Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Aurat Raj (1979) عورت راج

You know that one subset of B films in international film industries dedicated to providing a "titillating" reversal of gender norms? I'm talking about all those films proclaiming "Island of Women!" "Kingdom of Women!" "Female Planet!" and so on. The one where a bunch of manly astronauts land on a planet with no men, populated with castration-happy Amazons and are made into slaves. (I think Star Trek--TOS used this one multiple times.) Despite the power swap of it all, the trope is generally just another avenue for fantasy. "Men ostensibly being exploited by women" becomes another brand of female exploitation. I honestly expected Aurat Raj (Woman Rule or Woman Kingdom) to be the same, but I was wrong.

A long-suffering wife (Rani) is daily beaten and cheated-on by her drunken husband (Waheed Murad). But when he brings home a mistress, it's the last straw. First she tries to get a divorce, and then decides to go BIGGER, and take her grievances to the streets. Led by the oppressed wife, the majority of wives and mothers rise up against their husbands, fathers, father-in-laws (notably, Sultan Rahi), cheating boyfriends, pimps, etc. and take over the country. First by campaign, then by violence.

Finally, a mysterious bomb goes off and turns the men into badly rouged, hirsute, high-voiced, dupatta wearing ... well, men. But also, and more importantly, victims. All. And the women? Transformed into devil-may-care, growly, tight-trousered, leering, smoking, and rapey politicians, soldiers, and goondas. Rani becomes General Jinjur (seriously, though, right down to the art nouveau helmet and epaulets) *ahem* I mean the supreme leader of the Aurat Raj.

Before you can say "just deserts," all the losing husbands are forced to entertain (not what I'd call it, but still) the new leader with song and dance. General Rani (I'm going to call her this because I didn't catch a name) doesn't accept her husband at first, and he's forced to do a number of humiliating seduction dances to win her recognition. She acquiesces after her ego has been stroked enough, but the minute another man shows up at court with a sob story (set upon by rapey females who have ripped his kameez), she casts hubby off. Immediately, he's captured and forced into the life of tawaif (in one of the best parody sequences of the film).

While all this is going on, we're shown snippets of many other emblems of the new order: women accosting and assaulting men in the street, roaming female dacoit bands, women abducting men on their wedding day, women saving men from rapists and the men falling in love with their saviors, women convicts duking it out in prisons and then going full yeh dosti ...

In other words, in maybe a dozen major film scenarios in which South Asian films have traditionally cast men as the subject and women as the object, the tables are turned. Basically, instead of an exploitation fantasy, we find ourselves down the rabbit hole of filmi tropes, the world turned upside down to reveal social problems and sexism in a humorous way.

This VERY strange film was the brainchild (written, directed, produced, etc.) of Rangeela, a jack of all trades Pakistani comedian. Apparently he was inspired by a short story about matriarchal societies and by his own progressive politics. An intensely personal project, it was also a massive financial disaster, AND a film the government censored pretty darn fast. You can read more back story here, if you'd like.

Personally, I've never been in such a muddle about a film as I am about Aurat Raj. It might be brilliant, and it might also be one of the worst things I've ever seen. Almost every pro could be a con (and vice versa) depending on how you look at it...

Waheed Murad and Rani
Pro: apparently a popular pairing in the late 60s and late 70s, they do have a lot of screen presence.

Con: they don't get to use their own voices (or interpersonal chemistry for that matter), for the majority of the film, and Waheed is almost unrecognizable in his feminine avatar. 

The rapid editing and trippy cinematography
Pro: because it keeps things moving, and at least we're not staring at grass grow.

Con: because the film didn't need that many shots or the stock footage and half the time we don't know where we are or who we are with.

The songs
Pro: about half served the parody goal very well, the best being maybe the early battle-of -the-sexes qawwali and a call-to-battle chorus at the end.

Con: the other 8 or 9 numbers are kind of grating and repetitive.

The voice swap
Pro: it does make the power transfer more humorous and effective.

