Saturday, August 23, 2014

Origins: Aag (1948)


Aag is:

*Self-indulgent
*Nonsensical
*Overwrought
*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? 

13 comments:

  1. The part about Raj burning down the theatre? He knows that Premnath's character loves Nargis, and he owes the former a lot. Two, he is not really sure that Nargis loves him as much as she claims, or whether it is an infatuation. The test is when she recoils from his burnt face - as he tells her, he is still the same, it's only his face that has been disfigured. The fact that she can turn so easily to Premnath proves (to him) that she never did love him. Yeah, a test, but in keeping with the 'thou shall not covet another's wife (love, in this instance)' theme that is so popular in Hindi cinema. The woman really has no agency.

    I must be one of the very few who actually liked the rawness of this film. :)

    And no, the theme had nothing to do with Raj's personal life. Prithviraj Kapoor was already acting in films, even though he was a theatre doyen, and Raj had not only acted, but also assisted Kidar Sharma much before he made his first film. Raj had his father's full support.

    In an interview, Raj had once said that he had never seen Prithviraj Kapoor as his father, they were more like siblings. (Papaji was only about 19 years older than Raj.) They were the closest in affinity as well, and more attuned to the common man, as compared to Shammi and Shashi who were more urban.

    There was an interview with a family friend once, who said that when Prithviraj was in hospital in London, Raj stayed with them and commuted to the hospital by the Tube and bus, while Shammi stayed at the Claridge's and hired a car for the duration of his stay. :)

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    1. This is a great perspective. I figured you had Kapoor knowledge to share :)

      *I knew Prithviraj was in films, but I got the sense that he was more passionate about theatre than film. Also, I didn't mean that it was all about Raj and daddy issues. The father was too much of a cipher for that to be the case. But, if what you are saying is true, and Raj didn't really have "daddy issues" that doesn't mean it wasn't an act of persuasion. Perhaps it was more of a expression of Raj/Prithviraj's shared passion or love for art--a case to be made to the world, rather than a case to be made to his father. In that sense, it would be personal, if not autobiographical.

      *I see what you are saying about the "test" of fake Nimmi's love. That's a more well rounded explanation. I felt that he was trying to stop what he felt was a fake romance, or a less than ideal pairing ... and I did see early shades of Satyam Shivam Sundaram's (garbled) theme of real love transcending outer disfigurement. But the way the scene played out, Raj's character's motivations felt really murky to me. Perhaps everything was just so turned up to 100, that it all seemed impetuous, when really there was a method in the madness all the time.

      I like that anecdote about the public transport. I don't know if I've made it clear in my posts so far, but I LOVE Raj's regard for the "common man." Shree 420 is *almost* a creed to live by more than a film. It's extremely easy for me to get on board with his ideals usually, which is why I think Aag was harder to digest. But don't get me wrong, this was a really interesting film with some striking moments, despite my discomfort at times. I especially liked how Raj's character's inner ethic (itself an unusually individualized--non-family oriented--ambition for a Hindi film) was this thing he couldn't walk away from, even if he had to walk away from the rest of the world to honor it.

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    2. I think he began the whole concept of inner beauty being more important than the physical one, in that one section in Aag. It is interesting how many of his films play out in kinda sorta three-films-in-one scenarios. Aag and Mera Naam Joker were both made that way. By the way, the concept of SSS came to him because of Lata Mangeshkar - the plain girl with the divine voice. He wanted it to star her as well.

      I think RK consciously chose subjects that would resonate with the common man. Hence the pitch for the son to do what he is passionate about in Aag. The cry of the man caught between generations in Kal Aaj aur Kal. (directed by son Randhir). The man who believes in the purity of love in Barsaat. The common man who just wants to live his life in peace in Shri 420. The nature vs. nurture debate in Awara. And so on.

      Also, I like that his women are strong. Traditional perhaps, and not 'feminists' in the modern sense, but very strong characters. They have agency. Even in Aag, he is not as much choosing Nargis' path for her, as forcing her to make a choice of her own. And he is never larger-than-life on screen, or eating up screen time. His supporting characters always get a very strong story and narrative arc. My father used to say that you never found a character in a RK movie who shouldn't have been there.

