Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Deceivers and Chor Machaye Shor: an unsatisfying Shashi double-header

Dear oh dear, where to start? Here I was, thinking I would spend the air-conditioned day luxuriating in Shashilicousness (it's too hot out to do anything else anyway). And while these two films offered sufficient - plenty, even - Shashi, I don't have much else complimentary to say about either. Even the cover of The Deceivers indicated the movie was likely to be Raj-y, exoticizing ridiculousness, and at least three people had told me Chor Machaye Shor was really not the finest possible mid-70s Shashi offering - but did I heed the warnings? Nooooo. But at least with lots of Shashi, I can salvage some visual fun.

Apparently filming The Deceivers was Ismail Merchant's pet project (read here on the official site). Its story, in short, is that a British officer, the amusingly named William Savage (played by Pierce Brosnan), discovers a Thuggee group in the 1820s (in Gujarat, if I recall correctly) and then infiltrates it in an attempt to stop their crimes. I haven't read John Masters's novel on which the movie is based, nor do I wish to. Documentary books and films about unpleasant topics are one thing, but unspecifically fictionalized accounts are another. Confronting the horrible things we humans have done over the centuries (and continue to do) is one of the most important things art of any form can do, but making up stuff and then slapping on the disclaimer/tantalization "based on true events" tends to confuse the stories and dilute the issues.

Opening the film...

and closing it.
Because it's very unclear which parts of this movie are factual (or even fact-based recreation) and which parts are looser interpretation, infill, or fiction, it's almost impossible to say much about the message or the relevance of what it actually conveys. Which makes me wonder if it's any more accurate or useful to the understanding of historical India (or even modern ideas of historical India) than, say, the monkey-eating Amrish Puri-led gang in Temple of Doom. Those important points aside, its story is a little convoluted, too often filmed in very low light, and full of strange points like a man with a Muslim name stating his adherence to Kali with no contextualizing informaiton.

Just like Karz!
The criminal web that threatens to snare Savage is obvious even to someone as easily fooled and frightened as I. To be blunt: with the exception of solid performances by Brosnan, Shashi as the raja of Savage's district,

and Saeed Jaffrey as Savage's contact in the gang,

it's not a very good movie. It's not as cartoonish as Temple of Doom, but it sacrifices ethnographic exploration of the cult or much psychological investigation of Savage or the cult members for action, which mostly consists of strangling. It has more moments of ewwwww than I expected from a Merchant-Ivory production. A side note on that: I'm still not convinced that Merchant-Ivory films overall are the colonialist tripe that some people find them, and regular readers know I dearly love some of their films. So it was with great interest that I noticed that James Ivory is not at all involved in this project - his name is not in the credits at all. If anyone has read Merchant's book about making the film, Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers, I'd love to know what on earth attracted him. There are probably interesting things one could do with a story like this, even a totally made-up one, but The Deceivers is just depressing and obvious. Even worse, Merchant-Ivory's other films that deal with Indian-Anglo relations and stereotypes have always struck me as critiquing both sides' impressions of the other and the way each chooses to interact, but that sort of analysis is missing here. Instead, it's the cringe-y stock types of bad attitudes and lazy fimmaking. Digitally Obsessed has a positive review of the cinematography and character studies; I disagree with the latter compliment but grudgingly admit that whoever did the interiors, costumes, and props usually did a lovely job (with the exception of the Thuggees' loot, which looks almost almost as plastic as something Kader Khan or Jeevan would relish in the 1970s).

Anyway. Picture time! Pierce is at his finest; Shashi is not but still manages to look regal under his copious facial hair. What I cannot capture is The Voice, which is set to stun and sounded so velvety that I had to rewind his first major scene to actually pay attention to the words rather than just the sounds.



Familiar faces Neena Gupta and Dalip Tahil also pop up briefly.


To close, a final eye-roll: I suppose if a pasty Brit has to go undercover in an Indian group, he might be wise to darken his skin, but I wish the movie didn't have to be so stagey about it.

