In case you couldn't guess what the message of a 1970s Yash Chopra movie about coal miners would be, let me just fill you in: "service and selflessness are the necessary and desired stars of communal good, and greed, short-sightedness, and inertia have no place here." A fine message, no?
I am very much in favor of socialist-ish Bollywood as long as it doesn't get too heavy and trite, and Kaalaa Patthar* generally avoids those don'ts, despite its very predictable characters and plot. It's a little more subtle than last week's Roti Kapada aur Makaan, but not much. I bet you could accurately predict the plot just from the picture on the menu screen.
Most tellingly, all three leads are in the mines, in front of but with all the other workers. But let's break it down further. Amitabh = brooder who lashes out as he tries to oppress tortured memories...will he finally break through with the love of a good woman?
I should add that Amitabh was heart-breaking in this role. He played the broken, compensating Vijay so well, mixing bravery and fear in realistic way (well, relatively). Shashi = white collar, emotion-showing, well-spoken pretty boy who wins the hearts of the workers and media...but is he willing to get his hands dirty and really fight the good fight?
Shatrughan (whose laze and swagger steal the show) = outlaw non-participant...will he learn to care for anyone or anything other than himself?
There are some women too, though they don't get to do much, surprise surprise. Rakhee is the mine's service-minded doctor, and despite her sad face, she is very effective as a caretaker.
Parveen Babi plays a famous journalist after the inside scoop on what's really going on in the mines and back office.
(nice movie-star grin, there, Shashi)
My favorite Neetu Singh romps around the town as free-spirited peddler/dancer who trades in opinions, information, and 1-rupee magic rings.
(Whenever I see Ranbir, I am amazed at how much he looks like his mom.)
From the moment each character is introduced, you know what their arc is going to be, but it doesn't really matter, because the movie chugs along in a very satisfying way, with people learning what they're supposed to and things generally turning out for the best, but not without the Recommend Masala Allowance of sacrifice and tears. And fear not - without giving away the details, rest assured it's the criminals, those who take what isn't theirs, who suffer, and you should have known they had it coming, even if they aren't incredibly bad. Watch out where you place that heart of gold, Neetu!
Let me share two little funny details, both from a scene of Mac Mohan, the local gambler, cheating at cards with some of the other miners. We hear "Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui" from Baazi (otherwise known as the oldie in Bluffmaster's "Destiny Remix") playing on a radio in the background, which I have learned is about a (male) gambler who falls in love with a (female) doctor. Very cute, since Kaalaa Patthar has both. Later in the scene, we see Shatrughan looking at his cards. Are those, or are those not, the fingernails of an escaped criminal and miner?
Tee hee. Overall Kaalaa Patthar is by no means a funny movie, but it has its lighter moments, which in my opinion kept it from getting bogged down in its own nobility.
What I liked most was the repeated emphasis on community and roots: people come to the coal-mining settlement but they don't leave, except for the villain (mine owner and uber-capitalist Prem Chopra), whom we don't want around anyway. Nobody song-teleports to the mountains, because all of life, including romance, can be right here. Meet cute, marriage, children, and death are here. The source of progress is here.
I'm not sure whether Kaalaa Patthar's town is a snapshot of just one place or an exemplary representative of India; either way, the focus on the set of people in this one place keeps the story fairly tight while still allowing sufficient drama.
For Shashi fans, this movie is a particular treat in terms of his character (Ravi, the engineer just arrived at the mine), who gets to be book smart, vigilante street smart, tough, loving, and endlessly caring for others.
(I am certainly not pro-violence, even in fiction, but in the community system presented in the movie, it's clearly the language that this particular trouble-maker understands.) Ravi is a fan of striving for justice and order, whether they stem from ethics, pragmatics, or physics. He's confident but never arrogant, turning all of his many skills outward to take care of people. Mmmm. Maybe this shows a shallowness on my part, but Ravi just might be the level on which this movie worked best for me. It's always so satisfying to meet a character that is very appealing in many ways, and it's even better when the character is played by your favorite. Here's a perfect Ravi moment.
After beating up the local bully (two photos above) and sending a baddie flying over the balcony, Ravi retrieves his hard hat and ducks under the low-hanging roof and emerges, upright (with camera angles making him look rather taller than he actually is) and whistling, facing the sun, striding off to lobby for wage bonuses of the miners, to try to convince the boss to stop drilling a tunnel that is perilously close to water, or to comfort the son of a miner killed in an accident. (Yes, he does all these things!) "GOLDEN BOY," the shot screams. And I ate it right up. PBS's recent Jane Austen marathon has had me thinking about the 2004 poll that found that Mr. Darcy ranks as the fictional character women would most like to go on a date with (and invite to a dinner party).** If I played this game with Bollywood characters, I think caring, personable, forward-thinking, community-minded Ravi - o noble Ravi! - would rank very high for me, although he would need to stop wearing this outfit on his motorcycle.
Gah. It's like they ripped it off of Rishi in Doosra Aadmi
and shoved it on Shashi. Bad. Very bad.
* This is off topic, but it's a small quirk that pops up when researching Hindi film titles. Nobody seems to agree on how to spell Hindi in the roman alphabet. Understandable, but occasionally causing delays in finding the information you're after. In the transliteration system used in the Snell Teach Yourself Hindi books, this
becomes k aa l aa pa t tha r. So that's why I'm spelling it like that. (I don't always remember to look for film titles in Devanagari, but when I find them, it's time for reading practice.) And don't you love how the Devanagari and roman letters in the title (which you can see in the first picture) get the same graphic treatment? So cool!
** Like the author of this article, I have never related to the love for Darcy. He's an arse who broods, grumbles, and worries over secrets. No thanks.