Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dilip Kumar and Sheroo the Wonder Mongoose! Kohinoor

When you're relatively new to Dilip Kumar, it's kind of hard to imagine that a movie with a grand, dramatic name like Kohinoor will be anything other than be trauma-drama-o-rama. Oh happy surprise that this film turned out to be a textile lover's blinged-out swashbuckling delight! It reminded me far less of Mughal-e-Azam (released the same year) and much more of Dharam Veer. Granted it's in a somewhat more specified, or at least sartorially consistent, place and time and is less full-tilt loony with a less rambling plot, but it's really funny in parts and has plenty of rollicking action, multiple bad guys, a creepy lech, an orphan, royalty, disguises, schemes, a song on a spinning platform, and lots of helpful animals. It felt proto-masala to about the same degree as Waqt - different RMA elements but similar effect of a restrained mix. If it had been made fifteen years later, I have no doubt all the right seedling elements would have been amped up sufficiently to earn Kohinoor its place among the proud, if less flashy, members of the state of Genuine Masala in our beloved Masala Pradesh.

As with much masala, it may not really be worth the bother of explaining the plot, but here goes: Dilip is a prince who is about take over the throne to his kingdom - unless the evil diwan can kill him first.

By snake, preferably.
He's also engaged to a princess (Meena Kumari)

Depending on how good your disguise is, the princess may or may not hurl a heavy vase of flowers at your head.
- unless the Jeevan is, who also wants the throne in her kingdom, can marry her first.

Never let Jeevan in your bedroom.
The two sets of villains with identical motives confused me periodically, but it didn't really matter. There's also a helpful musical family, where the prince rocks out while wearing a calico quilt jacket

and, more importantly, whose daughter (Kum Kum) falls in love with him

and must ultimately choose whether to give into her jealousy/fury of a woman scorned and help Jeevan separate Dilip and Meena forever, as well as submit both kingdoms to the evil usurpers, or do the right thing.

And as with many movies generally, the plot and other basic elements of the story are less notable than the particulars through which they are created and portrayed, so let's just skip over any real analysis - I think the basic gist is that you should be nice to people and recognize the source of genuine authority - and if at all possible surround yourself with an arsenal of various animals, sticks, and long curtains - and wallow in Kohinoor's fantastic details. For starters, just look at these costumes!

Gems! Pearls! Brocade! Embroidery! Fabric woven with silhouettes of women carrying water jugs! Once I figure out how to get Sadhana to take me shopping in the mid 1960s, I'm calling up this costume staff.* Awesome in all senses of the word. And it should not go unnoted that Jeevan might be the originator of grunge as formalwear.

The sets and locations are no less impressive than the costumes. I'm ready to believe that some of this was filmed in actual Rajput palaces, though I didn't see any credits saying so.

Click to enlarge the last one and see the giant peacock feather plumes that keep the princess in ultimate comfort.


Glamorous heroine and dashing hero also get to be silly a lot, with many disguises and playful teasing.

Spills and thrills!

Even Meena gets in on the dishoom. In this last picture, she's in the midst of knocking out several enemy guards with a big stick. She does not, however, speak softly - and lets out many a good shriek and "Nahiiiiin!"

All in all a very fun movie that requires limited thought and provides excellent entertainment value. Even if the mongoose isn't actually named Sheroo.

* I am also working with Indie Quill to develop Project Runway India and create many filmi challenges for the designers, such as "Here's the song [perhaps the Krishna number from Disco Dancer], now make the backup dancers look not quite so insane" or "This hero needs to take off his shirt in a way audiences haven't seen before...something fresh, something modern."

Friday, June 26, 2009


[There's a spoiler in the first paragraph.]

I have one issue with Sai Paranjape's Kathaa (1983), and I'm going to get it out of the way up front. If the subtitles are to be believed, Deepti Naval's Sandhya is styled as a modern girl, yet while discussing a potential marriage with Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah), she puts herself down, saying that it's too late, that she's slept with the first boy she was engaged to, and "I'm not fit for you anymore." He quickly says "I haven't changed my mind." She leans back against the door, whispering his name in relief. What's going on here? Do the writers want us to applaud Rajaram for taking on a partner that would generally be considered sloppy seconds? Is this just one more brick in the wall of his sterling, sacrificing, do-gooder character? (Especially in contrast with her ex, the rascally, no-good Bashu, played by Farooq Shaikh.) Is his approval supposed to change how she feels about herself? But on the other hand, the film doesn't seem to judge her in any typical ways and she gets a happy ending with no additional external commentary on her decisions. It's nice to be loved for who one is and one's mistakes accepted. She's also honest about her past, albeit in a self-deprecating way. Hmm. HMMMM. I don't know.

