Sunday, January 29, 2012

Satyakaam (1969)

Many great men have exhorted the importance of following the path of truth, however arduous, in amazingly simple words (almost nonchalantly in many cases). Our holy relics, our Upanishads, and our two most significant historical texts- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata- too have averred vehemently that there is nothing greater than reveling in the knowledge and the spreading of truth. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in his 1969 feature Satyakaam, pays homage to these thoughts by means of depicting the journey of a man who never wavers from this formidable path of truth.

Satyakaam is the story of Satyapriya ‘Sath’ Acharya (Dharmendra in what’s as per his own admission the best performance of his career), a young man born in a family that’s boasts on an illustrious lineage- all great men who spent their lives in the worship of truth and banished all thoughts of giving in to worldly pleasures that might have caused them to compromise on their ideals. His early education came from his grandfather Satyasharan Acharya (Ashok Kumar in a look that was used by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in another film with the actor at around the same time- Aashirwaad), who continued to remain the ultimate source of enlightenment and inspiration to him. The story is narrated through the eyes of Satyapriya’s best friend Naren (Sanjeev Kumar) and begins with both of them coming to the end of their engineering days in the year 1947, just months prior to India gaining independence.

Satyapriya and Naren pass their final exams and await their encounter with the real world where they would have to use the wealth of knowledge they had gained in the four years of their engineering (The story is set sixty years before our times so the engineers of today might not identify with their earnestness- even I don’t). Just fresh out of college they and their colleagues embark on a fun trip to celebrate their success, but on the way their bus meets with a terrible accident in which they lose one of their classmates. This incident is not touched upon later in the film, but it seems like the director wanted to make a statement on life and its unpredictability through this misfortune that strikes the young Satyapriya and his friends. Soon after this mishap Satyapriya applies for and secures a job with a rich industrial estate as project engineer. In his first assignment he is sent to a remote Central Indian region to make a survey and appraise a huge land holding for the company. There he discovers that his bosses are in alliance with the prince of the particular riyasat and were least concerned by the actual project at hand. They instead had some ulterior motives for which they needed Satyapriya’s assistance. Also, during his assignment he meets with and strikes a companionship with Ranjanaa (Sharmila Tagore) who becomes a victim of the prince’s sexual assault on her. But despite this Satyapriya decides to marry her being fully aware that his grandfather would refuse to accept this match. But he makes a decision that goes with his ideals and his dharma. It is one chapter of his life that is given a lot of emphasis, but moving on the proceedings become rather less hurried and the story takes a lot of time leaps (though with not much time interval passing between them).

Three years subsequent to their marriage Satyapriya and Ranjanaa are living happily, though their only son (who is not Satyapriya’s own but instead a result of the Prince sexual assault) acts like an uncomfortable reminder of their past. Satyapriya keeps on taking up a lot of jobs but everywhere he finds it difficult to make peace with the corrupt ways of his colleagues and the society in general. With every such job he becomes more and more steadfast and life becomes a tough battle for him and his family. He takes to smoking and becomes quite irritable and discontent. Naren meets him more than once at various junctures of his life, and ultimately in a curious turn of fate Satyapriya gains employment as a junior engineer below him in a Government set-up. Even in his new role Satyapriya refuses to even pay heed to Naren’s slight requests for slowing down a bit and taking things easy. He even picks up a fight with his best friend over a difference of opinion in how to deal with a contract. Things in fact become worse that what they look on the surface- Satyapriya becomes so finicky about honesty and doing the right things that he even refuses to leave his office a few minutes before the official closing time of five in the evening. It is here that Naren makes a telling remark that excess of everything is bad, even the excess of ideals. Soon, in a tragic turn of fate, Satyapriya develops lung cancer and the last few minutes of the film deal with the last few days of his life.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee chooses a very complex subject and treats it in an unconventional manner. The movie is definitely a critique on our society and how we tend to ignore a lot of things while leading our lives. Through the ordeals of Satyapriya he makes a defining statement on how difficult it is for an honest man to live with his head high in today’s materialistic and insensitive set-up. But at the same time through the dissonance and irritability of Satyapriya, he makes the point that it is futile to stop appreciating the life around us by becoming a cynic and seeing the worst in each and every thing. By the end of his life, Satyapriya becomes so obsessed by his ideals that he even started ignoring the interests of his own family. In a way God decided to end his trials and tribulations by giving him the lung cancer, after having given him enough time to fall in love with life. So Satyapriya can be seen as both a loser and as a winner. In my view he was more of a loser than winner, but I am sure people will form quite diverse impressions if they decide to watch this movie.

