Saturday, February 25, 2012

Safar (1970)

Safar is one of the famous Rajesh Khanna movies from his super-stardom phase. A musical drama that has philosophical undertones, it is one of those ‘it was good while it lasted’ kind of movies. The plot of the movie, directed by Asit Sen, is slightly reminiscent of another Rajesh Khanna classic Anand, with him playing the role of a man who remains jovial and level-headed despite being terminally ill. The major difference between Anand and this movie is that while the former focused on the idea of living your life to the fullest, this movie has romance at its forefront.
Avinash (Rajesh Khanna) is a college student who is more interested in bringing blank canvasses to life using his skill with the brush. There is a face that comes repeatedly in most of his paintings, and he soon discovers Neela (Sharmila Tagore) who shares a striking resemblance with that face. Neela is a diligent college student who aspires to become a successful surgeon. After an initial misunderstanding she treats Avinash to good health after he falls ill. They strike a delightful friendship that extends to Neela’s family comprising of her elder brother and his wife. This results in some of the most sparkling moments in the film, with a candid Avinash joyfully pulling the leg of Neela’s wannabe playwright brother. Soon this friendship translates into love, but fate has something else in store with Avinash soon realizing that he suffers from disease that cannot be cured. At the same time a rich businessman Kailash (Feroz Khanna) too falls in love with Neela, who is also the tuition teacher for his younger brother. When Avinash gets to know of this, he asks Neela to sacrifice their love and marry Kailash who promises a more secure future for her.

This entire premise is very similar to Shah Rukh Khan’s 2004 super-hit ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’. In fact it is hard to ignore the possibility that Karan Johar/ Nikhil Advani would have been inspired by Safar while writing their movie. And this is not it; the second half of the movie is structured in a way that is very reminiscent of another Shah Rukh Khan starrer from about the same period ‘Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam’, in which he had Salman Khan for company. After Neela gives in to Avinash’s plead and marries Kailash, there begins a family drama with Kailash suspecting his wife of infidelity with Avinash. He finds it very hard to accept their friendship (much like how SRK finds it tough to accept his wife’s companionship with Salman in HTHS).

In fact with such turn of events, the movie changes color dramatically and becomes more melodramatic with the earlier focus being relegated to the background. In fact the culmination of the movie is the most confused part of the movie. It ends on a philosophical note with Neela’s sacrifice coming to prominence. In fact this is one movie where the central focus shifts between three characters- from Avinash in the first half, to Kailash in the post intermission portion, and to Neela in the culmination. When I come to think of it, I find it difficult to remember any other such movie. To the credit of all the three actors playing these characters, they don’t let this aberration become too obvious through the strength of their performances.
Now for the point that I was waiting to make- the songs of this movie are simply delightful. Each and every song is a classic and is truly memorable. In fact, this movie can deserve the tag of a classic just on the strength of its musical score by Kalyanji-Anandji.

Parting with my favorite song from the movie-

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kalyug (1981)

The Shashi Kapoor-Shyam Benegal combo worked well in Junoon, which was an adaptation of a Ruskin Bond novella. Apparently wanting to take the successful collaboration forward, they decided to adapt the great Indian epic Mahabharata into a film by weaving it into a corporate modern-day scenario. This was some thirty years before Prakash Jha successfully aped the idea and applied it to a modern-day political setting.

Before I go on to talk about the film; I feel the word ‘epic’ has been coined just to describe the magnanimity of our two ancient relics- Mahabharata and Ramayana. Like most others from my generation I got introduced to both through popular tele-serials and some school text-book reading. Recently however I found time to go through some excellent re-telling of both- CR Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana, and Devdutt Pattnaik’s Jaya (an illustrated version of Mahabharata). The latter was a more enriching experience than the former as Mahabharata truly is an amazingly sinuous yet cohesive work of art. It is so wonderfully detailed and multi-dimensional that it is difficult to remember most of the things. On the other hand I know pretty much all the things about Ramayana which, comparatively, is much simpler and easier to comprehend. So post reading Jaya, I got the feeling that I had never really known Mahabharata.

So when I sat down to watch Kalyug, I did it with great anticipation and excitement. I had thing movie with me for the past 3-4 months but never really got down to watching it, for at the back of my mind I always had this thing that I would read the epic once prior to experiencing it. With Shyam Benegal at the helm I was quite certain that the film would enthrall me. But now after watching the movie, in retrospect, I feel that I did great wrong by having such high expectations from this endeavor.

