Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984)

After watching ‘Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho’, a deftly written early 80s flick by Saeed Mirza, one realizes how little of (and in) Mumbai has changed in all these years. Or rather, how little has our society evolved. In fact, watching this movie can lead one to reflect upon how seeds of the modern day degeneration we see around us, had already been sown some decades back…

The film is a depiction of the power struggle between the land grabbing aristocracy and the common man buried under the debris of avarice while also being burdened by the daily skirmishes he has to master for mere self-preservation. And it is a strong depiction indeed, for, despite its simple motif of one man leading a judicial battle against a malicious land-owner, it contains multiple narrative streams, all being helmed by some of the finest parallel cinema actors and performers of the time. Also stark is the sarcastic (and caustic) tone of the proceedings, where humor is sufficiently employed to take digs on pretty much everything that’s lacking in our judicial system, and how it heeds to arm-twisting and delaying tactics of the influential.

One thing that I look forward to in a satirical movie is to see what kind of closure it choses for itself. Does it end on an ‘All is well/All can be well’ note leaving behind a ray of optimism, or whether it revels in the hopelessness of the situation and concludes on a pessimistic note. As this particular movie moves along, the odds for the latter happening keep on getting stronger. More so, the tone of the film is quite unequivocal in regards to this. But despite the unambiguous defeatism of the narrative, it is engrossing for most parts, largely helped by the actors playing out their quirky, well-written characters to the hilt.

Parting Note: The movie is a must watch, if not for everything else, just for the fact that it has hardly lost its relevance even after so many years, and makes points extremely pertinent to even this day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sara Akash (1969)

A 1969 film, ‘Saara Akash’ is the debut directorial feature of Basu Chatterjee, who later went on to make some of the most acclaimed films of the 70s and the 80s. It is very much a non-mainstream effort with mostly first time actors forming the cast, and has been given a very unique treatment by Chatterjee, especially in terms of its experimental shot-taking, quirky camera angles, and use of nano-flashbacks to depict the internal conflicts of the chief protagonist. Like many of the director’s later efforts, the movie has its basis in literature and its story is adapted from the first part of a novel of the same name, written by noted Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav.

The movie has a very novel premise about how a newly-wed husband and wife don’t exchange even a single word between themselves for almost six months. Set in a traditional middle class Hindu family in the historical city of Agra, the story is soaked in the atmospherics of the Indian grassroots, especially the ones associated with the custom of arranged marriages in a joint family system.

A young man, yet to complete his formal education, is married off to a beautiful and demure girl, much against his wishes. The girl too has had some schooling, and is seen as someone who is well educated by the general societal standards set for her kind. Thus, completely unprepared for matrimony, both youngsters enter into a relationship that is marked by uncertainty, apprehension, and bashfulness. After making an inauspicious beginning by completely ignoring each other on their first night together, their problems only get compounded, as the reservations they have towards one another keep on getting fueled by their family dynamics.

The boy is fiery and ambitious, heavily influenced by the ideals of Subhash Chandra Bose and other noted public figures that had a stirring impact on the youth of those days. He channels a firm outward belief that marriage is nothing but an impediment in the makings of a great man, resulting in him assuming a tough face in front of his wife, despite covertly longing for her companionship. Some of the most delectable moments of the film are the ones that highlight this contradiction, and mostly involve him completely ignoring her presence, despite wanting to do the exact opposite. Till about halfway into its duration, the film has a light-hearted approach and derives humor from such situations. However, the tone of the film soon changes as the focus shifts on the other half of the conundrum, i.e. the inner world of the bride, who is harangued not just by her husband’s insurmountable apathy, but also by his family members’ demanding behavior and condescending attitude towards her education, especially from the jealous women-folk of the household. In a poignant scene that illustrates this change of treatment, the girl makes a mistake while doing a household chore and is severely reprimanded by her mother-in-law, and when the boy enters the scene and is told about the misdeed done by his wife on whom he has no apparent control, he goes forward and slaps her, which marks the first physical contact between the couple. Later he cries like a baby, hating himself for that act of physical abuse, and mocking his own fake ideals that couldn’t stop him from hitting his wife. The result of this unfortunate occurrence is that he starts spending more and more time outside the home, taking refuge in solitude or in passing time with his friends. On the other hand the girl’s solitude becomes even more absolute, especially when her confinement’s only solace, the boy’s sister with whom she shares some sort of understanding, is sent back to her husband despite her many protests.