Because of my above view, I see don’t see this movie as a perfect film. Although the narrative and story as such is unique and the intentions are definitely quite honest, I didn’t like Satyapriya’s character and was left disappointed by him- and it was his story. Of course it was how Hrishikesh Mukherjee must have intended it to be, but because of the way the story was treated, the movie failed to either inspire or educate or educate. It is lengthy and has many unnecessary sequences that don’t really add up to the central theme. Also, Satyasharan’s (Ashok Kumar) character is shown as caught between his Dharma and his traditions. He is neither here nor there- and so is the film in its entirety. The performances by the lead cast otherwise are indeed praiseworthy- Dharmendra especially more because he was Satyapriya- and he was the entire film.

Parting Note: More than a film, Satyakaam is a comment on the society in the form of a biopic of a fictional character. It is most certainly an important film and showcases the range of Hrishikesh Mukherjee as a director. But overall the film is not the classic that it promises it to be. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kudrat (1981)

There are many different views regarding the number of basic plots possible in storytelling. Some say that there seven; a few argue that there could be twenty. An argument also claims that all kind of plots center on conflict (either internal or external), and in that sense there is only one basic plot in all stories. Whatever be the case, it leaves very little room for storytellers and film-makers to experiment. Or does it? The finest film-makers have, at times, taken the most mundane of stories and have presented them in such a novel manner that they have left the audiences spellbound. They have proven that though the plots may be limited, the possibilities are endless. And this is what essentially Chetan Anand did in his 1981 feature Kudrat starring Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna, Raajkumar, and Priya Rajvansh in principal roles.

Kudrat is Chetan Anand’s intricate version of Madhumati set entirely in the serene locales of Shimla. It begins with Chandramukhi (Hema Malini) and her family returning to the place of her birth, Shimla, after twenty years. Even though the twenty years haven’t seen the twenty something Chandramukhi return to Shimla, she starts finding a lot of things about the city very familiar. Just two days into their stay, she meets Dr. Naresh Gupta (Vinod Khanna), a family friend, and they start dating all over the city. Just when things look like they couldn’t go any better, Chandramukhi runs into Mohan Kapoor, a city advocate who has the city’s richest man Choudhary Janak Singh (Rajkumar) for his guardian. Although Mohan Kapoor is a stranger to her, she feels a quaint pull towards him, as if they had been romantically involved at some point in their lives. For his part, even Mohan seems a bit perturbed when Chandramukhi is around him, despite having Choudhary Janak Singh’s daughter and his fiancée Karuna (Priya Rajvansh) with him. 

Over the next few days, Chandramukhi starts getting flashes of her past life triggered by her visiting the places she used to visit with Madho (Rajesh Khanna) in her previous birth. Not only this, she starts getting nightmares that leave her feeling utterly depressed and scared. To help her, Naresh, also a psychiatrist, decides to do a past life regression on her and through it he discovers that what Chandramukhi was claiming was absolutely the truth. She and Mohan Kapoor had been lovers in their past lives and had lived in the very city in which they were present at that point of time. He relays all this to Mohan Kapoor who refuses to believe the story. But soon, even he starts getting convinced about Chandramukhi’s claim. In fact, she makes him recall something more sinister. He and Paro (Chandramukhi in her previous birth) had been separated in their past lives because of a terrible crime. Paro had been raped and killed by an otherwise honorable man who turns out to be none other than Choudhary Janak Singh. What follows next is a riveting courtroom drama in which Mohan Kapoor accuses the most reputable man in Shimla (and also his beloved guardian) of a crime that he had committed twenty years ago. What adds more drama to the proceedings is that the man is defended by none other than his own daughter Karuna, who refuses to believe that her father could commit such a ghastly act.

Chetan Anand laces the screenplay with some brilliant sequences that are truly one of their kinds in Hindi cinema. The past life of the two actors is set in the pre-independence era when Shimla was the summer capital for the Britishers. The past-life regression is done very authentically and the way it has been shot is way ahead of its times. The entire court-room battle and the superb culmination are captivating, and in fact haunt you till much later after finishing the movie. Also, the scene of the crime and the subsequent few minutes, are shot in a style that is not usual for the Hindi cinema. The inherent drama in the script is accentuated by superbly designed situations and some wonderful dialogues. The performances by all the actors complement the brilliantly written screenplay. Hema Malini has the most complex role of all and she does well while looking absolutely gorgeous throughout the movie. Vinod Khanna and Rajesh Khanna are able, while Rajkumar is his usual flair and glory. Priya Rajvansh looks a misfit in the cast as despite the tons of make-up she looks far from the young lady she plays (But then she and Chetan Anand were romantically linked and he used to cast her in all his movies). Even Aruna Irani has a critical role which she performs well.

