Thursday, January 10, 2013

mini-review marathon: the old-ish Bengali films, Uttam edition

The internet indicates that there is an Uttam Kumar/Soumitra Chatterjee camp rivalry. Helen above, I find the fan camp thing so irritating and tiresome. But since I have six films to discuss and only energy to write about three, here is the Uttam half of my recent Bengali viewing (Soumitra's soon to follow—never fear, Sonpapdis!).

Before getting underway with the films, I'd like to recommend a resource that actually discusses in an intelligent manner some of the differences in the types of characters and films done by the two actors and thus the cultural ethos each speaks to. I'm not done with it yet (which is why I won't try to summarize what it says about Uttam and Soumitra as cultural figures), and if you are as new to the topic as I am you will probably be swamped by people and film names you don't recognize, but so far Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation by Sharmistha Gooptu seems a solid overview of the history of Bengali movie-making, with individual chapters on a few of the broader trends and most important players. It's an interesting and not overly pretentious read.

However, I most definitely get the sense that the author is in some way defensive of Bengali cinema; there's a slight but persistent tone of "these movies are better than those [Bombay's, specifically]" (and maybe even "ours/yours"), an attitude that is probably betrayed by the book's specifically worded subtitle. The author elaborates the phrase "an other nation" into the theme that Bengali cinema has long been a separate world from Hindi films, creating its own narrative for the nation, as well as one that operated earlier and more profoundly in an international context, in terms both  of movies being seen outside India and of influences coming in (owing in part to Calcutta as the former capital and long interested in outside ideas, new technology, etc.). But like I said, I'm not done yet, so don't please don't take that as my final opinion. And because it's a proper academic book, it has footnotes, an index, and an extensive bibliography, should you want to know more. There's also a chapter on Ray that I think stands alone fairly well—and is extensively reproduced in Outlook here. There's even a Kindle version of the book for rent on Amazon, so go, read!

Sare Chuattar
If imdb is to be believed, this gentle comedy (from the Bhanu-Jahar stable, I think?) is the first Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen pairing.
The story is set in a boarding house, and it follows several of the residents through day-to-day problems and family entanglements.
Uttam and Suchitra have a classic "We hate each other! No wait, we love each other!" romance in the watchful and eager-to-comment presence of their neighbors. This might be another film whose humor is really lost in translation—or maybe even lost to the passing of time, no longer able to reach jaded millennial first-time audiences like I am. It's pleasant enough, but I like the comedy, romance, and performances in Bhanu Goenda Jahar Assitant much better.

Saptapadi
When I asked for recommendations of Uttam-Suchitra films, many people told me this was at the top of their lists.
With rainstorms, alcoholism, wartime medical service, bombings, and horrible parents who do not support their children's Hindu-Christian romance, this has many ingredients for Epic Romance. It is much to Uttam Kumar's credit that the film rarely feels that way, generally listing to something calmer, though still very cinematic. Suchitra gets the raw end of this script, big time; her character, the truculent Rina Brown, does not get to show any likable sides until at least 45 minutes in, and a party tune nearly sinks her as she struggles to lip-synch laughable lyrics like "On the merry-go-round let's ride and roll. On the merry-go-round let's rock our soul."  (WTF were people smoking in 60s Calcutta that merry-go-rounds seemed rock n' roll?). I gather the iconic image from this film is the pair's song on a motorcycle, but it didn't work for me either, again in part due to whatever Muppet-y business she's doing with her face.

Fortunately, the script snaps into place, and the more emotional moments of their romance are much better crafted. My favorite parts of Saptapadi are the smaller-scale ones, like their individual, quiet mulling over changing feelings and the very sweet and caring exchange they have after he receives terrible news from his family.

For the record, I am also unimpressed by the film's rendition of a scene from Othello voiced by Jennifer Kendal and Utpal Dutt. I don't know how this kind of acting was received at the time, but to my ears almost 50 years later it is artificial and forced, especially Jennifer, of whom I would expect much better given her theatrical upbringing, though if you've watched her parents at work in Shakespeare-Wallah you know exactly where she got it. What say you?

