Sunday, July 20, 2008

don't stop believin': Immaan Dharam

Alternate title: Can I get a witness?

The next installment of the bilateral projects of the International Relations Ministry of Shashi Pradesh! PPCC joined me in watching the first of my new stash of Shashi.


Bet you can tell what this is about, right? Behaving as people of faith in pluralistic communities. Recognizing higher powers. Witnesses-for-hire Mohan (Shashi) and Ahmed (Amitabh) regularly take oaths but spout lies in the courtroom. They're not really bad as much as they are opportunistic, as evidenced by the lengths they go to to help their neighbors, including the sweet Shyamlee (Aparna Sen). The stakes rise considerably when Kabir (Sanjeev Kumar), Shyamlee's fella and all-around inter/super-denomination religious philosopher, winds up on trial, and the rest of the story follows Mohan and Ahmed (and a few friends) as they take guidance from Kabir in their attempts to get eveyrone out of the messes caused by various bad guys in suits (Mac Mohan, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri, you get the idea). Rekha and Helen enable a little romance, but they're also much more than that, fighting the man

and asking some tough questions rather than item-shimmying.

Note the cross necklace. It's going to be really important later.
All three female characters are quite interesting, and although I'd argue they don't get as much screen time as their stories merit, they have meatier roles than some other 70s women I can think of (Neetu Singh in Deewaar, for example). They participate fully in the community and their stories add a lot to the societal context, providing windows into working conditions, parenting, and de facto families in the big, anonymous city.

[If you don't want any hints about the masala-y ending, don't read the next paragraph.]

Here's the one thing that bugged me. Immaan Dharam champions Indian religious pluralism and tolerance (among other things) - yay! - and it takes the Amar Akbar Anthony-type route, focusing on Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, also adding in a clear representative of Sikhism. But there are no Buddhists or Jains (not useful stock characters for the free-for-all dishoom at the end, perhaps?), and, more to my personal concern, no atheists. Everyone good in this movie is clearly identified in a particular theist faith. The movie might not say that the bad guys are godless - I don't think that their religious views are mentioned - but all the good people are clearly not. No one particular faith is exalted, but god- and scripture-based faiths in general are. Atheists and agnostics are not demonized, but they're not included. (If I recall correctly, the person who expresses confusion about the value of religion is killed, but he's also mourned and clearly not a villain.) The movie ends with Kabir's great big statement that the lead characters - the heroes, the people who solve the problems - compose "today's India." It gets some points for diversity; from left to right we have a Muslim, a newly-identified Christian, the all-knowing theologian, a Hindi-speaking Hindu, a Tamil-speaking Hindu, and a Sikh. But no non-believers and no doubters.

Join hands! Start a love train! As long as you believe in some higher power! Woo-woooo!

What's going on with this? Maybe at the time the movie was made no one was worrying about what atheists were up to? Maybe SalJav just didn't feel a need to comment? Maybe religion has been given the same movie treatment as many other aspects of life, namely that they're often painted broadly and there's little wiggle room (agnosticism isn't tied up with a nice bow, after all)? Maybe I'm worrying too much about a non-issue? I'm not sure why I'm so bothered by this; when you live in contemporary America, you realize that not belonging to a faith is not always a comprehensible or popular trait. But the movie seemed so adamant that people grab on to religion in order to survive and progress - it was as though not identifying with a specific faith and not finding wisdom in scriptures were not an option. No god, no life, no positive role in the country. This idea is even expressed literally a few times. Most of the examples don't play out quite as heavy-handedly as you might fear, but of course there are ridiculous filmi treatments of religion saving people as well - it is 1977, and we must keep our Recommended Masala Allowances of coincidences and symbols up to official standards!

Mohan sees the light. We get it, okay? Geeze.
Moving on. I did like that the movie has characters consider what it means to have faith, to treat people with kindness, and to behave in ways that are consistent with what they say they believe.

You know what I believe in? I believe in Shashitabh, especially when the two are tightly aligned and striving for justice! They start off bad people - although jovial, well-integrated into their community, and always loyal to each other - and end up much, much better, repentant and working in service of others.



