Monday, December 15, 2014

mini reviews

100 words each on the weird (even for me) assortment of films I've seen in the last two months. Gotta get the writing motor going again.

Lukochuri 1958
Kishore Kumar has a double role as twins in this Bengali film about the sisters they love,
twin-related mix-ups (surprise), parental approval, and the world of Bombay filmmaking. There are other good performers too (like Mala Sinha), but it's 100% his film. The best moments are the digs at the film industry
and this brilliant, loony song that the non-industry Kishore does while impersonating his singer brother, making a point about the lack of quality in today's films and music.
And lest you forget this is a Bengali film, the eyes of RabTag are upon thee even in Bombay!

Thana Theke Aschi 1965
I don't know how to say anything about this story of death, interrogation, and knowledge without spoiling it, so just know that you should reserve judgement of it until the very last frame.
If you don't speak Bengali (or don't watch with someone who does), you'll probably be incredibly lost. It's director Hiren Nag's first film; his third, Andha Atit, discussed below, continues this thoughtful, unconventional-ish use of Uttam Kumar.

Jibon Mrityu 1967
The Bengali original of the Dharmendra and Rakhee film of the same name, which I have seen twice and cannot remember anything about other than the two leads having a fun classroom debate and Dharmendra's disguises. Beyond the emo suffering and revenge-seeking by Uttam Kumar and the sparks he has in the romantic bits with Supriya Debi*, this version, also by Hiren Nag, doesn't stand out to me either. Aside: I find the Uttam-to-Dharmendra conversion fascinating—it makes little sense on paper, yet it works. Does it happen elsewhere in addition to Chadmabeshi/Chupke Chupke?

Sansar 1971
Another subtitle-less Soumitra film, apparently about industrial espionage with contrasting depictions of class (?)
Much of the runtime is spent in people's homes, and I like comparing these interiors and what they suggest about the characters. In these pairs, the left shows the middle-class family's home (the inventors of the textile equipment in the cycle rickshaw above) and the right, their bosses'. One plays music live, the other has a groovy hi-fi. One comforts each other, one clutches a fluffy lap dog.

Enjoy the Many Moods of Soumitra: relaxed, annoyed, action sequence, and menacing with a hockey stick.
Soumitra + sports equipment = cognitive dissonance.

Andha Atit 1972
Evidence that Uttam Kumar was not afraid to let himself age beyond romantic lead and simplistically heroic behavior...which is not to say this is his finest acting, because it certainly isn't. It's an interesting little mystery that spans about ten years and weaves together personal dramas that don't seem to relate. I had no idea where it was going. Supriya Debi is good as his determined, distressed wife.
Warning: if you watch this on the Angel youtube channel, be aware that the description on each upload has major spoilers.

Bond 303 1985
I simply do not buy Jeetendra as a spy, but this film is so full of other delights that I can overlook him. Plenty of bleep-bloop equipment, Parveen Babi bursting through a ceiling and kicking ass, vengeful Helen, a mangy bear-suit monster,
and Tom Alter being named Tom Alter. When a magician conjures up a backing band wearing black capes emblazoned with skulls, there is vast glee both in the thing itself and in the realization that there are still such wonders waiting to be discovered.
Not quite Wardat, but fun—and recommended.

Classic Dance of Love 2005
Babbar Subhash has directed Mithun in films like Disco Dancer, Dance Dance, and Commando, all terrible in their own way yet not a patch on this. Mithun has advanced into villain,
a hypocritical guru type who teaches people to eschew sensual pleasures to be successful, leaving "hero" open to this guy, who is utterly unqualified to attempt advanced filmi tasks like mesh shirts and arm-flings.
Sexuality is a weapon in this movie, used against and by women. It's an okay idea for a story, but there's zero chemistry, and the continual leering over the heroine's body feels exploit-y.

Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5) 2012 (?)
Five stories are linked by a 500 note. There are passages when this film is far too on-the-nose—a madman standing all alone in frame after frame shouting his manifesto about the evils of money before political thugs arrive to bludgeon him—but when it focuses on what 500 can mean to different people, it's pretty interesting. The middle segment about a confident young woman who values her friends's needs over workplace rules and demands is the most subtle and compelling.

Revolver Rani 2014
At this point, the only thing that could make me want to see another corrupt politician from a Hindi-speaking non-metropolis is flipping something in the formula, so the idea of Revolver Rani is attractive. I'm not sure the film contains and supports all that goes into and out of Kangana's wild, violent, passionate Rani.
The film does not question a woman running in a man's world or cornering a male love interest in ways heroines often get treated,
but what is intended as complexity feels like scattered pieces (I wrote "Gabbar Singh/Miss Piggy/Lucille Ball" in my notes).

