Tuesday, May 28, 2013


When the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit decreed that the mission for May was to write about snow and ice and other frosty fiends (MOSS has a cruel sense of humor), Gaddaar (1973, not the Suneil Shetty one) came to mind instantly. In an appropriately filmi coincidence, it also beckoned to fellow MOSS agent Todd, who has posted his writeup on Die Danger Die Die Kill here.

Himalayas represent!

Gaddaar is maybe the best Hindi film of 1973, if not the first half of the 70s, that you probably haven't seen. I hope I'm wrong, but it seems that hardly anyone has watched this. Just yesterday I was bringing it to the attention of a full-time film critic who is a self-professed lover of the 70s, so it has somehow even escaped the notice of people who spend a lot time thinking about movies. But no more! I first learned of Gaddaar a few years ago when Memsaab, yet another fellow MOSS agent, wrote it up, and I thought "Where has this been all my life?" If you look at her post, you'll see several other people making that same basic comment, which adds to my sense that somehow this movie fell into a very undeserved oblivion long ago.

Though the opening action centers on a heist, the bulk of the film focuses on the story of what happens to the gang of criminals as one of their members runs off with their loot and another shadowy figure offers to help them search if they'll cut him in on the treasure. Snow (oh right, that's why I'm writing about this!) enters the picture as the traitor is eventually tracked to hotel in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, where blocked roads, difficult terrain, and the threat of storm freeze (haha) the location of second half of the film, with the isolation and limited movement both adding to and reflecting the increasingly fevered state of everyone's desperation.
That's basically the whole film. Despite the vintage and the actors, this really isn't masala: it lacks romance, family, and religion; there's no subplot or comic track of any kind; and there are only three songs over the runtime of more than two hours. More to the point, though, none of those absences are felt. Gaddaar is basically perfect just as it is.

Number one on its list of strengths is the cast. The gang leader is Pran, who spends the first few minutes of the film driving around Bombay in an absolute blue whale of an American car flashing hand signals to his crew, who all respond with an eager thumbs-up.
The gang's all here: Madan Puri, Iftekhar, Anwar Hussain, Manmohan, Ranjeet, and Ram Mohan.
Vinod Khanna is so fly in this movie that I have sent beta Rahul screenshots of  his wardrobe with the hope of inspiring Rahul to do a similarly-attired photo shoot. 
Vinod Khanna is the lone wolf who forces his way into the group after overhearing what they're after. He also very helpfully follows up the traitor's love of cabaret dancers (notably Padma Khanna, who also gets more lines here than usual) and selflessly goes to tawaifs all over the country (Look! The Howrah Bridge! The ghats of Varanasi! The Qtub Minar!) asking the dancers if they've seen the traitor. A girl finally points them to HP, where they spend the remainder of the film trying to recoup their money while fighting off the traitor and his staff, as well as surviving the elements and their own nerves.

Chasing is generally more interesting to watch than planning, and the decision to show the effects of treachery after the heist, as opposed to the lead-up to the heist itself, is a wise one, enabling the writers to explore ideas like loyalty, friendship, identity, professional ethics, ambition, and dreams. These kinds of topics, in turn, give this outstanding cast a chance to do way more than they they get to in most other films, and what a joy it is.

I can't step outside my fervent love of 70s Bollywood enough to state empirically that all these guys are brilliant actors in these roles; it could be that I'm just so excited to see them have more than four lines, or be more than a beleaguered cop or slimy rapist, that anything they do would please me. But either way, Gaddaar gives us more time with Iftekhar, who has a scene that brings tears to my eyes, and Ranjeet, for whom I actually feel a teensy bit sorry, than any other film I've seen.

Plus they all appear in an excellent qawwali as the criminals dance around the hotel celebrating their find and taunting the traitor's betrayal of their friendship now that they have him where they want him. I won't embed the video because it actually contains at least one spoiler and some foreshadowing, but if you want to watch it anyway, click here. I wish it didn't, because I would love for you all to see Vinod Khanna be a snake charmer with VAT 69 as his been and Ranjeet as his snake.

