Tuesday, March 25, 2014

three films from the Mahanayak: Sabar Uparey, Bipasha, and Lal Pathar

Three Uttam Kumar films I've seen in the last month or so, which, coincidentally, showcase the superstar's special skills at romantic nonchalance and matinee idol-ing and what can happen when he charges full-tilt into nearly histrionic ACT!ING! The first two entries are my thoughts in brief, and the last one is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation between Filmi Geek and me after we watched the third film. (The same piece is on her blog, so if you've read her entry on the Bengali Lal Pathar, you've read this one.)

Sabar Uparey (1955)
I can't even remember why I watched this. Probably because it was on Youtube legally with subtitles. It's one of those films that runs exactly counter to the general concept that floats around that Bengali films are less melodramatic and more sensible than Hindi films. I tell you what: plenty of mainstream Bengali films, at least from the era I watch (1950s–1980, plus songs in the last handful of years) are bonkers in plot, tone, and/or expression. Look at the faces people are pulling in this movie as Uttam Kumar learns the awful truth about his father and abandons his promising law career to go on a quest to restore his name. Uttam and his mother (I do not know this actor's name but I've seen her as maa a few times, and I suspect she is nowhere near as old as this makeup is supposed to make her look) are shocked!
Sad Uttam is sad.
"Why oh why must I be a Chaterjee?"
Flummoxed by research!
Uttam and Chhabi Biswas go mad! 
Suspcious Uttam is suspicious. This eyebrow action actually makes me wish for more courtroom theatrics.

It has moments of sweetness, and Suchitra Sen as his love interest manages to be extremely supportive, even risking her own reputation to shelter and care for him, without being a doormat or a tramp. It's a fairly convincing case of the love of a good woman (decidedly not a girl) being the perfect accessory to the hero's struggle.

For the most part, I find this movie silly, possibly because I am made of stone, but possibly because the dramatics distracted me from any emotional heft in the story and words. Wikipedia calls it a noir based on an A. J. Cronin novel*. To me the tone is completely off for noir: the visuals are clear, the final mood is, as will surprise no one who has seen mainstream Indian films, resolutely optimistic and shining, and the central mystery that Uttam investigates is simply sad rather than a dark exploration of crime and vice. It's mopey and soft rather than hard and cynical. If the femme fatale is considered necessary for noir, this film also fails. There is a woman who causes trouble, but at least in the subtitles she didn't come off as more dangerous than various other people, and (again, not surprisingly) she's not at all a temptation to the hero. Similarly, the hero himself is too goody-goody and maybe even milquetoast to create a noir attitude. None of this means it's bad, but it's definitely not taut or ethically shadowy. Ultimately, it's not very interesting either because there's never any doubt that the good son will triumph, the wife's loyalty will be rewarded, and the diligent, supportive love interest will be incorporated into the reunited family.

However, I cannot leave it without sharing what must surely be a gem of the dialogues of the Uttam-Suchitra oeuvre and one of the best conceivable Bengali pick-up lines.

 (1962) (Many thanks to Shekhar in Calcutta for sending it to me!)
This film has many elements in common with Sabar Uparey but manages to be a zillion times better. One hates to get one's hopes up, but just look at this title! I've never seen a film name spelled out in lace. How lovely!
Speaking of lovely, Suchitra and Uttam are to me much more convincing in their romances in this era when they're both a little older as actors. There's something very compellingly "movie star" about them now, maybe because they've worked together enough that they (and directors) have learned how to depict the sort of not-always-flashy passion and true, mature affection that I really like in their pairing.
As seems to happen in at least half of all Bengali films, a portrait of RabTag oversees the goings-on. He is invoked not once but twice in the next film reviewed.
In this film too, Uttam gets news that his family is not what he thinks it is, and even the depictions are similar, but somehow this one's just a little more reigned in, which I find more enticing.
Here too, he runs off to solve the mystery. Unfortunately, he does this running off right before their wedding without leaving a note or calling from the road (this is what I mean about popular Bengali films not being any less ridiculous than Hindi in plot), so poor Suchitra is stood up.

Another key feature of this film for me is that Suchitra has her own major plot arc. 
It actually parallels his in a way—both have family drama and tragedy in the past, though he does not discover his until halfway through the film—and although hers doesn't have direct impact on the rest of the story, it certainly establishes why the character is the way she is and gives context for her surprising determination in the face of an event in which other heroines might be incapacitated with shame. Not one to have her future ruined by the mere trifle of the absence of her groom at her wedding, she marks herself with sindoor and acts as his wife for the rest of the film, a position that enables her (if the subtitles are correct) to save his hide as he gets increasingly frantic to solve his family mystery.
Additionally, her story is equally tragic as his, which means the hero can't simply by default be the emotional center of the story. 

