Friday, August 29, 2014

Gender Role Blueprint: Uttam Kumar Melodramas

The type of melodramas and socials Uttam Kumar did in the late '50s, early '60s are the Bengali film equivalent of milk and cookies before bed. They're not terribly long and offer an instant escape into a softer world of clean collars and even cleaner ideals. For me, they fit a niche quite near that of early '70s Rajesh/Sharmila or Dharm/Hema films: a romantic, affective, and soft lit world just right for a crowded schedule and a tired brain. These Uttam films also share something the best of the Sharmila or even Hema starrers have: female heroes. With a Bengali twist, of course.

Here are several examples of this Bengali twist from my recent Uttam watches ... followed by a summary of the common threads between them. [This is a long post, but hey, I want to spotlight the films, too, not just their gender roles. At the end of the day, we're all here to be entertained first, edified after.]

Pothey Holo Deri (1957)

Suchitra Sen is a millionaire's daughter who decides to help the poor local doctor (her beau) to go abroad to finish his F.R.C.S. She even sells her inherited jewels on the sly to make it happen. After the secretly-engaged lovers are separated by an ocean, FAKE letters and FAKE marriage reports come between them. The heiress is disowned and disappears. (Bet those jewels started to look real great in hindsight.) But suffering to prove one's love is an essential part of the Uttam/Suchitra romance.

Memorable for:

*The filmi medical "anxiety disorder" Suchitra finds herself in when she believes her long-awaited lover to have jilted her ... an illness that involves psychosomatic paralysis! and a coma! It apparently can be solved by a renewal of honest communication, but only if it is delivered in epistolic (not conversational) form. Add it to the collection of murky filmi medical cures.

*A wealthy patient/fangirl who manufactures a disastrous relationship between herself and the engaged doctor. "The best thing I saw in my Europe trip is you..."

*A sequence of love/affirmation letters from Suchitra to Uttam's character while he's in school.

*A lovely seaside recovery cottage. You can't go wrong with some Uttam-by-the-sea.

Does she get credit?

*Uttam's character attributes all his success (somewhat truthfully) to his beloved's emotional and financial support ... multiple times throughout the film.

*Suchitra's heiress also does quite well supporting herself as a teacher (until she goes mad). This self-sufficiency is obviously meant to show that even though she was brought up in privilege, her character has been proved pure enough for our unadulterated, working-class hero.

Sabar Oparey (1955)

A recently lawschool graduate (Uttam Kumar) finds out that his father is not dead (as he has believed since childhood) but is still in prison for a murder he did not commit. Instantly, the naive but determined fellow rushes off to solve the mystery and clear his father's name. Along the way, he meets a charitable woman (Suchitra Sen) who decides to help him in his cause.

Memorable for:

*A lovely song or two.

*Courtroom Drrramarama.

*A convoluted mystery that Uttam's later Byomkesh avatar would have solved in a day...but then again, this hero is better at lawyering than gumshoeing.

*A store clerk who unabashedly lusts after Uttam. [I love these little nods to Uttam's fanbase.]

*Suchitra taking in Uttam *gasp* into her home, pooh-poohing the blight on her reputation, when he has no place to go. (Actually, I've noticed that Bengali films, perhaps more attuned to housing shortages and transportation problems, often take a pragmatic view of women and men spending the night together.) She also pays his bills and rescues him in a series of tight spots.

*An extended look at an innocent prisoner's release and return home. It's not just the usual happy "hug-it-out and put faces to names" schtick of most courtroom dramas. Much baggage.

Does she get credit?
*Yes. A lot. It's also quite clear from the audience's POV that without her help, Uttam's character would have (a) starved, (b) probably ended up in jail, (c) never solved the mystery (d) never cleared his father's name.

Mem Saheb (1972): 

A poor journalist (Uttam Kumar) falls in love with the daughter of a well-to-do family (Aparna Sen). Over the course of the next several years, the two keep their relationship on the "down low" while they work on establishing their separate careers and financial independence. She becomes a history professor, and he eventually moves to Delhi for work. Over time, his self-esteem and confidence is improved by his girlfriend's confidence in him, and for once, the woman has the satisfaction of conducting the successful "Pygmalion effect" experiment. Things don't end that well, but hey, the Bangladeshi Liberation War happened.

Memorable for:

This is the odd one out of the group...

*It was released in the '70s

*It doesn't have Uttam at his most "physically" dazzling

*It isn't the usual three act--falling in love, falling into trouble, resolving both love and trouble--plot

*It has an age-disparate romance I actually approve of

*Not sure if I love Aparna, but she's certainly a PRESENCE, you know? Aparna's character is VERY independent. If there were a Bengali version of  The Rules, she probably wrote it. She doesn't take stock in traditional social customs, but she follows her own code to the letter. She is completely ok with going on overnight trips with the journalist on the sly, or staying at his apartment unchaperoned when she visits him in Delhi. BUT, she doesn't actually sleep next to him (even if there seems to be significant snogging going on during the daytime, so much that it embarrasses the poor people who happen to be around), thus following her own rules.

