Sunday, November 30, 2014

Himmat (1970): Starring Mumtaz, Jeetendra, Aruna Irani and PAAGAL STUNTS

In terms of '70s Hindi-film watching, if last year was the year of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra ... this year just might belong to Ravikant Nagaich.

Having seen one of his films (Mere Jeevan Saathi) during the Rajesh binge last year, I had no idea what other delights lay in store. Dec/January brought The Train (1970); in March/April came Kaala Sona (1975), Surakksha (1979), and Wardaat (1981) with varying degrees of satisfaction; October brought a failed [for now] try of Raksha (1981); and this week ... Himmat (1970).

Watching every Nagaich film is a dubious goal, to be sure, but I can't help wondering if I *can* actually do it. *Should* is perhaps not relevant. I mean, why do people climb Everest? Because it's there. (Also because by the time you get high enough to regret your choice, the air's too thin to allow good decision-making.) Though both released in 1970, The Train "looks" better than Himmat, seems less rushed, and has Helen in an amazing femme-fatale role. What Himmat does have more of, semi-appropriately, is heart. [Ok, and the aformentioned crazy stuntwork.]



Note: I did not see this with subtitles, but the dialogue was simple and the action plentiful, so, I don't think I missed too much.

In pleasant Nagaich style, the film cuts immediately to the action, leaving the hero's backstory for flashbacks. [Translation: no masala childhood prologue]. Raghu (Jeetendra) is just getting out of good ol' Central Jail, and is immediately brought forcibly to his old crime boss (Prem Chopra). Boss wants Raghu's cat burglar talents, but Raghu gets in his face and tells him he's on naya raasta, going straight.



Note #2: One thing I do like about Prem Chopra (even if I'd rather have Pran) is how inept he is willing to look. In this scene, in probably an ad libbed diologue, he screams a series of louder and louder statements in Jeetendra's face, which Jeetendra mirrors back to him. "Yeh tumhara challenge hai?" "Ha! Yeh mera challenge hai!

Raghu gets a truck driving position from his best friend (Jagdeep--not completely awful role, surprisingly). But on the first long trip, he discovers he has a stowaway ... a "boy" who claims to be running away from a girl he doesn't want to marry.



Of course, the boy soon turns out to be a girl, Malti (Mumtaz). [Props: She manages to stow away on Jeetendra's truck before Asha!]

Note #3: Is it just me or is this whole truck driver masala romance a sub-genre? And what should we call this category? Lorry Lurv? I've seen it enough to think it has to be (actually, I've seen Jeetendra in this genre at least 3 x already).

In a high-strung hill chase, Raghu taunts Malti with "Agar Tu Ladki Hoti ..." giving Mumtaz and Jeetendra a chance to use their talents for humorous physicality. In keeping with its middle-school flavor, the song ends in tears and remonstrations when Raghu takes the playfulness a step too far ... pushing Malti into the pond.

But an apology from him and a change of clothes from her instantly alters the dynamic.



Raghu, in a It Happened One Night-fashion, tries to return Malti for a reward against her will. But this plan quickly fizzles when he sees for himself what kind of lecherous person has advertised for her. [In perhaps an untintentionally hilarious sequence, they open the door to see her brother or maybe uncle on the couch with three floozies and lots of liquor.]

 This prompts Raghu to stop being a douche and do right by Malti. Embarrassed by her thanks, he decides to put all his cards on the table and tell her about his past.

We learn that Raghu's mother died when he was falsely arrested for stealing as a child. He is found by his Fagin (Prem Chopra) and grows up to be an accomplished con-man/thief, with a charmed, decadent existence ...


... complete with fun heist sequences and stunts.



The end of the line comes when Raghu is ordered to kidnap a child [for ransom, maybe?]. The mother's horrified reaction prompts an almost instant change of heart, and he quickly tries to return the kid. But it's too late. The mother has died of shock [too many fragile mothers in this film] and the ghost of his mother rises from her dead body to scold him. Raghu turns himself into the police.



Malti isn't much worried by Raghu's confession, and well, she has no one else ... and they soon get married. Clearly inspired by the exploits of Inspector Javert, police inspector Mathur (K.N. Singh) leaks that whole "former-convict" thing, and they are driven out of their home on their wedding night. It doesn't bother them for too long.

