Monday, June 30, 2014

In search of: The Hindi Romantic Comedy

There's something to be said for the finely executed, vaguely familiar, and deceptively simple, rom-com. I'm just really picky about them. It's a hard gig to pull off being both romantic AND comedic at the same time, without falling into the bottomless pits of dumb humor or overwrought drama. I approve of probably half on this list, mostly cause there's a wide range of years considered. (In case you were wondering, leaving out the films I like but I don't think belong on the list . . . my favorites are: Roman Holiday, The Goodbye Girl, When Harry Met Sally, Imagine Me & You, and Music & Lyrics.)

I must confess that all this time, my inner Julia Stiles has been sitting around, sneering internally; cynically observing that classic Hindi rom coms didn't exist. I mean, we all know a standard "two people lie to each other and make hijinx and almost love and then nearly escape separating forever over the dramatic revelation of their deception" plot when we see it. And I didn't see much of it. There are a whole lot of lovers separated by parents, the law, villains, or illness (the usual Shakti Samanta offerings) . . . but not the kind of happy nonsense I was looking for. Ok, Ok. There was also Chori Chori, and various Mod romps from the 60's that I hadn't exactly warmed up to yet. And in the 70's there was the breathless Caravan and the clever Chupke Chupke. Everything else I considered centered on too dangerous of stakes for comedy club membership (Sharmilee, Anamika, Raja Jani); or retained the humor, but spun the plot sideways towards masala madness (Suhaag, Satte Pe Satta, Tum Haseen Main Jawaan). The result of both? A plot gone far, far away from the original romantic deception setups.

Don't get me wrong, I liked what I had. But I was greedy, so the question hung around the back of my mind stubbornly. Was this the one genre that even masala couldn't quite digest?

But folks, I found an 80's romcom that made me believe again.

Pasand Apni Apni (1983), is a Mithun and Rati Aghnihotri film . . . directed by Basu Chatterjee. (Yes, turns out Chatterjee worked with someone other than Amol Palekar, I was amazed, too.)

This the quirky tale of a pragmatic Cinderella and her Prince Charming-in-disguise. . .

The Set-Up:
Geeta (Rati Aghihotri), a well-meaning, but unlucky chorus dancer is about to get kicked out of the play by its delusional and neurotic director Sriram (Utpal Dutt). Mostly because she hasn't yet been paid (no one has), and her landlord has taken to waylaying her when she leaves for work . . . making her habitually late.

One morning, well aware she's on her last strike with the performance company, she prevails upon a private driver on the side of the road to give her a lift to work. What she doesn't know? The driver works for local corporate heir, Sandeep Anand (Mithun Chakraborty); a generous chap who just doesn't have enough time in his day to field all the girl/friends who keep calling to chat him up.

When she arrives, the car is recognized by the director's right hand man--who promptly "connects the dots." Their troublesome Geeta MUST be Anand's serious girlfriend. Why else would she have the use of his car? He and director Sriram immediately find the angle. Sriram will promote Geeta to lead dancer, enabling them to casually wring out a promise from Geeta that her wealthy boyfriend will become their struggling company's patron.

But Geeta too finds the angle. Cleverly, she indicates, but does not confirm outright that Anand is her boyfriend. She accepts the lead, and manages to more than double Sriram's offer of an advance salary. Immediately, she goes home, pays the landlord, and then tells the landlord in her best "we are not amused" manner that his behavior has been vulgar and unnecessary.

Geeta has enough money to support her family, finally, and Sriram has a grand patron to brag about to fend off his creditors. Everything is going smashingly. Until the paan-chewing tailor Ismail, after getting antsy waiting for his payment for the play's costumes,  decides to bring his bill straight to Mr. Anand himself. Ismail's "allegations" do not go over well at the head office. However, the bill does find its way to Sandeep and his uncle (Ashok Kumar), along with the "Geeta hai Sandeep ki girlfriend" rumor.

Uncle is offended, but Sandeep is intrigued. Who IS this girl who has the moxie to attach his name to her purchases and his person?

Inspired by his uncle's advice to send a clerk, Sandeep dresses up as an "ordinary" office drone and sets off to do his own sleuthing. First, Sandeep tracks down the tailor and tries out his "normal guy" skills. But it's a no-go.

After getting the run-around from the tailor, Sandeep heads to the drama company . . .

