Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jhinder Bandi

Update to post (July 25, 2013): I must admit that in the year or so since I first saw this film I have become borderline obsessed with it, watching it at least three more times, making gifs, enacting scenes for friends, etc. I think my fascination stems mostly from how this film works as a document in the great (if overblown) "Uttam vs Soumitra" debate that continues to this day in discussions of 60s and 70s Bengali movies. The two appear in several other films together, including at least one more in which Soumitra is the mustache-twirling villain, but of the pairings I've seen this is by far the most interesting, probably because it has Uttam near the peak of his matinee idol goodness and Soumitra young and hungry and chomping at the bit (as opposed to later films like Pratisodh, when he goes completely overboard and Uttam is literally and metaphorically bloated). It's too bad the film doesn't epitomize both of their acting styles; I would argue it is much more representative of the Mahanayak's easy charm than it is of Sonpapdi's soulful, heart-rending contemplation. And now that I think about it, it's hard to even conceive of a film that could have put both their wheelhouses to work, so to speak, unless it was designed to force a comparison of characters portrayed by actors whose strengths are so different. 

Anyway, as you read this, know that the film holds a strong attraction for me, and I can imagine that power continuing as I learn more about the two leads and 50s and 60s Bengali cinema in general. However, I still agree with most of the criticisms of the film itself, as a basically self-contained work, that you'll read here. 

[There are vague spoilers in this piece, but if you've ever read or seen a version of The Prisoner of Zenda, you already know most of them. The one major twist that I am aware of is marked SPOILER before it appears.]

If only the subtitle "It is very dangerous to be a fake king" were an accurate harbinger of the action and tone of Jhinder Bandi (Jhinder Bondi, pick your transliteration), a 1961 Bengali setting of The Prisoner of Zenda. (I figure most everyone knows the basic plot of this story, but if you don't, any number of helpful internet sources can assist.) Friend and film critic Manisha Lakhe warned me that I should never watch this with any comfy pillows or other sleep-encouraging items around, and she was right.

However, I doubt all of my problems staying awake were the film's fault. My copy of Jhinder Bandi from Angel Digital is not very good, borking out and causing much grief and confusion for about ten minutes around the hour mark. It also has lagging and sloppy subtitles. Worst, though, I don't trust that the DVD is entirely true to the film. Here's why: many of the references to this film I can find talk about a fantastic swordfight between good (Uttam Kumar) and evil (Soumitra Chatterjee), and in fact that's the reason I sought it out in the first place. Whether said comments mean "fantastic" earnestly or sarcastically, I cannot tell, because my DVD has no swordfight of any kind. 

It does have one of the most hilariously lackluster "fights"—oh feel those finger quotes, readers, feel them—I have ever had the good fortune to laugh at. Hero sneaks down a torch-lit hallway and villain, seeing hero's shadow on the wall, draws his sword. Hero pulls a gun and they exchange a few terse words as the shadow of villain's blade forebodingly crosses his face. Villain knocks the gun from hero's hand while hero forces the villain's sword arm away. Then they lunge into an awkward pose like a strangulation tango, with villain's hands at hero's throat and hero trying to grab the dagger from villain's waist. It's a battle royale of strained facial expressions. 
Fight like a Bengali thespian!
Samit Basu had told me this film has "the Chuck Norris/Bruce Lee showdown of Bengali cinema." Bearing in mind that my DVD had offered no previous altercations, leaving me to assume this is the scene he was describing, picture my delight at the idea of an epic confrontation imagined by a cinematic culture so highbrow and dignified, so enamored of emotion and examination, that its only wounds are sprained eyebrows and facial muscles. Granted I'm no expert in Bengali cinema and just indulging in stereotypes, but the only more fitting version of a smackdown I can think of is a poetry-off in which the hero is victorious because he has elicited more "Vah! Vah!"s of lament or patriotic stirrings from the audience. Update to post (June 25, 2012): it has been suggested by alert reader maxqnz that the more appropriate measure of such a contest would be that the winner is the first contestant to get so depressed he kills himself. If you have other suggestions for the quintessential Bengali cinematic death match, please add them to the comments.

