Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Unsung Indian Film Favorites of 2014

Films I saw this year that didn't get enough love either here or on halfwaythruthedark. Rules:
  1. 10 films total*
  2. 100ish words or less per film
  3. Films listed in order of year of release

Apur Sansar (1959)

This film makes my stomach ache. Seriously, I think it gave me an ulcer. Soumitra and Sharmila are two disadvantaged young people who *should* have a whole life ahead of them. They're hungry in so many ways, and are undeserving of all the trouble that comes. This unfeeling Calcutta puts the "scary" Kolkata of Kahaani (2012) to shame. Nothing is as scary as starvation and absurdity.

Chaowa Paowa (1959)

This version of It Happened One Night is almost as good as Chori Chori (1956) in terms of entertainment value. Lesser in terms of standout songs. For anyone allergic to melodrama but curious about Uttam/Suchitra, this is YOUR film. Easy to find on YT, go crazy.

Devi (1960)

Ok, I said nothing was as scary as being hungry and young and crushed in the cogs of the city. But religion as viewed by Devi might beat that score. I swear, when I'm old and gray, I'll still hear Chhabi Biswas beseeching his daughter-in-law as "Maaaaa" (mother goddess) over and over again. 

Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960)

Pleasantly melodramatic hospital romance. Shadows and light, white smocks and dark seashores, jazz and folk melodies serve to set the mood. Coffee instead of tea marks the hours, and Raaj Kumar is about as nuanced as he gets, even if he can't quite match Meena Kumari's dramatic pacing. Nadira shows up as a bad bahu and poses for a number of glamour shots. Raaj Kumar is unintentionally hilarious in only one dance, and the title song is one of my favorite picturizations of the year.

Bhai Ho To Aisa (1972)

One of Desai's forgotten works, this one has a lot of snakes, architecture, and comedic comedy (one has to clarify) for your buck. Jeetendra and Shatrughan Sinha are good and evil heirs respectively, vying for the family honor and zillion lakhs. Hema shows up for mischief, whips and nagin songs. Some not-horrible fencing scenes play out in impressive locations, and declawed dacoits wreak minor havoc. For my money, infinitely more enjoyable than Dharam-Veer.

Garam Hawa (1973)

Quiet, sad, and probably still important. I'm not the person to school anyone on Partition, but this is the most personal portrait of the wider upheaval I've seen so far. This raw treatise on the meaning of place and home came for me at a time when I was helping sell the family homestead, a process that was painful enough without property seizure, bloodshed, and riots. Still, it felt relevant to my little problems, too. I don't know how to speak of it yet, but I'm starting to know how to think of it.

Jaag Utha Insaan (1984)

This Hindi remake of K. Viswanath's Saptapadi is as visually stunning as you might expect, with dance sequences to rival anything else in the Sridevi archive. Sridevi and Mithun  star in a forbidden love story between a Brahmin girl betrothed to a pandit's son, and a dalit shepherd boy. At a serious level, it's a beautiful and heartbreaking look at the price of upholding the caste system, and on a more frivolous note, a window into Sridevi and Mithun's first *ahem* onscreen partnership. 

Mr. India (1987)

Maybe my favorite film of the year, it's definitely the most re-watched. My family fell in love with it, too, and we force it on others whenever possible. Humor, pathos, sequences that actually go somewhere, gadgets, cute orphans, and the best villain EVAH... It's Hook and The Goonies and a screwball comedy married to a Bond film, if those things were also musicals. Clearly, this movie is the complete package.

Waqt Ki Awaz (1988)

If you need a pick-me up after Jaag Utha Insaan, this is your answer. One of my occasional un-subtitled romps, I can tell you it was candy-store bright, loud, and fast. Sridevi and Mithun make a energetic pair, the songs are catchy and don't stray too far off into the grunge-disco deep-end, and you even get some Lorry-Luv gags out of the deal. 

OMG: Oh My God (2009)

In my mind, this is a Mithun film. This is demonstrably not true. But I prefer, like the protagonist of OMG, to stand my ground. I would argue that this story doesn't work without an intimidating clerical figure who *should* be able to work any room and get what he wants, and yet finds himself stymied for the first time. With Mithun as the symbol to rage at, a comedy at organized religion's expense almost becomes social critique.

*I watched over a hundred Indian films this year, so I think ten is an appropriate number. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Whys of the Worst of 2014

Even the worst films of [my] year taught me a thing or two. 

"But it's so inventive in its depiction of the human condition!" Oy vey.

Finding Fanny (2014) man. Dang Finding Fanny. I don't think it has as much in common with Wes Anderson's other films as everybody says, but it certainly shares the same problems as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Both are more substance than soul. And death. Enough with the death. I also think there's something bothering me under the surface here. Something about using arguably mentally regressed characters as a mouthpiece for whatever grand philosophy the writer wants to express. TGBH has a host of odd folks dispelling unwanted nuggets of truth at every turn. And, Naseeruddin Shaw's childlike "wisdom" in Finding Fanny doesn't make me cry or laugh, it makes me wince. More pity than pathos. Plus, all the death in TGBH doesn't make me ponder the meaning of life. It's manipulative. I can see all the production's strings reaching for me, and I feel claustrophobic. Don't tell me that life is short and meaningless and yet beautiful. Show me that life is meaningful and then I'll see the beauty without you straining a single cinematic muscle. 