Now in the running for best honeymoon location ever: Mumtaz and Jeetendra In the park under this family planning poster that reads, "Do ya teen bacche, bas." (Two or three children, only.)

A flirtatious song takes us through the next several years and the growth of their baby daughter, all while the pair continues to try to steal romantic moments. They finally are stopped/caught by their six or seven year old daughter (who acts more sensible than they do for the second half of the film).














Unfortunately, the opposing forces of greedy boss and suspicious policeman eventually begin to tear the family's world apart. Think shades of Les Miserables plus maybe North by Northwest. Right, yes, he becomes a murder suspect because of Former Boss's Evil Plan to win him back to the life of crime. Because of annoying inspector, Raghu also loses his lorry job and starts to work himself into the grave.





To feed her family, Malti has to nautch-herself out ... which doesn't go over well with feverish hubby. However, I'm ok with it, considering it means an "I'm forced to dance to save someone else" song from Mumtaz.



The answer to all Raghu's problems just might be a sting operation against the Boss ... both to end the harassment and to clear his own name.



But can Raghu manage to take down his former employer, reconcile with his wife, and stay out of prison for good?



Note #4: Though she doesn't have any lines to speak of, there are TWO excellent Aruna Irani dance sequences in this film, complete with choruses of nautch girls, slanted Nagaich camera-angles, debauched revelers, and a fabulously decorated villain lair.


I'll admit, there's a lot of borderline weepy/heartrending stuff here for a Nagaich film, but I didn't mind. He makes up for it with a profusion of his usual bells and whistles, if not quite as much trippy camera-work as I've come to expect. Along with a certain brevity in the moralizing material, you can count on the film building towards a non-stop, suspenseful climax ... complete with tremendous stunt work by Jeetendra and company. In terms of impressive action sequences (and I'm surprised to be saying this), Himmat actually gives Surakksha a run for its money.



[This long sequence on the moving train is terrifying, mostly because you know it's all Jeetendra, not doubles.]



















Mumtaz and Jeetendra (Jeetendraz?) are one of my favorite pairings. As such, I'm kind of surprised that their films together weren't considered hits at the time, and still haven't graduated to classic status. They both have a naive, cheerful flavor that errs on the side of ADORABLE. Jeetendra in this particular period of time has SO much energy, I think he's best with women of comparable good humor, playfulness, and restlessness ... people like Mumtaz, Asha, Hema.



Himmat can't beat Roop Tera Mastana's (1972) marks for chemistry or fantasy, but the duo still seem like such a natural team at this earlier stage ... an essential element in all these masala melodramas where the marriage plot is also supposed to be the symbol of a beleaguered path towards righteousness. Himmat's general arc resembles Rajesh/Sharmila's Raja Rani (a thief trying to go straight with former nautch-girl girlfriend is persecuted by the law & community) but Himmat is far more interested in action sequences than social statements.

By way of that, look! Famous tower-I-don't-know-the-name-of-from Surakksha!


If you can't already tell, Himmat is a very-watchable B film, with characters you can love--not just root for--and some fabulous stunt-film cred.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fourths: Language, Moondram Pirai, Rushdie, Ram-Lakhan

                                                                                                         ONE

Hannah Arendt (German television interview, 1964)
It's been a few weeks since I've been here, mostly because a ticking clock (my classes) required me to very quickly acquire a solid understanding of the Vietnam war, Hannah Arendt and theories of power, South American and African geography, and Watergate. Also, after two weeks of in-class study, I'm THIS close to being able to read Urdu (Nastaliq)--I can read quite a few words but I still have a few character variations to get down and need a lot of practice writing. I dunno, but after a few go rounds with this sort of process, I've realized that during the initial stages of learning a writing script/alphabet I should hire someone should follow me around and make sure I don't forget basic life skills. "Don't mind the ever-present Do Not Disturb sign, barge in and make sure I'm still sleeping, drinking, bathing, etc. I really am an adult, I just forget it when I'm learning how to WRITE "BACKWARDS" IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE while simultaneously trying to teach in another language and take exams in yet another. Where I shall find the time for a beloved fourth (Bengali), you tell me." Seriously, though, trilingual immigrants are superheroes and my problems are cosmetic in comparison.

