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

[Spoilers.]


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)?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

one-a-decade mini reviews

Think of this as a very poorly organized survey course in Indian cinema studies.

Bou Thakuranir Haat 1953
A young Uttam Kumar, only a few years into his career, wears a lot of sixteenth-century frippery and tries to protect the aging Pahari Sanyal from machinations from a more sinister member of their royal family who also wants to throw off the Mughals.
This film comes from a Rabindranath Tagore work [drink!], itself based on real events in the life of a contemporary King of Jessore, Pratapaditya. To be honest, I was very confused through most of this film, I hope because I've never heard of any of these people before and had only a tiny sense of their historical context. I do get the sense that Bou Thakuranir Haat is less interested in the trappings that usually go into historical epics and more in showing the individual lives and human-scale factors and effects of political turmoil. Instead of swamping everything in miles of fabric and clanking armor, director Naresh Mitra (who also did the 1928 Bengali Devdas AIIIEEEEEEE) puts thought into little things like the constant hustle and bustle in a palace, servants quietly lighting lamps and soldiers patrolling the terraces in the background. This place feels more like a community than, say, either the Greeks or Indians in Sikandar. Still, there's plenty to look at, and despite not understanding the film much, I enjoyed it for the nighttime escapes by boat, palaces, accessories,
and wiggery. 
Also, some of the acting is ridiculous, as one expects (hopes!) from historical dramas of this era.

And behold this advice on how to get rid of dacoits by an unusual method.

Atal Jaler Ahwan 1962
There are a bunch of hard-to-find films in Soumitra Chatterjee's early career, so whenever one turns up on youtube, I automatically watch it as soon I can, regardless of subtitles or knowing anything about it, a behavior that leads to far more squee and screen grabs than it does to any experience that can truly be called "engaging with a film." But beggars can't be choosers, so I muddle through.

In this one, the brooding and emotional weight that Soumitra usually carries
are instead mostly undertaken by a young woman who looks a lot like Nargis (and because the credits are in Bengali, I'm only partially confident this is Tandra Burman),
who is in love with Soumitra but because of illness (injury?) has to watch from the sidelines as someone perkier and bolder makes a move on him. It's a cast full of regulars—Chhabi Biswas (in a beret!)
and Aparna Devi are his parents and Jahar Roy is his servant, plus Bhanu Banerjee is also around—and Ajoy Kar has directed some great films with Soumitra in this era (BarnaliSaat Pake Bandha), so this is another one to file under "watch again when subtitles/instant fluency in Bengali is available."

 Plus Soumitra wears a bow tie.

Mem Saheb 1972
Mem Saheb is very hard to discuss thoroughly without mentioning its ending, and a short collection of scenes in the last ten minutes has me rethinking what came before, but there's still a lot of material worth exploring out loud. The romance of journalist Amit (Uttam Kumar) and history student Kajal (Aparna Sen) is surrounded by a harsh economy, Naxalite uprisings, and Bangladesh's war of independence. It also features visual and verbal references to India's cultural resources, particularly in Calcutta and Delhi: the leads meet-cute on the train home from Tagore's Santiniketan, re-meet at an art exhibit, stroll in the botanical gardens, name-drop the National Library, sight-see throughout Delhi, and picnic at the Qtub Minar. Their lines of work also tie to the power of information and words rather than to money, which is a specter over Amit's early life, and no characters have anything to do with industry or commerce.

Mem Saheb seems to be a tale about rewards of education and of pan-Indian patriotism as much as it is a love story. Although Aparna Sen is 19 years younger than Uttam Kumar (very visibly so in this movie), Kajal very much acts as a nurturer and guide to Amit, who mentions early in their relationship that his mother died when he was young and that his father was a cold man. (Her father has died as well, so maybe this age gap thing works for her—though I don't know how old Amit is supposed to be.) While finishing her MA, Kajal meets Amit through a mutual friend and is mostly won over by his flirting

but also responds with philosophical arguments and specific recommendations for him to advance his career, sending him reading assignments
and then eventually off to Delhi to try his hand at journalism at the national level. To me this reads as a version of "Those who know the past control the future" motto on the history department bumper sticker on my family's car in the 1980s: whole, functional adults in the modern world of the film need to be fluent in reading and critical thinking. They also come across as class markers (hence the film's title, I assume), but ones that are not strictly inaccessible. Cultural literacy and productivity are also important in Mem Saheb's world, embodied by this educated woman who goes on to be a teacher to other women. Kajal never judges Amit for his past poverty and tenuous career; instead, she just prods him to work harder and not waste his talents. His boss at the newspaper in Calcutta gives him similar advice: even when he has to lay Amit off, he tells him to keep writing. The villain in Mem Saheb is not wealthy people trying to keep the throngs out. The real enemies are complacency and the forces who threaten stability and disrupt work.