*In the first half of the film, there's a controlling uncle that everyone is scared of, in charge of the family finances and marriage contracts. Yeah, Aparna's character wasn't putting up with that nonsense. When she doesn't respect his ego enough to go through with the marriage he plans for her, he leaves in a huff. Nobody misses him. AT ALL.

*I love how the journalist starts off mousy and shy, and kind of socially crippled, and becomes more and more attractive of a person the longer he is with Aparna's character. Not only is this a reversal of the usual gender roles, but it's a lot of fun to see Uttam slowly and surely turn up the movie star charm as the movie wears on.

Does she get credit?
Yep. The whole film is concerned with her progressive influence on the life of Uttam's character.

Surjasikha (1963):

Told mostly in flashback, a brilliant surgeon (Uttam Kumar) explains to a younger surgeon why love and career don't mix. Back in the day, faced with his pick of lofty positions, he decided to take a job at a rural hospital. He soon finds himself faced with nothing but corruption and incompetence, and realizes that he is in desperate need of an equally brilliant O.T. nurse. Local teacher and secret! nurse (Supriya Devi) seems to fit that bill. For a while, the hospital grows almost as fast as the super-partnership of the head doctor and and his favorite assistant. When rumors start flying around about the two being so "close", they decide to get married (!) to stop the wagging tongues. Despite his training in *ahem* human biology, the doctor is resistant to all aspects of domestic life, and the marriage isn't consummated. Of course, when things finally heat up between the two, a secret! pregnancy and pregnancy nausea may derail everything the doctor *thinks* he has built.

Memorable for:

*This is an all around tight film, probably had an even tighter script.

*INTENSE protagonists living in the fast lane of his/their hospital dream. Uttam's surgeon eats and breathes being a doctor, comes home at all hours, and depends on his nurse/wife as a colleague rather than a domestic partner. In fact, he does not respect domestic pursuits at all, often using "household" or "domestic" as a dirty word. [This is pretty fascinating stuff, I think.] She puts up with all his weird until she starts "getting some", or as her character puts it, "until we became close." Then, with her own biology taking over (ahhh, old school pregnancy ideas), she loses her stomach for surgery and starts to prefer knitting socks to knitting sutures. This causes a near-fatal spiral of CRAZY, but it's also hilarious and satisfying to watch this heady, ambitious doctor try to deal (badly) with feelings for his wife that he didn't expect, and to watch him try to get anything done at the hospital without her.

*This is a fascinating twist on the Bengali ideal of a romantic partnership. On the one hand, the film endorses their working partnership. But the woman wants more, and wants the freedom to have a family, too. One can't really blame her. And she doesn't say that she wants to give it up for good. The problem is that she doesn't explain that her abstract dream of a family is quickly about to become a concrete reality (until it's too late).

Does she get credit?

*Amusingly, Uttam's character repeats this whole "I need you" and "You're indispensable to me" line over and over. The moral arc of his character is not to realize that he needs her, but to realize that he needs her as more than a colleague, and that she has the right to have a family, even if that complicates his big, humanitarian dream.

*Slight spoiler* When she faints in an operation and again tells him she wants out, the surgeon has one violent moment. But it's enough for the spunky nurse. She moves out, leaving him an acidic letter telling him he's lost the right to be her husband and the father of her child (Surprise! You WERE going to be a dad, not anymore). I have never, ever, heard this kind of dialogue from a woman to her husband in a Hindi film, FYI.

*I won't spoil the end completely for you, but hint: The ultimate ideal here is not just a romantic working partnership, but a familial working partnership. All the frustrations and melodrama go out of their way get us to this end goal. It's a pretty awesome extension of the usual formula.


There is nearly always a turning point in these Uttam melodramas where the hero must realize his complete and utter helplessness sans his heroine. Not the helplessness of depression or loneliness, but rather, the helplessness you would experience if you were missing half your limbs. Sometimes this is verbalized in a situation of triumph (when the hero looks back and sees the woman's instrumental assistance at every turn) such as Sabar Oparey, or more commonly, when the woman disappears and the man must try to bumble through life without her (Surjasikha, Mem Saheb, Pothey Holo Deri).

