Saturday, March 26, 2011


A huge and well-balanced cast, allusions to past dishonors and future troubles, inter-familial conflict, divided loyalties, star-crossed lovers, and plenty of horses and guns make this film a proud citizen of the Independent and Hot-Blooded Kingdom of Epics, a seldom-visited territory adjacent to, and with important historical and cultural ties to, Masala Pradesh, its much larger and louder neighbor. This DVD very frustratingly does not include any credits, so I don't know whom to applaud for the solid and careful writing that built this pretty and interesting film. Vijay Anand directed, and, as would be expected, his colors of filmified rural Rajasthan make the story's loss and fear go down more easily.

Rajput opens with a very un-Rajput-looking palace belonging to the local royal family,

The eagle-eyed among you may recognize this palace as the British HQ in Mard and is in fact a hotel I stayed in in Mysore.
embodied for most of the story by Ranjeet.

(Because everyone in this film's last name is Singh and there are so many characters, I'm going to call the them by the actors' names instead.) Ranjeet's father Murad has just a few lines as the film begins, warning Ranjeet and the younger generation of the futility of their fight against amalgamation into mainstream Indian society (and perhaps formal governance, though that aspect was not clear to me).

It's a battle he himself cannot bear to continue, and the sound of a gunshot brings everyone running to this hideous, copiously-lit throne room, where he is slumped dead, the evidence of the sweep of history slipped from his hand.

As will surprise none of you, Ranjeet is not about to let power slip from his hands, and his nattily-attired goons terrorize the local farmers.

Who is this actor? He has quite the mustache!
Among the happy-but-not-for-long families are Iftekhar, Purnima, and their son Rajesh Khanna, a policeman.

(Though it has little to do with the plot, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this is the jolliest I have ever seen Iftekhar. He actually laughs in this film - and not wry police inspector chuckles, either. See it for that if nothing else.) Iftekhar is old friends with Rehman, and both men hope that his daughter (Hema Malini) and Rajesh will get hitched, making them true family. Unfortunately, Hema loves Dharmendra. Their love is secret because her aunt, Indrani Mukherjee, long ago married Dharmendra's uncle against family wishes, and Rehman has refused to acknowledge Indrani (who is his sister) ever since.

I was actually relieved when this plot thread appeared - my brain does not know how to compute a film in which both Hema and Dharmendra are major characters but not romantically involved. Dharmendra is the older son of Om Shivpuri, who shares Rehman's distaste for Indrani's marriage into his family. The younger son is Vinod Khanna, and here I will announce that I think Dharmendra and Vinod are my new favorite jodi. Look at them reveling in bhai-bhai pyaaaaaar!

Shahrukh Is Love and I have started calling them WAPOH! (This formally stands for "what a pair of hotties," but if you say it correctly, the term expresses the sounds of the explosion of awesomeness that occurs when they appear together).
Vinod is in love with Ranjeeta Kaur

and both couples share a beautiful Holi song, "Bhagi Re Bhagi Brij Bala."

I'd never seen this song in any of the dozens of Holi playlists that pop up every year, and I don't know why, because it's a great song and a lively and colorful picturization, made even better by Vinod Khanna skipping around merrily and romantically, something I personally have seen tragically little of.

But that's as happy as it gets. The film advances about ten years into the future, in which time Ranjeet has managed to ruin both brothers' romances and oppress and terrify all the surrounding villages. From that description, this could be almost any other film full of cackling villains and heroes galloping around to save their heroines. However, Rajput is more than that. All events and responses in the story are couched in the idea laid out by Murad in the beginning: this is an old culture being forced by outside pressures to adapt to new ways. And this being filmified Rajasthan, there's a lot of language about honor, oaths, and identity that runs in the blood, amped up into dacoit-y fierceness with plenty of horses, rifles, and kidnapping.

