Friday, September 30, 2011

Kitaab (1977)

As a kid do you remember a time when you felt like the whole world was against you, that there was no one who actually cared how you felt, that all that the world wanted from you was to read and write, and behave properly? Do you recall yourself lying down in your bed, face against the pillow, with uncontrollable tears streaming down your face? Do you recall a time when you wanted nothing more, but to escape to a world where there were no teachers and no rules; a time when you wanted nothing more but the very peace of mind the world was conspiring to keep away from you? I do, and now that I sit back and reflect on those times, it all seems too childish. Childish… now I come to think of it, it’s the word which is one of the most abused and most incorrectly used one in the English dictionary.

As adults or as grown-ups, people feel that their childhood was the golden period of their lives. More often than not you would find people reminiscing and thinking about all the fun they used to have in school, and all the fun that they could have-but didn’t have. All this is fine, but ask a kid whether he feels that he is happy with the world around him, and the way his life is going on- more often or not you would not get an answer in the affirmative. A child’s world is a really complex one, where each problem is like a stone thrown from the top of a hill. To the child at the bottom of the hill, it is a stone that is moving down with great thrust, threatening to hurt him and damage his life. On the other hand, to the adults at the top, the stone is nothing but a casual flick of the wrist- something innocuous, and something that does not deserve much attention. Adults really will never understand the plights of their kids, or rather will refuse to understand them, and rightly so- for they know that these silly issues would pass sooner than later, and the kid will realize his folly at giving it too much undue importance. But what they don’t realize is that it is this very time when a child is most vulnerable, and any casual handling of the winds that- as per him- threaten to storm his life, may lead to deep effects on his psyche that may not wear off even when he grows up.

Gulzar’s ‘Kitaab’ is an exceptional reconstruction of a child’s mind. It is a movie that is so thoughtful and so precise, that it seems like Gulzar had put himself in a child’s mind to construct this story (or rather he might have taken some autobiographical references). It is story of a boy grappling with the world around him, and struggling to make sense of the things that happen and don’t happen around him, in a manner that seems far off from what he thinks is logical. Babla (Master Raju in an unusual lead role for a Hindi movie) lives in Delhi with his elder sister (Vidya Sinha) and her husband (Uttam Kumar). He has been sent to the city that is far away from his hometown, by his mother, with the aim of giving him better education and a better environment to live in and blossom. A twelve year old righteous kid, Babla, who likes reading and writing more than the subjects he is asked to tackle in his school, is confused by the world around him. He fails to absorb the fact that the world expects children to get educated so that they can lead a respected life once they grow up and face the ‘real world’. To him the street-side ‘madari’ kid seems to be in a better position for he is not made to attend school. To add to his confusion, he cannot understand why his mother has sent him away from her, and why his sister does not seem to have enough time for him. With the course of time he develops a stronger bond with his sister’s husband who seems to care for him a lot more than even his sister. On the schooling front, he is frustrated by the constant stream of letters that the school keeps sending to his home, asking his guardians to reprimand him for the naughty deeds he never commits, but always gets blamed for by the teachers. His only respite from the worldly troubles is his best friend ‘Paplu’ with whom he enjoys the simple pleasures of life.

But then all the things things bottle up inside his head and he runs away from his home and city, aiming to go back to his mother and his village, away from all the troubles and all the people who did not seem to understand how he felt. Kitaab is the story of his journey, and how he evolves and grows up within a span of two days. Gulzar presents the story in an innovative back and forth manner; setting it in the present and going back through flashbacks triggered by the things Babla observes during his journey. As with every Gulzar movie, there are some delightful songs (though not very well known), but very relevant to everything that the master was trying to say through this film. To talk about performances, Master Raju brings alive Babla on screen, and it won’t be an understatement to say that his performance is one of the best ones ever in Hindi cinema. The rest of the cast is efficient; Uttam Kumar deserves special mention for pitching in with a heartwarming and earnest act as Babla’s guardian, and the kid who plays Babla’s best friend Paplu too does a great job (so does everyone actually).

