Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pakistan Film Reviews: Lakhon Mein Ek (1967) لاکھہں مین ایک

There's something to be said for trans-border romances. Or rather, nearly everyone has something to say through them. Just like Desai seeks to resolve deep social rifts through separated brother motifs, trans-border romances can speak to the ache of helplessness and loss people feel when separated from loved ones by arbitrary lines on a map.

Even more often, in Hindi cinema, I feel this sort of Partition echo is sublimated into rural/city romances, where two people find a connection despite their differences, but are torn apart by the fatefulness of space and local politics. In this category, some sugary Mithun and Ranjeeta Kaur romances (Rajshri, all) immediately come to mind, as well as a lot of Dilip Kumar film plots from the 50s. And when I say sublimated, I don't mean there isn't inherent meaning in conflicts of clan vs. clan, or caste prohibitions, or urban vs. rural lives being worked out through cinematic romance. But it does seem that Partition memory might be the larger conceptual touchstone that turns localized story-lines into something universal for the viewer.

[Spoilers below. It's hard to discuss this film without them.]

Pakistan's Lakhon Mein Ek (1967) gives us one of those satisfying moments in cinematic history when such subtextual story-lines become maintext. Starting from the first days of Partition violence, the story follows two Hindu and Muslim families in Kashmir, whose families are joined "by chance" in the chaos.

In self defense, the Hindu patriarch flees to India, but is accidentally separated from his young daughter, Shakuntula.

One of the better moments of Talish's probably signature theatrics
Luckily, she's saved from a mob murder and adopted by her Muslim chacha (Talish). Muslim uncle's son, Mehmood, is lost and wakes up in a field hospital with amnesia. After running away from the hospital, he's adopted by a jolly Kashmiri lorry-walla, Dildar Khan. In a pleasing conceptual triangle, the two families are split over India, Pakistan, and the liminal space of the border roads. Thus, we're free to jump forward ten or fifteen years to when the kids finally get interesting.

Mehmood has 150% more style than substance, but at least he tries.
Mehmood (Ejaz Durrani) is now the jolly lorry driver, and is accompanied  in his adventures by a slightly senile Mr. Khan. Shakuntula (Shamim Ara) is [unsurprisingly] a beautiful and dutiful adopted daughter, and has taken over the shepherding work from her uncle. One day, her sheep block the road and force Mehmood to stop and wait for the shepherdess to pass. They hurl insults, but instantly realize they have a connection.

After some convoluted events, Mehmood manages to stick around town for a bit, in order to romance Shakuntula, and frolic in the jaw-dropping scenery.

Poor little lamb doesn't get to frolic ...
This doesn't go over with the lecherous village astrologer, who instantly schemes to break the two lovebirds up. Unfortunately, in this conservative world, all he needs to do is talk to Muslim chacha and throw some shade at Shakuntula's honor. She's immediately confined to her home, at her uncle's weepy insistence that he is the temporary guard of her family's izzat until his Hindu friend returns. [Ok, but GAG.]

Lecherous astrologer also tattletales to Mr. Khan, and Mehmood is then chastised for "hugging" a Hindu girl and thus taking her honor, and is ordered back on the road. [Gag me again, but the anti-hug rant is hilarious in a way, too.] Oh ho, but Mehmood can't possibly drive safely in such a state of grief, can he? [To you 99% of lorry drivers who actually keep your emotions in check on the job, I am sorry. Cinema has done you ill.]

A better view of KITTEN here
One accident later and he's back at the rural hospital, where he loses his recent memory but remembers his real parentage. Poor Mr. Khan... who adopts a stray cat in place of his the son who has erased their years together. [It's cuter than Mehmood and probably won't be amnesia prone, so maybe it's a good trade.]

Poor Shakuntala, too, who must woo dear Mehmood all over again. However, this time he has the benefit of remembering their childhood romps. Unfortunately, the new adult romps are interrupted by the massively inconvenient return of the Hindu patriarch, a broken but kind man, who has been stuck in an asylum for years. Shakuntula is immediately ordered to return with him to India. [Why he would want to go back is beyond me, as the film makes it clear he been ill treated primarily because of his loyalty to Pakistani friends.]