 And from there, finds out that the company is holding a teaser performance and a press conference. Sandeep arrives just in time to (A) catch a glimpse of Geeta's dance skills (which are mediocre, but are nicely bolstered by her fiery personality) . . .

. . . and (B) to hear the news that Mr. Anand has decided to become the financial backer of the company due to his ambiguously special relationship with Miss Geeta.

Hilariously, as the crowd of akbarwallahs clamors for Sandeep Anand to appear in person, Sandeep waits to see how Sriram and Geeta will wiggle out of the situation. Sriram decides on doublespeak, while Geeta goes full-Hema and leaves the stage in a storm of haughtiness.

Sandeep follows her to her dressing room, where she is concerned with getting the hell out of Dodge before the reporters can ask too many more questions. When she realizes that Sandeep has come regarding the tailor's bills, she quickly changes her tune. Immediately she prevails upon "the clerk" to hide the bills from Mr. Anand, "his employer." Quite the wheedler himself, Sandeep persuades Geeta to go out for dinner with him. She only has one stipulation: that they go to a cheap restaurant.

During the course of conversation, Geeta admits (haughtily still!) that she doesn't know Sandeep Anand, and in the same breath, makes "the clerk" her confederate. And the "clerk" doesn't mind, considering that he has now gone from intrigued, to something else entirely.

Just for a second I have to mention the *ahem* sexy glasses, mmkay? Just to get it out of my system.

But Geeta isn't having that sort of nonsense, not yet anyway.

Before he knows it, Sandeep is swept up into an elaborate scheme (half of his own devising) to keep Mr. Sandeep Anand and Co. in the dark, while convincing Sriram and his creditors that Mr. Anand is indeed the patron . . . keeping Geeta in the money.

Plus: Hijinx! Impersonating one person impersonating another person who happens to be yourself! Fooling lots of greedy, grumpy old men! Ex-girl/friend drama! Banter! Spunky outbursts outweighing tearful outbursts!

The rest of the film is a kind of mixed up, gender-reversed Roman Holiday . . . with the prince pretending to be a pauper to take the lady out on the town, get to know her, and help her resolve both the personal and practical in her life.The lady in turn gives the prince a taste of simpler pleasures, and lessons in how to function without restaurants, taxi cabs, or steady income. Also, stately disco. Demure Disco. It's a thing. Apparently, you just need Mithun, a cotton sari, a few stolen swing moves, and a nice restaurant.

But eventually the truth will out, and when it does will Geeta be as forgiving of Sandeep's lies as he was of hers? Will everybody's cherished fantasies come crashing to the ground?

Why it works:

My only distinct feeling about Rati Aghnihotri before watching this film was that she was rather interchangeable with other "secondary" actresses of the period. But if it was possible to take back that feeling, I would. There's a lot of good material here, and I'm impressed by how much she she doesn't waste it. Because Mithun often outshines his romantic leads in terms of screen presence (although it helps that he almost always has more to do), I've come to count on his pairings with Sridevi (rare) and Ranjeeta Kaur to match his physical energy on screen. I will have to add Rati to that list now; although, from my limited experience, she doesn't seem to rise above bad scripting (in other films) as successfully as she takes advantage of the good (in this film).

But even on paper, this character is definitely a steal from an actor's POV. She's a proto-Meenakshi (from 2012's Aiyyaa): a working girl with real problems and a lot of spunk. (Although, in this version, it's Sandeep who has the corner on the elaborate musical fantasies.) She doesn't have any use for people who've had it easy. She's very much anti-richfolk . . . a point of view that is both an ongoing gag and a serious barrier to a potential relationship.

She thinks highly of herself, and is quick to take advantage of any perceived deference to her person. She doesn't ask for things, she expects them. Watching her slowly unravel as the the big performance day grows closer and the lies take on greater weight shouldn't be humorous (I usually am too easily embarrassed for characters to like these sort of plots), but it is. She's funny without being a "comedic" character, as her reactions are only funny from the perspective of someone in-the-know (which the audience has in Sandeep). Through Sandeep we see her even more warmly, and even her web of lies starts to take on an endearing glow. And like Hema in certain roles, she walks the perfect line between confident and casual, from the way she condescends to the way she eats. I'm sure Chatterjee pushed for that realism in the first place, but she falls into the prescribed naturality with gusto.

Mithun is obviously known for being the disco dancing action hero, rather than a romantic lead. His filmography is a lot more complicated than that . . . still, the image remains. But there are a lot of advantages to expanding one's view of him.