Con: you get tired of it after five minutes.

The clothes swap
Pro: men wearing the burkas and churidars and the women wearing the ultra-tight flares, military
costumes, and leather jackets does serve to add two necessary qualities: humor and sex appeal.

Con: IF you have a high tolerance for ugly (in the first case) and the culturally specific novelty (in the second).

Note: while there's clearly a fetish factor to all this ... the gender reversal is not sexualized in the way the "Island of Women" international cult trope would be.  The girl-fights are shot like guy-fights ... with scowls and kathunk slaps and flips. All the women are exaggerated in their masculinity, just as the men are in their femininity. It looks better on the women though...oh so much better. Waheed Murad is the best looking of the fellers even in horrifically baggy lavender salwar-kameez. However, this is not saying much. They are a grotesque bunch.

The vignette style narrative
Con: we spend a lot of time with folks we don't necessarily care about, in the name of a funny or pointed skits.

Pro: we get a lot of amusing nuggets out of it, like all of the scrappy female street fighters (who I have a feeling were mostly the same three woman dressed up in different funky hats and jackets), gun happy dacoits, and a bandit who licks her machine gun as an intimidation tactic. 


Power corrupts
Con: the downside of the aurat raj is that it is instantly as oppressive and exploitative as the male dominated version. This is certainly an interesting way to showcase the trials of the average woman in a misogynist world (and certainly would make a great SNL skit), bu it doesn't particularly make women look good (except in the aforementioned costume department).

Pro: it seems to say that in patriarchy or matriarchy, male or female rule, gender inequality and victimization is not OK. In fact, the film ends with a stamp of approval on the frame that "fixes" this inequality. Even with an "it was all a dream" cop-out at the end, the film doesn't soften the message. In fact, both in the dream and out, it's the husband who apologizes, learns to fight for both parties, and begs for reconciliation. I don't know about you, but my inner radical feminist can go home now. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Funky Bollywood--The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema

If someone had told me three years ago that I would fall in lust for Bollywood films, I would have heartily laughed it off. Likewise, I would have scoffed at the thought of Bollywood B films from 40 + years ago getting stuck under my skin. Given that I know a fair few cinephiles who won't give Indian films the time of day, I'll make a wild generalization and say that we Western film buffs react this way because we have no idea what we're missing.

Unfortunately, if you pick up the average cast-off Bollywood tome at your local Half-Price, you'll probably walk away unenlightened. Mother India, Pyaasa, and rain-drenched saris will fit too easily into already established inner dialogue. And perusing a Great Important Film list will only sour the that negative conversation further. Poverty? Visible sighs? Lists of "unreadable" and "unrecognizable" names? Long-winded explanations of subaltern subtext? NO KISSING? No thanks.

What some of us really need is not just a Top 100 or a Bollywood 101, but a Bollywood Genre 101. A hook, not a net to capture all us non-conformists and connoisseurs ... ok, ok, snobs. Something to lure us in with the strange and unusual and yet oddly nostalgic. Something that promises easy excitement and popcorn potential. Something evenly patterned but generous with the thrills to keep us ADD stimulation seekers in one place even minus browsing capabilities. Like that weird movie marathon you find on television when your Wi-Fi isn't working.

Luckily, Todd Stadtman, of Die Danger Die Die Kill and Teleport City, has produced just such a "Gateway Drug" (as he puts it) for my favorite genre of all, Bombay's addicting '70s urban action cinema. Ok, yes, he omits most of the '70s mustachoied dacoit dramas, the melodramas, the family socials, the HM comedies, etc. But the book is all the better for it. If you're not ready to bite, let me sweeten the pot. (This is a masala-heavy cinema blog, so I reserve the right to mix my metaphors as much as I like.)

