Sunday, April 06, 2014

Sikandar (1941)

Epically epic! Not terribly high in historical accuracy, but wonderful to behold and thoroughly thought-provoking about empire and political virtue from pre-Independence India. Sikandar manages to be completely entertaining while still indulging in lesson-dispensing from Aristotle (Shakir),
who is surprisingly in Persia with Sikandar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Rukhsana (Vanamala) as the film opens,
An article I'll link to below refers to Sikandar's outfits as "knee-length." Ummm...those aren't knees. It also says no one would wear outfits like this as well as Prtihviraj Kapoor again except perhaps Dharmendra, and with that I completely agree. 
and Puru (director and producer Sohrab Modi),
who debates the value of war with various other kings. It'd be so easy for a film like this to be ponderous, with too much throne-room ego-clashing and not enough fighting, but Sikandar rolls along merrily. It helps greatly that the music (both songs and the background score, by Rafiq Gazhnavi and Mir Saheb), sets, and costumes overall are a delight. Both Puru and Sikandar have capes that could double as tents for their armies. Backdrops are clearly painted, but the palatial architecture and furniture are lush and full.

The lighting and other effects are super too, in particular the lightning flashing during a thunderstorm as Sikandar prepares his troops to cross a river (the Jhelum?), illuminating the soaked soldiers in all their armor and huge plumed helmets while the wind whistles and fires roar in the background. This is surely filmed in actual darkness with strategically placed lights, which on its own seems tricky enough, but Modi adds in dozens and dozens of horses, tents, rocks, and a forest too.

I'm not certain that Indian cinema has improved overall in its presentation of historical battle scenes in the 70-odd years since this film was made. For starters, the staging of the Greeks vs Hindustanis is clearly full of actual people, horses, and elephants, since there is no CGI in 1941.
The actors and the camera are in the thick of things. Trained elephants very carefully lying down to indicate they've been felled is not convincing (and hooray for that), but the clouds of dust and giant roars of the crowd are. Sikandar's armor looks just as realistic as, if not better than, anything in Jodha Akbar or Veer, perhaps because old black and white film doesn't have enough detail for us to see the costuming tricks but perhaps because these wardrobe wizards are actually combining materials intelligently instead of relying on pre-molded pec-shaped spray-painted plastic.

Also key to the film's success, I think, is Prithviraj Kapoor.
For starters, his physical presence strikes me as absolutely perfect: not just because he's beautiful and has Greek god wavy hair but because he's simultaneously imposing and dynamic. The writer (Sudarshan) gives the character some important complexities—he's obedient to his teacher and the gods yet clearly considers himself the rightful ruler of the known world; he's imperious yet makes sure to remember the lowliest member of his troops when gifts are distributed; he bellows in front of armies yet stomps around in juvenile snits when things don't go his way, flinging his cape here and there—and Prithviraj somehow rolls all these things up into a very flawed but likable character. Says Sukanya Verma in Rediff: "Almost every sentence coming out of his mouth reeks of narcissism. But Prithviraj Kapoor humanizes his pomposity, turns him into someone who isn't self-indulgent on purpose, he just doesn't know better because he is the best. Such arrogance is almost naive."
Verma also says "Spontaneous, natural acting wasn't the trend back then and it takes about 10 minutes to adjust to Sikandar's verbose theatrics. Once you get used to it, there's much to appreciate in the marriage of booming baritone and vigorous physicality." I'd agree firmly with that too: no one in this film is easy to watch by today's standards but they are all powerful and compelling. If the style puts you off, try to hold out a little bit longer until you're swept up in all the action and ideas.

Everyone I've discussed this film with has mentioned how easy it is to see traces of each of his three sons in Prithviraj Kapoor in Sikandar. In the picture above, for example, I see Shashi in his face but Shammi in the stylized, exuberant gesture. Watching the film made me realize how much arrogance is a part of what I associate with the Kapoor men, even more than might come naturally from careers as filmi heroes, although it takes a different form in each of the sons. Shashi inherited (or used, I'm not sure which) the sort of golden, confident version, in which the central male figure is truly befuddled when he realizes someone doesn't return his affections or agree with him; Shammi got the "Look at me look at me look at me!" antics and certainly built most successfully on the energetic gestures and movements; and Raj...well, the man can pout.

Another aspect of Sikandar with which I am utterly smitten is how it challenges what I think is going to happen. It is a blast of surprise against my...I'll say hubris (to be appropriate to the film's subject) in thinking I know what a Hindi film is going to do. Of course I didn't expect any major feature film to narrate the story of Alexander the Great as that era's historians understood it, but I reeeeally didn't expect, for example, Aristotle to show up in the Persian capital with Alexander and remind him how important it is not to be distracted by women when you're planning battles in foreign lands. "He who would conquer the world should stay away from women," says Aristotle. Putting aside the refusal by the narrative to acknowledge anything other than married heterosexuality even when depicting ancient Greek culture (and I'm sure a Hollywood version of his story made in this era would do the same), this little detour into the risks of romance establishes a theme about the power of love.

This twist on the typical tale of historical Alexander also gives Rukhsana a chance to spar feisitily with Aristotle—and sets up the bizarre sight of her throwing a shawl over him and using it as reins to trot him around a garden fountain. Given that Aristotle is involved, you should take heart that the game of horsey (and the whole scene) is more philosophically complex than what I've just described, but the gist is that Sikandar realizes Aristotle is right and that a woman can distract a man from his ambitions. He vows not to see her again until he has conquered India, and as he goes, she says "Peace of mind comes not from war or victory but from peace and love." That's a perfectly Bollywood battle cry, especially since these troops are invading rather than defending the desh, and, in a move that will surprise historians everywhere, the Greeks gallop off towards the subcontinent on their clip-clopping horses singing "Life exists because of love, so let it be spent in love. At the feet of beauty, give up your heart, give up your life.... Life is a gamble; don't look at it from afar. Step up to it, and put your life on the line." (See "Zindagi Hai Pyaar Se" here.) Rukhsana, for her part, is visibly inspired by that last little bit of lyrics. As any good filmi girlfriend or sister would, she goes along to India anyway and—again, the historical record may not bear this out—ties a rakhee on Puru in order to protect Sikandar from him in the looming battle.