The great thing about Mithun being cast in this role is that where another actor might go with "angry" as a motivation in a scene, he goes with "amused." When somebody else might go smug, he goes sensitive. And the intentional ease Mithun brings to a lot of his films (especially of this period) works well with Chatterjee's vision of a man gleefully engaging in a lengthy and convoluted drama all for the simple goal of getting to know someone he's interested in. Most importantly, he's just as comfortable playing the boy-next-door as he is the suave playboy, and it's a lot of fun to see him blur the lines between the two.

All of that praise for the actors and writing aside, I think that this also stands above the usual Bollywood romance because the standard gender stereotypes are reversed. For once, the woman is rough-edged and flawed, and the man is charming, with a mysterious aura of calm about him. She makes the mistakes, he tries to fix them. She's sensible, he's the dreamer. Add the signature Chatterjee bit of earthiness, relationships that hit close to home, and comedy that works 90% of the time . . . and you've got a rom-com you can file on the elite, V.I.P.'s only, casually filmi re-watch shelf.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If you love something, cage it: Baghini (1968)

Let's say you enjoy Bengali films well enough. You have a high threshold for bad picture quality and subtitle problems. And you like Soumitra Chatterjee and Rakhee Gulzar and will watch either in pretty much anything. And if that's all true, it's also a given that you also browse YouTube like a pro. If you are all these things, you probably will happen upon Baghini (Tigress, 1968). When you do, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what THAT was all about.

[Chotthe Thakur] or Chiranjeeb (Soumitra Chatterjee) is currently the overeducated/undersocialized head of a bootlegging gang that the local police chief is strangely obsessed with taking down. Thakur is obsessed with doing good by his own people . . . the women and men working the late boozerunning shift. They also seem to be people living on his ancestral lands, but that's rather vague. One of those people is Durga (Sandhya Roy), the newly orphaned daughter of one of the Thakur's moonshiners.

The young woman on whom the film turns, from first to last frame, and the Tigress of the film's title.

When first we meet Durga, she is telling off her father and other village men . . . and chases them out of her house. She soon makes up with her father, who apparently has been trying to get her married and settled down. When he has the poor sense to mention his plans again, she replies, testily:

But she is not all bite and scorn. In a haunting pastoral number sung by a wandering sage, she is compared to Radha, burning up with passion by the riverbank. For the audience, there's an added value to this song--though being sung over her in a montage sequence, Durga clearly hears it all. She knows she is being versified, and appreciates it. She knows she is something special. 

It's an idea that certainly comes to her mind a few days later, as she sits on the same riverbank watching her father's ashes smolder. . . the sole emissary of her family into the next generation. 

Obviously, this is a woman carrying the weight and potential of a lot of metaphors: wild predator, sensualized lover, orphaned daughter, mother goddess. Unfortunately, the film doesn't know what to do with this boiling pot of symbols. (I mean, would you?) 

Enter Soumitra to try to bring some needed focus. Running from the police one night, he finds himself hiding out in Durga's hut. She tells the police off and discourages them from searching her house. It's a lucky break for the Thakur, who turns out to be a strange mix of civilized [he is a college educated, former revolutionary according to the police] and outlaw. 

They strike up a banter that is probably flirting in their world--a fiery argument with a lot of "Is this appropriate?". . . "I'm not married" . . .  "Why should I tell you's" and "how stupid do you think I am" thrown back and forth. The Thakur goes on his shadowy way, and Durga is left with the beginnings of a plan. It's cemented the next day, when she starts to receive offers both for unwanted marriages (all the available men in the general area are vile) and prostitution gigs. It seems like a good time to take up her father's old position in the Thakur's liquor smuggling gang. 

I was really excited about this turn of events. Two antiheroes for the price of one! One of them a virginal young woman? (Instead of the usual courtesan?) Not to mention the wife of the Iftekhar-like police chief, who spouts some pretty interesting dialogue about criminals having good "reasons" for what they do . . . and then accuses her husband of only fulfilling his duty blindly/fanatically. 

But, by my tone, you can probably guess that this film didn't really carry these themes to fruition. Lots of spoilers ahead.