Kalyug is by no means a bad film. It is definitely a notch above the regular 1980s fare. However that aside, I am quite surprised by the lack of a lot of things in the movie. Coherence, for one. Emotional appeal, for another. Good acting (most surprisingly) for another another. The movie starts off with a rather simplistic narration of the rather simplistic (as compared to the one Mahabharata had) family tree of the two families involved. It is perfectly justified, and rather thoughtful, of the makers to keep the number of protagonists limited or else it would have been difficult to do justice to all of them in a 150 min motion picture. The two families are two rich business houses of India, fighting for the same contracts and tenders. The movie wastes no time in establishing the hostilities between these two families of cousins, related by blood but separated by their love for power and ambition.

As soon as the drama started, I excitedly started to draw parallels between the characters from the great epic and the movie. It is surely captivating, for someone who knows a bit of Mahabharata, to decipher and witness the way in which Shyam Benegal has made some interesting moves. Some of the characters are given the same names as in the epic. Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor) plays Karan, a devoted friend to Duryodhan in the book, who is Dhanraj in the movie (essayed by Victor Banarjee). Karan Singh is pretty much the central character in the movie and it seems to be an adaptation of the saga from his perspective. Other characters with the same names are Subhadra, Krishna, Parikshit, amongst others. Many plot elements are cleverly harmonized with the ones from the book (something that Mani Ratnam tried in Raavan) and identifying the same is quite enjoyable for the first few minutes. Post the hour mark, however, the movie becomes quite bland and lifeless in its treatment.

My main issues with the film are-
·         The characters are not well developed. None of them are likeable and the motivations behind many of the things the various people do are quite unclear. I couldn’t understand the role Rekha played for instance. She is Supriya, the wife of Dharmraj (Eldest brother of the troika playing the Pandavas), and throughout the movie comes across as an irritable lady who finds it tough to get along with her mother-in-law and her younger devar’s wife (who is also her niece). This younger devar Bharatraj (Anant Nag interpreting Arjuna) and his Bhabhi share a very unclear relationship. Till the end there is no clarity whether their relationship is just one of mutual respect or something more (In the Mahabharata there is no Bhabhi and Draupadi is wedded to all the five brothers). Similarly the relationship between Dharmraj (Raj Babbar essaying Yudhishtir) and his wife is shown to be dysfunctional but there are no reasons given. Balraj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Bheem) is shown as a pleasure-loving guy, but plays no critical role in the narrative (except being a trigger to the accidental death of his cousin Sandeep- a mentally unstable Dushasan?). Also, there is no explanation given for the great dislike Bharatraj has for Karan Singh (The Arjun-Karan war).

·         A lot of the things from the Mahabharata are necessarily forced-fitted into the narrative, while many crucial things are not touched upon at all. So there are the incapable parents, growing senile and having no control over the actions of their kids. Similarly Arjun’s marriage to Subhadra (which wasn’t a big plot point in Mahabharata) is given great prominence by the introduction of a sappy and boring romantic track between Bharatraj and Subhadra. There is a Bhishma Pitamah too (played by AK Hangal!), but too plays no real part in the drama unlike the book where he was termed as the root-cause of the entire war. Also, in today’s context a woman bearing kids with Sadhus and priests as a mark of her devotion is too much to digest. There is also a fleeting mention of a past love affair between Supriya and Karan Singh (In the book Draupadi had prevented Karan from participating in her Swayamwar on the grounds of him not being from a royal family. Much later she had admitted to being attracted to him despite her being married to the Pandavas).

·         The central conflict in the Mahabharata had its roots in the fight for the throne. Both parties believed that they were the true heir to the throne of Hastinapur. The hostility got to the highest point post the game of dice between Yudhishtir and Shakuni (representing Kauravas), in which Pandavas lose everything, followed by the subsequent disrobing and public humiliation of Draupadi. In the movie, there is no apparent central conflict. There is a slight throwaway to the Draupadi humiliation episode when income tax officers treat Savitri with disrespect while frisking her wardrobe. However the entire war between the two families comes across as manufactured and unreal.  

·         The acting by many of the leads looks embarrassingly amateurish. A part of the discredit for this should also go to the writers who didn’t really develop any of the characters well. Anant Nag seriously hams it up in the last few portions of the film. Victor Banarjee as Dhanraj fails to evoke sympathy or ethos despite playing a bit of a loser (again contrary to the tough and overbearing Duryodhan of Mahabharata). Sushma Seth is given too much to do, and is unconvincing in many of the scenes. Supriya Pathak irritates as the young bride of Bharatraj who has nothing to do in the world except listening to a formulaic Bappi Lahiri’ish’ love song. The only actor who actually does well is Shashi Kapoor, who is convincing as the angst ridden Karan Singh. He gets the meatiest part and does a good job of it.