The actors do not get equal screen time, but the unraveling of Anwar Husain's character, who for reasons not clear to me dreams of opening his own circus, is almost hypotizing and not at all what I expected to see. The value he puts in his talents and ambition is paralleled in Pran's increasingly frantic insistence that he get his hands on this money, not as much for the sake of it being money as for its symbolism of victory. His character states several times that he does not make a habit of losing, and each time the metal briefcase full of cash slips from his grasp he gets closer to the edge. As Todd points out, the violence also escalates, which is a nice counterpoint to the psychological and emotional changes in the characters and makes perfect sense when you lock a bunch of criminals in a room with lots of booze and not much to do except think about their greed and the money that's just out of reach. The violence also adds to character development, as we find out who is actually a real creep (Surprise! It's not Ranjeet, for once!) and who has a conscience about the innocent bystanders in the hotel who might end up collateral damage. And from those differences arise clues to the true identity of a few of the characters and hints at how they will eventually align (or not).

Age is an interesting and, according to the subtitles, anyway, largely unspoken factor in how the criminals are depicted. Pran, Anwar, Madan, and Iftekhar act more as the brains and leaders than the younger men do, and Pran and Iftekhar in particular are written as long-standing friends who genuinely care for each other, expressed in scenes that make this movie a must-see for anyone who likes Bombay's gentlemen character actors of this period. The younger men serve a bit more as heavies, but they are not without dashes of personality.

Forty years after Gaddaar's release, it's still a taut depiction of risks of the criminal life. To make up for hackishly calling a heist movie "taut," I'll add that the script, pacing, visuals, and acting are as tight as Vinod Khanna's flares. Yeah baby! From the opening moments this movie is slightly different, despite its familiar faces. It begins with a wealthy maharaja (or so I assume, based on his pearl necklace) getting a tour of his high-tech safe from his diwan, which of course the gang is about to rob. The maharaja is played by none other than Ajit, who, if my research is accurate, wasn't quite known as one of the quintessential 70s villains just yet (and in fact Zanjeer released a week after Gaddaar), but certainly looking back on things, it's hilarious to see the stereotypical criminal mastermind as a socially respectable figure getting robbed blind.

Thinking of the opening scene also brings up the use of color and pattern in this film, which is really clever. The first segment—that is, the heist and the initial search around the country for the traitor—is near the level of gaudiness one expects from 70s Bombay films. From the very first frame, showing a sunny sky over the seashore in Bombay and then Ajit's mansion that is the color of Baskin Robbins's daiquiri ice cream (from back in the early 80s when we didn't care about artificial coloring, not this watered-down stuff they have now) on the outside and cotton candy on the inside, and across the gang's wardrobe full of plaid suits with paisley cravats (look at the collage below) and the costumes and sets of the dancing girls' songs, this is the lurid world of criminals and cabarets. 
I've seen this wall often enough to assume it's an actual hotel. If it still exists, I hope we can have my next birthday party there.
But when the action shifts to HP, the visuals are mostly more sedate. The hotel has some mismatched curtains and carpets, of course (reminding me very much of the West Bengal Department of Tourism hotel I stayed in in Darjeeling, actually—furnishings from every conceivable fashion of the last 40 years), generally the look of the film is more sedate. People wear big brown or black coats, the walls are panelled in nondescript wood, snow covers most sufaces outside, the mountains and sky are generally gray, and even the scenes outside the hotel take place in utilitarian or rocky spots (a barn, a cave) that are no more colorful. The action is likewise toned down, not in actual scope but in accessories: in Bombay people chase in vehicles and run quickly through paved city streets, whereas in HP they stumble over snowy hills on foot. 

Laxmikant-Pyarelal's music, though scant compared to some films of the same era, is used well in Gaddaar. The criminals' qawwali is my favorite from a storytelling point of view (as well as its surprise factor), because it shows the familial side of a group of people who have committed to and invested in a shared mission—and been through a lot of stress because of it. Padma Khanna has a spectacular cabaret number with Egyptian trappings ("Wayi Wayi Main Jal Gayi," or, as the DVD calls it, "Yeh Aag Hai") (and you know how I love Egyptian songs). Apparently this song isn't online, which is a grave travesty indeed. It's a fascinating portrayal of female power—maybe a conscious counterpoint to the almost entirely male cast and agents of action in the rest of the film (the only other interesting woman being a doctor and nurse married couple at the hotel who debate the ethics of giving medical treatment to criminals)—featuring Padma as a sort of...pharaoh, perhaps (though minus symbolic beard), whose mere presence sends villagers scattering as she is paraded through the streets in a sedan chair. She selects a male subject (choreographer Oscar wearing very disturbing yellow leggings and not much else) and brings him back to a sort of pleasure palace, letting him splash in a heart-shaped pool and feeding him grapes and tantalizing drinks from glittering pitchers before dancing with him all over the room (including a bed) and eventually sending a poisonous snake after him. 
The second song, which features Vinod going from city to city asking various dancing girls if they recognize the photo of the traitor, is also good, and it packs in several different lead dancers and corresponding sets into one song. 