Throughout its short duration of 90 minutes, the film unequivocally portrays the plights of a newly wedded bride in a patriarchal, male-dominated set-up. In the alien environment of her husband’s home, the young girl is shown to get little respite, and her world gets completely distraught as she gets abandoned by what could have been her only source of comfort in the unforgiving situation, her husband.  The husband, on the other hand, comes across mostly as a pitiable and spineless figure, with little points of redemption. Hardly out of his childhood, his mind replete with regressive societal notions on how a wife should behave and not behave, and at the same time heavily influenced by the elders in his family, the boy-man’s helplessness too comes out on occasions when he breaks into a child-like smile on being teased by a friend, or when he shyly dreams about little moments of intimacy with his wife.

The acting by the two leads, Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty is impressive and both manage to do complete justice to their extremely complex characters. The three most familiar faces in the cast are those of AK Hangal, Dina Pathak, and Jalal Agha, but none of them have really much to do. There are no songs in the film; however, the music by Salil Choudhary, which plays mostly in the background, fits the mood of the film very well.

Parting Note: An exceptionally well shot experimental film with a very realistic treatment that remains topical, despite the forty-five years that have passed since its making. A must watch for all those who wish to study and savor the parallel Hindi art-film movement, which according to many, started with this film.

Interesting fact: The film was shot entirely in the ancestral home of its writer, Rajendra Yadav (source Wikipedia)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chaitali (1975)

This is a mid 1970s movie starring Dharmendra and Saira banu in lead roles, and directed by none other than Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a man who helmed arguably some of the best Hindi movies made ever. There is another great matter of prestige attached to this feature, that of it being a Bimal Roy production, albeit posthumous. Bimal Roy, who himself arguably made some of the best Hindi movies ever, is also seen by many as the precursor to Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who he mentored along with a man called  Sampoorn Singh Kalra, better known as Gulzar. So it will be fair to say that ‘Chaitali’, as a movie, boasts of some enviable pedigree. And yet, it is one of those criminally under-seen movies, reflected in just a handful of ratings it has garnered on Imdb (less than 20 on last count). It might have been a commercial failure at that time, but does it deserve the obscurity that it is shrouded in today? For sure not, as, though the film is not faultless, it is still a reasonably engaging dramatic feature that makes a social comment on delinquency, forgiveness, and redemption. 

Adapted from a Bengali short story of the same name, Chaitali inhabits a world that is much different from the general Hrishikesh Mukherjee fold, wherein most of his movies stayed away from depicting the darker strata of our social order. The narrative is centered on Chaitali (Saira Banu in the title role), a woman who has been forced by her circumstances and her unfortunate upbringing to occupy a space that constantly haunts her, but from which she not being able to escape. Creating a stark contrast, her life merges with a more typical Hrishikesh Mukherjee middle-class urban household, full of family values and righteousness. The first few minutes of the movie establish this moral rectitude and bonhomie of this family, headed by a kind matriarch, and assisted by that ever cheerful and passionately loyal servant (Asit Sen yet again). The tone and tenor of the film then changes considerably when Chaitali enters the household, guiltily taking advantage of goodness of the elderly matron, with the intention of swindling some money. All this while, the younger son of the family Manish, (Dharmendra in a mostly subdued role) is aware of the reality of the woman, but takes pity on her circumstances, apart from developing a soft corner for her. The drama later shifts to a religious sanctuary on the hills, where Chaitali shares her life story honestly with Manish, who gets utterly shaken by the grimy details of her upbringing, which include a criminally inclined father on the run, a brothel, many lecherous eyes eager to pounce on her adolescence, and a suitor (played uninhibitedly by Asrani) who is both a danger and a comfort to her in the murky vicinities of her life.  