      The only quibble I used to have about him was that he always came off as less than stellar on screen - remember him in Andaz? You wanted to kill him. And then you realise - he's flawed. He's not a 'hero' per se. (Sorry, long essay. You can tell I love him. *grin*)

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    3. I like essays :)

      RE: Lata, even Raj couldn't fulfill his own ideal in actually casting her (as I have heard rumors that he initially wanted to do) :) Or casting someone that was less of a starlet.

      Raj was such a street-corner philosopher. I deeply respect the fact that I find so much to dissect in his films, and that they nearly always seek to inspire. As much as films like Aag might not become favorites, they stimulate much inner dialogue and manage to get reaction out of me. I don't forget them immediately after watching, or stare at a page and wonder what I even have to say about it all. I always have words to spare about his films, positive or negative. Plus, there's no nonsense about "realism." He aims to entertain. And part of the entertainment IS certainly that you know he is telling a story, and that every piece is important. Like your father's line about every character being important--so far, I would agree with that. It's so nice, because I feel like I've watched too many films with a cast of characters that are just there to fill up screen time. Overall, in Raj's own films, I trust him to entertain because I trust him to tell a coherent story. [Coherent doesn't necessarily mean logical, tho, lol. But logic doesn't necessarily speak our hearts, either.]

      I kind of love him in Andaz, performance-wise. I watched it with my sister, and he had us both in stitches in a couple of early scenes. The film goes off the rails, but at least he's dedicated to what he's doing! And there's this one scene, during that fateful party where Nargis leaves the room abruptly. His reaction to her departure is just pitch-perfect. There's also that argument on the stairs with Dilip's character--quite an explosive meeting of the thespians.

      For the women--I think Raj idealized women (and by all accounts, saw them as partners in life and art) so much that he at least lets them shine as much or often more than the hero. It may not be feminism (nobody was really a feminist back then, anyway), but it at least gives the heroine a soft power over the the film as a whole. Even SSS, which everybody hates, gives that to Zeenat.

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    4. Hi Anu,
      Although I'm not sure whether I agree 100%, I think you're right about that RK stance of choosing themes that would meet the public interest - as opposed, to themes which would suit him. The films where he deals with women issues, you know. My reticence would refer to subjects which he would want to do (jealousy in Sangam for example), and those which probably have a connection with his status as an artist (Mera naam Joker). About your "definition" of Shree 420 I disagree though. I don't think could be summed up the way you do it ("the common man who wants to live his life in peace") - well, I suppose all this could be discussed, couldn't it?

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  2. It's not Shankar Jaikishan, so perhaps that says enough.

    You must be kidding me! The score of Aag by Ram Ganguly is wonderful! You can't really mean that Zinda hoon is tarah, Solah baras ki (picturised so beautifully), Kahin ki deepak, kahin ki baati aren't as good as anything SJ could compose!

    In fact, if RK hadn't found one of his tunes being used by Ram Ganguly for another film, SJ may never have come to be!

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    1. I enjoyed all the songs, but there wasn't anything that blew me away. I'm really not well-versed in '40s soundtracks, so perhaps that's the problem. Every one of the songs had a lyrical section or a melodic section that almost "got to me" and then lost me again. My main complaint was mostly the lack of a simpler, hummable tune--or perhaps more the lack of a sequence that I loved, rather than liked. Mukesh was in good form tho, and there was this section of dil tut gaya ji chhut gaya that gave me crazy shivers.

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  3. What bugs me about this film is the notion that women exist as empty vessels into which Great Artists (men, of course) can pour their creative souls, and shape into masterworks of Great Art. I watched Aag very close in time to MF Husain's atrocity, "Gaja Gamini," which says the same thing, and was just overwhelmed with disgust by the two of them together. I did have fun writing about them back-to-back, though.