Hindu papa confused by the judgy locals and grosssssss pandit
Biggest *spoilers* below.

Shakuntula tries to elope with Mehmood, to her credit, but to his credit [I guess?] Mehmood listens to his father's pleas to let Shakuntula have the Hindu life she was meant to have, and to not dishonor their families. [Fair enough, although why he's not in a puddle over giving up someone who's effectively his daughter is a mystery to me.]

Of course, India STILL does not treat them well. Shakuntula is a social outcast. She is apparently tainted because of her years spent in Pakistan. Her father wants to get her married, and enlists a super-creepy pandit to match-make. [I mean there are some scary pandits in Hindi cinema, but this one would definitely twirl his mustache if he wasn't required to shave it off.] The only man who wants Shakuntula is the local rape-y forest ranger. To appease her father, Shakuntula marries him anyway. Things do not go well.

The appeal of this film to the contemporary viewer is pretty obvious. A view of Partition from the other side. A Hindu/Muslim romance. Lorry-love. [I swear, this is a whole genre, akin to Westerns or swashbucklers.] The simultaneous propagandization of the Indian state AND humanization of individual Hindus. But also of note:

Time and memory erasure 

10 or 15 years pass and the adults are older, but really no different. They haven't grown as people or
changed in loyalty or taken new paths. I guess this fits the idea youth has of elders--that of a static generation without adaptive qualities. Think of all the strong/weepy masala mothers who change little as time lapses and their sons grow older. Hindi films tell stories like this, and I expected the adults wouldn't change too much. What's interesting is to to see the same theme play out in Mehmood's (a young man) loss of memory. South Asian films LOVE the amnesia trope, but to write a son with two fathers, neither of whom can he remember concurrently, seemed a pretty obvious symbol for Kashmir. [But, you tell me.]

Blood ties as trump cards

Should you be loyal to your roots? Or to your experience? Your parents? Or your caregivers? There's a lot of symbolism going on here ... with multiple adoptive parents ... all of whom are cast aside or cast themselves aside when the biological parents return. I could be wrong, but this feels very fatalistic to me ... as if all of what has happened has been an anomaly that the universe must put right. Hindus belong on their side, Muslims theirs, and Kashmiris, you're just bound to be forgotten, what rum luck, sorry.

Women as symbols of family honor

GAG. But as always, it's interesting to see how some films subtly undermine the tradition by showing (A) how easily it can be manipulated, (B) how easily people's intentions and actions can be misunderstood, and (C) how badly it works out. Also, while the older generation is against mixed marriages, the younger generation is SO over that.

Justified violence is still destructive

It's hard to explain unless you've seen the end. But the film is not gung-ho about violence, even when it's used for self-defense. Based on a few scenes in the film, and the climax, I would guess that somebody behind the film was advocating for pacifism, or at least, making a case that while the men are off fighting, it's the women who suffer. Coming on the heels of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, this seems significant.

Hinduism and Islam are given equal respect 

Hinduism as an individual's religion is caricatured here, but in a sweet way. While the details feel a bit exoticized, Shakuntula is not simplistic in her lonely devotion. She prays as fervently in her wilderness temple as any of the Muslim characters do in private. She even has an encounter with Krishna in the guise of her beloved. This all feels progressive, even if it may prompt a few smiles from actual Hindus. [As I'm sure the caricature of Christians and Muslims often does in Hindi films.] I don't think there's actually a single scene in a masjid, all of the religious scenes are in tiny mandirs. Don't get me wrong, the depiction of the Hindu religious establishment and Indian society itself is extremely negative. But in a Pakistani film in the '60s? Giving us a chaste, near-perfect Hindu heroine, and letting her dream of her Muslim beloved as Krishna seems moderately gutsy to me.