(Yes, I have a lot to learn.)

Sadly, even pirates could not help me find the elusive swordfight, because all of the versions of this film I found online were ripped from this same Angel Digital release.* If you can find the scene online (or any others it seems I missed), please, please let me know.

Based on what I did see, though, I mostly found Jhinder Bandi uninspiring, though again, and definitively for the record, I do not think the subtitles did the film justice, even when they were spelled correctly (more on that in a minute), and will contentedly assume I missed fascinating, cracking dialogue. But...I just wish Manmohan Desai had done this, you know? Of course, I wish Manmohan Desai had had a hand in many other films, so that is perhaps not as harsh a criticism as it may sound.

[SPOILER] My wish for Desai was especially hard to dismiss once it is revealed that the convenient look-alike replacement-king is in fact the half-brother of the rightful king and the evil younger brother/prince who kidnapped him in an attempt to get the throne himself. When I told Zenda fan s3rioussam about this twist, he was outraged, but I'm just chalking it up to a general sense of "Hey, it's Indian cinema—of course there are long-lost brothers," though I realize that may be an irrelevant projection of Hindi masala onto Bengali literature and cinema (this film is based on a book by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay). [END SPOILER] This story should be rollicking fun—you can tell from the ingredients—and I saw so precious little sparkle in this adaptation. The costumes and locations are nice enough but not in any more notable a way than those in other princely adventures. The standout among them is a sort of lotus-base shower chair that Uttam stumbles across while exploring "his" new palace, with water jets activated by little foot-operated buttons.**
To paraphrase Bart Simpson, where's my lily pond with elephant sculpture?
Knowing full well I am risking pissing off a lot of people, all I can really say about Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee based on this film is that they are good at being various shades of smug, a characteristic that generally makes sense within this story, since the hero is a bit of a do-nothing rich boy from Kolkata and the villain is a scheming fencing champion with a precise little mustache.
During the SPOILER previously mentioned, Uttam's response to the dramatic news is just to chuckle gently. Surely that character would have been more disturbed with some feeling or other to discover that bit of information?  In addition to the non-fighting in this swashbuckler-implying film, there is also an amusing lack of equestrian skills. In an angry face-off between Uttam and Soumitra with the two men on horseback, neither actor can control his horse, resulting in constantly shifting blocking and hostile lines being shouted at each other's backs as one or the other of them tries to wrangle their mount back around to  actual face-to-face. I don't know why director Tapan Sinha didn't just reshoot this bit, preferably scrapping the horse idea and putting these two mighty thespians into positions in which they are in control and can use their physicality to more relevant, story-supporting ends. It's one of several curious choices the director made; another is a segment of the dialogue of the big finale being conveyed in voiceovers rather than actual conversation, leaving the actors little to do but stare dramatically. Several mentions of Jhinder Bandi online discuss whether Uttam or Soumitra walks away with the film; I vote Soumitra hands-down but mostly because the script gives him juicier things to do and he doesn't seem to be bored by the goings-on, which is not something I will say for Uttam.

Overall it's just so meh. The action is meh, the emotion is meh, the intrigue is meh (thus rendering it not very intriguing after all). The music by Ali Akbar Khan, though, is divine. Listen to this piece that runs under the credits. I love how the sounds of an actual train are coupled with evocative percussion and other more melodic instruments.



In fact, I'd say the background score is generally more engaging than what's going on on screen—which is a big yay for the composer but a big boo for almost everyone else.

For some opinions of people who enjoyed this movie much more than I did and who seem to know a lot more about Bengali films in general (and thus how this fits into that bigger picture), try the review and comments at the blog Old Films and Me. I shall leave you with some giggles, though. Please feel free to use the following to taunt your Bengali friends.
And then enjoy just a few of the many, many typos in the subtitles. There are some more at Paagal Subtitle.