Chowringhee
Chowringhee has that Robert Altman feel of almost countless threads weaving together, this time set in a Calcutta hotel with Uttam Kumar being understatedly suave in a dapper suit as the invaluable front desk staff who keeps the guests and management happy even when he doesn't like what they're up to. He is utterly charming in his romantic arc with Anjana Bhowmick
This picture is here simply because I've never seen a woman in a 60s film want to be a pilot and I think it's freaking awesome.
Other characters include Utpal Dutt as the owner of the hotel (named Marco Polo, for reasons I did not intuit), Subhendu Chatterjee as Uttam's protégé, Biswajeet as a juvenile rich boy, and Supriya Debi as the "hostess" he loves (poor woman—the makeup department makes her look like a drag queen). Uttam gets most of the comedy, including this exchange about how the job description had required him to speak Bengali like Rabindranath, English like Shakespeare, and Hindi like Tulsidas, but he had showed up with only the following qualifications: 
I too can speak Bengali like Shakespeare!
Everything balances very nicely in Chowringhee. No scripted story and no performance take away from any of the others, which can be a tricky feat to pull off in these kinds of multi-arc projects. Depending on your taste or mood, certain stories will appeal to you more than others, and if memory serves there are at least three unhappy endings, which I tell you as warning because two of them are very sad indeed.

No doubt I am too uneducated in the subject to make pronouncements about what I think of Uttam Kumar as an actor,  but I do want to say that after five of his films (all from the 1960s except Sare Chuattar above) I really like his style of calm that somehow communicates very readable, relatable emotion, whether it's regret, hesitation, love, whatever. Sometimes it seems his default facial expression is slightly smug (not aided by the occasional Dev Anand-y puff of hair), but once he starts moving, that disappears and is replaced by whatever is appropriate for the scene. He also has a fun twinkle in his eyes during some of his comic scenes that I really like. It's there in Nayak too, that expression of "This is silly, but I'm a nice guy so I'll go along" or "I think I'm really quite fond of you, so I'm going to see if I can get you to play with me awhile longer." A self-assuredness that does not devolve into arrogance and is actually more interested in conversation than declaration is so appealing.

And if you have any Uttam recommendations for me, please let me know. I plan to clean-sweep the Calcutta DVD stores of subtitled Soumitra, so why not sprinkle in some Uttam in as well?

11 comments:

myrna-nora said...

Charade is my favorite film and pretty impossible to top, but I thought the Uttam Kumar/Anjana Bhowmick remake, Kokhono Megh, was a really fun film.

sapera said...

I will second myrnanora's recommendation. It's an excellent noir meets fluffy romcom. Always suspected it was a remake of some variety. Robert Altmanesque stuff was very much up Uttam's alley in the 60s I imagine. A similar, but somewhat plodding movie is Nayika Sambad (same romantic pair).

The only two Satyajit Ray movies he made (Nayak, Chiriyakhana) are obv essential. Outside of that, hm, let me see.

Raat bhore (his only mrinal sen), Harano Sur (apparently a remake of some golden era hollywood film called random harvest), Chaoa Paoa (a classic Uttam-Suchitra pairing), Bhranti Bilash (inspired by Comedy of Errors), Dhanyi Meye (Tapan Sinha classic), Chadmabeshi (remade in Hindi as Chupke Chupke starring Dharmendra), Mouchak (delightful romcom where he plays the patriarch), and his swan song Ogo Bodhu Shundori (remake of My Fair Lady) should get you sorted.

I think that's a rough representation of his oeuvre's arc.

