Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Prisoner of Zenda strikes again: Bandie

Bandie, a 1978 remake of The Prisoner of Zenda, probably works better as an artifact than as a film. Its components seem excellent or at least intriguingly oddly chosen on paper, but they don't add up to much—and certainly not into much that needed to be made in the first place. For starters, hero Uttam Kumar had already been in a Bengali version of The Prisoner of Zenda, Jhinder Bondi*, way back in 1961. While not a perfect film, it has its pleasures: the music is superb, the location filming in Rajasthan is suitably royal, and the shades of swagger and ego bandied about by Uttam and adversary Soumitra Chatterjee are scrumptious, even if just in a meta, Bengali thespic nutshell sort of way. As in the recently discussed Sikandar, it's also possible that being filmed in black and white has helped Jhinder Bondi age more gracefully, its visuals still relatively dignified.

There is nothing dignified in Bandie (which is not a complaint). However, its campiness, which may owe to its era and Hindi masala milieu as much as any deliberate decision on the part of director Alo Sarkar to contrast it with JB, does give it one distinct advantage. Here, the promise implied by the ocean of ruffly and/or puffy shirts and jodhpurs of loads of sword fights is properly realized!
Especially after the empty teases of Jhinder Bondi, this is no small gift, and I enjoy all the stabbing and leaping around very much indeed, especially done by Uttam Kumar, who may be a little old for it but is certainly throwing himself into it and providing plenty of delicious cognitive dissonance with the kind of herogiri I've seen him perform in his classic Bengali movies. There are also garish splashes of bright masala blood, galloping horses, and medieval-looking torture devices. 
I would not argue with you if you thought these features alone made Bandie better than Jhinder Bondi. Additionally, the very concept of an Uttam Kumar-Utpal Dutt showdown** is very satisfying.

In many ways, Bandie is basically Manmohan Desai with sparser visuals. For example, listen to this flashback prologue. The king of Bharatpur (Satyendra Kapoor)'s evil brother (Utpal Dutt) schemes to put his own son (Amjad Khan, once the story catches up to "now") on the throne by having the elder queen (Indrani Mukherjee) abducted. The hit man hired to do the dirty work, however, gains a conscience when she admits she's pregnant; when he is offed for not doing the job, she flees to a temple and winds up staying there to raise her son. 
I love this visual of her clinging the temple bells to keep from collapsing. VERY DRAMATIC.
After a few years, Utpal finds out she and her son are still alive, and he seeks bloody fulfillment of his earlier plan by stabbing the Indrani, the temple priest, and the priest's son, whom he mistakes for Indrani's—all while Indrani's actual son looks on in horror. He grows up to be Uttam Kumar as a lovable scamp/thief. Meanwhile, the king's junior wife's son, also played by Uttam Kumar, has come in line for the throne but is a debauched, drunken mess. 
He is easily manipulated by the charms of Bindu, who also works for Utpal but is secretly in love with his henchman Amrish Puri. (If you think that having Amrish Puri and Utpal Dutt in the same film means a bugging eyeball will fly out of its socket, you'd be quite correct, though unfortunately they never directly have a stare-off.) Sadly, drunk prince is abducted and locked away by Utpal/Amjad as they attempt to grab the throne; in the meantime, loyal royal employee Iftekhar has stumbled across thief Uttam (without realizing that he's the senior queen's son, of course) and gets him to stand in for the junior prince until after the coronation so that Amjad cannot be crowned.
To further complicate matters, debauched Uttam's marriage has been arranged with a princess (Sulakshana Pandit),
but she falls for the other Uttam, whom she had previously met on a train when he is in disguise as a magician. (I have no idea why he's on a train in disguise as a magician, but it doesn't matter.)
Rounding out the cast is Prema Narayan as Sulakshana's maid; she has no romantic or comic plot of her own but does have a good dance in a Holi song that I'd never seen before.

Doesn't this sound like Dharam Veer? Even if you don't share my excitement in seeing Calcutta's biggest star in a Dharam Veer knockoff, can't you imagine how great it could be? Yeah. Too bad they didn't make that film. Simply out of academic fascination, I feel compelled to examine how Bandie meets R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance) without managing to cook up into a great dish.