That's the kind of ruler Puru is. A promise made to a total stranger who forces herself upon him as a rakhee sister is enough to stop him from the ultimate victory on the battlefield. He doesn't want to fight but he knows he must, because stopping a power-hungry land-grabbing egomaniac is the right thing to do, even though he is such a jovial chap. (The last clause aside, the rest of it seems a clear statement of contemporary events the year the film released.)
One of his princes proposes that Hindustan is sure to triumph over Sikandar (unspoken: whereas Persia did not) because so far Alexander has not yet met anyone who values self-respect. ("I think we'll have to agree that Persia drools while Hindustan rules," said Cultural Gutter, my viewing companion.) It's really too bad Darius is dead by this point because I'd love to hear his contributions to these discussions of conquest and right. One of the Indian princesses (Meena Shorey, enunciating Hindi in a style I've never heard before), trying to spur her reluctant brother Ambhi (K. N. Singh) to join Puru in the fight, says that "He who cares only for his own life cannot do anything in this world." She's talking about her brother, who would rather ally with Sikandar and be done with it, but it's a good dig at the egotistical invader too.

I know so little about the film industry in the era Sikandar was made, and I'm wondering if the fact that it was released at all indicates the British were either not terribly involved in the censor board or just didn't have the energy to bother much, given what else was on their international plates. Perhaps they saw Sikandar as a European hero and didn't think much about the film beyond that? Or do they see him as representing Germany, with wise Hindustan inspiring in him better behavior and being the only place where he listened to the gods telling him to turn back his relentless drive for conquest? (The fact that his troops are about to mutiny because they desperately want to go home has less impact on the cinematic emperor.) An article in The Hindu a few years ago says that the film was later banned in some cinemas for its power in inspiring nationalism, and indeed there is significant conversation about the dangers and indignities of having a foreign ruler. It's curious to see a story where the invader is so...I can't exactly call Sikandar nuanced, but he and his desires are more complex than most filmi villains. I don't even think it's fair to call him a villain. He's the threat to and opponent of Hindustan in the film, but he's not evil. Still, it's interesting that we can read different contemporary empires into him, and it's downright amazing to see a film this patriotic that has such an empathetic and engaging enemy.

While thinking about Sikandar's status as more of an equal than an enemy, it occurred to me that it's almost possible to read Sikandar as a typical love triangle in which neither of the heroes (monarchs) competing for the girl (India) is bad, and they have similar status or backgrounds and might even be friends (peers), and their interactions and competition might illuminate virtues and ideologies, but in the end one of them must be wiser or more virtuous and therefore satisfy us as the champion. And then it occurred to me that perhaps Sikandar is like Student of the Year, only instead of completing a scavenger hunt and bike races to get Alia Bhatt/admission to an Ivy League university, the heroes are battling over the even more priceless motherland. Which is probably for the best for Puru, because there's no way he'd win the dance-off.

Watch the restored version of Sikandar (with English subtitles) by Edu Productions on their youtube channel here. Additionally, if you want to refresh your knowledge of the actual history, I recently watched and loved Michael Wood's BBC documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, in which he and a crew follow Alexander's whole path, key segments of it on foot just as the armies did. It's worth a watch just to see the harsh (and breathtaking) terrain and distance, but for me the highlight was getting a sense of just how many cultures are involved in this incredible period of history. In fact, it is this documentary that finally spurred me to watch Sikandar, because Michael Wood actually discussed the film and there is footage of him watching it in a theater somewhere in...I think he's in Pakistan at that point. To me, Wood's film stacks up plenty of evidence to indicate that Alexander was profoundly out of touch with reality (or perhaps even mentally ill), whether with just delusions and narcissism or also, later, with sociopathic revenge. That background makes this film's portrayal of him all the more interesting, as it manages to constrain his contradictions of character into a sympathetic whole. I cannot find anything admirable in the real Alexander when his whole history is considered, but Sikandar shaves off his ruthlessness and presents him as driven by exuberance and hunger that can be redirected by input or sound arguments from worthy rivals. I wonder what this film's portrayal of Alexander says about the general Hellenistic legacy in Indian history and culture—he is decidedly not of Hindustan in this film, but he is alike enough that he respects its leaders and in fact his life is spared because of Rukhsana's use of an Indian tradition. He is foreign yet not as "other" as we might expect. He's not right for India, but he's worthy of it.
The chessboard of his dreams of Indian empire. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

three films from the Mahanayak: Sabar Uparey, Bipasha, and Lal Pathar

Three Uttam Kumar films I've seen in the last month or so, which, coincidentally, showcase the superstar's special skills at romantic nonchalance and matinee idol-ing and what can happen when he charges full-tilt into nearly histrionic ACT!ING! The first two entries are my thoughts in brief, and the last one is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation between Filmi Geek and me after we watched the third film. (The same piece is on her blog, so if you've read her entry on the Bengali Lal Pathar, you've read this one.)

Sabar Uparey (1955)
I can't even remember why I watched this. Probably because it was on Youtube legally with subtitles. It's one of those films that runs exactly counter to the general concept that floats around that Bengali films are less melodramatic and more sensible than Hindi films. I tell you what: plenty of mainstream Bengali films, at least from the era I watch (1950s–1980, plus songs in the last handful of years) are bonkers in plot, tone, and/or expression. Look at the faces people are pulling in this movie as Uttam Kumar learns the awful truth about his father and abandons his promising law career to go on a quest to restore his name. Uttam and his mother (I do not know this actor's name but I've seen her as maa a few times, and I suspect she is nowhere near as old as this makeup is supposed to make her look) are shocked!
Sad Uttam is sad.
"Why oh why must I be a Chaterjee?"
Flummoxed by research!
Uttam and Chhabi Biswas go mad! 
Suspcious Uttam is suspicious. This eyebrow action actually makes me wish for more courtroom theatrics.