That's not even a normal skin color! He looks greenish! Saeed is given the same treatment, and I swear I saw it on Shashi too.

Enough of that racist non-content! Let's move on to multiple threats of rape!

Noooooo, Shashi, nooooooooooooo! Noooooo, movie, nooooooooooooo!

PPCC's post outlines Chor Machaye Shor's problems, and they are plentiful. Vijay (Shashi) is framed for raping a woman in an atrocious wig and no pants

by his girlfriend Rekha (Mumtaz)'s father (Kamal Kapoor),

Garish bedroom alert! Amrish is the only Puri brother not in this, so Kamal Kapoor takes over the eye-bugging.
who doesn't want her daughter to marry him and figures getting him tossed in jail is the best way to stop them. Vijay doens't realize Rekha wasn't involved in the scheme, so when he gets out of jail, he goes to take his revenge (first picture). In the context of this particular film, I guess I'm glad at her response, which is to throw his vile behavior back in his face. "Has jail turned you into a beast? What have you turned out to be? And today you come to rape me? Is this your love, your faith in me? Why do you look away? Go on, bring me to disgrace!" she yells. He is quickly abashed and apologizes.

AND SHE LETS HIM.

No.

Just no.

You don't have to rekindle a relationship with someone who accuses you of framing him for rape then threatens to rape and kill you. What is this exchange supposed to prove? That this sunny, breezy man can become super-violent when pushed? That he's capable of great swings of emotional (in)stability? That true love surpasses threats of extreme physical, personal violence and utter dehumanization? As if that weren't enough, Vijay's cellmate Raju (Danny Denzongpa) also tries to rape his love interest, Chandramukhi (Meena T)

The camera doesn't treat her with any more respect than Raju does.
and is none too pleased when Vijay interferes. And then in the climactic brawl, poor Rekha is threatened with rape again, this time by a dacoit who's been ordered to do so by an evil politician (à la horrendous 90s staple revenge rape, here levied against Vijay, the leader of the heroic group fighting the politician).

See all those people standing around? They do nothing.
I had a hard time getting past the Vijay/Rekha scene, and I was flabbergasted to see rape come up twice more.

Chor Machaye Shor does serve as a frightening cautionary tale of what can happen when the cosmic masala order is upset: our hero is a very Angry Young Man named Vijay...played by Shashi. Nothing good can come of this. Nothing good apart from Shashilicous curls, that is.
Hai hai mirchi!
And maybe a parade of scarves - not as many as Dostana, but they'll do nicely in a very 70s way.*



I agree with PPCC that this film can really only be recommended for Shashi-lovers. And maaaaybe for Danny Denzongpa lovers, because he's creepy for awhile but then comes around to the right side and rocks his tight, flared corduroy trousers (à la Vinod). Shashi is the best thing in the movie, even when he overacts the bejeezus out of some of his more intense lines.

Arms are clenched in stick-it-to-the-man revolutionary spirit!
Given that the film opens with courtroom drama and Vijay yelling one of my favorite multi-purpose bits of dialogue - "Yeh jhoot hai! Jhoot!" - this should not come as a surprise.

In addition to anger and rage, he also gets to strut around as a self-satisfied engineer.

Apparently he's in agricultural engineering, but equally apparently he had a very well-rounded curriculum in school and is able to strut right into a civil engineering project with great success.

This general pose and attitude are perfected years later in Kaalaa Patthar.
He also spends a lot of time smiling and/or leaning on things, wearing tight trousers and unbuttoned shirts and looking very pleased with himself and his surroundings, which is a Beth Loves Bollywood-approved default mode for 60s and 70s Shashi.


He and Mumtaz have some nice romancing,

though "Ek Daal Par Tota Bole" seemed less like a cute moment of young love and more like a stereotype: mist, slow-motion, the couple running towards each other, lots of trees to romp around, etc.

Plus unexplained parrots. Other than their canoodling, this is not an affectionate story, and it had almost zero emotional pull for me. Dil fail, to be blunt.