One other nice component of this film is an elaborate dance drama; staged musical productions are relatively rare in the Bengali films I've seen, and this one is admittedly a bit shoe-horned into the film, but it's still fun to watch. Add that to the good acting, dramatic but not melodramatic story, and I happily recommend this to anyone who wants to dabble in prime vintage Uttam-Suchitra.

Lal Pathar (1964)
[Spoilers, though not if you've seen the Hindi version.]
This is the Bengali original of the 70s Hindi film of the same name starring Hema Malini, Raaj Kumar, and Rakhee. Filmi Geek had seen the Hindi version, so we watched the Bengali together and then discussed it.

Beth: Here's a question for you: based on having seen the Hindi remake, did you have expectations of the Bengali original, and if so did it meet them? 

Carla: I might have had expectations, although I am not sure I could have articulated them in advance. Silverambrosia's comments gave me the sense that that the Bengali film would be more solemn, more cinematic—less filmi. And, it was. I don't think I was expecting it to be less fun, which it also was. What about you, given your knowledge of Bengali films of the period and Uttam Kumar's films—what were your expectations?

Beth: You had showed me the excellent wiggery in the Hindi version, so I hoped for that—and got it right away. 
But as for actual Bengali cinema-based things, it was slightly more melodramatic than I would have expected, almost all owing to him being such an ass. The other movie I've seen Uttam be an ass in (Stree, in which he reminds me of Jabba the Hutt), he was the villain, quite clearly, so it wasn't a surprise. The way Lal Pathar depicted that was fun but also kind of silly at times: great use of shadows and all, but maybe the almost literal mustache twirling was a bit much, like when he's off hunting and is cackling and smoking while waving his gun.  
Carla: In particular about Bahadur being a jerk: in the Hindi movie, the Raaj Kumar version of Bahadur is just as much of a jerkwad as the Uttam Kumar version. Both Bahadurs are awful, and both are loony. But I find Raaj Kumar's version a more sympathetic character. He remains pitiable, while Uttam Kumar is mostly just mean. 
Beth: Agree—he is mean. And there's no explanation or context for it beyond "I am a rich male oh and by the way there is madness/alcoholism in my family." 
Carla: I don't think it's explained more in the Hindi version. 
Beth: He's also a hypocrite, since he flips out with jealousy over Sumita's past love while his lover is in their house
Carla: I think it is something about the performance. 
Beth: Uttam Kumar does smug pretty well, I'd say. One of his strengths is nonchalance and I think here he twists it into uncaring. 
Carla: Raaj Kumar seems tortured throughout.  
Beth: Uttam does not seem tortured at all, I'd say?
Carla: I agree. Nonchalance was a good word to apply to it. 
Beth: There's no one and nothing with any...influence, is that the right word? over him. He's just a blasé self-centered bastard with no one to keep him in check. 
Carla: RK's Bahadur really loses his shit when he realizes ten years have gone by. 

Carla: As for the women, I'd say the reverse is true—Supriya's Madhuri is much more likable and sympathetic than Hema's Madhuri in the Hindi version.
Beth: Do you think that's dialogue or the actress or....?
Carla: A little of both. The only scenes I noticed in the Hindi version that were missing in the Bengali version were Madhuri being shrill and cruel to the servants.
Beth: Oh right. I wish we had known more about her before Bahadur finds her, you know? We have no idea what her pre-trauma personality was like, really.
Carla: That's another aspect that's in the Hindi but missing in the Bengali: her family abusing her. After he first saves her from the dakus and returns her to her family—I gather from her widow's garb that they are in fact her in-laws, and they are horrid to her—and so it is quite distasteful when she turns around and treats Bahadur's household like crap.
Beth: Oh yeah, then that's extra bad. Do you think that, coupled with his descent into jerkitude, indicates that the film is saying that one really is bound by what one inherits or learns early in life?
Carla: There is some interesting point being made there for sure.