Uttam's onscreen lady loves are allowed to voice opinions at every turn, display messy personality traits and decision-making power, and engage in more of a 50/50 life partnership with their romantic interests. More specifically, the women are usually caught up in helping Uttam's character succeed in a career, or to help him build a life they can both share, or to assist in fulfilling a mission of justice. Though the woman may or may not have a career "of her own", she is vital to most plot points and in picking up the hero slack ... essentially functioning as a co-hero. In fact, the strength of their partnership--the depth of loyalty, communication, and patience exchanged between the lovers--is more often than not the stated goal of their struggles, and the story itself.

And, ok, so these women aren't all yearning to remain "independent" in the modern sense of the word. Probably because even this semi-fantastical landscape is harsh and unyielding. People are more likely to "make it" together, we are told. Thus, "independence" is discouraged, even painted as THE fatal choice or a character flaw. This is a film culture that prizes collectivism, not individual ambitions. But the woman aren't exactly invisible appendages, either. Their personalities don't disappear into the men they support. All are portrayed as active in public life in some way; going out to build their own careers, developing skills and thoughts of their own--on top of being the person that the man attributes all his success to! These women are romantic partners, not romantic objects.

This is rather different from the hero's "I can do it all" machismo of many Hindi film romances, and the relative compartmentalization of the Bombay heroine into chronologically more and more "useless" roles (i.e. The beautiful victim, then the nagging wife, and finally the unnecessarily self-sacrificing Maa). At least in most of the '70s films I've seen (which may not represent the women of the '50s or '60s, but it IS the filmi area in which I have the broadest experience to draw from), the gender role blueprint is nearly always:

1. The man against the world
2. The man and his best (male) friend or brother against the world
3. The woman as his secret muse, problem to solve, or elusive object to attain

There are exceptions. Action films sometimes afford a better place for the whip-cracking masala heroine with a tongue to match. But in melodramas [of which I've seen more than I'd like to admit] the woman is more likely to be the question than the answer. Which is exactly why these Uttam socials--where a mutually heroic, male-female partnership is emphasized as the solution to most of life's problems--feel so revolutionary, and so very satisfying.

Recommendation for further research:
Is this mutual-support ethic replaced by a more cynical view of male-female partnerships in many '60s and early '70s films of Soumitra Chatterjee? If they don't end in tragedy, they are still characterized by an emotional distance between spouses and conflicting life goals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Origins: Aag (1948)

Aag is:

*Full of self-harm
*Kinda visually disturbing

For all that, I didn't dislike it. Calling it quits didn't even cross my mind (which it usually does because I'm an easily distracted movie viewer). It does NOT hold up well next to Raj's later work, and yet there are scattered elements here that strike home before spinning out of orbit. If The Kapoor Family: Origins is the soap opera you wish aired every afternoon in your living room, this is not a film to miss, but you can skip the commentary. If, however, you are above soapiness and prefer the *higher* pursuits of "research" and "curiosity" you may also have opinions on the following:

*Are there any catchy tunes here? I don't think so, but there are certain verses and refrains that catch you unawares. It's certainly pleasant to the ear. It's not Shankar Jaikishan, so perhaps that says enough.

*Is it possible that Shashi Kapoor gave the best performance of the film

*Is it just me or is there some really experimental camera-work here for Bombay in the '40s?

*Why all the self harm? Most everyone here threatens to hurt themselves (or their art) at the slightest conflict or disappointment. As if this will fix all the trouble. Veiled social commentary? Or lingering teenage angst? I've read a few things that say that Raj intentionally avoided any reference to Indian social turmoil; instead trying to address the young generation's hopes and struggles. 

*This *seems* like an insider view into young Raj and Nargis, AND Raj's family. Given that films and theatre were still not respectable professions in the ’40s, it may be a fictionalized version of the Kapoor struggle and ethic. Knowing even a little about Privthvi Theatres players and the Prithviraj Kapoor dream (that Shashi and Jennifer later realized) makes this feel even more autobiographical. This story is a colossal effort of persuasion: essentially one long argument for Theatre (and by extension, youth self-direction) as a worthwhile goal. Or, is it more likely that Raj may have been making a "sneaky" statement about the worth of film as a medium to his theatre snob father? (I've had some conversations with Raj hobbyists that would suggest the latter.)

*I did not expect this film to be about a man's struggle to join the theatre . . . or that the love interest would be a name rather than a face for the majority of the film. The original Nimmi, the beloved Nimmi of Raj's character's childhood disappears, and so he keeps naming the woman in his life after his childhood sweetheart. (Creepy.)

Raj's love interest, "Nimmi" appears to me to be just a symbol for the all-consuming topics of THEATRE and following one's dreams. The Nimmis invariably disappear on the night of the big debut performance, and of course, when one fake Nimmi (Nargis) doesn't go, but actually professes her love ... Raj's character decides to destroy the debut performance and the theatre himself. (Oh, and sets himself on fire. So there's that.) Complicating the matter is the main character's ideal for his friend (Prem Nath), who he believes should be with fake Nimmi. Nimmi won't be allowed to decide for herself (obviously), and her ideal relationship doesn't mesh with the ideal of the man she loves. Time to press the button marked "Destruct." 

