Saturday, September 15, 2012

Basanta Bilap

Last month, I finally decided I was tired of conversations that included "What? You haven't seen the Apu Trilogy?!?", so my friend Ellie and I made a date to watch Pather Panchali...and I haven't looked back. I get it now. I get why so many people love Ray and I add my name to their numbers. Ray films like Apur SansarCharulata, and the Feludas have of course led me to Soumitra Chatterjee, who any minute now is going to make an appearance as his own special tag in my sidebar. [Update to post (October 9, 2012): and in fact, now he has.] I've drunk the Kool-Aid.
One of the ubiquitous and well-documented effects of Kool-Aid, of course, is prowling through the subject's filmography and youtube clips, and I have discovered—and, thanks to my Bengali Cinema Advisory Team members like Bongo Byango, Sayak, and Dotthei, been specifically directed to—many wonderful Soumitra-related things, including his attempt at the twist, which is almost as hilarious as his equestrian and combat skills in Jhinder Bandi (but the music is great).*

Thus it was that I ended up on the Angel Digital channel in front of the first segment of Basanta Bilap. I had run across the adorable song "Aami Miss Calcutta 1976" in a few different places,

but it was the even funnier "Aagun" that cemented a need to see this film right away.
That "Na! Na na na!" thing he does at about 1:24? I could watch that all day.

As far as I can tell—which is perhaps not very far at all—this is a film about very little. It's two hours of girls vs. boys, and from the group meet-cute you know how it's going to end. (I did actually wonder if it wouldn't end as I expected, since I know nothing about popular Bengali cinema from the 70s and shouldn't make assumptions about what it does with meet-cutes, though this one does have lyrics like "you were near me but I didn't understand that you loved me" in its first ten minutes.) Aparna Sen is the leader of a group of friends at a girls' hostel, 
Don't make me choose what sari I like most.
and she is magnificently feisty. She's also modern, living on her own, holding down a job, and having a great time with her friends. If her parents are mentioned at all, I missed it. That's true of most of the young characters in this film; there's nothing made of what these people should be doing or whom they'll disappoint if they don't. How refreshing! The spat goes back and forth for a bit until we realize that three couples have formed between the warring sides, with people lying to their friends about whom they're meeting and what they've been up to, including visiting sick aunts who inconveniently turn up perfectly fine a few seconds later. Only Aparna and Soumitra (the leader of the group of the young men) are the holdouts, annoying each other at work, egging on retaliation, and refusing to compromise after the pranks get out of control. 

It's quite possible that the novelty value of this film is so high for me that I liked it more than I would like a Bollywood iteration of the same story and songs. The jokes sometimes go on a bit too long or just don't seem all that funny (an angry fat man with a bucket on his head! Wowee!). 
There is also an incident whose implications I do not understand: early on, Aparna pretends that Soumitra has flicked his cigarette butt onto the hem of her sari, and she tells him off in public, waggling her finger and saying she'll make a complaint and calling him an inconsiderate monkey (which is a great phrase in English, even if it's not a literal translation) as passers-by join in chastising him. He seems utterly devastated by this, coming back to his friends' house and going on about wanting to hang himself. They tease him a little say, "What did you do, wink at her? Winking's not a crime!" but eventually quieting down when they realize how upset he is. I have no idea why this rattles him so much; I don't think his family or colleagues were present, and he has been shown as a boisterous and impish guy, not the sort of shuffling, demure, upright type who might more easily be flummoxed by a bit of public scolding over something he didn't actually do. I think this incident is supposed to be his reasoning for refusing to make peace with the girls, so I wish it had made more sense or resonated emotionally. As is, he came off as moody and a bit hypocritical rather than legitimately wronged. 
This picture doesn't really go with anything. I just like it.
Fortunately, the film chugs along to more silliness, and it's easy enough to put that aside and just enjoy the shenanigans. Watch it if you want a nice, light comedy with great songs. And at least try just the first few minutes, because the opening titles have superb music (by Sudhin Dasgupta) featuring a squawking muted trumpet for a sort of Dixieland feel, a vibraphone (I think?), and a chorus of giggles, plus a slew of other musical and sound effects that fade out into car horns and bike bells on the street as the action begins. In fact, all the songs are great, so even if I can't tempt you into the whole film, look for its songs—they're catchy and funny and populated by adorable stars doing their thing.

Basanta Bilap is available on youtube with English subtitles on the Angel channel here

* As is often true of the early stages of star infatuation, I saw something nasty on the Netflix, as Mrs. Starkadder would say. Do not, do not, do not watch The Bengali Night, even though it is available to stream and even though it stars Hugh Grant along with Shabana Azmi and Soumitra as the parents of Hugh's love interest. It is so very bad. The leads do an okay job, particularly the older ones and Hugh, but the side characters (Hugh's friends and neighbors) are horrendously, laughably performed, John Hurt's character is so irritating I wanted him dead from the moment he opened his mouth, and I never believed the romance for a second.