Whoever wrote this very cleverly broke apart some of these ideas and spread them across different characters, so you're never totally overwhelmed by any one person's goody-goody-ness and each of the heroes has a slightly different flavor very suited to the actor embodying it. Rajesh Khanna is law, order, and the good things that come from adjusting to larger Indian society. You can see it in his costumes: he's still a Rajput, but he also wears western-style suits and ties, as well as the khaki of the outsiders' version of justice.

On the other end of the spectrum is Vinod, who turns daku vigilante/avenging angel after his father is brutally murdered.

Speaking as a Vinod fan, this is a brilliant bit of casting because we get to enjoy him snarling and sweaty and root for him unabashedly because the only people he harms absolutely deserve it. He also keeps his soft lovey-dovey side, doing his best to protect and support Ranjeeta. Between them ideologically and pragmatically is Dharmendra, who acts with hot Rajput blood but also submits to and works within the police system and eventually unites both brands of justice to defeat Ranjeet.

As a liaison between the police and the villagers, he also sets into motion a working system for the future, the only one, the film says, that can defeat the evil of lawlessness. It's fascinating that the the very worst person in the film is by birth the most noble, maybe underscoring how far from their ideal purpose or behaviors the maharajas have fallen and thus how necessary the new order is. The context of Rajput may be filmified, but there is something that feels contemporary and actual in it too. This is not the crazy mixed-up world of Dharam-Veer, for example. Even though Ranjeet is typically eeeevil - among his crimes are harassment, abduction, rape, pillage, extortion, and murder -

we are constantly reminded of the his inability to fit into the new world. He also has a few good characteristics centered around the next generation: he genuinely loves his offspring (most importantly daughter Tina, who of course falls in love with Vinod), including encouraging their education, which I think helps emphasize his interest, however misguided, in continuing the family line and traditions. He is a self-centered and immoral person like so many other villains, but I think in this case he can be read as floundering as well. He's trying to hold on to something that used to be honorable; unfortunately he's too weak to do so in a constructive or empathetic way.

There are many other interesting threads in this movie but I couldn't figure out how to talk about them without spoiling the plot. One that particularly grabbed me is how the women fare. There are four female characters in this film with any substantial dialogue, and like the men none of them has what could be called a happy story. The only female member of the older generation, Indrani, shows that even years ago people were caught between tradition and modernity. She chose to get married against her family's wishes, and she suffered from their hatred of her so much that she seems miserable in later life. But she herself is loved greatly by others, particular Dharmendra and Vinod, who seem to treat her as a maa stand-in, and there is a heart-wrenching scene of Vinod crying with his hand pressed to the window of an ambulance as it takes her to the hospital. Tina, the youngest woman, also gets to make up her own mind about her role in this society and eventually decides her father's path is wrong and joins the heroes. Hema and Ranjeeta have more complicated situations that uneasily combine family pressures, traditions, and choice and leave them with illegitimate children...for which they are never judged and out of which the film creates viable, loving families. I wonder if Hema might even represent a sort of contemporary Mother India, devoted to her child and doing her duty but also acknowledging that her past and the lives of the people around her are not perfect or simple. There's even a nameless village woman who defiantly throws a rock at one of Ranjeet's men.

None of the women in this film is simple and all of them show strength of various kinds contextualized in their situations. I loved it!

Rajput is the kind of film unafraid to leave things uncertain.

As a viewer who most loves the solid ground of Masala Pradesh under her feet, that can be a little frustrating, but it absolutely makes sense in the story. These people have work - including healing and bridging - to do if they're going to succeed. It seems that the alliance between Rajputs and the ways of the larger society is successful (for now) but still fragile. I think the film works well enough as a daku-drama, supported with beautiful Lakmikant-Pyarelal music and great performances from everyone, but there is a lot more in it if you give its ideas room to grow in your mind.

For more on Rajput, see Nicki's post from Khanna-o-Rama in 2010.

Friday, March 18, 2011


With Dharmendra in a fleet of bad wigs - at one point even wearing one on top of another (a disguise wig on top of his regular characters wig) - and occasionally painted green, this movie ought to have been better.