It is not that there is nothing to appreciate in the movie. The idea of retelling Mahabharata in the corporate world itself deserves kudos. Some of the references to the epic are done really well. For instance the death of Karan while he is changing the wheel of his car is striking. Similarly at the end how Parikshit (a kid) emerges as the only heir to the entire set-up highlights the futility of the war between the cousins. Apart from these few well thought of references, the entire corporate set-up is done realistically. The fight for a Government contract, the intricacies of law, the dissatisfied union, the import of raw materials etc. is shown in an authentic manner (though in a certain sense it reminds of the Trishul corporate conflict). The first hour is quite fast paced and engaging.

Parting Note: All said and done, Kalyug is in no ways a perfect modern-day interpretation of the Mahabharata. It suffers from the similar flaws as Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti (a far more entertaining film). However, for the people who are aware of the epic saga, this movie is a good watch if only for the effort it makes. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kanoon (1960)

Capital Punishment has a marked prominence in the annals of all recorded history. There has been no civilization where this form of punishment has not been practiced. Be it the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Chinese- all had strict stipulations on human execution as a part of their code of law. Even major religions like Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism have permitted capital punishment for certain offenses. But despite all this, there has always been a serious debate on whether human execution is justified. It has always been argued whether justice is always just; most certainly there have been many recorded instances where apparently innocent have been executed. BR Chopra’s 1960 movie Kanoon essentially debates and discusses this very pertinent issue of whether a human has got the right to take the life of another human, even if it is a means of enforcing punishment. Starring Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, and Nanda in principal roles along with some splendid lesser known actors essaying crucial roles, Kanoon is a resounding statement on the fallacies of human court of justice and on the inadequacies of the written law.

The movie starts off with a cold blooded murder like many of the other thrillers of the time. However this regularity is just a smokescreen for this apparently routine murder hides an uncomfortable truth behind it and exposes the ineffectual nature of our law. The case is adjudged by Justice Badri Prasad (Ashok Kumar) who is set thinking by the completely unexpected things that it throws up. This sets the ball rolling for a gripping tale that interweaves a poignant family drama into a courtroom battle. Another cold blooded murder takes place; that of a wealthy and manipulative city moneylender. The setting of the murder witnesses an unusual turn of events. Advocate Kailash Khanna (Rajendra Kumar) visits the moneylender to obtain some crucial papers that could put his girlfriend Meena’s (Nanda) family into great financial trouble. His girlfriend is the daughter of none other than Justice Badri Prasad, making the renowned judge his to be father-in-law. While at the moneylender’s place, Kailash spots Badri Prasad from a window, making his way towards the house. To avoid meeting his father-in-law and spilling the beans on his brother-in-law’s carelessness, he goes and hides in the other room. What happens next truly shakes the daylights out of him. Badri Prasad takes out a knife, rams it into the moneylender’s chest, and leaves the place smoothly. Completely shaken and not knowing what to do next, Kailash too runs away from the scene of the murder. Once the place is deserted save for the corpse of the moneylender lying on the floor, an aged thief enters the house with the intention of pilferage. However in the dark of the night he steps onto the corpse, leaves his fingerprints on the knife, and while escaping from the window gets caught by two policemen patrolling the area. Expectedly the poor thief gets embroiled in the case and gets implicated for the murder, with all the evidences pointing towards him. Not wanting to give his father-in-law away, Kailash decides to fight the case for the falsely accused thief and embarks on a battle to save him, while making all the efforts to spur the conscience of his father-in-law. What follows next is a riveting courtroom drama and a completely unexpected climax that throws up a host of questions, while answering a few too along the way.

Kanoon is completely a director’s film. It is an explosive subject and each and every scene shows the kind of efforts that would have gone in writing it. The dialogues are emphatic, the silences even more so. Most of the movies have one or two memorable scenes, but this one boasts of a series of such spectacular scenes that create a tremendous impact- right from the first scene, to the culmination of the drama. If one has to choose the most dramatic scenes, surprisingly a lot of them also come outside the court of law- behind the scenes of all the true drama. My vote would go to the interactions between the father and son in law post the murder, when Badri Prasad finds Kailash peeping into his private diary. Also the dialogue between the accused thief and his defendant Kailash is remarkably handled. There is also a superbly done slight side track when Meena starts suspecting Kailash of the murder, having absolutely just reasons for doing so. This delicate interplay of emotions between the protagonists is a delight to watch. The highpoint, though, as expected is the jaw-dropping climax, complete with the tense buildup and replete with an efficient disrobing of facts post the suspense is revealed.

The actors do more than a fine job, and show great dexterity despite the help they receive from the remarkable written material. I haven’t seen much of Rajendra Kumar, but still can safely assume that this would be one of his best performances (most of the others I believe are in the sappy romantic space where he excelled and thus got knighted as the Jubilee Kumar). Ashok Kumar is truly amazing in his highly sinuous role. His effortless ease is hard to miss. Meena is slightly more than a typical Hindi movie heroine and gets good scope to leave a mark. There are no songs in the narrative, though it does boast of a finely choreographed ballet dance performance that blends seamlessly with the story.

Parting Note: Kanoon is simply a MUST WATCH for the people who love their court-room dramas, and also for those who like watching thrillers (though this is not a thriller in the conventional sense). What elevates it from being just an excellent film is its thought, and its purpose which it conveys in the most effective manner possible- through the route of a highly entertaining story. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Teesri Kasam (1966)

Life is showbiz can be a big challenge, especially for ladies for the lines between morality and professionalism and ambition can be pretty thin ones. We have had many movies that have dealt with this subject in recent times- Fashion and The Dirty Picture being the ones that immediately come to mind. In fact there was a time when women working in such vocations were not seen in a good light. The society never encouraged the women to be a part of such set-ups and the women who did end up working in the entertainment world were deemed social outcasts. Also, before cinema and fashion became as big as they are today, something else ruled the heartlands of our country- the good old village nautanki- a celebration of life and all its covert pleasures. Basu Bhattacharya’s first Hindi film, Teesri Kasam, starring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman is set in such an era. With a rustic backdrop, this film is a heartwarming tale of love between a nautanki star and a bullock-cart driver (Gaadiwaan).

Hiraman (Raj Kapoor in a typical role of a simpleton) is a na├»ve village bumpkin who is a Gaadiwaan by profession. A god-fearing and righteous fellow, he gets into some unfortunate situations and which lead him to make two promises to himself- one that he would never transport black-market goods on his cart, and two that he would never transport long wooden on it either. These two small incidents at the beginning of the story set the character of Hiraman firmly in place. Soon, he gets the task of making a lady reach a distant village mela on his bullock cart for which he is promised a lucrative payment. Thus, he and the lady embark on a thirty hour long journey through the wilderness to reach their destination. The lady is an ethereal beauty and Hiraman gets struck by her surreal charm. He discovers that her name is Hirabai-making her his namesake (meeta) in a way. Hirabai too gets attracted to Hiraman’s simplicity and goodness. They spend the entire time talking to each other, with Hiraman telling her stories and singing village songs to her. They don’t even realize when the thirty hours reach an end and they reach the mela.

Hiraman soon discovers that Hirabai is a very famous nautanki star and the biggest draw at the village mela. He decides to stay in that village and watch her nautanki after getting special passes for the same from her. So every night he and his friends start visiting the nautanki where they see Hirabai driving the crowds crazy by the grace and finesse of her dancing and singing. But a lot of the things that Hiraman sees in these excursions make him very uncomfortable. By the day he and Hirabai meet and spend a lot of time together in the process drawing a lot closer to one another than they initially imagined. In Hiraman, Hirabai finds a true friend who loves and respects her for what she is in reality, and not for her fame and beauty. She finds it difficult to keep the fact hidden from him that her vocation is not entirely honorable. Similarly Hiraman gets more and more sucked into the world of his meeta, refusing to realize that it would lead him to nothing else but dejection and him making a third promise to himself.

The story is uncomplicated and the emphasis is entirely on the unconventional bond between two people whose worlds are completely diverse. Their interactions are the highlight of the story apart from some truly melodious songs composed by Shankar Jaikisan. The performances by both the leads are terrific- especially from Waheeda Rehman who lives her character with great empathy and is a complete natural. This is one of the early films of her career, and it is safe to say that she was one of the most beautiful actresses of her time. On the contrary this is one of the later films for Raj Kapoor, and he looks quite elder to his co-star (but this age gap is justified in the story). As far as his act is concerned, he is a complete natural as the shy simpleton who takes an idealistic view of the world. The supporting cast is efficient (though I could identify only a few of the actors). Iftekhar plays a Zamindar who is a frequent visitor to Hirabai’s show and yearns for her affection. Asit Sen and Jhonny Walker too have brief appearances.

The film is presented as an almost musical with the songs hogging a great portion of the runtime. And it takes nothing away from the likeability of the movie as the songs are simply superb which some great lyrics that do a great job of saying what is going on inside the hearts of Hiraman and Hirabai. Also, the entire nautanki bit (including the behind the scene action) is handled in an authentic manner with some artistic cinematography and shot-taking.

Parting Note: Teesri Kasam is an endearing tale of love between two completely different people, with a completely rustic background which in itself is pretty alluring. Its charm lies in its rootedness and honest intentions.

P.S.: Basu Chatterjee is credited as one of the assistant directors on the project. It is safe to say that the master film-maker, who went on to make some great films himself, got some solid grounding in the art under his meeta (Basu Bhattacharya).