Throughout the story and its dramatic last act (the best executed out of the lot in my view), Chaitali comes across as a highly complex character, both repulsed by and dependent on crime and delinquency. And this confusion, somehow, gets reflected in the treatment of the film, with its highly uneven tone oscillating between glimmers of hope and pits of hopelessness. Dharmendra’s part is under-cooked and not well defined, with neither his motivations, nor his intentions, and nor his beliefs, coming out on screen clearly. This in some ways gets evened out by strong subsidiary characters- chiefly the lawyer elder brother (who gets a lot to do in the last act) and his wife (Bindu in a meaty part, but hamming it up completely).  

The music of the film, much like the film itself, is not popular at all. There are just three songs, and seen in isolation, two of them are pleasant enough. But none add to the movie in any which way; this lack of memorable tunes another reason for the oblivion the film finds itself today.

Signing off with a vintage 'on-the-set' still from the filming of an outdoor shot from the movie:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gaman (1978)

Muzzafar Ali’s first film, Gaman, is an effort that, at one level, delineates the chasm between the India of the villages, and the India ruled by urbanity. At another level, it portrays the multitude of different worlds that inhabit the urban fold. The film keeps oscillating between two starkly shot geographic settings throughout its duration; Kotwara, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, and Mumbai, the quintessential metropolis, simmering with a lure that is almost Pied-Piper-esque. The lead character, essayed by a tremendously understated Farookh Sheikh, migrates to the big city from this native village of his, in search for a living, leaving behind a newly-wedded wife and an ailing mother. This migration (or Gaman), is his last resort, much like how it is for thousands of his ilk. How his life first interacts, and later merges, with the all-encompassing landscape of Mumbai, and how he constantly tries to make peace with the guilt of having left his family behind, while all the time trying to seek redemption in this choice made by him, is what the film is all about, at least on the surface. But the director has ensured that deeper connotations are implied by giving a very unique treatment to the screenplay, where instead of focusing on the affairs of just the main leads, he has created a mesh of similarly themed stories of human survival, which suffuse into each other, and construct an ensemble. And yet the handling is minimalistic, and in most of the frames the emotions are more explicit through the visuals, than through the words spoken by the characters.

The movie is also an excellent example of crowd-sourcing and how ‘real’ people, places, and locations have been used in the narrative (The director duly metions the natives of Kotwara in the credit roll). In fact, it is hard to find a frame which looks inauthentic or which might have been shot on a set or in a studio. Mumbai too has been shot painstakingly, with much love, and for anyone familiar with the city’s terrains, the cinematography of the movie is reason enough to give the movie a watch. The language, grammar, and dialect of the words and the music of the film is rooted in realism and is full of references from history, and especially that from the history of Islam, for the lead characters are Muslim, and their native village, as in the film, has a sizeable Muslim population. The practices observed during Muharram at the village of Kotwara have been shot guerilla style and are depicted unequivocally. In a poignant moment from the film, the lead character gets caught in a frenetic Maharashtrian celebration, and is promptly reminded of the Muharram communal mourning back at his village. This is perhaps another way to bring to fore the intermingling of cultures, which the director portrays, not just by setting his film in the melting pot of all humanity that is Mumbai, but also by relegating the religious identities of his characters to the background by treating them in a very matter of fact manner, which in itself is very refreshing. The songs too are reflective of this timeless convergence that is perhaps the most defining feature of Indian socio-cultural fabric; the music (by Jaidev) is based on our ‘Hindustani’ tradition and has a classical base with the lyrics in both Hindi and Urdu. Half of the songs are set against Smita Patil’s incredibly expressive eyes in the backdrop. She hardly has any dialogue to speak in the film, and yet she says a lot in each and every frame she is present in. 