Beth: He's so adamant that he won't marry because his family is so awful, but then all of a sudden he does.
Carla: He practically makes a choice to act like the criminally insane father's side of his family. He picks up the drinking right after he meets Madhuri; his servants are shocked by that. But yes, after the 10 years go by, and he goes off the deep end—when Madhuri asks him why he has suddenly decided to get married he walks her through the family history by way of answer.
Beth: Did that make sense? I don't remember.
Carla: I am not sure it did, but that might be because I find it hard to keep track of the names, and who was on which side of his family.
Beth: The walk through family history should be reasoning for why not to.
Carla: You would think! His reasoning and changes of mind are somewhat puzzling. But it is clear, I think, that he is becoming progressively more insane.

Beth: I wonder why he fixates on Sumita as his bride. I know someone says to him "Who'd give you their daughter?!?" but come on, he's loaded! Lots of people would give him their daughters.
Carla: The dull Sumita (at least in the Bengali version). Yes, in the very beginning of the film, there is another royal family offering their daughter, and he declines. One thing the movie does nicely, I think, is show how badly women get f*cked over when cruel men make life-changing decisions for them. Sumita's father is as awful as Bahadur in this respect.
Beth: Oh yes. A drunk and a gambler…who somehow got his daughter educated.
Carla: True, but only for his own gain.
Beth: Just as Bahadur tries to educate Madhuri so he has someone to talk about books with, I assume.
Do you think he chooses Sumita simply because she was there and had a pretty voice? That's a trait his mistress lacked.
Carla: The pretty voice, and perhaps (as you said) the education implied by the fact that she is musically skilled.

Carla: What do you think is up with Bahadur's insane jealousy, as you mentioned before?
Beth: I have thought about that but not come up with much other than no one has ever been a threat to him in any way at all before? No one has even unintentionally been in the same arena with him.
Carla: At first he seems legitimately interested in friendship with Ambarish, and it never occurs to him that there is romantic history between Ambarish and Sumita until Madhuri tells him so. That is consistent with what you are saying—it doesn't occur to him that Ambarish might be competition, because no one ever has been.
Beth: I assume he also feels somewhat betrayed by the fact no one told him there had been a romance previously. Not just with a man he is friends with but also at all. Men like him would assume their baby wives are virginal in any conceivable way, right?
Carla: Yes, true. Plucked so young. And also free of anything like a sexual feeling of her own. 
Beth: He's very accustomed to a woman being around for his sexual needs alone, since the previous woman has no life at all except what he's given her.
Carla: And how! Good point.
Beth I also wonder if he's too much a solitary person at all to be married, irrespective of family trauma-drama-o-rama. He doesn't have any friends or siblings, does he?
At least he has a nice dog.
Carla: Not that are mentioned. Just that one manservant (the one with the child bride) that he chats with from time to time. [Note from Beth: this character is played by an under-used Robi Ghosh.]

Beth: I wonder why the director [Sushil Majumdar] wanted to remake this movie in Hindi.
Carla: Subse bada rupaiyya.
Beth: Well right, but why this one? Was it a big hit in Bengali? I'm not getting that sense.
Carla: I don't know. I think I was assuming that some producer or studio asked for it. The Hindi movie being a shot-for-shot duplicate—it doesn't seem like Majumdar put a lot of thought into the remake, either because he didn't care to or didn't have the time or budget to.
Beth: Though at least the additions are done relatively thoughtfully. It's not just "oh slap a few 8-minute songs in."
Carla: But, it just bumps your question down the line—why did a producer request a remake of this one? I wonder if they aren't additions but rather cuts in the Bengali one.

Carla: What do you think of Madhuri?
Beth: I like her, though of course she's a bit of a pot-stirrer.
I feel like she's excessively kind to him by the end. I think you brought up Stockholm syndrome? It's along those lines to me. He was horrible to her. But then again, we don't get the sense she's known anything better.
Carla: Oh, interesting.
Beth: And that bystander guy gushes on about what an excellent woman she is to do that...so maybe she takes satisfaction in the virtue or something
Carla: Do you think she feels she owes him, because at least for those 10 years she got to be something like a queen, thanks to him?
Beth: Maaaybe? Or is she just being wifely?
Carla: Or as you suggested, she has nowhere else to go.
Beth: And, as we discussed while watching, what else is she going to do, I guess?
Carla: Jinx :) 
Beth: I wonder if she could have managed to live in his house but basically ignore him.
Carla: It's a big enough place. Except for the clip-clop as they walk across the marble floors, they could avoid each other.
Beth: Especially if he's gone loco and mostly hangs out haunting the old palace complex.
Carla: That's an interesting question too. Maybe they are living an itinerant or indigent life in Agra, rather than living in the palace out east and traveling to Agra to replay the incident each month. (We may be giving this point more thought than the storywriter did.)
Beth: There are real pragmatics to being an old kook.
Carla: Truly. He bums cigars and liquor off tourists :)
Beth: Ha! What do we think truly cemented the lunacy: murdering his wife and his friend OR the fact there was a baby? Or both? Or was he already gone?
Carla: The whole plot that led to her death was pretty wacko to begin with.
Beth: It wasn't clear to me how much meddling Madhuri did there. That scene where he overhears Sumita and Ambaraish and sees their silhouettes—that was authentic and not staged by Madhuri.
Carla: Madhuri didn't come to Agra with them, did she?
Beth: She did not. I'm not sure she actually set anything in motion, other than telling him about their past romance.
Carla: Yes, she hinted about that, and then tried to seduce Ambarish a couple of times (it is unclear to me why).