It has moments of sweetness, and Suchitra Sen as his love interest manages to be extremely supportive, even risking her own reputation to shelter and care for him, without being a doormat or a tramp. It's a fairly convincing case of the love of a good woman (decidedly not a girl) being the perfect accessory to the hero's struggle.

For the most part I find, this movie silly, possibly because I am made of stone, but possibly because the dramatics distracted me from any emotional heft in the story and words. Wikipedia calls it a noir based on an A. J. Cronin novel*. To me the tone is completely off for noir: the visuals are clear, the final mood is, as will surprise no one who has seen mainstream Indian films, resolutely optimistic and shining, and the central mystery that Uttam investigates is simply sad rather than a dark exploration of crime and vice. It's mopey and soft rather than hard and cynical. If the femme fatale is considered necessary for noir, this film also fails. There is a woman who causes trouble, but at least in the subtitles she didn't come off as more dangerous than various other people, and (again, not surprisingly) she's not at all a temptation to the hero. Similarly, the hero himself is too goody-goody and maybe even milquetoast to create a noir attitude. None of this means it's bad, but it's definitely not taut or ethically shadowy. Ultimately, it's not very interesting either because there's never any doubt that the good son will triumph, the wife's loyalty will be rewarded, and the diligent, supportive love interest will be incorporated into the reunited family.

However, I cannot leave it without sharing what must surely be a gem of the dialogues of the Uttam-Suchitra oeuvre and one of the best conceivable Bengali pick-up lines.

 (1962) (Many thanks to Shekhar in Calcutta for sending it to me!)
This film has many elements in common with Sabar Uparey but manages to be a zillion times better. One hates to get one's hopes up, but just look at this title! I've never seen a film name spelled out in lace. How lovely!
Speaking of lovely, Suchitra and Uttam are to me much more convincing in their romances in this era when they're both a little older as actors. There's something very compellingly "movie star" about them now, maybe because they've worked together enough that they (and directors) have learned how to depict the sort of not-always-flashy passion and true, mature affection that I really like in their pairing.
As seems to happen in at least half of all Bengali films, a portrait of RabTag oversees the goings-on. He is invoked not once but twice in the next film reviewed.
In this film too, Uttam gets news that his family is not what he thinks it is, and even the depictions are similar, but somehow this one's just a little more reigned in, which I find more enticing.
Here too, he runs off to solve the mystery. Unfortunately, he does this running off right before their wedding without leaving a note or calling from the road (this is what I mean about popular Bengali films not being any less ridiculous than Hindi in plot), so poor Suchitra is stood up.

Another key feature of this film for me is that Suchitra has her own major plot arc. 
It actually parallels his in a way (both have family drama and tragedy in the past, though he does not discover his until halfway through the film), and although hers is presented fairly early in the film and it doesn't have direct impact on the rest of the story, it certainly establishes why the character is the way she is and gives context for her surprising determination in the face of an event in which other heroines might be incapacitated with shame. Not one to have her future ruined by the mere trifle of the absence of her groom at her wedding, she marks herself with sindoor and acts as his wife for the rest of the film, a position that enables her (if the subtitles are correct) to save his hide as he gets increasingly frantic to solve his family mystery.
Additionally, her story is equally tragic as his, which means the hero can't simply by default be the emotional center of the story. 

One other nice component of this film is an elaborate dance drama; staged musical productions are relatively rare in the Bengali films I've seen, and this one is admittedly a bit shoe-horned into the film, but it's still fun to watch. Add that to the good acting, dramatic but not melodramatic story, and I happily recommend this to anyone who wants to dabble in prime vintage Uttam-Suchitra.

Lal Pathar (1964)
[Spoilers, though not if you've seen the Hindi version.]
This is the Bengali original of the 70s Hindi film of the same name starring Hema Malini, Raaj Kumar, and Rakhee. Filmi Geek had seen the Hindi version, so we watched the Bengali together and then discussed it.

Beth: Here's a question for you: based on having seen the Hindi remake, did you have expectations of the Bengali original, and if so did it meet them? 

Carla: I might have had expectations, although I am not sure I could have articulated them in advance. Silverambrosia's comments gave me the sense that that the Bengali film would be more solemn, more cinematic—less filmi. And, it was. I don't think I was expecting it to be less fun, which it also was. What about you, given your knowledge of Bengali films of the period and Uttam Kumar's films—what were your expectations?

Beth: You had showed me the excellent wiggery in the Hindi version, so I hoped for that—and got it right away. 
But as for actual Bengali cinema-based things, it was slightly more melodramatic than I would have expected, almost all owing to him being such an ass. The other movie I've seen Uttam be an ass in (Stree, in which he reminds me of Jabba the Hutt), he was the villain, quite clearly, so it wasn't a surprise. The way Lal Pathar depicted that was fun but also kind of silly at times: great use of shadows and all, but maybe the almost literal mustache twirling was a bit much, like when he's off hunting and is cackling and smoking while waving his gun.  
Carla: In particular about Bahadur being a jerk: in the Hindi movie, the Raaj Kumar version of Bahadur is just as much of a jerkwad as the Uttam Kumar version. Both Bahadurs are awful, and both are loony. But I find Raaj Kumar's version a more sympathetic character. He remains pitiable, while Uttam Kumar is mostly just mean. 
Beth: Agree—he is mean. And there's no explanation or context for it beyond "I am a rich male oh and by the way there is madness/alcoholism in my family." 
Carla: I don't think it's explained more in the Hindi version. 
Beth: He's also a hypocrite, since he flips out with jealousy over Sumita's past love while his lover is in their house
Carla: I think it is something about the performance. 
Beth: Uttam Kumar does smug pretty well, I'd say. One of his strengths is nonchalance and I think here he twists it into uncaring. 
Carla: Raaj Kumar seems tortured throughout.  
Beth: Uttam does not seem tortured at all, I'd say?
Carla: I agree. Nonchalance was a good word to apply to it. 
Beth: There's no one and nothing with any...influence, is that the right word? over him. He's just a blasé self-centered bastard with no one to keep him in check. 
Carla: RK's Bahadur really loses his shit when he realizes ten years have gone by. 

