Saturday, May 21, 2011


Bawandar, based on the true story of gang rape victim Bhanwari Devi and her struggle for justice, is the kind of film you don't want to write about because you don't want to think about it anymore, but you do so anyway because to ignore the story feels cowardly, like being part of the problem.

I will admit I don't have the heart right now to read thoroughly about the real-life case of Devi (Nandita Das, every bit as amazing as you'd expect), but from the articles I have skimmed it seems the film presents only some of the injustice, deliberately blinkered pronouncements, and damaging attitudes converging dangerously on her life.

In the film, the people with power follow their own agendas with little or no compassion for or interest in the facts and their contexts. Almost everyone in the film seems determined to maintain the broken system of which they are a part, trampling human rights and basic kindness and decency from the gut-wrenching level of basic personal safety and the right to live free from fear down to accidental evidence-tampering and inappropriate grabs at celebrity. It's full of people who act out of self-interest, some because they are corrupt or afraid, some because they are oblivious or lazy. It's a frightening portrait of how ridiculous humans can be.

While it is absolutely crucial that films like this exist at all, I also cannot help but wish this particular one were more elegantly made (which is not dissimilar to my reaction to Amu). The performances are fantastic and the overall look evocative, but is there not a way for characters' dialogues to sound like actual speech instead of lists of bullet points prepared for government committee meetings? There is so much a film can say without literally outlining philosophies—though maybe that effect is part of the point of the film, that people speak (and act) without thinking and tend to repeat what they've been taught without questioning or re-contextualizing—the strongest moments of Bawandar shine when the filmmakers simply show the pain and injustice of the story, and the depiction of the events is very effective.

The narrative device set up to show them is the weakest link; it's so poorly integrated and hokey that I could easily believe that it was tacked on at the last minute. The film is framed within a current investigation of the events (which happened several years earlier) by British student Amy (Laila Rouass, whom I only know from the trashtacular show Footballers' Wives and barley recognized here) and her Indian friend Ravi (Rahul Khanna). It's not so bad when these two young visitors experience Devi's story through research and interviews with key players—after all, most of us viewers are outsiders too, so Amy and Ravi are a sensible way to lead us into this almost unbelievable situation—but Amy's voiceovers of her writeup of her research are insultingly simplistic, as are her exchanges with Ravi over travel-guide-preface material like "India is a land of contrasts!", "But what about 'kitchen fires' and dowries?!?!", and "That's just another western perversion!"

To illustrate the kind of injustice that runs throughout this story, I will say a bit more about the scene of Bhanwari Devi's trial. The final courtroom judgment hinges on staggering ignorance as the judge states that an older man could not possibly perform sexually in the presence of a younger family member (his nephew, in this story) and that a high-caste man would never even touch a lower caste woman, let alone have a physical relationship with her. From what I've read, these are the real-life judge's actual decisions. When Lillette Dubey, playing a women's rights advocate from Delhi, shouts out in the court room "[Rape] is not about sex. It's about subjugation!" I wanted to leap to my feet and join her.

Even when Bawandar is less graceful than I'd like, it clearly shows how complicated the basic components of this story, and of social change at all, are, how blindingly frustrating it must be to work for the simplest of improvements or rights within an attempt at cultural relativism. Education, class, location, and power are no sure markers of what people believe or what they are willing to do.

Doctors, police, lawyers, Delhi politicians, activists, other women affiliated with the justice after the other they demonstrate how little they understand are care about what actually happened and why. Each of us, then, has a role to play in making the world a better place. We can be products of ancient and now-criticized cultural systems and still be proponents of change.

Read more about Bawandar in The Hindu and on Doc Bollywood. And as an attempt at palette-cleansing, join Amy in dreamily mulling over her ramped-up relationship with Ravi.

Believe it or not, I don't include this shot just for the pixelated brain-candy of post-shag Rahul Khanna; it's a poignant contrast of sex as affection and mutuality, as well as the freedoms of the wealthier, mobile, and foreign (Amy)/foreign-returned (Ravi).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love in Canada

No, it's not about Matthew Perry or Michael J. Fox or William Shatner...or a tell-all from my graduate school years at the University of Toronto. To celebrate finally booking my flight to Toronto for the 2011 IIFAs, here are some excerpts from a 1978 Filmfare article on the film Love in Canada called "Vinod Mehra: Shooting the Canadian Way." My status as an hono(u)rary Canadian demands I share this 70s take on Indo-Canadian interpersonal relations in the true north and star Vinod Mehra's thoughts on working in contemporary Hindi films, complete with snark from me in brackets.