The other notable thread to me in Mem Saheb is its frequent depiction of the growing physical relationship between the romantic pair, who are never married in the course of the film. There's a lot of very close snuggling in cars, they go on a trips together (and are shown lying in beds, talking through the wall of their suite of rooms), she enters his bedroom while he's still asleep, and I have a sense from the subtitles that if you know Bengali there are a few innuendos scattered around.
The end of the film could really color what I make of all of this, so I'll say no more here, but I do think this is a good entry into the list of Bengali films that seem a lot less worked up about sex than Hindi films of comparable eras do.

I highly recommend Mem Saheb. It's a charming romance made much more interesting by its relationship to the social and political contexts that are shown with as much care as the love story. Mem Saheb is available with English subtitles on the Angel youtube channel, but be warned that the description of the film there has a huge spoiler. 


Desh Premee 1982
This...is not Manmohan Desai's finest. That opening sequence of Amitabh with barbed wire around his head while lashed to a flagpole, his blood dripping to the ground and forming the word "inqilab," might be the very moment Desai began to lose his grip.
Sometimes more is just too much.

I don't hate Desh Premee—in fact, I enjoy it more than Coolie—but it does feel out of balance. There's no one particular element that damages it, but there are just a few too many repeats or reiterations of the ingredients. For example, I would not want to do without the settlement of Bharat Nagar (come on) representing various subgroups of the Indian population, each represented by an awesome movie star (Shammi Kapoor for Sikhs, Prem Nath for Tamil Nadu [not sure why him and not MGR etc—too busy being politicans?], Parikshit Sahni for Muslims, and Uttam Kumar for Bengal), thus forming a rough draft of the regional hero action team film I've dreamed of. But I'm not sure I needed them in so many fights with lathis—though again, I would never, ever want to miss out on Uttam Kumar doing his darndest to fight Shammi Kapoor or Amitabh Bachchan.
I also love components like the torture wheel, Navin Nischol's disguise in the casino, the arc of Amitabh and Hema Malini's marriage, the family reunions, and even the blood transfusion equipment in the ambulance, crashing around wildly in contrast to the stately, foundational blood drips in Amar Akbar Anthony.

My most specific complaint with Desh Premee is one of omission: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? Hema is pretty boring with the little material she is given, and Sharmila Tagore and Parveen Babi don't matter to the film at all. This lack is such a disappointment after movies like Suhaag and Parvarish and even Aa Gale Lag Jaa, where the women are as significant as the men. Oh, and the bits with Amitabh as Mehmood being "Tamilian" and the "in hiding as 'negroes'" arc, of course. So very bad, and I would love to read someone who really knows about depictions of race in world cinema in general and Indian films in particular to sink their teeth into it. (If you've read such a piece, please post it in the comments.)

Ram Jaane 1995
Timepass. I like shaded hero Shahrukh (Ashoka, Chak De India, Don, and of coure Darr) more than spotless or sappy (Kal Ho Na Ho, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, or even Ra.One and Om Shanti Om). He's the outstanding feature of this film by far, demanding and meriting all the attention in a way that absolutely works for me—energetic, funny, brash, and sharp. I won't spoil the plot for those who haven't seen it, but his is a very consistent character whose values play out in ways I didn't quite expect. Ram Jaane is not a good man, really, but he is absolutely sympathetic, with a sharp edge and sense of humor despite a life whose core is bleak and would have long ago imploded a weaker person. Actually, he reminds me of an Angry Young Man, but maybe a little more cynical than tragic. And who can forget the Batman-themed nightclub in which Shahrukh dances to "Pump Up the Bhangra" (note the giant Batman icon in the silver curtain) before pulling a gun out from under his dance partner's wig?!? That is the BEST THING I've ever seen.