Signing off with the song ‘Seene Mein Jalan’, which is the perhaps the best remembered song from the movie… 

P.S.- Nana Patekar has a character role in the movie, while Satish Shah also appears in a scene.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dard Ka Rishta (1982)

An artist’s best work is often the one that has risen out the melting pot of his own life experiences.  The best artists in the world are known to create art for themselves, not caring much about the expectations the world burdens their shoulders with.  In fact, there have been innumerable cases where an artist was not even acknowledged during his or her lifetime; the famous painter Van Gogh’s name comes to mind as a prime example of such an occurrence. If we have to looks for an example closer home, the name of Guru Dutt can be mooted in this regard. Although he wasn’t completely unappreciated while he lived and made movies, his true worth was recognized only after an untimely death. Though, it must also be said while citing his example that cinema, as compared to painting or music, is a highly corrupted art form, owing to the fact that films are almost always made for an audience and are hardly ever devoid of commercial considerations.
Another observation that I will make before turning to discuss the movie I wish to discuss in this post, is that it is often painful experiences and grief that act as the most effective catalysts to the most creative of expressions. This particular sentiment has been widely popularized by the movie ‘Rockstar’, but I had to say it to set the context.
Sunil Dutt, was a prolific actor, and more than just an occasional director/producer. In fact it won’t be wrong to say that some of his directorial/production ventures were far more ambitious than most of the movies he starred in as an actor. From ‘Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke’ which dealt with a taboo real life adultery case, to ‘Yaadein’ that was an unique experiment with just a soliloquy piecing together a narrative, to big canvas dacoit films like ‘Mujhe Jeene Do’ and ‘Reshma aur Shera’, the man was never afraid to challenge the stereotype. In 1981, the year in which his son Sanjay was launched by him in ‘Rocky’, he suffered a huge personal setback when his beloved wife Nargis succumbed to cancer. Out of this great grief must have emerged the story and concept of ‘Dard Ka Rishta’ a movie that he made just after, as a tribute to his wife, and apparently to further the cause of cancer awareness and research. And in my view, this particular movie, made as a labor of love and pain, is the best movie out of all that were produced by him. 
The structure of the story is simple but touches upon many issues that remain relevant even today. One, it highlights the conflict in the mind of an expat originally from a poor/developing country like ours, of whether to lead a somewhat selfish existence where there are many personal gains to be had, or whether to go back to one’s own country and contribute using the skills gain abroad. Two, it talks about the conflict in the mind of a doctor, of how to best use one’s education, that is, to use it as a privilege or as an aid to the society’s betterment, also whether to make best use of what’s current, or whether to throw oneself into research and look for better methods to improve on the current.  Three, it looks at the relationship between an estranged couple, and how it plays out when they meet after many years. Four, it looks at the plights (and the delights) of a single parent, on how kids such raised, mature quicker and come to terms with life’s realities and responsibilities a lot sooner than kids indulged by both the mother and father together. Five, through a somewhat clichéd and yet entertaining side-track it looks at the eternal Hindu-Muslim communal issue, which again is an apparent offshoot of Sunil Dutt’s own life, owing to his marrying a Muslim lady. Lastly, and above all, it highlights how difficult it is to face loss, to watch a loved one die, and not being able to do anything about it.

The story, refreshingly for a Hindi movie of that time, has a broad geographic canvas a narrative that has a wide time span. Thus, the characters and lives evolve and grow as the story progresses. Most impressive is the restraint on melodrama, which is left implied and unsaid on most occasions, truly unique for a 1980s Hindi movie. A lot of this can be attributed to the calmness and grace that is brought to the screen by all the female actors- Smita Patil, Reena Roy, and a young Khushboo (the famous actress in South Indian films) who plays Sunil Dutt’s daughter. Sunil Dutt, essaying the lead male part, expectedly acts with great sincerity and sensitivity. The music by RD Burman is pleasant to the ears and complements the mood of the film.