Similarly, earlier, Raj leaves everything he has ... his education and his family rather than pursue anything but his dream. Every time something doesn't fit the main character's ideal (play, career, woman, relationship), the solution is to BURN IT DOWN. (I was warned.) But, in another light, not giving into the established paths--especially one's parent's ideals and plans--was a gutsy move for 1948. Heck, it's gutsy now.

Aag is self-indulgent, and yet, I'm inclined to humor its whims. That's what you do with youth, don't you? 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Three-Course Countdown: Soumitra

Since I have a bunch of Bengali films to catch-up on, I figured I would borrow BLB's formula of grouping the Uttam/Soumitra starrers separately. And this "what to expect" countdown format has met with previous reader approval, so I will just continue it here.

3. Pratham Kadam Phool (1970)

Two people (Soumitra Chatterjee & Tanuja) get married w/out financial independence and the support of the woman's family. But will the pressures of joint family existence and limited funds destroy the marriage?

Speed bump(s):

Monstrous mother-in-law may induce PSTD. Tanuja's character suffers from both blandness and entitlement. Listless soundtrack.

I've only been watching Bengali films for a short time. But I already feel I've seen this plot recycled a fair bit. The parents of a middle class to upper class woman make an engagement without her consent ... while all the while, their "surprisingly" modern, educated daughter is off building her own future and her own romantic partnership. The two marry or continue their relationship in defiance of their parents wishes, and have to deal with the fallout of poverty, bad accommodations, etc.

actual subtitle, suspect (circular) reasoning
I'm not sure what to call this cosmopolitan, bank account-conscious, youth-oriented romance, but it definitely IS its own category. It's also not a plot I've seen much in Hindi films (which more often than not are concerned with "bringing the parent's 'round" to the lovebirds' point of view), so I have to wonder if it is unique to Bengali cinema of the '50s-'70s.

This film doesn't seem to exemplify either the best or worst of its class. It just sort of slaps a bunch of
mundane problems on the griddle and proceeds to scramble them into something rather unsatisfying. There's certainly something worthwhile in the portrayal of the "small misunderstandings turning into big misunderstandings" arc, especially when the woman is allowed to HAVE misunderstandings ... to run off petulantly and then return to her old household position without ingratiating herself at everyone's feet. For me, it also felt like a semi-realistic window into the daily struggles of Bengali middle class existence. However, I didn't especially enjoy the view.

Worth it if you want... 

*Domestic Soumitra. There's a lot of mussed dhoti/kurta action, and a lot of bedroom scenes attuned to both the irritation and intensity of a relationship playing out in a small space. AND Soumitra studies. A LOT.

*A feller who looks like a genetic combination of Dev Anand/Uttam Kumar [confusing] and acts as the third party in a perceived love triangle

*Disillusioned Kolkata youth.

*Claustrophobic domestic drama. The dynamic between all the bahus and the mother-in-law and the seven or eight year old son of the oldest brother & his wife (who likes his new auntie best) may appeal to the Indian TV serial addict.

Where to find with subs: on Angel DVD

2. Khudito Pashan (1960) 

A tax accountant (Soumitra Chatterjee) moves to a rural town and rents the local haunted mansion against the local's warnings. Did I mention it was haunted? And like in any proper Indian haunting, there's a beautiful, incorporeal lass involved.

Speed bump(s)

Half of this film is Soumitra walking slowly through shadowy corridors, sometimes following ghosts, but mostly sounds. Not especially cheerful.

As is Soumitra's wont, he once again manages to make his own face look like a stranger to the audience. This is not the soulful Apu, or the moody intellectual of Barnali. It's a man with an obsession, who we find interesting because of his obsession, not because of anything special about his own personality. He's essentially a paper-pusher, and there's something delightful in watching him struggle to focus on his pile of documents when there is A HAUNTED HOUSE visible from his office window.

So, yes, I liked the film as a late-night "thriller" with a relatable hero. But even more, I liked it for the analogies that grew upon me later. Not to put words in Tagore's mouth (chee chee chee!), but this story about a fixation on a past world that you can see, but never actually touch, this feeling that you belong to another time, this romance with a person and a place long gone over the mundane realities of the present ... it applies über well (maybe uncomfortably so) to classic film obsessions.

Worth it if you want...