"Love in Canada" deals with the problems that arise when people belonging to two different cultures and used to two different ways of life try to come closer. It is the story of a brain surgeon settled in Canada. His attitude towards life is still basically Indian. He does not like the [presumably white, going by the pictures] Canadian girl with whom he falls in love dancing cheek to cheek with someone [note from Beth: hello, Jab Jab Phool Khile!] nor her posing in bikinis.

Eventually they understand each other and come together but without losing their individual identities.

There is another couple in the film, different in upbringing and outlook, a playboy (Jeetendra) and a young Indian widow (Moushumi) from an orthodox Indian family.

Jeetendra and Moushumi featured in a roller coaster scene. "I too sat in one of the rear cars for the experience," Vinod [Mehra] remarked. "It was my first ride in a roller coaster. I used to think people on roller coasters screamed for the fun of it but now I found the screams just come out of you. I screamed like mad, every person screamed. And when they got out of it after just a minute's ride, they looked pale, as if they had just escaped death. It lasted about a minute and you felt like it was an eternity. The coaster traveled at 80 miles and hour, often taking a sharp curve and suddenly falling down the height of a ten story building...."

The hotel rooms all had attached kitchens. "The fridge was always flul of beer, mutton, ham, vegetables, curds, milk," Vinod said. "It was big fun: we cooked by turns, Jeetendra is a good cook, his chicken preparations are a specialty."

When the shooting was over Vinod went on a short holiday to America, his fifth visit to that country. In Las Vegas, he saw "Hallelujah Hollywood".... Some 500 topless women were dancing on the stage but their dresses were so colorful that you didn't notice the nudity part of it, Vinod says. Singers descended on the stage from the sky, from all sorts of places. A ship comes on the stage, a palace appears, then come elephants, monkeys, lions.
The article then discusses Vinod Mehra's career.
Vinod says some top heroines had declined to work with him but he has no quarrel with them. "After all this is a hero oriented industry and the heroine is all the time leaning on the hero. And when they reach the top the heroines are scared to work with middle cadre men like me."

But he had good relationships with younger actresses like Rekha, Moushumi, Reena Roy, Yogeeta Bali, Bindiya, and Asha Sachdev. "I never think of them as heroines," he says. "We have an informal relationship which I enjoy. The other day I got the only air conditioned room reserved for Reena Roy opened and occupied it. Everyone ewas worried about what would happen when Reena came. Some thought Reena would walk out of the studio and the shooting would be canceled. When Reena came and was told that I was in the room, she straightaway barged in and we shared the room. When she had to change she went into the next room. So did I."

Vinod blames both actors and journalists for the gossip mongering. Though hundreds of film magazines have sprung up in recent years, barring two or three magazines like Filmfare or "Madhuri," they have nothing serious to discuss. [So says the writer for Filmfare!] "Generally they have a section devoted to gossip, a second section also devoted to gossip, under a different heading, a third section devoted to gossip under a third heading, a fourth section, a fifth section...nothing but gossip in different styles and garb. And one or two star interviews where either the stars talk more than necessary or interviews cooked up by the magazine itself. If these magazines can devote even two or three pages to discuss serious aspects of cinema—you can talk of photography, editing, sound, themes, trends in cinemas in other countries, there are so many topics [amen!]—it would be not only informative, they would be doing a service to the cinema in this country. And let me assure you there will be lots of people interested in reading this."

The state of affairs in our industry can improve only if the Government steps in to help, says Vinod. It must plough back at least a small part of its income from films. "The government can finance good films. Or it can engage directors, writers, artistes, and others to work in films with good themes, films which will awaken people socially. Who will not act in a good film with a good theme and a good role? [I wish he had elaborated on what a "good theme" would be!] And when a good film or good role comes who talks of price? The Rajshri Productions are doing a good job; I might make a film for them."
—V. S. Gopalakrishnan

All images and text from Fimlfare, July 1–15, 1978.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Ramu the He-Goat"?!?!

Mithun costarring with...a goat...who is a graduate...of "Devar's Film Institute of Animals"*! WOW. Does anyone know if this school is just part of the film or is it a real thing? I looong for it to be a real thing, producing top-notch graduates who feature in films for decades, including superstars like Moti, Charles, Pedro, and the Subliminal Marmoset featured in the Animalympics.

from Filmfare, September 16–30, 1978

* PS I strongly advise against googling "Devar's Film Institute of Animals." Baaaaad things happen.

