Wednesday, April 27, 2011

floods and vampires

As I squeegeed the rising waters of Lake Basement yesterday, I wondered why I don't have a good list of flood songs to play during such occasions. The only one I could think of is the title track from Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Go to :55 and 4:10 for prime Shashi.
I wish the water in my basement was as candy-colored as Raj Kapoor's flood. And from the same movie, more fun in the water in "Yashomati Maiyya Se Bole Nandala." It's not technically a flood but how can we resist the steam off of Shashi and Zeenat?

And then I remembered the raging waters of Kaala Patthar,

both destructive and redeeming, washing away sins and scars alike.

And of course the gigantic anachronistic racist mess that is "Wilhelmina, Georgia" in My Name Is Khan, but who wants to think about that?

What are your favorite flood songs and scenes?

I also got a chance to write up an interview I did with Temple of Cinema Chaat about Ekta Kapoor's teen vampire soap opera, Pyaar Ki Yeh Ek Kahani. It's posted over at Masala Zindabad. Warning: we are very unkind to every aspect of the show and show way more fangs than any of the vampire characters. I should also issue a General Beverage Warning for the post, meaning that if you are drinking something you may want to put it down for awhile to avoid the unpleasant sensation of it coming out your nose.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The ultimate Bob-Christo-getting-dishoomed-by-the-righteous scene? Mard

I once made the following joke about Bob based on his brief appearance in Ajooba:
Q: Are you familiar with the ubiquitous firang henchman actor Bob Christo?

A: Hmmm...don't know the name, but his face rings a bell.
The thing is, though, everyone seems to know his name—not that it's too hard to guess, given that a third of his characters are named Bob too—and has joyful memories of heroes wiping the floor with him in countless 80s and 90s movies. I haven't seen enough of his films (only seven) to know definitively whether he ever had any roles beyond plotting, guffawing evilly, chasing heroes while wearing silly hats, and flying through the air on receiving end of dishoom-dishoom,

but the avalanche of tweets upon the news of his death last month shows how joyfully and well-remembered he is.

Partly, I'm sure, this is because he wasn't just "that guy" in the villain's crew: he was a big, red-headed white guy who would have stood out no matter what he did. But I think there must have been a little more to his impact than that. There are countless actors doing the same kind of role over and over—some even, like Bob, distinctive in some physical trait—whose names don't register with many of us attentive and excitable viewers. So what is it about Bob? What makes a successful and satisfying secondary henchman for two decades? Does he make particularly hilarious facial expressions when being thrown against a crate of smuggled gold? Is his appeal because he looks intimidating, so his defeat is proportionally great? Is it because he's foreign, so his conquest can feel patriotic? Is it because he's not only foreign but also white, so belittling him in ridiculous settings carries connotations of the overthrow of imperialism (never mind that's he's from a former British colony himself)? I wish I knew! But as I've been thinking about his roles and performances, something in Raja Sen's piece about him at his death set off a light bulb for me: doesn't it just take a special someone to land in a totally new country and subsist on letting himself get punched over and over again by the righteous?

From a career that seems to have been made of few lines and fewer triumphs (by his characters), I decided to focus on a short (by filmi standards) appearance of Bob doing what Bob did best: getting his rear handed to him by heroes. And there's no rear-handing in Bollywood that I enjoy more than Mard's rambling brawl between Amitabh Bachchan, assisted by trusty ani-pals, and the Britishers, represented primarily by Bob, in the whites-only social club. This scene has the beloved wackadoodle zeal typical of its director Manmohan Desai, but its political nature, as well as that of the entire film, adds something extra, gorging on every crumb of symbolism the setting has to offer and playing with the last idea in the previous paragraph. This film couldn't have existed without at least the concept of white foreigners, and I'd argue that the impact of the physicality of the scene is heightened by the looming presence of the big, bad gora. It's hard to imagine it without Bob Christo—I love Tom Alter, but imposing he is not, and a random backpacker or friend-of-a-friend couldn't have been a worthy adversary of the country's biggest star playing a character called "man." When the hero wins, it has to mean something, and maybe Bob Christo is the ultimate face of oppression in this setting, a persona that signified something important or enjoyable and was somehow familiar even in the resonant but exaggerated colonized la-la land that is the world of Mard.

