Friday, January 13, 2012


How did Yash Chopra manage to make Darr creepy from the very first scene
That's the hero talking to the heroine through the letter, though it doubles as exactly what the villain could be saying —and is probably thinking, since he, not the hero, is nearby.
but so brain-bashingly stupid? A story that uses fear to contrast definitions and depictions of love would be so much more effective if the romantic pair (Sunil/Sunny Deol and Kiran/Juhi Chawla) did anything to protect themselves from it. They're too stupid to be as afraid as they should be (and therefore cannot act with intelligence), yet somehow they're also too stupid to do much about that fear once it begins to sink in.
For example, if you're being stalked, don't open packages that are left at your door anonymously.
They've got no street smarts, which I guess is to be expected of a girl who still wears a knee-length plaid skirt and white socks to school, but what's the naval officer's excuse? This is a guy who thinks it's funny to pretend to attack his girlfriend from the depths of a dark swimming pool, after the stalker (Rahul/Shahrukh Khan) has shown up at her home and called her, giving her a terrifying thirty seconds of panic as she thinks the stalker is trying to drown her. (And let's not get into the dangers of making someone thrash around unpredictably near wet metal and concrete!)
Inspired by Phoebe Cates?
That right there should get his ass dumped, and it gives unfortunate credence to Rahul's insistence that Sunil doesn't deserve Kiran. When even the comic relief is telling you to call the police to handle the stalker, it's time to m*therf*cking call the police. Because the cluelessness of the leads is no match for the psychopath's obsession, the tension over his next move is so much less than it could have been.

THAT SAID, Darr is otherwise quite enjoyable with flashes of very thoughtful filmmaking. No energy is wasted on showing the psychopath's slow descent into madness. Introduced as a peeping-Tom's-eye-view of the wet and vulnerable heroine, an uneven, distant percussive sound under a melody that will become his calling card, a rustle in the forest, we know he's a threat before we even see him. That is brilliant. (Note I won't argue it's unique; I don't watch enough scary movies to know.) The villain is far and away the most well-written character in the film. He's given more complexity and nuanced depictions. He's also the most consistent, which may be just the logical result of his obsession, but it's also a very welcome change from the vagaries of the child-like heroine and lackluster hero. 

All those stories of Sunny Deol being pissed off about Shahrukh stealing the show in Darr make total sense to me. The hero got shafted. Part of that is the writing—it'd be clear on paper what's going on here (which makes me think that there really must not have been a final-ish script available for him to read, or if there was he didn't read it)—but a very significant factor is Shahrukh's charisma, wildness, and hamminess. He may have great material to work with, but he brings so much to it. To be honest, I have a hard time separating the writing, directing, and performance. I can't tell where Rahul-as-conceived ends and Rahul-as-performed begins.

Not just the scenarios and dialogue but so much of his basic posture and blocking added to our sense of who Rahul is and what he's thinking. For example, the first time we really see him, he is quite literally already on the edge of death.
Or that scene in the elevator, when in the span of a few seconds he goes from sniffing an unwitting Juhi's dupatta and almost touching her to curling up in a little ball in another direction when his (also unaware) rival appears—perfect.
Expand, contract.
That is a person who is not yet confident (or maybe unhinged) enough to be seen. Later in the story, he crashes right past simply being visible to flaunting his presence, but not just yet. Rahul's mania takes many forms: he can realax and play with it, but he can also be wound up and pushed over the brink by it.

I love how the movie hints that the hero and villain can be different sides of the same coin. From the onset, they are compared and confused. Kiran thinks Rahul's song is Sunil's. She talks about how much Sunil loves harassing her (per the subtitles, anyway), like pretending to be a corpse and falling out of her closet when she opens its door, but of course at this point she has no idea what "harassment" is going to mean in her life.
She thinks hands covering her eyes during a black-out at her birthday dinner are her boyfriend's, but boy is she wrong. Later examples include the way each communicates with her using their own blood and the contrasts in her reactions when each of them marks her forehead in red. 
Early in the film, there's very telling narration as Kiran's train from school goes through a tunnel and the screen is dark.
What Rahul suffers is not utterly different or separate from love. It's an overreaching, a transgression, a mutation. 

Anyway, Rahul is an amazing character, and SRK nailed it. This is my favorite of his performances before Dil Se. Which probably isn't saying much, since I tend to avoid-yaar the early and mid-1990s, but still.

