Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Anatomy of a Debate: Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)

After a recent re-watch of Jab Jab Phool Khile and several conversations about both its merits and flaws, I am again reminded that as a lover of JJPK in the Bolly-blogosphere, I am very much in the minority. For a series of reasons, this film tends to generate extreme reactions of both affection and disgust from modern viewers.

In my experience, people tend to sum up their opinion of Jab Jab Phool Khile in one of the following ways.

I imagine Yeh Samaa was a revelation for certain impressionable youths
1. "What a 'sweet' film, I grew up seeing those songs on Doordarshan. Mohammed Rafi was certainly in best form, then. And did you know that Shashi Kapoor studied and ate with shikara-wallahs to prepare for this role?"

Asking someone of this stripe to criticize JJPK would be like asking me to pass judgment on the home-sweet-home-is-best (but just for the woman) motifs in The Wizard of Oz (which is a film that appears in my earliest memories from age two, and continued to be my childhood obsession for long after). Even for those who have no special history with JJPK, this is an essentially non-critical, nostalgic, song-oriented position which holds that pretty + old = good.

ideallaedi here's the Lolita scene!
2. "The film represents a reactionary swing towards imagined rural values, and imposes them on the foreign-returned, educated, upper-class, city-bred female." 

For most of those who read the film this way, the (negative) critique flows naturally from the analysis itself. Progress is good, but Nanda is portrayed is bad, therefore Nanda is punished for her progressiveness, and even gives it up for the sake of the unreasonable reactionaries and cruel boyfriend! So much bakwaas. Dispose and delete. In contrast, though, I suppose there are also plenty of folks out there who, having read the film this way, would celebrate its championship of a simpler, traditional, and maybe already extinct way of life. [Also, if you happen to lean Marxist, you're certainly not going get caught rooting for a corporate zamindars' plan to control his daughter's marriage and thereby keep the daulat in the family and the bloodline pure.]

Note: I'm fairly certain that the above "feminist" critique represents the opinions of 90% of the Bolly-blogosphere.

3. "As in the later Dil Se, the romantic couple of Jab Jab Phool Khile embodies the ongoing ishq-nafrat relationship between India and Kashmir." 

Poetry, even poetic catharsis can be found here, if one is looking for it. And for the politically minded romantic, it must be something indeed to watch the final scene ... as the privileged Indian ladki almost kills herself trying to concede to the Kashmiri ladka's demands and win him back. Also, it's worth asking whether or not this is accidentally-on-purpose a Muslim/Hindu love story, on top of everything else.

4. "I liked it but I can't defend it. Still, you should see it, it's a classic." 

Fair enough.

5."Cute film. Liked the outfits. And the lake. The songs were catchy." 

O Enviable Being who can enjoy a film without feeling the need to reflect on every detail, teach me your ways.

***

But who in their right mind is going to root for this family's status quo?
In a richly layered film like Jab Jab Phool Khile, there's a little something for anyone (provided they take classic films seriously to begin with) to love or hate.

I can understand and respect most of the above views ... even those who long for "homegrown" values and simpler times have my sympathy. I have close family members who operate on a similar wavelength, people who are distressed by big cities and pollution and noise and promiscuity. What am I to say to them? No, you should enjoy that world's violence and artifice? You should jump on that train so you won't get left behind? Even if the destination repulses you? Someone in my family said, just last week, "I need to be living out in the country, you know. When I'm in big groups or at parties, I get overstimulated. I just see people's problems. There's too much noise."

The mythical deserted waterfront
As someone who grew up in the country, I understand this, even as I personally feel torn between the memory of the rolling hills of my childhood home, and the potential for new experiences and knowledge and culture that a city life brings. But I also know that peaceful pastoral days can eat up your life before you know it, never bringing a harvest ... and that fresh air is often intellectually stagnant.

As someone who grew up in a very conservative milieu, I also want to fight the traditionalist machine that only lives to reproduce exact copies of itself. So, in theory, I could rage at JJPK's dismantling of The Modern Woman's new-found independence. Still, I find myself dragging my feet, in this case.

While I don't pretend to know anything substantial about what it is to be Kashmiri or to live or travel in Kashmir, certain stories set in the region awaken for me the intangible essence of traveling from Mostar to Sarajevo and back to Zagreb. But if I can't describe the power of those more concrete travel experiences, I certainly can't describe the more abstract draw to a place I haven't yet been. My interest also might say more about connecting to an outsider's (Bollywood's) narration of a story that is not really its story to tell in the first place. [There are some powerful stories to be had here though, propaganda, one-sided-truths, romanticization or no.]

