Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pakistani Film Reviews: Ek Hi Rasta (1967) ایک ھی راستا

Filmi~Contrast's fascination with Pakistani actress and dancer, Rani, continues with Ek Hi Raasta (1967), a love story between an outlaw and a tawaif, and the rise and fall of a female dacoit.

But first, Rani. A couple of months ago, I realized I wasn't the only blogger fixating on her performances. Richard at Dances on the Footpath had discovered her a few years back, and I'm thrilled to not to be alone in this interest. Richard just finished a lovely tribute to Rani (her death anniversary was May 27th), and in the way only he can, curated some of his favorite Rani dances. If you want an introduction to the Rani-magic, you can't do better than spend some time with his post.

But why all the fuss? I guess ... she's an easy performer to love, and impossible to miss. You don't watch a Rani performance and wonder if it's that same girl from that other film, or just a look-alike. Nobody looks like her, much less *ahem* moves like her. When watching films with low budgets, poor preservation, missing sections, sound distortions, and no English subtitles. one needs a concrete incentive to make up the difference. Rani is that, for me. I can't say that her acting is more than adequate (she doesn't really get beyond the standard emotions), but she always manages to upstage everyone else in the room with her singular and almost masculine way of using physical space. Where other actresses might play it safe, keep things sedate and ladylike, Rani projects energy and movement. She's always big and imposing and confident, and when the occasion calls for it, she knows how to work an hero-esque action sequence or physical showdown or a seduction number (see Richard's post).

Given her physically intimidating style of theatrics, if she was working in Hindi cinema in the 60s, she almost certainly would have been confined to vamp roles. But in Pakistan, while playing several famous tawaif characters (including Umrao Jan), she played mostly positive roles, as far as I can tell. Whether this was because her peak period, in the late 1960s and early 70s, was especially open to diverse expressions of acceptable femininity (as 70s Bollywood was starting to be), or because she still manages to project "chasteness" along with everything else, or because she allied herself with some powerful figures in the industry (through her marriage and professional partnership with director Hassan Tariq), it's hard to say.

But how to approach Rani fandom? Personally, as she excels in a variety of dances (especially cabaret and folk styles), I generally pre-assess her films to see if she gets enough chances to strut her stuff. And with four dances + three montage-y songs all picturized on Rani, Ek Hi Raasta was a no brainer.*

While not exactly frequenting "best-of" lists, I would argue that this film offers an entertaining twist on a stock plotline: good farmer Badal (Sudhir) becomes a dacoit when he crosses some bad elements in the district, mainly a corrupt police commissioner and his associates. I'm not positive on the exact reason for his persecution, but it seems he is blamed for the willful destruction of his home village (which was probably a personal attack on him by the same authorities). After escaping prison, he becomes an outlaw. Around the same time, fresh-faced Putli (Rani), the estranged daughter of a town official, catches the lecherous commissioner's eye. When asked, the unscrupulous baap arranges for his daughter to meet him at an appointed place. Of course, it is the commissioner who is waiting for her inside the room. And as we all know, after being raped, Putli has no other course of action but to become a tawaif to support herself and her mother.

From top left clockwise: Sudhir, unknown actor playing commissioner (?), Rani, Talish.
Of course, it's only a matter of time before Badal visits Putli's kotha, soon making it clear that he wants the lion's share of attention. This sets up one of the best running gags of the film. One of the other clients is uncomfortable with the presence of the outlaw and calls him a chor. With dry humor, Badal replies, "Chor nahiin, daku." [This kicks off a series of dialogues in which a person in power will call one of the two protagonists a name, only to be rebuffed with a preferred identifier. It never gets old hearing marginalized characters stick up for themselves.]

Enter honest police-wallah (Talish), who realizes that the best way to find Badal is to harass the daku's favorite courtesan. This doesn't get him far, at first. Putli still has little knowledge of Badal, other than that he's chased a few paying clients away. Police-wallah comes up with a plan to encourage the connection, sending Putli to the outlaw-controlled region to be "captured" by Badal.

Badal is clearly-head over heels in lust for Putli ... especially when she breaks out the flamenco-y gypsy number at his camp. It might be the standout dance of the film, if only for the pop-fantasy element of the captive seducing the captor. Here, the film shifts from a tale of woe and injustice to something closer to old Hollywood swashbucklers. Shades of Baaz (1953) are everywhere. But the idyllic camp-life is disrupted by a wedding procession. And who is it but the corrupt official at fault for Badal's mother's death, all bedecked out as a groom. Badal takes swift revenge, killing the official mercilessly. Afterwards, when he realizes what he has done, he laments to Putli. Unfortunately, the very same official he killed also happened to be her father.

Distraught, Putli goes through with the plan, running off into the wilderness, and leading Badal (on her tail) right into the hands of the police. Still, she's torn, and sings a fabulous song, "Parvane, jal na jaana, shamaa nazar ka dhoka hai." (Moth, do not burn, the sight of the candle is a deception.) Here, too, the melody echoes songs from Baaz.