Beefy men solving all their problems through beefiness

This is probably self explanatory, but ... all due respect to your Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra MANLY MAN moments, the more trouble a director goes to in order to impress me with victories of arm and chest, the less I care. Until it crosses over into pure camp. Then it might be fine. Patthar aur Payal (1974), everything I saw with Feroz Khan this year (Nagin, Kaala Sona, Qurbani, Dharmatma), most '80s and '90s masala films [as far as I can tell], and some of my least favorite television stuff from the year fits in this category. Amrapali (1966) almost does, except that it's more of a cautionary tale AGAINST beefy problem-solving by the end. Still, I had to see a lot of Sunil's chest* to get there.  

Subcategory: Heroes whose beefiness is painfully fictive. 

Super-category: Hack masala.

*You could also accuse me of preferring my action heroes lanky and my romantic heroes chunky.

Unmotivated injustice

Sometimes, when the police go bad TOO, I lose all respect for a story. I need there to be a semblance of adherence to law formalities, or evidence of self-originated thought from lawmen. Yes, I HAVE been paying attention to the news this year, but the widespread banality of lawmen in Hindi films makes New York, etc. look like Santa's Nice list.* Aar Paar and Amanush's easily brainwashed policemen were perhaps the last straw, for me. Sure, human interest stories need injustice, but I personally need a reason. Just one reason for a policewallah to not be doing his job. 

Exception #1: Something that leans noir. I can't remember what Talaash did specifically, but police incompetence or corruption works for that sort of atmospheric mystery. 

Exception #2: Iftekhar. He always has a reason, as one of the Powers that Be; I may just not be worthy of knowing it. 


Unnecessarily paagal

We've all endured these films. Everything is building to a nice showdown, all the pieces have been moved into final alignment, and then somebody perfectly sane loses their sh*t, Cage style. I guess, in lieu of writing a climax, someone decided "HEY. WHAT IF SHE WENT CRAZY? That'll take care of all those disparate plot threads." Andaz (1949) is my canonical example, but it's a deeply ingrained filmi phenomenon. 

Subcategory: Self-maiming. Aag (1948) and Yahudi (1958) should be slapped with parental warnings for violence and gore. Towards oneself, but still. No one under 17 should be exposed to such virulent expressions of self-harm. Ok, obviously, I'm not an advocate for increased censorship. But I wish people wouldn't cut off parts of their own bodies, you know what I'm saying?  Perfectly decent things like Shikar (1968), or even Ankhon Dekhi (2013) lose some of their re-watchability after you've seen an important character recklessly setting aside personal safety. 

Exception: Films that pass krrrrrazy right out of the station. Deep Jele Jai (1959) is set in a mental hospital, and you know what you're in for. The dubious hero of Dhuan (1981) makes gaslighting one of the main characters a key aspect of his grand plan. Haathi Mere Saathi's descent into krrazy was a given as soon as Tanuja showed up with zero animal experience and married a zookeeper. [Just realizing now that this is probably a metaphor for marrying a widower with children. Mind blown.]

Women who are only projections of the hero's needs

This could be applied to A LOT of cinematic roles. But I'm not as picky as I could be. I expect filmi females' lives to revolve around men or their families' desires. What annoys me is when a woman is introduced as a main character, yet might as well be a hallucination, for all that she reflects ANYTHING outside the male protagonist's head. Even good films fall into this, like Ray's Seemabaddha (1971), in which I almost pegged Sharmila for a ghost, so much did she exist as the embodiment of the hero's struggling conscience.  

Subcategory: Ladies set up as an example of moral failure. Like bad bahus ... such as Bindu in Do Raaste (1969) and Nadira in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960). These women exist to show us why we shouldn't be mustache-twirling, eviction-happy, materialistic bitches. They're also a great way to make the hero look better than the lowest common denominator. 

Look who's missing?!

"Baby in danger!" is not my cup of tea. It is also not my idea of a comedy. I'm not sure who started this trope in cinema, probably someone fab like Moe Howard or Charlie Chaplin, but it's NEVER FUNNY. [Ok, maybe as someone who half-raised her infant siblings from a young age, I will never find childcare, or the lack of it, amusing.] For some reason I've been inundated with lost child comedies this year. From a Ghostbusters 2 rewatch, to an oddly unresolved child kidnapping in Hawk's Monkey Business (1952), to the worst of the lot, Tum Haseen Main Jawaan's (1970) central problem and comedic centerpiece: a newborn heir who is lost, hidden in various objects, kidnapped, unofficially adopted by sailors, thrown through the air, left loose on a carseat during a high-speed chase, and threatened with a gun to its head. 

Super-category: Characters who should have NEVER become parents. 