Happy New Year 2014
Save for a few very precise, specific moments—the Shalimar nod, Abhishek's snake dance, Sonu Sood at the steam pipes, the giant Indian flag on the jumbotron, SRK handing Jackie Shroff a [spoiler]—HNY disappoints me. SRK's character is a total ass (such hatred that movie expressed for Deepika's character's vocation and social position), Boman's too clownish, and everyone's underdeveloped. Thieves hiding as dancers is a great concept for a filmi spectacular, but here the heist and the dance competition distract from one another somehow. Come on, Farah.

* I know.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

spy vs spy: Ankhen (1968) and Kulla Agent 000 (1972)

Life is very good indeed when coincidence hands you two top-notch prime-vintage spy films. Life is even better when you happen to have an academic paper called "Bodies, Bollywood, and Bond: the Evolving Image of Secret Agents in Hindi  Spy Thrillers Inspired by the 007 Franchise" (by Krzysztof Lipka-Chudzik)* that includes a taxonomy and chronology of Bollywood spies, among other interesting discussions. There's absolutely no reason to compare these two films other than I wanted to say "spy vs spy" in the title of this post, but now that I've made that choice I'm going to stick with it. Maybe I can file this under public service and hope that the list of characteristics will help you decide which one to watch first, because believe me, you're gonna want to watch them.

In the aforementioned academic paper, there's a discussion of a technicality that points out that that many of the Indian movies most of us think of as "spy movies" are not really about spies at all: more often than not, and probably for reasons about the accepted not-terribly-shady morality of heroes, the heroes actually work for the police rather than for an intelligence agency. They may be gathering information while in disguise, but they're doing it to serve and protect communities or families, not dealing in espionage at the level of national governments. The ethically gray world of a spy doesn't fly often in masala, especially without the context of a childhood trauma that justifies everything as revenge and vigilante justice, and the lifestyle that Bond enjoys is out of bounds for the censor board. ** There are exceptions—the Gunmaster G-9 films—but even very recent movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod omit the womanizing.

mission and actual spying
These films have very different tones: Ankhen is the serious one, almost devoid of any comic moments (and even Mehmood manages to get his spying-related tasks accomplished, which is a good thing, because he plays Q), whereas Kulla Agent 000 is one of those projects that blows out as many stops on the fun-o-meter as budget will allow, energetically taking on many standard spy movie elements but never afraid to have its spooks be goofs.

In Ankhen, there's a brief reference to terrorist activities in the northeast, and the song during the opening titles is full of text and imagery about eyes and vigilance (rather than surveillance). Fascinatingly, the heroes of this film are not government agents at all: they're civilians who draw upon their (or their families') past as freedom fighters to do what's right for the country they love. It's an inherited yet also voluntary mission. That sense of duty seems to be missing in Kulla Agent. Dwarakish has signed up for his own fun and adventure. The whole setup of that film is instead comic: the diminutive hero initially fails his attempt to work for a government agency, but they eventually take him on and give him a mission and an ├╝ber-competent partner. The upload I watched has no subtitles, so I don't know exactly what the mission is, but my impression is that doesn't seem to be rockets or weapons or assassination or overthrow of governments, so maybe it's smuggling? Anyhoo, I don't know what these guys are up to, and it doesn't seem a any higher-level threat than any standard masala baddie with his crates of stolen statues or gold bars.

gadgets and other accessories
If you read Go Fug Yourself, you'll be familiar with one of its authors sometimes just saying "WORDS" when she cannot express her amazement. I feel very "WORDS" (in a good way) about the gadgets and props in both of these movies. Ankhen has several walls of bleep-bloop control panels, a transmitter hidden in the base of a Krishna idol (used by a villain, interestingly), a mask that changes the identity of its wearer (think "Hrithik" in Don 2), and a cage that drops into a tiger pit.
Kulla Agent is not outdone: a gold-covered car, transmitters hidden in owl statues and terrifying dolls with bird mouths and light bulb eyes, a villain in disguise as a guru leading stoned-looking hippies in "Hare Krishna," and evil dogs whose attacks are clearly voiced by humans going "Rrrr! RrrruFFFF!"

What's better than a vintage spy film in which a woman has anything to do with the actual mission?  Two such films in which the women have everything to do with the mission! Ankhen pairs Dharmendra with Mala Sinha, an agent so good that he didn't realize in the first phase of their acquaintance that she was an agent. She does her own share of the legwork, she uses weapons, she is injured in the finale fight sequence because she's fighting, not because she's tied up to a post as a hostage. Additionally, Dharmendra's sister in the film (Kumkum) takes dramatic, violent, self-directed action in support of her brother's mission. She has the sort of Mother India role, balancing love of her child with duty to her community (or nation, in this case). Nobody comes to her aid, nor does she need them to.