They plan together, learn together, fight together, and succeed together. They might as well be the same person, really, though it's a lot easier to identify them with India's two biggest religions when there are two of them. Sanjeev's character serves as the wiser brother, the better son, helping both of them clean up their act. And anyway, why have only one of them when full-on Shashitabh would be even more fun, I say! (This principle did not work well in Shaan, because Shashi hardly makes any impression, and thus Shashitabh is weak and not particularly fun or interesting, so it might as well actually just be Amitabh.) The first song, "Duniya Ek Adalat Hai," has the two reveling in each other's company, I suspect as actors as well as characters. They look like they're having so much fun, and it's infectious. It's very similar in style and tone to my beloved Parvarish's "Sab Janta Ka Hai," featuring the small(er)-time crooks larking around the streets of Mumbai, joyful and chummy. It even has rolled-up pant hems! No surprise - both movies are Lakmikant-Pyarelal in 1977.


Aside: I love when movies have street scenes that include hoardings or posters for other movies. Here we had Laila Manju with Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta Kaur, Sangram with Shatrughan Sinha, and Ab Kya Hoga, also with Shtarughan and Neetu Singh. You can see the latter two in the bottom left photo.
This is very, very fine Shashitabh, maybe even better than in Kaalaa Patthar because there's more fun in their relationship. It's of the buddy-buddy, "I am he and we are all together" variety rather than the "we'll complement our strengths and play off each other's screen personas" kind. Fun, sweet, and very well suited to this big cast and multi-pronged story.

Random bits:

  • Some notes on the women's makeup. Rekha wears "brown face," for lack of a better term, I assume to emphasize her character's Tamil-ness, and I think this is the first time I've seen a film couple in which the woman is darker-skinned than the man! I'd like to be wrong about that, but I can't think of any other examples. On the other hand, Helen appears in an important scene with no makeup on at all (or at least makeup that looks like she isn't wearing any, as opposed to her previous bright red lips and spider eyelashes)! The effect is really disconcerting; we're so used to seeing her all glammed up that in her natural state she looks almost alien.
  • Another first in this movie for me is an attempted rape that is detected and stopped by bystanders! And the woman is comforted and cared for! And she doesn't kill herself! And people work together to catch the perpetrator! Woohoo!
  • The graphics of the title credits are superbly 70s hip (see top photo too).

    This reminds me of looking at a World Book Encyclopedia article (probably published the same year this movie was made) in the reference nook of my hometown public library's children's department. I love it.
  • The Ultra DVD gave me no problems on my main DVD player, but when I put the disc in the computer, a little green rectangle popped up (you can see it on Helen's right hand above). V mysterious. Also, the back of the case has some of that really hilarious inaccurate and paltry descriptive marketing text that makes you wonder why it's even there, and it says "the main attraction of the film is the star cast," which really sells the story short, in my opinion. It also uses a picture of Shashi that isn't from this movie and calls Shashi and Amitabh's characters by the wrong names (Ram and Iqbal). Better the nonsensical text and mistakes there than in the subtitles, though, so I shouldn't complain.
  • Look how Kabir is bound up when the baddies capture him.

    Fortunately most of the movie's symbolism isn't this clunky.
  • Speaking of what I believe in....

    Shashi in black. High priestess.

16 comments:

houseinrlyeh said...

As a fellow atheist I see where you are coming from regarding "no virtuous atheists". What I'm asking myself is: was atheism an option in India 1977 or were there really no people without faith in a supernatural power in the public eye in India.
Also, none of the bad guys are shown to be outwardly religious, but hypocritical?
That would be troubling.

Bollyviewer said...

Good call on absence of atheists/agnostics in mainstream Bollywood. Atheism is not really an option in India - not in 70s, not today. When I say I dont believe in God/religion the universal comment it invokes is, "Are you a communist?"!!! And Bollywood ofcourse tends to re-inforce these ideas. The only atheists in masala flicks are those who are angry with God for denying them happiness (like AB in Deewar) but who eventually come to accept the greatness of God and thus, put themselves on the path to redemtion.

This one is the only Shashitabh pairing that I havent got my hands on, yet! Have to find it... Who is Big B's love interest, here?

Beth said...

house - I don't remember any discussion or note of the bad guys' religions. So are they Hindu by default, as is generally the case in movies? Or are they...dun dun dun...godless? No idea. When you watch it, let me know if you catch any clues.

Bollyviewer - Fascinating! Good point about the awakening/redemption path. I'm sure I'll be on the lookout for this question from now on - and will have to revisit things like Amar Akbar Anthony with it in mind.

You MUST watch this! I'm not sure I'd go as far as PPCC does in calling in a lost classic, but it's very satisfying and enjoyable, and I cannot emphasize enough how pleasing the Shashitabh is.