Carla: As for the women, I'd say the reverse is true—Supriya's Madhuri is much more likable and sympathetic than Hema's Madhuri in the Hindi version.
Beth: Do you think that's dialogue or the actress or....?
Carla: A little of both. The only scenes I noticed in the Hindi version that were missing in the Bengali version were Madhuri being shrill and cruel to the servants.
Beth: Oh right. I wish we had known more about her before Bahadur finds her, you know? We have no idea what her pre-trauma personality was like, really.
Carla: That's another aspect that's in the Hindi but missing in the Bengali: her family abusing her. After he first saves her from the dakus and returns her to her family—I gather from her widow's garb that they are in fact her in-laws, and they are horrid to her—and so it is quite distasteful when she turns around and treats Bahadur's household like crap.
Beth: Oh yeah, then that's extra bad. Do you think that, coupled with his descent into jerkitude, indicates that the film is saying that one really is bound by what one inherits or learns early in life?
Carla: There is some interesting point being made there for sure.

Beth: He's so adamant that he won't marry because his family is so awful, but then all of a sudden he does.
Carla: He practically makes a choice to act like the criminally insane father's side of his family. He picks up the drinking right after he meets Madhuri; his servants are shocked by that. But yes, after the 10 years go by, and he goes off the deep end—when Madhuri asks him why he has suddenly decided to get married he walks her through the family history by way of answer.
Beth: Did that make sense? I don't remember.
Carla: I am not sure it did, but that might be because I find it hard to keep track of the names, and who was on which side of his family.
Beth: The walk through family history should be reasoning for why not to.
Carla: You would think! His reasoning and changes of mind are somewhat puzzling. But it is clear, I think, that he is becoming progressively more insane.

Beth: I wonder why he fixates on Sumita as his bride. I know someone says to him "Who'd give you their daughter?!?" but come on, he's loaded! Lots of people would give him their daughters.
Carla: The dull Sumita (at least in the Bengali version). Yes, in the very beginning of the film, there is another royal family offering their daughter, and he declines. One thing the movie does nicely, I think, is show how badly women get f*cked over when cruel men make life-changing decisions for them. Sumita's father is as awful as Bahadur in this respect.
Beth: Oh yes. A drunk and a gambler…who somehow got his daughter educated.
Carla: True, but only for his own gain.
Beth: Just as Bahadur tries to educate Madhuri so he has someone to talk about books with, I assume.
Do you think he chooses Sumita simply because she was there and had a pretty voice? That's a trait his mistress lacked.
Carla: The pretty voice, and perhaps (as you said) the education implied by the fact that she is musically skilled.

Carla: What do you think is up with Bahadur's insane jealousy, as you mentioned before?
Beth: I have thought about that but not come up with much other than no one has ever been a threat to him in any way at all before? No one has even unintentionally been in the same arena with him.
Carla: At first he seems legitimately interested in friendship with Ambarish, and it never occurs to him that there is romantic history between Ambarish and Sumita until Madhuri tells him so. That is consistent with what you are saying—it doesn't occur to him that Ambarish might be competition, because no one ever has been.
Beth: I assume he also feels somewhat betrayed by the fact no one told him there had been a romance previously. Not just with a man he is friends with but also at all. Men like him would assume their baby wives are virginal in any conceivable way, right?
Carla: Yes, true. Plucked so young. And also free of anything like a sexual feeling of her own. 
Beth: He's very accustomed to a woman being around for his sexual needs alone, since the previous woman has no life at all except what he's given her.
Carla: And how! Good point.
Beth I also wonder if he's too much a solitary person at all to be married, irrespective of family trauma-drama-o-rama. He doesn't have any friends or siblings, does he?
At least he has a nice dog.
Carla: Not that are mentioned. Just that one manservant (the one with the child bride) that he chats with from time to time. [Note from Beth: this character is played by an under-used Robi Ghosh.]

Beth: I wonder why the director [Sushil Majumdar] wanted to remake this movie in Hindi.
Carla: Subse bada rupaiyya.
Beth: Well right, but why this one? Was it a big hit in Bengali? I'm not getting that sense.
Carla: I don't know. I think I was assuming that some producer or studio asked for it. The Hindi movie being a shot-for-shot duplicate—it doesn't seem like Majumdar put a lot of thought into the remake, either because he didn't care to or didn't have the time or budget to.
Beth: Though at least the additions are done relatively thoughtfully. It's not just "oh slap a few 8-minute songs in."
Carla: But, it just bumps your question down the line—why did a producer request a remake of this one? I wonder if they aren't additions but rather cuts in the Bengali one.

Carla: What do you think of Madhuri?
Beth: I like her, though of course she's a bit of a pot-stirrer.
I feel like she's excessively kind to him by the end. I think you brought up Stockholm syndrome? It's along those lines to me. He was horrible to her. But then again, we don't get the sense she's known anything better.
Carla: Oh, interesting.
Beth: And that bystander guy gushes on about what an excellent woman she is to do maybe she takes satisfaction in the virtue or something
Carla: Do you think she feels she owes him, because at least for those 10 years she got to be something like a queen, thanks to him?
Beth: Maaaybe? Or is she just being wifely?
Carla: Or as you suggested, she has nowhere else to go.
Beth: And, as we discussed while watching, what else is she going to do, I guess?
Carla: Jinx :) 
Beth: I wonder if she could have managed to live in his house but basically ignore him.
Carla: It's a big enough place. Except for the clip-clop as they walk across the marble floors, they could avoid each other.
Beth: Especially if he's gone loco and mostly hangs out haunting the old palace complex.
Carla: That's an interesting question too. Maybe they are living an itinerant or indigent life in Agra, rather than living in the palace out east and traveling to Agra to replay the incident each month. (We may be giving this point more thought than the storywriter did.)
Beth: There are real pragmatics to being an old kook.
Carla: Truly. He bums cigars and liquor off tourists :)
Beth: Ha! What do we think truly cemented the lunacy: murdering his wife and his friend OR the fact there was a baby? Or both? Or was he already gone?
Carla: The whole plot that led to her death was pretty wacko to begin with.
Beth: It wasn't clear to me how much meddling Madhuri did there. That scene where he overhears Sumita and Ambaraish and sees their silhouettes—that was authentic and not staged by Madhuri.
Carla: Madhuri didn't come to Agra with them, did she?
Beth: She did not. I'm not sure she actually set anything in motion, other than telling him about their past romance.
Carla: Yes, she hinted about that, and then tried to seduce Ambarish a couple of times (it is unclear to me why).