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    1. There's this long sequence where Raj and Premnath's characters are vetting women/heroines for their stage production, but Raj keeps crossing them off the list because they don't fit this PERFECT ideal of womanhood ... it was kind of hilariously awful. And there's all this dialogue from Raj to Nargis' character about how she should project her soul, not just her beauty onstage. Whereas, Premnath just kind of likes her how she is (or how he perceives her to be) instantly. That plus the fact that Premnath destroys his paintings but not himself or a whole building makes him a way better catch than the perfectionist, pygmalion-esque character of Raj. If Anu is right, and Raj was trying to make fake Nimmi choose between him and Premnath: (a) she already chose and it ain't her fault that he didn't believe her (b) setting oneself on fire is really an extreme measure, (c) the extremity of that measure, not the disfigurement, makes him a scary person to spend one's life with, (d) why would she have to choose between either of them rather than some other person? Etc. Etc. Really messy when you break it down logically.

      However, talking with Anu also makes me have to admit that this film can be read on multiple levels. On some of those levels, women are just pawns for the men's art and ego games. On another level, if you forgo logic, the women here aren't women at all, but symbols for something else. As an ideal or a representation of the purity of a dream, Nimmi isn't so bad. As a series of blank slates for moody artists to play with, fake Nimmis allowing themselves to be refashioned, even welcoming it, is a dangerous precedent.

      I shall check out your presumably scathing review, too :)

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  4. Miranda, I think the problem is viewing this through a modern, and often feminist narrative. Raj was never that unsubtle. Aag was an allegorical film, something he explored in the dream sequence in Awara. I have never seen an RK heroine who is without strength or her own agency. No, not even in Aag, where, ultimately, the choices are made by the women.

    One of the reasons it is easy to hate RK is because he is not heroic on screen. He is deeply flawed; even in Shree 420, where redemption awaits, he leaves Vidya for Maya. The whole 'honesty for sale' theme in the plot underlines his need to become somebody and something. He has to lose all, even self, before he can atone.

    In Aag, it is the journey of a man's obsession with his art. The women, in as much as they are seen or viewed, are only personifications of that dream. Which is why he had to suffer before he actually becomes human. Much as dross becomes gold only after it is purified in the flame. A lot of subtext goes unnoticed in his films because people pay attention only to what's on the surface. Little dialogues, little actions often go unnoticed.

    Which makes me think that I haven't reviewed it, and perhaps I should. :)

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    1. I do make a conscious effort to interpret older films in terms of the norms of the time. But time isn't always the main factor in whether or not I feel comfortable with gender roles or the treatment of women. The norms for heroines in the 70's [or even now, who are we kidding] often are more regressive than the norms for Raj's heroines. I generally feel more "safe" with his treatment of women than most other directors, actually. (Which is probably why Aag surprised me a little.) He was really ahead of his time. I may not feel that women have as much agency "on paper" in Aag, but I do think that the symbolism behind it all is enlightened :)

      I agree that Raj wasn't about making himself look perfect onscreen, either, and I hugely respect that. And he's not the egoist that later director/actors are (*cough* Feroz Khan), needing to make themselves the focal point of every plot point in the film.

      All in all, Aag is a fascinating film. I don't need to "agree" with it to be impressed by what it attempts to do. And Raj was so, very brilliant. I can't wait to see Barsaat next.

      P.S. Given your passion about this film, and your background knowledge on Raj, you should most definitely review it!

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    2. Hi Miranda,
      Yes, you're right, for all its idealism, and probably its flaws, the movie is *fascinating* (it's the right word). The fire allegory for creation is a classic one (one could say a romantic one too!) but I found RK had done a rather profound statement about the importance and dangers of beauty in visual arts. One could ask, after watching this film: why do we need those beautiful faces to look down to us (but in fact they look past us) from the screen? What sort of obsession is going on there? RK has toyed with this idea throughout his career, with unequal results, but certainly his merit is to have sensed the importance of this link between spectators and actors.

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    3. I think you're right that Raj is always trying to explore the meaning of beauty. Depending on the film, he portrays it as a contradicting conglomerate of savior and sin, truth and deception, beacon and trap. And for every film, there's ample room to explore what you were talking about--not just the relationship of the main character to "beauty" but the relationship of the audience member to "beauty." That theme alone could keep a film theorist busy for a long time, lol! His metaphors can be messy (like in Aag) but that makes them worth seeing. They aren't reducible to their face value.

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