I can go on rambling about this movie, but instead of I will conclude with why everyone must watch this film-
·         You would have never such a thoughtful and sensitive tale on child psychology
·         This is Gulzar’s best work by far (There are a few movies of his I am yet to see- but it would be tough to surpass this gem)
·         It will definitely lead you to remember some of the times spent in school
·         It will help you emerge (hopefully) as somewhat better human beings by the time the movie end- better parents (present and prospective) for sure

·       It is one of the best movies to have come out of Hindi cinema- a true classic, and sadly a very lesser known one…

PS: If you thought ‘Udaan’ was good (which it was admittedly), just watch this one!!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sadgati (The Deliverance): A Short film by Satyajit Ray

‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance), is a short movie (45 min) directed by Satyajit Ray (the one of his two works in Hindi, the other being the 1977 feature ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’). It was made for Doordarshan and was based on a story of the same name by Munshi Premchand. It starred Om Puri, Smita Patil, and Mohan Agashe in principal roles.

Sadgati is a ironical take on the caste system that was prevalent in the Hindu society till a few decades ago (I say ‘was’ because even though it still has its imprints over our society, but most of the emotions that are associated with it are somewhat suppressed by the people these days in lieu of the stricter political, social, and regulatory environment). It is a very sad story that will depress you, haunt you, and make you think. Although I generally don’t find such themes appealing, Sadgati is a must watch for everyone, for we deserve to know what used to happen in our country, and what all things are a part of the culture and tradition we talk about so fondly whenever we intend to satiate our ‘Indian’ egos and fell good about ourselves.

The history books we read in schools are content to tell us that yes, there was a differentiation on the basis of caste (birth and color), and our society was divided into four ‘varnas’- Brahmins (the most superior), ‘Kshatriyas’ (Warriors and Kings), ‘Vaishyas’ (Traders), and ‘Shudras’ (The working class- the sweepers, the weavers etc.). And below these four were the untouchables, which did not even deserve to be put in a bracket owing to their genesis from a defiled source (They did not owe their birth to ‘Brahma’ who created the four varnas). But what the history books don’t really talk about is the dynamics in the society, and how things really used to function.

Sadgati in that sense is also an informational watch, through the medium of storytelling. Dukhiya (Om Puri) plays a poor and helpless ‘Chamar’ (an occupational sub-caste), and Smita Patil plays his wife. They intend to get their young daughter married (who doesn’t look a day over twelve, but child marriage is not the thing this movie talks about). For the purpose, Dukhiya goes to the house of the village ‘Pandit’ (Maharaj is how he is addressed by the villagers), and requests the Pandit to visit his house for the ‘Sagayi’ ceremony. The Pandit asks Dukhiya to do some manual labor and domestic chores for him, while he finishes his important work (read eating, sleeping, and resting). Dukhiya, not wanting to offend him, agrees to the work despite not feeling well, and despite have not eaten anything since morning. He keeps on working for hours, and the Pandit and his wife don’t even ask him for food. When, completely exhausted, Dukhiya lies down for rest; the Pandit reprimands him and asks him to show more mettle. Forced to work out of his capacity, and without any food in the dry heat, Dukhiya suffers a stroke and dies. What follows next and how the Pandit escapes the situation is what the movie is all about.

The movie is a social commentary, but never attempts to get into actual commentary. Points are made through the gestures and actions of the characters. Notice the way the Pandit applies his ‘Tika’ (holy vermilion) on his forehead at the beginning of the movie (it is symbolic of the authority he has, and the sense of power that he feels). Then watch the way Dukhiya greets the Pandit when he first sees him (the accepted Hindu prostration that a Shudra had to undertake in front of a Brahmin), and how the Pandit responds to his request. There are many such small things that are used to bring out a lot of grim realities of the system that our forefathers blessed us with. The last scene of the movie is soul-stirring, and will leave you asking a lot of questions about God, religion, and things like that (I won’t share the answers that my conscience gave me, for I don’t want to influence anyone’s thought process).

