Monday, April 13, 2015

Catching Up: Hindi and Bengali Reviews

I have got into some questionable habits this semester ... rushed survey reading over leisurely film watching, listening to educational podcasts more than listening to music, trying to read in Urdu more than listen in Urdu, and searching YouTube frantically for documentaries to show my students instead of digging for that elusive one film I just heard about with English subtitles. This is not to say I haven't watched any films ... when I look at my watchlist from the last three months, it's extensive. A lot of it is international cinema rather than Indian cinema, but hey. So let's do some catching up! (So I can move on.)

[No plot summaries today. That’s the best thing about “mini” reviews. I'm not obliged to give something one can often get on Wikipedia or other, senior, blogs.]

 
Bengali films 

I must say I've neglected my Bengali interests most of all, of late. Forgive me, dear Mahanayak and Supriya-ji. I DID watch Ray's Pratidwandi (1970) ... and liked it quite a lot. It was angry and helpless and explosive, but still managed to entertain. I can't say the same for Jana Aranya, which pushes a bunch of my anxiety buttons and is destined to wait for the day when I can stomach the second half. (I guess I am impressed at how often it manages to trigger my worry and frustration as a younger person in an unstable economy, so, shabash?)

Ok, and I also saw Shesh Anka (1963), a thriller starring Uttam and Sharmila. It's been written about extensively elsewhere, and so I was sort of spoiled as to the outcome. Still, I enjoyed how it integrated aspects of Hitchcock's Rebecca and some of the tropes of his work in the 50s with a South Asian filmi moral code. The scenes with Sharmila and Uttam driving about on dark country roads are fun just for the witty repartee, but might also send chills up your spine. As they pause at a train-crossing, Uttam has an inadvisable (and fabulous) fit in the driver's seat, and you really start to wonder what kind of man it is that Sharmila's character has decided to marry. 

And then I saw Lookochoori (1958), a romp with Kishore Kumar in a double role as a set of Bengali twins trying to make it in Bombay. This allows for a wealth of Bong-centric humor, fish-out-of-water gags, and some peak period Kishore-as-actor song picturizations. Also, look out for Anup Kumar as an envious office clerk with aspirations to be just like his happy-go-lucky co-worker. This reminds me that I really enjoy "Kumar brothers" inside jokes, and I think someone (not me) should write about meta-humor in their onscreen collaborations. 


Hindi Films

Dear Shashi, baristas are nice in Minnesota. Actually, most everyone is.
In interest of providing some shock factor in this post, I will admit the following: I did not see English Vinglish (2012) until a month ago. No joke, but maaf kar do, anyhow. Overall, the film left me a bit cold. The first word that comes to mind is "commendable," which doesn't portent good things. Yes, it does combine hot button topics, "woman's empowerment" and "Indians in the U.S." and "second language learning" together in a competent way. You never have time to get offended over little inaccuracies or exaggerations, because the film moves fairly quickly, and has built-in temporal suspense. (Oh no, but will she learn English in three weeks or not? Oh no, but her family has come early! Oh no, but the *wedding is on the same day as graduation!)

But for all of the empowerment, it's a bit sad, too. It's especially sad in it's truest moments. This woman isn't going to be as downtrodden as before, but she's also locked into a social situation that is never going to give her the opportunities she deserves. She's going back to India, and yes, doors will open to her through English skills... but it seems to me that her family will never give her much room to spread her wings. Once a condescending and controlling husband ... probably always so. 

*Note: Are desi weddings EVER as chill as the one in English Vinglish? Wait no, are non-desi weddings ever as chill as this? Because this was the least believable aspect of the film for me. English in three weeks? (Maybe, when you've spent a lot of time around it). Families having a change of heart? (Well, filmi comeuppances are nice fantasies and I won't complain too much.) BUT. Wedding days (much less the month beforehand) are madness and the sister of the bride definitely would NOT have time to help aunty with her problems, much less drive her to school or try to make up for her absence ... etc. etc.. 

I enjoyed Hasee To Phasee (2014) quite a lot (even though I felt the actual plot was not as strong as the characterizations), but then so did everyone else, I think. Both the hero and heroine are unconventional in a non-glamorous way. They're still over-the-top film characters ... but near enough to resemble the messy person you feel like on the inside. (Or maybe that's just me.) It's a story that delights in human imperfection ... and seems to make the case that love of imperfection is real love ... or perhaps, that when you love someone's flaws (not just their socially acceptable facade), you know you have found something real. Also, coming from a society (like India) that too often prizes a narrow range of male/female qualities, I appreciate a film that advocates for broader tastes. 

Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) has finally been conquered. Now, to bitch about the work involved. Hmm, yes, Waheeda and Guru should have a hard subbed "Warning: Electricity!" in the screen below them at all times. And Johnny Walker was (surprise! or not) the most sensible person of the bunch. But I can't get past a deep hatred for Rehman as a "sympathetic" figure. He's not. Sorry. Just, you can't make me feel for him. His characters are irritating and repulsive, and best when playing to those strengths. And the "humorous" Muslim social side plot is only bearable because of Johnny Walker. Can someone just edit out like 70 min of this film? Thanks, much. 

Ha. I see what you did there. 
Purab Aur Paschim (1970). Can you hear that sound? That's me chuckling and snickering uproarously through the first two hours in this three hour mess/masterpiece (OK and sort of crying in the last hour). It's the textbook example of a film desperate to be both technically innovative and morally conservative. I know I'm not saying anything new, this film is notorious for its tie-dyed traditional propaganda. Also, can we talk about the brilliant dichotomy of condemning sexual and moral "decay" while all the while showing as much of it as possible? It's a time-tested formula in Bollywood (and probably old-Hollywood, too) but I've never before seen a Hindi film from the 70s that both glorifies and demonizes "immorality" in such perfect synchronization.

Actually, most things in this movie arrive in perfect syncopation. You'd be hard pressed to find another film of this era more attuned to the marriage of score, shots, and script. It's a pleasure to watch, and wherever it lacks in likable characters (you know, when Pran, Madan Puri, and Ashok Kumar aren't around) it will so thoroughly drench you in verbal or visual symbolism that you can't possibly walk away without feeling something.

This was also the film that *almost* made me like Saira Banu ... if only in contrast to Manoj Kumar's pompous Bharat. Is it possible that Bharat is the corporeal manifestation of an entire generation of desi-parent's secret fantasies? Actually, transplant his patriotism to America, change his religion to Christianity, and he fits pretty well with the good-Christian boy next door mythos. "No person he can't convert! No woman he can't win! No temptation he can't resist! All while mysteriously finding time to graduate with honors!" For all that, Manoj is believable in the role (make of that what you will).  

Actually, the idea of hero as missionary or moral leader is probably one of the most important themes, here. The film is an important, if black and white, view of culture shock, partition memory, second generation immigrants, and value shifts in diaspora populations. It's also a prodigal son story, multiplied by ten. Yes, those who have been living abroad have been tainted ... but roots are powerful, and old values and ties can easily prevail against Western vices and fads and you know, that whole rapey thing you acquired abroad. The Ganga can wash you clean, if you so choose to repent ... and luckily your abandoned wife (or, you know, country) won't ever divorce you or remarry.

In Purab Aur Paschim, Bharat (the place, not the character), is the well of all that is pure and good and transformative, both for Indians AND the West. This conceit is perhaps a peculiarity of the age ... when the avante garde thing to do was to mix in a little sitar and Hare Ram Hare Krishna into everything, stir, and rake in the popularity (and cash). While the film doesn't completely miss the humor in this phenomenon, it also seizes the moment. It veers oddly evangelical along the way to calling lapsed believers/patriots, etc. to repentance.
Or, perhaps it's just an elaborate after-school-special starring Pran. 

2 comments:

  1. *Note: Are desi weddings EVER as chill as the one in English Vinglish?

    Yes, sometimes. Sridevi's character in English Vinglish is Maharashtrian, as am I, and our weddings are usually laid-back and chilled-out affairs. They're comparable to a Western ceremony in terms of length and simplicity and there isn't that much preparation to do.

    Bolllywood films usually feature North Indian cultural archetypes so they're not a complete representation of India. English Vinglish was an exception in that it portrayed a Marathi cultural milieu.

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    1. That's a welcome observation, thank you. Speaking of relatively chill Marathi weddings, "Aiyyaa's" backyard engagement (and later, wedding) comes to mind. Though I'm not versed enough in Marathi traditions to know how close it came to decent representation. Personally, I'm all for a bit more deviation from the usual Punjabi baraat & bhangra celebration that Bollywood loves. . .

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