Beth: I wonder what Sumita made of Bahadur as a husband….or even just as a human being.
Carla: Bengali Sumita is so bland, unburdened by personality.
Beth: Heehee completely! I wonder if that would have suited him had he not gone krazzy4.
Carla: The Hindi Sumita (Rakhee) is much better. She at least feels like potential, like a personality waiting to burst out, and that makes her death more of a tragedy—one has the feeling she could have been good for Bahadur, if he only stopped acting like a loon about her.
Beth: My reaction to her death in the Bengali one was along the lines of "Oh Bahadur, you idiot, now you're a murderer too?" and much less "oh poor Sumita."
Carla: Ah, interesting. Sumita the cypher.
Beth: She wasn't a very specific loss. Not that there was any plot left to spend on that anyway.

* Researching Bengali movies has taught me that Cronin is a favorite source for Indian films. This is the first of at least seven. Raj Khosla's Kala Pani is made from the same source as this one (whether or not Khosla thinks of Kala Pani as a remake of Sabar Uparey, I do not know), and I've seen Jiban Saikate based on The Citadel, in which Soumitra Chatterjee is a doctor lured by money and a bad girl away from his noble rural practice and wife Aparna Sen.

Friday, March 14, 2014

special audio post: Disco Dancer

As part of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit's Swap-a-Thon this month, in which each member is doing a guest project on another's site, Carol of The Cultural Gutter volunteered to watch the dramatic, music-filled, and super-duper sparkly Bollywood classic Disco Dancer and discuss it with me. We wander across religion, philosophy, family dynamics, choreography, and Elvis, and we even propose the film's potential significance to the medical community for its hard-hitting depiction of the little-known but dangerous mental condition known as "guitar phobia."

Click on the player below to hear our conversation or right-click here to download.

Disco Dancer is on the Shemaroo youtube channel for free and with subtitles here.

Still need enticing? Maybe you can be tempted by a child hand-feeding his imprisoned mother, then growing up to vow comeuppance and insult those who mock him.
Or perhaps the debauched competitor, the intimidating henchman, or the avuncular spirit guide.
Or Krishna invoked by capes and black knee socks. 
 Or just lots and lots of sequins and tinsel and flashing lights.
And if you need to start your own disco dance break right this instant, there's a jukebox of the songs here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Lunchbox

[Note: Sony Pictures Classics provided me with a screener DVD of this film.]

The Lunchbox has so many strengths and joys that director/writer Ritesh Batra fits together perfectly. The acting, the shifting portions of loss and discovery, the beautiful development of details in characters' physical contexts that sometimes contrast and sometimes parallel—all of these
stack on top of the other to form an impressively effective construction. They can also separate out again, each one offering something delicious to the viewer, maybe something a little unexpected, as layers are revealed and ingested.

With some effort and oversimplification, this analogy might even stretch to compare audiences who mostly consume mainstream Bollywood to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), 35 years in the same monotone office, who one day find themselves with something slightly different, cooked by an unknown chef who is deft and invested in quality, that immediately piques their interest and offers a different sustenance. Just as Ila (Nimrat Kaur) listens to cooking programs on the radio and seeks seasoning advice from her upstairs neighbor, Batra is so careful and so attuned to detail in almost all that he has created in the film.

However, after awhile, the film's central philosophy—sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station—becomes less like a brief, fleeting message from a stranger with whom you're somehow sharing the fundamental and intimate acts of feeding and being fed and more like the nagging note from a Pinterest-happy parent or partner for the umpteenth time. "This is the first day of the rest of your life!!! " The film violates "show, don't tell" in a way (and at a point in the story, for that matter) that distracts and detracts from all its significant loveliness. It's an incredibly thoughtful film throughout, and I don't understand why Batra has multiple characters state the message out loud in dialogue when it was already perfectly clear from the (relatively) natural revelations about their lives and the connections the characters form with each other. The idea of "wrong train, right destination" was portrayed very literally yet somehow also more subtly in the super-mainstream Chennai Express  that released just a few weeks prior to The Lunchbox and audiences gobbled it down.

Huh. The Lunchbox is louder and more overblown than Chennai Express. Only in this one aspect, but still.

I have absolutely no problem with the fundamental layer of this film-as-tiffin being cheese. I love cheese, especially when it is the flavor of people falling in love through the written word. The Lunchbox is incredibly emotionally effective not just portraying a romance but also in representing the risks and rewards of relationships of various kinds. Its approach recognizes the basic human condition: the people all around us carry with them pain and difficulties. And it does so without any melodrama at all. These things are as much a part of the texture of everyday life as dishes drying in the rack or reading glasses in your pocket. To me, realizing that you never really know what even the people closest to you are struggling with this is one of the core truths of being an adult, and I am delighted to see a film whose characters recognize it and become closer and, more significantly, happier because of it. They carefully share with and respond to one another, but they never shout despite the scale of what they admit. I love how each instance of the literal unfolding of the notes in the tiffin becomes a revelation of about both the writer and the reader. The more we know about the hurt and fear Ila and Saajan have, the more we appreciate how much their relationship means to each other. They are such solitary people; despite living in the maximum city, they seem so isolated.