Monday, May 09, 2011

"The Jennifer I Knew": Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal pictures from Filmfare

This lovely Shashi-authored photograph collection was published in the December 1–15, 1984 issue of Filmfare. I was ethically torn over blogging these: they're not my photos to share, but the bittersweetness of them tugged at my heartstrings until I let them loose on you. Look at them in New York in 1963:

part standard tourists seeing the sights squinting against the sun and wind, part easy, bouyant confidence of critical acclaim for the struggling artist, part the curve of her coat against the straight flagpoles. DIL SQUISH.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mosagallaku Mosagaadu

Next up in an eventual trilogy of posts on films by director K. S. R. Doss, all courtesy of Todd of Die Danger Die Die Kill: Mosagallaku Mosagaadu, a film I've been calling Vintage Pastel Telugu Cowboys because I have no idea how to pronounce its proper title. In my defense "vintage pastel Telugu cowboys" evokes quite a lot of the fun of this 1971 romp through the deserts of Rajasthan and the closets of a local production of Oklahoma with a heavy splash of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.* This post is going to sound an awful lot like my writeup of the last Doss film I saw, James Bond 777, because I found many of their shared features very attractive and gleefully fun to experience. If you read that post and are in a rush at the moment, you'll get the gist of what I'm about to say by mentally replacing any kind of reference to "spies/espionage" with "cowboys/treasure," "black and white" with "candy store," and "groovy/mod/fab" with "occasionally whiplash-inducing shifts in tone."

Add this to my next collection of amazing title typefaces!
Mosagallaku Mosagaadu
again features Superstar Krishna as the slightly ethically questionable hero, Prasad, who takes a break from his usual shenanigans against the rich in aid of the poor and oppressed to go in search of some legendary treasure.**

This picture doesn't really fit here, but I had to show you that the cave the treasure was hidden in is full of skeletons and ginormous spider webs!
He is joined in this quest by all the other major characters of the film, including bad girl Bijili (Jyothi Laxmi), love interest Radha (Vijaya Nirmala), uneasy colleague and sometimes foe Naaganna (Nagabushanam), and a slew of bad guys whose names I didn't catch.

The treasure is protected by five keys, and part of the story traces what the bad guys did to Krishna's father to get those keys and what he does to avenge his father and collect them again before reaching the gold

Radha also has a revenge arc; her father too was slain by baddies, and it is just her good fortune that Krishna happened upon her when she was being stalked in the woods and took her under his baby-blue wing and turned her into a sharpshooter to be reckoned with.

Even though it seems sort of out of place, I like how Radha and Prasad stand side by side in some of their later confrontations, smiling and shooting bad guys, almost like they're doing it just to be silly.

Bijili is also an enemy of sorts, at turns in disbelief and fury that Prasad does not return her affections for him.

To see the enthusiasm with which Bijili expresses said affections, watch the following video at about 7:25.

To me, there is something utterly charming in her spazzy dancing and lyrics like (according to the subtitles) "Believe me, I too have crossed the limits/I formed a liking for your manliness.... We are made for each other in every aspect/If you will not accept this, it will create problems." It's probably what would happen if I ever had to dance for a hero.

I love both these feisty fightin' females; for those of you who like your feisty females to actually fight each other, you can have that too.

They're both kick-ass, and they both have their own missions. Radha has as much determination to avenge her father as Prasad; even before she has any actual skills, she swears she will provide rest for his soul. And like many good heroines, she dances in the snow in flimsy outfits and bare feet with no complaint.

Bijili's unrequited love for Prasad might read as somewhat comic—as perhaps does Jyothi Laxmi's daytime Emmy-worthy whips of her head in response to action or statements by other characters—but I admire her confidence that she doesn't need men but simply wants one particular specimen and will use the rest of the males she encounters to serve her own ends. She's always willing to give Prasad another chance to join her side (both romantically and in the search for the treasure), even though she comes veeeery close to producing the final result of "If I can't have him, no one will" as she aids—and, this being Indian popular cinema, serenades—Naaganna in torturing Prasad with a march through blistering sun and sands.

For all of their stylistic and component similarities, Mosagallaku Mosagaadu has more emotional impact than James Bond 777. Though we've seen children avenge parents many times before, somehow there was a brutality to those scenes in this film that rattled me more than usual. Prasad is initially is much more concerned about the oppression of the poor by the rich than about his parents' desire for him to come home, but the eventual murder of his parents sends him down an entirely different path littered with corpses. There is loud, squishy violence throughout the film, but it ramps up as Prasad takes his revenge. Even scenes that are only loosely contextual to it get grosser. I'm thinking specifically of the depiction of a tribal group, the leader of which has one of the keys to the treasure: they're shown carousing, drunk, and torturing one of their own who has informed on them. Clearly an uncivilized group who will feel the weight of the hero upon them, though the whole issue of "civilized" does not really come to play in this story, thankfully, and it can hardly be argued that Prasad is noble in the usual sense of filmi heroes. Of course, at the end of the film the hero is very noble indeed, tying everything up with a pleasant shiny bow...or perhaps a sunny yellow lasso, to stay in keeping with the aesthetics of the film.

