar) of her jewels and estate by sending an agent (Mithun Chakraborty) claiming to be her dead brother-in-law (of whom he is not even a convenient look-alike!). The Rani is not amused and will surely be:
1. Treated badly
2. Unhinged, as a gaslighting victim is bound to be.

Speed bump(s): Mithun, mysogyny, gaslighting, confusing beginning, so-so picture quality, paagal Rakhee.

Why I am not turned off:

*The only substantial detractions from this film for me were the misogyny and the confusing beginning. Of those two, the first is pretty much resolved by the end. There's no excuse for the second. I hate bad beginnings.

*For all the cruelty towards women (albeit by shady characters), there is equal female kickback in the person of Ranjeeta Kaur's character, who dishes out retribution in her own (comedic) way. Also, did I mention it's weirdly resolved by the end? Wasn't expecting that.

*Being trapped in a claustrophobic mansion is always a pleasant Gothic trope.

*Between Rakhee and Padma Khanna's characters (yes Padma gets to be an actual character), this movie totally passes the Bechdel test, if that counts for anything.

*This film is weirdly engaging. It's not super-well executed cinematically, but as you go along you realize that the plot holes are intentional. It's a mystery cloaked as bad writing. Which turns out to be good writing as more is revealed.

1. Kucche Dhaage (1973)

Two dacoits (Vinod Khanna and Kabir Bedi) carry on the blood feud of their fathers against one another, and then band together to protect the woman they both love. Said village belle doesn't love either of them, adores personality-challenged boy-next-door. Things probably aren't going to end well.

Speed bump(s): Rapey dacoit antihero, annoying normals, It's NOT Happy.

Why I am not turned off:

*People pay for the terrible things they do. Bottom line. You can expect that.

*This film is one of the most epic Bollywood films in terms of resolution that I've ever seen. There's a clear three act structure as well, in fitting with the Shakspearean tone of it all.

*Out the Bollywood films that I feel reluctant to share with someone else in person, this is the one I also feel the highest respect towards. Like Dhuan, it may seem mediocre at first, but will impress by the end. Unlike Dhuan, this film stands out as an artistic achievement. It is not strictly entertaining, but it will keep your attention, and mayhaps a bit of your heart.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dragon (2011) and No One Killed Jessica (2011): Moving On

I saw Dragon (Wu Xia) (2011) recently, a Hong Kong film starring Donnie Yen (familiar to even non HK film buffs as the star of the Ip Man saga) and Tang Wei (famous for Ang Lee's Lust Caution). It's an affecting film that I won't spoil for you . . . and I suggest that you do NOT go on Wikipedia and accidentally find out the American film it was inspired by. Just watch it on its own terms.

Some questions posed by Dragon (Wu Xia):
*Can you ever escape your past? (And should you?)
*Can you really suppress your emotions? (Should you?)
*Can you really change your family or your nature?

[And a head's up for anyone allergic to such things: on the occasion of a major life event, I am musing more on on personal content here than usual. Also, some very mild spoilers.]

I have a much stronger familial history with East Asia than I do the South. Including, but not limited to: 9 years spent in martial arts training (a complex mixture of Wing Chun, Judo, standard performance karate, etc.), 10 years spent learning pockets of Asian medicine at school/work, growing up surrounded by folks in the TCM field, and the complicated suturing of my Midwestern Irish-English clan to a first-generation American South Korean clan.

The common denominator among all those factors was my father and his oldest brother, who between them began to weave Asia into my meat & potato family's life two decades before I came along. . . and continued to do so long after. I grew up with a group of adopted Korean aunties, who spoke a spectrum of good to incomprehensible English . . . and Christmas often smelled like strange noodles and Kimchee as much as it did popovers and stuffing. One aunt, the traditional Christmas host, filled her home with exquisite Korean and Chinese furniture, hilly watercolor panoramas with Mandarin calligraphy, decorative swords, scandalous half-nude paintings, her daughters' dance trophies, and her son's Professional Karate Studio competition medals. It was not a home you would expect a conservative Christian family to trek to every year for Senor Jesus' birthday. But we did.

