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.

12 comments:

  1. Poor Dev! Of all the 50s big stars, he is the only one that I like - and that is mostly because I find his films more interesting and fun than those of Raj, Dilip and Guru Dutt put together. (As a kid, Dev always struck me as incredibly weird and annoying, and I could not understand how people liked him! So there may be hope for you, yet. ;-D) Though Dilip and Raj are not favorites of mine, there are films where I did like them (Dilip in Kohinoor and Azaad, Raj in Shree 420 and Chori Chori). As to Guru Dutt, the actor, I cannot summon up any strong feelings for him - I do not like or dislike him. He mostly leaves no impression at all! Maybe he fits his roles too well or his characters are mostly neutral (except in Chaudhvin Ka Chand - but then I hated the entire film).

    You do not mention Ashok Kumar - another big star of the era. He is more of the 40s than the 50s, but has a fair body of work in 50s, too. Haven't you "discovered" him yet?

    Re Kaagaz Ke Phool, am I the only one who sees shades of Fitzgerald's Last Tycoon in it?

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    1. I have been regularly exposed to the Dev fandom (yes, on purpose) over the last six months. A zillion screen caps later, gradually, his face is growing less repulsive to me ;) which is the first step.

      Anu keeps telling me to see Kohinoor, but of course I rebelled and saw the comparable Yahudi, first. I have only myself to blame. I started and stopped Azaad a few times, it seems to be more Om Prakash comedy than necessary, but I'll get through it some time. Guru Dutt either speaks to you, or he doesn't, I guess. Altho, have you seen Baaz? 'Cause that's a horse of a different color. He's much more animated than usual in it. I haven't read The Last Tycoon, but I KKP reminds me a lot of a "late-Jazz age, star falls in the advent of the talkies" kind of story.

      I have a growing fondness for Ashok in mature roles, but I haven't yet done him the courtesy of watching anything from his pin-up-boy stage. Perhaps that is why I haven't caught the bug, yet.

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    1. EVERYBODY should see Bazz, lol. (*ahem* on YT right now with subs).

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  3. My first Guru Dutt film was Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (yes, it's a 60s film, not 50s, but stylistically it's very much continuous with his earlier work). As with your experience of Pyaasa I feel like I'm still working through my thoughts about it. It's both very intimate and personal, and also set against the background of sweeping historical change. And Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman both give great performances. Highly recommended if you haven't seen it, but be prepared to be very sad afterwards.

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    1. I feel like I could watch Pyaasa multiple times and have a different experience each time. Like you said, intimate and personal (and hard to talk about), if you relate to Guru Dutt's character at all. I found it less depressing than KKP, actually, considering that in Pyaasa, at least his and Waheeda's characters get to walk off into the sunset together, forgoing the cruel city, a la Modern Times.

      Having a high tolerance for melodrama with a capital M helps, I think for Guru Dutt's later work. (And my guess is, P., that we both do, considering what I've read on your site.)

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  4. Much prefer Guru Dutt as a director rather than an actor. He doesn't leave much of an impression on screen. I can watch Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam any time though. (The latter is not directed by him, though.)

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    1. I don't hear a lot of love for Guru Dutt's acting, that's for certain. However, I appreciate it, obviously. I think he took pains to be consistent with the style of the film he was acting in/directing--probably as he was more loyal to the finished product, rather than any hero status--and I think that counts for something. Larger than life (and larger than their film) actors there are already, aplenty.

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    2. Hi, well, if you want to read about one who appreciates GD's acting and most of all film-making, in spite of all the boring ramble about his pessimism, come over at letstalkaboutbollywood and tell me what you think! Trouble is, he just doesn't fit, if you see what I mean, and he doesn't want to. Oh, and he's got that superiority complex which I suppose you can call maddening.

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    3. I agree with you, Yves. Left further thoughts on your Pyaasa post...

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  5. No, my problem with him wasn't about being realistic or larger than life. My problem was the man couldn't act. Not very well, anyway.

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    1. Ahh. Well I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree on that one...

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