Jyothi Lakshmi is mindblowing as Dwarakish's partner in Kulla Agent 000. I've seen her in two other films (the KSR Doss projects James Bond 777 and Mosagallaku Mosagaadu), but in those she played was part of the villain crew and did not get quite the attention and vindication that heroines do. Like Mala Sinha, as far as I can tell she's every bit as critical to the mission as Dwarakish, and as one would expect from a Telugu masala action star, she has a ton of physical work, not only dancing and thrusting to moaning cabaret numbers (she's introduced slithering between the spread legs of shirtless men in blackface who later trap her with a net, which is not at all troubling, nope)
but also punching, kicking, flinging men across the room, etc. She's like Helen, Bindu, and Sunny Deol combined. For example, in one particularly amazing scene, she's just flung on a leopard print coat over her Emma Peel-esque black knits and opened her front door to go track down a lost Kulla when a giant Native American (yes, that kind of Indian, complete with braids and tomahawk, and also not at all troubling, nope)

assassin punches her in the face and sends her crashing through a plate glass window on the other side of the room. They fight for several minutes around her bedroom before she finishes him off with a swish of her hair and then hops into her convertible.

The heroes of these two films really exemplify the differences in the projects: there's nothing funny about Dharmendra in Ankhen, but he's relatively restrained, even in his many disguises and wigs, none of which is used for gags or big song sequences. He fights only minimally—his most notable brawl is with a tiger (and now I can check him off of the list of "Hindi film heroes who grunt at stuffed tigers")—and he behaves as the patriotic son of a patriot ought. His father, Nasir Hussain, is the organizer of the mission, but he comes across as an ineffective, doddering grandpa rather than a mastermind.

In a nod to Bond I wasn't expecting, his character is presented as irresistible to women, with both Mala Sinha and Zeb Rehman swooning for him instantly and discussing their attraction out loud multiple times.
The movie presents Dharmendra's sexuality as matter-of-factly as it does the skills or strengths of any other characters. It's not a boast, but it's a resource and for the sake of the mission he'll use it as much as he can. Like Bond, then, Dharmendra can seduce simply by entering a room in a suit. It's great casting—I can't think of any other actor in 1968 who could believably be presented this way (not even Shashi). Unlike Bond, of course this seedha-saadha Hindustani ladka will have none of it while he's on the clock, telling Mala that maybe he'll think about love once his work is done.

Kulla Agent is brilliant at giving its hero a chance to shine as both spy and clown (as it does Jyothi Lakshmi too). I can't think of many other films that let either hero or heroine take their work but not themselves terribly seriously. Bunty aur Babli comes to mind, but all that blend of competence + "wheee!" changes with their romance and pregnancy; fortunately this film doesn't bother with such a plot, so everyone can just have fun scheming and punching and dancing.

As with the gadgets, it's tough to pick a favorite. Kulla Agent's chief bad guy seems to be named Boss and he has big curly hair, wild scarves, and shiny sunglasses, unusual torture techniques, and a lair hidden in temple ruins with giant dragons and a dance floor where we see a snake dancer who wears a cobra-head sock puppet on one hand...and now your argument is invalid. Boss's number two is an eyebrow-waggling, cackling fiend in a variety of disguises whom I'd love to see in a film of his own (he's in the kurta standing next to the gold car in the picture above). But Ankhen has a pretty great enemy too. That vague terrorist-y foreign (or separatist?) power that despises India has Jeevan as the chief on the ground, wearing military paraphernalia and overseeing facilities such as a chamber with spiked walls that close in on victims, pyramids of metal barrels (not full of Steve, sadly), a zillion dudes with machine guns, self-destruct capability, and miles of tunnels connecting the hideout to exit points around town. Jeevan does his usual thing in just the right amounts, but Sujit Kumar gets to be the most interesting baddie; this is the biggest role I've ever seen him in, and he fits the effective-but-not-flashy tone of the project.

Just like James Bond 777, Kulla Agent is a movie that you can still relish if it just plays in the background. In fact, you probably should try that, instantly turning your daily goings-on into thrilling espionage. Hints of James Bond music are there, along with Swingle Singers-ish nonverbal vocals and other 60s pop and rock sounds, especially surf guitars. There's even a song by Kishore Kumar, whose sense of fun is perfect for Dwarakish. I'm also lumping dancing under this topic too because I can't talk about Jyothi Lakshmi without extolling her as a dancer. She's wild, exuberant, and unrefined, and it's not clear to me whether she's supposed to be read as sexy or funny or both. Little about her matches today's beauty standards, but her characters don't seem to have time to bother with what society thinks of them because they're too busy enjoying their songs and then saving the nation or taking revenge—and are in much better physical shape than most of their critics, whom they can toss across the room with one hand. She is a warrior, a joy, an icon, and a national treasure. just not as interesting to listen to. It's got a solid soundtrack by Ravi but nothing has stuck in my head nearly as much as "Kulla! Agent! Zero zero zero!" Its one standout feature is that the setting in Beirut yields some stylish and appropriate Middle Eastern influence. Oh, and the title song under the opening credits is an exercise in overkill in all the right ways. In case you hadn't gotten the idea from the title, the illustrations and lyrics will make sure you know what this film is about. I don't know why a giant head in the clouds has sunglasses on, nor whether another sky-head with its hand on India's northern border looks protective (as the words indicate) or just plain predatory.