The entire feel of the movie is of melancholy and suspense. The setting is akin to an old English mystery drama- and rightly so for Shimla is indeed a Victorian town in many ways. What adds to the whole atmospherics is a wonderful tune by RD Burman, who is at his best in the movie. The tune which forms the song ‘Humein Tumse Pyaar Kitna’ comes more than once in the film and complements the soul of the story wonderfully well. The other memorable song in the enterprise is ‘Tune O Rangeele’ which is like a beautiful show-reel of both Shimla’s beauty and Paro and Madho’s romance. The other songs too are good, though not as fondly recalled.

Parting Note: Kudrat is an excellent suspense-mystery-reincarnation-drama movie that boasts of some remarkable sequences and some memorable songs. Although its story seems to be a homage to Madhumati, it has its own uniqueness and own charm which is a result of the brilliant screenplay and direction by Chetan Anand.

Friday, January 20, 2012

JFFS: Munnabhai 3 (Munna bana Leader)

Munna and Circuit are leading their lives jolly well- Breaking bones, breaking homes, abducting, and looting for money. They have just one rule- that they won’t harm someone who they feel is innocent. And this rule makes it very tough for powerful men in the city to get them to do some of the work they desire them to do. Apart from their more action oriented business, Munna and his aides also own a café that is popular amongst youngsters and common people of their area. It is in this café that Munna spots Sneha and falls hopelessly in love with her.
Sneha frequents the café with a friend of hers. Soon Munna stars to follow Sneha around in the city- like a teenager tracking his crush. He learns that she is a worker for a popular political party Jan Sevak Dal (JSD) and that she is in charge of campaigning and promotions for the party in Munna’s area. To woo her, Munna abandons his ‘real’ business and he and Circuit go and volunteer for the Party Sneha works for. Munna promises Sneha that her party would get the maximum votes in the area, and for ensuring the same he starts going from home to home to promoting the party and its manifesto. Munna enjoys tremendous goodwill in the area because of his warm and helpful nature. However he finds it tough to hide his real ‘business’ from Sneha as she starts to accompany him door to door. Circuit and his other cronies start to visit the homes at night to warn their residents of not revealing Munna’s true nature of work in front of Sneha the next day when she and Munna visit them.
With the help of their efforts JSD MLA wins the elections from their area, and in fact gets record number of votes. Pleased with the efforts, Sneha takes them to meet the party MLA who had expressed to her the wish thanking Munna personally. Along with the party MLA, there are many other important people in the MLA’s house, including the state party head who recognizes Munna as someone who had once refused to do some work for him. There, he asks Munna and his friends to work for the party in the central assembly elections four months away. Although not wanting to do it in the least, Munna agrees to their request on Sneha’s behest. As a part of the Central Assembly Election campaign for JSD, Munna and Circuit start a journey of travelling across cities and towns and villages in western India. Accompanied by Sneha, they visit hundreds of homes and meet thousands of people urging them to vote for JSD. But for Munna, the whole initiative takes a drastic turn when he meets SUNIL in one of the villages.
Sunil is a highly educated city fellow who had returned from US after completing his studies to start an NGO that catered to health, education, and sanitation issues in the heartlands of the country. Like the JSD party workers, he too is in the middle of an extensive travel assignment, but he is doing it to map the kind of issues that are plaguing the people in the villages so that he can direct his efforts more effectively. When he meets Munna and Sneha and learns about their campaigning, he decides to club his travel with their travel, on the pretext of having some company while he does his job.
Meanwhile Munna starts getting some instructions which don’t make moral sense to him. At the same time, pushed and apprised by Sunil, he starts seeing their tour in a whole new light altogether. He starts seeing the massive loopholes in the system, the massive negligence shown by the administration, the plights of the people, the exploitation, the disregard for law and order. After seeing all this, it becomes more and more difficult for him to ask people for votes. Sneha tries to tell him that nothing can be changed, and that such things are part and parcel of the system. Munna challenges her that it can be changed, and he would do it himself. He asks her for her support. But she refuses…
Munna returns to Mumbai and along with Circuit, and with the support of Sunil, decides to take the plunge and fight the elections as an independent candidate from his area. Sunil however tells him that this decision of his’, to fight the elections from his own area, makes no sense as people anyway love him and would vote for him and that it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. Munna then tells him that he would contest the elections from any region that Sunil chooses. Sunil chooses one of the most underdeveloped constituencies of the state, which has seen JSD rule it for the past 30 years.