To those who want to dismiss this film based on the ideals of modern identity politics or feminist concerns, I can only say, "This is not your identity at stake here, this is a story. It's malleable. It can mean more than you think it means. Perhaps the central woman isn't a woman, but India. Or perhaps she's not India, but rather Modernity. Or could it also have less meaning than you ascribe to it? Perhaps the woman is just a girl who found something worthwhile outside her (grasping and villainous, let us remember) family and community ... and decided to make a sacrifice to keep it. If that's her personal choice, shouldn't one accept it based on those same political ideals of self-determination? Also, does the film require you to agree with her choice? You are just as free to see it as a cautionary tale."

And I could further talk about the value of subtext and performance over dialogue, and the Hindi dialogues vs. the English subtitles. I could argue that the film is more powerful in deed than in word, that Nanda and Shashi's performances are more in reactions than actions, and the film is *perhaps* less "offensive" in its original language. Even so, I could further argue that this is another time and place ... and shouldn't be weighed against our own. (As Filmigeek has done here, in a review I much appreciate).

Still, for me, most of these concerns were not much in my mind during my first experience with Jab Jab Phool Khile. First of all, it is a GOOD film, and as such, sent me far away from my own thoughts ... too far away to immediately judge or compare my opinions to that of others. I was more concerned with my own experience, frankly. To me, JJPK expressed the longing one can feel for someone or something or someplace that is not of one's own world. One fated day, the "pardesi" or foreign thing appears, captures the "desi" heart, and then leaves ... leaves you with no way to ever be whole again. Some part of you will always be with that far away place or person. It follows, then, that you will also never be completely home again. And yet, there is no way to fully inhabit that other, foreign life, either. Yes, Rita and Raja experiment with (mostly in Raja's case) each others' way of speech and dress. But ultimately, Raja will always be most comfortable in his phiran and shawl, and Rita her mod apparel. (Though I would pick Raja's any day over those satin gowns and skin-tight churidar-kameez.)

Like the protagonist of my earliest film obsession (The Wizard of Oz and its sequal), the lovers of JJPK have had a transformative experience, and now will forever be straddling two worlds. Raja will never be home without Rita, and Rita will never be whole without Raja. A neat filmi ending couldn't really resolve this tension, nor could we believe it if it tried. At least this film dares to give that struggle a voice.


"Jiska naam mohabbat hai voh, kab rukatee hain divaaron se."

8 comments:

  1. Such a lovely read :) And isn't Nanda cool reading Lolita like that :) I'm always on the lookout for any literature featured on screen in Bollywood.

    "To those who want to dismiss this film based on the ideals of modern identity politics or feminist concerns, I can only say, "This is not your identity at stake here, this is a story. It's malleable. It can mean more than you think it means”

    YES ! Please. This should be repeated at every chance one gets. While Indian cinema is more often than not regressive and unfeminist, why do we want *all* women to behave the same way. Why do we forget this is a story being told. Bang on.


    On a more serious note this constant struggle between progress and clinging to one's past always intrigues me. I love how you use desi/pardesi (Do you sometimes *think* in Hindi :) )

    There's a passage by Margaret Noble which I find moving, hauntingly melancholic and to be honest, a little scary which goes

    "As if up the long shores of some hidden creek, here would be forced the tidal wave of one epoch after another, each leaving on the coast a tide-mark that perhaps none of its successors would be able to entirely cover. Hence, in India, we may hope to discover means of studying, as nowhere else in the world, the succession of epochs in culture. (..) Here race upon race will settle and combine. Here agricultural nations will grow up. Here civilization will accumulate. And here we may look to see the gradual elaboration of schemes of thought which will not only bear their own history stamped upon them, but will in their turn become causes and sources of dynamic influence upon the world outside. (..) A single generation enamoured of foreign ways is almost enough in history to risk the whole continuity of civilization and learning. Ages of accumulation are entrusted to the frail bark of each passing epoch by the hand of the past, desiring to make over its treasures to the use of the future. It takes a certain stubbornness, a doggedness of loyalty, even a modicum of unreasonable conservatism maybe, to lose nothing in the long march of ages; and even when confronted with great empires, with a sudden extension of the idea of culture, or with the supreme temptation of a new religion, to hold fast what we have, adding to it only as much as we can healthfully and manfully carry.”

    Where does one draw the line between being regressive and being conservative ?

    (Sorry for the longish comment!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Note: I do think in Hindi sometimes, but it's all probably nonsense, lol. There are also times when I can only think of the Hindi word for something and rue the day my orderly English brain was thus spoiled ;)

      I love and am also a bit terrified by this quote! Thank you so much for bringing that into this conversation. Clearly, we both are ok looking at this film from a very macro lens, and stepping out of the interpersonal social politics of it all.