Obviously, what this film lacks in entertainment value, it makes up for in social significance. You can see it in a beautiful subtitled print on tommydan's YT channel.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)

Once in a while, I hear about a film that seems AMAZING and I immediately decide to save it, lock it down, keep it secret and safe until such time as I choose to give it its due AND avoid any spoilers if I can help it. Occasionally this backfires. Not every film can live up to such high expectations.

But Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) is worth the wait. I've been saving myself for this one for SO long (in Hindi film time anyway) that the abstinence campaign perhaps made the consummation sweeter. Pardon the horrible analogy. Seriously, though. In this case, I put it off because there's only so many top tier Indian westerns, and after seeing Kucche Dhaage and Sholay so early on, I needed to keep one for the road.

Lots of folks have gushingly summarized its plot, so I don't think I will write it up in full. However, the uninitiated should see it for:

1. Cinematography. Raj Khosla, duh.

2. The location. The village being attacked (by the perhaps most iconic Vinod Khanna dacoit of all) is satisfyingly anchored in space. The town looks and feels like a 3-D puzzle, the dimensions provide both suspenseful exposure and claustrophobia, the action flowing through the stacked houses and cobbled streets like rats through a maze. It reminds me the most of French-Italian films shot in the Algerian Casbah, like Pepe Le Moko or The Battle of Algiers. With action like this, who needs an original premise?

3. Time. There's lots of time devoted to well-crafted conversations, to deeper emotional realizations, or to suspense. This certainly speaks to the level of care behind the camera and in script development, but whoever edited the film knew what they were doing, too.

4. Music. I think there was actually a background score? Somebody can correct me if I'm wrong, and perhaps it was lifted from a lesser known spaghetti western, but it works. I love hearing tense guitar-strumming during emotional moments, rather than whining strings.

5. The performances.

*Thankfully, Dharmendra inhabits this serious avatar's manly attire without adding a halo.

*Asha Parekh is fun and flirtatious and sometimes gets to join in the events to the point of MAKING A DIFFERENCE.

 *There's a poor 7 or 8 year old kid who runs around naked from the waist down in the first half of the film. I mention it, because I wonder if he ever lived the role down.

*Laxmi Chhaya makes you believe in her ill-fated character's choices, weighting potentially forgettable scenes with raw physicality and angry resignation.

*Vinod is as good at being evil as I expected ... once again impressing me with his ability to use horsemanship as a dramatic accessory... especially as an instrument of intimidation.

*The secondary characters are weak and in need of a savior, but still lovable enough to make you root for the town's continued existence. Just when you think, "Gosh, let this town of cowards rot," you're pleasantly surprised by a show of comedic bravado. Few "bandit-ravaged township" Westerns manage this. (The Magnificent Seven with its cloying farmers and villagers comes to mind.)

Caveat: The biggest downside to the film is the violent treatment of women. But, that's a blight on most contemporaries in the genre. I don't like it, but this film doesn't seem to like it either.

I'll leave you with the best use of innuendo I've seen in a seventies film in a while...

Dharmendra's character first visits the house of his new employer/uncle/adopted baap. The rishta of it all is convoluted. The important thing is, D's character has a new lease on life and is being served food by his new village girl crush.

They start flirt-bickering via a discussion of whether or not Dharm can handle spicy food, but dear Work Uncle [naively] puts his foot in.


Yeah, that was my reaction too.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana (2014)

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana has a bunch of traits that double as both flaws and strengths:

1. The massive Aiyyaa (2012) hangover. Look no farther than OSO's plot: Girl stalks boy, boy doesn't seem to be interested, girl holds on to her hopes, eventually-maybe-probably finds boy IS into her after all. (I feel like others have mentioned this similarity already, pardon me for rehashing it.) But the imaginary relationship Pooja (Nazriya Nazim) builds with the much older and more serious Giri (Nivin Pauly) is less magical here than in Aiyyaa (read: more painful). Mostly because we've all been Pooja at one time or another in our youth, and we also know it's called a "crush" for a reason...