The silver is the disguise wig; the black Chia Pet look is the "regular" one for his character in bad-guy mode.
To its credit, it has a weird bad guy (Dharmendra as Vicky/Acharya) with henchmen and a hide-out full of long hallways with blinking lights, offices, and even a department devoted to sketching hand-drawn images of his foes.

There doesn't seem to be a bar or dance floor; that Subhash Ghai did not give us a spectacular musical number just underscores my disappointment with this 1981 film. At least Vicky's inner sanctum has a large light-up command center and various pieces of art, including this one.

That's right: this man decorates with a tiger skin rug, statues of Shiva, and a large painted portrait of Hitler. Based on the childhood flashback in the film's introduction, it is clear that Vicky was not always, and will not remain, baaaad, but between you and me I had a hard time taking moral advice from him after I saw that.

Speaking of interiors, before Vicky's ethical transformation, his nefarious doings take us to two important masala staple locations: The Room* appears as some sort of gathering place for Vicky's associates (note his calling card has been plastered on the walls)

and the pool attached to it, here masquerading as Amrish Puri's hangout.**

I have never before seen the location in this next shot; in the film it is in the same location as the pool above, but who knows whether that's true or just a trick of editing.

I do love the idea of both of these eye-scarring rooms being in the same hotel.

Krodhi spends far more time and energy on its capital-M Message than it does on disguises and dishoom. What starts out as criminal masterminds and damaged idealism takes a sharp, preachy detour towards the world of Guide, full of community-building and personal-betterment-through-spirituality.

Wait wait. I don't get it.

Still fuzzy.

Maybe Moses Charleton Heston Dharmendra can show me.

The right side of this weapon says "Allah" on it, so the Amar Akbar Anthony bases are covered.
Vicky's most prominent foil during his evil years is Inspector Kumar, Shashi Kapoor in an uninspiring turn as Officer Uptight.

In this speech, Shashi says "izzat," thus dooming any hope I had for the film.
I chose to post about Krodhi today in honor of both Deol Dhamaka and Shashi's 73rd birthday, but honestly, there's little Shashi goodness here to write about. When he isn't wearing uncle specs, he looks pretty good, but he is both too stiff at work and too chattering in love to make Kumar at all sympathetic. Shashi and Dharmendra are not on screen together very much, and their moments together are not noteworthy. I had been told Krodhi is the only film to star Shashi and Dharmendra; I have since discovered Akhri Muqabla, but it doesn't sound very good either. Anyway. There's nothing to say about them as a pair in this film, that's for sure.

Vicky's principal companion (associate? employee? disciple? I'm unclear of their exact relationship) in both bad and good times is Neera (Zeenat Aman, also kind of boring performance-wise), a point I liked simply because I don't think I've seen a woman be a top associate of a male character who is not also her love interest. Neera's love interest is, of course, Kumar, and her adherence to Vicky in all his incarnations causes a lot of tension in their relationship.

Also interesting is that Vicky's conversion from criminal-on-the-run to messiah is fostered by...PRAN!

Hema Malini and Prem Nath have small roles that further emphasize Vicky's moral transformation into the community organizer and general do-gooder Acharya.

It's not that I find character and ethical growth boring automatically. In this case, Ghai wrote them too simply and too obviously. Dharmendra's lines are mostly philosophies, as subtle in words and ideas as you would guess based on the brick-bat imagery above. I am not as well-versed in Dharmenda as I am in Shashi, but I would propose he is not at his finest here either - not that he has much to work with. The way his characters are written leaves no room for the charm and ease I love in other performances. Even rage-filled characters can have soul and vitality in their words - as Amitabh does again and again - but Vicky/Acharya usually stomps and shouts, and Dharmendra's delivery is just too heavy and pronouncement-y. Of special note are his beloved English dialogues, which you can sample in this compilation.