      So, for the macro questions:

      This urge to "run back to the forest" or the hills or the gaon intrigues me, whether it means running away from progress/corruption or just the stifling nature of the modern city. There are a lot of Bengali narratives about this that describe my feelings better than I can. Aranyer Din Ratri (which I just read) focuses on four city-boys who decide on a whim to head to the country. In the book, these boys long for something they hope to find in the country (simplicity, goodness, eroticism, freedom). But they can't find it. Either it doesn't ACTUALLY exist in the gaon as they imagined it, or it is just barred to them. It can only belong to those who count the place as home soil. Ray's film takes the story farther and is a more enjoyable narrative, but the book better encapsulates the futility of trying to be something one is not, or trying to throw off one's social bonds, or just trying to break the rules. The rules keep following you, you know?

      Also this claim that "culture" balanced on a knife's edge between tradition and progress is a huge but interesting question. I don't know about you, but I often feel caught between the appreciation for the traditional souls in my community (who I think retain something important) and the realization that their version of good has A LOT of baggage attached to it. Like an older family member who I've sparred with recently over her very anti-Muslim and just plain racist ideas. It's very confusing for me that this same person would honestly walk ten miles barefoot for a stranger-in-need of any persuasion. (Ahhh cognitive dissonance!) I just hope that what she passes on to her children and grandchildren is the second part of that equation, not the first. I can't speak for India, but for my country, I often think that the only good thing about our relentless and nauseating partisan politics is that hopefully in the end, no one interest group will be able to change things completely for the worse.

      And regressive vs. conservative ... hmmm. I would say that something regressive "loudly" rejects the new for the old, while the conservative is "silently" making a lot of compromises between the two, if not as fast as some would like it to. What do you think?

      Delete
    2. I’m in perfect agreement with each point you make (I was going, yes, yes, true, EXACTLY etc :) )

      Aranyer Din Ratri sounds wonderful ! Thanks for pointing that out! I think I need to see/read it, as it addresses an issue I still keep wondering about. I’ve seen a few (slightly terrible) more recent films of these “running away gets you nowhere” but I think this film would be more appealing.. About the culture caught between tradition and progress, I’m probably going to go way off-topic with regards to Jab Jab Phool Khile, so maybe I ought not to clutter your comments section and take it offline.

      Really lovely post again, made me *think* :)


      By the way I am always somewhat sorrowful that I seem to be able to *think* only in English. And then translate. Which is never the same thing, is it ? I am quite envious that you can sometimes think in Hindi !

      Delete
    3. Thank you ideallaedi! You are too kind. I must emphasize that my thinking in Hindi is very random and inconvenient and often nonsensical. I'm impressed by the script challenge you have going on over at your own blog right now :)

      Delete
  2. I have no problem with a woman behaving differently in context, Miranda. God knows there are many women out there who still believe the same. Here, the issue is that the woman is NOT from that milieu. By birth, upbringing, education, and the social strata she belongs to, she is different. The sort of values that are sought to be imposed on her are NOT her values.

    I don't mind that the hero is what he is by virtue of *his* birth, upbringing and social strata. I don't mind that they show him uncomfortable in her milieu. That is but natural. But why is there this burnishing of poverty, giving it a halo of virtue?

    My whole problem with the film is not that they have this dichotomy; it is that they insist on one being bad while the other is good. It is pretty clear where the bias is - a woman has to be lesser than the man; she has to follow him, no matter how much more educated or wealthy she is (and what are they going to live on? Love and fresh air?) , and of course, she has to switch from 'western' (read *baaaad*) outfits to the demure sari.

    Yes, of course there are predatory businessmen; yes, of course, they are out to make the big buck. But are all poor people noble? This film was regressive in ways that I couldn't digest when I first watched it - I was all of 12. And that had nothing to do with feminism. It is the same issue I have with Mr and Mrs 55. The SIL gives the 'modern' girl a long lecture on the duty of women, and how they have to get married, and look after their husband and home. Ugh!

    Whereas, in Ijaazat, when Rekha touches Naseeruddin Shah's feet at the end of the film to take leave of him, I'd no issues. She's a product of her times, of her society. She's traditional, she's conservative, and her whole characterisation throughout the film is based on that.

    If the director is true to his character, I have no issues with the character behaving in a way that I cannot empathise with; but I can at least understand it. However, when it becomes a way to lecture me (even without dialogues) on how 'good' women should be - then, heck no! That's not a movie I want to see. Would Shashi Kapoor have accepted Nanda as she is? Not at all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to write out such a well-thought out response, Anu. I appreciate your main point--that Nanda is being forced to conform to values that are not her own, and by virtue of this, a viewer cannot just accept her choice as being born from her context or social milieu. I also appreciate that you frame your argument outside of feminist analysis. (I just don't think that because I'm a feminist in today's world means that I should ask characters from 60 years ago to be feminist, so it's a pet peeve for me when other people apply those standards). I also agree that Raja's expectations for Rita are regressive and unfair and controlling. Also, is the movie itself manipulative? Yes.