"Funky Bollywood" is divided into four main sections: 

  • A "Starcast" introduction laid out like a cast and crew spread in one of those magazines you can buy for $20 but just read at Barnes and Noble instead. It's fun and snappy and outlines both the reaches of each star's power, and the unique niche they filled in the '70s industry. For those of you who might be wondering, BOTH Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan are included in the seven featured "Heroes." And although Todd omits some of my favorites (like Rakhee), he does include Zeenat Aman and the Telugu star Jyothi Laxmi, so you can see that this isn't any old best actress list from the Times of India. Here you'll also find profiles of playback singers (Kishore Kumar), screenwriters (Salim-Javed), composers (Kalyanji-Anandji), supporting players (Pran), directors (Prakash Mehra), and those hardworking professional villains (Jeevan). 
  • A succession of movie reviews, guided by both Todd's personal sensibilities and his abiding commitment to give spectacular failures a seat at the table, too. (If nothing else, the rest of the films look better in comparison ...)
  • An "interval" gallery (YESSSSS)--with all the photos and posters you could want (even though the rest of the book is well stocked with visuals)
  • And finally, the second half of film reviews. Includes spotlights on two genres within the action genre: spy films, and westerns. 

Also, like a good masala film, Todd provides a snappy prologue and epilogue to bookend the action, and a set of symbols/key to help you keep track of the Bombay storytelling tropes (doubles, bromance, etc.) in each of the films.

On a more personal level, I have two comments: 

1. Seeing an ode to my favorite era of Bollywood (and some near unknown films to boot) in lively print and color does my heart good.

2. I don't have to content myself with looking at the pictures, because I actually enjoy reading the minutia of Todd's commentary. Now that I wrote that, it sounds far more condescending than I intended. But we've all sat through the dry academic tomes about Bollywood (or at least, we've tried). A lot of them serve as better reference books than commuter train reading. But while Funky Bollywood is a deceptively educational book for the beginner, and certainly a refresher of familiar territory for the long-time fan, it aims to entertain first. Here, it's worth quoting Todd's breakdown of KSR Doss' cult "revenge" film, Rani Mera Naam:

"Is it trashy? Stupid? Gaudy? Lurid? Indeed it is. But, also, like its heroine, it commits these crimes in pursuit of a worthy goal."

Anything this book lacks in SERIOUS COMMENTARY (meh), it makes up for in wit and aesthetics, and in its not-so-secret goal of filmi evangelism. Also, you might find a new favorite among Todd's motley selection of urban thrillers. I'm going off to make some lists (OK, YouTube playlists) right now.

"Funky Bollywood" seems to be everywhere in San Francisco, but you can get yours on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Forty-First (1956)

This review is part of "The Russia in Classic Film Blogathon," hosted by Movies Silently. Check out the movie and blogroll here.

Some movies beg the accompaniment of a list or two. Female revolutionaries? Check. Wait, no, Female *snipers.* Check. (Probably a pretty short list, that, unless you count exploitation cinema, which abides by a whole 'nother set of rules.) Propaganda film? Check. Russian civil war story? Check. Sovcolor remake of black & white Soviet silent film? Check. Furthermore, the story is rich with nationalist and patriotic trope-ry.

Because you can head here for a more detailed plot summery, I will keep my retelling brief. Instead, I'd rather focus on this film's connections to international cinema and the questions it raises for me about the expectations for women in nationalist narratives. [This post will be rife with spoilers, as it's impossible to say anything about this film's message without discussing the final scene. You have been warned.]

It's the *ahem* Soviet propaganda version of 1918. The war between the Whites and Reds has not yet been resolved. [The important thing to remember is that White is bad and Red good in the Soviet imagination.] Maria (Izolda Izvitskaya) is a hardened sniper in the Red Army. She and her company are marching through the Karakum desert, when she spies a rival army caravan from afar and picks off two of the soldiers, giving her forty total kills. Uncharacteristically, she misses the man who would have been her forty-first, Lieutenant Otrok (Oleg Strizhenov).