locale and architecture
It isn't really fair to pit the two films, because surely Ankhen has a much bigger budget. It has location sequences in Beirut and Japan,
providing the Bond-esque globe-trotting handily while (to my surprise) avoiding regional stereotypes other than in clothing for disguises. Mala Sinha's character is described as half-Japanese, which also adds "exotic" points; in a mark of true class, her loyalty to India is never questioned, and her skills and contributions to the mission are described as top-notch. She's also affirmed as a worthy partner for the Indian hero, both romantically and professionally. For all their talk of the motherland, these characters appreciate a fairly cosmopolitan world. I also like how the cinematographer has some shots down tunnels or hallways that evoke the Bond gun-barrel.

As mentioned, I'm not sure that the villain and threat in Kulla Agent aren't entirely domestic; if I'm right, there's no need for international travel or locations. Either way, the film does plenty with its local evil, so much so that some of the bad guy's facilities are accessed through a Hindu temple whose columns slide and walls flip around to reveal communications equipment. The action moves out into the countryside a few times, including car chases and a fight in a moving jeep.  

style and class
Both of these movies have tons of ishtyle. Ankhen aims for, and relatively hits, Bond-ish sophistication. There's something about the look of this film that feels like "What if a few of the characters of Waqt took up a side line in espionage?" It has swanky nightclub songs, there are lots of men in dinner jackets, Mala Sinha in particular is often very fashionably or filly-ly attired, and characters slip into undercover roles as royalty. Kulla Agent isn't classy and all because that isn't a relevant yardstick. Kulla Agent is about rowdy fun and cartoony danger. Sauve would be boring to these characters (unless they were in disguise, and even then it's hard to imagine either of the leads looking at home in a tux or satin gown).

Frankly, these are both remarkable films. Kulla Agent 000 is huge fun, especially if you want to see a woman hold her own in a dangerous world as part of some professional drive and not having a tragic backstory/punishment to justify/tidy up her physical glee. I haven't talked as much about the hero because he's just not as compelling to me, but he's perfectly enjoyable, and he's a good entry into any list of diminutive action heroes, at least as their films present them. It reminds me of what a late 70s Manmohan Desai spy film might have been like if someone stopped Prayag Raj from writing the romance and family side plots. It's rock 'em sock 'em focused abandon.  Ankhen is all about restraint, carefully employing elements that often run amok in Hindi masala: comic actors, widows, fathers with weepy stories of the past, unrequited love, patriotism, rambling finale brawls. All of these things are present, but writer-director Ramanand Sagar keeps them all on the mission, so to speak. It would be wrong of me to let you have the impression that Ankhen is staid. It's not. It's just tight, which is quite amazing given everything that is rolled up into the story. And I didn't even tell you about Mala's sombrero and capri pants in Japan
or the little boy whose birthday party theme seems to be historical world leaders (I just don't know who this could be with a small-ish black mustache and his arm thrust out straight),
who is kidnapped directly from it and thus spends the rest of the film getting tortured while wearing his teeny tiny pteruges. How's that for a sentence you never thought you'd read?
B-movie or A-list? Both get an A+ from me.

Big thanks to Die Danger Die Die Kill for putting Kulla Agent on my radar.

* This essay is part of a larger collection titled From Highbrow to Lowbrow: Studies of Indian B-Grade Cinema and Beyond, and a pdf of the whole thing is available here.
** The more I think about this paper's discussion of how mainstream masala heroes can't have the playboy lifestyle and complicated, shifting morality of a spy, the more I think of the rebooted Don films, particularly the second one. But of course he's a villain, or at least an anti-hero, and I wonder if the second film would have had legs at all if the lead character weren't played by Shahrukh, whom we've all been trained to like whether or not we actually like him.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

a fan can dream

Everyone's talking about Aseem Chhabra's "Is it too much to now expect Shahrukh Khan to do a good film?"  Here's what I think.

  • I wish the title said "to do more roles that challenge his acting skills" instead of "good film," but I understand why titles are the way they are. 
  • I too wish he would do more films that challenge his acting skills. The films praised in the piece—Chak De, Swades (and I'd add Paheli)—are among my favorites, not just of his but from anyone in Bollywood. 
  • Shahrukh in a Vishal Bhardwaj film MUST HAPPEN PLEASE OH PLEASE. Or maybe even better, a Dibakar Banerjee film.  
  • It seems to me Shahrukh has experimented in cinema lately—(only?) within the broader category of "mass entertainer," sometimes even as producer. Don 2 was him playing with being a villain again after all this time (though in a flagrantly villain-centric film). Chennai Express was his attempt to see if he could find a flavor of southie masala herogiri that worked for him and his audiences, and the answer is "yep." Ra.One was a colossal swing at a hydra-headed sci-fi film with attendant marketing and tie-ins; it was an equally colossal miss by most people's count, but at least he tried. 
  • Maybe capital-A Actor, even if it's followed by -ish, is where he'll go for his elder statesman phase. Again, PLEASE OH PLEASE.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Teen Bhubaner Pare

