Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sara Akash (1969)

A 1969 film, ‘Saara Akash’ is the debut directorial feature of Basu Chatterjee, who later went on to make some of the most acclaimed films of the 70s and the 80s. It is very much a non-mainstream effort with mostly first time actors forming the cast, and has been given a very unique treatment by Chatterjee, especially in terms of its experimental shot-taking, quirky camera angles, and use of nano-flashbacks to depict the internal conflicts of the chief protagonist. Like many of the director’s later efforts, the movie has its basis in literature and its story is adapted from the first part of a novel of the same name, written by noted Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav.

The movie has a very novel premise about how a newly-wed husband and wife don’t exchange even a single word between themselves for almost six months. Set in a traditional middle class Hindu family in the historical city of Agra, the story is soaked in the atmospherics of the Indian grassroots, especially the ones associated with the custom of arranged marriages in a joint family system.

A young man, yet to complete his formal education, is married off to a beautiful and demure girl, much against his wishes. The girl too has had some schooling, and is seen as someone who is well educated by the general societal standards set for her kind. Thus, completely unprepared for matrimony, both youngsters enter into a relationship that is marked by uncertainty, apprehension, and bashfulness. After making an inauspicious beginning by completely ignoring each other on their first night together, their problems only get compounded, as the reservations they have towards one another keep on getting fueled by their family dynamics.

The boy is fiery and ambitious, heavily influenced by the ideals of Subhash Chandra Bose and other noted public figures that had a stirring impact on the youth of those days. He channels a firm outward belief that marriage is nothing but an impediment in the makings of a great man, resulting in him assuming a tough face in front of his wife, despite covertly longing for her companionship. Some of the most delectable moments of the film are the ones that highlight this contradiction, and mostly involve him completely ignoring her presence, despite wanting to do the exact opposite. Till about halfway into its duration, the film has a light-hearted approach and derives humor from such situations. However, the tone of the film soon changes as the focus shifts on the other half of the conundrum, i.e. the inner world of the bride, who is harangued not just by her husband’s insurmountable apathy, but also by his family members’ demanding behavior and condescending attitude towards her education, especially from the jealous women-folk of the household. In a poignant scene that illustrates this change of treatment, the girl makes a mistake while doing a household chore and is severely reprimanded by her mother-in-law, and when the boy enters the scene and is told about the misdeed done by his wife on whom he has no apparent control, he goes forward and slaps her, which marks the first physical contact between the couple. Later he cries like a baby, hating himself for that act of physical abuse, and mocking his own fake ideals that couldn’t stop him from hitting his wife. The result of this unfortunate occurrence is that he starts spending more and more time outside the home, taking refuge in solitude or in passing time with his friends. On the other hand the girl’s solitude becomes even more absolute, especially when her confinement’s only solace, the boy’s sister with whom she shares some sort of understanding, is sent back to her husband despite her many protests.

Throughout its short duration of 90 minutes, the film unequivocally portrays the plights of a newly wedded bride in a patriarchal, male-dominated set-up. In the alien environment of her husband’s home, the young girl is shown to get little respite, and her world gets completely distraught as she gets abandoned by what could have been her only source of comfort in the unforgiving situation, her husband.  The husband, on the other hand, comes across mostly as a pitiable and spineless figure, with little points of redemption. Hardly out of his childhood, his mind replete with regressive societal notions on how a wife should behave and not behave, and at the same time heavily influenced by the elders in his family, the boy-man’s helplessness too comes out on occasions when he breaks into a child-like smile on being teased by a friend, or when he shyly dreams about little moments of intimacy with his wife.

The acting by the two leads, Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty is impressive and both manage to do complete justice to their extremely complex characters. The three most familiar faces in the cast are those of AK Hangal, Dina Pathak, and Jalal Agha, but none of them have really much to do. There are no songs in the film; however, the music by Salil Choudhary, which plays mostly in the background, fits the mood of the film very well.

Parting Note: An exceptionally well shot experimental film with a very realistic treatment that remains topical, despite the forty-five years that have passed since its making. A must watch for all those who wish to study and savor the parallel Hindi art-film movement, which according to many, started with this film.

Interesting fact: The film was shot entirely in the ancestral home of its writer, Rajendra Yadav (source Wikipedia)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chaitali (1975)

This is a mid 1970s movie starring Dharmendra and Saira banu in lead roles, and directed by none other than Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a man who helmed arguably some of the best Hindi movies made ever. There is another great matter of prestige attached to this feature, that of it being a Bimal Roy production, albeit posthumous. Bimal Roy, who himself arguably made some of the best Hindi movies ever, is also seen by many as the precursor to Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who he mentored along with a man called  Sampoorn Singh Kalra, better known as Gulzar. So it will be fair to say that ‘Chaitali’, as a movie, boasts of some enviable pedigree. And yet, it is one of those criminally under-seen movies, reflected in just a handful of ratings it has garnered on Imdb (less than 20 on last count). It might have been a commercial failure at that time, but does it deserve the obscurity that it is shrouded in today? For sure not, as, though the film is not faultless, it is still a reasonably engaging dramatic feature that makes a social comment on delinquency, forgiveness, and redemption. 