The most recent culmination of all that Asia-weaving was the spur-of-the moment trip my father, brother, my uncle, and my Korean aunt (his wife) took to China and South Korea last year. It was strange timing. I was just starting to fall for India then . . .  caught up in the heady early days of Bollywood discovery. Thus, on the 15 hour flight to Beijing, I watched Ek Tha Tiger . . . while my brother indulged in some Hong Kong fedora flick next to me. One guess as to who was embracing the moment, and who was wrapped up in another place and time? In way of defending my mindset, I was very excited to see a bit of China . . .  but I was also starting to realize that my stronger interest in things Indian was going to shift my life and career focus drastically.

On one level, that Asia trip turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Difficult relationships were smoothed over temporarily, and shared interests brought a lot of communal joy (all very appropriate, given general Asian values). If I had the opportunity to travel in China again . . . even for a few months . . . I would go in a heartbeat. Even though it doesn't fit in with "The Plan." Because it is so very close to "The Plan" that could have been in an alternate timeline. That timeline would have had to include early language study, the guidance of a mentor able to exert a local-ism stronger than my stubbornly non-committal globalism, and non-judgmental support from various family members. [Actually, probably half the people I know would have benefited from that prescription! And probably fewer of us would be stuck in careers we actively dislike.] Long story short, my past ties to that cultural world gave me a few side hobbies and still enrich my life. But the larger "What If" of it all has sailed.

On that note, I also just finished No One Killed Jessica (2011). There's a point in the film where Vidya Balan's character appears to give up. She's sunk prime years of her young life into getting justice in a kangaroo court, rather than in grieving and moving on. (Whether the latter will ever be possible for someone in her situation is a whole 'nother question.) Then, just when she and her family stop fighting, a brash journalist (Rani Mukherjee) steps into to the shoes of justice-seeker. . .only to be dismayed at the family's apathy when the tide finally turns in their favor. Vidya's character especially, as the murdered-girl's sister, doesn't want to get back on the insaaf train. She is done. Just done. But the shrewd and utilitarian reporter can't have that. Instead of honoring the family's wishes, she storms into their home and gives tired baby sister a long guilt trip. Which baby sister eventually succumbs to, aided by tortured memories of her sister once sticking up for her. Because, wouldn't you?

It's unclear whether Vidya's character is broken or just tired. But she herself admits that she has no life outside of the court saga.

However, Dragon (Wu Xia) leaves one with the sense that no matter what has happened in Donnie Yen's character's shady past, it does not completely break his spirit. It does not change his fundamental good nature. His upbringing and violent experiences do not take away his ability to live a full life and engage in relationships. Of course, this required cutting ties with his family and past . . . and some loose "ties" may still need to be cut. In contrast, the police inspector (Takeshi Kaneshiro), following the trail of that past, has gone out of his way to suppress his own natural compassionate instincts . . . all because they once betrayed him. But he experiences nothing but anxiety in this altered state, always on the fence between sociopathic pursuit of justice and the moral gray area of human feeling.

Depression, self-suppression, cutting ties. All fairly textbook reactions to difficult past circumstances. [The reporter's way does not count, because it was (A) not her fight, and (B) not her trauma.]

There IS a personal context for the present navel-gazing. At the end of last week I moved to a new home from a long-time residence . . . a place that was connected to a lot of difficult memories. Like the main characters of both of the films above, much of my twenties (or youth or what have you) were swallowed up in other people's court battles/family feuds and the struggle to protect my family from it all. Everyone has their own shit to deal with, of course, and many far worse shit than mine. But since this move is a clearly marked END to the tunnel I've been in for a very long time, I think it's worth taking a moment to reflect. Because pretty soon, I'll be too far ahead to remember what it was like behind me.

I guess that if there's anything to be learned from comparing the messy psyches on display in Dragon and NOKJ, it's that when ties are cut or a tunnel is exited. . . a person doesn't need to lose or destroy himself in the process. Ok, Ok. Maybe we have to lose a little of ourselves. But only to make room for something better to take its place.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Aan Milo Sajna (1970) and . . . The Bombay Superstar (1973)

Despite appearances, I have not only been watching Mithun movies. I recently finished Aap ki Kasam (I watched to the halfway point but didn't have the emotional wherewithal to finish till now) and Aan Milo Sajna. It stars not two, but three of my favorite leads (Vinod, RK, and Asha Parekh), is available on Youtube with subtitles, and is one of RK's 15 consecutive hits. It should have at least been higher on my list. But somewhere in the haze of review-skimming last year, I guess I had gotten the idea that it was a snooze.