Along with Saat Pake Bandha and Pratham Kadam Phool, Teen Bhubaner Pare makes a trilogy of 1960s films with Soumitra Chatterjee about a young couple who should have paid more attention to the red flags that popped up before they married. Saat Pake Bandha is the best of these films, combining the most interesting script with the most complex performances, and it's also the strongest statement about the risks of committing to someone with whom you do not share understanding and support (or even attempts at those things). Pratham Kadam Phool is the weakest: a snobby, unrealistic heroine with a suspicious, mama's boy hero and an uneasy final scene that indicates no real resolution of the problems in their relationship.

Teen Bhubaner Pare is the story of Montu (formal name: Subir) (Soumitra Chatterjee) and Saroshi (Tanuja), who live on the same street but represent opposite sides of the tracks. His family is struggling, especially his next closest brother, and when not at his factory job dada Montu spends most of his time gambling, drinking, and loafing around the street with his similarly unoccupied friends (featuring the always excellent Robi Ghosh).
Is this THE Olympia/Olypub?
After a credit sequence that is a tour de force of musical styles (Sudhin Dasgupta did the excellent music) over footage of 1969 Calcuttta (hear/see it here), he film immediately introduces the young men with the famous "Jibone Ki Pabo Na."* In 2014, a film's hero being introduced in a (relatively) raucous song is standard, but in 1969 Calcutta, this must have been downright sensational. I've never seen anything like it. Not only is it full-on song-and-dance sequence (which are very rare in the Bengali films of this period that I've seen), but it's an unruly rock and roll dance in the middle of the street with several dozen guys shouting about sports (football, I assume?) and banging drums before singing about not knowing whether what they see is real or fake, pausing their song only to ogle Saroshi, a new elegant, educated schoolteacher on the block. Public, raucous, disruptive, rude, and questioning the order of things.
After the song, they continue to shout at Saroshi in her house, and when she ignores them they call her "stainless steel." The film then shows a few moments of Montu's home life, where we see his family's falling status and his father's disapproval of how he spends his time and money. When his little sister asks where he's going, he replies, "If you don't ask me, then I won't have to lie to you about it." Later, when he finds his brother writing depressed poetry about there being no value in love or living, he throws away the paper angrily, saying that not being alive is impossible. 

Montu is immediately established as someone who makes bad choices but doesn't have much of a support system either. He's quick with his words but he doesn't do anything of value with them. He rejects his brother's bleak outlook but he puts no energy into improving his or his family's situation. Montu comes off almost as an Angry Young Man, except most of the time he's more perplexed and frustrated than he is full-on angry. 

What Saroshi does not initially see is that almost every time she rebuffs Montu's advances, he pauses to reflect on what she's said. His attempts to talk to her are egged on by his friends, but I do think he genuinely wants to get to know her—maybe she represents his internal sense that there's got to be something better in life than what he currently lives. 
Soumitra and Robi Ghosh: my favorite filmi odd couple.
Saroshi's insults of "Illiterate! Uncivilized!" clearly sting him, and there is a short sequence of him wandering around the city and then sitting by the river as the sun goes down, lost in thought, after which he wonders aloud to his friends whether they deserve such epithets. Like the aerial shots of the city in title sequence, these views remind us that Montu is well aware that there's more to Calcutta than the back lane he's stuck in. He also teases her for not giving him a chance to prove himself better than her insults—I love this exchange because it shows that a little part of him is always analyzing and hoping, even if he doesn't take those actions in exactly the "right" direction—and she eventually warms towards him after he takes care of an ill child during a Durga Puja scene. For Saroshi's, part I think she is genuinely drawn to to Montu because of his restlessness and refusal to completely accept things as they are. In some ways, he's a big kid, and she's charmed by his joy and affections. When he admits he always wanted to get more of an education than he had the chance to, she's a goner. 
He wonders if he's good enough for her, and she vows to bring out his full potential through education. He reacts badly to his friends teasing him about the lady taking him away, and her brother states his formal disapproval. Saroshi, in turn, disapproves of Montu's friends, refusing to be empathetic to their situation the way she is to Montu's and telling him that he has to chose either them or her. You can see where this is going: they get married, leaving their old neighborhood behind to set up a new flat on their own. Saroshi puts Montu on a very strict curriculum, allowing him absolutely no time with friends or hobbies. The rest of the film shows concurrent threads of their gradual socio-economic rise (witnessed by the improving decor of their flat) and cycles of her rebuking him for his attachment to aspects of his former life.