Swiftly, the survivor is captured and discovered to be carrying some mysterious war intelligence for the White Army. This makes him a valuable prisoner indeed, and Maria is tasked with watching over him. But because he looks and acts rather like Cary Elwes dashing, is both charming and well-educated, and because she's the only women for hundreds of miles probably, a tentative comradery grows between them.

On his part, he seems to enjoy her shaky attempts at revolutionary poetry, and tries to hold back his laughter at her expense. She has a certain glow, it must be denied. (I need to get me some of that socialist realism make-up, it makes one look invincible.) And yes, she's rough and uneducated, but he comes to respect her dedication to the cause. Still, a shadow hangs between them, as she is bringing him to his death. However, not before they are shipwrecked on an island alone together (you'd have to be there, it sort of makes sense), and they finally let themselves fall into tempestuous cast-away love. Obviously, such bliss must be sacrificed--there's a war on, after all.

Helmed by one of my favorite directors, Grigori Chukhrai, and released in 1956 at the beginning of the Kruschev Thaw, the characters here are still bound by the severity of Soviet ideology. But, take note, these folks are characters, not puppets, with believable motivations and semi-believable actions. It's definitely not a pure propaganda film about the early Lenin years like 1959's Kommunist with Yevgeny Urbansky, nor does it share the ambiguities and moral questions of Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying (1957), the maddening unfairness of war expressed in Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959), or even the mild Stalinist critique of his later Clear Skies (1961). It falls somewhere in the middle. Yes, each of Chukhrai's films within this period are intensely personal accounts of war and the aftermath of war, and The Forty-First is no exception. But by sympathizing with the enemy (and even more literally, with the enemy's stories and story-telling) while STILL advocating a personal sacrifice for the larger mission, The Forty-First digs its heels into safe territory.

It's still near enough to no man's land to provide some thrills, however.

*Biggest spoilers below*

Of course, I'm hinting at the fact that although romance is allowed temporarily, it's doomed to be ended by Maria's final act: shooting Otrok when he is about to be rescued by a White Army ship. For those of you feeling some deja-vu, you have good reason. It's a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to Fanaa (2006), in which *spoiler* a Kashmiri woman kills her would-be militant husband, instead of letting him be air-lifted out to support large-scale terrorism.

Both stories trade on doomed romance that transcends earlier loyalties ... for a time. Both emphasize rejecting a beautiful enemy for a more beautiful country. Both use the desert island trope: one on an actual island, the other a snowed-in Kashmiri lodge. But while the protagonist in Fanaa has to kill the father of her son, and thus destroy her family (or save it, depending on your point of view), Maria was never a nurturing figure to begin with. It's easier to understand how her military training would take over in a moment of crisis.

I don't mention this because I think it's easier to execute one's lover than one's husband (Sophie's Choice much?), but it surprises me that in both cases, the Indian and Soviet ideals for the average woman (mother, wife, worker) are being superseded by the "higher" call or "need" of one's country. A film from India in the 50s, especially in the rather socialist Mother India (1957), sure. And in Soviet society in the 1950s, absolutely. Obviously, society trumps the individual in socialist narratives. But in Fanaa? An Indian film from the last dozen years? That's SO 60 years ago, guys. I guess nationalism and patriotism still need the same kinds of stories to achieve their ends, no matter to what country you pledge allegiance.

Following on the heels of that thought, it's important to note a similarity in the "means" not just the ends of this kind of fatalistic patriotism. Without artistic value, persuasive cinema can't keep people in their seats, much less spur them toward a certain kind of action. Both of these films trade on natural beauty to create an atmosphere of enchantment, even in, nay, especially when framing personal tragedy. The visuals of love and loss conjure up fairy tales, not history books. And in this, we see both the sneakier subtext of patriotism (the land is oh-so-important in national propaganda), the transformation of natural space into supernatural space (where anything can happen), and the dueling romanticizations of country vs. lover. Maria chooses the first, of course. Given Chukhrai's flare for "Romance with a capital R," one can almost understand why.