I was very mistaken indeed. Probably the one thing that would have made Aan Milo Sajna better? A scriptwriter more attuned to narrative flow. It just doesn't always hit the high notes where it should. But in a lot of ways, this film is far more "watchable" than the more famous RK/Asha pairing of the period, Kati Patang (1970). The latter is undeniably heartwarming and heart-wrenching, but I think it lacks a sense of humor concerning itself or its characters.

Not only does Aan Milo Sajna have that in spades, but I swear somebody with a penchant for levelheadedness actually wrote the plot and the dialogue (which is not something I expect of most films of the period). People behave according to what they know, but also allow for the unknowns in their decisions. They *mostly* muddle through their extreme difficulties thoughtfully, trying to figure out solutions rather than just reacting to their circumstances.

The one thing I was prepared for was the smolder-y Vinod role. Everybody seems to love VK as this film's villain, and rightly so. But beyond his always appreciated glowering and sneering, something else that cracked me up to no end was Vinod's onscreen treatment of Rajendra Nath's buffoon character. There's almost always too much of Rajendra's antics in movies of this period, and it pretty much made my day each time Vinod's scowl and slap zeroed in on the ADHD manchild. There is a desperate need for someone to police the comedy uncles, and Vinod definitely has my vote for that position. Also, I highly approve of the spirited Western guitar strumming that appears whenever Vinod's baddie is planning something extra naughty (reminiscent of spaghetti western scores) AND the visualization of the final hero-villain showdown in a canyon. Now I have to wonder if these artistic details influenced Vinod's casting in future dacoit roles.

I could also talk about Nirupa Roy or Tarun Bose in this film (who both blew me away), but I think others have sung their praises elsewhere.

This film is exceptionally commensensical in its characters, relationship progression, and in *some* of its ideals. And, yay! nobody spends half of the film in prison. The romantic leads (Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh) speed past some of the usual romcom potholes (a lengthy "drama" of fake fiance-dom) with nary a word of rebuke or a "nahiiiiiiin." In fact, their relationship is refreshingly playful and flirtatious. Don't expect runaway chemistry . . . this pairing is all about the quiet charm of two people who amuse one another and probably will go on to have an extremely boring (and extremely happy) married life.

Even the parents have layers, thoughts, emotions beyond what the usual weepy "Maaa" background score would suggest. And yet, it does misstep in the middle, perhaps due to the inherent ability of each of the main characters to actually TALK through their problems and mistakes with one another. It takes a superhuman effort by the villain to bring this train back off (or on) the rails . . . and I think it succeeds by the end. I really expected the ratio of fake blood to climactic deaths to be reversed . . . and I was happy to be proved wrong in my assumptions.

And because this is what I do when I review Rajesh movies . . . some "bonus" thoughts about his stardom and global image:

I was watching the "The Bombay Superstar" documentary on Rajesh recently (shout out to RK expert Suhan for sending me in that direction), and beyond the realization that the dialogue and attitude toward Bollywood in the West has probably always been tainted by outright snobbery (frankly, the narrative journalist came off as a pretentious ass), I was again struck by how very much I am fascinated with the man behind the iron curtain of fame. It will forever haunt me, I think, that I never had a chance to meet him or interview him (oh-the-hubris to think that could have happened, but a girl can wish).

Overall, the documentary is a rare window into the "backstage" goings on of Rajesh Khanna's life and career. And there were several small moments in the interviews with Rajesh that pretty near broke my heart. I'm not sure if I can describe why, exactly, but there was something in his voice and reactions that said a lot more than his words. Listening to his cryptic remarks (albeit to a caustic foreign press), some people probably see a man struggling to maintain his fame, others a man who was merely resting on his laurels, and some are probably just left wondering what the fuss was/is all about.

I'll tell you what I see. I see a man who was tired. And for a damn good reason, too. Just a brief look at the number of films the man made in a three year period makes me want to take a long vacation. I can't believe some people had the gall to call him lazy for showing up late on set . . . when he was working two or three films in day, and by some accounts, leading a busy night life as well. Ok, maybe he wasn't the only one pulling multiple shifts, but that doesn't mean it was healthy in any way. [Keeping that kind of schedule would exhaust me at best, destroy me utterly at worst.] Even if he wasn't as introverted as he appears (I will maintain that onscreen bravado does not an offscreen extrovert make), his working hours alone must have led to negative psychological repercussions. Add the blistering magnifying glass of fame, and you have the formula for a spontaneous combustion.