Honestly, Shashi looking assured and handsome is my dominant impression of this movie. It also features:
  • the excellent flailing of "Le Jayenge"
  • some fun outfits and wigs for Mumtazaz
    Her skirt has the Taj Mahal on it!
  • that swimming pool that pops up in all 70s films (where is this? We must go there and have a super-groovy party!)
  • weird dolls in the afore-mentioned garish bedroom
  • and evidence for why Shashi should not be behind the wheel.
There are actually other threads in this movie. The major ones are shady political dealings and abuse of a voter base; sadly I watched it only a few hours ago and can't remember much about them except a vague Swades-ish feeling. And as PPCC says, it's very un-masala in some of its framework: I had no idea what was going to happen next, or why, and there's very little mention of anyone's family (Vijay has none, apparently, and is connected to no one other than Rekha until the plot gets rolling). Is Vijay some kind of symbol for the responsibilities and/or abilities of the common person to fight the system? Is this about participating in and belonging to one's community? Is it an exploration of the various incarnations of evil (formal/established/official=politics; informal/outsider=dacoits; wildcard/free-form=the small-scale crooks Vijay befriends in prison)? Is it aiming at political commentary - a wry critique of the attitudes and behaviors of those in power? Or maybe it's a wobbly step in the growth of reformist masala (although the much more impressive Roti Kapada aur Makaan came out the same year)? I have no idea. I don't know what to make of it. I wasn't drawn in, and its pleasures are superficial and fleeting - though really, really nice while they last. Maybe not quite a stinker, but definitely not satisfying, eh Shashi?


* Also curiously Dostana-like: manpris!

12 comments:

Bollyviewer said...

"the Thuggees' loot... looks almost almost as plastic as something Kader Khan or Jeevan would relish in the 1970s"

Thats interesting because in Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers Merchant talks about how much trouble he went to, to secure real jewels for that shot. Guess it didnt pay off - because I dont remember being particularly impressed with the bling either! The movie was plagued with all sorts of glitches. The director Merchant wanted couldnt make it. Then, they couldnt get the lead they wanted, either (I think they wanted Liam Neeson). And then shooting ran into big trouble because they were filming sati scenes in Rajasthan that had recently witnessed a real case of sati. At one time, Merchant even had a non-bailable warrant issued against him! Things were so bad that James Ivory offered to come and help out with the film even though he wasnt interested in the project. I dont remember if Merchant talks about why he was interested - he just talks about how passionate he was about it and how long it took him to get the project off the ground.

I do remember being very impressed with the sets and props though, and part of the cinematography (NOT the night scenes!). The props were mostly real period furniture that Merchant managed to beg/borrow/buy cheaply for the shoot. And the palaces and houses were just awesome - fairly authentic in their period feel, I thought.

The Deceivers had the potential to be great Raj-y masala (Sign of Four or Gunga Din - style), but somehow squanders it somewhere. I cant put my finger on why it doesnt work (apart from all the strangling!) though!

gebruss said...

Somehow I had more fun with Shor machaye shor than you had. Maybe I am hardended by all the 90s movies I watched; or I enjoyed watching Shashi bein mainly angry too much to be bothered by the rest of the movie. Admittedly, it's not great, but there is worse, and more forgettable movies, too.

Banno said...

I don't remember much more of the movie than 'Le Jaayenge'. I guess I enjoyed it only till then. After that, it got way too serious for me. Saw it as a kid.

memsaabstory said...

Hmm. I still need to watch this, despite both yours and ppcc's less-than-stellar views. I saw Rahu Ketu this weekend, speaking of Shashilicious, and am not really sure what to say about it! :-) Ah Shashi, you are so confusing sometimes.

Si said...

I have a copy of Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers. I'll bring it to you in September if you want to read it.

ajnabi said...

Oh my gosh. The whole thing reminds me of "Tashan." "Now... I'm going to rape you." "Niiiice." These sound SO awful. I'm sorry, how dissatisfying.

lapetitediva said...