Krishnakanter Will 2007
Ugh. Plodding arty Bengali film is plodding. It's way too long, and you can quickly tell it is going to dissolve into people making bad choices and deliberately being manipulative and otherwise horrible to one another. I haven't read the Bankim Chandra Chatterjee novel on which this is based, so maybe the blame mostly lies there, but this story could have been told in a more nuanced and thus more compelling way. One problem may be that someone other than growly action star Jeet should have been cast as the lead male character whose moral quandaries I gather we're supposed to find interesting but are in fact facile and (decidedly not em-) pathetic. "My wife or my mistress? HOW CAN I CHOOSE?" Just put it away, jerk. Put. It. Away. And maybe get the crew to pay as much attention to the "dark" character's makeup as they did to the lovely mansion's decor instead of plastering Monali Thakur in a non-human color of shoe polish or spray tan. (My laptop, in an amazing burst of self-protection, refused to play this DVD, so I don't have screen caps to show you.) Since Upperstall already put energy and thought into a very good and funny review, you're best off reading it and then forgetting this film. Sample quote: "Soumitra Chatterjee’s Krishnakanta is just the right mix of wisdom, charity, and moral rectitude but his terrible wig tends to spoil the show."

Obhishopto Nighty 2014
File this one under Bengali films that are wound up about sex. This is mostly a loud, "naughty" comedy that isn't very sexy (perhaps on purpose). It follows a cursed nighty first worn by a 1980s bar singer who was driven to suicide by the sleazy man she loved. 
This 2010s Bengali film version of 1980s Calcutta nightlife looks a lot like 1970s Hindi films. (This is a compliment.)
The nighty then finds it way into the hands of various women who become lust-crazed and act on their passions with mostly inappropriate men. I'm not sure what to make of this plot, even in the comedy setting: is female desire automatically a joke, or is the joke actually on anyone who automatically laughs at desirous women without thinking about it? Does the inescapable power of the nighty absolve the women and their partners of infidelity? And why must the women appear to be so penitent afterwards? 

Obhishopto Nighty also has some laughs at the film industry. For me, this was the funnier track, with a struggling starlet ditching her man from back home as she flees for opportunities in the big city and is eventually courted by different film industries
"Bollywood," obviously.
and entangled with a gross producer before being saved by a film hero in a meta cameo appearance. Most of this is fairly broad, but I still laughed. My favorite part of this is a room of censors watching bits of the film itself on a screen framed by neon-lit scissors.
I did not like this juvenile depiction of Rituparno Ghosh. I was about to say it's too soon to play with this kind of stereotype, but there's no good time for jokey portrayals of a marginalized person or group. It hurts to see this after watching something like Aarekti Premer Golpo—not a great film either, but at least it strives to promote humanity for the outcast.

However, I will always appreciate Obhishopto Nighty for taking the ubiquitous portraits of Tagore across Bengali movies to their logical extension. I've joked before about "The eyes of RabTag are upon thee!" but they really are in this film, so much so that after this woman, a student of Rabindrasangeet, does something objectionable, the next view of the Tagore wall shows the back of his head, as though he refuses to look her in the eye.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Chaowa Pawa and Jay Jayanti

Doing some research on Indian remakes of foreign films while also spelunking through the filmography of Uttam Kumar has recently led me to two delightful Bengali films based on American classics: Chaowa Pawa, which is one of at least six Indian remakes of It Happened One Night, and Jay Jayanti, one of at least three South Asian remakes of The Sound of Music.* Both of these posts contain spoilers if you aren't familiar with the plots of the original films.

Chaowa Pawa 1959
This film opens with Suchitra Sen (Manju, the Claudette Colbert equivalent) in capri pants and pigtails chucking porcelain around the room (so, the least dignified I've ever seen her),
quickly jumps to reporter Uttam Kumar (Rajat, the Clark Gable equivalent, looking super handsome in his rolled-up shirtsleeves) having his hardy ego bashed in by his editor (who just happens to be her father) (Chhabi Biswas),
and doesn't let up in energy or emotion until the very end. The conflict stemming from the heroine's marriage is different too: instead of running to her new husband of whom her father disapproves, here she's trying to escape visiting the family her father wants to marry her into. And this being 1950s India and not pre-Code Hollywood, the couple is not left alone quite as often on their journey back to the big city, nor do they camp out on a farm or use an exposed leg to hitch a ride. But the cycle of obstacles and interferences, including the question of how to manage a shared hotel room or enact convincing versions of married-life arguments, repeats day after day as the feelings and investments between them build, just like the original.