His best passage is Vicky's break-neck descent from disappointed man of learning and principles to green-faced gun-toting heavy. After returning from his studies in America to find himself unemployable in India, Vicky has all his hopes for the future pinned on his childhood sweetheart, Aarti (Moushumi Chatterjee). Aarti is under the "care" of her ethically bankrupt uncle, who actually sells her virginity to a group of his friends. When faced with this gang of rapists, Aarti kills herself with a knife,

and Vicky goes into the kind of rage you would expect of the beefier Deols.

It's a horrible scene: Aarti's decision is so grim and Vicky's despair so wild. Briefly continuing the discussion of rape from my last post, I'll just say that I never know what to make of scenes in which victims take their own lives rather than live with the consequences of the crime committed against them. In a strange way, I want to support these women's individual agency, but when scenes are coupled with shaming from family or onlookers (which this one is not), it's harder to work out whether they actually had (or felt they had) any choice at all. In Krodhi, I think the threatened rape stands for the sin and moral decline of the larger world, since the character who perpetrates it is so minor and he acts out of uncontextualized greed rather than revenge against her victim herself or the hero. A portrait of Aarti, who enabled Vicky's rise out of poverty through education in his orphan childhood, also hangs in Vicky's HQ, and there are a few flashbacks to her smiling face and her tragic end, indicating that both her love and her suffering are motivations for Vicky throughout his life, even when he uses them for vengeful or violent actions rather than kindness. Hema's role as Phoolwati, the local brothel-owner, is another feisty and interesting woman who balances individual choices with the welfare of others.

Krodhi can certainly be skipped. I suspect Ghai had a better seed of an idea than this turned out to be. With a lighter touch, particularly in the dialogue, it could have been an interesting look at how an individual chooses to deal with hardships and to relate to their fellow human beings. Somehow Vicky's arc is not as well-integrated with all the rich secondary characters as it could be. In fact, it's the male leads' roles that sink this, and in Shashi's case the performance as well (sorry Shashi - but man did you ever overdo the word-chewing and -spitting here). So as not to end on a bad note, though, let me leave you with two pictures of Shashi, who gets a prize on his birthday for winning the handsome contest in this particular pairing, almost by default since he is unencumbered by wigs and face paint.

Too bad he's so annoying. At least he gets a Kalyanji-Anandji qawwali!

* Not to be confused with the film The Room, which people keep insisting is the worst film ever made, a claim to which I respond "Worse than Shaitani Dracula? Bring it!"

** Amrish's role in this film is really brief (see it here), but he makes the most of it, spending all of his screen time in either a white suit or floating in his pool, accompanied by bathing beauties, a drink, a gun, and poolside phone service.

Friday, March 11, 2011

mini-reviews for Deol Dhamaka: Imtihaan and The Burning Train

(To jump to The Burning Train, click here.)

My relative quiet on blogs hither and yon can be blamed on it taking longer than I'd like to recover from my huge project at work. But it's Deol Dhamaka, people! If that can't speed up the healing process, what hope is there?

In the spirit of the experimentation that is such a fun and interesting part of these blog theme weeks, I decided to try a mid-90s Sunny Deol movie. My only previous foray into Sunny Valley is Jeet, which I didn't particularly care for and remember fondly only because of his enthusiastic stomp-dancing.

And in the spirit of honesty, I will admit that I chose this particular film because it was free and easy to get (thanks Hulu!) and also featured Saif Ali Khan as a rock star, which is my kind of awful.