Badal escapes on the way back to town, and Putli goes back to the kotha. But soon she meets Badal again on her own terms, when she takes in a revolutionary. Here I have to concede my ignorance, as the reason for the ongoing populist uprisings in this film that escape me. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be Partition violence, or local tribal wars, or revolutions against the corrupt rural government. No idea. But the film makes you feel as if revolutionaries are in the right, and Badal soon thinks so, too. After getting pouty that Putli has taken in another outlaw that isn't him (which is mostly played for laughs), they run off together and join the revolution proper as dacoits in love (but they're mostly in love with blowing things up, I think).

The rest of the film will probably be no surprise to those familiar with Westerns and outlaw stories (Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance), but it's still a lot of fun to watch.

I have a low tolerance for messy beginnings (which plagued this film), but I have to say I liked Ek Hi Rasta more and more as it went along. I'm never going to say no to a female dacoit, and Rani as that dacoit is as much as I could ask. (Other than finding a copy of that elusive Rakhee-Vinod dacoit film from the 80s, that is.) I'm just sayin', the woman knows how to use a bayonet.

I also kind of love that Ek Hi Rasta's idea of a dacoit is someone who can go anywhere at anytime, as long as he is wrapped in a curtain. Need to get into the masjid? No problem. The kotha? Please and thank you. The police wale building? They won't look twice until you throw off the sheet and start waving your gun around.

Talish has the standout male role in this film, if only to employ his lovable character-actor versatility. After running into him several times, I would categorize him as the Madan Puri of 60s Pakistani cinema: equally comfortable as a cackling villain, a dedicated cop, or a traditional baap.

I liked the fearless on-the-nose transitions, like between a dialogue where the dacoit says he eagerly awaits the moment when he is no longer a "daku", but "Putli ki saathi" (Putli's companion) and a lone desert ride with the pained vocalized refrain "Meri saathi..." But overall, this film usually uses songs to push the story foward, and smartly (Hassan Tariq did direct, after all), Rani is the lead in ALL of them, while Sudhir is usually just the observer or the object of interest. Quite all right with me, as at this stage, he was far past his romantic hero heyday (which I have yet to see in action so ... can't be sure what that heyday was like). He was best when delivering humorous dialogues, or threatening people in his headdress and fake Sikh beard.

Still, if you aren't convinced, find the film on YouTube (with the exception of the one above, the songs aren't uploaded separately). Skip to the mujras (which aren't perfect technique-wise, but are fun and well shot) and montages, and if nothing else, the gypsy camp number at 102:30 is delightful.

*As this film did not have subtitles, some scenes were missing, and some of the dialogue was very colloquial/hard to hear because of the audio quality, I hope you'll forgive any errors in my narration of the plot.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nikaah (1982)

The image above depicts Nikaah's heroine's second (!) wedding night, which occurs while her first husband is still alive (!). Also, the story isn't resolved by a death, imprisonment, or pregnancy. Can this really be a Hindi film? In short, yes, but maybe *Urdu* film would be more accurate.

[Since there aren't a million reviews of this film on other blogs, I'll summarize the plot before I pick it apart. Spoilers below, including a discussion of the ending, marked separately for those who want to be surprised.]

Old college-acquaintances, Niloufar (Salma Agha) and Haider (Raj Babbar) run into one another after a long stretch of lost contact. A poet in school, he's now a gainfully employed writer at a magazine, and he shares some mostly one-sided reminiscences about his crush on her in their university days. But Haider is suspicious when he sees Niloufar, who he knows married into money, dispute a small fee and take a bus home. He follows her and finds that she lives at a women's hostel. Kindly, he approaches her a few days later, asks her to a cafe, and entreats her to tell him of her real situation. She goes on to tell him what happened after his advances were rebuffed. Cue long flashback.

Perhaps we should install some art on the ceiling to make these moments more interesting for us. 

Upon graduation, she had married her childhood sweetheart, Nawab Wasim (Deepak Parashar). It seemed a natural match, but right after their wedding night, the Nawab wins a bid to build a five star hotel in Mumbai. They travel to Mumbai together [ostensibly] for their honeymoon, but Niloufar ends up spending most of the the trip alone in their suite or on the breakers outside their hotel while her husband is off conducting business.

The "lucky break" business deal ends up taking the Nawab out of the house at all hours. Perhaps unused to so much responsibility, or just because he's a self-absorbed ass, Wasim repeatedly fails to show up for dinner dates, and movies, and parties. He also doesn't seem to know how to use a phone to let people know he won't be home. Expected to stay home and socialize or keep herself amused all day, Niloufar quickly starts to feel the effects of such an isolated, unreliable existence.

Luckily she has one staunch ally in Iftekhar, who keeps making chai that she won't drink alone.

Whenever Wasim does come home, the newlyweds either fight over his tardiness, or some comment Niloofar has made about his frequent absences to their in-laws, which Wasim takes as a loss of face with his family. Over their first year of marriage, his temper tantrums grow more and more frequent, and her rejection complex deepens. Eventually, when he fails to show up for their first anniversary party, Niloufar breaks under the pressure and goes upstairs (gasp).

