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.