*An atmospheric, aristocratic ghost story, with less plot and canoodling than Madhumati, and (a lot) less Madhubala than Mahal. Ok, no Madhubala at all. I wouldn't want to put out a false advertisement. [Though, a charismatic female lead would have elevated this film from good to really good.]

*Waifish Soumitra, staring at the horizon for hours on end, and waking up in all sorts of strange places.

*More Tagore interpretations!

*Some sensitive camera-work from Tapan Sinha and crew.

*Kathak dances and a mughal-ish costume drama that Makes. You. Wait. For. It. (But you will probably appreciate it when it finally gets going.)

Where to find with subs: Angel YouTube channel, full movie available to rent.

1. Ghare Baire (1984)

Civilized local zamindar (Victor Banerjee) is a cultured progressive, and wants his educated wife (Swatilekha Chatterjee) to have a chance to to stretch her wings. After some encouragement, he introduces her to his visiting friend, a swadeshi leader (Soumitra Chatterjee). This being Soumitra, it doesn't take long before sparks fly, both inside and outside the mahal.

Speed bump(s)

Kissing. Is this going to be a problem for you? Be honest. Also, I have the feeling that Swatilekha is not necessarily an actress with broad appeal.

There are multiple dilemmas here, embodied by the three main characters:

1. The zamindar. He wants his wife to become a full person, a full citizen, a woman with choices. Not in a small way because without the choice to love someone NOT him, what value does her love have? Similarly, he wants to see the liberation of his Motherland; but he knows that this will mean his own displacement and much suffering to the poor and landless before it brings prosperity.

2. The swadeshi leader. He talks a great talk, and his speeches rouse the people to move, both for good and ill. He doesn't care which--as long as things shift and change. He professes to be a near-ascetic, casting off the comforts of the Raj. But in secret, he siphons off money and indulges in many cultured habits. He is friends with the zamindar, and stays at his mansion for free ... all the while stirring up the people against him and wooing the lady of the house.

3. The wife. She is caught between her commitment to her husband and her fascination with her husband's friend, between the comforts of her life and the demands of swadeshi, and between supporting her husband's house and her lover's movement. It's invigorating (both for her and for us) to be set free for a time, able to use her mind in a game of wits/flirtation with another sharp intellect. And it's the ill fortune of her time that she must pay for even these simple pleasures, that she must be caught between a comfortable cage and a perilous freedom.

If you haven't seen this film, it's probably clear that someone will have to sacrifice something here ... and it probably ain't gonna be the politician.

Television audiences today are mad for political dramas. House of Cards, Scandal, even Game of Thrones ... they all promise titillation and current commentary, dipped in a heavy marinade of cynicism. Our news cycle may be politically obsessed, but we don't idolize our current leaders, we see them as people, just like us ... maybe even more prone to weakness than the average person. Weakness? "Hopefully!" a million viewers answer. Obviously, the Internet generation, and even the post-Woodward & Bernstein generation takes for granted the political figure's vulnerability to media exposure. But that doesn't mean that past generations trusted their leaders a whole lot more than we do. No matter when we live, it's in looking back that our gaze petrifies--that we tend to immortalize rather than humanize the great leaders of the past. In Ghare Baire, we have the rare privilege of experiencing both a contemporary critique by Tagore, and a hindsight critique from Satyajit Ray.

For Satyajit Ray, and perhaps Tagore before him, idols are dangerous things to have. But in this story, there's at least one thing more dangerous than an idol: freedom. Here we are told that there is a dark side to every leader, and a risk involved in even the smallest of liberations. Perhaps this is an easy thing to say on prime time television or in a gotcha news item, but it's not easy to say when you are talking about outdated issues that have already been "settled" (like independence for countries and, you know, the female sex).

And, for anyone who's ever worked in politics, in grassroot movements (*ahem* me) I imagine you understand the naive adoration of the protegee for the leader, the messiness and expense of causing a tempest in a teapot, and the disillusionment that comes after realizing that you were so caught up in the romantic fervor of revolution that you forgot the people who are really, truly, real.

Worth it if you want...

*To never look at the world the same way again.

Where to find with subs: For select Satyajit Ray classics, sometimes my Hulu Plus Criterion access is exactly what the filmi doctor (who's inevitably either my estranged lover or sorrowful family member) ordered.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Back to the 50's . . .

You know how it is... you hit that point when a lot of films on your rabbit trail aren't easily accessible--with or without subtitles. So you gotta move on, else you won't be watching anything at all. Moving on also satisfies one's curiosity AND lets old interests recharge for the right moment. And then there's the interests of other respected filmi-addicts--which increase the visibility and relevance of an era. Watching "cycles" really boil down to supply, demand, and popularity. Simple economics.