The performances from Om Puri and Mohan Agashe are just superb. This being a completely performance based movie, the onus lied on these artists to do justice to the powerful story, and they were completely up to the mark. Smita Patil has a small role, but she too proves her prowess- watch her when she discovers that her husband is not feeling well, watch her eyes- the compassion, the helplessness, the tenderness- all rolled into one small empathetic look she gives her husband.

Parting Note: This is not a patriotic movie, but still is a MUST watch for every Indian. I haven’t seen much of Satyajit Ray’s work, but this would surely rank as amongst his best. This following is the you tube link for its first part- The rest of the four parts can be found on the same page.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Humraaz (1967)

A BR Chopra movie from the late 1960s, ‘Humraaz’ starred Sunil Dutt, Rajkumar, and Vimi (an actress I did not know at all before watching this film) in principal roles. Before I go on with my mumblings about the movie, I would like to mention two things about it that I found to be quite strange.

First. I have never seen a more disjointed movie. Essentially a murder mystery, the real action starts very late into its runtime. The first half of this lengthy enterprise is a slow romantic drama that takes place in the serene locations of Darjeeling.

Second. The first half an hour of the movie has three songs almost back to back. Now, there have been many movies that have used songs quite generously in their narratives, but I for one don’t recall seeing any other movie that has three songs with almost no spacing between them. And this one was supposed to be a murder mystery. However, it must be said that all the three songs are memorable ones.

“Neele Gagan ke Tale…dharti ka pyaar pale…”
“Naa Muh Chupa ke jiyo… aur naa sar jhuka ke jiyo…”
“Tum agar saath dene ka waada karo… “

But despite these two obvious shortcomings, Humraaz is a pretty good watch overall… Captain Rajesh (Rajkumar) and Meena (Vini) are in love and marry each other in a secret ceremony, without taking the approval of Meena’s father. The very night of their marriage brings bad news and Captain Rajesh has to leave for the front to fight the war. Subsequently, Meena receives News that her husband had lost his life while fighting in the war. Completely devastated, Meena, who by that time had discovered that she was pregnant, is forced to confide in her father. In a real predicament and fearing a loss of face in the society, Meera’s father decides to hide the whole affair. A few months later, he also tells her daughter that she had given birth to a stillborn child.

Some time soon, Kumar (Sunil Dutt) and his troupe- famous theatre performers from Mumbai, visit Darjeeling. Predictably, Kumar falls in love with Meena, starts to woo her, and finally manages to convince her of his love. They get married, much to the glee of Meena’s father, and then the story shifts to Mumbai. There, Meena starts accompanying Kumar to all his theatre performances, and ends up becoming a guiding strength in his life. Three years of marital bliss pass, and Meena receives the News that her father is terminally ill. She visits him and he makes a shocking admission that, three years back, she had not given birth to a stillborn child, and that he had lied to her. The child, her daughter, was with an orphanage in Mumbai. Wasting no time, Meena visits the orphanage and meets her daughter Sarika.

She starts frequenting the orphanage, and even takes Sarika home to make her meet Kumar. Kumar really takes to Sarika’s innocence and vivaciousness, but refuses to adopt her citing the problems that may arise in the future when they have their own kids.

A twist in the tale is executed when Meena runs into Captain Mahindra, and old confidante of Captain Rajesh, her first husband. Subsequent to her meeting with him, Meena stops accompanying Kumar to his performances and starts to make some clandestine visits in the city. Here things pick up pace and a series of quick happenings culminate in Meena being found murdered at her home, in circumstances which throw the needle of suspicion towards none other than Kumar. What happens next is the crux of the movie and is what makes it worth a watch.

The story, it can be said, is formulaic till the murder happens, after which things become really interesting and engaging. The last one hour or so has a frantic pace and keeps the viewer glued to the proceedings. The climax and the revelation of the culprit is not something on which most viewers would be able to make an accurate conjecture. All loose ends are tied-up pretty nicely and no questions are left unanswered.

BR Chopra was known for making musical suspense thrillers, and Humraaz is considered to be one of his better works. What makes this movie work apart from its last one hour is its music, and the performances by the cast, especially by Sunil Dutt who is fantastic in his portrayal of a suspect trying to prove his innocence. Flashes of his genius can be seen in the scenes of his on stage performances, especially towards the part when he starts to suspect his wife of some misdoing. His subsequent on-stage performance of Othello is stellar.