I can't help but speculate that we may be seeing that process in-motion during the "eventful" period of 1973 depicted in the documentary. It would be pure sensationalism to say that he sabotaged his own career (and wouldn't be true, as he continued to command a high paycheck well into the 80's), but I truly think he got tired, cynical, and wanted some of his life back; and yet didn't know how to give up his work. I'm glad he didn't, but I also wonder if he would have been happier if he had.

That's not to say that he didn't reach for fame. But I don't think he liked the way it reached back for him.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Joi Baba Felunath (1979)

When it comes to Ray, one can't expect to give more brilliant commentary than has already been given. But I think it's still valuable to reflect on the points where one's own wheel meets the legendary road.

Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) could have easily been slipped into my childhood family marathons of the Granada Sherlock Holmes (with Jeremy Brett) and I would barely have noticed. Opium habits and stolen collectibles aside, the sepia-toned backgrounds and use of elongated shadows, and even the bare-boned and striking use of background music during "chase scenes"  brought to mind the 1980's TV series. (So much so, that I couldn't help but wonder if the good production folks at Granada took a page or two from Ray's playbook, which would certainly be the closing of a full-meta-circle.) As such, I didn't feel so much knocked off my feet by it, but rather as if I'd run into an old friend who'd grown up a bit since we last met.

This is probably my favorite Ray film thus far, if only because the plot is attuned to concerns of entertainment value over social commentary. And as usual, when I say "favorite," I mean re-watchability. Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), for example, was entertaining once. Despite it's social commentary, the story doesn't care over-much for any one character, so I didn't feel the need to get too emotionally involved. But an easy watch does not a re-watch make.

Joi Baba Felunath cares just enough, and yet, doesn't ever pull out the comfortable rug from beneath the audience's feet. Sure, you're in for a certain number of callous murders, but all the remaining characters seem to be eating steady meals, so what are a few fictional corpses at the end of the night? All the better to go with your wine and your friend and your giant bowl of popcorn. And now that I think of it, this is probably the first film of Satyajit Ray's I've seen which wasn't particularly message oriented. If there is one pervasive message here, it's in the quiet and nostalgic conjuration of an older way; not the endorsement of a lost social order, but in the loving close-up of the old-fashioned personality of Detective Feluda himself.

Some of Ray's favorite icons do appear, nonetheless. Like in Devi (1960), in which one feels the potential force of obsessive human devotion (and its material objects) with an every growing dread . . . here too the Durga statue and the Ganesha miniature loom larger and more menacing in the narrative than their material stature should command.

But in this story, Devi aur Deva are merely set pieces on the greater symbolic chessboard of Varanasi. And their treatment by camera and character alike is not so much with an attitude of devotion or fear, as it is that of awe and lust for possession . . .  reminiscent of that shown for other prized fictional objects (like Collin's Moonstone). So, I think it would be erroneous to assume that this film aims first at religion or religious issues. The plot hinges on a domino effect of miscommunication, distrust, and deception . . . and of course, greed . . . until even Feluda must forgo his upright methods and fight fire with fire. [Mild Spoiler: I enjoyed the bit at the end when we and Feluda's companions believe for a second that the need to "possess" has rubbed off on the great detective, too!]

I love the fact that in his mystery films, Ray chooses to take his keen social scientist's eye and train it on the most obviously crooked branches of human nature. And in doing so, he gives us those rare things (in my experience of his films at least): justice and closure. To a brain trained on filmi arcs of khoon for khoon and ultimate insaaf, a full stop will almost always be more welcome than an ellipsis.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dreaming of Desai: Aamne Samne (1982)

If you're already tired of the Mithun/80's streak here, my apologies. I blame it all on watching Disco Dancer for the first time AND re-watching Remington Steele with my sis . . .  both of which have reminded me of how much I am entertained by the bizarre decor and grungy action of the era. Luckily, it's getting easier to watch things without subtitles, too . . . which of course opens a lot of doors, some of which lead to hidden gems.