All this to say, I'm currently cycling back to the 50's. Apart from my own adventures in Bengali cinema of the 50's, there's been a lot of 50's Bollywood love in my (mostly online) vicinity. It's come at a good time, in a summer taken up by a lot of physical therapy appointments (i.e. I need films that aren't going to give me a laser-sound effect induced headache), and when I've been feeling the heat down my neck to complete a bunch of different subcontractor jobs and to beef up my Hindi grammar before classes start again. As per usual, the busier my mind, the more I want to lose myself in grey-scale universes, where light and shadow are easier to distinguish, and social commentary runs through narratives with both the rawness and the optimism of a newly Independent India.

In conversations with the blogger behind Raj-aur-Nargis and other Tumblr bloggers, I've revisited some films I watched earlier this year and last, and found even greater appreciation for Raj Kapoor's flawed genius. Whether it's the strength of his performance in Andaz, the dual faces of Raj in Shree 420, or the creation of anti-hero actually worth rooting for in Awaara--I am *starting* to better understand what Raj and Co. did that no one else could. There's no greater example of this for me than the myriad of contrasting ideals on display in Ramaiyya Vastavaiyya. I loved the song before (because of extreme levels of Nadira), but now I think it might be my favorite sequence in all of Shree 420 because of dichotomies and liminality! and heart! And of course, Chori Chori has been much adored already, and will remain one of those comfort films I go to when the world seems in a harsh and ill-humor. All cards on the table, I still have yet to see other early Raj hits like Barsaat and Aag, but now I feel ready to appreciate them.

I realized, though, that I hadn't found the right entry point of obsession to Bollywood of the 50's. In theory, I liked the music, the plentiful Urdu sprinkled about, the well of ideas springing from the Post-Partition intellectual milieu. I suspected there was a lot of magic to be found there (maybe as much for me as 70's Bollywood, *gasp*), but it was just beyond my fingertips. Raj Kapoor's entertainment value was a given. But it wasn't enough to stoke an all-consuming interest. And my interest in Dilip Kumar has been very intermittent: an infrequency reflective of the ups and downs of his own career, which is full of performances and roles that are just as likely to annoy as to impress. (Most recent annoyance: Yahudi. Why aren't you a better film? Why isn't this a better film, Bimal Roy?).

I had considered embarking on an ongoing project of tracking down films with Sahir Ludhianvi lyrics. But, as Akshay Manwani points out in his biography of the poet, Sahir was notoriously egoistic and usually demanded that his contribution take precedence over that of the music director's. Thus, through the 50's and 60's he bounced from artistic team to production house, from director to director, making as many enemies as friends. It wasn't till the late 60's and 70's that he found a home of sorts with the Chopras. The political symbolism and preference for bewafai laments may emerge as a constant within his work, but overall, "Sahir films" are wildly disparate and localized events, not an easily traced artistic path. I thought I might seek out whatever Waheeda Rehman happened to be in around the late 50's ... but that would require a lot of Dev Anand, which I wasn't ready for yet.

And then, amidst my loud complaints and lukewarm interest, Guru Dutt re-materialized.

I feel like I should just let his name sit there, and be whatever it means to you. You probably already have a strong opinion, and I'm still not sure if I possess the knowledge or the transparency to talk about his films yet. I just want to re-watch them. Over, and over. Yes, V.K. Murthy was a genius of a cinematographer, and yes, Guru was part of a greater movement of film craft that included Raj Khosla, Dev Anand, and Navketan Films. But it is Dutt's vision, his characterizations, his championing of the introverted intellectual, that speak to me most.

Sure, most everyone says he was a troubled and sensitive soul, but some people also remember him as a confident director who really cared about two-way collaboration. In this two part interview, Waheeda Rehman compared his and Raj Khosla's (whom she seems to have had a tumultuous partnership with) directing style. She admits in her courteous, but honest way, that Guru actually listened to her and took time out to explain what he wanted from her (and how she might be able to give it), rather than treating her like a problem to be solved.

My first Guru Dutt film was Pyaasa, and it was a lifetime ago ... if a lifetime was measured in filmi-watching. It moved me quite deeply, but, I didn't feel qualified to comment on it as a film at the time. Instead, it ended up in a post about roles for women in Hindi cinema. Kaagaz Ke Phool came much later in filmi-watching, at a time when I felt slightly more qualified to take it on. It helped that it was a fairly simple story compared to Pyaasa. Both of these films got under my skin, scratched at my assumptions about the world, and filled my thoughts for a long while after. But I was starting to develop a new assumption: that I knew who Guru Dutt was as an artist, and how often I could handle his films (roughly one every six months).

I SO wasn't ready for how happy Mr. and Mrs. '55 (1955) and Baaz (1953) would make me.

