Thursday, September 04, 2014

Chaowa Pawa and Jay Jayanti

Doing some research on Indian remakes of foreign films while also spelunking through the filmography of Uttam Kumar has recently led me to two delightful Bengali films based on American classics: Chaowa Pawa, which is one of at least six Indian remakes of It Happened One Night, and Jay Jayanti, one of at least three South Asian remakes of The Sound of Music.* Both of these posts contain spoilers if you aren't familiar with the plots of the original films.

Chaowa Pawa 1959
This film opens with Suchitra Sen (Manju, the Claudette Colbert equivalent) in capri pants and pigtails chucking porcelain around the room (so, the least dignified I've ever seen her),
quickly jumps to reporter Uttam Kumar (Rajat, the Clark Gable equivalent, looking super handsome in his rolled-up shirtsleeves) having his hardy ego bashed in by his editor (who just happens to be her father) (Chhabi Biswas),
and doesn't let up in energy or emotion until the very end. The conflict stemming from the heroine's marriage is different too: instead of running to her new husband of whom her father disapproves, here she's trying to escape visiting the family her father wants to marry her into. And this being 1950s India and not pre-Code Hollywood, the couple is not left alone quite as often on their journey back to the big city, nor do they camp out on a farm or use an exposed leg to hitch a ride. But the cycle of obstacles and interferences, including the question of how to manage a shared hotel room or enact convincing versions of married-life arguments, repeats day after day as the feelings and investments between them build, just like the original.

Chloe Angyal makes the point that IHON, filmed during the Great Depression, is unusual among its contemporaries for actually bothering to depict, involve, and humanize the poor. Chaowa Pawa doesn't pay quite the same notice to the non-rich other than as they are represented by Rajat, but the third-class train car the two meet in (instead of the night bus)—and their fellow passengers who witness the beginning of this classic match—provides some initial socio-economic context. Their first few nights off the train are spent in a run-down hotel staffed by a very nosy manager (Tulsi Chakraboty), who wants (and probably needs) the reward money as much as Rajat but is much less scrupulous about it. Rajat is down on his luck employment-wise, but he's not scum. He's also not exactly the poor but noble hero we've seen in many other movies; his job makes him too worldly, and his attitude demonstrates plenty of fluency in bossing other people around and calling the shots. Manju is disgusted by the circumstances she has put herself in and which Rajat cannot immediately lift her out of, and her new surroundings contrast humorously with her very strong, very proud sense of self.

In IHON, Clark Gable says to Claudette Colbert "I guess it would never occur to you to just say, 'Please mister, I'm in trouble, will you help me?' No, that would bring you down off your high horse for a minute." I didn't catch a similar line in Chaowa Pawa, and in fact Manju asks Rajat for help the very first moment they meet. (In the first picture in this post, she's about to tap him on the shoulder to ask for help buying a ticket before the conductor reaches their bench.) The film doesn't seem interested in using her to talk about humility, and she maintains enough confidence to be perfectly up front about her changing emotions for him and to keep her head high when he pretends he doesn't reciprocate. She would like his affection, but its lack does not deflate her. Personally, I find the idea of a humility lesson from loud-mouted heroes who bluff and intimidate other people pretty rich; I'm grateful that this point is not hammered here, and it's always nice to see an Indian film that doesn't want to slap its woman down for trusting her gut and making unsanctioned decisions. The older I get, the more I think it's important to have friends and/or partners who don't let you get away with your same old baloney. Both characters in Chaowa Pawa better each other, and it depicts more mutual growth than It Happened One Night does. Rajat shows Manju the value in calming down and thinking before reacting (watch for the decrease in shattered teacups) and she shows him that you shouldn't always run away from what you want.

For my money, this is top-notch Uttam-Suchitra chemistry, probably because I always prefer the comedic to the melodramatic. 
She is tightly wound and suspicious, no doubt because of her father's sneak attack of engaging her to someone she doesn't like; he is loose but quick-witted, not letting on that his career is in the toilet and plying old friends and new acquaintances with his nonchalant charm. Look at this image of their first night off the train, about to navigate staying in a hotel together: she's angry with clenched fists, ready to pounce, and he has his hands in his pockets, waiting out the storm.
They both have so much attitude in the first stages of this film, and as the characters get to know each other the actors appropriately vary what they project, showing vulnerabilities without actually weakening. Both characters have a lot to lose, and I love watching them balance those calculations with their hearts. 

This is probably my favorite Uttam Kumar performance after Nayak: joking, flirting, scheming, and panicking, all with expert lightness and ease. He tosses off one-liners to the side characters, raises one eyebrow at Suchitra's fits, and gazes wistfully into the evening sky exquisitely, his voice, face, and body all changing from moment to moment. This is movie star-ing and how
And so it is with the Mahanayak as Clark Gable, and not Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda, that for the first time in my life I find myself thinking smoking is actually sexy. End times.

Watch Chaowa Pawa online with English subtitles at the Angel youtube channel.

Jay Jayanti 1971
This film has been making me think about what the requirements and limits of "remake" are. Is there a firm, widely applicable line between "remake" and "adaptation," or is the process of putting a particular text into a new context so case-specific that these terms aren't even useful? Like Chaowa Pawa, I would argue that Jay Jayanti has enough of the same spirit of the original that it feels faithful, even clocking in much shorter and missing some significant dramatic elements that I'll get to in a momentarily.