Darr sounds and looks really good. In an era—and, let's be honest, with an actor—I associate with crassness, tackiness, and just plain off-ness, I was surprised to find so much cleverness, especially when supporting a story that could have very easily dissolved into a slurry of leering, cheap scares, and pink blood. There are so many ironies that show how in conflict with the standard filmi order, how undesirable, Rahul is. 

The music is so effective at supporting and creating the film's moods. Whoever did the background score (was that also Shiv-Hari?) was completely engaged with what was going on in the film and made sure the music was integrated carefully. For example, listen for how Rahul's theme tune (the "tu hai meri, Kiran" snippet of "Jaadu Teri Nazar") is used throughout, repeated and refracted. I particularly like a militaristic version that plays with no instruments but drums that rattle, just as it surely sounds in Rhaul's head. Or the frantic strings as Kiran thinks she's drowning in the pool. Even those horrible phone rings are effective. Remember the scene when the different phone lines in the house ring a simultaneously but so discordantly? 

Visual motifs repeat too. Writing appears throughout, almost always as a sign of Rahul's insanity (the blood-soaked rag, the vandalized apartment, and oh yeah CARVING HER NAME INTO HIS CHEST WITH A KNIFE)... 
but Sunil's writing opens the film. What's that about? Another way of showing the importance of type of love as distinguishing between hero and villain? Water is everywhere, sometimes as a threat, sometimes as a force of isolation, sometimes as sexuality (Kiran getting caught in the rain and starting to take off her wet dress in the beginning, her drenched, sensual dancing in Rahul's imagination), always as unrest (the film loves the word "toofan"). There are parallel scenes of both hero and villain on balconies watching Kiran by a swimming pool in the proximity of the other. Likewise the two boat scenes, bookending the film with the hero making identical entrances into them. 
Glad he had time after recovering from the chest wounds but before rescuing his wife from a murderer to stop and find black cloth to tie around his head. 
It's worth asking how in the world this violent, blood-filled, psychopath-centered film won a silver lotus at the National Film Awards for "best popular film providing wholesome entertainment." The official site for the 1993 awards here says Darr was awarded "for its convincing presentation of the theme of love, which has been rendered complex by its relationship with past experiences of fear." I suppose it's possible to argue that the love/loves portrayed in Darr is/are complex, though I don't think so—Sunil and Kiran love each other in that typical film way that means they'll do stupid things in the name of protecting each other, and Rahul loves Kiran in that very special, completely ignorant, delusional, and solipsistic way that stalkers so often do—but how is the fear "past"? There is very palpable (and very strangely dubbed—in the big fight at the end, only SRK is making any noise) fear until the very last  tacked-on scene. Wholesome schmolesome. 


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Just say yes! Charas

Reader beware: extremely picture-heavy post.

Also a note on the title, before we get started: the subtitles translate the word "charas" as opium; a friend in Delhi told me it means heroin; and the Oxford Hindi-English dictionary says it's a kind of resin-based preparation of cannabis. I'll just say "drugs" and be done with it.

Charas is fantastic. It's glorious, giddy, jam-packed but streamlined 70s masala. I am simultaneously incredibly grateful to have seen it and saddened by the knowledge that for each movie like this I see there is one fewer remaining to discover. Overall, Charas comes off as an action- and comedy-leaning masala with well-implemented touches of James Bond. Moralizing is all but absent; the movie is loosely about drugs, but here drugs are simply an illegal thing that smugglers export to Europe for cash rather than something evil masterminds are going to use to to enslave the innocent of India and bring the moral downfall of a culture. Drugs are a legal issue here, not an ethical one. Family drama, religion, and revenge are succinctly handled with some unusual spin and plenty of impact. There is no melodrama, but I didn't miss it one bit. All the usual masala ingredients are there, but they're in the service of...momentum, I guess I'd call it. It's like everyone involved—both the real people making the film and the characters in it—never forgot that they were trying to outwit each other before the clock ran out.