Rajkumar is a true scene-stealer and makes his presence felt. The actress Vini plays the damsel in distress pretty well, though in certain sequences, she appears a bit wooden. Balraj Sahni is featured in an extended cameo, as the investigating officer, and needless to say, he is just superb. Rest of the cast, including Mumtaz, provides able support.

Parting Note: ‘Humraaz’ is a pretty good suspense thriller with good music, suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon viewing. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Junoon (1978), A Flight of Pigeons (Ruskin Bond)

Unlike the west, Indian cinema has seen very few books being adapted into movies. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’ is one of those rare features that sources its material from a book; Ruskin Bond’s novella ‘A Flight of  Pigeons’ being the subject of attention in its case. The book was written by Bond in the early 1970s, and is the story of the trials and tribulations faced by an English family during the Indian mutiny of 1857, in a small Indian town-Shahjahanpur. It is a true account told from the perspective of Ruth, the young daughter of an English officer, who witnesses the brutal killing of her father at the hands of the communal mob that breaks out during the mutiny. How she, her mother, and the rest of her family including her granny and a cousin manage to keep themselves alive over the course of the next one year, is what the book talks about. But more than being a story of survival and an account of human helplessness, Bond’s book is a showcase of how human compassion and empathy has no communal boundaries, and how true love can keep the worst in a man at bay.

It is a powerful written material that Shyam Benegal chooses to bring alive on celluloid.  However what he puts across in his film is an entirely different perspective that follows a texture that is far from what the book adopts. While the book has its focus on the humane relationships between people from two communities at war, the movie treats the backdrop of the 1857 mutiny as an opportunity to make some political points (including some slightly jingoistic ones) and centers the plot around the obsessive love (‘Junoon’) that Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor as a dashing Pathan) had for Ruth (Nafisa Ali in her debut role). The movie is also an ‘Indian’ version in a way that the mutiny is shown in a highly positive light (something that was not done in the book written by the Anglo Indian Bond), and the atrocities that the British Raj committed on the helpless Indians are brought out emphatically. Also, while the book condemned the violence committed on Ruth’s family and their ilk, the movie somewhat justifies the virulent means adopted by the rebels lead by Sarfaraz Khan (Naseeruddin Shah is a role that seems to be written for him).

The movie takes off with a starting credit ‘qawalli’, featuring a vagabond fakir and introducing the protagonist Javed Khan on horseback. This qawalli is a really stretched one and tests the patience of the viewer, and in my opinion should have been done away with or compressed generously (I can imagine some people in the audience contemplating leaving the auditorium when the movie would have been playing in theatres). However, like in the book, the actual story starts off with the killing of Ruth’s father in a church, and her and her family’s subsequent surreptitious refuge in Lala Ramjimal’s (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) house. Soon their nervous and unsafe stay at Lala’s home ends when Javed Khan (one of the rebels who were fighting the ‘firangis’) discovers them and takes them to his place where his wife (Shabhana Azmi) welcomes them reluctantly owing to her fears about the supposedly illicit and open ways of the English women. Her fears prove somewhat right when Javed Khan admits being besotted by Ruth since a long time and expresses his wish to marry her and make her his second begum. This proposal by him starts a slight battle of egos and wits between him and Ruth’s mother (Mariam).

The movie from here on becomes a tale of Javed Khan’s unrelenting pursuit of Ruth’s love. Being a true Pathan he refrains from having her by force, and rather shows great dignity and poise when his people accuse him of putting his obsession over everything else. A great deal of spark is added to the proceedings by Javed’s wife Firdaus (played by Shabhana Azmi). She is quite expressive of her dislike for Ruth and her mother, and revolts quite vociferously in front of her husband, who determinedly ignores her constant complaints. Parallel to this, Sarfaraz Khan (the leader of the rebels and Javed Khan’s brother in law) is shown marshalling his troops against the British in Delhi, and subsequently in Kanpur.

