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.

3 comments:

  1. Miranda, I agree with you about this film. And yes, Rati was both under-rated *and* had the misfortune of being in films in the 80s when there wasn't much on offer for the heroines. See her is 'Tawaif' if you want to see her act - she did a good job.

    I liked Mithun in films like these - he had an innocence and sensitivity that worked well in his favour. Watch him 'Titli' if you want to see a mature Mithun, who was so good. :)

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    1. I'll look for Tawaif, as I'm committed to giving Rati her fair chance :)

      Yes, mature Mithun movies are rare finds, and I so wish they weren't. Course, mature films in general aren't that common in the 80's. I have seen Titli--I'll leave my comments on your post about it.

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  2. This reminds me of the first half of Ghajini.

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