Leading up to this scene, we've seen Bob (named Simon, for a change) as a white safari suit-clad yes-man to an English overlord committing the following sins against our hero's family and India as a whole:

  • using a machine gun to mow down dozens of innocent villagers whose art the Brits have just plundered (interesting cultural heritage note there, now that I think about it), encouraged with the advice that "as much as this country sinks, you will rise,"
  • shooting at patriot Raja Azad Singh (Dara Singh) who avenges the villagers,
  • getting squished against a wall by Singh,
  • shooting Singh in the back,
  • being speared by Singh in retribution,
  • vowing revenge against him,
  • directing torture against him after his capture,
  • demolishing a village with a sort of fire cannon,
  • being attacked by awesome ani-pal Moti (a happy brown dog), and
  • abusing and humiliating our hero (Amitabh Bachchan)'s adoptive father (Satyendra Kapoor) by forcing him to drink alcohol ("He's gonna be drunk for a whole year!"), at which point he is instantly drunk and clownish, then playing keep-away with the money he owes him.
Since Simon's nemesis, Raju/Mard (who is of course Singh's son), is played by Amitabh, he's not just any son: he's one who, his father predicts when he is but an infant, "will shake the foundations of the British empire." This, of course, he does, but only after dealing Simon some humiliating blows while simultaneously blotting out one of the film's repeated signifiers of British racism.

You won't be so proud for long!

Coming to the aid of his not-by-choice drunk father, who is floundering in the club pool, Raju charges his tonga through plate glass doors and into the pool. As he cradles his father, Simon points a gun at him. He cracks his whip, yanking the gun from Simon's hands. Moti enters, barking gleefully. "Now look!" proclaims Raju. "Dog has come, Indian has come, and his horse has entered too!"

The the gathered English club-goers back away from the edge of the pool as Raju dries himself off. Raju grabs liquor from a waiter, shouting "One who doesn't drink, you force to drink," swigs from the bottle, and shoves Simon aside. "I'll show you how potent Indian liquor is." He uses the whip to pull some from his tonga, bites the cork off the bottle, and spits it at Simon. Offering the bottle, he says "If you drink it once, its influence will last until you die." Simon recoils: "I don't drink Indian liquor." "Why?" says Raju. "You can drink Indian blood. Can't you drink Indian liquor?"Raju knocks Simon onto his back, kneels on his chest, and forces the booze down his throat. As everyone looks on in silence, he commands the band to keep playing. Meanwhile, Moti leaps on Simon's cohort General Dyer (oh yes) (Kamal Kapoor), who finally yields all the money owed Raju's dad. Raju sticks a 4-anna stamp on his head and kicks him into the pool.

Simon staggers up, Raju's whip in his hand, but of course things won't turn so easily. Raju sends Simon flying through a balcony railing, Simon retaliates by kicking Raju in the face, and Raju then smacks him with another of the club's frilly accessories, a lattice bench. And then, in the moment that cinches this sequence as my favorite fight scene in Hindi cinema, Raju sends Simon flying head-first into the back of the band's bass drum, his face sticking out of the skin on the front. Raju grabs the drumsticks and pounds on Simon's bald head as the band—all Indians—plays on and Moti dances.

Raju kicks the drum and it rolls towards the edge of the stage. As Simon stands up and tries to get free of the drum, Raju punches him and then grabs him by the collar and slams his head agains the drum kit's cymbal a few times. Simon finally grabs the cymbal stem and whirls around, smacking Raju in the face with it and sending him flying off the stage into a gathered crowd of onlookers. Simon hurls the cymbal frisbee-style at Raju, who ducks, letting the cymbal decapitate a hideous faux classical statue. Raju shakes up a champagne bottle and sprays it at Simon, who grabs one of the many DOGS AND INDIANS ARE NOT ALLOWED signs out of the ground and uses it as a bat to deflect the empty bottle Raju hurls at him. Raju upends a table and throws it at Simon, knocking him onto his arse.

In the most, and, it must be said, almost tiringly, symbolic moment of the scene, Raju kicks Simon and flips him over, pounding his face into the sign. Simon's head bloodies the sign, obscuring the NOT.

"Read it!" commands Raju. "Dogs…and…Indians…are…aaaaallowed" moans Simon. Moti whistles. Raju punches Simon in the face, hits him with the sign, and crashes it over his head. Simon reels backwards to land on the diving board. Moti watches from the platform at the end of the pool (you know the one, this being filmed at The Pool [not to be confused with the pool attached to The Room], of course),

then on Raju's command comes down the stairs and pees on Simon's face, and Raju upends Simon into the pool.

Raju's dad, appearing out of who knows where, tells Raju that that's enough and it's time to go. Simon splashes around yelling "You dirty swine! I won't spare you! I'm still the boss around here! You just wait! Idiot!" On his way out, Raju signals the bland to play, and they strike up with "Tequila."

See it here starting at about 8:00.