Meanwhile Ruth’s mother and Javed Khan agree upon a condition that she would give him her daughter’s hand in marriage if the British lose the battle (otherwise Javed would never even think about her again). Javed Khan reluctantly accepts this agreement on the insistence of his ‘Chachi’, who incidently had grown very fond of Mariam and Ruth, and at whose place they both were residing for a while. So the fortunes of Javed’s love get attached to the sepoy mutiny that was burning in many of the country, and which was being brutally suppressed by the British troops at most places.

A tale of fierce love that remains unrequited in an extremely volatile political situation, Junoon is more than an account of India’s first war for independence. It is a complex film, which has more meaning than what it conveys overtly through its narrative. Shyam Benegal has left it upon the viewers to form their own interpretations and opinions. One question that arises when you finish watching this movie is whether Javed Khan was justified in putting his love over all other rational and irrational things in the world. Frankly, there is no answer, to this- but this tale suggests that love may be a human failing, but it is also the most powerful emotion in the world. The last scene of the film, when Javed returns to the village while risking his life, to catch a last glimpse of Ruth before escaping with his family to safety, is one of the most powerful ones of the movie. While Mariam refuses Javed to meet Ruth even one last time, Ruth by herself disobeys her mother and lets the Pathan have a final gaze at herself, till he turns around and trots away on his horse. This gesture by Ruth is a silent acceptance of her love and affection for Javed. So while Javed loses Ruth, he does manage to win her love and devotion, and that too quite handsomely for it is mentioned that Ruth decided to remain unmarried for the rest of her life.

To do his bidding, Shyam Benegal chooses a splendid star-cast. While Shashi Kapoor (in his first film as producer) is phenomenal in the central role, Jennifer Kendel (Shashi Kapoor’s wife) who plays Ruth’s mother is heartwarming in her portrayal of a strong woman faced with a very difficult situation. Shabhana Azmi is energetic and excels in an extended cameo, while Naseeruddin Shah is his usual brilliant self in a powerful role of a leader of the rebels. Nafisa Ali, in a central role in her very first film, is raw and somewhat amateurish (her discomfort comes across more glaringly in company of seasoned actors as the rest of the cast). Deepti Naval, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and Sushma Seth pitch in with solid supporting acts.

Shyam Benegal paints the movie on a very realistic canvas. The 19th century Indian town is recreated authentically, and the other elements of a good historical like the costumes, dialects, and vocabulary seem all in place. The music of the film is classical Hindustani, and may appeal to the connoisseurs of that kind of music.

Apart from giving a different tenure to the story, what Benegal does differently from Bond’s book is that he gives a lot of emphasis on the metaphorical title that Bond chose for his book (The flight of the pigeons). So while at one level Javed Khan is shown to be quite fond of his pigeons, on the other Sarfaraz Khan in anguish equates Ruth and her family to worthless Pigeons that had captured Javed Khan’s thought process. At another level, the film culminates on the note when all the local people are forced to flee from the town to save themselves from the fast approaching British troops.

Parting Note: For people who are interested in History, and do not mind a leisurely pace to the proceedings, Junoon is a must watch. And for anyone who is interested in reading, ‘the flight of the Pigeons’ is a must read (it’s a short novella and won’t take much time).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anamika (1973)

After watching this Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri starrer from the early 70s, I was really surprised why this movie is not talked about more often. It is a light-hearted suspense drama, with some crackling romantic moments between the lead pair and some wonderful songs. Now this may sound like one of those movies that attempt a mishmash of all genres in the garb of producing an entertaining product, but this one has a core strong story too that holds everything together.  And if I may add, it is one of the most entertaining movies I have seen from the 1970s.