Big B is with Helen in this one - apparently the only time they played a couple.

a ppcc representative said...

Obligatory objectifying: Man, Amitabh is a stud in this. One of the few times he's out-studded Shashi, at least in the caps. *exiles self from Shashi Pradesh, to return later*

Next: Gasp! You caught some of my favorite moments! Like our heroes huddling behind crates with their respective holy books (and don't you love it when the books protect them from machine gun fire?!)! Or our heroes doing that "chh! chh!" bit from the song!

Fair point re: atheists, as you said when we watched. Have you seen Nastik? Memsaab reviewed it, and I just found it at Excellent Uncle Ji's - it looks fab! Wonder what happens to atheism in that one.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

OOh that last screencap of Shashi!Absolutely scrumptious :D
Not sure about the caterpillar on Amitabh though- for that matter, I do beleive I am not a Amitabh fan at all- maybe one of these days I will wake up to his finer points :)

Amrita said...

Beth - don't tell me you haven't seen Nastik (the Unbeliever / Atheist)! It kind of tells you why everyone in Bollywood canon is a staunch believer of something or the other: the only reason for atheism, you see, is when God does bad things to you (no, not inappropriate touching, OTHER bad stuff like visiting sorrow on the heads of beloved mothers). But all you need to do is give God another chance and he'll deliver, I promise! And then you'll become a believer again.

More seriously, these movies weren't really about celebrating pluralism as much as they were about preaching religious harmony, written, directed and acted as they were by a whole bunch of partition survivors.

Amrita said...

As far as the greater debate about atheism goes - Bollyviewer has a point in that atheism was basically hijacked by the Commies. By and large religion is something that is unthinkingly adopted in India. Religion and religious ritual are both a part of daily life and the thing about ritual is that people are often so involved in it that the ritual itself becomes more important than that which it was meant to celebrate.

There have been movements in India that have sought to separate God from pageantry but the pageantry is so pretty!!! Not to mention comforting. it gives you a sense of belonging.

But atheism by itself has a strong Indian root - there are branches of hindu philosophy that accept the absence of a divine being and that's perfectly ok. You're still a Hindu and you have a philosophy but it isn't built around a central divinity or divinities. But India is also greatly influenced by Abrahamic religions which are deeply suspicious of atheism and I suspect common, default Hinduism just found it easy to go with the flow.

Besides, these movies might be about Hindu characters but don't forget a lot of them were actually written by Muslims.

a ppcc representative said...

Amrita, I'm lovin' your comments. They're so interesting!

More seriously, these movies weren't really about celebrating pluralism as much as they were about preaching religious harmony, written, directed and acted as they were by a whole bunch of partition survivors.

Fascinating! How old were Salim and Javed during in 1977? And I wonder if there's been scholarly work on Partition's effects in Hindi cinema (no doubt there's been a lot, I imagine).

Would love to learn more about this.

Beth said...

PPCC - I don't agree re: studliness, but "studliness" is not a trait my radar pings to. (What?)

Loves those moments. Love.

Chh!

Shweta - Yah! Yah yah. As for Amitabh, I'm really interested to hear more about your thoughts on this. It's very rare I hear someone say that - in fact, I'm not sure I ever have. Which is not to say I think it's stupid - I just want to know more :) My problems with Amitabh, when I have them, are in his year 2000 and beyond movies.

Amrita - I haven't, but you and PPCC both recommending it is more than enough to make me add it to my list. I know I'll be watching Immaan Dharam again and will have this explanation of movie faith in mind - I'm particularly interested in the bad guys and what hints are dropped about their relationships with god (if any).

And wow, I'm feeling really stupid for not having thought of the points you raise. The actual year it was made and the life experiences of the people involved did not even occur to me. :( C'mon, brain! Get in gear!

Also, great distinction between tolerance and harmony. Some of their effects are the same, but they're decidedly not interchangeable.

Let me ask this: does anyone have any sense of whether "the movies" or the film industry or whatever term you want to use are criticized for godlessness by any particular populations/voices in India? I feel like that gets lobbied at Hollywood a lot, despite how unacceptable it is for, say, political figures to be atheists or agnostics in the US.

PPCC2 - We need to find that writing!

Filmiholic said...

Oh, that mustache on Amitabh....ouch!

Todd said...

Really fascinating bunch of comments here. I have to admit that Immaan Dharam didn't really wow me, but I remember being impressed by Helen's performance.