I love films that depict the risks of marrying someone you hardly know, especially when the couple becomes isolated with no family support from either side. Saroshi and Montu have jobs but little else to help them in their new life together: she doesn't seem to have friends, she won't let him see his, and there is shockingly little evidence of mutual affection and respect within the couple. Both of them are foolish, if romantically hopeful, in the idea that Montu will change so drastically in order to live up to Saroshi's dream for him. She demands new ways of spending his time, new overall focus of his energies, a new career path, even new basic interests.
A cruel streak arises Saroshi once she realizes how difficult this is going to be, withholding affection (and I don't just mean physically, though she does usually resist Montu's overtures—her attitude towards her husband is cold and snippy a lot). Saroshi is insistent and never apologizes, which makes her a flatter and completely un-empathetic character. She's consistent, but she's cardboard. Her all-or-nothing approach to his betterment is utterly unrealistic and destined to fail, so in turn she is always disappointed. She also communicates very little in words, yelling at him when he slips up and refusing to have a real conversation about his efforts and failures.

Montu is the much more interesting and resonant character. He exists in a more nuanced reality, demonstrating thoughtfulness and emotions at a variety of scales about a variety of type of situations. He stomps off in a huff a few times, but he also has smiles creeping in during little tender moments (or his attempts at tender moments, anyway). He relaxes more. He sets his books aside and lounges, claiming space and an attitude of leisure that she not only does not allow herself but also disapproves of. And because Saroshi is cruel about his friends, not even caring that one eventually goes to jail and another is in the hospital, Montu gets to be the righteous one, explaining how society has done this to them, has put them in darkness with no love and only pain, and that people there drink to escape. Her response is "Stop lecturing me," which would be a valid complaint except that she has done little other than lecture him for their whole marriage (and scolded him for the majority of their acquaintance before that). I love that Montu actually says to her that she's like the Pygmalion story, not knowing what to do once her little created doll has a life of its own. Yet Saroshi, or life with Saroshi, has definitely changed him. It's a little bit like she's killing independent George: the man who danced in the street in the opening of the film is slowly disappearing.

Why does Montu's improvement matter to Saroshi so much? Is it because she broke ties with her family in marrying him and thus this is now all she has and she is compelled to prove them wrong? We never see her out in society, enjoying the perks of a partner with a better job. Does her determination to "fix" him stem from her identity as a teacher, as though a Montu with an advanced degree is a personal triumph of her own skills (a motivation explored in Hurano Sur)? If Saroshi were a more fully written character, we might know what Montu means to her, but all we get is her disapproval. (As always, this could be a fault in the subtitles, but we certainly see little on Tanuja's face other than displeasure.)

Another reason that the relatively flat character of Saroshi is disappointing is that the film puts so much of its emotional energy on just the lead couple, leaving only Montu as a relatable person. Although there are at least ten other named characters, they simply move across the central action of the film, providing new information or a new scenario for Saroshi and Montu to react against. Their world is very cozy or very suffocating, depending on how you look at it. They don't "collaborate" in life with anyone other than each other, and they do a very poor job of that. For example, when Montu becomes an instructor, he has a student with a wealthy and influential father who offers Montu some sort of government job that serves the country and will make his name and fame, but Montu refuses. That is too big a position and too big a change for the version of him we know in this story. This is a story about individuals, not the greater good. Interestingly, Saroshi balks when Montu talks about wanting kids—even the most socially acceptable (required, even) of things seems like a distraction from her plan and must be shunned.

I've seen this movie twice and I'm still not sure whether Montu is fully satisfied with the changes in his life. He has made huge progress and risen into a different class while keeping his thoughtful nature intact, still showing flashes of his former feistiness and love of questioning. His wife is proud of him and he has made an informed, comfortable decision about his career. But on the other hand, his family is in tatters and he seems not to relate anymore to his old friends, offering them sympathy and help rather than his affection or time.

In a letter read out in voiceover near the end of the film, Montu says that he trusts Sarosihi's love for him is true because of her dramatic reactions when she fears their venture is failing. I can't quite believe this, simply because their relationship seems so cold and their dynamic so dominated by her years of disapproval and nagging. There's a line somewhere between tough love and the arrogance and disrespect of thinking you can fundamentally alter another person by playing off their affectino for you, and I think Saroshi has crossed it. Similarly, it's hard to imagine that Saroshi has has had anything to be happy about between the point they got married and the very end of the film, and even though much of her unhappiness results from her own rigidity and unrealistic expectations, I feel a little bad for her that she cannot find any pleasure in Montu's progression or in his fuller personality and character. Instead she seems nervous that her plan has been so successful that he will take his new achievements and run, leaving her behind. In the final scene of the film, he reassures her that he wants to stay together: "Whatever the good and genuine are in my life, they're because of you." She has—and always had—influence on him, but is this a good thing? It seems to me the costs of their hopes have been very high, and being the puppet in the hands of someone you love, and who says she loves you, seems corrosive. 