Also unlike most Hindi movies, it is difficult to decide what the best parts/scenes of the movie are. The father-daughter relationship is heartwarming and in essence is the core to the plot, but the subsidiary emotional linkages, for instance the relationship the girl shares with the servants/helpers of their household comes out very well through some nicely written scenes. The NRI portions of the story, which would have done Jhumpa Lahri proud, have a stamp of finesse and class. The medical procedures and functioning of a foreign health-care setup, as shown in the movie, give the impression of being well researched. The only dated bit of the movie is the part where Sunil Dutt has to marry Reena Roy because of certain unfortunate circumstances, but even that can be excused as a well-received big-star movie used the same plot device as much as twenty-five years later (How Shahrukh Khan ends up marrying Anushka Sharma in his blockbuster hit Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi).

Overall, the movie is well worth its slightly long duration, and is quite a classic if you consider the period it was made in, and the personal element of the maker involved. It is unfortunate that this movie is seldom talked about in the media circles (it even fails to receive a mention in the main body text of Sunil Dutt’s Wikipedia page).

Friday, October 11, 2013

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein (1964)

The impression you get about Kishore Kumar after reading his interviews is, that he was a highly reluctant actor ,and abhorred the task of making a fool out of himself in front of the camera. This, and that he was extremely critical of most movies that were being made in the 1950s and the 1960s, and despised the standard melodramatic fare that was being dished out by the tinsel town copiously. But despite all this he starred in dozens of films, most of them comedies, out of which a few are fondly remembered even today- ‘Half Ticket’ and ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’ leading the pack. As a singer, he is arguably the most popular male voice to have made listeners swoon and sway, with some of the most popular and iconic songs over the decades, to his credit. But very few are aware that he tried his hands at film-making as well and directed quite a few movies. At least I had little clue about his directorial efforts till recently when, on a whim, I decided to browse his IMDB page. A frantic online search later, I was happy to find two of these movies and downloaded them almost at once.
'Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein', his second production, seems to have had his absolute control over all aspects of its making- He is credited as the writer, director, producer, music composer, singer, and lead actor. In addition to all this, his real life son plays his screen son in movie, a sensitive father-son tale. Kishore plays an honest army-man who returns to his village after a war, only to discover that all his near and dear ones, except a son, have succumbed to a tragic fire and have left for the heavenly abode. If this wansn't agony enough, he finds that although his son had escaped the clutches of death, the shock had been too much for his young impressionable mind and as a result the boy had lost his gift of speech.
With hardly any means to support themselves, and no emotional anchor except one-another and a pet dog, the unfortunate father-son duo leaves the village with the intention of relocating to a new place and making for themselves a new life, far removed from the ghosts of the past. The father makes it a mission to restore his young boy’s ability to speak, committing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices to achieve this goal. Soon, on their journey, they encounter a group of goons and in a conflict, the father is injured, and they land in the home of a kind and young village landlady who gives them a place to stay and tends to the father’s injuries, while forging a motherly bond with the son. Thus the wanderers soon become householders, with both the father and the son playing an active role in the daily life and works on the land holdings of their benevolent host.
 A slightly awkward romance soon develops between the adults, but before things become too intimate, the father decides to leave for the city for his son’s treatment. Predictably the city offers no respite and after consulting a multitude of doctors who all express their inability to bring about a change in fortunes for the boy, they decide to return to the place where they had found love and an emotional refuge. The movie culminates with on a clichéd and dramatic note, with villains and a kidnapping thrown in, a heroic performance from with father included, and a miraculous recovery of the boy, all leading to a happy ending with the union of hero and the heroine and the karmic completion of the boy’s circle of family ties.
The movie has a sincere theme and a stirring emotional stamp throughout, most probably due to the fact that the subject might have been very close to Kishore Kumar’s heart. However, a lot of the screenplay is contrived and lacks finesse, especially the later portions of the film. For a more commercial presentation a lot of the usual elements appear to have been added, which makes the effort a bit hotchpotch and jarring. The music and the acting by the leads are quite good and some of the scenes, especially the ones depicting the awkward romance blossoming between the father and the landlady, display unusual restraint and subtlety.
Overall, to the fans of old Hindi cinema, the movie would be worth watching as it is the work of a highly creative and genius mind who wore multiple hats, some fine some shabby. Just as a glimpse into his personality, the movie is quite a decent watch despite the fact that it appears a bit dated today, but that can be said for many of the acclaimed classics as well from that time.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Anand Ashram (1977)