First, here are some of the features that are the same (and I'll use SoM names for clarity). The von Trapp children need a governess very badly.
Watched over by their uncle (not father, as Captain von Trapp is; their mother is dead and their father is AWOL) (Uttam Kumar as Sanjay), who is not in the military but believes in routine and discipline and has been known to charge around like the bison in the painting over the stairs.
Young Maria (Aparna Sen as Jayanti, in what is probably my favorite performance by her as an adult) is up to the task, accessorized like Mary Poppins.
They play tricks on her like sending their German shepherd out into the fields to startle a cow, who goes charging after Maria.
 
She eventually charms them via being a good sport, singing, and even protecting Liesl's relationship with Rolf.
Maria often looks fondly and wistfully at Captain von Trapp, intrigued by his gruffness and pain.
  
That pain is very tragic, in this case involving their mother (his sister)'s suicide over grief that her husband doesn't love her anymore. Everyone is bonding and frolicking and singing "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa" during a picnic until DUN DUN DUNNNNNN the Baroness (Mala) arrives!
The children, in completely matching clothes not made from curtains, perform "Ta-ta, Bye-bye" (not its real name) to impress the Baroness and then go off to bed.
The Baroness is much more sophisticated than Maria, making good coffee and coochy-cooing
 while Maria sews.
They eventually come to words when it becomes clear Maria occupies more space in this house and its occupants' hearts than the Baroness can handle.
Maria packs her bags and goes back to Calcutta. Of course, the Baroness and the Captain discover they have crucial differences, and Maria ends up back where she belongs.

So in many regards, this is a pretty good step-by-step remake. Many of the plot points are the same, and there are some similar characterizations: blustering, smooth patriarch; young mother figure whose goodness is expressed by her musicality; a woman who seems a good match for the patriarch socioeconomically but who turns out to be too frosty; a big house that seems empty without the breath of fresh air. However, there are some important elements that aren't in Jay Jayanti that I think make it a much less emotional film. When I told friends I was watching this, many people asked "What will they do about the Nazis?" The answer is: nothing. There is no external force of any kind acting on this story, let alone that level of socio-political fear. One of humanity's greatest evils is replaced with...a plot to send the kids off to boarding school.

Similarly, Maria's inner turmoil about her existing love of God and the church being in conflict with her growing love of the Captain and the children is not replicated here either. We know next to nothing of Jayanti's personality or history other than what we see on the job, and she's less interesting than Maria. There's a little exchange between Jayanti and Mala in which Mala says "You're a Presidency College girl**, so you should be able to understand my situation with Sanjay," implying (I think) that Jayanti should have a worldliness that she is ignoring for her own benefit. For that matter, Sanjay doesn't seem as complex as the Captain. Life is pretty easy for Sanjay; he runs some kind of business, shouts at his servants in incomprehensible English***, and goes to a nightclub til all hours of the morning while the children are at home with their schoolwork. He carries the weight of sadness of his sister's suicide, but there's no turmoil there—just fairly compartmentalized grief. Overall, the stakes in Jay Jayanti are much, much lower than those in The Sound of Music, and it isn't as compelling a story. It's a perfectly enjoyable film, but its cuteness has to do all the work of the also-cuteness, psychological turbulence, and geopolitical upheaval of the original.

Oh, and there's no gazebo.
NO. GAZEBO. Criminal.

* It Happened One Night (1934) turns up as ​Chori Chori​ (1956), Solva Saal (1958), Suhana Safar (1970), and ​Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi​ (1991) in Hindi; ​Hudugaata ​(2007) in Kannada; and Chaowa Pawa (1959) in Bengali. To my knowledge, this makes it the most used American source material for Indian films (at the film-to-film level, that is—I'm sure particular action sequences probably appear more often than six times). As for The Sound of Music (1965), it exists in Bengali as Jay Jayanti; in Hindi as Parichay (1972) (which I haven't seen, though in my opinion turning Julie Andrews into Jeetendra and having him marry the oldest von Trapp child is super gross); and in Urdu from Pakistan as Intekhab (1978). I have found many references to Parichay being based also on a Bengali novel based on the story called Rangeen Uttarain by Raj Kumar Maitra, but I can find no reference to this book (story?) anywhere other than in discussions of Parichay, even in massive library catalogs, so I can't say whether the book also seems to come from SoM or if it's an independent entity that got combined with SoM to make Jay Jayanti and/or Parichay.
** The other film-related reference to Presidency College girls that I've heard is Satyajit Ray saying that Soumitra Chatterjee's fan base would be there, but other than that, the public belonged to the Mahanayak. Heehee.
*** Amrita jokes that Uttam Kumar invented mumblecore decades before we know it now. I understood maybe half of what he said in English without looking at the subtitles. I bring this up not to make fun of him—I can throw no stones, given that I am nowhere close to fluent in any of the languages I've studied—but to point out that it undercuts his usual suave persona that pops up in films in which he's dressed as he is in this one. Uttam Kumar in a suit=urbane. I'm wondering what the point is in this film of him using so much English if he's as uncomfortable with it as he seems; the other characters would all reasonably speak Bengali, I think, and they use it the rest of the time. His status is cemented in the world of this film without English.