That, in short, is why I love Bob Christo: a stranger in a strange land, he repeatedly, and it would appear with great glee, bleeds for the revenge of the colonized while their dogs pee in his face. What a man.


Bob's Your Uncle: the late, great Bob Christo

Posts from friends and blog-colleagues ("bloleagues"?) in honor of Bob! Everything people send me will be collected here.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shashi Kapoor picspam from 1975 Filmfares

"There's the pandit just in case...Shashi Kapoor and Rekha with Asrani in Chakker pe Chakker. Ashok Roy directs."

"Shashi Kapoor and Padma Khanna in Do Guru. Ravi Tandon directs."

"Mahurat of Aahuti, from left: Zahirra, Parveen Babi, Shashi Kapoor, director Ashok V. Bhushan, Rajendra Kumar, Krishan Dhawan, and Rakesh Roshan."

"Shashi Kapoor and Shabana Azmi location shooting in Gulmarg."

"Eagerly awaiting...Saira and Shashi Kapoor in Koi Jeeta Koi Haara.

"Tea and sympathy and the petrol shortage...Shashi and Zeenat with Mehmood Jr. in Diwangi. Samir Ganguly directs."

Cover image of the
August 8, 1975 issue.

This one is from an article I will post next week from the issue above called "Shashi Kapoor: I'm Playing a Class C Stuntman." Photo: T. K. Arunachalam.

All images courtesy of Filmfare.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

James Bond 777

I've tried so many times to write about this movie—usually with post titles like "Come for the Espionage; Stay for the Pompadours!"—but each attempt has been defeated by a combination of dissolving into squees, dance breaks, and the weird contradiction of knowing absolutely nothing about it while simultaneously notating an ever-growing list of why it's so good. What little knowledge of this 1971 Telugu film by K. S. R. Doss (alas, no subtitles) I have is thanks to Todd of Die Danger Die Die Kill, whose writeup provides his usual hilarious summary and commentary on the actual filmmaking and cinematic context, which I will leave to him since he knows so much more about them and phrases them just so.

In brief, James Bond 777 is approximately two-thirds chases and fights spread over and among the various characters: the titular hero Kishore (Krishna),

I wonder if Mahesh Babu, like Ranbir Kapoor, ever catches stuff like this on late-night tv and thinks "...yeah, that's my dad."
his partner in crime-fighting Sopa (Vijaya Lalitha),

This is the same picture Todd used to introduce Sopa—I think it must be the only time she held still long enough to get a good shot of her.
a bad guy named Boss,

and his principal henchperson Jamilla (Jyothi Laxmi, who also plays Jamilla's twin, whose raison d'être can be explained by one scene that I will come to in a moment).

The remainder of its run time is filled with many elements we know and love and even a few we don't (or at least I didn't): childhood trauma and family tragedy exactly as Desai and friends would write; several fabulous songs, linked by some of the most enjoyable background music I have ever heard; a huge range of disguises and outfits that beg detailed study;

Stumped about what to wear when you plan to push someone off a cliff? Why, darling, a kerchief and fur-trimmed leather coat are just the thing!
lairs and control rooms;

This is Cindy, another of Boss's top staff.
a seduction-of-the-hero scene that would make Austin Powers proud;

This baby spins fast—hold on tight!
adorable dogs who attack their master's enemies and rob a bank;

and dance-off and fight between Jamilla and her twin, one dressed in cabaret wear and the other in tight knits with gaping holes.

Side note: this song sounds very much like "Piya Tu" with the melody sometimes sung in a two-part round by the two Jyothis.
When Todd wrote up this film almost two years ago, I commented that I was so delighted to see a use of a dual role in such an innovative (or at least "new to me") way. As I mull over the question, I can't remember if good and evil Shashi Kapoors fight in Haseena Maan Jayegi (though there is at least a dance-off between them), and of course there's Sanjeev Kumar trying to get the better of his worse nature in Chehre Pe Chehra. Apart from the difficulties in fight choreography and filming, I can't imagine why more films don't use this device—think of the moral struggles it can illustrate, not to mention the good plain fun of the staging and stunts.

The music of James Bond 777 could make its own post. It is fab and mod and groovy and every other positive adjective from ca. 1963 to 1971 you can think of. It is a great tragedy that none of the songs are on youtube, but you can find this movie online very easily and I recommend just playing it in the background while you go about your daily affairs to give yourself a certain air of adventure and fabulousness. If I had to pick a favorite song, it's Sopa and Kishore's cabaret number, in which she is undercover as a dancer named Miss Kismet (or possibly Miss Kiss-Miss, I couldn't quite tell) and shaking all she's got in a way that would make Bindu proud. In fact, parts of this song bring to mind Bindu's "Mera Naam Shabanam," right down to the panting. Her outfit is all feathers and dangling crystals and neck-to-ankle sequins, and she and Kishore dance all over a club themed around the suits in a deck of cards

with a light-up floor like a giant Simon game. There's also a great solo dance in the multi-story villain HQ; I'm have no idea who this woman is, but like almost every other component of this film, she gave it her all.

