Saturday, April 04, 2009

Benazir

Two characters cause the bad things that happen in this bittersweet, pretty movie story. Scheming royal hanger-on Shauket (Tarun Bose) is responsible for most of them - and all of the troubles that result from misinformation - and never apologizes for any of his meddling lies.

Do not trust this man. No matter what he says to you, don't believe it. He will henceforth be known as Shut Up Shauket. The other one is the Nawab (Ashok Kumar), who, like many of his movie brethren, spends too much time with his favorite dancer, Benazir (Meena Kumari).

Note her little dancing doll. Director S. Khalil makes sure we equate Benazir with an accessory that looks beautiful but just spins and spins and never goes anywhere.
At first it seems things are good for the Nawab, with a graceful love interest and a kind-hearted wife (Nirupa Roy; I didn't catch the character's name, so we're going to call her Nirupa) who's just given birth to a son.

The Nawab, smitten idiot that he is, invites Benazir to perform at his son's naming ceremony. Nirupa knows perfectly well what's going on and is most seriously displeased.

Nirupa holds the proof that the Nawab's heart is elsewhere. On the far right, we see Shut Up Shauket already causing trouble.
While reciting poetry with the men at the ceremony, Benazir is herself thunderstruck with luuurve for the Nawab's brother Anwar.

That's the expression she has at Shashi's first entrance in the film. It's very cleverly done. We the audience are sure she must be looking at something powerfully amazing, and voilĂ !
This is a very charming - and telling - moment. She's in the middle of a line - "The happy weather of spring has come now, my dear" - looks up, sees Shashi enter, and just trails off with her song unfinished. The Nawab jumps up, hugs his baby brother, and they return. She introduces herself, Anwar apologizes for interrupting her verse, and we hear her think "you have brought color to this place" as she stares at him. She finally continues "The happy weather of spring has come after a long time. The apple of my eye has come. The love of my life has come. The dreams seen by my heart - this is their fulfillment. My fate should always keep on laughing like this. He has come into the garden of my life as spring" amid loud "Vah! Vah!"s from the assembled men. Anwar excuses himself as she finishes, comes down a flight of stairs in the house, and literally runs into Shayda (Tanuja), Nirupa's younger sister.

With a meet-cute like that, you know what's going to happen. They are as instantly taken with each other as Benazir was with Anwar. Even looking at the visuals of the two introductions, there's interesting constrained/free and static/dynamic contrast: Benazir is seated, performing for Anwar's brother; Shayda is running throughout the house and reaches out to dry his clothing from the milk that spilled when they collided. Their romances progresses in super-cute fashion -

Does anyone know the actress playing her friend?
and their engagement is arranged, much to the delight of the Nawab and Nirupa. It should be noted here that Nirupa and Anwar have a very close relationship; he thinks of the Nawab as a father seems to hold Nirupa as something between a mother and an older sister. It's very cute. Here she is teasing him about Shayda.

After Benazir and Dharmputra, I've got a new, improved attitude about the Nirupa/Shashi mom/son pairing. They're adorable together when she's not forced to act crazy or out-of-control melodramatic.

Shut Up Shauket has his own designs on Shayda. Anwar overhears Niriupa and the Nawab arguing over his attentions to Benazir without hearing the name of the other woman. Later that day at the tennis club (a detail I add as an excuse to include this picture of Shashi modeling for Ralph Lauren), Shut Up Shauket spills that the Nawab's fondness is for Benazir, implying that it is more...en flagrante, shall we say, than we have evidence for.

His plan at this point is to sully the Nawab's family's name, thus creating a reason for Shayda's parents to refuse the proposed marriage with Anwar. Shut Up Shauket also attacks his problem from other angles; he tries to convince Shayda that she'll be very unhappy with Anwar but leaves the reason why unsaid and tells the Nawab that Anwar is in love with Benazir. Fortunately, Shayda doesn't fall for it, and the Nawab, trying to contain his jealousy, asks Anwar directly if he is really ready to marry Shayda. But that still leaves a major loose end: with his love for quasi-Maa severely offended, and a false report from Shut Up Shauket of further fighting between Nirupa and the Nawab over her, Anwar eventually confronts Benazir. When the Nawab finds Anwar at Benazir's house, you can guess what happens: the brothers fight and separate, Shayda and Nirupa's parents get upset, two characters to come quite close to death, and lots of sacrifices are made.