The two films both sport amazing music. This film uses the hero's theme a little more sparingly, but it's still a big fanfare blast with a sort of rallying cry for Prasad. Brass, harmonica, whistling, and a chorus of "Ya ya hoo! Ho!" set the tone beautifully for a galloping hero. Hear it here. Again, sometimes the background score does not, to my ear, coordinate with the emotional and ethical tone of what's going on, rollicking as it may be, but overall it is awesome, very energetic and lots of percussion used to emphasize action, motion, and maybe even a gunshot here and there.

Mosagallaku Mosagaadu features some of what I'm learning are K. S. R. Doss's regular techniques, like funky camera angles that visually reinforce the strength or significance of a character.

I know a hero stance when I see one.
He places his camera in trees fifteen feet above the action and looks straight down on it; later it's looking straight up as someone leaps off a camel over it; then it's on the ground looking through the sand as someone staggers across the dunes.

Several times he uses a fisheye lens to show the sky and trees or cliffs surrounding the character whose point of view he is expressing, most notably spinning around to represent the pain of someone on his back being drawn and quartered. The "victim's eye" technique is also used with Radha as she runs through a forest being pursued by an enemy we don't see; Doss actually switches the camera back and forth between prey and hunter, making the chase much more intense than it would have been if we were removed enough to see both of them in the same frame.

In the spirit of a picture being worth a thousand words, I made a collage of screen captures of what was for me the film's most significant delight, its gumball-hued wardrobe.

In the course of writing it up, I've seen the film three times and never failed to pause and reflect on the special joy that is the plastic cowboy hats, some of which seem to have been made of slightly melted and reconstituted garbage bags. In that spirit of the Halloween discount bin, there is something decidedly footy-pajama-y about some of Prasad's monochromatic outfits, even when you can see they consist of separate shirt and trousers. As someone with no attachment to film westerns from any culture or to any sense of accuracy when it comes to the loose pop cultural concept of "cowboy," this is a compliment: the film evokes the freewheeling fun of being a little kid on a winter Saturday, running around the house with a plastic sheriff's badge or a towel safety-pinned around your neck to make a superhero cape. There's also a certain unexpected drama that comes from the juxtaposition of lavender jeans or giant disco-ball earrings

with a lethal axe fight or forced death march. File these under the category of practical, versatile clothing that can go seamlessly from the day job of bloody revenge to a night on the town—or at least a sudden song teleport to Himachal Pradesh.

Before I leave the general topic of costumes, I must comment on hair and makeup too. Most of the men are also plastered with geisha-esque levels of white facial makeup (as in the picture of Krisha and Nagabushanam in a fur-trimmed hat above), and Krishna again appears with towering hair that somehow remains vertical after hours of being crunched under a cowboy hat. Even the principal baddie has one, featuring a style that Temple, Dolce and Namak, and I have begun calling, in the tradition of filmic Telugu heroic monikers, Shahenshah Squirrel Pompadours.

I like to think the uncrushable nature of the pompadour suggests the hero's almost eternally upright nature.

Read more about these violent violet cowboys in Todd's review and CineGoer. And stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Masala Zindabad that will feature Todd discussing more of Doss's films with Amrita and me!

* I have never seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly so will not discuss this film in reference to it.
** An aside about the story exposition: the introduction sets up some back story that I found confusing and not at all important to the "now" part of the film. All you need to know is that the treasure was rescued out of a battle between a kingdom in Andhra Pradesh and some evil Europeans. But because this episode is depicted in charming paintings, I had to include them here out of my love for illustrated title sequences, even though they aren't technically part of the titles.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

an interview with Shashi Kapoor from Filmfare August 8, 1975

As promised, here is the text of Bikram Vohra's interview with Shashi Kapoor entitled "Shashi Kapoor: I'm playing a Class 'C' Stuntman," a photo from which is in my previous post of Shashi goodies from the 1975 Filmfares.

Photo by Dhiraj Chawda.
There is something very disturbing about film stars who will not conform. A man expects them to behave in an extraordinary manner so he can make good, readable copy bouncing them round. Now take Shashi Kapoor. He's a bit of a spoilsport. Not only does he answer the telephone himself, he said, let's meet around eight o'clock tomorrow. I said, could we make it a little earlier in the evening (there's no percentage in working after hours). He said, I meant in the morning. I said, morning, but you won't be awake till eleven. And he said, I wake at six every day. This I had to see, I mean, it was a filmland first. Five to one he'd be dead to the world, sleeping off last night's riotous party. (Even the dullest of filmland parties are called riotous.)