                     ***
                    TWO

This topic reminds me that I have yet to see English Vinglish and some self-appointed internet ref is surely going to call me on that soon. In defense of my membership to Sridevi-Fandom, I DID just see one of Sridevi's big Tamil hits of the early 1980s, Moondram Pirai. The synopsis *spoilers*, if not the name, may ring a bell: Woman (Sridevi) gets head injury and regresses to childhood state, girl-woman is kidnapped and sold to brothel, man Cheenu (Kamal Hassan) finds girl, falls in repressed love with woman inside girl, helps girl recover, but probably doesn't get to keep girl.

I can't say exactly why I got the itch to watch this particular version of the tale. If you're not South Indian, you probably know this story as mega-Hindi-hit Sadma. But Moondram Pirai came first, and as Sridevi apparently said, the Hindi remake (Sadma) never could match [for her] the improvisational magic of the original.

"Raw" is certainly the first descriptive word that comes to mind. Many moments are powerful almost by accident ... because they seem unrehearsed, uncertain, unsafe. Even the central antagonist is nebulous. Are we held in suspense because of curiosity? Mixed feelings about Viji's impossible "love" story with Cheenu? Our worry for Viji's safety? While violent male appetites and the threat of rape lurk in the background, from the moment Cheenu finds Vjiji in the brothel, to the creepy woodcutter in the woods near his home, to the  old lecherous landlord married to a bombshell (Silk Smitha) ... all these are more symbol than substance. We know we've seen these sleezy characters before, and we also know they are unlikely to figure into the climax.

Personally, I love that this film lends itself to afterthought, mostly because one is not initially sure of what it's attempting to say. For example, there's a pretty clear presentation of various female stereotypes: the girl and the vamp, the asexual saint and the hypersexual whore. But since the hero chooses ... or perhaps is compelled by circumstance... to put aside his assumptions, we also take a step back and wonder if these women are worth a different level of consideration.

[Side note: Cheenu's personal motivations are murky, but his actions toward the childlike Viji are at least superficially that of a parent or childhood friend. He immerses himself in her welfare, and although there are small upsets (mostly because Viji DOES act like a small child and can't be trusted with adult tasks), his daily routine is centered around making her feel safe ... and around making her laugh. One has to wonder what this man did as a teacher in the middle of nowhere BEFORE Viji came to stay. Don't get me wrong, on a certain level, Cheenu's actions are quite noble and unselfish. But he's also no angel. He's a bachelor teacher with no prospects, and he does attend the brothel at the beginning with his friend (perhaps out of peer pressure and boredom). And although he champions Viji's cause from there forward, there's clearly a gain for him: he finally has a companion, no questions asked.]

"Simple" Viji is actually quite complicated, both inherently (her condition), and subjectively (in the imagination of Cheenu). We feel keenly the hero's cognitive dissonance; he tries to protect her from exploitation as a de-facto child, all the while knowing full well that if she was "just" a woman, he would want more from her. The overall effect of this secondary dissonance is that it forces the viewer to examine his or her own assumptions. Not only does it make you look for similar motivations driving everyday romantic relationships--including messiah complexes, the tendency for some romantic relationships to have at least one man-child or woman-child, the tendency for some partners to try to keep their spouse in a place of ignorance and helplessness--but the film also challenges the usual boundaries between social roles. Here, once the interpersonal road map is erased, it is up to the characters to navigate according to their own conscience. Beyond the novelty factor--it's certainly gratifying to see gender reversal onscreen (the man has to clean up after the woman, for once), we probably keep watching because we need to know if such an endeavor can actually succeed.


                                                                                 ***
                                                                              THREE

Talking about improvisation and experimentation, my book club read Midnight's Children this month. Wait, correction, after our meeting today it turns out that exactly one (out of 10) read it in full. The rest of us battled with varying degrees of hatred, apathy, or confusion towards it. I am well on my way to finishing, after much struggle. Most people didn't get past the first 25 pages. No one else in the group had tried to read Rushdie before, and unfortunately they picked one of his most daunting works over the short story I recommended. [Not saying I told them so, but ok, I am.] Personally, I have few good things to say about Rushdie's adult fiction, but I quite enjoy his nonfiction essays and interviews, and his children's fiction. I've been ranting here about it, and ultimately, I have to ask:

Is it is possible, dear postmodern, postcolonial writers, that in writing about everything—in breaking the laws of space and time and weaving a six dimensional verbal tapestry—you are really writing about nothing? That you have perhaps spent a million hours and painstakingly manipulated a thousand puppets to tell a six hundred page riddle about absurdity and identity? Unfortunately, you forgot to make us feel something. So anyone looking for an answer to your riddle is left with nothing of consequence, and those who don’t understand the question will care little that you asked it.