11 comments:

Sayak said...

To be completely honest, I was a little disappointed. I understand that it's supposed to be light and silly, but at some point it seemed to have just dropped the ball. There isn't much of a story, but that's fine, a lot of my favourite comedies don't have very coherent plots/stories. But that is usually made up for with some hilarious gags and amazing comedic set-pieces. Those were missing in this film. I went through the movie without ever really laughing out; I was mostly just amused. And then, the end just sort of... happens. The director shows Soumitra's and Aparna Sen's characters hating each other's guts, but never takes out any time to show that they're actually secretly in love, or that they're in love but they haven't realised it yet. Suddenly, we're supposed to believe that two people who have never even spoken a single kind word to each other are madly in love? I mean, generally mainstream Bollywood films will at least give you a reason why the lead pair fall in love after hating each other fiercely, even if those reasons are stupid, half-baked or even borderline offensive: they go through some life-altering experience like getting lost in a jungle or something, the boy shows his "noble character" by saving the girl from getting raped, the girl makes some supreme sacrifice for the boy etc. This film doesn't even attempt to offer any explanation. That's just lazy: the filmmaker/screenwriter is depending solely on the fact that the audience will have already assumed that Soumitra's and Aparna Sen's characters are going to end up together because they're... um... Soumitra and Aparna Sen. I think the movie was made watchable by the cast. I will watch anything which stars Soumitra, Aparna Sen, Robi Ghosh and Chinmoy Roy. They're all so charming, they just carry the film quite effortlessly on their shoulders. But otherwise, it was pretty meh.

P.S. Your observation about Aparna Sen's character (and the other women in the film) is pretty spot-on. A young, unmarried, independent working girl who doesn't live with her parents / elder brother / uncle / some vague patriarch is pretty unheard of in Indian films of that time. THAT is pretty cool.

Beth said...

Oh good, you watched it too! There is a very fine line between light-and-funny and absolutely-nothing-is-happening-that-matters-in-any-way. I did actually laugh out loud a few times in this but I think that's mostly because of the pleasing cognitive dissonance of seeing Soumitra Chatterjee taunting young ladies while dancing around the room. I was surprised to find a facebook page devoted to this film; it's hard to imagine this film standing out much against the backdrop of its chronological or genre colleagues. But again, what do I know? Maybe this is really is the peak of Bengali comedies until this year's Bhooter Bhobishyot?

I agree that the romance is unsupported other than by the logical conclusion implied by the setup . As you say, lazy. Even if no particular event causes them to re-think each other, it'd be nice to have a song where we see each of them having a sudden realization of how they feel, or they each come to the aid of the other friends who are in some kind of combined trouble, something like that.

I should have made specific mention of the rest of the cast, because they're all really fun. I could watch spunky 70s film women all day long, and this crew carried that mantle so well. And the guys are funny too, and I like how they don't just automatically go along with whatever Soumitra tells them.

Anonymous said...

'Basanta Bilap' definitely is a comedy to remember along with others like 'Chadmabeshi' and 'Mouchak'.Two other romantic comedies starred by the same pair as in this one comes to mind -'Baksha Badal' and 'Chutir Phande'.'Baksha Badal' is scripted by Satyajit Ray and shows that he is equally at home with 'fun and games' as much as lyrical contemplation.
I would like to share my own reasoning as far as the point you raise about Soumitra acting 'coy' on being publicly humiliated by Aparna. It might be because it depicts a time when young men were coming to terms with independent young women and however cocky or self-assured they may appear before them, they still were awkaward with them until the clumsiness had been washed away by a few meetings. Moreover, Soumitra being the leader of the group would find it very hard to accept that the head of the opposite faction had outsmarted him in public and that too using her femininity.Ego is what makes him and her as well hold back and try find ways to go one up over the other.
I thank you for writing about an enjoyable movie;your vivid descriptions made me remember and enjoy it once again.

Beth said...

Anonymous - Thanks for your insightful comment! Your explanation of the cigarette-tossing incident makes sense to me, and I think it's interesting that his initial response seems to be something like shame and remorse, which would flow easily from your proposal that there's awkwardness at play, before ego and anger eventually take hold for way too long.

I hope to watch more vintage Bengali films and will certainly post about the ones that grab me. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for liking my opinion - I was moved to see one of the movies from my growing-up years, almost like an acquaintance from a neighbourhood which I have left and a lot remained unsaid.