The view from above looks like an eye!
The background score is also phenomenal. It may overuse the hero's theme—a strong female voice wails "James Bond! Triple seven!" while a chorus punctuates with "Seven seven seven!"—but it's so full of surf guitars and scampering vocables that all is forgiven. It's strangely reminiscent of the Swingle Singers

and the Russian "trololo" guy from youtube,

a combination that conjures up the swinginest' club you and I will never get to go to because, sadly, we are neither Dick Dale, Sean Connery, nor Lawrence Welk.

I love the Emma Peel-ness of both female leads—not just in mod clothes (though those are very awesome) but in can-do attitude and kick-ass-ery. In addition to the Jyothi Laxmi twin fight, Vijaya Lalitha is involved in several stunts and brawls as befits her character.

Before fighting off a handful of baddies with big wooden sticks, Sopa takes a second to tuck her sari skirt up into its waistband to form trousers that enable much better range of motion for ass-kicking.
And even better, all of the female characters are as important as the men: they do things, they have responsibilities, and they forward and are integrated into the plot. It's truly a team effort.

My only complaint about this film might be due just to the version I watched, but it seems to be missing almost all transitions between scenes. I've seen two other K. S. R. Doss films and they certainly move from action to action, but this one was especially full of a style based on the idea that as soon as one chase is over it's immediately time to show a different chase with different people in a different location without any build-up or context. For example, early in the film, a man is kidnapped from a train station, tucked into a car, and sped across the city. The bad guys press a button and fill his car with poisonous gas and he screams. A split second later we see a lovely row of trees in a park, violins surge, and in a long-distance shot Kishore spreads his arms and bellows, launching us into a hero-glamorizing romp of a song in which he frolics in a park with eight leggings-and-tunics-clad women as he wiggles, pants, and shouts "Yahoooo!"

All while wearing geisha whiteface.
Speaking of, I've yet to see why Superstar Krishna deserves such an appellation. In the two films I've seen him in, he evokes a baked potato, perfectly pleasant, neither adding to nor distracting from the film.* Maybe it's his ability to rock both a cowboy hat and a pompadour?

I have so much to learn!

James Bond 777 may not make a lot of sense—and somehow I suspect not knowing the language is not quite the usual level of hindrance—but it's so incredibly spirited and big-hearted that it produced the happiest confusion I've had since Sheshnaag. "Nary a dull moment" doesn't do justice to Doss and company's rollicking, stylish, exuberant spree. Is James Bond 777 the best movie you probably haven't seen yet? Probably not. Is it the most 1971-Indian-spy-flavored fun you can have with a horrible print, probably some missing scenes and transitions, and no subtitles? Hell yes.

* In fact, in a yet-to-air episode of Masala Zindabad, I raved on about this very point for a good five minutes, a fit of opinion-spewing that Amrita now refers to as "the potato rant."

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kashtam

I'll get to an actual review in just a sec, but first cynical me demands I say that A Little Liking, A Little Difference, and A Whole Mess of Product Placement is what they should have named this movie. Though at least I have an answer to the all-important question of whether Oreos exist in India (but not whether this market knows the right way to eat them).

Choco Pies, Oreos (what a combo that would be), Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, 7Up, Kwality Wall's ice cream, diet Coke, and McDonald's.
Also, holy crap, how many Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirts does Sid wear in this? At least forty-six, by my count.

His shirts were so distracting to me. I wonder why they didn't let him wear some other A&F clothes just to mix things up a little. This was like being stalked by a J. Crew catalog. The two significant scenes in which he wears something else were such relief, though they would have been awesome anyway because all the songs are very strong throughout thanks to great Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy music, lively and talent-showcasing choreography by Kalyan, Shobi Paulraj, and Raju Sundaram, and utterly winning moves by Sid.

"Aantha Siddanga"—and enjoy the Michael Jackson-y glove


Anyway. I would watch Siddharth watching the grass grow. I find him irresistibly charismatic in everything I've seen him in. He can communicate so much with just a glance or hip-flick, and he's got bounce and sparkle that remind me of prime Rishi Kapoor. That said, this movie starts very slowly and Sid's playboy character (also named Sid) left me totally cold. I had a hunch from seeing some of his other films that the character would grow up and fly right, but I think if I had been new to his work, I would have turned this off. Add to that the sort of patriarchal and inflexible values spewed by the heroine's father that of course form the obstacle to the love story and you've got a seriously displeased Beth.