Next up: Unsung Favorites of 2014

See updates over the next two days under A Year at the Movies 2014 for more end of the year lists, stats, and rankings. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bheegi Raat (1965)

Bheegi Raat is perfect for one of two crowds: hopeless romantics, or Meena Kumari fans. Actually, that might be the same group, now that I think of it.

The plot is a precarious scaffolding constructed from old Hollywood, Victorian governess novels, and hill station vacation dramas. 

Despite this questionable mixture of tropes, you can't help but care a little. It manipulates *almost* artfully with duty vs. love dilemmas, heart-rending missed connections, and simmering "will they/won't they/did they?" between the leads. Pradeep Kumar and chemistry?! It surprised me, too. 

Universal-esque horror jumpstarts the film. It's a fact universally acknowledged that all Victorian governesses are secretly Gothic heroines, and lend themselves equally to tales from the nursery and tales from the crypt. 

All three of the main characters are running away from something, and of course, end up in Nainital, ready to lead a tormented yet exotic existence. Neelima (Meena Kumari) falls afoul of a greedy uncle, who wants to make a quick lakh by selling her to the highest bidder. After a stormy escape, she's found in a ditch by Pushpa (Kamini Kaushal), an invalid and guardian to absent brother's (Ashok Kumar) daughter. Neelima sticks around and soon has charge of the household and the kid. 

Back in Bombay, Ajay (Pradeep Kumar) is the artistic layabout son of a wealthy industrialist, and is targeted for marriage by a scheming socialite. 

After rebuffing her, he earns the wrath of her father, and his own. Ajay decides to run from it all, presumably with the help of his secret trust fund, off to paint in Nainital.

He immediately becomes enamored of the stately governess, and their low-profile courtship fills most of the first half of the film. Personally, I loved watching the growth of their relationship, especially since Neelima holds her own, and rarely plays coy or feigns disinterest. Rather than hillside frolics, the two make eyes at one another across cozy fires and front seats.

This all culminates in THAT SONG IN THE CAVE, which I must confess is the entire reason I knew of the film in the first place.

However, watching the song divorced from the film, you may not realize how (A) sex-positive it is, (B) non-tragic, (C) female driven. The couple has just visited a mountain shrine, and are caught in a storm. No symbolic marriage vows hang between the couple, just mature adoration. It's Neelima who insists Ajay stop hanging around the cave entrance and warm himself by the fire. If this description seems more D.H. Lawrence than Bronte, well, I think the director knew exactly what he was doing. And so does Neelima. 

Anu included it on her "Sensuous Songs" list for a reason. This is no adolescent hormone fest; these folks are taking their time and enjoying the heck out of it. The film also never refers to this night (as far as I can tell) with any verbal judgment, remorse, or moral punishment. The struggles the two go through later are [mostly] not of their own making. 

Unfortunately, the second half of the film struggles to find a happy medium between maturity and sensationalism. Jealousy and femme fatales jump in to complicate matters. Anand Babu (Ashok Kumar) returns home to find a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife taking care of his child. Brief madness sets in when he realizes that Neelima is already attached to Ajay. 

Evil socialite discovers the whereabouts of Ajay, and wreaks havoc. Pushpa falls ill. Someone gets in a near fatal accident. The two lovers are separated. If you've seen An Affair to Remember, you might think you know how all this ends, but you might also be wrong.

Despite a lot of improbabilities (which you sign up for the minute you start ANY melodrama), I do really like the film's explorations of interpersonal ethics, female agency, and different kinds of love. 

With two men vying for her affection, manipulating with their claims to family loyalty (Anand), and passion (Ajay), Neelima fights to maintain her own timetable. When a family member tries to extract a deathbed promise, she DOESN'T give in under the pressure. (I don't know if I've ever seen this in a Hindi film before.) And when Ajay resorts to fixing an engagement party date as an ultimatum, Neelima resists his methods. Caught in the middle of a circle of people with conflicting "claims" upon her person, she does her best to honor the separate commitments she's made, and tries (the attempt is the important thing here) not to lose herself in their whims. 

That said, I don't particularly love Neelima's relative helplessness in the last third. Given certain events, however, it's realistic. It also gives the men a chance to resist both their own selfish instincts and social conformism in meaningful ways.  

Ajay's problems are pretty rich boy problems, and therefore, a proper humbling is in the works. 

As much as it's hard to watch, Neelima's circumstantial disadvantages may just be necessary to the moral arcs of multiple characters. Kind of like a grown-up Pollyanna effect. Nobody has to own their own shortcomings until a pillar of the community is removed. Even during sunnier days, the men were already tripped up by "baser" interests and unfinished business from their past. Like in a lot of Victorian novels, these suitors need to face their personal flaws before they can hope to get the girl.

I really like that in an industry that usually turns a blind eye to selfish male behavior, this film aims toward a slightly higher standard. 

I have a weakness for films that use color filters extensively, for hill station adventures, and for romantic Rafi songs circa 1965. A film with at least two of these elements may prove satisfactory, even if it lacks MANY other merits. So, while I want to recommend this film, I think I may have to say, proceed with caution, unless meri majboori hai, aapki bhi majboori hain.