There is little about the plot that you couldn't guess—Ajit leads a group of smugglers in international drug-dealing and has blackmailed Hema Malini into helping him, and Dharmendra, the son of someone Ajit betrayed early in the film, becomes a police officer to stop him—and everyone involved in front of and behind the camera does their job expertly. It's the crew of of Charas who really deserve most of the praise that bubbled out of me while I watched the film. While the cast is very good (with Dharmendra adding that little something extra in some of his comedy and undercover bits), I think it's the crafting and assemblage of all the ingredients that make this film what it is. The other films written by writer/director Ramanand Sagar I've seen, Barsaat and Sangdil, do not at all indicate he'd be so good at creating something as fun as this. As much as I love the wackadoo and complications of Manmohan Desai, it's surprising to see something as full of goodies as Charas is that somehow remains lean. What follows is a list of what I think made the film so special.

This isn't relevant to anything, but I had to include a shot of the best stationery ever.
Despite what I just said about the acting being great but not perhaps the greatest thing about this film, it would be a horrible oversight—an act of fraternal treason, even—not to point out immediately that this is Tom Alter's first film. It's a perfectly competent turn in a standard side-good-guy role, but what is notable about it is that he plays an important and helpful character, in stark contrast to what he is now known for (bad guy sidekicks). As such, he spends a lot of time with the hero doing brave things: he questions bad guys, shares information, plans with Dharmendra, and leads the police in shootouts and raids.
He's the lone person in khaki on the ridge; all the other police are in blue. But mostly I just liked all the diagonals in this shot.
It's not the most demanding role imaginable, but it is by far the biggest and most significant one I've seen him in. I could probably even argue that he's a sort of stand-in for the hero's father, providing some emotional support and definitely acting as a protective comrade-in-arms. Nice wig, too. All hail the FTII-trained king of the gora bit players!

Charas hosts some pretty spectacular musical numbers. Hema's character is a dancer (the subtitles keep calling her an actress, but we don't see any acting) who tours internationally, and she enters the film from the head of a sphinx in the wonderful Egyptian-themed number "Mera Naam Ballerina."
The backing dancers play drums with their hair.
Hema's dance troupe is roped into helping smuggle the drugs out of India in their sets, and we get to see those ewers and some other large-scale constructions a few more times.
In one of the grand traditions of lavish stage numbers, the visual theme has nothing to do with anything in the rest of the film. And who cares! It's fabulous (and is near the top of my list of Egyptian-based or -themed film songs). As if in retort to the good girl's big song, the villains have a nightclub in their property in Malta  (where much of the action takes place), where we get two songs with Aruna Irani (playing Dharmendra's presumed-dead and kidnapped sister, who has been forced into the shameful life of a dancer [eyeroll]). This is one of the best nightclub sets ever, crammed to the gills (ha!) in all directions with sea creatures and fishing props.
And a giant eye that opens into a back room for spying. Of course. Run, don't walk, to those youtube links to see this thing for yourself. The blood-red entrance is a giant shark mouth, complete with two other little fish inside it. There are lava vents, giant anchors, and seahorses and frogs with light-bulb eyes. 

As is completely sensible, the smugglers and police, spread over two continents, need to keep in contact, and there is a vast array of communications equipment. Both sides have bleeping, blinking control rooms full of knobs and switches (note the Maltese cross in the police room). Dharmendra has the classic shoe phone and officers Asrani and Keshto Mukherjee have tracking devices hidden various places, including a watermelon.
I'm so pleased to say that this is not the only film I've seen that hides transmitters in melons (it also happens in Inkaar).
There's a smattering of religion in Charas, but it's Catholic. When Hema is distraught over a missing Dharmendra, she wanders through the streets and prays to a statue of Mary for his return. Elsewhere in town, Dharmendra sadly ponders a crucifix (see most of it here).
If the subtitles are accurate, this is the kind of exchange I can imagine happening with the more typical shrines and temples. I don't know if it's unique, but the direct address by both characters to Christian figures, when they have not been previously identified as Christian, was both interesting and site-appropriate. I like that the movie acknowledged that it was in a small corner of the central Mediterranean and did not pretend that there would be a Hindu temple conveniently around the corner. Sure, it probably pretended lots of other things that don't exist in Malta, but this one was a nice link between what film characters typically do and what would actually make sense for their setting. It also quietly suggested an attitude about the universality of the divine and the power of prayer that I wasn't expecting.