Chloe Angyal makes the point that IHON, filmed during the Great Depression, is unusual among its contemporaries for actually bothering to depict, involve, and humanize the poor. Chaowa Pawa doesn't pay quite the same notice to the non-rich other than as they are represented by Rajat, but the third-class train car the two meet in (instead of the night bus)—and their fellow passengers who witness the beginning of this classic match—provides some initial socio-economic context. Their first few nights off the train are spent in a run-down hotel staffed by a very nosy manager (Tulsi Chakraborty), who wants (and probably needs) the reward money as much as Rajat but is much less scrupulous about it. Rajat is down on his luck employment-wise, but he's not scum. He's also not exactly the poor but noble hero we've seen in many other movies; his job makes him too worldly, and his attitude demonstrates plenty of fluency in calling the shots and bossing other people around. Manju is disgusted by the circumstances she has put herself in and which Rajat cannot immediately lift her out of, and her new surroundings contrast humorously with her very strong, very proud sense of self.

In IHON, Clark Gable says to Claudette Colbert "I guess it would never occur to you to just say, 'Please mister, I'm in trouble, will you help me?' No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute." I didn't catch a similar line in Chaowa Pawa, and in fact Manju asks Rajat for help the very first moment they meet. (In the first picture in this post, she's about to tap him on the shoulder to ask for help buying a ticket before the conductor reaches their bench.) The film doesn't seem interested in using her to talk about humility, and she maintains enough confidence to be perfectly up front about her changing emotions for him and to keep her head high when he pretends he doesn't reciprocate. She would like his affection, but its lack does not deflate her. Personally, I find the idea of a humility lesson from loud-mouthed heroes who bluff and intimidate other people pretty rich; I'm grateful that this point is not hammered here, and it's always nice to see an Indian film that doesn't want to slap its woman down for trusting her gut and making unsanctioned decisions. The older I get, the more I think it's important to have friends and/or partners who don't let you get away with your same old baloney. Both characters in Chaowa Pawa better each other, and it depicts more mutual growth than It Happened One Night does. Rajat shows Manju the value in calming down and thinking before reacting (watch for the decrease in shattered teacups) and she shows him that you shouldn't always run away from what you want.

For my money, this is top-notch Uttam-Suchitra chemistry, probably because I always prefer the comedic to the melodramatic. 
She is tightly wound and suspicious, no doubt because of her father's sneak attack of engaging her to someone she doesn't like; he is loose but quick-witted, not letting on that his career is in the toilet and plying old friends and new acquaintances with his nonchalant charm. Look at this image of their first night off the train, about to navigate staying in a hotel together: she's angry with clenched fists, ready to pounce, and he has his hands in his pockets, waiting out the storm.
They both have so much attitude in the first stages of this film, and as the characters get to know each other the actors appropriately vary what they project, showing vulnerabilities without actually weakening. Both characters have a lot to lose, and I love watching them balance those calculations with their hearts. 

This is probably my favorite Uttam Kumar performance after Nayak: joking, flirting, scheming, and panicking, all with expert lightness and ease. He tosses off one-liners to the side characters, raises one eyebrow at Suchitra's fits, and gazes wistfully into the evening sky exquisitely, his voice, face, and body all changing from moment to moment. This is movie-star-ing and how
And so it is with the Mahanayak as Clark Gable, and not Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda, that for the first time in my life I find myself thinking smoking is actually sexy. End times.

Watch Chaowa Pawa online with English subtitles at the Angel youtube channel.

Jay Jayanti 1971
This film has been making me think about what the requirements and limits of "remake" are. Is there a firm, widely applicable line between "remake" and "adaptation," or is the process of putting a particular text into a new context so case-specific that these terms aren't even useful? Like Chaowa Pawa, I would argue that Jay Jayanti has enough of the same spirit of the original that it feels faithful, even clocking in much shorter and missing some significant dramatic elements that I'll get to in a momentarily.

First, here are some of the features that are the same (and I'll use SoM names for clarity). The von Trapp children need a governess very badly.
Watched over by their uncle (not father, as Captain von Trapp is; their mother is dead and their father is AWOL) (Uttam Kumar as Sanjay), who is not in the military but believes in routine and discipline and has been known to charge around like the bison in the painting over the stairs.
Young Maria (Aparna Sen as Jayanti, in what may be my favorite performance by her as an adult) is up to the task, accessorized like Mary Poppins.
They play tricks on her like sending their German shepherd out into the fields to startle a cow, who goes charging after her.
 
She eventually charms them via being a good sport, singing, and even protecting Liesl's relationship with Rolf.
Maria often looks fondly and wistfully at Captain von Trapp, intrigued by his gruffness and pain.
  