I pushed back watching this Shakti Samanta movie for quite some time, expecting it to be one of those moralistic tale laced with melodrama and strung together by a few good songs. Another big reason for my lack of enthusiasm was that this movie, unlike most other Shakti Samanta movies of that time, does not star Rajesh Khanna, and instead features Uttam Kumar, an actor I am not particularly fond of. As it turned out, as I finally got around to watching it, I was somewhat right about my pre-conceived notions. But having said that, the movie pleasantly surprised me on many counts, and in fact turned out to be quite a good watch. Also, as the narrative unfolded and moved towards the climax, similarities between its story and that of big ticket Karan Johar magnum opus Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham became quite apparent, which were rather interesting to discern. The coincidence that Rakesh Roshan plays the role that would be parallel to what his son Hrithik Roshan performs in the modern day magnum opus, was what triggered the connection in my mind.

A young doctor marries his childhood companion without his father’s consent. The father, a rich and respected landlord with a legacy he is very proud of, is terribly disappointed by his son’s decision to marry a girl from a different religious background. The confrontation leads to the son abandoning his father’s house and giving up on all his inherited wealth. He, along with his wife, then proceeds to fulfil his life’s objective of providing medical services to the underprivileged villages, which lack healthcare infrastructure. A chance encounter with a wannabe do-gooder enables him to open a village dispensary, which he starts to run with his wife supporting him wholeheartedly. Then in a curious turn of fate, his allegiance to the oath of selfless service is put to test. He passes the test but suffers a great personal loss when he is unable to be at his wife’s side as she is delivering their first child. The story from there briskly changes character and soon takes a time leap. With the drama set, the next part is quite entertaining to watch.

Despite the serious theme, a feel-good factor is maintained throughout, thanks to the well defined characters essayed by Ashok Kumar, Utpal Dutt, and Asit Sen. In the second part of the movie the romance angle between Rakesh Roshan and Moushumi Chatterjee also lightens the proceedings. Towards the end, the culmination too is convincing and ties up the drama satisfactorily.

It would not be completely off the mark to say that the basic skeletal of Anand Ashram and K3G is alike. What is most different is the objective and treatment. While Anand Ashram has the theme of selfless service to humanity as its backbone, K3G has no such pretentions and was quite unequivocal in its fidelity to the candyfloss. As a result the characters in the older film are less caricaturish and have more shades to their personalities. And that is strength of Anand Ashram as a more ‘moving’ motion picture. The lead hero, Uttam Kumar, is not very convincing in the initial portions of the story where he plays the rebel lover lip-syncing to songs and romancing a stunning beauty like Sharmila Tagore. But in the later part of the movie he appears in a bearded look and is generally more assured. But Ashok Kumar as the ‘kabhi garam kabhi naram’ granddad (and dad) gives the most heart-warming performance from the lot.

Almost all the songs are nice and don’t really act as speed-breakers. ‘Sara pyaar tumhara’ and ‘Rahee naye naye’ and the most melodious and must have been quite popular in their time.

Parting Note: Anand Ashram has a good original story to tell in a breezy run-time. Also, the message it propagates is universal and quite relevant even in the current times.