I don't know if L-P also did the background score, but whoever did seems to have listened to a lot of westerns, because the music that plays while people trek through the snow evokes cowboys to me, complete with strings, trumpets, whistling, and clanging chimes that I picture hanging in the mission church in the ghost town. There's also at least one really powerful use of silence, a 30-second stretch that accompanies a dramatic event and I think is supposed to reflect a character's swirl of emotions and perhaps even his defeat.

Now that I have seen the movie a few more times, I have a different assessment of the film than I had when I first watched it with Amrita and we featured it in the inaugural episode of Amrita's and my Masala Zindabad postcast, which you can hear here (please excuse the terrible audio quality—we had just begun learning at that point). If I recall, we said it was a really good B-movie, but now I don't think there's anything less than A about it apart from the ubiquity of certain faces across its runtime. Story, acting, music, set design, action, themes: Gaddaar has it all.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Jab Tak Hai Jaan

I would like those 897 hours of my life back, please. In case you want to spend a little more time with it, I tweeted while watching it with Amrita and then collected those thoughts on Storify here. Warning: in case you couldn't tell from the first sentence of this post, we are not nice. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Go Goa Gone

I'm just back from a strange cinema experience. Yesterday an acquaintance on twitter alerted me to the presence of Go Goa Gone at the multiplex that shows the occasional Indian film in a town about an hour's drive from here. To my knowledge, all the previous screenings of Indian movies have been organized by a very small handful of people who know how to work the local networks and get the word out. Based on the absence of electronic advertising in my town, and the fact that instead of just one screening it's playing multiple times a day for a whole week, I have to assume this one was brought in by the cinema itself (or the network of theaters that it's a part of). I dare not allow myself to hope this means that we're going to get Indian films in east-central Illinois on a regular basis with more than one screening per film. When I showed up for the 1:15 show today, I was the only person in a cinema seating probably 300. Oh dearie me.

Whatever implications this has for the business model of 20ish screenings per new fillum, it's also really weird to watch a somewhat scary movie in a giant dark room all by yourself, especially when you are the easily startled type. Which I am. I might have almost tossed my box of Junior Mints in the air when a zombie sneaks up on one of the boys (no surgical procedures in the vicinity), but there's no one who can prove it.

I almost prefaced the film's name in the title of this post with "half-baked," but that felt unfair. I don't know what this film was trying to do, so I can't say with certainty that it missed those goals. I can say I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Shaun of the Dead, which has the magic of Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright's charming, dil-squish-y friendship*, or Night of the Living Dead, which has real menace and tragedy.

Someone, maybe Anupama Chopra on The Front Row, said that this film is kind of zombie-like itself, lurching along without all its brains, and I tend to agree. I wanted it to do more with some of what it started to lay out, namely the potentially very biting and funny premise that the Goa party scene, whether in idealized, fictionalized form (three bros going on their road trip remined me of Dil Chahta Hai) or in reality, turns people into zombies. I mean, in some ways that's what Manoj Kumar would do, isn't it? These foreigners wanting to turn India into the walking dead. Chee! Except it's a more complicated and cynical time now, and it's a boy from the national capital who unleashes the horror without ever intending what is basically an act of terrorism. I didn't need or expect Go Goa Gone to be biting socio-political commentary, but that is an angle the writers could have taken to give this more body. This kind of good start that fizzled out was true for some details, too. It may have been a problem at my cinema, but there were several outdoor scenes that looked shabbily green-screened, and that was a harsh contrast to some of the other details, like the boys' decor of their flat and office cubicles or the blood splatters around the sites on the island. Or things like zombies who are repeatedly referred to as unable to walk quickly or climb trees yet are scampering and scaling a scaffolding by the end of the film, or an unimportant continuity error (watch Hardik and the diamond ring), or a possibly quite important decision to have Bunny relieve himself on the only visually singled-out black person in the whole film.