In thinking back on the film, I am so appreciative of the addition of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). When we meet Saajan and Ila, their lives are...if not monotonous, then certainly incredibly routine and predictable, and as people they seem stable in life (note Ila's proud triumph that a shirt last worn on her honeymoon about six years ago still fits) but certainly not content.
For Shaikh, though, life is an adventure, and he is wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and happy about it. He has traveled. He has hope. He smiles and chatters away. There is a sizable proportion of facade to this small man—an orphan, a trainee, a romantic with a big caveat—but he is full of effort and striving. If the film had only been about Ila and Saajan, I might have found it too sappy, but with Saajan and Shaikh's friendship also blossoming and providing real meaning to both of them, it's a much richer story that equally values non-romantic love. I only wish Ila had a friend too, but it makes sense that she was basically stuck in the walls of her home, with duties of daughter, wife, and mother, as so many women are. (I think it's quite significant that her neighbor, the closest thing she has to a friend, is similarly confined and has responsibilities that mean she will never be able to come downstairs and watch tv or go get coffee with Ila.)

How appropriate that this film is named after an everyday object that is also a conveyance, as both types of physical things appear frequently and flesh out and connect the stories. Fans, bananas, jewelry; trains, buses, a disused bicycle, a promised scooter, a splurge on an auto, the necessity of a taxi; even the notes themselves, which are just little pieces of paper but of course carry so much more. Similarly, small acts become big ones through their meaning: Ila removing jewelry, Shaikh prepping dinner, Saajan watching old sitcoms (especially contrasted with the mood created by Ila's husband watching tv), and the all-important mix-up of tiffin bags by the dabbawallahs and one character's attempt to correct it. Everyday sounds are also used to bridge thoughts, locations, and people. The structure of the once-a-day exchange of notes might make the film feel episodic, but instead Batra leads us in a progression of very thoughtfully connected scenes.

There is enough of a splash of magic—or, to be less wistful about it, the requirement that disbelief is suspended here and there—that about halfway through I thought "What is none of this is real? What if the notes were all in one of these people's imaginations?" (Is this the effect of Talaash, another film about everyday, sad, stressed people in modern Mumbai?) That's what I mean about the fundamental cheese of the story: somehow you have to accept that the famously precise dabbawallahs continue to make the same mistake day after day and that their mistaken happens to link two people who actually want to write expressive notes to a stranger. While it's presented by using quotidian elements that populate the world of actual adults and focuses on the quiet decisions that expand small lives, it's not very far from the remarkable lost-and-found family members or loves that populate masala and rom-coms across the decades. At its core, the film goes well beyond coincidence. Fortunately, it also reminds us that there is a lot more to its central message than just hopping the wrong train and twiddling your thumbs until you arrive somewhere perfect. Particularly in Ila's life, the incorrect train can just take you to a place you don't want to go. The meaningful journey—and I do think the film is more interested in the journey than the destination, despite the motto—requires paying attention, asking questions, reaching out, and responding.

Click here for US screening dates and locations.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Hyderabad –> Kolkata Express

My explorations of Bengali cinema have finally brought me to contemporary (as in, the last 7-8 years) popular films, and much to my ignorance-fueled shock I have found a ton of Telugu remakes. They often star one of two mononymically macho heroes. First, there's Jeet. I don't dislike Jeet, but he seems to have a slight permasnarl that isn't my cup of tea.
  • a poster and song from the remake of Business Man
  • a fight scene from Wanted (confusingly to my Bolly-centric brain, this is the remake of Athadu, not Pokiri)  
  • a clip from Jor (Okkadu
  • the trailer for Awara (Krishna
There's also Dev, whom the internet indicates is the pinnacle of perhaps slightly softer herogiri: muscles, looks, dancing, and smiling.* 
  • poster and song from Khoka Babu (Dhee)
  • a "making of" fight clip and a song I cannot stop watching from Challenge 2 (Dookudu)
  • a motorcycle/nunchaku/sound effect fight from Paglu (Devadasu) (not the Devdas one) (obviously) (also, if that link does not open to 35:35, that's where you should start watching)
  • a song from Bolo Na Tumi Amar (Happy)
  • a song from Khoka 420 (Brindavanam)
  • a song from Shedin Dekha Hoyechilo (Parugu)  
A Kolkata-born and -bred friend says this last song contains the exact moment the spirit of Ray died. Personally I find Ray's work a lot closer to popular sensibilities than, say, the Rituparno Ghosh films I've seen, but that's another blog post that needs a lot more research. And he may have just meant aesthetically. 

By no means is this an inherently bad thing—though so far, these remakes are no more to my particular tastes than the originals, and if I am to slog through films of men beating people up over and over again while babyish women whimper, I'd still opt for the films that offer better songs (sorry)—and I am also far too ignorant of what's going on in Tollygunge these days to say whether the south remakes are the dominant trend.

Additionally, I'm missing a big chunk of history of popular Bengali cinema from about 1980 onwards (I've seen just one Sukhen Das film, for example), but I am wildly curious how the taste for the generally simpler, more direct, and less extravagant and bombastic films of the 1950s through the 70s (possibly ending with the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980?) changed into a market for these films. I've only seen two of these Telugu remakes, plus a whooooole lot of songs, but to me there seems very, very little in them that relates in any way to the traits and styles I've come to think of as comprising earlier Bengali popular cinema. There's also the cognitively dissonant idea of warring stereotypes, and while we know we shouldn't pay too much attention to stereotypes, they do tend to be rooted in some kind of truth—or perception of truth—and it's difficult to think of an odder Indian cinematic couple than Bengali movies and recent Telugu masala.

So if you have any idea, or even any opinion, I'd love to hear it! What are the links between the 70s and now that have shaped movies and audiences in this direction? What do I not know or understand about earlier and current films that would color them as more similar than I perceive?

* Based on the evidence I have seen, Jeet is probably more convincing at thrashing people but Dev is a better dancer. I've also spotted an actor named Sohom who strikes me as a better dancer than Dev, but he doesn't have the biceps or poster-boy looks, etc. It's a very complicated balance being a hero, isn't it?  And how is the re-launch of Mimoh…er, Mahakshay going to fit into all of this? I have so much to learn!