Necessarily Bengali professor's office. I love that in Calcutta's films of this era, it's the man who gets the makeover and that it puts him in, rather than removes, glasses.
* The following point may be of limited interest, though I was blown away when I found out about it: in 2009, the Bengali film Jackpot included a remake of this song in what I think must count as an item number by mega-hero Dev. One of the reasons I'm so eager to find English writing about mainstream (-ish) Bengali films is that I'm desperate to know the chain of decisions and changing tastes that led from the original to this in the four decades in between. Wonder what Soumitra thinks of it? Also, here's a live version at the Calcutta Club: aunties and uncles go to prom. And another charming one by some guy with a guitar and a camera.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Agni Pariksha and Chhoti Si Mulaqat


I wanted this to be a thoughtful comparison of two films made over a dozen years apart, the basic story traveling from one industry to another but taking its leading man and several visual details along for the ride. Unfortunately, subtitles did not materialize on Agni Pariksha, so I can't in fairness or with certainty say as much about it as I had hoped. Unlike Akash Kusum (1965)/Manzil (1979), which is a Bengali/Hindi remake pair with an interesting story told with thought and experimentation, the Agni Pariksha (1954)/Chhoti Si Mulaqt (1967) pair is a steaming pile of crazy that in the Hindi remake is, by its own admission, regressive in its treatment of women.
Don't get me started.
My takeaways from Agni Pariksha—and again, without subtitles, I don't know that this is an accurate assessment of what the film actually says—are:
1) Kirit, a gentle and calm man (Uttam Kumar), gently and calmly loves Tapasi, a confident and bold woman (Suchitra Sen), even as her traumatic memories threaten their relationship, and
2) this story is primarily about Tapasi and her ethical turmoil and the performance of it by Suchitra Sen. Uttam Kuamr is in the film, but it absolutely belongs to her.

In Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, Sharmistha Gooptu talks about this film in particular balancing its native audience's desire for both traditional and modern, embodied by the bonds of marriage and romantic love. Both are valid and both must be upheld. I have to admit that I find this to be a cop-out of the highest order both in this film and in the remake: why bother to have characters live with their decisions when instead you can just slap together a happy ending? This is not learning to combine tradition and modernity. This is magically getting both without sacrificing any of either, maybe even as a reward for undergoing some of the mental work of trying to find compromise. In that regard, I wonder how much this works as a sort of escapist or wish-fulfillment technique for contemporary audiences. It's just as outrageous a convenient coincidence as finding your long-lost friend/sibling/parent. For all of the occasional snobbery in discussions of Bengali cinema about how much better its stories are than those in Hindi cinema, this could be straight out of Manmohan Desai or Yash Chopra.*

The Hindi version has even more WTF in addition to the child marriage and the upholding of both the tradition and those who advocate it. As is absolutely no surprise, Chhoti Si Mulaqat is fond of stalking=love as Ashok (Uttam Kumar again) tries to wear Rupa (Vyjayanthimala) down over at least three meetings. She only changes her mind after she learns that he took her photo ages ago without her knowledge and kept it by his bedside. Romantic! Rupa is furious at her mother, who represents modern thought by refusing to acknowledge the child marriage, finding a lawyer who assures them of an easy divorce, and basically demanding of her daughter "You're so educated. How can you believe in this crap?"

More significantly, the film ends with the horrifying revelation by  Ashok that he has for awhile known the most important piece of information in the story (the fact that they are each other's child marriage) but has been withholding it from Rupa. (Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation states that Kirit knows it too, but since I couldn't tell that without subtitles, I'm not going to discuss it.) He calmly stands by while she is publicly humiliated and suffers emotionally and psychologically as she tries to reconcile a past she never chose with competing paths in the present; his excuse is that he wants her to choose to act on values and tradition rather than on romantic attachment. In a contrast that may or may not be very telling about each cinematic culture, Gooptu's description of Kirit's choice to remain silent in Agni Pariksha is because he wants Tapasi to genuinely love him, not just to hold to a traditional practice in which she had no willing participation—that is, the Bengali hero in 1954 needs his heroine to be modern enough, whereas the Hindi hero in 1967 needs his heroine to be traditional enough. Chhoti Si Mulaqat thus makes it crystal clear that the tradition of child marriages and women having to stick with whatever marriage they were assigned by their elders, no matter what other options they may want to pursue or whom they actually love or even know, is unalterable. Thirteen years forward, centuries back.

Also WTF but of much less relevance to anything that matters is the strange Shammi Kapoor-esque acting by Uttam Kumar in the beginning of the Hindi version. I suppose Shammi is as good a role model as any for portraying stalking=love, but it is a 180 from the typical Uttam Kumar hero-giri in his Bengali movies, even in things like Saptapadi or Chaowa Pawa in which the heroine hates him before growing to love him. Which is fine, but it's very strange (as is seeing him in color in this time period). Not to mention the addition of comic relief (an atypically annoying Rajendra Nath) and a frenemy vamp (Shashikala in a glorious bouffant), both of which are so grating and unnecessary that I really am not going to mention them any further.