Imtihaan falls smack into my personal Avoid-Yaar Era of ca. 1985–1997 and does indeed include the feature that most makes me cautious of that approximate decade of films: rape. In this particular story, the villain (Gulshan Grover) threatens to rape the heroine (Raveena Tandon) not merely out of his own psychosis about power but explicitly as revenge against and torture of her boyfriend (Sunny), with whom he has had an earlier altercation. Ness and I have been having an interesting conversation about how rape is used in films and what it means, and I have come to the weary, wary, and could-possibly-change-as-I-gather-more-information-and-experiences conclusion that more often than not, rape in Hindi films (of this era and others) seems to me a double whammy of its own criminality and underscoring of a "women as chattel/property" philosophy. I abhor both of these things and in this particular era am not inspired by other components of the film (acting, music, general story) to overlook, put aside, or continue on past them. I don't think writers and directors are explicitly promoting rape and related treatment of women as a good thing or using them as much other than blaring badges of villainous behavior and as clear motivation for revenge by the men affiliated with the victims. But as with almost everything else in a film, I think there's meaning or context or resonance to be found in them and it's kind of lazy to brush them aside with "It's how you know they're bad guys." If that were true, they could set fire to houses and other physical property, steal money, set up lethal car crashes, either directly to the hero or indirectly if they're so twisted they're going after his loved ones. The other general explanation I've heard for the ubiquity of rape in this era of films* is that it's an excuse to show female skin and titillate the audience, which I find dangerous, disgusting, and demanding much more careful and informed analysis than I have the fluency with films of the era (and contemporary Indian culture) to do at the moment.

So long story long, that's why I tend not to watch films from the mid 80s to the late 90s, which means I have missed the arcs and peaks of various talented filmmakers and stars, and much of what I read in other people's Deol Dhamaka posts makes me want to learn more about Sunny Deol, so here we are.

In Imtihaan, the villain does not, technically, rape the heroine (he shoves her around and rips off some of her clothes, leaving her a sobbing wreck, all while his goons play musical instruments a few feet away), and at least the she doesn't kill herself after the attack. Um....yay? The attack does escalate the existing conflict between Gulshan and Sunny, resulting in more gory confrontations (when I told Samrat about the incident, he said "Ah, that means Gulshan is about to get his a$$ handed to him"). There's also conflict between Sunny and Raveena's dad, who shoots at his daughter and her boyfriend as they try to elope.

After about 70 minutes of this, I fast-forwarded through a significant chunk of the remainder. Deol Dhamaka or no, Imtihaan's meager charms weren't enough to hold me. Harry Baweja's name as director didn't inspire further confidence, either. Unfortunately, I also really hate not knowing what happens in books and movies, so I did watch the end ***spoiler alert!*** and about that I'll just say that somebody seems to have liked Qurbani a lot (and who can blame them!).

In the meantime, I did have fun with the clothes. 90s Bollywood clothes always intrigue me, either because I recognize them from the dubious choices I remember from high school and college or because I wonder how many ODs occurred among wardrobe crews of the era, as they were clearly consuming large amounts of very bad drugs. The outfits in Saif's rock concerts fall into the latter category: a fringed jacket with a duck on the back,

backing dancers in a delightful ensemble of lycra bike shorts and mirrored Rajasthani-ish accessories

and some fascinating trousers and hats.

Look out for the flaming torches!

Raveena's clothes are the former, and I think 16-year-old Beth would have understood this outfit very well, from the big hair right down to the bike shorts under the flouncy skirt.

Side note: in the parts of the film I actually saw, Shakti Kapoor was neither evil nor disgusting. What's going on?!?!
And one last shot of Saif-as-star, rocking 90s color blocking adorned with sketches of shirtless Greek goods - a harbinger of Hrithiks to come, perhaps?

So yeah. I cannot say anyone should watch Imtihaan, but I also didn't see all of it and was predisposed to be impatient with and angry at it, so maybe my opinion has little merit. But do at least take a look at the gif I made of a little girl sticking her finger in a gaping bullet wound in Sunny's chest.