Beth: I wonder what Sumita made of Bahadur as a husband….or even just as a human being.
Carla: Bengali Sumita is so bland, unburdened by personality.
Beth: Heehee completely! I wonder if that would have suited him had he not gone krazzy4.
Carla: The Hindi Sumita (Rakhee) is much better. She at least feels like potential, like a personality waiting to burst out, and that makes her death more of a tragedy—one has the feeling she could have been good for Bahadur, if he only stopped acting like a loon about her.
Beth: My reaction to her death in the Bengali one was along the lines of "Oh Bahadur, you idiot, now you're a murderer too?" and much less "oh poor Sumita."
Carla: Ah, interesting. Sumita the cypher.
Beth: She wasn't a very specific loss. Not that there was any plot left to spend on that anyway.

* Researching Bengali movies has taught me that Cronin is a favorite source for Indian films. This is the first of at least seven. Raj Khosla's Kala Pani is made from the same source as this one (whether or not Khosla thinks of Kala Pani as a remake of Sabar Uparey, I do not know), and I've seen Jiban Saikate based on The Citadel, in which Soumitra Chatterjee is a doctor lured by money and a bad girl away from his noble rural practice and wife Aparna Sen.

Friday, March 14, 2014

special audio post: Disco Dancer

As part of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit's Swap-a-Thon this month, in which each member is doing a guest project on another's site, Carol of The Cultural Gutter volunteered to watch the dramatic, music-filled, and super-duper sparkly Bollywood classic Disco Dancer and discuss it with me. We wander across religion, philosophy, family dynamics, choreography, and Elvis, and we even propose the film's potential significance to the medical community for its hard-hitting depiction of the little-known but dangerous mental condition known as "guitar phobia."

Click on the player below to hear our conversation or right-click here to download.

Disco Dancer is on the Shemaroo youtube channel for free and with subtitles here.

Still need enticing? Maybe you can be tempted by a child hand-feeding his imprisoned mother, then growing up to vow comeuppance and insult those who mock him.
Or perhaps the debauched competitor, the intimidating henchman, or the avuncular spirit guide.
Or Krishna invoked by capes and black knee socks. 
 Or just lots and lots of sequins and tinsel and flashing lights.
And if you need to start your own disco dance break right this instant, there's a jukebox of the songs here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Lunchbox

[Note: Sony Pictures Classics provided me with a screener DVD of this film.]

The Lunchbox has so many strengths and joys that director/writer Ritesh Batra fits together perfectly. The acting, the shifting portions of loss and discovery, the beautiful development of details in characters' physical contexts that sometimes contrast and sometimes parallel—all of these
stack on top of the other to form an impressively effective construction. They can also separate out again, each one offering something delicious to the viewer, maybe something a little unexpected, as layers are revealed and ingested.

With some effort and oversimplification, this analogy might even stretch to compare audiences who mostly consume mainstream Bollywood to Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), 35 years in the same monotone office, who one day find themselves with something slightly different, cooked by an unknown chef who is deft and invested in quality, that immediately piques their interest and offers a different sustenance. Just as Ila (Nimrat Kaur) listens to cooking programs on the radio and seeks seasoning advice from her upstairs neighbor, Batra is so careful and so attuned to detail in almost all that he has created in the film.

However, after awhile, the film's central philosophy—sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station—becomes less like a brief, fleeting message from a stranger with whom you're somehow sharing the fundamental and intimate acts of feeding and being fed and more like the nagging note from a Pinterest-happy parent or partner for the umpteenth time. "This is the first day of the rest of your life!!! " The film violates "show, don't tell" in a way (and at a point in the story, for that matter) that distracts and detracts from all its significant loveliness. It's an incredibly thoughtful film throughout, and I don't understand why Batra has multiple characters state the message out loud in dialogue when it was already perfectly clear from the (relatively) natural revelations about their lives and the connections the characters form with each other. The idea of "wrong train, right destination" was portrayed very literally yet somehow also more subtly in the super-mainstream Chennai Express  that released just a few weeks prior to The Lunchbox and audiences gobbled it down.