      But also, none of that was unexpected for me when I watched the film. I was a Shashi fan, I had read enough reviews of the film to be expecting pure evil (lol): http://p-pcc.blogspot.com/2007/11/jab-jab-phool-khile-1965.html

      I wouldn't technically argue with you about the ethics of demonizing progress and deifying poverty (as you put so well), I have a few things weighing my opinion in the other direction.

      (A) Perhaps the shock factor (like that you describe at age 12) was dulled because of prior awareness.

      (B) JJPK is rich with extreme ideas and symbolism, which alone can really draw me into a film. I liked Purab aur Paschim, and I have even more problems with the conclusions that story draws. Even if a film's extreme ideas are socially regressive propaganda (as you say) ... I can't help it, I find propaganda narratives fascinating. Do I want my life to conform to the ideologies espoused in those stories? Not at all. But a film like this, like some of the films I watch from Mainland China or Russia, is just far enough removed from my life for me to be won over by the sheer improbability of character's choices. Or to be intrigued by the dedication to values that are so different from mine. I can't help but be fascinated at the thrust of the ideas ... even when I don't agree with them at all. I can't help but be interested in the fact that Nanda would still choose to go with Shashi in the end ... when clearly that was the most illogical and unwise choice she could have made. Where you see a director's outright manipulation of characters, I just see an improbable fable. Perhaps those are the same things, in the end, but in my case, I guess I also happened to be entertained and find some nuggets of truth in between the madness.

      At this point I feel the urge to say that I also enjoy watching films where people make good decisions and promote egalitarian ideals, I swear :) But I also think sometimes that one or two anti-egalitarian speeches do not actually represent a movie as a whole. Mr. and Mrs. 55 is that to me--the final scene picturized on departing lovers looks like a circle of equals to me, not a woman groveling and applying blood as a sindoor. (Which would be more of a negative emotional trigger for me, to be honest.)

      Delete
  3. I agree that I don't need people (not just women) to conform to 21st century ideas. I'm also not going to knock a film, even today, for its conservative values. Just because they are not mine, doesn't mean they are not equally valid. For a lot of people, women included, they are a belief system, and if that is what they believe in, and what gives them peace and happiness, yeah, go for it.

    Much more than egregious than JJPH, was Purab aur Paschim, where it was a combination of 'taming of the (very mild) shrew' and teaching her 'Indian' values. Believe me, if I lived in the 60s, I still wouldn't espouse the sort of 'values' that Mr Bharat thought an Indian woman should have.

    That said, if Nanda's character had been the sort who wanted to change her wild, western ways, and went through hell to make herself 'worthy' of him, I wouldn't have minded. I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have seen it as *her* choice. Cringe worthy to me, but I cannot judge. Here, it is a sort of slap in the face to be told that everything she stands for, that she is, is a sham; the only way she *could* be worthy of him would be to shed her education, her upbringing, her wealth, her family... I find that problematic.

    I've also never understood the 'give up all your wealth for love' business. Why not have both? If the woman is wealthy, why on earth should she give that up just to struggle for two square meals to prove her love? Why can't the man give up his ego and live comfortably with her to prove *his* love? Living on love and fresh air sounds romantic; it is quite hard. There is no upside to being poor, you know. Ask any poor person. And it makes me wonder how many of these script writers have actually known poverty that they glorify it so much. :)

    As to you last paragraph, no, I don't want everything egalitarian; life is not so. Just that, don't give me a film where a woman is 'shown her place'.

    But like I said, I can probably watch JJPK again; in fact, I should, to see if I still feel the same way as I did when I first watched it. I wouldn't watch Purab aur Paschim again, unless it is to burn the reels.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't read this film as romanticizing poverty, as much as romanticizing traditional ways of life. But perhaps those are just two sides of the same coin. And as for that, while I agree that poverty is nothing to seek or celebrate or choose (altho there are certainly religious groups who say otherwise), lots of Bollywood films seem to do it. I don't feel that JJPK is any more egregious in this regard! But all in all, I think it comes down to personal triggers and first experiences sometimes. Some of the films I hate the most are technically no worse on paper, but just happened to have the right combination of elements without those random cushioning perks. In this case, the film was well told, and I didn't feel the end result (admittedly completely unrealistic) was completely unsupported by the (also unrealistic) arc of the film.

      Delete