Besides the fact that it's funny as heck and reminiscent of domestically-oriented, high society screwballs like The Philadelphia Story ... Mr. and Mrs. '55 is full of interesting ideas, conflicts between middle class ethics and upper class snootiness, and achingly beautiful moments. So, basically, the same world as Pyaasa, but on antidepressants. Its farcical take on a romance just trying to get past everyone else's stupid battle-of-the-sexes mentality (*ahem* subtext) ... well, it had just the right combination of regressive and progressive ideals to keep me on the edge of my seat. Also, it was far less offensive and sexist than I'd been led to think it was. Really, I think the underlying points are clear by the end of the film, and they're NOT summed up as "female independence is bad."

Instead, the film says that "progress with a capital P" is sometimes just propaganda ... that women should be allowed to think for themselves ... that even if a parental figure tries to control a woman for "good" reasons, it's still not OK. (Take that, DDLJ!) For the sake of representation, it's too bad that Lalita Palwar's "feminist-esque" activist (who majorly got her female liberation and gender-separatism wires crossed somewhere) is such a monster, but Lalita DOES look good in a black hat. With the passage of time, one can label her character's beliefs as the convenient red herring they are, and just enjoy a mature actress getting a lot of juicy screen time.

Baaz needs no such caveats. It is a work of pure joy. Plus, it's got just the right amount of social critique to be meaningful, but not so much that it lags in energy or makes you want to swear-off polite society. It's inspiring and swashbuckling and sexy. It's everything I wanted in the Old-Hollywood pirate films I used to catch on TV, but never got. It does not make you work for your entertainment in the slightest, as it is technically quite impressive in both shot composure and editing. Also, Geeta Bali!!!!!! So in love with her, her role as  the pirate capitana (still can't believe that was a thing that happened), and the surprising amount of egalitarianism in the relationship between her and Guru Dutt's characters.

Where does that leave me? Or, as I asked while shaking my fist at the heavens at one point, "How pissed am I allowed to be at Guru Dutt for only being in handful of movies in the 50's? Like, what's a fair amount of anger?" For his 50's films, I've  just got Aar Paar and 12 '0' Clock left. That, and his  collaboration with Dev Anand. *Readers finally gasp: "Is she really going to finally get past this weird Dev hang-up?*
I guess we'll find out.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not the film I was looking for: Ashanti (1982)

Ashanti almost could have been the female Amar Akbar Anthony, except that it’s never quite sure how to get there. I don’t idolize AAA (I think Suhaag is by far the best thing Desai ever made), but AAA has obviously had an incredible impact on Hindi cinema. Not in the least because Desai borrowed a page from Waqt and upped the usual masala duo to a trio of leading men . . . while never losing sight of the arcs of key characters from the older generation. In a similar fashion, Ashanti also focuses a lot on the relationship between younger and older personalities, and includes the mind-blowing team-up of Shabana, Parveen, and Zeenat. Despite the presence of Rajesh as a textbook angry vigilante and Mithun in top comedic form, the majority of the action and antics belong to the female trio . . . as do the most moving emotional arcs. You can find an explanation of the plot (kind of Charlie's Angels-inspired) and a much more positive review here.

Note: I really wasn’t planning to write about this film. When I first watched (last May) I had just reviewed something from the 80’s, something with Mithun; and I try not to dig myself into writing holes both for y'all's sake AND mine. I was just going to watch it and enjoy the silliness and move on to something else. But, no dice. Apparently more feelings occurred than I was planning on having. So I let my post sit, and here we are. 

Stylistically, the film reminded me mostly of AAA, the first half of Apna Desh or even Satte Pe Satta. Unfortunately, I don't mean that as a compliment. The common denominator between them is par for the course in masala, so I probably shouldn’t even mention it. I'm annoyed regularly by it, though, so I will. Whether because they didn’t have a decent cinematographer, or just didn’t have the budget to worry about lighting or shot composure . . . a lot of masala films from this period are filmed like second-tier westerns from Hollywood's studio era. By that I mean that they demonstrate little regard for shadow or angle or color in the majority of the picture.

It's not just about which direction the money is being thrown. Don (1978), for example, didn't spend much, nor did Surakksha, and yet the cinematography in both is able to create a hum of satisfaction in the audience. Good Pulp stokes the suspense with weird shadows, strange sounds, funky lighting, and uses quick cuts to keep ADD folks on track. Weak Pulp sets up an ostensibly exciting situation and expects you to "get it" without any assistance. I like low-budget, I swear. I just don't like boring.

It IS significant that the usual fight sequence standbys (like the impossible hero-jumps) here are given to the ladies instead... but most of Ashanti is the shaky-cam, pulp cinema version of filming by-the-numbers. When the angles ARE interesting in Ashanti, they are often combined with nausea-inducing zooms (I love zooms, so believe me when I say that these were ill-advised).

