Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972)

Imagine a scene:

A father and his seven year old son watching an IPL match together. In a commercial break a new Havells advert featuring a diminished and dilapidated old man and his countless fans (literal) captures the attention of the kid. He ignores it the first few times, but finally cannot resist asking his father the question.

“Papa, who is this old looking man, and why are they showing this ad again and again?”

The father looks at his innocent son, wondering what to tell him.

“Beta, he was a very popular film star once.”
“Papa, then what happened to him? Why is he not seen in films anymore?”

At that very moment the strategic timeout ends and the match resumes. The kid forgets the question he had asked his father, and once again gets lost in the glitz and glamour of the festival that celebrates his favorite sport, bat-ball. The old man and his fans are forgotten too, and the next time the ad comes, it is given hardly any attention. Meanwhile the father gives a wry smile when he sees print version of the same ad campaign in the newspaper he reads.

The Rajesh Khanna phenomenon is like folklore for the kids of my generation and the subsequent ones. Every now and then, when the topic of cinema and stardom was touched upon during the many family viewings of popular classics on television (mostly Amitabh Bachchan ones-Sholay, Amar Akbar Anthony, Deewar etc.), the name Rajesh Khanna was mentioned and dwelt upon for a few moments, and then life began as usual. The name got relegated to the back of a busy memory storage device, where it lies dust-ridden and ignored.

Ask a film aficionado from the 70s generation or about that time, and chances are that you will get to hear many crazy stories about the star’s sky-high popularity in the early 70s. Some will claim most emphatically that such a phenomenon was never seen again, and that it’s unlikely that it would be repeated anytime soon. His rapid rise to fame and the cruel fall to become an almost B-grade star is a stuff of filmy legends. Even after his fall from grace, he continued to do a lot of films, and even managed some intermittent hits, but never again that time returned when he was the Midas, and he was the gold.

Now when someone watches his films, it is hard to keep it separate from his real life story and the rise and troughs of his career. Almost all his films from the late 1960s to about 1973 (the year when he did a film called Namak Haram with the rising superstar at that time- Amitabh Bachchan), have him at his confident best (or it seems). Many of his later films too have great merit, but he as a performer doesn’t seem as assured and as much in command as he does in his early films. In fact Mere Jeevan Saathi, a 1972 film, is one which gives the impression of being designed to suit his larger than life image. It certainly revels in paying homage to all the things for which he was loved and adored. It is the kind of film which is unrestrained in singing eulogies to a persona that is bigger than anything else in the movie. After one watching this film, one can easily imagine the context and the phase in which it was made. And anyone who is interested in making sense of the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon must experience this one.

The superstar plays a Casanova, an artist, a singer. He gets to strut around in garish and loud clothes (in vogue at that time), gets to flirt with girls ready to eat out of his hands (and what not!), and gets to sing songs to an audience of admirers and fans. All this, and more, happens in the first half of the movie when he is chased by a rich spoilt princess (Helen), and he chases and demure and comely young lady doctor (Tanuja) and falls madly in love with her. In the second half things change color and Rajesh Khanna gets to play the other side of his persona that was quite famous at that time- the romantic hero stuck fighting through tragic circumstances. He meets with an accident and lands up in the palace of the very princess who he had ignored and rejected. At what more, he loses his eyesight and becomes a prisoner of his ardent admirer who treats him like a slave. Meanwhile the heroine (an ophthalmologist) sets up a hospital and meets another suitor and his family. What happens next is not very difficult to predict, but it is that kind of a film that holds not much novelty factor, but just comes across as a very well packaged story playing up the image of its lead star.

The most attractive thing about this film is its songs and music by RD Burman. Classics, all of them and I am signing off with my favorite of them all…

Friday, May 18, 2012

Nishant (1975)

Zulm karna paap hai, par zulm sehna us se bhi bada paap hai

This line may be an oft repeated one in many of the old Hindi Masala potboilers from the 70s and the 80s. But few would expect it to be the most definitive and poignant lines from Shyam Benegal’s take on the curses of the feudal system, Nishant (Night’s end). Nishant is a story set in the pre-independent era when our country was no country at all, but an agglomeration of fiefdoms, kingdoms, and states- some tiny and non-descript, while some mighty and formidable. Benegal tells the tale of one of the many insignificant Indian villages from that time, which has a landlord family lording over it. This village remains unnamed throughout the film which implies that the story could have been an occurrence in any part of our country. Though from the dialect and the customs and traditions shown in many of the scenes, it can be inferred that it is somewhere in Andhra where the cruel Zamindar (Amrish Puri) and his three younger brothers exploit the poor and helpless villagers in a bid to sustain and further their dominance over them.

Like Benegal’s previous work Ankur, this one is a no-frills representation of an era and a place that we deliberately choose to glaze over while talking about our great nation. Written by noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar, the seemingly straightforward story has many contours and dimensions that cannot be missed. However, the first forty minutes of the movie are devoted solely to setting the context and establishing the characters. Through some cleverly handled sequences we are introduced to the terror of the powerful feudal lords, their blatant and brazen suppression of the villagers through their illicit ways, their intra-familial dynamics wherein the eldest brother is the commander, the next two (Mohan Agashe and Anant Nag) are his devoted uncouth followers, while the youngest Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah) is a sometimes reluctant sometimes eager follower of his elder brothers’ ways and means. This much confused youngest brother Vishwam later becomes the inadvertent catalyst of a violent revolution that sees the villagers take up the arms against their oppressive guardians, while his much affected wife Rukmini (Smita Patil) can be nothing but a silent observer.

Vishwam and Rukmini
While we have had movies that have dealt with the issue of zamindari, Nishant is unique as it mainly addresses the issue of carnal exploitation by the debauched men of the landlord family, while the other forms of exploitation are relegated to the backdrop. Unabashed in its treatment and unequivocal in its approach, the misdoings of the zamindars is clearly highlighted through the bouts of drinking and sexual gratification the brothers indulge in every night at the expense of one or the other innocent village girl. This world of moral depravity is shaken when the youngest brother Vishwam gets attracted to the wife of the village schoolmaster (Girish Karnad). The schoolmaster and his wife Sushila (Shabana Azmi) move in to the village and just as they slowly start to get attuned to the ways of the land, the Zamindar brothers’ forcibly take her away to their haveli, while her hapless husband kicks and wails watched on by the suppressed villagers. At the haveli, Sushila becomes a sexual object to the brothers, though the access to her is primarily given to the youngest Vishwam who is terribly besotted by her beauty. She is kept confined in the house, and slowly resigns to her fate. On the other hand her husband tries to appeal to all the official authority in this regard, but proves unsuccessful. But egged on by the village priest and spurned by an exchange he has with his wife in the temple (when she is allowed a visit there by Vishwam), the schoolmaster sparks a revolution in the villagers that takes a violent turn…

The reference to Ramayana is obvious in the way the narrative pans out. The Ravanas (Zamindars) forcibly take Sita (Sushila) as her hostage and keep her in Lanka (Haveli). Then Ram (schoolmaster) assembles a sena (villagers) to fight against the devil. However the similarities end here as everything else is a much stark departure from what happens in the epic. The treatment here is dark and disturbing, which makes the movie quite hard to watch (I saw it in two sittings).

It is tough to talk about performances in such a film where the written material is so strong. All the actors do a terrific job. In fact this movie is one of the early movies in the careers of all the major stalwarts of parallel cinema- Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, and Amrish Puri. However the two strongest performances are by delivered by Amrish Puri and Shabana Azmi. The latter is simply brilliant in the temple sequence when she meets her husband. The way she expresses helplessness, defiance, anger, and disgust is simply seen to be believed. Amrish Puri has the physicality and presence of the cruel villain, and the director fully capitalizes on it by giving him such a persona. 

Parting Note: Like Ankur, this one too is a disturbing watch that basically mirrors some uncomfortable truths about our society through an engaging story. These Shyam Benegal films are a study in contrast to the Rajshri films from the same time that dwelt on all the things that were happy, well, and bright in our villages. In my opinion each of these schools of film-making is as important as the other and should be treasured equally.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Some Misfires!

It has been almost a year since I decided to discover, watch, and write about some of the lesser talked about Hindi films of the era gone by. I have always had a history of starting something new with great excitement, which generally tapers off after a few early bouts of enthusiasm. But this thing that I had started, and incidently without giving it much thought, has stayed with me. I love the entire process of unearthing, and then downloading/buying these films. Imdb has been of great help. To a film buff like me, it is the best site ever. Much more important than the usual social networking ones for sure. Some of the recommendations came from family, some very rare ones from friends, and many from filmy forums and other blogs. Initially I was in great doubt about whether to write about all the movies I see, or to make the effort only for the ones in which I see some or the other merit. I decided on the latter and have maintained that for most parts. Because I take considerable time in choosing the films to watch, I have had a very few bad experiences in that regards. Here I will list some of the films that I sat to see with great expectations, but which hardly managed to engage or entertain or enlighten me. And I never really had the heart to do a thousand worded piece on them.

1. Bemisaal: A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film starring Amitabh Bachchan in the lead. It looks like a complete winner from it's theme (I refrain from reading the user reviews if I am able to manage it, but couldn't with this one). However it was seriously a headache for me. It was easy to discern that this film was aimed at getting awards. The treatment of the film was quirky and dark for most parts, but sadly it was too incoherent to make an impact. I am sure many people can write deep and eloquent pieces on the acting performance of Mr. Bachchan here, but it is exactly that kind of a film. Pretentious. I hugely prefer a film like Juramana (from the same combo), over this.

2. Khilona: I really wanted to complete it. But couldn't. I think I couldn't go past the half and hour mark. It was too melodramatic, and the comedy track was too juvenile. Sanjeev Kumar's act in this film is considered one of his best. Hmm, easy to see why people will think that way. But I think there are numerous performances by him that are much much superior.

3. Mashaal: Man, I was super kicked about this one. A Yash Raj drama starring the veteran Dilip Kumar and a young and fiery Anil Kapoor. I had read somewhere that this is one of Yash Chopra's best. But to say that it was a letdown would be an understatement. The story had meat for sure. But the treatment was so archaic (or maybe it just hasn't aged well- but then his other movies have). As far as the performances go, Anil Kapoor was really impressive. But if there is a man who sees just one film of Dilip Kumar in his life- and if that film is this one- I bet he wouldn't even dream of considering him an acting great.

4. Mera Saaya: Considered a classic, and boasting of some great tunes, including the title song, I was very eager to see this Sunil Dutt and Sadhna starrer. However a very interesting plot became chronically repetitive beyond a point. Some of the sequences were so juvenile that I wanted to enter the film and put the case right. Seriously a huge letdown for me.

5.Rajnigandha: I absolutely love both Chitchor and Chhoti si Baat, so watched this in great anticipation. It is better than the average film for sure, but somehow it didn't impact me too much. The tone and tenor of the narrative was too uninspiring, and many of the scenes were too insipid. One of the films that inspired neither hate nor love. Indifference is I guess the right word to describe my feelings for it.

6. Shaukeen: I couldn't go beyond a few minutes of this 'cult' Basu Chatterjee classic comedy. Maybe things would have turned better later. But I was having no fun in watching the tharki buddhas ogling at young women (and not so young too). Eyesore.

7. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda: I like the other Shyam Benegal movies that i have seen, but somehow I just couldn't appreciate this one. Too abstract, too philosophical, and too pretentious- evidently this one won many awards including the national ones. But then I saw the list of National Award winners chronologically... I think it had become a fashion by 1993 to give the award to Shyam Benegal.

8. Teesri Manzil:I haven't seen many Shammi Kapoor films from his prime. I had heard great things about this one from many people. Anirudh Guha, a critic I respect, had tweeted about this being his favorite film more than once. But I hardly enjoyed it at all. Shammi Kapoor acts the same way- be it the songs or a dramatic scene. While in the songs he exudes a joyous presence, in the rest of the film it is hard to bear him. Asha Paresh too irritates with her juvenile way of mouthing the dialogues. In my opinion she was the worst commercial actress ever.

There are many other movies which I saw and couldn't appreciate, but these are the ones I had expected to be really good. 

Parting Note: I am so pissed by all these movies that I don't even feel like putting pictures/posters of them. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Party (1984)

Govind Nihalani’s Party, based on a play by noted Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, is indulgent cinema at its most brilliant. This irreverent indulgence however can be mostly attributed to the playwright, for it is set in the world of elitist art and theatre and there are long ramblings about the responsibility of art and its connections to politics. And thus, this is one of those rare Hindi movies that give the impression of being entirely written on paper before any of their shots were canned. It is the quintessential theatrical cinema, minus all its negative connotations. It is hard to remember any other such movie where long visceral monologues were the fodder for most of the narrative.

The movie is set entirely in one long party where the most elite and distinguished theatre personalities and journalists gather to celebrate the success of one of their own. This constrained time-frame and space builds up tremendous tension in the exchanges of many of the characters. But before the party is set in motion, the main characters get introduced one by one through a series of poignant scenes. A veteran insecure writer who is becoming stricken by the shallowness of his work, and his alcoholic and lonely girlfriend of ten years who craves for his attention; a bespectacled, fiercely independent, female journalist who is an open supporter of Maoists; an upcoming and hugely talented playwright who is grappling with the lack of purpose in his writing; a middle aged socialite who is throwing the party to celebrate her writer friend’s recent award, and her daughter who is a single mother waiting for the return of her lover, a talented young writer himself, who has gone to support and fight with the adivasis in the jungles of Andhra; a middle aged theatre star actor who has lost his own identity in the maze of iconic characters that he has lived and breathed. The troubles and emotions of all these characters collide and implode while they party and the wine flows…

Apart from these main characters under the spotlight, there are many other interesting peripheral characters that act as the director’s tool to make a comment on the moral depravity that is quite rampant in such high-society circles. The shallowness and superficiality that infests such people who are nothing but troubled souls from inside, quite unable to fight their own demons, is brought out remarkably through a series of exchanges that are quite intriguing to witness. And witness is what a stolid, sober, and quiet family friend of the rich hostess of the party does- Amrish Puri, once again after Aakrosh, in a role that is not quite connected to the main happenings in the narrative, but still is a vital and significant vehicle to channelize the director’s vision. He is the assured presence which is so unlike the rest of the people in the party, and yet in some ways as artificial as everyone else, for he chooses to take a back seat and let the show go on, despite his many reservations with a lot that happens during the course of the night. In some ways his character symbolizes a lot of people in our society who are dissatisfied and unhappy with the social happenings, but remain on the surface shielding themselves from the gaze of the dirty maze.

The political backdrop of the proceedings adds an intriguing dimension to all discussions between the lead characters. The growing social unrest in some corners of the country, and how some people some people pretend to be affected by it all is brought out wonderfully well through some dramatic exchanges. This backdrop also gives an opportunity to the makers to debate and discuss an issue that evidently is of great importance to them- the intertwining of art and politics and can both be really kept separate from one another. The last half an hour or so is devoted exclusively to this debate, and the rest of the things are relegated to the background. This change of texture is not exactly sudden, but is still quite stark. To many it may come across as too quirky, but it is nothing but an honest expression of an artist’s most personal thoughts and conflicts...

Some of the leading theatre personalities of that time make up the ensemble cast; however the two champions of parallel cinema of that time- Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri are given very small but significant cameos to play. All the actors do a seemingly fabulous job, but it has to be said that hardly anyone of them has been made to transcend his or her comfort zone. The written material is so strong and emphatic, and the treatment is so very much like a theatre play, that these veterans of the stage would have hardly found it very challenging.

Parting Note: Party is one of Govind Nihalani’s finest works, if not the finest. However it is hard to infer how much of its finesse can be attributed to him, and how much of it is the brilliance of the playwright who has written the play. It is certainly a much watch for all those who like watching unconventional cinema.