I'm not the only one, thought it sometimes feels that way, who dares to criticize Rushdie. [Not that anyone cares what I think, but it's odd how he seems nearly universally adored by the reigning Western critics.] James Woods, in a much circulated article for New Republic, compares postmodern novelists--especially "faux-dickensians," and "hysterical realists," and mostly Sir Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.  He compares tendencies towards circularity, an oversupply of imagination over humanity, and a tendency towards manipulating protagonists into implausible choices for the sake of superimposing a point:  

"Irie Jones is pregnant, and for a while we inhabit her mind, and her drifting thoughts. She looks from Millat to Magid, and cannot decide which twin is the father of her child. But she stops worrying, because Smith breaks in, excitedly, to tell us that 'Irie's child can never be mapped exactly nor spoken of with any certainty. Some secrets are permanent. In a vision, Irie has seen a time, a time not far from now, when roots won't matter any more because they can't because they mustn't because they're too long and they're too tortuous and they're just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it.' Yet it is Smith who made Irie, most improbably, have sex with both brothers, and it is Smith who decided that Irie, most improbably, has stopped caring who is the father. It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness. A character has been sacrificed for what Smith called, in that interview, 'ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds.' This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost?" (Woods, James. New Republic: 24 July, 2000.) 

If only all of Rushdie was Haroun. 
Ok, Ok, it's easy to be a critic, and I am well aware that I have little patience for flaws in modern novels. Narrative writing (in English) has a terrible power over me ... it's both my temptation and my kryptonite. I have yet to meet another person who feels this way, but even a vaguely mediocre book will ruin my day or week. Not because of the content, but because the sentences Just. Lacked. Something. Whether that's because my semantic and rhythm memory is the bully on the playground, or whether I'm just a snob, time will tell. Sentences stick in my brain, if not whole passages, and a good or bad phrase sticking around after hours can change my entire mental outlook. Perhaps that's why I choose to watch films over reading for leisure. Books are dangerous. Not in a Fahrenheit 451 society way, but in a Girl Interrupted way. 

Still, I stick to my guns on this Rushdie thing. His books are often needlessly bloated* and display a nauseating tendency to re-converge on themselves, until you are sucked into his whirlwind of circular ideas, far from solid ground. Some people might find meaning in being carried away by a force of nature, but as far as I can tell, there's nothing in the exact middle of a cyclone, just air.

Source: Byliner on Pinterest
He's surely a great mind, but his fiction defeats itself. Just when you think, "Yes, this fellow is about to come to his point," he expands his vision to include everything and your kitchen sink. He knows this, and yet he chooses to indulge, betting himself how much of the reader's time he can commandeer. He seeks to overstimulate and to dilute your perception with extraneous detail, all in the name of creating a grand experience, maybe even The Great Subcontinental Experience.

But in trying to be about everything, Rushdie obscures that great "Something" that, if we are honest, we really would prefer to read about. He doesn't reach for an impossible ideal, he bends down and tramples on small "goods," until all that is left is petty "bads." And don't even get me started on the constant and interminable phallic symbols.

I'm curious to see if the film is better than the book. I suspect that it has to be. Anything to get away from effing Saleem Sinai's voice.

 ***

  FOUR

Perhaps it is hard to make us believe in myths, we who have cut them out of our lives to make room for New York Times bestsellers and airport novels. The beauty of a myth is that it brings god or the gods a little closer to earth. The beauty of literature is that it pushes men toward heaven. As far as I can tell, stories that elevate trivialities to the level of legend don't serve either purpose. Realism (even magical realism) in art inhabits this middle ground ... a place I have little use for in film or literature. The believable is not always worth believing IN, you know?