2. The tendency to invest in detail. The movie sets up all the characters that surround Pooja with a series of humorous, collage-esque, snapshots. Sort of like Cranford crossed with Clueless. Or a pleasant short story you read at the coffee shop on Saturday morning. You might question the overemphasis of quirky town-staples, except that these characters collectively make up the heroine's psyche. Pooja's father and aunt, more than anyone else, bridge the divide between sketch and home video. But BECAUSE OSO spends so much of it's relatively short runtime with secondary characters and Pooja's limited first person perspective, we never really get to know Giri beyond his reputation. We know Pooja intimately (or as well as we can know her in a film trying to be a bit tongue-in-cheek), and we see her build a rapport with multiple side-characters, but all of this only casts a brighter light on the lack of a rapport between the "lovers."

3. The attempt at  showing long lasting platonic relationships between men and women. Good, but underdeveloped, just like the romance. Also, one of the reveals sours this theme... and you end up feeling that one of the friendships was just a red herring.

4. The idea that everyone experiments with life, and sometimes it takes a while to find the right recipe. It's hardly a subtle theme. Pooja's aunt is a specialty winemaker always mucking about in the cellar with a different brew, her father is an amateur chemist trying to discover a miracle drug, her mother is a cooking fanatic and is always trying to perfect new recipes. All of this should add up to a film that recommends experimentation--and I think it tries. I *think* we're supposed to realize that there's a time to experiment and wait, and a time to just go all out and order exactly what you want off the menu.

5. The runtime. As much as it's nice to see a film that isn't weighted down with excess and flash, we couldn't everything we wanted in the film because it was too short. Yes, at two hours with only a couple musical sequences (which are definitely not big performance numbers), somehow OSO doesn't have enough time to pull off a satisfying romance. Or maybe it veers off formula too much and then doesn't know how to get back to the main road.

Nothing substitutes for relationship-building. Aiyyaa manages to make me feel as if the two leads will get along splendidly once the conversational barrier is finally broken near the end of the film...most probably because it breaks its own limited (if fantastic) perspective once or twice to show us a glimpse of what the object of the heroine's desire really thinks of her. Even with more dialogue in Nivin Pauly's hands than Prithviraj ever got in Aiyyaa, and certainly a role with clearer motivaions, I can't get away from the feeling that Giri and Pooja might actually be mismatched. It's not that he's poor and she's rich, he's Hindu and she's Christian, vagerah vagerah, but that I don't see anything but respect between them. And sure, respect is SOMETHING, but their vastly different daily jobs and interests (so painstakingly set up) might prove to be a bigger hurdle than any differences in social status.

5. The progressive politics. The ethics of the film are magically-scaffolded into place. Like a
YouTube video with a disabled comments section, the film puts forth a semi-feminist and pluralist ideology with a happy-go-lucky spirit, inviting no internal criticism. Still, it seems quite remarkable in its devil-may-care approach to female-empowerment, parenting, inter-caste and interfaith relationships, and dowry critique. For me, the best moments ebbed and flowed with the presence of Pooja's father (Renji Panicker), an absentminded doctor, and also the film's clearest moral voice: especially in the themes of hands-off parenting and religious pluralism. Despite her sometimes reckless ways (especially in his community's eyes), he never rebukes his daughter EXCEPT when he feels she is being untrue to herself (in her quest to get the boy she wants). And no matter what she asks for, he gives. Perhaps indulgently, but also as a vote of confidence. And *spoiler* to the end, he's proved right in his assessment of her character.

I guess this is one of those dishes that's missing something, but definitely worth trying on your way to something better.

Note: If there's one, single, unmissable moment in this film, it's Pooja's fantasy of a potential groom viewing (instead of the usual bride viewing scene), with Nazriya literally reversing the masculine gaze and Nivin playing the bashful candidate serving tea to the visiting family. It's not that Pooja doesn't retain something nearing this agency in the rest of the film, it's just that I cared about it more in the guise of farce than dumbed down into a formal drama.