Munna and Circuit relocate to the particular constituency and set-up their office there. Sunil joins them as a consultant. With the help of a corporate friend of his’ who provides them support (as a part of the CSR function of the corporate) they change the face of the entire area. Just as they start generating a lot of goodwill amongst the people, the JSD team arrives in the area with their workers (Sneha among them) and their leader.
There begins a battle of speeches- The seasoned JSD leader vs. Munna- the thug with a heart… The keenly contested battle catches the fancy of the media too, and the work that Munna and his friends do with the help of Sunil for the area starts getting showcased on TV channels all over. The little constituency becomes the center of attraction for the entire electoral campaign in the state… Meanwhile Sneha tries to meet Munna, but he refuses her this time round.

The D-day comes, and the area sees a huge turnout at the polling booths. Circuit and his men scatter all across the polling centers with the aim of preventing any frivolous act. Munna himself goes to cast his vote, and spots Sneha inside the polling booth. She manages to convey to him that she had voted for him, and not for her own party JSD. The results are declared a few days later and Munna unexpectedly loses the elections. It comes as a shock to everyone. But someone realizes that that there was another candidate with Munna’s name planted by the opposition party as an independent candidate, and hence the votes for him got divided and the incumbent player emerged the winner.
But Munna, despite losing, considers his objective achieved. The area had been completely transformed by him in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of civic amenities, health, education, and sanitation. And all it had taken him was thinking straight and thinking from the heart. Sunil tries to convince Munna about continuing in active politics, but Munna declines the offer. He moves back to the café, his people, and his area- with his love along his side.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Paheli (1977)

India lives and breathes in its villages. Unfortunately most of us city bred people don’t even appreciate this fact (till the day we take a train and realize that cities are like small traffic lights on a long expansive road). Our movies of today don’t really appreciate this fact either. I personally have always loved the rural settings in movies and books and such movies act have a great cathartic effect on me. The languid and all encompassing life of villages with limited means and limited ambitions has always had a great pull on me. The days in such settings somehow seem rather unhurried and more meaningful to me. I have always wondered whether other people also feel the same way about rural life (or do I have a strong past life connect). I have no answer and frankly I don’t care. When I saw this little gem of a movie from Rajshri- Paheli, I got so much sucked into its world that I found it very hard to get back to my world. It was really difficult to get it out of my head.

Paheli is a sweet story of a city boy visiting his grandmother in his ancestral village and a village girl who becomes his companion there. The movie has no big known names and was the launch vehicle for all its young actors including Arun Govil. Montu (Satyajeet) has just completed his school and decides to visit his grandmother in their village in his summer vacations along with some friends. There, he meets Gauri, an exuberant and full of life village girl who initially teases him a lot for his city ways and then strikes a great companionship with him. Montu’s friends find it difficult to adjust to the village life despite the love and affection thrown at them from all quarters and leave for the city after two days. Montu stays behind and falls in love with the village and its people. He and Gauri spend some great and joyous time together- exploring the vistas and everything else the village had to offer. They run around, they fight, they argue, and they learn from each other. Theirs is the sweetest age of first love, and the movie revels in their joys of discovering it without actually realizing it.

Finally the time comes for Montu to leave the village and return to the city where he has to enroll in a college. He makes a promise to both his grandmother and Gauri that he would return to the village in his next summer vacations one year later. That one year passes rather quickly and he hurries back to the village, only to realize that many things have changed in the one year that has gone by, including Gauri who has started behaving rather weirdly in his company. Montu cannot make any sense of this frustrating paheli (puzzle/riddle) that he had to contend with. He wants Gauri to be the same way as she was one year back, but cannot realize a simple truth that was staring at them from all quarters- The simple truth that she and he were grown up people now. But everything gets sorted out at the end of course.