Other than that, I liked this movie very much. It's even-keeled but has plenty going on. The director clearly had fun scatteirng symbols and phrases throughout the film and then tying them together before the end. For example, Bashu constantly twirls a big set of keys (and Rajaram does so too when he imagines living like Bashu does); before their real significance to his character is revealed, they worked equally well as a symbol of his big ambitions and ability to wriggle his way in to various situations. Both Rajaram and Bashu are caricatures. The one is unbelievably naive and sweet (pure, even), and the other is so smarmy that it's a wonder people don't catch on to his schemes sooner.

Does Naseeruddin remind anyone else of a young Obama here?
Kathaa also reminded me how much I like films set in chawls - they provide concise but rich physical settings and so easily incorporate lots of side characters whose interrelationships are unforced and varied and have lots of opportunity to eavesdrop, spy, and gossip (see also Holiday in Bombay and Dulha Dulhan).

I didn't catch the names of anyone in the chawl, but they serve as a big, rambling family and are lovingly featured in two songs in which they serve as a sort of Greek chorus.

My favorite part of the whole film might be the song "Tum Sundar," in which Bashu cavorts with all three of his loves to the same basic song set in three different, girlfriend-appropriate styles. It's very funny to watch him in a typically filmi seaside segment with Sandhya, a sultry nightclub with his boss's wife, and a sort of go-go/disco-hybrid set in an early 80s graffiti aesthetic with his boss's daughter. The disco segment kicks off the clip below.

Fame flashbacks.
Not only do these three blend together, the whole thing segues way from a frustrated Rajaram feeding a similar line to a forgetful actor in the play staged for the chawl's annual fair. Another highlight is Rajaram's dream sequence in which his naughty colleagues* try to tempt him into a dalliance, grabbing at him and laughing at his uptight ways.

Zebra stripes feature prominently in the office sets. Zebra=?
Even if my Sunday school-based reading of female apple-wielding is irrelevant, it's still a hoot to watch nervous Rajaram run away from the vixens who make the child-like refrain of "A is for aaaaapple" sound lascivious. (See it here at about 1:10.) These two sequences contrast each other well, with Bashu revelling in his multiple women and Rajaram scared out of his wits.

Really, the whole thing (with exception noted above) is very charming. Compared to the more bombastic style of Indian film I tend to watch, it seems quiet and calm, but it has plenty of paisa vasool.The story is engaging, the writing is rich, and the actors carefully portray the shades of their characters. And not least, the whole thing has a great sense of humor - with a few cheeky bites, too.

Miscellaneous other:
  • There are animals everywhere in Kathaa, especially dogs, who roam for handouts at parties and romp in the surf. So cute!

    They don't figure in the plot (unless the cat is the harbinger of Bashu's evil?), but they make the whole setting seem more real and layered. Also, I think this is the first time I've seen a dachshund in an Indian movie. Cho chweet!
  • One more example of thoughtful use of animated titles,
    and there's another funny animated bit later that shorthands the consequences of one of Bashu's schemes.
  • Two excellent subtitles:
  • imdb says Tinnu Anand is in this, but I couldn't spot him. Help!
  • Is this Farrah Fawcett (in an unexpected coincidence), or do I have my early 80s California-ishtyle bombshells confused?

    [Update to post, almost immediately after publishing it: that's Cheryl Tiegs. Close, but not quite.]
* I can't manage to integrate this thought, but I think it's important: Rajaram has several female colleagues, all of whom flirt with him despite his protests or take advantage of his willingness to do their work, while Sandhya, whom he adores, has a BA but apparently no job outside her parents' home. That is, I guess Rajaram is a simply wonderful good Indian boy, maybe so much so that he's a bit of a joke, and the woman he loves may make claims towards being modern but buckles at Bashu's hey-baby references to women's lib (seen in the "1982" subtitle above) and in fact mostly does what her parents want. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure we ever see Sandhya outside the chawl except in a song - talk about homely.