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.

5 comments:

  1. Heh. I remember this one. I was in middle school when this came out. And I loved it then. :) I don't know if I will have the patience to sit through it today. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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    1. This does require patience, lol. But I could see this being even better at the time it came out, when you saw it. 1. Because of the big screen experience, 2. because the female roles were so unusual, and 3. because the weak aspects of production would have been probably been taken for granted. Also--the cut of this film was cropped in a weird way, lending more annoyance to the picture quality.

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  2. As I began to read this and detected your disappointment, I was thinking "aw, no, Miranda didn't like Ashanti, I love this movie." Then I saw that you cited mine as a much more charitable review. I did enjoy this movie. Your points about it being phoned in relative to the best exemplars of masala are thoroughly valid. It's not the movie as a whole that I enjoy so much as the set pieces it comprises - the Mithun/Parveen banter and song, Shabana's moment in the spotlight with that begum disguise, the Big Gay Shirtless Fistfight between Mithun and Bob Christo; Nadira getting a brinjal to the face; Rajesh Khanna beating the bad guys with his prosthetic leg; the "Laungi mirchi kolhapuri" song.

    Another reason I love this movie - I wish I had articulated this in my review - is that Shabana Azmi in particular seems to be having a really, really good time. This is not always true in her earlyish mainstream roles. Certainly not in Amar Akbar Anthony. There may be sparkles of it in Fakira; only in Parvarish does she seem to open up and enjoy herself as much as she does here. It's as if we are watching her learn the important lesson that mainstream films call for a different kind of performance than NFDC-funded art pieces; she knows in Ashanti to play to the back of the house, and does it with delight. There is a hint, here, of the relish with which she chews scenery decades later in movies like Loins of Punjab and Matru ki Bijlee ki Mandola.

    This is a personal button to push, but I very much enjoy observing Shabana Azmi's internal evolution in this way.

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    1. Gosh, Carla, I really tried to love this one, I swear ;) I was semi-upset with myself for a bit for not "getting it." Not because it is some GREAT film of the genre, but rather b/c I felt I had failed the "feminist masala" team. Obviously, as you say, one doesn't have to like ALL the film to love the things it does well. Maybe if I had run into it by accident, though, without knowing anything about it, I would have felt a little more affection--the rush of discovery and all. But I think anyone who has watched a fair amount of 70's films would agree that when it comes to second or third tier masala, a lot of personal trump cards tend to come into play. One of my ultimate favorite masala films is Hera Pheri ('76), and I will be the first to admit that it's not up to par with other classics in terms of production quality, but it just is PURE bromance heaven [for me], and is only marred by the lackluster heroines paired with Amitabh and Vinod.

      For you, this being a Shabana-heavy entertainer, I can totally imagine how lovely a gift it must have been. She does let loose here, comparatively. Even in Parvarish she never goes THIS far. For me, I kind of just thought the whole way through--"Well, but I like all these people significantly more in other roles", even from the same two or three year span. I did love the Zeenat-ness--she is very good at distracting me from less pleasant elements...what was I saying? And Mithun, of course. And everyone DOES have their fabulous moments, some people more than others. Sometimes it all even comes together all at once--like in that in-parda disguise gag. Those bits are worth more than one sitting. So, that's my plan. Re-watch certain scenes and forgo the film as a whole. Seems fair :)

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