The one notable pulp cinematography sequence in the film. I wish there had been more of this.

Also similar to the matinee Western, there’s a washed out look to the Ashanti's picture (that I don't think you can blame on a badly preserved print, although the upload IS cropped); which paired with a general lack of concern for lighting and a lot of loud dishooming, makes for a watch that I probably should have combined with alcohol.

Of course, the reason to seek out Ashanti in the first place is the unusual protagonists: female action heroes ... and the stars behind them. There's female empowerment and gender role-reversal in spades. Even Mithun's character is by far the most traditionally "feminine" among the main characters, serving a supporting function, and needing "his chastity" to be rescued by the ladies more often than not. His character actually seems to prefer being the sidekick and has no shame in begging the various martial-arts-trained women around him to finish off the villains when he can't manage on his own. (He's also a drunkard, so between him and Rajesh's handicapped mentor, the available male allies are rendered symbolically impotent.)

Some of Ashanti's gags are plain hilarious, especially an institutional infiltration (Shabana puts on this snooty Begum act that is out of character--but so quirky and specific--that I wonder if she wasn't mimicking someone she knew, even her own mother perhaps?).

I could say that half of Ashanti is worth multiple re-watches. There are a lot of fun romps, if not exactly “good” cinematic sequences, and anytime Parveen and Zeenat were kicking ass together, my little 70’s loving heart overflowed. But then I'd also have to say that the other half annoyed me to no end.

Ashanti's slap-dash approach makes the movie unforgivably long (for me) at 2:40--especially considering that the action of the first 45 minutes could have easily been condensed into 10. Easily. [You know how I am about needlessly miserable masala prologues.] Given that the story is almost entirely focused on Rajesh’s harsh and uninteresting police inspector during that section, it’s even more incomprehensible to me. The only reason I kept watching was because the action was so overdrawn, that I couldn’t really skip any particular scene because I might miss an important bit of the set up. And there aren’t many songs to justify the run-time, even though they're all good fun. The "I'm not a drunkard, watch me drink" number with Mithun and Parveen is one of the best parts of the film. And I'm never going to say "no" to Zeenat + disco.

Also, the Mithun bits were some of the easiest sequences on the eyes. No, not just *that* way. A lot of his scenes were shot at night, which gave some dynamism to the picture quality, and Mithun was frankly the only person to consistently pull off comedic dialogues in the whole film (Parveen wasn't too far behind, though).

Watching something like this--it's clear that Mithun could change up his characterizations drastically when he wanted to--certainly a lot more easily than his later cookie cutter films might indicate. I seriously doubt that his lines hit home because he had better material to work with. He just knows who the character is and has fun with it.

And then there’s Rajesh who--I will be the first to admit--just can’t keep up with the rest of the cast. Thankfully, *ahem* he was supposed to be crippled for the better part of the film. The pity factor + facial hair + role as mentor does him a favor and makes him semi-watchable. It’s not that he’s bad, but he’s mostly running on hero fumes.

And yet, Rajput was released around the same time (in which he plays another highly-motivated lawman) and even though I winced through some of his scenes in that movie, I ended up liking his character more and more as the film moved along.

His character in Ashanti, on the other hand, is hardly sympathetic at all. The inspector is driven by nothing but revenge and justice from the first minute to the last, and you never really warm up to him. In Rajesh's hands, the lead character felt wooden and forced; merely a central agent to bring the different characters together. This could be more a writing and casting mistake than Rajesh’s problem, per say. After all, Amitabh could have done this role-and it still would have been one-dimensional. But Amitabh is more fun to watch being angry (obviously) and self righteous, bottom line. My ideal casting choice would have been Vinod Khanna or Feroz Khan (can't you just see it?!) as the Charlie to the Charlie's Angels, but that’s neither here nor there.

As far as the women go, I have zero complaints. Except that I wanted more!

Which leads me to my last thought. If you feel like I’m ripping this film apart unfairly, I think I should point out that if a film prompts this much frustration in me, it’s usually because it means that I liked it enough to actually bother to be upset. I'm *cough* downright greedy, I guess. It feels like this was a wasted opportunity for greatness. (The CAST ALONE, oh my gosh!) I so very badly wanted it to be a little more suave, a little better thought out, and a little less noisy. These folks (all of them) deserved something better. They probably had a fabulous time on set, though!

A final suggestion: If you want to see this, skim a summary of the plot, then start around 35 min in. From there, watch any scene with one of the three female leads, with Amrish Puri, or with Mithun . . . and skip ahead through everything else. You won’t miss much, and you might enjoy yourself more. It's also currently available on YouTube (legally) with English subs.