Not to be confused with the rather dull Shashi/Sharmila film from about 15 years earlier, this Aamne Samne is, in my opinion, a jewel. And not just because of the glitter factor.

But have no fear (if you are wary of this era). Barring its disco sequences, Aamne Samne belongs more to the filmi 70's than anything else. I'm pretty sure whoever jotted down the plot simply decided to take his/her favorite elements from Aa Gale Lag Jaa, Parvarish, and (mostly) Sachaa Jhutha and remix them. Oh, and toss in an action scene or two from Raiders of the Lost Ark (copied almost shot for shot). Usually the blatant copycat masala annoys me, but I approve* of this particular example. Especially since this is the movie I kinda wanted Sachaa Jhutha to be.

Getaways are hard work. You just try to drive at night in dark sunglasses.

Johnny is a disco dancer by night . . . and a society thief by night, too. And if that sounds familiar, I'll let you in on the Sachaa Jhutha "homage" . . . Yes, this movie has not one, but two Mithun characters.

Don't be confused by the third in shot above. This is Mithun #3's only appearance. 

By day, Johnny hobnobs with suspicious (yet charmed) police inspectors, smokes, and lounges about in his underground lair. (Give him a break, he works the late shift.)

But, of course, it turns out that Johnny has both a masala PAST and a masala double. And both are about to catch up with him.

Johnny-look-alike is a simple village boy (Gopi) who, after incurring the wrath of the local landowner, has come to the big city to find work. He is immediately mistaken for Johnny by an orphaned waif, Raju. [He is adorbs! and extremely precocious for only 4 yrs old, by my count.] Raju is the son Johnny never knew existed, and has been searching for Johnny since his mother's death. Gopi doesn't have the heart to tell The Kid (similarities to Charlie Chaplin's film of the same name cannot be denied) that he's not his real father.

Soon he sets off to provide for his cute little acquisition. Of course, he can't get far before he is swarmed by a crowd of fangirls . . . led by Jyoti (Bindiya Goswami). They are overjoyed to "run into" Johnny, who they think is putting on some elaborate simpleton act (a la an elaborate Joaquin Phoenix prank).

Gopi has one thing in mind: FOOD (for himself and cute waif who he has already accepted as a "son"), and so he plays along. In the process, it isn't long before Johnny's crew also fall for the ruse, and bring Gopi and the kid back to Johnny's mansion.

Quickly realizing that the minions are going to bow to his every whim, Gopi decides to have a little fun with the crew and orders them to dance. [This has got to be one one of my favorite Mac Mohan scenes ever.]

But there are eyes everywhere. Via the mansion's sophisticated audio-visual surveillance system, Johnny and girlfriend Rita take a moment to enjoy the show. (It's little details/choices like Johnny's amusement instead of anger in this situation that make this film highly enjoyable.)

Of course Johnny immediately sees the angle. What COULD he accomplish with a look alike around to cover for his *ahem* other activities? The police have been extra hot on his trail lately, after all.

Gopi is quickly persuaded to stay and become Johnny's double because (A) Raju will be provided for, and (B) Johnny's lie about their work being necessary to protect "Hamara desh." As far as I could tell, the only rule of Double Club was "no communication with the folks back home." And of course, no talking about Double Club.

Gopi sets out to learn Johnny's signature moves, whether it be dancing (I found it side-splitting to see Mithun pretending to try to learn to dance) or marksmanship.

And straight out of Sachaa Jhutha's best gags . . .we have the potentially hilarious dilemma: What happens when nobody can tell Johnny from Gopi or vice-versa?

Since this is a Mithun movie . . . a brief fist fight, and then an energetic mirror-image lair dance. What else?

From here on . . .the movie happily throws in some some filmi blindness (Jyoti's character), "surprise" undercover cops, a Don nicknamed Supremo with a deadline for Johnny (emphasis on "dead") . . .

. . . and necessarily, more disco. Happily, this is 1982, and the picturization still feels semi-new and shiny.

Also there's a lot of cuteness to be had. I don't think I've rooted for a little familial trio this much since Aa Gale Lag Jaa. This screencap doesn't do them (or this song) justice. 

But how long will it take for Gopi to realize that Johnny is engaged is some pretty shady stuff . . . stuff that might send him to prison AND endanger Raju's life ? Will Mithun have to fight himself for real this time? 