As you might expect, the Hindi version also includes more and longer songs. They provide the one thing I thoroughly like better about the remake: the title song, which features not only a shimmying Vyjayanthimala in a glittering white sari and gems but also Uttam Kumar doing his absolute darndest to keep up with her—and mostly succeeding, in my opinion. I'd love to know more about his decision to do this song; I don't think I've ever seen him dance at all in Bengali movies, and certainly not with anywhere close to this much energy and actual choreography. It's a gift I didn't know he had and I'm thrilled that someone had the bright idea to unwrap it on camera and now I will stop with this analogy.

Actually, all of this song is great, musically, visually, narrative-ly: the party guests who join in, the flustered Rajendra Nath (who had just tried to embarrass Ashok by making him dance publicly, but HA HA joke's on you!), the brass, and the later visualization of just the lead pair, still dancing but all on their own in a darkened but sparkly room, perfectly illustrating that heady feeling of being utterly wrapped up with the person you love as the rest of the world slips from your consciousness.

Immediately before this song is a reminder of the other major facet of the Hindi film that improves upon the original: resources.  As Madhulike Liddle mentions in her post on Agni Pariksha, the Hindi version clearly has many more of them at its disposal. I actually noticed this first in the clothes: in the Bengali original, Uttam wears a tuxedo that, as Amrita says on our Bongalong blog, looks like he's playing dressup in his dad's clothes. It's miles too big, the seams are puckered, and the hem is lumpy. In the Hindi version, his tux looks like this:
Sometimes the "more more more" of Hindi films is unwelcome in addition to unnecessary, but in general Chhoti Si Mulaqat has a nice attention to its greater range of details that makes viewing extra pleasurable. Both versions are pretty and set up consistent social settings for their characters, but there is more variety in the remake. Some of these details parallel really well, and I enjoy watching them pop up. The photo of the love interest that is a mark of the hero's creepiness and arrogance in the Hindi version is somehow sweet in Bengali; the hero is embarrassed when the heroine walks in while he's gazing at it.
I also looooove the dream (nightmare) sequences in both films and think they work well in both contexts. Both depict the heroine in physical harm and use male figures to augment the danger (note the groom on the left  in the first image below). 
One detail that didn't make the jump to the Hindi version nearly as well is the telephone, which in Agni Pariksha becomes a threat because Tapasi doesn't want to deal with who/what is on the other end, and it gives Suchitra Sen an opportunity to do her some of her famous (at least between Amrita and me) freak-out act!ing!  

I don't prefer the look of one film over the other—both have visual strengths. The mountains and fog in the early part of the love story in Agni Pariksha are simply beautiful, even if some of them are painted, and they create an atmosphere of worry and uncertainty that will be picked up in dialogue and faces later in the film. As with many black and white Bengali films, most of the styles still look classy sixty years later (with the exception of the tuxedo mentioned above). Its props and techniques  aren't charming because they're smaller-scale—they're charming because they create mood and setting for the story that make sense. Chhoti Si Mulaqat has location filming, with blue skies and bright snow mirroring Rupa's disposition as an adult. I will never not love a filmi bouffant or 1960s knitwear, but some of the makeup is garish in technicolor.

I've become accustomed to the Uttam-Suchitra dynamic of calm depth and drama-o-rama, and I think it was really smart of Uttam to have Vyjayanthimala keep up that balance (he produced the remake) because it keeps him free to do the nonchalance that he does best. The two heroine characters have different tones, and the actors bring these out. If you need a woman to stand tall and stick out her chin and refuse to be bullied by your opinions and yell back at you, Suchitra Sen is definitely the one to call, and I love how she portrays characters who refuse to back down. But Rupa is different from Tapasi in this regard: she's a bubblier, livelier person, and I love how Vyjayanthimala has such a mischievous gleam in her eye in certain scenes. It's probably fair to say the characters show a sort of woman/girl dichotomy, again indicating that the Hindi version is even less interested in depicting or valorizing independent, adult females.

Both of these films are great examples of why "women-centric" is such a frustrating term. Agni Pariksha and, to a lesser but still important degree, Chhoti Si Mulaqat focus on their heroines. The writers and directors give the women time and energy to think through complicated circumstances and make their own decisions. In fact, multiple generations of women have significant power in the stories: the girls' grandmothers are ultimately responsible for allowing and supporting the child marriages, and the girls' mothers are key figures in protesting the worth and validity of those marriages. But none of that means that the films as texts are particularly feminist, progressive, or even egalitarian. A story that was truly interested in having women in charge of the decisions that affect their lives would not marry them off as children and blind them them from the complete knowledge of the situations that entrap them. It is Kirit/Ashok who holds the final card, and in both cases he plays it in a way that upholds his power to shape and approve of the heroines' choices.

But hey, they make for good gifs.

* Are there any Hindi masala films that have a long-lost spouse among the hero's generation (so, not the parents in Waqt or Amar Akbar Anthony)?