I must admit that "inescapably tragic tawaif" is not my favorite kind of character or story, and it is much to the credit of everyone involved in this film that I liked it so much (and couldn't decide how I thought it was going to end). Despite the title, I think the story is fairly evenly focused on all the major characters (Benazir, Anwar, Shayda, Nirpua, and the Nawab - it's a strong ensemble piece, really) and how they feel about and behave towards each other - that is, what they do with their different kinds of love, with romantic, familial, and friendly all represented. A lot of dramatic things happen in this little world, but, amazingly, the performances are never of the top. I don't think there's a single "Nahiiiiin!" to be found. There are a few resigned reflections on fate and some tears - it is Meena, after all - but no sobbing. The only frustrations in the film for me are Nirupa's unfailing support and sacrifice for a husband who treats her badly and Anwar's misplaced anger at Benazir. His brother is the one who has put Nirupa and baby, as well as the family reputation (and thus his own romantic happiness), at risk. Benazir's only flaw, apart from being an orphan who grew up to be a dancer, is that she is not forceful enough in refuting the Nawab's advances. Of course it's the single woman's fault that the married man is an ass. Of course. On the plus side, the female characters show each other wonderful sympathy and respect instead of being made to hiss and spit and overlook the men's flaws. Nirupa's unhappiness is directed squarely at the Nawab, and Benazir never expresses jealousy towards Shayda. (Actually, I'm not sure Benazir even knows about Anwar and Shayda, but still. It's nice.) Other than those problems, I liked this film very much. It's interesting, the characters in it are given depth and space to learn and grow (and even apologize!), and S. D. Burman's songs are great. My favorite songs were the two all-girl numbers with Shayda and her adorable and funny friends, "Mubarak Hai," which teasingly celebrates suffering the illness of looooove, and the qawwali "Hum Unko Dekhte."


Benazir is also a very beautiful movie to look at, with lovely Lucknow interiors, sparkling clothing and jewelry, and airy patios. There is one repeated visual element that particularly caught my eye. Most of the story takes place in the Nawab's palace, and doorways, windows, and railings are prominent. At first I noticed how many doorways had open doors but were covered with curtains, providing many excellent opportunities for eavesdropping, overhearing, and sneaking into someone's room from the hallway unnoticed. Then I started realizing how many times we see characters behind screens. Maybe some of the time the screens served to create beautiful patterns of light and shadow (especially in black and white), reminded us of the cultural setting of the film,

or provided a prop for shy, flirty glances and permeable non-obstacles to love.

But more often, I think they represented the truth or characters' intentions being obscured from each another.




The only closed door I saw occurred near the end, at a very important moment when the person on the excluded side of it would very much have liked to continue to hear what was being discussed. The door being shut might have even signaled the end, now that I think about it. The barrier was finally made solid and unmoving. Hmmm.

It's such a pretty movie that I have many more screen captures than tie directly to what I want to say, but I can't bear to leave them out, so here they are. And I'll end with wishing the director had made more than just this one project and offering a strong recommendation for this sweet, well-acted, ultimately not-entirely-tragic film.



When you can enter your love interest's room without having to turn a knob, you can catch them trying on your clothes and talking to your portrait. Score one for curtains!

A gorgeous low-tech set for Benazir's song about rain.

All the hot girls put your hands up and say S. D. Burman!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Beth

Is Benazir the title of the movie? Sashi is gorgeous. I want to see the movie just for him. Is this one among the pile of movies you were expecting from your friend?

Cheers

Meera

Filmi Girl said...

I just watched this over the weekend and LOVED it! :)

I'm dying to know what you thought about the ending! And is it just me or did Shashi get better looking as the film progressed - his hair is a little iffy in his first scenes...

Beth said...

Meera - It is, and yes he is! :)

FG - Will email you re: ending. I was a little surprised. I think he does get more handsome throughout - not so little-boy-ish.

Anonymous said...

yeah he becomes sweeter in the end...........hmmmmmm

Shilpi Bose said...

This my first comment on your blog,since it is also the third day of 2011 let me wish you a Very Happy New Year! I guess you will forgive me for choosing my father's(Tarun Bose)film for my first comment. As I was going through the film index I noticed Benazir and was quite amused by the nickname you have given dad, Shutup Shaukat.That was a good one.This was a film he did in the initial stages of his career;he played quite a different villain in this one,by the way we still have the cap(I am calling it a cap for want of a better word)he wore in this film.

Beth said...

Shilpi - Thank you! Welcome welcome - and yes, you are certainly forgiven :) Your comment reminds me that I would like to see this one again - it's so lovely to look at. I am nowhere near as versed in pre-70s films as some of the other bloggers but I do think I've seen your dad in a few other things too...I'll have to root around.

If you ever wish to talk about it, it'd be so interesting to know what your dad thought of playing villains! This is a more complex one than we sometimes see.

And what a fun treasure to have! Don't tell Memsaab or she'll steal it for the Bollywood museum we want to create :)

Anonymous said...

I did a series on dad for memsaabstory and here is a link to the post I did on his playing the villain

Shilpi Bose said...

Something went wrong earlier, do not know why I appear as anonymous, so here is what I wanted to say:

I did a series on dad for memsaabstory and here is a link to the post I did on his playing the villain

http://memsaabstory.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/tarun-bose-part-3-the-soft-hearted-villain/

Beth said...

Oooh! Thanks Shilpi! I'll look right away!