That pain is very tragic, in this case involving the children's mother (his sister)'s suicide over grief that her husband doesn't love her anymore. Everyone is bonding and frolicking and singing "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa" during a picnic until DUN DUN DUNNNNNN the Baroness (Mala) arrives!
The children, in completely matching clothes not made from curtains, perform "Ta-ta, Bye-bye" (not its real name) to impress the Baroness and then go off to bed.
The Baroness is much more sophisticated than Maria, making good coffee and coochy-cooing
 while Maria sews.
They eventually come to words when it becomes clear Maria occupies more space in this house and its occupants' hearts than the Baroness can handle.
Maria packs her bags and goes back to Calcutta. Of course, the Baroness and the Captain discover they have crucial differences, and Maria ends up back where she belongs.

So in many regards, this is a pretty good step-by-step remake. Many of the plot points are the same, and there are some similar characterizations: blustering, smooth patriarch; young mother figure whose goodness is expressed by her musicality; a woman who seems a good match for the patriarch socioeconomically but who turns out to be too frosty; a big house that seems empty without the breath of fresh air. However, there are some important elements that aren't in Jay Jayanti that I think make it a much less emotional film. When I told friends I was watching this, many people asked "What will they do about the Nazis?" The answer is: nothing. There is no external force of any kind acting on this story, let alone that level of socio-political fear. One of humanity's greatest evils is replaced with...a plot to send the kids off to boarding school.

Similarly, Maria's inner turmoil about her existing love of God and the church being in conflict with her growing love of the Captain and the children is not replicated here either. We know next to nothing of Jayanti's personality or history other than what we see on the job, and she's less interesting than Maria. There's a little exchange between Jayanti and Mala in which Mala says "You're a Presidency College girl**, so you should be able to understand my situation with Sanjay," implying (I think) that Jayanti should have a worldliness that she is ignoring for her own benefit. For that matter, Sanjay doesn't seem as complex as the Captain. Life is pretty easy for Sanjay; he runs some kind of business, shouts at his servants in incomprehensible English***, and goes to a nightclub til all hours of the morning while the children are at home with their schoolwork. He carries the weight of sadness of his sister's suicide, but there's no turmoil there—just fairly compartmentalized grief. Overall, the stakes in Jay Jayanti are much, much lower than those in The Sound of Music, and it isn't as compelling a story. It's a perfectly enjoyable film, but its cuteness has to do all the work of the also-cuteness, psychological turbulence, and geopolitical upheaval of the original.

Oh, and there's no gazebo.
NO. GAZEBO. Criminal.

* It Happened One Night (1934) turns up as ​Chori Chori​ (1956), Solva Saal (1958), Suhana Safar (1970), and ​Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi​ (1991) in Hindi; ​Hudugaata ​(2007) in Kannada; and Chaowa Pawa (1959) in Bengali. To my knowledge, this makes it the most used American source material for Indian films (at the film-to-film level, that is—I'm sure particular action sequences probably appear more often than six times). As for The Sound of Music (1965), it exists in Bengali as Jay Jayanti; in Hindi as Parichay (1972) (which I haven't seen, though in my opinion turning Julie Andrews into Jeetendra and having him marry the oldest von Trapp child is super gross); and in Urdu from Pakistan as Intekhab (1978). I have found many references to Parichay being based also on a Bengali novel based on the story called Rangeen Uttarain by Raj Kumar Maitra, but I can find no reference to this book (story?) anywhere other than in discussions of Parichay, even in massive library catalogs, so I can't say whether the book also seems to come from SoM or if it's an independent entity that got combined with SoM to make Jay Jayanti and/or Parichay.
** The other film-related reference to Presidency College girls that I've heard is Satyajit Ray saying that Soumitra Chatterjee's fan base would be there, but other than that, the public belonged to the Mahanayak. Heehee.
*** Amrita jokes that Uttam Kumar invented mumblecore decades before we know it now. I understood maybe half of what he said in English without looking at the subtitles. I bring this up not to make fun of him—I can throw no stones, given that I am nowhere close to fluent in any of the languages I've studied—but to point out that it undercuts his usual suave persona that pops up in films in which he's dressed as he is in this one. Uttam Kumar in a suit=urbane. I'm wondering what the point is in this film of him using so much English if he's as uncomfortable with it as he seems; the other characters would all reasonably speak Bengali, I think, and they use it the rest of the time. His status is cemented in the world of this film without English.