Wednesday, November 21, 2007

if you have to ask the question, you won't understand the answer: Namak Halaal

Listen, if you want to know what happens in Namak Halaal, you should just watch it, because it is truly the closest thing to batsh*t insane I have seen in a Hindi film (even more than Disco Dancer, released the same year). These fine folks have given description and plot summary their best shot, and I had read all of these before I watched, but I didn't feel remotely prepared for the amount, variety, and arrangement of crazy this movie offers. Sure, I had a sense that it would be bizarre, but in retrospect I don't think any amount of description could have made me understand. "Okay, reunited brothers, long-lost mothers, henchmen in scuba suits, I've got it," I thought as I read. "I love zany masala! Bring it on!" But really I had no idea.

Watching Namak Halaal is better experienced than it is talked or read about: you either know it or you don't. You can't just have a sense of it - because there is no sense to be had for love or money or oversized framed portraits of Shashi Kapoor. Once you've seen it, though, it's hard to keep it inside - I had to pause the movie several times to email Teleport City about it - even though you know that your attempt to capture its essence is as doomed as anyone else's.

Namak Halaal is notable in the great golden pantheon of masala glee because both the elements of the story (plot points, characters, settings) and the connections among them are so delightfully funny, weird, screwy, fantastic, or unpredictable. As others have pointed out, sometimes there is no real connection at all, which somehow makes the individual components, strange enough on their own, even stranger through unrelated juxtaposition. It's like someone (I forgot to check on the disc for writing or story credits) had a bunch of ideas for The Masala Film to End All Masala Films, wrote each bit down on a scrap of paper, and then convinced the director to pull sets of them at random, so that he got things like "shoe," "nightclub with a stream running through it," "walking on air," and "Dinesh Hingoo" and had to make a scene using all of them.* And we're talking about a lot of ideas, too: if a classic masala film like Parvarish or Do Aur Do Paanch cheerfully meets the Recommended Masala Allowance, then Namak Halaal must be what astronauts eat - super-fuelled to exceed RMA. There's no consistent plan except maybe 1) cram in every idea we had and 2) fire them all at the audience in the hope that the effect entertains. It's an approach I found both generous and lazy. While generosity goes a long way, I have to say that maybe the filmmakers' scattershot sense of it goes on longer than my ability and/or willingness to follow it. If you don't mind not having a story, or if having a storehouse of Amitabh-enacted silliness is reason enough to watch, then there is a ton to enjoy in the movie. And, like me, you might just want to see it to believe it. All of these are fine, fine reasons to watch.

To give you an example of this jam-packed crazy, I started to take notes while I watched, but I abandoned that plan pretty fast due to passages like this. Technically there are spoilers in the list, but I don't think knowing some bits of the first twelve and half minutes will matter. By 00:12:37 on the counter, we have
- murders
- arson
- sacrifice of relationship with a family member so said family member can have a better life even though doing so means you don't get to acknowledge your relationship
- "you're a blight on womanhood...leave before I curse you"
- leaving town
- adoption
- death-bed promises
- taboo money
- losing your son to the big, bad city
- loving grandparent standing in for parent who doesn't actually need to be stood in for
This all happens before Amitabh meet Shashi and Smita, before the disco qawwali in which Amitabh does the robot, before Parveen sings with ghosts of herself, before anyone knows they're brothers, before any punches are thrown at guys wearing panty hose on their heads.

In the middle of all this, there's one thing I think I can describe clearly. "Aaj Rapat Jaye To" is the best Amitabh Bachchan song I've ever seen. It's sweet, funny, steamy, expressive, and intimate. The song - text, choreography, setting, all of it - somehow manages to bring out the hard-to-put-your-finger-on reasons why he and Smita Patil could ever make a fantastic couple (and those reasons don't surface as strongly anywhere else in the movie). It's as though the song expresses what they want but are not quite ready to say or act on in their everyday world. As much craziness as happens at their hotel, they had to be by themselves, at night, in the rain, in the anonymity of the street to be able to speak and show their hearts. They are magic together and I believe every word they mouth, every movement, every gesture, every look.




It should also be said that Amitabh is by far the best part of the movie. I don't always love SeƱor B, even in the 70s and early 80s, but this movie is absolutely his and he plays his role with great glee. Shashi...well, Shashi's character is not particularly likable and sometimes he looks bored or distracted, which is disappointing, but at other times he snarls as a deliciously snot-nosed brat yelling at Waheeda Rehman or kicks bad guys through plate glass windows, so while he could have done more, he's not as absent as in Shaan. Parveen is largely wasted, but Smita, oh Smita, how fantastic she is, second in presence only to Amitabh and only because he had more screen time.

If your DVD comes with the film's trailer, definitely watch it. It contains very funny promotional captions over segments of the movie, and I daresay it will not lead you astray.





(This last one is actually Shashi getting ready to throw those two baddies head over teakettle. Shashi!) Actually, the trailer will probably give you a better idea of the movie than I ever could. And once you are promised "different action," how will you be able to resist knowing exactly what that means? See it. It's a trip. Just bear in mind this bit of the title sequence, in which the filmmakers kindly try to warn you: this is what happens to your brain as you watch.

Wheeee!

* Submit your own guess at how this movie was written in the comments!

6 comments:

Blue said...

I will dance without any drink, thank you.

Right now. The Bolly has inspired me.

Beth said...

Totally.

That particular phrase being used as a unique selling point surprised me, actually - I figured dancing without drinking was one of the very purposes of Hindi films!

a ppcc representative said...

Totally agree! What's strange is that it also becomes, for me, genuinely funnier the more I re-watch it. Honestly, the first go I just sat there scratching my head and going, "WTF is going on?" But once you can let go of the desire to know WindeedTF is going on, it becomes very, very hilarious.

Dancing without drink! That's my favorite song in the film!

JV said...

lately the dance sequences have become more interesting than the movies. lyrics are more clever than the dialogs.

Sanket Vyas said...

This movie is yet another example of the finest in Bollyweed movies (that the director must have been smoking something when he made it or that YOU should be doing the same while watching it). It was absolute madness but I just love it because of AB, the angelic Smita and those wonderful Kishore Kumar songs.

My wife never saw it on initial release and watched it the other day - had the same response you did but acknowledged that it would have been alot more fun with lots of friends & wine :)

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