A modern approach to myth or mythic archetypes can be done. It's not easy, but insert "you know it when you see it" joke here. And sometimes (because it's film and I feel inclined to be more forgiving in visual mediums) I can just appreciate the effort. In fact, often watching films from the 80s, I sit back and say, "Hmm. That almost works, and I feel something, and therefore I'm impressed." Lower your standards, ready the mute button for those endless dishoom scenes, and get ready for some blood-soaked heroism. Maybe it's B.R. Chopra's fault, but I'm more inclined to see mythic attempts in 80's cinema than cinema of other decades. Shades of an ethic behind the violence points to a desire for the days of epic battles, blood feuds, and territorial disputes. Mahabharata much?

Lakhan explains why the Ram Lakshman myth doesn't matter anymore. Meta-chuckle.


I don't know the Ram Lakshman story well enough to comment on specifics, but it seems to me that Subhash Ghai unapologetically reached for the mythic in Ram Lakhan (1989). First off, there aren't expendable characters here, or many expendable scenes. The villains get just enough screen time to make their destruction inevitable. The *ahem* irritating parent dies early on, leaving Rakhee, in a strikingly aggressive role as the mother to two disinherited sons.



She is a mythic figure by definition ... apparently manipulating the heavens with the force of her emotions. She raises her sons without the usual filmi indulgence, and they actually turn out all right. Ram (Jackie Schroff) is a textbook oldest child [represent, Ram!], a policeman and an instrument of tradition and order. But he also treats the women in his life with deference; his mother with near worship, his fiancee (Dimple Kapadia) with playful respect. [Mature relationship alert?!]



 Lakhan (Anil Kapoor) is sort of the opposite, but he means well, and that good intention is clear from start to finish. Unfortunately, he seems to have gotten the brunt of the childhood trauma and carries the greatest will toward violence. Actually, no. His mother might have him beat, there.



Ram Lakhan harnesses this instinct towards hatred and vengeance better than any 80's film I've seen; unless you dial back to 1982 and ring up Disco Dancer. But why? It's not THAT different on paper.

Barring choreography concerns, in any scene of "battle" or a fistfight, I mostly just want there to be something at stake. That the hero might lose something, even if he wins. It's hard to get this in Bollywood--where heroes might as well be Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films or the superhuman from Unbreakable. If they can't be seriously hurt, why should I look anywhere but at my watch? It's only a matter of time before "victory."

And I mostly want Rakhee


I admit readily that Disco Dancer's last fight scene is just GOOD. I don't have the right vocabulary to describe it, nor can I measure the success of Ram Lakhan's march of inexorability, the rush the audience feels when more and more pieces steadily fall into place, building a track leading towards justice. [You can't talk about this film without using a train metaphor.] Almost as if everything had been long planned by a higher power. [Good job screenwriters!]

However, both climaxes stand on the shoulders of an earlier plot point--a section of the film where the heroes (Jimmy and Lakhan) are outnumbered and seriously injured after a psychological shock. Shaken by a loss, the heroes feel they have failed, and on some level "give up." Villains move in and take advantage, dealing near fatal blows. It is only when a respected figure returns to give them back their mission, or their inner resolve, that the heroes find the will to fight.



Nothing gets the house out of their seats like a "Do you believe in fairies?" moment. The end of Ram Lakhan works because we had a moment where we (the audience) and the hero lost faith. Even real stunts by a lead actor (such as Kamal Hassan pulls off in Moondram Pirai) can't achieve the emotional effect of this relatively simple plot choice. Once again, it's a reminder to me that reaching for a myth is better than endlessly deconstructing it. You can erase familiar archetypes and social roles in your story, but we the audience only care as long as the absence of those ideals glows in our memory. With all due respect to Smith's conclusions in "White Teeth" or maybe even Rushdie's switched at birth metaphor in "Midnight's Children," origins do matter. They aren't to be dismissed irrationally (Smith) or fabricated into absurdity (Rushdie). Who your parents are (even if they are gone, even if they are your enemies), what myths you believe in, what you believe in about yourself and your loved ones matters. That's where your strength comes from. Bollywood knows this, even on its most un-watchable day.