I'm not a Shashi fan, but I would probably like this since I have zero expectations. If I can find it on YouTube, I'll give it a look-see.

Shalini Razdan said...

Chor Machaye Shor is such a tragic waste of it's fabulous lead pair. Shashi and Mumu should = gorgeous, stylish, romantic fun, not burnt masala.

I loathe rape scenes in Hindi movies in any case, but I especially HATE them when the hero is the perp.:-( At least CMS is not as bad as the much acclaimed and lauded "Khilona" in that respect:-(

Beth said...

Bollyviewer - That's so odd! The camera does linger on them at one point and I remember thinking "Why are they spending energy looking at these fake-y jewels?" Huh. Maybe I'm so jaded (haha) by 70s masala that I don't recognize real when I see it?

Ivory was right to stay away from this. It's just not good. Clearly I'll have to read the book just to see if I can at least infer why Merchant was so interested - and the making-of tales do sound interesting, even if the end result isn't. The locations are indeed wonderful, particularly the grander buildings.

I don't think there's anywhere near enough emotional draw or WHEEEEE for it to be close to masala. But a masala version of a thuggee story would be a good time, no doubt - and no one would expect it to be saying anything of importance and it wouldn't bother with the ponderous "BASED ON FACT" crap, so that question could just be avoided. It could be like Mard!

gebruss - He is angry a lot, it's true. But his anger is so disgusting at the beginning, I had a hard time wanting to see any more of it.

Banno - That's all you need. It's all downhill after that.

memsaab - Great cast! What'd you think? And yes, yes he is.

Si - Yes please!

ajnabi - OH. YES. I had blocked that out. On the bright side, I am now determined to find something fantastic to watch for this evening, and I think it's going to be Naach, of which I have no expectations other than Abhishek looking ridiculous :)

lapetitediva - Hmm. I can't recommend it, really, but if you try it, let me know what you think! Oddly I did actully look for it on youtube so a DVD-less friend could watch with me, and we couldn't find any sites that didn't require dodgy downloading.

Shalini - Yes! Well put! It's very much burnt. Boooo!

I'm with you on the rape scenes. Always vile, never appropriate or useful. I don't know of Khilona and it sounds like I shouldn't!

Filmi Girl said...

LOL! on the "jhoot" line. That is some of the first filmi hindi I learned!

I think I enjoyed your write-up of both films much more than any actual viewing of either. I have a hard time with rape storylines when they are used in this romantic way - like in Dil for example - so despite the presence of awesome Danny Dezongpa, I think I'll probably skip this one.

kmatthews said...

I'm sure that pool was used for a Govinda picturisation at one point -- maybe in Mere Lahoo? Now I've got to go find it.

Temple said...

Hi Beth - I certainly didn't like the threats and attempts at rape flung around in CMS - but I did think that at least it was used as the worst possible threat to a woman. SO when Shashi got out of jail and was out for revenge, the subtitles inform me he said that she and her father had raped him and now it was his turn to rape her - Not laudable at all but I did take that to be he felt so besmirched and violated that this was the absolutely most horrible thing he could think of to do as revenge. So it was a threat with meaning and connotations of the weight of the crime and what it did to a victim. I did however deduct many many points when Shashi (admittedly dangling upside down from a tree) asked to be killed first so he didn't have to witness Mumtaz being assaulted. Yeah that was constructive. And the Danny and whatsername scenario - was there to prove that a crim can reform and move on from his capri pants wearing days to become a good bhai. Tasteless, but I think I have seen worse. An at least he went back in to save her from the other bad guys later on.
Apart from the misuse of women, I actually liked some bits of this movie. Shashi is very good at being smarmy and self satisfied, and I liked the socialist elements of the story. The Le Jayenge song interlude was cheeky and fun. Although I am left puzzled as to why, after all the boot camp training the villagers went through to be able to fight the bandit with the over-plucked drag queen eyebrows, not one of them were much chop in the final affray.
I haven't seen the Deceivers and I doubt that I will now!