Update to post (same day): Some very knowledgable friends on twitter and facebook have piped up with insight. Arunava Sinha proposes that funding coming from Hyderabad-based production companies might be influencing the stories and the storytelling. Bongopondit sends a 2010 article in  The Telegraph by Chandreyee Ghose that says "mainstream Tollywood [the Kolkata one] remains resolutely repetitive" and suggests copying Telugu and Tamil film not only saves money but generally proves bankable in the box office. Sayantan Mondal, to whom mutual friends immediately  connected me as soon as I expressed an interest in post-Uttam Kumar Bengali movies, says:
1) Guaranteed success. If we look at the late 80s and 90s period, they were more or less copied from Bollywood (not sure about if the remake rights were purchased but it was like a mixture of 4-5 movies) and sometimes from other regional movies (a rare practice then). Now I was reading somewhere that producers more or less wanted to go in for a remake instead of something original because the remake gives them the hope that it will be successful (not always). 
2) The new remake model of Bengali movie industry is something like the Kannada Movie Industry. They remake a lot. More or less everything. More than Telegu, malayalam and tamil (personal opinion, I might be wrong here) 
3) Post-2000 the pattern of Bengali movies changed with the advent of Dev/Jeet and a host of other stars. It was the time when the extraordinary gentlemen of 80s and 90s had to bow out. The audience wanted something new and Dev/Jeet and company were the perfect guinea pigs for experimentation and it happened. A new dawn in Bengali cinema. Bengali cinema now has more or less 3 forms: 
  • the remake masalas 
  • the cross between art-commercial (Srijit variety) 
  • and of course the art movies 
  • ...and another genre is coming up: Postcolonial/Neocolonial Comedies 
4) Also, 80s-90s style was redundant. Prosenjit during the early 2000s did a lot of movies with feudal undertones. The change in Bollywood and other Regional movies forced Bengal too change as well. Money too started pouring in. 
5) 80s-90s bengali movies were staunchly rural centric. But again (as I have already mentioned ) some directors/producers wanted to break out of this mould. Arrival of stars such as Dev/Jeet helped. Money was poured in as well. Now it catered to both set of audiences- the urban and the rural. As far as I remember, during my childhood in Asansol, rarely our two biggest halls played any Prosenjit movies but now they easily play Dev/Jeet stuffs. Multiplexes in Durgapur play Dev and Jeet. Unimaginable some years back. 
6) The late 80s and 90s stuffs were seen as a "burden of the Bengali man". It was there. Some loved it (I simply adore them) [Beth says: MUST INVESTIGATE]…most hated them. Prosenjit is often blamed for being the Trash King. Before him it was Chironjit. But of course now Prosenjit has redefined himself. And then there were movies by Sukhen Das - the king of Gore…and fringe elements like Abhishek Chatteree. The most onscreen sacrifices after Sukhen Das. 
This change was needed and it more or less alludes to the change in Bollywood and Southern Industry…and 80s and 90s though they copied randomly were staunchly original in their own way...not the new zombies that are being produced. They are often scene by scene copy, eg: Prawtidhani starring Tapas Pal and Abhishek and Moon Moon and Robi Ghosh - takes elements from Aakhri Rasta, Andha Kanoon, and Mashal (the Dilip Lumar/Anil Kapoor/Waheeda Rahman one)..

Monday, January 20, 2014

Saat Pake Bandha

[Spoilers, the biggest of which will be marked in situ. Also, I don't know why the images are different tones—they're from the same DVD played on the same laptop.]

It's 50-odd years old, but Saat Pake Bandha resonantes with realness. From its meet-ordinary (crankily, on a bus)
and passive-agressive glaring over newspapers
to its dissolution contained in a small apartment, lives are changed and ruined without any hint of spectacle or grandeur. The story suggests that, as in our world of non-scripted people and situations, the responsibility for its sadness is widely distributed. The central character, Archana (Suchitra Sen), is a bright student who marries teacher* Sukhendu (Soumitra Chatterjee) despite seeming to have reservations about him. I say "seeming" because I don't think there's any actual dialogue from her about her feelings for him before their marriage, and when her father picks up on their budding romance, her face does not exhibit any kind of pleasure or eagerness at the idea of marriage.
Sukhendu buries himself in claustrophobic work habits and is prone to easy slights and sulking.
Archana's horrifyingly snobby mother meddles in the young couple's daily lives and mental states. Her father, who knew Sukhendu when he was younger, is blinded by the idea of his daughter's happiness rather than thinking carefully about the probable reality of the couple's future. Sukhendu's aunt, who is his only non-professional relationship (he mentions no friends or other family), clearly babies him in the classic manner of older women and younger men in Indian films.
Of course this is advice for Archana, not for Sukhendu. 
Before the fault lines in Archana and Sukhendu's life start to crack open, Saat Pake Bandha reminds me of Pride and Prejudice. Their second meeting is a party where Sukhendu is haughty and huffy when he thinks someone has disrespected him and Archana hides her laughter over his behavior. Archana plots and gossips with her sister—she mouths "bus se ruffian" to her sister as she indicates Sukhendu with her eyes—
and is much more fond of, and much closer to, her gentle, silly father than she is of her screeching, adamant mother. Like Mrs. Bennet, her mother is teased and dismissed by other members of the family
Archana signals her father that her mother is being dramatic again.
but is strongly motivated by wanting to establish the best life for her daughter. Her definition of what is best is not wholly in tune with Archana's priorities and she most certainly does not know when to let people identify and address their problems themselves. 