*One is also free to say that this post is needlessly bloated and circular. I'm not stopping you. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The strange case(s) of Amanush and Kalankito Nayak

Most beloved actors/actresses have a cringe-inducing film (or four dozen) waiting to ensnare you, if you're not careful. The call of undiscovered delights pull you deeper into filmography frontiers, but the further you dig into undocumented catalogs, the more you put yourself at risk. Things are seen that can never be unseen, and we can all agree to forgive and forget and definitely never speak of them again. But there's no excuse for watching a film you KNEW was not representative of an actor's strengths, and then b*tching about it, anyway.

Thus, I have no one but myself to blame for Amanush (1975), however much I'd like to. 'Cause I knew darn well what I was getting into. In case you are out of the fandom loop, there are three [painfully obvious] reasons why it should be avoided:
   1. Uttam at any age is at a disadvantage when forced to communicate in English or Hindi.
   2. In Beth of BLB's words, "Color Uttam is not good Uttam."
   3. Even in black and white Bengali films, in the mid-1970s, his hero energy is rapidly deflating  ... though he retains his good-natured humor and continues to flash his boyish grin when given the opportunity.

But despite all these indisputable strikes against it, Amanush was a hit, and it's still spoken of in almost sacred terms in many quarters.* My Hindi-Urdu prof this semester told me the only thing of Uttam's he had ever seen was Amanush ... and this was said in such reverence that I had to take interest. I mean, curiouser and curiouser. [You can see how the cat got killed ... ]



As I was watching Amanush piece by painful piece, I was also working my way through Kalankito Nayak (1970), an Uttam/Sabitri/Aparna film that bears a lot of thematic similarities to Amanush and almost follows the plot of a typical Shakti Samanta "man-against-the-world" melodrama [think Amar Prem, Khwab, Ajnabee]. Thus it was impossible not to compare the two ... their differing emotional impact (on me) and how/why they chose to go in very different (probably industry-specific) directions. Note: There's nothing substantial to be found about KN online, so I can't say if it wielded any influence on Amanush. I doubt that it would have unless it was a hit, but then, who can predict that sort of thing?

A quick breakdown of the similarities and differences: 



*Amanush tells of a rural landlord's son Madhu (Uttam Kumar) who is betrayed by his family's employee and set up as a thief and father of village girl's illegitimate son. As a result, Madhu is rejected by his fiancee (Sharmila Tagore) and after serving jail time, loses his family land and becomes the town drunk. Because of the efforts of first-hostile, then sympathetic lawman (Anil Chatterjee), Mr. Amanush (half-human, half-beast) starts to climb up out of the muck. [Literally. He works in a mudpit.] Kalankito Nayak is the tale of a simple, recently married businessman Indrajit (Uttam Kumar), caught between helping a cast-off wife/prostitute (Aparna Sen) and the increasing suspicion and judgment of his family ... stoked by the manipulation of his crooked accountant/cackling brother in law.

*One is a Bengali film clearly using Hindi film tropes, the other is a Hindi film (primarily) using Bengali film actors.

*Both heroes have hostile, distrusting, but brainwashed ex-wives/lovers.



*Both feature Utpal Dutt as a scheming character working the system.

*Amanush is told partially in flashback, but other than a brief courtroom story hook at the beginning, Kalankito Nayak is a linear, chronological affair.



*The family is the enemy in KN (starting from the first horrible acts by the hero's mother, down to the hero's own family bringing him to court in the climax), and is easily comparable to the community's role in much of Amanush. Both heroes are essentially misunderstood creatures, cheated by their employees, unfairly ostracized by their social groups, and unjustly accused/punished by the law. Ultimately, KN's hero must do the right thing when everyone believes that his actions are wrong, and Amanush's hero must do the right thing when he no longer believes in himself.

A longer breakdown of the similarities and differences: 

You can't talk about Amanush or even Kalankito Nayak without comparing them to the most inescapable of Bengali story arcs, that of the Devdas-ian hero. In fact, in both stories, the only empathetic figure for a time is the golden-hearted prostitute.



As tends to be true of Bengali classic films, KN's characters act in less extreme ways than a comparable filmi hero (one night of drinking instead of a hundred) but will still undergo extreme consequences. When first ostracized by his family in KN, Indrajit begins to drink, but gives it up fairly quickly. Yet, the mere appearance of a alcoholism is enough to cause his reputation to plummet. The character's real struggle isn't alcohol, but society's quickness to judge.