Adapted from a Bengali short story of the same name, Chaitali inhabits a world that is much different from the general Hrishikesh Mukherjee fold, wherein most of his movies stayed away from depicting the darker strata of our social order. The narrative is centered on Chaitali (Saira Banu in the title role), a woman who has been forced by her circumstances and her unfortunate upbringing to occupy a space that constantly haunts her, but from which she not being able to escape. Creating a stark contrast, her life merges with a more typical Hrishikesh Mukherjee middle-class urban household, full of family values and righteousness. The first few minutes of the movie establish this moral rectitude and bonhomie of this family, headed by a kind matriarch, and assisted by that ever cheerful and passionately loyal servant (Asit Sen yet again). The tone and tenor of the film then changes considerably when Chaitali enters the household, guiltily taking advantage of goodness of the elderly matron, with the intention of swindling some money. All this while, the younger son of the family Manish, (Dharmendra in a mostly subdued role) is aware of the reality of the woman, but takes pity on her circumstances, apart from developing a soft corner for her. The drama later shifts to a religious sanctuary on the hills, where Chaitali shares her life story honestly with Manish, who gets utterly shaken by the grimy details of her upbringing, which include a criminally inclined father on the run, a brothel, many lecherous eyes eager to pounce on her adolescence, and a suitor (played uninhibitedly by Asrani) who is both a danger and a comfort to her in the murky vicinities of her life.  

Throughout the story and its dramatic last act (the best executed out of the lot in my view), Chaitali comes across as a highly complex character, both repulsed by and dependent on crime and delinquency. And this confusion, somehow, gets reflected in the treatment of the film, with its highly uneven tone oscillating between glimmers of hope and pits of hopelessness. Dharmendra’s part is under-cooked and not well defined, with neither his motivations, nor his intentions, and nor his beliefs, coming out on screen clearly. This in some ways gets evened out by strong subsidiary characters- chiefly the lawyer elder brother (who gets a lot to do in the last act) and his wife (Bindu in a meaty part, but hamming it up completely).  

The music of the film, much like the film itself, is not popular at all. There are just three songs, and seen in isolation, two of them are pleasant enough. But none add to the movie in any which way; this lack of memorable tunes another reason for the oblivion the film finds itself today.

Signing off with a vintage 'on-the-set' still from the filming of an outdoor shot from the movie:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Gaman (1978)

Muzzafar Ali’s first film, Gaman, is an effort that, at one level, delineates the chasm between the India of the villages, and the India ruled by urbanity. At another level, it portrays the multitude of different worlds that inhabit the urban fold. The film keeps oscillating between two starkly shot geographic settings throughout its duration; Kotwara, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, and Mumbai, the quintessential metropolis, simmering with a lure that is almost Pied-Piper-esque. The lead character, essayed by a tremendously understated Farookh Sheikh, migrates to the big city from this native village of his, in search for a living, leaving behind a newly-wedded wife and an ailing mother. This migration (or Gaman), is his last resort, much like how it is for thousands of his ilk. How his life first interacts, and later merges, with the all-encompassing landscape of Mumbai, and how he constantly tries to make peace with the guilt of having left his family behind, while all the time trying to seek redemption in this choice made by him, is what the film is all about, at least on the surface. But the director has ensured that deeper connotations are implied by giving a very unique treatment to the screenplay, where instead of focusing on the affairs of just the main leads, he has created a mesh of similarly themed stories of human survival, which suffuse into each other, and construct an ensemble. And yet the handling is minimalistic, and in most of the frames the emotions are more explicit through the visuals, than through the words spoken by the characters.

The movie is also an excellent example of crowd-sourcing and how ‘real’ people, places, and locations have been used in the narrative (The director duly metions the natives of Kotwara in the credit roll). In fact, it is hard to find a frame which looks inauthentic or which might have been shot on a set or in a studio. Mumbai too has been shot painstakingly, with much love, and for anyone familiar with the city’s terrains, the cinematography of the movie is reason enough to give the movie a watch. The language, grammar, and dialect of the words and the music of the film is rooted in realism and is full of references from history, and especially that from the history of Islam, for the lead characters are Muslim, and their native village, as in the film, has a sizeable Muslim population. The practices observed during Muharram at the village of Kotwara have been shot guerilla style and are depicted unequivocally. In a poignant moment from the film, the lead character gets caught in a frenetic Maharashtrian celebration, and is promptly reminded of the Muharram communal mourning back at his village. This is perhaps another way to bring to fore the intermingling of cultures, which the director portrays, not just by setting his film in the melting pot of all humanity that is Mumbai, but also by relegating the religious identities of his characters to the background by treating them in a very matter of fact manner, which in itself is very refreshing. The songs too are reflective of this timeless convergence that is perhaps the most defining feature of Indian socio-cultural fabric; the music (by Jaidev) is based on our ‘Hindustani’ tradition and has a classical base with the lyrics in both Hindi and Urdu. Half of the songs are set against Smita Patil’s incredibly expressive eyes in the backdrop. She hardly has any dialogue to speak in the film, and yet she says a lot in each and every frame she is present in. 

Signing off with the song ‘Seene Mein Jalan’, which is the perhaps the best remembered song from the movie… 

P.S.- Nana Patekar has a character role in the movie, while Satish Shah also appears in a scene.