Beth Watkins said...

myrna-nora and sapera - Kokhono Megh sounds WONDERFUL! I will look for it!

sapera - I looooooove Nayak (and wrote about it a few months ago, if you're interested). It was the first UK film I saw so I might be spoiled. Thank you so much for this list. I think Chadmabeshi is the only of those I've heard of, so this is a treasure trove. I have a dear friend who is on an even bigger UK spree and was giddy when I sent this to her. :)

sapera said...

no problem at all!

also dui bhai (with biswajeet), if you like this song, you'll probably love the movie - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSrIzomHyBk

and deya neya (paired with tanuja) which was remade as a rajesh khanna starrer (the remake was execrable, don't watch it).

and shesh anka (translates to a very noir sounding "final calculation" or more literally and humorously "last math") which I haven't seen and can't vouch for but just from the first scene alone, it promises to be riveting - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYllG530fi8

Too bad about Share Chuattor :(

It might be a case of lost in translation, but I just looked up the youtube version and the subtitles are abominably bad (assuming they were the same as on your dvd).

Having said that though, a lot of the humor lay in the cheap laughs generated by Bhanu's Bangladesh/East Bengal accented dialect which probably wouldn't be very funny or kosher in this day and age, but it sure would be language specific. Or not, what do I know.

apaperbacklife said...

God do I love Sare Chuattar! My mom and I have watched it about a hundred times and each time we enjoy it just as we did the first time.

Unlike mom I am not much of a Uttam-Suchitra or Uttam Kumar fan but that is probably because I am not generally a fan of romance. Although I do love Agni Pariksha and to some extent, Harano Sur, I prefer Uttam's comedies and serious movies like Nayak, Shesh Anka, Mouchak and Ogu Bodhu Sundari.

Beth Watkins said...

Awww! It's great to have a movie like that, one that is ever-reliable for happy moods.

Shesh Anka is on my list (and the first ten minutes seem promising). I am almost sorry I saw Nayak so early on in my Bengali film-watching because I don't know how anything will seem as good with that as (probably unfair) comparison.

Thanks for commenting. :)

poorna banerjee said...

Hello,

I am going to tell you about a couple of movies that you should see, if you like Uttam Kumar.

Marutirtha Hinglaj
Sagarika
Harano Sur
Sanyashi Raja
Agnishwar

For Suchitra Sen, I personally have just one favorite, which is "Deep Jele Jai", and possibly one of the few films that made me cry in the end.

I personally feel that Saptapadi was perhaps too drawn out, but then again, that's me.

I hope this helps you and you get inspired to watch more films in this genre. Also, Sare Chuattor has Bhanu, yes, but it is very different from the Bhanu you would be seeing in the Bhanu-Jahar group. In fact, this man is more of a "Jawmalaye Jibonto Manush" (A live man in Hell), or "Ashite Ashiona" (Do not turn 80).

Suresh S said...

"Side note: do any of you have strong feelings about Biswajeet? I've only seen him in a few things and find him pretty but not otherwise noteworthy, at least so far. Any recommended films?"

I don't know about Bengali films, but in Hindi movies, Biswajeet along with (yechh) Joy Mukherjee generally played the pansy romantic and with the advent of color films wore probably as much rouge and lipstick as the female leads. Some exceptions I've seen:

Kohraa - an adaptation of Rebecca that to my mind works better than the Hitchcock film. B plays the Olivier role and does a fine job of it.

Bees Saal Baad - A loose Hound of The Baskervilles adaptation with neither Holmes nor hound. B plays Henry Baskerville, not a notable performance but at least it's not romantic pap.

He was generally not very good at high-pitched drama because of his weak voice.

Zaiyan Khan said...

This was and is my favorite film.
Thnks for such a great article with its regard.
Thnks
Shayari

Beth Watkins said...

Suresh, this is the best comment ever. :) I am so with you on Joy Mukherjee. Snoooooze. I actually just watched Kohraa and enjoyed it. He and Waheeda are not a pair I would have chosen but somehow they worked in that story. I keep meaning to watch the Bengali version too.

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