The movie is exactly like you describe it-lukewarm,despite having an enjoyable music score, a chart buster (Ami miss Calcutta)and a capable ensemble cast. Somewhere down the line it stops being short of captivating.

Yet, I describe it as an enjoyable movie - not because of its intrinsic appeal but because of what it represents to me now. Nowadays, so many of us are cut off from our cultural pasts for so many reasons that any link to the days gone by is warmly welcomed. The kid-next-door who would never allow you to bat first becuase it was his yard greets you like a long lost brother if you happen to meet after a decade and you reciprocate spontaneously because both of you share something which is not coming back-childhood.

I like 'Basanta Bilap' now because it makes me remember those days and I suspect it is the same for most of them who have 'liked' it on facebook. Otherwise, as you mention, the movie is not much to write about.

And as you mention, the supporting cast is admirable at times. The ectomorphic Chinmay sitting beside his lover by the lake, begs her to say that he is Uttam Kumar. It is a farcical comparison as Chinmay is the complete antithesis of Uttam Kumar, the charismatic matinee idol and the situation is funny without being witty. But after some time, you realize that it was completely natural as a whole generation might have hankered for the same compliment from their sweethearts, if not in words, tacitly at least.

'Basanta Bilap' has some such moments which make you sit up; it does not stand up on its own legs as a 'whole'. But what do you do, when you meet a classmate who landed you into trouble away from home, and after many years? You smile and feel happy for each other and the transgression does not seem to matter at all.

P.S.-I don't know if all this was necessary or not but what I must say is this - your post was as incisively accurate as being thought provoking. Thank you once again and I shall definitely look forward to your future posts.

Aparna said...

I had almost forgotten about this movie because I watched it when I was pretty young, but recently I watched all the songs on youtube and realized that they were all on my 'favorites' list, though I never thought that they were from this movie.
Bengali comedies? Here are some that I have seen and loved
- Dada-r kirti (starring Tapas Paul, Mahua - what makes it delightful are the side characters, and this falls more into the rom-com rather than the sheer comedy)
- Chodmobeshi: though if you have already seen 'Chupke Chupke', this might seem repetitive
- Ogo Bodhu Sundori: the Bengali take on 'My fair lady'
- Porosh pathor: bordering on fantasy fiction
- Jomaloye jibonto manush: ditto as above.

About love happening between people suddenly, I think our present generation is very logical about love, because we try finding love that will hold in the face of adversities and complexities of modern life, and love that 'makes sense' , which is fine. However, when it comes to ordinary life, love can be that feeling of 'missing someone or sensing an emptiness about someone when they are not there because youe last few months have been spent fighting with him/her and about whom you have thought about almost every single moment because you wanted to outwit that person.' In that case, except if that other person is utterly horrible or a convict, love can happen. Maybe it was not so in this movie (as i said, I have forgotten most parts of this movie), but it can happen.

Aparna said...

Btw, the reason that this film have a facebook following might just be because it was about the eternal 'girls vs guys' conflict that is so seen in India even now (not sure of other countries), and most of the guy friends that I have still post anti-women jokes on facebook.

Fultoo said...

this is just a beautiful memory

Beth said...

(Sorry for my late responses! Got caught up at the film festival and am still recovering.)

Anonymous - Another lovely comment from you, and thank you for your kind words.

Do you have any recommendations for any other Bengali films from the 70s? I'd really like to watch more.

I loved that moment by the water that you're mentioning. I have recently seen Nayak so could appreciate how unlike Uttam Kumar he was yet how badly he would WANT to be like him - and how his girlfriend would be happy to pretend her boyfriend was like him as well. :)

Aparna - The songs are GREAT!!! This is a movie I could just listen to. Thank you for the recommendations! They all sound right up my alley. Fingers crossed I can find them with subtitles. Chodmobeshi is at the top of my list - many people ahve told me to seek it out.

I agree with your take on the whole "enemies suddenly love each other" thing (especially since we're talking about stories that wrap up in a few hours! :) ) but I think it wasn't very well shown in this case - but of course I'm relying on subtitels and don't know a word of Bengali, so it's easy to imagine that the dialogue indicates more complexity of thought than what I picked up.

I've come to enjoy the girls vs boys thing in Indian films. I wonder if anyone has done a top 10 list of that basic plot line? :)

Fultoo - :)

Anonymous said...

Since you have become somewhat of a 'Rayophile', might I suggest you the Calcutta Trilogy (if you haven't seen the films already).

The trilogy consists of Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Jana-Aranya (The Middle Man) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited). These are among my favourite films of all time.

Beth said...

Anonymous - Those are on my to-watch list. :) Thanks!