* The ubiquitous corporate logo was actually useful for once!
** A quick and very tangential note inspired by my job, for which I have recently been researching shoes from various parts of the world: the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has padukas that have water valves that spray a cleansing blast with each step! Click here to see!

6 comments:

maxqnz said...

What a fantastically entertaining review! I think it very likely that I got much more pleasure from it than I would from the movie. I would quibble with your description of a Bangla poetry face-off, especially a filmi one. My perception of such an event would be a race in which the first contestant to dirge himself into suicidal depression and act on that impulse would be declared the winner.

Aparna said...

Ok, so I typed a long comment and it got deleted while Google tried to make me choose a blog...wth?

So, being a Bengali myself, and having watched these movies as I grew up (although not 'Jhinder Bandi'), I can safely say that Bengali movies were never 'Masala' the way Bollywood movies were in the same era, before color and remake-from-Bollywood and Prasenjit-with-sunglasses-and-imported-Bollywood-heroines took over. So, you will have to go into a Bengali movie with a different mindset. Even the comedy movies in Bengali, during the black and white times (Bengali movies got color much after Bollywood did), were cleverly made and were not slapstick comedy, they were mostly satire and the humor was in the dialogues, so a nuanced understanding of Bengali was required.

The Apu trilogy falls under the category of 'Art movies' and is directed by one of the best directors of India (if not the world) (yeah, ok, I am a somewhat conceited Bengali!). If you are looking for a more fun movie from the same director, I suggest you watch his creations for children - 'Goopy Gyne Bangha Byne' and 'Hirok Rajar Deshe'.
For more Uttam Kumar movies and to see what makes him tick, the one I remember and liked was 'Sare Chuattar' - I am almost sure that the prints will not be available of that one. But mainly, he had a dream pairing with Suchitra Sen.

Beth said...

maxqnz - Sorry for the late response - so many bloggy things this week I forgot what was happening. The movie really is not that exciting at all, and in fact I think your description of the face-off is much more thrilling than anything that actually happened.

Aparna - Oh no!

What you're saying about Bengali cinema fits exactly with what everyone else has told me. And the recommendations you give are also on my list. :) I don't really have a mindset about Bengali films yet (other than the stereotypes) and am hoping to develop one!

Anonymous said...


Youre so awesome, man! I cant believe I missed this blog for so long. Its just great stuff all round.

Raunak said...

well,bengali movies need a different kind of sensibility and mindset from the audience to enjoy them.Bengali movies never had the unrealism and stupid masalaism of bollywood.Bengali movies of yore were way more realistic and heart touching than bollywood films,which perhaps explain why Bong movies got the kind of global recognition that hindi movies never got.So if you go to watch a bong movie expecting it to be masala AND melodramatic like bollywood,then you are bound to get disappointed,something which happened with you in this case.

Coming back to Jhinder Bandi,i think it's the best adaptation of prisoner of zenda.[I have seen six adaptations of it].And remember it features the work of two Dadasaheb Phalke award winners Tapan Sinha and Soumitra.

P.s:It's really strange that bengali movies of old were so different in temperament and treatment from their hindi counterparts given that many bengalis were behind the masalaism and melodrama of bollywood.Can anyone forget Pramod Chakravorty,Sachin Bhowmick,Shakti Samanta,The Mukherjees,Dhruv Chatterjee,Dulal Guha etc.

Beth said...

Anon - Thanks! :)

Raunak - You are of course entitled to you opinion, but you will get no empathetic response from me about "stupid masalaism." I think you might be confusing my wish that this film HAD been more masala-y with an assumption that I expected that it would be - those are two different things, and I try pretty hard not to impose Hindi film sensibilities to other kinds of cinema, though I'm sure I slip sometimes. I found this movie disappointing because it's silly and lackluster, regardless of who is in it and what awards they won, and my expectations of it were mostly based on what I knew of the basic story.