What happens when the police and/or Supremo start to catch Johnny in his own craftiness? And will Jyoti and Rita ever get it on? (I mean in a girl-fight, gosh, what were you thinking? I'll let you in a small detail, I laughed for a full minute at one point at the shameless subtext. It might be the most hilarious girl-fight, and the least subtle, I've ever seen.)

Honestly, I loved this one. Sure you have to like Mithun (there's a lot of him to be had here, obviously) and I happen to find Mithun extremely easy to watch even in bad movies (and this is a good one). But I'm sure you'll understand the attraction of a masala flick that spends very little time with weepy Ma's or goody-two-shoes police detectives, and just gives you what you want most: 

1. Capers. Ok, mostly rumors of capers. But the over-all feel is caper-y at least.  
2. People impersonating other people and lots of mistaken identity gags.
3. A chance to see the hero play both good-suave, and bad-suave at the same time. Who doesn't want to see that? 
4. Flared trousers-so-tight-they-should-be-illegal. (They even found a way to make flares even more figure-hugging than usual. . . but I won't spoil it for you. Let's just say that the final showdown is revealing in more ways than one). 
5. Dancing, dancing, disco, disco. 

As a Sachaa Jhutha remake (which this is, officially or no), I totally miss some of the fabulous characters from the original film. Evil Rajesh avatar always makes my day; and Mumtaz's spunkiness, Vinod Khanna's sleuthing, and the Moti the Wonder Dog's heartwarming antics are all lovely. But the separated family, evil stepmother character, and a few other Desai stylistic choices really drag the film down for me. Aamne Samne, however, didn't have the same sour aftereffect. 

This film is just pure fun . . . with just enough heartstring-pulling/pathos to keep you caring about the main characters. It uses a lot of elements from the aforementioned Desai films that I loved, and yet makes those elements easier to digest by tossing out the extensive moral hand-wringing. Plus, it jumps into the action with the first frame, only dedicates about 45 seconds to various characters' pre-history, and from there on moves pretty fast (all of which I love). 

One hears a lot about how the cinema of the 80's had to deal with a rapidly modernizing public, a public that didn't want to sit through long poetic soliloquies, a public changed by the growing presence of cassette players and television and Western pop music. So it's nice to see a film from the era in which that high-speed commercialism works in favor of the story, rather than the other way around. 

I leave you with my promise to myself before writing this post. "I will not entitle it 'Double the Mithun, Double the Fun.' I will not. I will not." And I didn't. Even though, it DOES seems like a good rule to live by for this particular time period.

*Note: Since I have not seen this with subtitles (but thank you, Youtube for having it at all!), feel free to correct me if I misrepresented something or failed to notice something unforgivable.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

All Those Lovable Wastrels

You really can't get away from the "Devdas" archetype in Hindi cinema. Love it or hate it, or want to put a pin in it and let all the alcohol drain out forever . . . the self-destructive sharabi runs deep in the veins of filmi myth and legend, both on and off the screen. However, some drunkards are more likable than others.

Let the Beloved Drunkards Countdown begin!

6. Om Prakash in Zanjeer (1973)

This is probably my favorite Om Prakash role . . . and also might be the most brief. Portraying a man who's family, constitution, and reputation was destroyed by the same gang Amitabh's Vijay wants to dismantle--Om Prakash is the rare essential drunkard--appearing just before the climax to ensure that our hero knows exactly what's at stake in his mission for justice.

Not only was the graveyard scene my second favorite part of Zanjeer (my first is Sher Khan, what else?) but I feel like it showcases OP's strengths perfectly. He is one part liquor, one part humor, and one part hard-won wisdom. It's a cocktail that is more poignant than predictable; and unlike most filmi Christian drunkards, this fellow isn't there just for laughs or to steer the hero wrong. He also looks a bit like Eli Wallach in this scene, don't you think?

5. Dharmendra in most things Sholay (1975)

Everybody "knows" about Dharmendra's real-life relationship with alcohol. It's almost as famous as his relationship with Hema Malini, and perhaps just as prone to mythological retelling. Dharmendra played a lot of drinkers (if not drunkards) over the course of the 70's, but Sholay's Veeru is surely the best remembered (and perhaps the most sympathetic) of the lot.