In contrast, Amanush's protagonist is certainly an alcoholic, and must fight his own addiction as much as the ostracism of his community. I suppose this is a much bigger task, and yet I struggle to like Madhu. Much of the Amanush is one painful drunk scene after another, but by the end (if you're still watching), the alcoholism is conquered along with the accompanying hopelessness. Perhaps, for people at the time, this was an encouraging twist on the usual tale. "Hey, you guys! Devdas goes to rehab and actually gets the girl!" And on paper, I would guess that this is a commendable plot idea, to reject fatalism and embrace self-change. However, this idea is unraveled by the implementation. Most interactions between characters are overwrought (even by the standards of melodramas), probably because their motivations and complexities are crippled by the wooden dialogue.



Note: I'd be interested to hear opinions from anyone who speaks Bengali about the Bengali version of the film. I'd like to think I'm far enough along in Hindi to know a well-written conversation when I hear it, and Hindi-Amanush doesn't deliver on that front ... no matter what all the nostalgic reviewers claim. But scripting processes are complicated, and I'm willing to entertain the idea that in moving between English, Bengali, and Hindi scripts ... or in accommodating non-native speakers, good concepts were watered down for easy translation.



As far as I can tell by subtitles (and by listening for repetitive phrases in the Bengali dialogue), Kalankito Nayak is minimalistic rather than simplistic in its ideas. This distinction doesn't necessarily make a film good, but I will say that I was far more engaged in the motivations of its characters than Amanush's ... as I could see a believable buildup to a point of view, good reasons behind misunderstandings, and the slow burn shaping the character from a weak man into a strong one. Both films attempt to do the latter, and I do appreciate a REAL arc (who needs a character that is perfect from point A to point B?) but Uttam's characterization is as bloated as his character in Amanush. In Kalankito Nayak, he pulls a bit of a Mem Saheb, his archetypal weak to strong hero (in my mind at least), and shows us a compassionate man who has weathered trials and come out the better for them in the end. I really believe that this is what Amanush attempted, and I must give it points for the effort. Perhaps if Amanush had been made even five years earlier, Uttam would have been able to overcome the bad scripting and still achieve that larger goal through force of personality alone.

The strongest bit of Amanush, in my opinion, is also the sequence truest to Uttam's Bengali persona and is, I suspect, a large part of why the film is often called "sensitive." I'm speaking of the progression of scenes on the riverboat in the second half.



The hero and heroine are thrown together long enough to show the heroine that her reject still cares for her (and is pretty much the only worthwhile dude around, even if that doesn't say much). It all culminates in a bittersweet song of lament, the hero's face toward the wind, finally freed from the censoring expectations of city and community, and virtually unaware that his beloved is listening. [Actually, now that I think of it, KN's only stand out song is a beautiful lament as well.] The piece works well in both Bengali and Hindi versions, and is also a sequence that would have fit just as comfortably in any commercial film from 60's Calcutta. I for one find it hard to swallow Bengali songs in pastoral settings, or those free of performance-logic, as I instinctively feel the actors straining to legitimize something so unleashed from reality. But, for whatever reason, on a boat or on the water's edge, suddenly, everything seems possible. My favorite Bengali songs (especially into the late 60s and 70s) are often on harbors, rivers, and beaches.



Perhaps it works because the crew and actors felt comfortable, or maybe because Shakti Samanta has a natural directorial eye for scenes on the water or near the water ... in fact, as I mentioned in my last post, he tends to work water-recreation, boats, and bathing suits into scenes in his films that would usually be shot in a forest or a garden. They're often standout sequences, too. Just think of the water-skiing song with Shammi hanging from a helicopter in An Evening in Paris, or the rowboat song on the lake in Kati Patang.

This is one of the only things Amanush does have over Kalankito Nayak ... an attention to beauty. Sharmila is somehow even more luminous than usual. Perhaps because she is without her bouffant, and because Samanta always frames her with adoration, as one does their chosen goddess. Her character has little to do except be a thorn in the hero's side, but she's still a presence. I couldn't help but shiver at one point when she emerged above deck, hair blowing around her in a whirlwind.