I still can't quite put my finger on what reminded me so much of James Bond in this film. No one is a spy, so I think it must have been the sunny European locales and the emphasis on the crime.
Certainly a motorcycle and car chase over winding hilly streets helped, as did the island depot/lair that the smugglers use as the final stop for their crates of drugs (seen in the bottom two images above). I would love to know where this was shot; if it's a set, it was very well done, full of stalactites, flooded floors, and machinery. I also really liked how some of these shots were set up: lots of diagonal lines and plenty of scope to see what's going on from interesting angles.

There is repeated (though brief) talk about female honor, and you know I always need to discuss that. Early in the film, Aruna is captured by Ajit's gang and forced to dance in their undersea nightclub; while there, she has discussions with the other principal dancer (Madhumati,who gets some awesome costumes) about the futility of worrying about honor once you've ended up in a place like this. Later Madhumati advises Aruna not to be ashamed of herself and to call her brother for help, not only for her own sake but for that of all the other girls who are forced into similar lives. Aruna falters, unable to admit what has become of her through absolutely no fault of her own, but Dharmendra is thrilled to see her and they have a wonderful bhai-bahin reunion. I must have seen other long-lost sister-brother pairs, but I can't remember any, and this was a nice change from brothers. (And now that I think about it, I'm realizing that the most important people to the hero are women. His work world is very male, but his emotional one consists only of women.) 

Hema too is forced into this life of crime by Ajit; he says he has evidence that can either convict or acquit her of a long-ago murder.
If she doesn't help him with his smuggling, he'll turn her in, and the loss of her income will force her crippled father onto the street to beg and her sister into a brothel. Those words echo through her head and she agrees to his terms. The hero too throws around questions of honor. Seeing all the white and, presumably, charas-addicted kids in a hotel, he asks whether she'll behave similarly. She gives him the "Indian girls don't do that" line, but he doesn't seem to mind and they head off to sing a love song in their hotel rooms.
Later, Ajit tries to sell her to one of his henchmen, and she puts up as many kinds of fights as she can, first with a simple statement of the facts of her situation
Bowls of fruit almost always lead to knife violence in masala films.
and then pleading that she loves another. Dharmendra witnesses this whole exchange and is initially furious that she would betray him but then realizes that she has been forced into the situation and is trying as hard as she can to fight off the sheikh.

The villain treats women as he does drugs: capital. He talks about photographing girls while his men "molest" them and selling the pictures to Europe, but he does not do the molesting himself or surround himself with dancing girls who feed him grapes. It's another example of a villain who has no interest in the sensual pleasures of the crime he commits—he just wants the money or whatever advancement of his plans they can offer. Even these women's "honor" is a means to an end rather than, to borrow language from other films, a juicy fruit that he wants to savor himself. This is in no way to say that he's not such a bad guy after all. He is, but he is more simply pragmatic and greedy than he is debauched or threatening to moral order or integrity.

To end, here are a few other masala delights. The wardrobe crew of Charas was relatively restrained, but that doesn't mean the clothes are boring. No no no. There is a ton of plaid in this movie, mostly on Ajit's jackets, but Dharmendra has some too, including a head-to-toe plaid suit paired with Pucci-esque tie. Amjad Khan (as one of Ajit's gang) always appears in a ruffled tuxedo shirt and a giant plastic-y scar on the right side of his face. Often he wears a black jacket and tie, but for picking up a supply of drugs at the airport he chooses to wear a white jacket, red tie, and brown fedora. You know, keeping things low-key and inconspicuous. Asrani goes undercover as a hippie with lots of patches on his jacket and jeans; my favorite says ALL INDIA DRINKING TEAM. And Madhumati and Aruna get some nice dancing girl outfits; nothing too crazy, but how about this gold spangle-fronted top? Classy!
Ajit just barely slips through Dharmendra's grasp in a car chase, relying on a helicopter for his escape. The car is full of loot, so he can't leave it behind and climb up to the helicopter on a rope; instead, the helicopter tosses down a net, he drives over it, and the car and driver are lifted into the sky.
Dharmendra is most seriously displeased.
There are a ton of "that guy"s rounding out the police force and smuggling crew. Does anyone know who this is?
And some villain lair staples like a map room, that taxidermied tiger that is in every movie between 1966 and 1984, and a henchman in a polka-dot hat.

Phew! There's so much more I could say about Charas—how it tidily opens and closes with destructive fires, how its action covers three continents, how nice it is to see Asrani with a role that is not simply comic or whiny—but your time is better spent just watching it for yourself. I love this movie in all its mid-70s streamlined masala glory!