Once again, either the censors demanded a moralistic ending (if you guessed that this film ends in Bengal's version of Central Jail, you'd be right). . . or two different people were responsible for the two halves of the film. What could have been an interesting commentary on good criminals/bad cops theme . . . was either screwed by the subtitles or just plain screwed. Because one never really understands why the police chief is so set on taking down Chiranjeeb's gang, or why he is so inappropriate in his methods/bad at it. Half of Baghini's scenes involve policemen forcibly entering people's homes, stabbing their merchandise to find smuggled goods, and detaining people without cause. (Their actions are decidely similar to the goondas who keep storming into Durga's home, but the meaning in this is left for the audience to suss out.) Also, there are a whole lot of convoluted scenes of Soumitra trying to rearrange smuggling schedules and payment transfers. 

 Thakur indulging in 'ol college pastimes. Finally, a scene I understood.

Durga's role in the black market business is also annoyingly vague. Maybe that's my ignorance, but it's possible that this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Perhaps we are supposed to feel her own identity crisis, her confusion about her place in the world. She's part of the gang, but she's also important to the Thakur for other reasons. Reasons that he never says aloud, except to ask her not to leave him. Perhaps he thinks the sunset bike-rides say enough? 

There being nothing to write home about and no home to write to, she channels all her frustrations into gaining the Thakur's trust and setting up her usual stalkers [yes, they practically consider it a job] to be shown up by the Thakur on several occasions. She's trying to point out that she has a very influential angel on her shoulder, understandable. However, the film seems to condemn her as a "tease" . . . as this only fuels one of the stalker's feelings into a frenzy. A frenzy that leads to *spoiler* an attempted rape and his death by Durga's hands. 

A brief moment of happiness as she tries on new clothes with her black market wages. I'd like to see Sandhya in a role where she gets to smile more often, she is stunning. 

If you're so inclined, you could have some long conversations about the scenes spotlighting women in the community who have been used, abused, and cast aside by men in the smuggling industry . . . or the storyline of the saintly, enlightened woman who is ignored by her husband (the police chief). And there's a lot of goings-on about dowries (that I didn't completely get), how nobody ever has enough money to get married. These women must choose between starvation, or "partnering" with black marketeers until they wear out their welcome and are cast off at a brothel. (But there's really only one courtesan in town of note, and that's the blink and you'll miss her awesomeness, Rakhee.) 

And this is where Thakur junior's arc is given precedence over Durga's. While Durga schemes to keep from being raped [how dare she] and to keep the Thakur from being caught red-handed with the biggest shipment of them all . . . Chiranjeeb is growing more saintly by the day, and secretly setting things in motion to give up smuggling and arrange for the the comfortable life of some of the women in his gang. He also seems to be planning to marry Durga. But he doesn't tell her, of course. 

People who insist on maintaining large personal bubbles are bound to have communication problems. 

Things seriously go south on Durga's final smuggling trip. Durga kills the attempted rapist, and of course, this is MURDER capital M [no such thing as pleading self-defense in Indian films, ever!] and of course she will go to jail or be hanged for it. Or so the police say, with a sad twinkle in their eyes. They're just happy that someone is going to jail. 

Chiranjeeb has grand visions of taking the fall for Durga (he really is a nice guy at the end of the day) but she's already confessed. The only thing left is to visit her behind bars and finally express his feelings. With vermillion and some pat words about how they will buy their future with a few years of jail time. *Ahem* HER jail time. 

The tigress: doubly tamed. 

So yes, although the women in this film are flesh and blood . . . and their hardships and survivalist choices are presented as something they cannot really be blamed for [props], there is no alternative presented. Except to suffer for other people's crimes and hopefully find someone nice who will wait for you to get out of jail. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Armchair Traveler: Lahu ke Do Rang (1979)

Bad travel-writing, good movies. 

Today we follow the adventures and misadventures of several travelers to exotic Darjeeling.

Vandhana, history's poster-girl for how NOT to travel in Darjeeling. 
Still one of the most sought-after tea export regions of the world, it was once the cream-of-the-crop of British hill-stations. Of course the tea stayed on, and the British didn't. Many famous lovers have crooned and "waadaa kiya'd" here . . . the beauty of the hill plantations serving as a deceptive backdrop to eventual tragedy. Perhaps the most famous tragedy of all is that of Vandhana . . . a bright girl with a literary bent who might have had a future . . . had she just chosen a seat on the other side of the toy train that day. 

But not everyone comes to this place of beauty with love blooming in their heart. A flame draws all sorts of insects . . . some with a venomous nature.

1. Raj (Vinod Khanna) is a police inspector. Like many inspectors before him, he is on a vengeful personal mission . . . to find Shankar, the criminal who caused his father's death. Like many Raj's after him, he is also prone to (A) stalking, and (B) unpredictable manic episodes.
He believes the criminal is here, hiding out in the bosom of the Queen of hills.