Devendra (Sanjeev Kumar in a role far off from what he was more renowned for) plays a famous writer, who incidentally is a misogynist, and an unabashed one at that. He lives with his uncle (AK Hangal), his niece, and a secretary Hanuman (Asrani in a typical comic role). One night, while they all are returning from a press conference, they spot a woman (Jaya Bhaduri) being thrown off from a car on a deserted road near their home. They rush forward to help, and discover that the woman had gone unconscious. On the insistence of his Uncle, Devendra takes her to their place. The next morning, when the woman gains consciousness, she starts behaving oddly and to everyone’s utter surprise, claims to be Devendra’s wife. The family doctor is called for and he tells them that the woman has sustained some internal injuries and needs to be taken care of for fast recovery. Against his will, and again on his Uncle’s insistence, Devendra agrees to let her stay at their home, on the condition that he would not play-act to be her husband. But things begin to change when he starts falling in love with the simplicity, charm, and devotedness of this woman (who they start referring to as Anamika). What happens next and how Devendra gets embroiled in a potentially dangerous turn of events that threaten to play with life and his composure, is what the movie is all about.

The movie has many elements that are associated with most commercial movies of that time. It has a clich├ęd comic track featuring Asrani, but the guy makes it work by his sheer capacity to embrace buffoonery. It has a seduction number (which is far from seduction and is actually a very cute romantic song), a Helen dance number (a signatory RD Burman offering), an evil villain lusting after the lead heroine, and a quintessential AK Hangal performance. The movie even gives Sanjeev Kumar the opportunity to do some action and beat up some goons (the only time the man looks awkward on screen). But despite all this, it is a highly entertaining enterprise that is lent solidarity by the sincerity and calm presence of its lead actors. They are aided in their endeavor by some fine dialogues and some crisp writing, not to mention the tight pace maintained by the director (Raghunath Jalani) over the sequence of events. The one thing he could have changed (or rather done away completely with), are the last five minutes of the film. But despite that ‘Anamika’ has a runtime of just over 120 minutes.

This movie is an example of how two fine actors can take a good story to a different level altogether. The brilliance of Sanjeev Kumar gets reflected in many scenes, which he handles with the dexterity and command that very few actors of time could have managed without appearing theatrical. The sequences when he falls in love with Anamika are a sheer delight to watch. Jaya Bhaduri gets a meaty role and does full justice to it. Again very few actresses from that time could have done what she has done in this movie convincingly (in fact no one in my opinion). The movie is embellished with some beautiful music by RD Burman, which is given full justice by making the songs a seamless part of the narrative and not mere add-ons (except the Helen number, and understandably so). The songs “Bahon mein Chale aao’ and ‘Meri Bheegi Bheegi si’ deserve special mention.

Parting Note: The movie is a highly enjoyable watch, and I guess can be categorized as ‘intelligent-popcorn cinema’ (if people don’t find it an ‘Oxymoron’ish phrasing).  

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sikkim (1971): A Documentary by Satyajit Ray

“What it lacks in size, is more than made up by its Himalayan Grandeur”

Satyajit Ray is perhaps the most acclaimed and celebrated Indian film-maker worldwide. I personally have not seen any of his works, for almost all of it is in Bengali (except the 1977 ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ in Hindi, which I am hoping to catch soon). This is a 1971 documentary made by him on Sikkim, presently the second smallest and the least populous state in India. However, at the time this was shot, Sikkim was a sovereign land with its own king and just a fiduciary support from India as regards to its diplomatic ties and foreign affairs. This documentary was commissioned by the ‘Chogyal’ (King of Sikkim) himself in an effort to introduce the diversity and culture of this quaint Himalayan land where rests the third highest peak in the world, Mount ‘Kangchenjunga’.

This documentary was banned from screening and its print was lost for long (Wikipedia). It’s only recently that it has been recovered and unbanned. Satyajit Ray shot this film as an ode to this serene land. He also handled the responsibility of writing and giving a very crisp and precise narration to the footage. The pace of the narrative is very languid and suggests that it was shot very tastefully and meticulously by the great man.  The film touches upon almost all aspects of Sikkim- from its history, the diversity of its people and culture, its economy, the Buddhist monasteries and their architecture, to even its rich flora and fauna. The show reel ends with a detailed look at the annual festival that is celebrated in Sikkim as a marking the beginning of the New Year.

Though the documentary was shot four decades ago, it is still a highly informative watch that is sure to widen our understanding of one of the most beautiful and quiet parts of our country.