Huh. The Lunchbox is louder and more overblown than Chennai Express. Only in this one aspect, but still.

I have absolutely no problem with the fundamental layer of this film-as-tiffin being cheese. I love cheese, especially when it is the flavor of people falling in love through the written word. The Lunchbox is incredibly emotionally effective not just portraying a romance but also in representing the risks and rewards of relationships of various kinds. Its approach recognizes the basic human condition: the people all around us carry with them pain and difficulties. And it does so without any melodrama at all. These things are as much a part of the texture of everyday life as dishes drying in the rack or reading glasses in your pocket. To me, realizing that you never really know what even the people closest to you are struggling with this is one of the core truths of being an adult, and I am delighted to see a film whose characters recognize it and become closer and, more significantly, happier because of it. They carefully share with and respond to one another, but they never shout despite the scale of what they admit. I love how each instance of the literal unfolding of the notes in the tiffin becomes a revelation of about both the writer and the reader. The more we know about the hurt and fear Ila and Saajan have, the more we appreciate how much their relationship means to each other. They are such solitary people; despite living in the maximum city, they seem so isolated.

In thinking back on the film, I am so appreciative of the addition of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). When we meet Saajan and Ila, their lives are...if not monotonous, then certainly incredibly routine and predictable, and as people they seem stable in life (note Ila's proud triumph that a shirt last worn on her honeymoon about six years ago still fits) but certainly not content.
For Shaikh, though, life is an adventure, and he is wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and happy about it. He has traveled. He has hope. He smiles and chatters away. There is a sizable proportion of facade to this small man—an orphan, a trainee, a romantic with a big caveat—but he is full of effort and striving. If the film had only been about Ila and Saajan, I might have found it too sappy, but with Saajan and Shaikh's friendship also blossoming and providing real meaning to both of them, it's a much richer story that equally values non-romantic love. I only wish Ila had a friend too, but it makes sense that she was basically stuck in the walls of her home, with duties of daughter, wife, and mother, as so many women are. (I think it's quite significant that her neighbor, the closest thing she has to a friend, is similarly confined and has responsibilities that mean she will never be able to come downstairs and watch tv or go get coffee with Ila.)

How appropriate that this film is named after an everyday object that is also a conveyance, as both types of physical things appear frequently and flesh out and connect the stories. Fans, bananas, jewelry; trains, buses, a disused bicycle, a promised scooter, a splurge on an auto, the necessity of a taxi; even the notes themselves, which are just little pieces of paper but of course carry so much more. Similarly, small acts become big ones through their meaning: Ila removing jewelry, Shaikh prepping dinner, Saajan watching old sitcoms (especially contrasted with the mood created by Ila's husband watching tv), and the all-important mix-up of tiffin bags by the dabbawallahs and one character's attempt to correct it. Everyday sounds are also used to bridge thoughts, locations, and people. The structure of the once-a-day exchange of notes might make the film feel episodic, but instead Batra leads us in a progression of very thoughtfully connected scenes.

There is enough of a splash of magic—or, to be less wistful about it, the requirement that disbelief is suspended here and there—that about halfway through I thought "What is none of this is real? What if the notes were all in one of these people's imaginations?" (Is this the effect of Talaash, another film about everyday, sad, stressed people in modern Mumbai?) That's what I mean about the fundamental cheese of the story: somehow you have to accept that the famously precise dabbawallahs continue to make the same mistake day after day and that their mistaken happens to link two people who actually want to write expressive notes to a stranger. While it's presented by using quotidian elements that populate the world of actual adults and focuses on the quiet decisions that expand small lives, it's not very far from the remarkable lost-and-found family members or loves that populate masala and rom-coms across the decades. At its core, the film goes well beyond coincidence. Fortunately, it also reminds us that there is a lot more to its central message than just hopping the wrong train and twiddling your thumbs until you arrive somewhere perfect. Particularly in Ila's life, the incorrect train can just take you to a place you don't want to go. The meaningful journey—and I do think the film is more interested in the journey than the destination, despite the motto—requires paying attention, asking questions, reaching out, and responding.

Click here for US screening dates and locations.