And indeed, Raj is correct.

2. Shankar (Ranjeet) of course, will not be caught dead, old, or bored without a bosom nearby, preferably several. Since he first escaped policewallah clutches many years earlier, he has been hiding out (as an unwelcome guest) in the luxurious home of two unfortunate females. It's been a long twenty years, trying to suss out the location of the stolen loot. Sucking the tea plantation owners dry has been hard work, and Shankar has the silver locks to prove it.

3. Roma (Shabana Azmi) isn't a traveler to Darjeeling, but a memsaab, born and bred. She is the young owner of the tea plantation Shankar is currently exploiting.

Somehow she has managed to escape the harassment of the villains squatting in her home (who mostly just want the run of the place and her paagal Ma to stay locked up). As you can see, the shortage of harassment and sane human company has begun to show. A woman cannot live on haughtiness and beautiful hill country alone. But never fear, Roma is about to receive all the street accosting and male interest she could ever want.

Meanwhile, in the background, lurk an ambiguous pair of survivors. Tall waif is Suraj (Danny Dezongpa), newly arrived from Hong Kong with a mission to (A) make paisa as a payrolled diver for Shankar, and (B) find the Indian father that disappeared in his childhood. Small waif is a pickpocket and declined to provide her name to the press.

He's got the muscle and she's got the brains, and a fond partnership is soon struck up.

On the other side of town, after "saving" her from a series of roadside dangers (goondas, runaway buses, cliffs, being forced to carry her own damn packages) Raj has a "meet cute" with Roma. She seems to have more of a "meet annoyed." But, perhaps because Raj is hiding a more serious set of a goals, and because Roma is stuck between a rock and a cute place, she chooses cute. Though this human drama may or may not be your romantic cup of tea, you cannot but admit that the stage itself is a beautiful one. And perhaps that is not a small factor in a courtship. For as someone [probably] once said, the beauty is not in the place itself, but rather in the feelings that the place inspires.

But music helps. And in Darjeeling, damsels in distress WILL be serenaded, whether they like it or not.

This damsel seems to like it well enough, however.

It takes a while to get around to all the hot spots in Darjeeling. Raj and Shankar both do their best to see everything, however.

[Prema Narayan: bombshell extraordinaire. Known for: Her excellent chemistry with inanimate objects.]

It is a well documented fact that one can't throw a stone in India without hitting a pair of separated brothers. And if there is one cultural phenomenon more common than separated brothers, it is the tendency for such close relations to currently be living within a stone's throw of another, bilkul ignorant of their blood ties. It also doesn't help when both fellers fall for the same lady.

In keeping with Darjeeling's hostility toward the extended happiness of lovers or blood kin, a side jaunt to Hong Kong is the only answer to Raj's broader questions about his father's past.

Awkward explanations of why he is the spitting image of his dead father . . . to his dead father's abandoned mistress, Suzy (Helen) . . . ensure that Raj will need to return to the [healing] hills again. After leaving Suzy in the capable hands of her rival, his mother, of course. [Post script: It it is only a matter of time before Suzy ends up in Darjeeling herself, where she and Vandhana find one another in the "My husband's son grew up to be his doppelganger and now everything is weird" support group and become great friends. In fact, this club has become so popular, it has expanded to include male members and recently opened branches in several other major Indian vacation destinations.]

It is beyond our scope to finish OTHER peoples' stories for them. Travel is about YOUR story.

That said, it is obvious that the curtain will fall on this particular tale when Raj and Suraj finally work out their antipathy and settle ancient family scores. Cause the ladies already had it figured out long ago; Darjeeling running in their veins and all.

Their advice for the future traveler? 

1. Always dress in layers.

2. Look both ways before you cross the street (potential admirers are an ever present threat).

3. If you want to impress an older man, pick his pocket.

4. If anyone asks you to marry them in a deserted cave shrine, laugh it off and schedule your shaadi at least a few weeks out.

5. If you choose to wear an orange or peach towel during a serenade, you had better be coming out of the shower, not a sexy rainstorm.

6. And lastly, if you are going to sit around a romantic fire with your potential admirer, continue to dress in layers. And by all that is sacred, do NOT walk around that fire. Keep to separate corners and remain sullen. Your future happiness depends on your petulance and your mastery of temporary prudery.

In short, this: