Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jallian Wala Bagh (1977)

I was watching some interviews of Gulzar recently on YouTube. One thing that he mentioned in almost all his conversations was the impact of India’s partition on his life and works. Not surprising for someone who was born on the other side of the border that wasn’t present at that point of time, Gulzar talked very fondly about the land that was once a part of his being, and that presently was alienated from him, at least in terms of physical distances. But despite this admission, we find that the man was hardly ever a part of any cinematic venture that explored the stories of that painful time. Most of his work that revolved around that motif was not done for the big screen. His poems, his stories, and anecdotes on the subject are a part of his poetry books, his memoirs, and some plays that have been adapted from the same.

Gulzar in a still from Jallian Wala Bagh
However my quick research reminded me of one movie set in pre-independence India, which Gulzar contributed to immensely. Jallian Wala Bagh, a movie directed by Mr. Balraj Tah (one time director/film-maker), had its screenplay and dialogues written by the maestro of words. Chronicling the events around the horrific incident that gave a new impetus to the Indian Nationalist movement, the movie can also be termed as a sketchy biography of Shaheed Uddham Singh, the revolutionary young man who murdered the man largely responsible for the mass massacre that happened on 13th April, 1919.

Parikshit Sahni essays the role of Uddham Singh, while Vinod Khanna and Deepti Naval play major parts that bring in some star value to the otherwise non-commercial looking venture. Shabana Azmi has an insignificant cameo, but the surprise of the show is a meaty role by none other than Gulzar. As a young man contributing to the freedom struggle while living in London, Gulzar delivers a patchy performance that vindicates his decision of not going in front of the camera ever again. However the portions involving him are some of the most polished part of the otherwise amateurish attempt by the first time director.

The movie is far from being a very fine one. However, at just over 100 minutes in length, it is a reasonably good watch, at least from the point of view of being an important film based on true events. It is tough to describe it as a biopic as it fails to do justice to that genre despite having Uddham Singh as a fulcrum for the narrative. As an effort that documents a critical chapter of our freedom movement, the movie again falls short. Ultimately it ends up as a confused attempt that could have been made into a defining feature, had some more research and effort been done before making it. Some of the factors that redeem the movie are:

Non-violence vs Violence: How to get India to revolt?
  • Its depiction of the underling conflict between the extreme revolutionaries and the moderate (and non-violent) Gandhian reformers. The characters of Om Shivpuri and Vinod Khanna, father and son, are at constant loggerheads regarding the approach that the freedom struggle should adopt. Here Deepti Naval provides the balancing act and articulates the difficulty in making one choice out of the two. This debate later continues between Uddham Singh and Om Shivpuri’s character in London, two decades after the incident of Jallian Wala Bagh.
  • The introduction of a global perspective to the proceedings in the later part of the film. When Uddham Singh reaches London, the world is in a state of conflict, with Hitler on the warpath. It is refreshing to see a movie talk about the broader canvas, while not losing the grip of the core plot. The use of an English lady’s character that supports Uddham Singh and Sunil (Gulzar) against the British is done really well, and executed sans any stereotypes.
  • A major part of the second part (which is set in England) is in English. This again is quite different for a movie that largely talks to a Hindi speaking audience. In fact this leads me to believe that the second part of the movie, which has much finesse as compared to the first, must have been shot first. The first hour of the movie (the events leading to the massacre) might have been shot later with more mainstream appeal in the hope of giving the movie a commercial release.
Parikshit Sahni as 'Uddham Singh', the revolutionary who killed  Micheal O'Dwyer, the man responsible for the massacre of Jallian Wala Bagh

In the hands of an expert (or rather more ambitious) director, the subject of the movie could have been exploited better. Haven’t we seen many Hollywood movies going back to the past to churn our Oscar winning films? Here it must be said that our Hindi film industry has not made use of the vast source of literature that our pre-independence days resulted it. Neither has our period of struggle been given its due importance in many of our films. We have a very few films that talk about that era, and sadly many of them are on similar subjects (with the life of Bhagat Singh seeing more than five cinematic representations over the years). 

A Poster of the movie: Highlighting the commercial elements, while concealing the real ones

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Taxi Taxie (1977)

In 1976, Martin Scorsese came up with Taxi Driver, a movie that went on to be viewed as one of the best films ever. Starring Robert De Niro, the movie garnered tremendous critical acclaim and emerged as a cult classic. Over the years many directors have been inspired by its style and the way it went about constructing a psychological study of a man leading a life shrouded by disturbing elements, or rather deconstructing the psychological state of disturbed man finding it difficult to come to terms with his environs.

Closer home, a man called Irshaad made a movie titled Taxi Taxie, casting Amol Palekar in the lead as a taxi driver operating in the metropolis of Mumbai. This movie that came out in 1977 seems to be clearly inspired by the English classic that released a year before. However it must be said that it is the best sort of inspiration. The director/writer has been influenced by the idea of his famous contemporary from the west, and has created a completely different movie, completely different narrative of his own, which is quite unique and interesting.
Amol Palekar, quite fondly given the moniker ‘Hero’ by his fellow Mumbai Taxiwallahs, is an honest and diligent worker who spends most of his time on the streets of Mumbai, helping various people move around the city. However, he himself finds it difficult to navigate through certain cobwebs in his mind, which keep pushing him back to his past. His choice of being a taxi driver, despite being well qualified academically, comes as an enigma to his old college friend who he runs into one day. He justifies it by voicing the joys of being constantly with various passengers, who he treats like fellow companions in the journey of life. The profession, thus, is his way of parrying off any chances of falling prey to loneliness. There is also a more romantic reason of him wanting to search for an old flame who he hopes would run into him, if luck is on his side. Thus, all the time his eyes keep searching for that familiar face while he drives through the good and bad wonders of the city.

As a part of his routine, Hero chances into a hapless (and kind) prostitute more than once, and forges a friendly relationship with her. He also meets a struggling playback singer who somehow reminds him of his flame who he wants to reconnect with quite badly. There is also a kind Christian landlady with whom he shares a lovely bond. It is through these relationships that Hero’s thoughts and conflicts are brought to the fore wonderfully well.

The movie is quite atmospheric and the city of Mumbai plays a crucial role in binding the narrative. Quite like the recent Aamir Khan starrer Talaash, a movie that also shares some other similarities with this thirty five year old forgotten flick. People who have been to Mumbai will find it quite interesting to see all their favourite places from ‘town area’ being given due prominence in the film (without ever pushing the main context to the background). Some deftly handled small touches can be appreciated after every few minutes, which makes the film appear very technically sound in spite of the apparent low budget.

The best thing about the movie is that despite its very heavy subject and philosophical tone, it never comes across as too much to take in. Some light-hearted moments are nicely done, and some appear contrived today, but by and large it is an extremely fresh screenplay which at least I have not seen replicated in (or replicated from) any other Hindi movie. Apart from Amol Palekar and a stunningly beautiful and assured Reena Roy, none of the actors show much finesse. However the below average acting acumen of two of the three leading ladies is not at all jarring, as Amol is in each and every frame to balance proceedings. 

The music is tuneful and soothing, and surprisingly not overdone. But it is one of those Hindi movies which do not need the crutches of super-hit songs to stand tall. The meat in the concept and the surprisingly well written dialogues take care of almost everything. Another point worth appreciating about the feature is that it never meanders, even when its lead meanders in his realms of thoughts. In the hands of a lesser director, the plot could have turned into a crime/mystery drama, (I have seen some Hindi movies taking that route after showing a lot of promise in the initial reels) but fortunately here the man in-charge sticks to the point.

Parting Note: Taxi Taxie is a very good Hindi film lost in oblivion. Definitely an excellent watch even today.