Veeru isn't a bad fellow, but he isn't exactly good, either. He's the happy-go-lucky half of Jai/Veeru jodi, and the mischievous half of the Basanti/Veeru life partnership. Furthermore, if anyone could make a drunken rant and suicide threat seem endearing, Veeru certainly did. I don't think we ever find out if he gives up the bottle, because his eventual choice to give up a life of petty crime for a higher purpose duly papers over his previous moral failings. But personally, I'd like to think the sight of his beloved dancing on glass from broken liquor bottles cures him for once and for all.

4. Mithun Chakraborty in Ashanti (1982)

I had some issues with Ashanti, but all those issues disappeared whenever Mithun's bootlegger character staggered into the frame. Not only does he cast into sharper relief the bad-assery of the trio of female avengers, he often begs them to "rescue" his chastity . . . unashamedly letting the ladies hog the limelight.

Though he may be a drunkard, this wastrel also happens to run a business to serve other wastrels, guards his underworld territory with an iron fist (even if if it means half-naked mud fights with the Bob Christos of the world), and is a no-nonsense landlord. Not too shabby for a guy with such consistently high blood-alcohol levels.

3. Amitabh Bachchan in Suhaag (1979)

This character was not just my first Amitabh role (and remains my favorite Amitabh role), but it's also probably my favorite filmi wastrel role in terms of story arc. Suhaag is also an extremely palatable mash-up of the usual masala dilemmas. For once, the "bad" brother is not really bad, he's just a drunkard with a mommy-complex. If only Amit (Amitabh) had been slapped as a child when he began engaging in (forced) drinking, like his priggishly perfect brother (Shashi Kapoor)!

Amit is a fanatical devotee of Durga, a creative defender of courtesans (why didn't sandal-fighting ever catch on?), a useful friend, and of course, an eventual graduate of the Rekha Rehab Institute. Usually in Hindi films, people seem to drink themselves to death, or just choose to magically give up alcohol. In my experience, it's unusual to see the painful process of  leaving an addiction . . . and brilliant to picturize that process on a sexy courtesan song. [Incidentally, this song confounded my teetotaler mother, who wasn't sure whether to be impressed or scandalized by its "conflicting" themes of sensuality and moral reform. To me, this is the Desai magic at its best.]

2. Rakhee in Doosra Aadmi (1977)

Rakhee is beautiful in this film. Beautiful and complicated and sad. As much as I haven't wanted to/been able to rewatch this film, Rakhee's performance in it is practically engraved in my heart. I've never seen such a convincing portrayal of grief and depression anywhere else in Hindi cinema . . . at least not anything that strikes home in the same way. As a quiet and vaguely "older" woman, Nisha, who is still mourning her dead fiancee (Shashi Kapoor), Rakhee makes an age-disparate, extra-marital affair seem almost justified. Added to that, Rakhee convincingly portrays a sucessful career woman living on her own . . . something rare in Hindi cinema before the 2000's.

I use this screenshot as an avatar fairly often--so I figured I had to mention why eventually.

While some of the strength of her character is surely due to Nisha's sensitive treatment in the script, AND the art department's choice to give her a living space that actually looks "lived in", it's still obvious that the character's raw humanity comes from Rakhee herself. In the 70's (much less now) it takes guts to play a female character that is (A) significantly older than oneself, (B) having an affair not just with a married man, but a younger married man, and (B) an alcoholic. It was the role of a lifetime, and should have made Rakhee into the poster-child of complicated, introverted, and single women (with a past) everywhere.

1. Helen and Pran in Gumnaam (1965)

All you really need to know about Gumnaam is that it is a very stylish interpretation of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." Oh yes, that and Pran and Helen Get It On in an extremely satisfying "We're condemned to die, these are the last days of the empire, so let us be merry" fashion.

This movie as a whole is amazing, but by far the best aspect of the film (besides Jaan Pechaan Ho) is the Helen/Pran jodi. Unfortunately for the rest of the characters in the ensemble, they easily steal the show with their combined powers of smoky presence and seedy charm. Though their plot isn't especially villainy driven, they still radiate a weary blackmarket, underworld vibe . . .  as they pull each other into a descending spiral of desperate hedonism. And while their characters aren't particularly smooth at survival, they are still the coolest people I would never want to be.

Which wastrels always steal your heart?