There were other underdeveloped aspects that I wish the film had either done more with or cleaned up into something crisper or tidier. Saif Ali Khan's Fauxviet Boris is funny, as is his carefully placed tattoo of his own name, but why keep him talking in his Russian accent after he's admitted he's from Delhi? If the accent was part of the comedy track, just make the reveal of his identity later in the story and the need to bend/ignore logic vanishes. The intro track of Luv, Hardik, and Bunny in their Mumbai flat took too long for what it added (i.e. zero). It'd be just as simple to make the drive to Goa a few minutes longer (and let that VW earn its starring credit slapped on the screen before the film started) and have the guys indulge in a bitch session en route to establish their current woeful state of affairs. Giving them a home, either physically or psychologically, adds nothing because that location clearly meant nothing to anyone in the film and was never revisited. In my version of the film, there'd be no interval, which felt unnecessary as is and would be even sillier if the film were leaner. Though I don't know how one would make a lean stoner comedy. Maybe that's not relevant (or possible). Yet on the other hand, if you're fleeing zombies, the swifter the better, right? Hmm.

If the three boys are supposed to be anything other than basically good, if kind of dim, ordinary Joes who rise to the occasion of a zombie apocalypse, then that goal was met. However, if I'm supposed to really believe that Hardik earns his name, I saw no evidence of it (his implied tryst with Ariana is off-screen, so we don't really know if it's just another of his exaggerations or if she was stoned enough to sleep with him). Luv flipped and flopped between stoner and clean so fast, and so free of consequences, that those changes didn't matter. And Bunny's story was never made clear, even to his friends inside the story. It's not that I was expecting rich character development, but the lack of it stands out when not much else is developed either. That's what I mean by half-baked: there are plenty of fun and/or interesting ingredients but I just didn't get much out of them.

But that said, I really did not dislike Go Goa Gone. I definitely laughed, mostly at the sort of film-trope inversions like the romp around the trees, stopping the climactic action to pray, or the dance of a meet-cute that was unravelled by the characters' realization that in the Facebook age we all have enough passing, basically anonymous, low-grade familiarity with one another that there is no such such thing as meet-cutes anymore. [Spoiler for the next two sentences!] I also really appreciated a heroine who had no romantic interest in anyone in the story, especially when all the options were man-children or criminals. As Cinema Chaat points out, Luna is a woman who runs away from trouble and bad decisions instead of towards them; we'd have no drama if everyone made good decisions, but when zombies are on the loose, you don't need the living to add more dumbness to the mix. [End spoiler.]

Go Goa Gone didn't cohere into anything substantial for me (it's too soon to add "or memorable" but I bet that will prove true a week from now), which isn't necessarily a condemnation, since I didn't walk out wishing I had those two hours of my life back or stomping my feet about regressive traditionalism or misapplied escapism. I was amused, but overall it's not my sense of humor; I wanted all the named characters to make it out alive but I wasn't invested in them or what they learned** beyond that; the effects of zombie-ism were gross but not so much so that I had to peep through my fingers. It's not bad, but it could have used more bite.

* Like most everyone else on the planet, I find Shaun of the Dead really funny, but there it has the edge of being in my native tongue. Through no fault of its creators, Go Goa Gone also suffered from some pretty lame subtitles, so I suspect if I knew Hindi OR had better subtitles, I would have found it even funnier.

** I'm not well-versed in zombie or other horror movies and I can only assume that the repeated dialogue "What have we learned?" is a reference to a film I haven't seen?


Friday, May 03, 2013

Happy cinecentennial!

Midway through the day I was overcome with emotion at the very thought of it all, and I tweeted an ill-formed (and incomplete) list of things I like about Indian cinema. I then collected and illustrated them all on Storify. Click here for the experience.

At some point I will write something more than a few sentences about the centennial of Indian cinema, but there is just too much work this time of year for that to happen right now. We'll be celebrating for the rest of 2013, though, right? Right!