The man was eating an organic breakfast, chirpy as one of those birds that hop around catching the late night worm. Shashi Kapoor, trimmer, younger, more sober, and his charming wife Jennifer, are on a health food kick. Vegetarian, adds Shashi dolefully.

Even the house has taste. No garish colour clashes or gilded self portraits, no screaming hostility between carpet, the walls and furniture. Books, from Buchwald to Nehru to Proust to Wodehouse to Godard. Pleasant, well-mannered servants.

So how come, Shashi, you don't choose your roles with the same discrimination as you do your life style. Good start! "I wish I could. I am definitely doing roles that should legitimately be given to Class 'C' stuntmen. Commercial cinema is so well entrenched in its formula it offers little."

"It is believed your roles are being massacred to cut you down, and you've been duped, 'Deewaar' being a questionin point."

"I don't think that's quite true. A lot of people have been talking this way especially after 'Deewaar.' Now I think it's ridiculous to say that Amitabh's role was engineered to show me up. After all, before I took the role I knew I was playing the second lead. So the idea of a conspiracy against Shashi Kapoor is Bullsh*t. And in any case why do we have this hang-up in our country? About always coming out as heroes. In the West great names like Olivier, Burton, Harrison frequently played second roles. There's nothing demeaning about that."

"Yes, what about the quality of these second rate roles?"

"What can I do if that's all I'm offered. I want to make good pictures in Hindi|English but who's got the guts to take the risks. I won't say i haven't done any good roles but certainly there's a lot more I could have done and still can do given the chance. In fact sometimes I really wonder if I'm anywhere near doing what I'd started as a little boy. I saw my father, my brother, and all the pioneers of Indian cinema and moved in that company. I had a different scenario in my mind. Not the commercial pap we churn out now."

Shashi Kapoor sensibly seems to be sick to the stomach with what he's doing these days and spends a good deal of his time mocking himself, for all the big plans that he had. Once the shooting's done it's home and no time for edging around in the filmalnd's social whirl. "That's quite true," he said, "it's more important to take Jennifer and the children for a movie and coffee at the Shamiana rather than hobnob at the same old dreary party, with the same old dreary people, doing the same old dreary things."

"Talking about saying things you've been speaking out of turn too."

"Oh! sometimes I speak without thinking. Whaddav I said now!"

"Well, for a start you've been saying some very nasty things about Zeenat."

"Oh, that. I've told Zeenat that to her face. Yeah! I told her she's a good looking woman, but she can't act for peanuts. So what's the big fuss about? I've told Shabana she wasn't particularly good looking but she is a very fine actress. I say what I feel that's why people don't like me, they are welcome to say it, it's all a matter of opinion."

"How come the Kapoors haven't made a film together?"

"We haven't been given the script. We wouldn't want to make a gimmick. If something worth while comes up, we will."

"Are you acting in Raj's latest movie?"

"I don't know. He hasn't told me yet."

"You all don't meet each other often, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, we don't. It's not that we aren't a close-knit family. We just don't like to invade each other's privacy. We keep in touch. We are not always breathing down each other's neck. We have our own lives to live. So why be phony about it."

Good looking with lazy eyes, a rather boyish grin, Shashi has just won over a Kapoor bogey—overweight. Keeps himself trim—swimming and a regimented diet. Known for dispensing with star airs Shashi is quite capable of dropping in at a journalist friend's place for 'dosas' or sitting through a friend's theatrical performances in an old tumble down school hall.

He does it without a trace of noblesse oblige but much of the dedication has dissolved into habit, the ideals rust in their own glory. Being commercial is comfortable so why analyse it too deeply. Mr. Shashi Kapoor has come to earth with a big bump. And when he turns around to check what happened it still hurts.
—Bikram Vohra
The way this piece ends makes me sad. Rusted ideals! I hope that Junoon and Kalyug turned that around and that by 1982 nobody thought to interview him about dreams that hadn't materialized, even if he wasn't pleased with his glorious, rich masala films like Kaala Patthar or even Raj Kapoor's Satyam Shivam Sundaram. And does it strike anyone else as an odd contrast in tone for the author of this piece saying run-of-the-mill popular films should make their participants sick to their stomachs while the rest of the magazine glorifies and promotes those very same films? Hmm. So much to learn from the archives!