Related to this, Samanta gives Prema Narayan far more screentime than usual. She even gets a song all to herself for once! She's really the only person who is consistently likable in the film, acting as the audience's umbrella for the buckets of tears from the main character.  Perhaps this nonconformity is why the the retrospective in The Hindu [asterisked above] found her un-affecting and wooden. Her Dhanno might have been the faithful Chandramukhi to Madhu's Devdas, except for the part where she pushes Devdas to change and actually gets to dishoom-dishoom the group of hooligans abducting his beloved.  [I can't remember the last time I saw a woman come to the aid of another woman this way in a Hindi film. It was probably something with Aruna Irani and probably ended in her death.] This is another cross-point between the two films, the relationship between the two major female characters--the wife and prostitute--is not a hostile one. The Kalankito Nayak wife/call girl relationship is the more filmi (i.e. hopeless) of the two, while Amanush pleasantly allows Dhanno to be free of the usual pine, sacrifice, and die arc.

However hopeless her story, I must admit that Aparna Sen as "the loose woman who asks you to light her cigarette at a party, then languidly drapes herself across a couch as if she is in the last stages of consumption," is my favorite Aparna Sen.



The more I see of Shakti Samanta, the more I want to examine his films for his own personal motivations. Not because I idolize his work, but because I wonder why I am consistently drawn to his particular flaws in spite of myself. For example, when watching Shakti Samanta melodramas post-Rajesh craze, I still feel as if the stories are written for a Rajesh-like star. I've seen a few with Mithun that are basically just re-workings of different elements from Rajesh films (i.e. Khwab, Aar Paar). Watching Amanush, I felt the same ... as if Amar Prem's Anand Babu had just been given a more masala-appropriate backstory. Of course, Amar Prem was based on a Bengali story and a Bengali film, and Uttam played the Bengali film role of Anand Babu, so now my brain is officially exploding.



Also, whether it's 1975 or 1985, Shakti HAS to put his heroes in plaid shirts whenever the chance arises--and it seems to me that this is a small symptom of the interchangeability of his melodrama's male leads. It's not that Shakti is the only one to do this--most masala films feature a familiar hero--but after watching a few Samanta films in quick succession, one is tempted to ask, "Would this role have fit better on Rajesh, Mithun, etc.?" The bits of masala, such as the constant mudfights with Uttam struggling to lift the goonda up even as he yells "Ut, ut, ut!" certainly gave the mid-70s audience the action they were looking for, but unfortunately, cast a non-action hero (like Uttam or Rajesh) in an unappealing light. I'm just saying: casting, casting, casting is as important as location, location, location. Obviously Shakti Samanta knows the latter, but when his films fail, I think it's because he disregards the first. Surely some of Uttam's star power shines through in Amanush and led to its success, but it is so much the less when you know what he is capable of with homefront advantage.




When Kalankito Nayak fails, it is because it runs the risk of moralizing instead of entertaining. It doesn't completely succeed in winning your heart. It does ask important questions and gives a prescription for action ... a prescription I mostly agree with. I like that usual ideals--self-sacrificial wife and long-suffering prostitute--are given a semi-critical treatment. The film appears to say that the instinct to suffer instead of communicating one's needs is a dangerous and needless one. Like, "Ladies, if a progressive man (embodied by Indrajit) doesn't require this of you, then nor should society, and especially not you."



Both films emphasize the need for the law (the courts in KN, the local police in Amanush) to look beyond reputation or the appearance of evil. As in many masala films, we see that when the law listens to rumor and generally held "truths", it runs the risk of condemning innocents. But here, the community is as much at fault as the law. Neither the informal social control wielded by the family in KN nor the condemnation of the village in Amanush escape criticism. In Amanush, the lovers *spoiler* resolve their differences not when the estranged fiancee knows the truth, but when she is willing to stop caring about what the rest of the village will think of her. Via more or less painful paths, both films stress the importance of trusting the people you love, and not giving a damn about what society thinks ... 'cause, hey, society is wrong, more often than not.

In Kalankito Nayak, the newlyweds make a promise to one another to always talk through misunderstandings. Eventually, it is this promise that the wife returns to, realizing that sacrifice is not a good substitute for honest conversation. This summarizes (for me) the deeper impression that both stories leave: Listen before you judge ... you probably don't know what the heck you are talking about.

Somebody write in quick and tell me to apply the same logic to Amanush, I'm a judgy mess.