In the opposite corner, safely back in the still-basically-prime Dharmendra era I know and love so much, is Bollywood's best math problem, The Burning Train. Pick up your #2 pencils and answer the following:

1) What is the maximum possible speed of our train if it contains all of the following: Asha Sachdev putting on her lipstick while Rajendra Nath leers at her, Asrani boasting about his military exploits, Ranjeet's moll smuggling diamonds in her bra, and no fewer than 1 but no more than 5 men running on the roof? 2) What year would this film need to have been made in order to secure a cameo by either Amitabh Bachchan or Feroze Khan while simultaneously avoiding even more mawkish child actors? 3) What is the probability of a film made in 1979–80 containing no male Kapoors?

It takes longer to list who is in this film than it does to recommend it: HALF OF 70S HINDI FILMI PRADESH IS TRAPPED ON AN UNSTOPPABLE BURNING TRAIN CAREENING TOWARDS BOMBAY CENTRAL STATION!!!!!! While one could, with very little effort or malice, reasonably ask for more from this movie - stronger female characters, a childhood prologue that has anything to do with the rest of the story,

All I got out of this was that the boy on the right raided mummy's closet for open-toed heels.
some sort of exploration of ideas or commentary on contemporary context, a slightly less prominent nod to An Affair to Remember, Pran - I was so happy about the bromace-turned-bitter between Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna

and playing "Oooh, there's ______! And hey, isn't that ______?" that I was perfectly willing to overlook these and other more substantial flaws in favor of hurtling along with the cast of thousands.

Bollyviewer, my viewing companion, and I found two big problems in The Burning Train that troubled us because of their flaunting of 70s film logic. First, she noted, there is no easily identifiable reason that it should take not one, not two, but three 70s heroes (Dharam, Vinod, and Jeetendra) to thwart Danny Denzongpa's ego-satiating plan to humiliate Vinod by turning his beloved "super express" train into a speeding death trap.

Surely Danny is not so evil that a full-fledged triumvirate, plus fatherly guiding figures (Iftekhar and Nasir Hussain), a helpful sidekick (Vinod Mehra), and the love of good women (Parveen Babi, Hema Malni, and Neetu Singh), is required to defeat him? (Apparently it does take all those people to realize a train with no brakes would eventually stop if the engine in front was uncoupled from the passenger cars.) Second, we also wondered whether the whole setting of a disaster film is even necessary in Hindi cinema, where convoluted and extraordinary circumstances happen all the time and dramatic sacrifices can be whipped up with the faintest nod.

But never mind. Here's a quick sample of the goodies that distracted me from that pesky logic. Perhaps number one is the qawwali on a train. (Most of R. D. Burman's music is bold and exciting and stylish, especially the title song; however, I could do without the cheesy but admittedly requisite prayerful number towards the end).

Train song + qawwali = greater than the sum of its parts. This so needed to happen.

What was I saying about this film lacking philosophical content?
Vinod wears tight white trousers, high-heeled boots, and a neckerchief.

Dharmendra races a motorcycle to catch up with the roaring train.

Groovy light-up route maps illustrate the impending doom.

Families are threatened as personal loss is measured against greater community tragedy...

but you can guess which cause wins.

Note the map behind her as she puts aside her individualized worries for the sake of the 500 passengers on the train. One of the common 70s elements that made it into this film is patriotism, spelled out for you in the final frames.

It reads "This picture is about the people of INDIA & in particular those of the railways—their sense of duty, courage, & heroism. 'THE BURNING TRAIN' therefore is dedicated to the soul of INDIA which has remained uncorrupted." Well! There you have it. Dharmendra and Vinod and approximately 37 zillion other film stars save India while wearing silver space suits, helicopters explode, Mac Mohan puts his back into it, and schoolchildren warble sweetly with a chorus of multidenominational passengers. Awesome.

If I can ever catch up on sleep, there will be several more Deol Dhamaka writeups before the month is out. At the very least, stay tuned for a special post on March 18. Dun dun duuuuuun!

* Important note: these explanations have not been voiced by anyone named in this post. I'm speaking in vague terms about a general sense I have gathered over the last half dozen years of reading about and watching films and with no citations attached. Bad university academic staffperson, bad!