As for Nastik, it's been a while since I've seen it, but, as I recall, the fact that Amitabh renounced his faith for much of the picture didn't prevent him from being presented, in no uncertain terms, as the good guy... and he laid waste to Amjad Khan's supervillain lair in fine masala fashion.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I dont know what it is with Amitabh and me (and its diff from Shahrukh and me- I either LOVE SRK or cant stand him- depending on the movie). #1- I think that weird moustache just looks weird. #2- I dont think I admire him HUGELY as an actor- he is alright, and I do think he's done a good job in a lot of stuff. But I am not sure I understand WHY he is regarded as a better actor than Dharam/ Vinod/ Shashi/ others, or why he causes so much excitement/mass hysteria (or at least thats the impression I get going through the media's opinion).

bombaygirl said...

I have to say that I love them both...but Shashi has a special place in my heart. I remember going to a filmi shoot a couple blocks from our house in Bandra, where Shashi was acting out a scene in which he plays a police officer (I'll have to ask my dad which film it was!). I was really young, and my dad had me on his shoulders, and I had my autograph book in my hand (remember those?!). When he was done with a shot, my dad says I called out to him, "Shashi Uncle...come over here!" and he did! And gave me an autograph. Wish I knew where that book was now.

ginormosaurus said...

There's actually another, earlier movie called Nastik that really makes it plain that atheism is an Extremely Bad Thing, and also tackles partition. It was made in, I think, the early '50s.

The hero is treated badly by a corrupt priest and as a consequence his little brother dies and his sister is forced into prostitution. He is so embittered that he becomes an atheist, and also immediately becomes evil. He corrupts the daughter of a local holy man and does a bunch of other Bad Stuff like hooking up with a local charlatan to swindle devout foplks, and finally (SPOILER) Krishna makes his baby die and his wife do insane because he refuses to pray. Then he prays and his wife becomes sane again and that's the "happy" ending.

I bought it more or less at random when I first started watching Bollywood films and although it's fascinating and the music is beautiful, it's such an ugly movie that I haven't been able to watch it again. One thing that really struck me is that in the movie, every single representative of organized religion is corrupt and exploitative -- and yet refusing to follow them is, apparently, still unforgivable.

Beth said...

Filmiholic - Not quite to fug level, but not something I'd choose for him again.

Todd - She is good! I'm glad you reminded us.

Having Amitabh play that character skews everything. Who's not going to see him as sympathetic at the very least? (Well, who other than Shweta, perhaps.)

Shweta - All good questions. I guess we'll have to time-travel back to the 70s to find out for sure. I am also happy to state publicly that, based on what I have seen, I do not think he is a better actor than Shashi (I have too little experience with those other two to weigh in). It does seem he did (chose? was offered?) some more really star-type roles than Shashi. How much of a factor is his height, do you think? It's hard to ignore his physical presence even when he's paired with somebody equally talented in an equally compelling role.

bombaygirl - Hurrah for the heart's special places - even if we can't always explain them, they are wonderful. What a cute story that is!

ginormosaurus (great name) - Two Nastiks! Wow! And this one with a capitalized theme, no less! :) That movie sounds horrible, though, and I will take your warning and stay away. How interesting that the hero suffers for what a religious authority does....

indiequill said...

Beth / P-PCC - According to IMDB Javed was born in 1945 and Salim in 1935. So Salim, who was the ideas man, at least would have seen a fair bit of the Partition talk if not actually been affected by it.

As for the movies and partition - you know, I wish there was but I've never heard of any. All I've ever read were parts of people's biographies and general histories of Bollywood which mention the effect Partition had on the film industry. Like Rachel Dwyer's bio of Yash Chopra where she writes about his making Dharmaputra just a few years after he lived through it. But film writing in India is generally less scholarly, mainly because movies and Bollywood especially was so long dismissed as candy floss nonsense, so I'm not surprised at this gap in film history.

And to answer your question, Beth, I've never heard anyone say anything about movies being godless but immoral is true. Since Indian movies started out with Hindu and Roman - Jewish mythologies (mostly written by Parsees), Indian movies aren't generally seen lacking the faith. But since Indian movies also started out by starring women of a "dubious background", there're still people who feel very defensive about acting as a profession and the odd actress will still take the time to carefully point out that she is from a "good family". Although with all the Miss Indias and Miss Universes and whatnot in there, you'd have to be insufferably pious to feel like that.

-- Amrita.