In contrast to Lizzie Bennet, Archana seems not to recognize her own faults. As serious a flaw as this is for a character to have, I have to say it's thrilling to see a young woman presented this way. She is generally confident and looks people in the eye, and when she returns to school and seeks a job later in the narrative, she is successful. She doesn't apologize for anything and, even better, she expresses anger at both her mother and her husband to their faces. In the "now" portion of the film (the rest of it is flashback), she says no one understands her—implying that not only is she an individual who can be understood as a discrete entity but also that other people should try to do so. The flip side, of course, is that nothing is her responsibility. Look at these dialogues.
The above are all in arguments with Sukhendu.
This is addressed to her mother.
This is retrospection at the end of the film.
If this film has a villain, is it the heroine? Again, what an amazing difference that would be from the overwhelming proportion of film stories I've seen. These dialogues keep me from being completely sympathetic to Archana, but they also make her more empathetic—we've all tried to block out our own culpability in failing relationships. I wonder how this film resonated at the time of its release (1963). It's easy to imagine, then even more than now, educated women from happy, vibrant homes finding themselves in much constrained (and in this case, socially and economically lowered) circumstances after marriage feeling utterly trapped and bitter. We see at other points later in the story that Archana is perfectly capable of taking care of herself when she needs and wants to, and I am unclear why she doesn't demonstrate more thoughtful agency in her marriage.

[Spoiler!] Fascinatingly, she is also not rewarded for making the choice to try to recommit to Sukhendu after she moves out of their apartment. Here she is pounding against the silent door.
A film heroine being spurred by reminders of her marriage vows to beg a man to take her back is one thing; him not answering is quite another. I don't think I've seen a film (Hindi or Bengali) that resolutely lets marriage bonds and home break in such a way unmitigated by sacrifice for friend or country or other such noble factors. I do think the film is trying to show the power of formalized bonds (or vows?), but I'm less sure that it says bonds are the same thing as actual relationships or the people in them. If you have seen this film, can we discuss what to make of what the new resident of the apartment tells Archana and what this says about the film's attitude about women's individuality, choices, and responsibilities? [End spoiler.]

The home is an important concept in this film. Archana and Sukhendu smile together in their home very rarely; they are happier, freer, in moving vehicles and while traveling.
Sukhendu has interesting dialogues about this: he tells her early on that he didn't see her clearly until he returned home from the party and opened his window, and on their honeymoon he says that his dream before meeting her was to travel the country, "with just a bag around my shoulder. Like a modern day gypsy who is out to touch all of history." To me, this indicates a person who shouldn't be a householder, to be responsible to anyone else. I know, I know, social conventions, etc., but maybe he could have waited at least until he'd made a few more big trips? Sukhendu also much prefers interacting with Arcahana at home to socializing with her family, and I don't think the couple ever goes out socially on their own (to the movies, etc.). The flat they live in when married is the same one he had when single, adding another layer to the sense that Sukhendu is somehow intruded upon by the decision to get married and that Archana is ultimately foreign, maybe even an invader. Again, this is not a person who is ready to share or alter his life. The smiling moments at home are only in the beginning of their marriage. Soon the two are sleeping in separate rooms and avoiding eye contact.
After my second watching of this film, I think I would label Sukhendu as a person unable to sustain emotional engagement or stand up to the interference and judgement of a community (note his disregard for the rules and public opinion on the bus the first time we see him). He's probably an introvert at a massive scale, drained by the very presence of other people, preemptively defensive of what they might think of him. If he and Archana had their own house away from all their relatives and with separate bedrooms, they might have had a shot. As is, in 1960s Calcutta, with family and neighbors and not enough literal or figurative space for Archana to have her own life as well, they are doomed. 

Director Ajoy Kar (seen on this blog at Saptapadi and my beloved Barnali) fills the film with little points of comparison that highlight these characters' success and failures, their moments of bravery and withdrawal. My favorite, which I only noticed on my second viewing, is Sukhendu's little dialogue about first seeing Archana clearly when he wasn't even in her presence but instead at home in front of his open window, which is bookended late in the film by Archana running away from their flat to her parents' house and flinging open a window, I think implying that she too, after time passing, has seen things clearly. Two parties to celebrate exam results also mark the beginning and end of their relationship. Her simple domestic yet caring task of mending and smoothing down his kurtas shows their teamwork at the beginning of their marriage, 
but over time there is less tenderness between them in the action, and later she literally rips his shirt in frustration at his misunderstanding of her actions and ignoring of her needs, leading to the scene that a fellow Soumitra fan sent me before I'd even heard of the film.  
 photo soumitrashirt.gif
How many heroines get to do this?
And in one of the images above you see part of an exchange the two have about Sukhendu's persona in their lives in Calcutta: she says there he wears a mask, but on their travels she has seen him without it for the first time and begs him to leave the mask jettisoned. He tells her is she ever sees him with it on at home, she can "rip it off mercilessly"—which, as just mentioned, she does, and he then the costumers leave him that way, battered, exposed, maybe even ruined. 

This is such a well-constructed film that even if I didn't find anything special in the story or performances, I would earnestly recommend it. Happily, there is so much to appreciate and think about. Soumitra Chatterjee is a sort of flip side of the bookish, quiet, thoughtful character he plays in many other films from the early and mid 60s, making Sukhendu into a fragile, inflexible person who, instead of being a villain, is devoid of intention towards the woman he has chosen to bond himself to. Suchitra Sen, who even in the handful of films I've seen her in has had moments of sheer lunacy in the ACT!ING! department, is wonderful, showing range without excess and strength without overpowering the other actors, the story, or the characters' context. She comes across as old enough to be figuring out how to be an adult but young enough that her stumbles seem natural. I do not know the names of the women who play the aunt and mother, but they too are very good, showing the falsely benevolent and viciously deliberate faces of interference. Pahari Sanyal is probably my favorite Bengali film uncle**, and he makes Archana's father believably tender, with the moments of emotion and weakness that softness can entail. Careful attention is given to design, describing the two major sets (Archana and Sukhendu's flat and Archana's family's home) with story-appropriate artifacts, some of which even become major symbols. All of this comes together in perfect support of a story that shows dissolution with so much dimension and so poignantly. 

To end, a bit of happy-making juxtaposition: Soumitra Chatterjee, the best thing since sliced bread. 

* He's not her teacher, fortunately.
** I do not consider Robi Ghosh an uncle. He's a full-on star in my world. Utpal Dutt too, of course.