Thankfully, heroine Geetha doesn't put up with Sid's nonsense and only falls for him when he does something genuinely kind and creative, and she continues to stand up for herself throughout their charmingly imperfect (for a film, anyway) romance. Tamanna Bhatia shines as Geetha and manages to make the familiar "more principled girl exasperated by immature boy" role neither too goody-goody nor too acquiescing. She's also very expressive, conveying that her character was, you know, thinking. This little scene of Geetha and Sid's first kiss cracked me up. He suddenly gives her a peck on the cheek, leaving her totally stunned,

and then she responds in kind, taking him and herself by surprise, looking like she just got away with something amazing.

Cute as it is, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen this movie before—and I've only seen a tiny handful of Telugu rom-coms, all of them starring Siddharth, which is probably part of the problem with this one for me. Veracious said it best in her write-up, so I'm just going to quote her:
Because I was so underwhelmed during the first 40 minutes or so, I can't help but think maybe this "Siddharth + Telugu family entertainer with youthful romance at the center of it" combo is getting too old. Gasp, shock! I know, I didn't think I'd ever find myself thinking it, much less typing it. The thing is, I can't get my Siddharth fix off this movie as well as some of the others, and I don't know what to blame. Is it the script, his character literally being a pastiche of the Siddhu characters we've seen in virtually every film he's been in? Is it the fact he himself is uninspired? Is it the fact Tamanna miraculously outshines him? Is it just the damn silly haircut?
The thing that prevented this film from blowing away like a dandelion puff in the breeze is its examination of the concept of family and the importance of parents in modeling good grown-up behavior. Maybe "examination" is too strong a word - there is some discussion of these very big questions by a few of the characters, but the ideas deserve more weight than they got (though I do salute their inclusion at all). Instead of potential in-laws who hate each other, Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kashtam gives us a patriarch who dotes on his little girl...until she tries to make a big decision on her own. He claims the usual: he wants the best for her, he would have hand-picked 100 potential grooms for her, blah blah blah. I didn't buy it. To me this guy read as someone who is very, very accustomed to getting his own way at home and in his immediate social group and structure, and he dislikes the idea of anyone crossing him. His objection to Sid specifically (in addition to not being someone he already knew of and promoted to Geetha) is that Sid's parents have been separated most of his life and he thus has no basis for knowing how to have a good relationship of his own.

What's interesting about this is that Sid's player behavior in the beginning of the film almost validates this criticism, as Geetha finds Sid so off-putting that she decides to x him out of her mind altogether despite his key presence in her group of friends—and who knows, maybe in the more simplistic world of the film Sid's lightweight loutishness actually does indicate dad is right. But Sid improves immensely through the age-old cure-all, the love of a good woman. The Sid dad meets is a good boy. Dad never even gives him a chance to prove his potential as a husband/partner/householder, though, dismissing Sid without knowing a thing about him or about his parents' ability to be good people and successful adults generally or good parents more specifically. There's no discussion of the other ways one can learn to be a good partner, which seems to me short-sighted about humanity generally and a very cruel thing to say to all the audience members whose parents' marriages were less than perfect. And somehow reuniting his parents is going to prove...what, exactly? That he's good at shenanigans (à la the much-despised-by-me Raj from DDLJ)? That people who hardly know each other anymore are willing to take another gamble on something that hadn't gone well in the first place? That's a model for partnership? Okaaaaaaay.

Sid's parents, played beautifully by Ramya Krishna and Prakash Raj, felt more dimensional than many filmi parents. Separated for eighteen years, they've mostly lived on different continents. To me they read as characters who found married life much more difficult than their romance would have suggested and have felt weary about it and about their decision to split for years.

Sid and Tamanna were adorable in their own ways, but I was even more impressed by the depth of these grown-ups. These characters and the actors' portrayals of them contrasted so nicely with the energetic, scrappy, and more light-hearted kids. Seems to me that having people teach you that life is complicated is pretty valuable, even if their own history shows you what not to do.

To summarize: eight fabulous songs, three strong and interesting leads, cute (though not cutest) Sid doing standard Sid things, more interesting discussion of social issues than I expected but not as much as I want, two very skippable comic side guys, and an added bonus of the fun-for-all-ages "count the polo shirts!" game.

And a request: I can haz more Samrat Reddy?


For more on Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kashtam, read Nicki and the much-missed Ajnabi. Special thanks to reader K, who sent me both this film and Ashta Chamma!