The movie is a delightful take on adolescent love. It smells of and exudes our Indian values and culture- the values that getting somewhat diluted in the current times. It is like an experience and transported me to a different world altogether- a world that is peaceful and compassionate. But most of all it introduced me to Gauri- a character that I absolutely loved. Nameeta Chandra, the girl who plays Gauri, does a great job of it and is truly the life and soul of the movie. After watching this movie, I did quite a search on her and realized that she almost disappeared after doing this movie (she did a devotional movie Ganga Dham with Arun Govil and a bit appearance in a Masala potboiler in the late 1980s- that’s it). It is unfortunate as I found her enthralling and would have loved to see more of her. I guess I will have to make do with watching bits and pieces of Paheli every now and then. It is truly an unknown gem by Rajshri, and it’s quite strange that there are not many reactions on the movie online. Though many people have commented really fondly about this movie and Nameeta on its YouTube songs links. So I guess I have not really gone mad! 

Signing off with few of the wonderful songs of the movie (by Ravindra Jain)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Khandar (1984)

Slight periods of darkness interspersed with glorious hours of sunshine. But at the end, the darkness had to prevail…

Mrinal Sen’s 1984 feature film Khandar (ruins) is a deeply moving account of human predicament, that despite it lugubrious approach ends up as a poignant and redoubtable study of how our past and our roots always have a formidable role to play in shaping our future. The emphasis is on stillness of time and incidentally (or rather intentionally) the main character is a still photographer. It’s his art that acts like a window to the director’s mind and his vision. The story though basic alludes to a deep thought that is far visceral than what it looks on surface.

A young man Dipu (Pankaj Kapoor) takes his two friends, Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) and Anil (Annu Kapoor), along to his ancestral ruins in the heartlands of the country where once his family were the plenteous ‘zamindars’. The decrepit ruins are a photographer’s delight and thus Subhash cannot keep his alacrity in check and decides to take a panoramic view of the surrounding from the roof of their ‘haveli’ despite it being pitch dark on the first day of their arrival itself (he uses an electric torch for the same). The circular gaze of his torch falls upon the intricate wall structures on the building opposite to him until it captures a face in a window- the face of a woman…

Later he comes to know that the woman is Dipu’s cousin Jamini (Shabana Azmi) who lives all alone in the spawning derelict ruins along with her invalid mother who can’t even move an arm without someone’s intervention. Dipu tells him and Anil about her being the only members of their family who had refused to leave the ‘haveli’ even as the others around them had left for the big cities in search for a better and a more secure livelihood (triggered by a malaria epidemic that had struck the region a few years back). He also tells them that both Jamini and her ailing mother were waiting for a guy who had promised to come and take Jamini along with him as his wife. This very hope was what was keeping the old lady alive. Intrigued by it all Subhash decides to visit the mother and daughter while Dipu paid them a cursory visit. But in an unexpected turn of events, the mother (who no longer has the sense of vision) imagines Subhash to be the very guy who had promised to take her daughter away from the ruins and help her escape her vacuous and wasteful life.

What follows next is that Subhash finds himself drawn towards the extremely nubile and pragmatic Jamini, but cannot bring himself to admit it. At the same time a slight hope starts building up inside Jamini that Subhash would indeed ask her hand for marriage. At more instance than one, both of them meet and there is a tacit confluence of these thoughts. However nothing is expressed verbally. Jamini’s comportment changes drastically while talking to Subhash. The intonation in her voice and the lurch in her sentences convey a great internal struggle that is only compounded by her mother’s inexorable questions and remarks. On the other hand Subhash starts hiding his face behind his camera to eschew giving away what was going on in his mind. His fingers keep on clicking away and he starts capturing each and every aspect of the quaint ‘khandar’, while avoiding taking that one picture that would be the closest to his heart.

After three days the time comes for them to leave the ruins, Subhash cannot hold himself back and jumps out of the bull-cart just prior to their departure and runs towards Jamini’s quarters. Till the very last moment he cannot resolve his predicament, and ultimately leaves upon taking just one last photograph, that of Jamini looking at him in a hopeful manner through the door of her house of confinement. This last photograph would keep haunting Subhash for the rest of his life…

The movie is akin to a beautiful and languid prose that is suffused with thought. Through the sinuous performances by the case, especially by Shabana Azmi who is beyond wonderful in her portrayal of the lady thwarted by her own roots, the movie sublimates into something which is very rare in Hindi cinema.

Parting Note: The movie is simply a must watch. It’s unfortunate that the only print available for it online is not too great and the scenes shot in the darkness of the night are difficult to comprehend. But it is no hindrance as at a certain level it was meant to be that way- only those who know the dark can appreciate the munificence of the glorious sunshine!