Gossipy guests take offense and leave, and Wasim comes home to an empty house and "massive" blot on his social standing. The two have a high-pitched argument, in which Niloufar dares to stand up for herself, telling him she doesn't deserve such treatment and that he doesn't deserve her physical affection.

This doesn't go over well with Wasim, who pronounces the dreaded, "Talaq, talaq, talaq." And just like that, Niloufar is out on the street. Still, she now has an ally and friend. When she is assaulted at her new job, Haider arrives just in time (diffusing the situation with nary a dishoom) and whisks Niloufar away for a good cry-chat on the steps. [Note: this man is like the elusive Rocky-Road of potential suitors.]

What, no covering of my head? You want to talk to me and help me process this? 

The rest of the year passes pleasantly, until her ex invites her for dinner on the date of their anniversary. When Niloufar doesn't show, Wasim has his own breakdown (which is very satisfying, I must say). But Niloufar is watching after all, and when Wasim begs her to come back, she walks out. Faithful manservant begs too, but she tells him she knows her path isn't with Wasim any longer.

It's when she tells Haider the same thing that night in his office, that he is finally free to ask, "Could you see your path being with me?"

She can, and they decide to get married. Haider proves to be a polar opposite sort of spouse--attentive and funny and inclined toward playing hooky from work instead of staying out to all hours. They develop a playful relationship, and seem to have a lot of fun together. Still, there is much left to be sorted out.

Wasim hasn't given up, instead, he sees her marriage as an opportunity to fulfill the sharia requirement of halala nikaah: the woman's second marriage to someone else required before the first couple can get remarried. But does Niloufar feel the same? And more importantly, can Niloufar and Haider handle the shadow of her past relationship and the interference of her ex?


From the opening "epic" prologue about women and their unfair lot, Nikaah sets out to tell the other side of the story. And not only that, it tries very, very hard not to ruin this goal in the last act.

In fairness, before we go on, I want to be clear that "favorite actor" stepping stones probably won't lead you to Nikaah. For 70's film lovers, Iftekhar can be seen now and then in a magnificent red beard and dark manservant's achkan or expertly brandishing a towel and chai platter. Asrani appears briefly to advance either the comedy or the dramatic stakes, and gleefully takes the the male lead in a magnificent [really kinda feminist] wedding qawwali. But the male leads in the film as a whole didn't excite me at all, I admit. And at first, it appeared my assumptions were confirmed. Raj Babbar and Deepak Parashar demonstrated the liveliness of set pieces spouting poetic dialogues. By the end of the first half, it seemed clear that the relative unknown in this equation, Salma Agha (a Pakistani actress and talented playback singer who went on to win the playback singer award for Nikaah's lovely Dil Ke Armaan) did less acting with far more results.

But it turned out that Nikaah faithfully follows the emotional journey of Niloufar. She barely thinks of the kind, but sometimes ridiculous Haider in the beginning, as her whole life is wrapped up in her first marriage. So, neither do we. But as she gets to know Haider over the second year, he becomes more attractive. And by the third year, he's the perfect contrast to Wasim, and a breath of fresh air for the audience. He comes home early, leaves late, asks her where she wants to go and follows through, and is all together a fun person to actually live with. Basically, this is a rare moment when good writing and casting actually support one another ... as Raj Babbar successfully creates a character the audience can love and even be surprised by. Even, dare I say, a role model.

And this is something that not every "strong woman" film can boast. There are a lot of classics with women of steel, women of God, women of the kotha ... women who overcome every difficulty, and never give up. Men have these films too, countless films full of heroic conquest. But only rarely comes a film that models strong male-female partnership, with men who are strong enough to sacrifice their ego for the little daily indignities and negotiations, and women who expect to be treated not like goddesses or martyrs, but like human beings. This is what Nikaah champions--the value of mundane goodness.

Why yes, both the men are framed under inscriptions spelling out the name of the Prophet, while the woman is centered beneath the name of God. What does it mean? You decide.

Driving these points home is Nikaah's ending, which at first looks to be a textbook filmi climax (even narrated in a meta fashion in a penultimate scene). But Niloufar isn't going to be punished for remarrying, either by society or fate or human weakness ... even if the set-up looks to do just that. Because of course, Haider mistakenly finds a note from the ex and a melancholic diary entry by Niloufar, puts two and two together, and thinks his wife wants to remarry Wasim ... and he takes it upon himself to give her up.

It's also been a while since I've seen a non-Ma character so expertly use melodramatic religious performance to call out the wayward men in her life. 

The woman in question will have none of it. She tells Wasim that she isn't going to be treated like "property," and tells Haider that she won't be given a "gift" she doesn't want or allow him to be a "martyr" for her. In an epic showdown, she tries to leave both of the men. But Wasim saves the day, proving a voice of truth (for once). He notes, rightly, that while he wanted her for his own happiness, Haider is only interested in giving her happiness.

And a film that only wants happiness for its twice-wedded, independent, and childless heroine is definitely a keeper.