Its list of ingredients is respectable. For example, the knife Utpal uses to slaughter his competitors for the throne becomes one of two totem artifacts; the knife helps Uttam in avenging his mother's death, and Indrani's very sparkly, very plastic-y royal necklace serves as the all-important indication of actual family connections.
One of the big action sequences sprawls across the what I think are the very rocks used in Sholay. I'm not an expert on Uttam Kumar, but I certainly did not anticipate that the first time I saw him punching bad guys and leaping through the air would be in a bad wig and pearl necklace at age fifty-two in a setting that is forever linked to very different types of heroes. But such is the joy of masala cinema.
There are at least three other filming locations familiar from other 70s Hindi films. From Desai's own works, we get the British HQ in Mard(and the palace in Rajput, etc.).
Bangalore Palace appears,
as does my favorite of the blindingly wallpapered 70s houses (previously seen in films like Shankar Dada, Kaala Pani, and Hera Pheri)

Part of why this film never really takes off, I think, is the acting. Putting aside Uttam—who is not, in my opinion, the person you want in roles like this, because his superpowers lie elsewhere, in smoothness and confidence with a slight touch of either class or moral superiority—and even Utpal—who is perfectly capable of Hindi-film oppositionality but here is not given as much scope to indulge—this cast suggests there'd be more crazy in here than there actually is. Bindu is probably the primary masala instigator; she has a significant role with some layers to it a bit beyond "vamp with a heart of gold," and she has a grand time doing it. Decidedly ignoring the concept of subtlety is a key approach in Bindu's toolkit, and she delivers. 
She actually winds up being the emotional heart of the film for me, which is utterly unexpected not only because she doesn't have a stated tragic back story but also because it takes some interesting, maybe even gutsy writing to snatch that heft out from under a doubled-up hero and give it to the bad girl. The other performers aren't always restrained (like Amjad ripping off an impostor's fake mustache and beard and cackling with delight at his discovery)
but they also have an air of phoning it in, and vets like Iftekhar and Madan Puri (as another helpful royal advisor) have nothing to do. There's no sustained glee.

Story-wise, there's not much going on either. Since so many films do expected things in exciting ways, it's not fair to let Bandie off the hook for failing to produce anything very interesting just because its plot is so familiar. The tone is off somehow, though—there's no real suspense, danger, or intrigue. It needs more spirit...or at least more wackadoodle. There are moments with promise, mostly thanks to good choices of where to put the camera. Starting at the top of the next image, we have the point of view of Indrani's son watching her collapse onto her murderer; impostor Uttam finally standing in a position of power over that very murderer, framing him as the tiny worm he is, along with a shoe that is a clue to his identity looming over him; and a dramatic view of the final showdown at the same temple where the initial murders occurred in the prologue. 
But for every cool shot like those, there's some other artistic choice that leads to mediocrity. My favorite example of this is the scene below (also from the final brawl), in which the on-the-run villain collapses under the trident of the goddess in the temple that witnessed his first crimes. 
Any masala movie-maker knows that such blocking foreshadows that trident impaling him, whether because the hero rips it out of the statue's hand or a lightning bolt knocks it loose or whatever. But in Bandie it just stays put and the villain is done in in a less divine and frankly much less awesome manner.

Bandie is a case of unfulfilled potential, and I'm so curious why it turned out as it did. I wonder if it was also released in a Bengali dub: trying to cater to both Hindi and Bengali audiences might explain why the film isn't full-tilt masala in tone, length, or content, since mainstream Bengali movies tend to be shorter and tauter, but also doesn't seem quite like what Calcutta was making at the time either (though I must admit I don't know first-hand because I haven't seen any Bengali movies from the late 70s that aren't by Ray). Director Alo Sarkar's imdb entry indicates that all of his previous work (of which there is little) involved Uttam Kumar, including directing Chhoti Si Mulaqat a decade earlier, and I would have thought he'd know better than to put the Mahanayak in a role like this. He has no masala experience at all, and maybe he just bit off more than he could chew. The producer, F. C. Mehra, is more seasoned, making gloriously fun films like Jaal and Elaan. A highlight reel from Bandie would make a fun half hour of entertainment, particularly its plentiful fights and some moments in which the leads are enjoying themselves, but it just can't sustain 140 minutes. It's meh-sala.

* I fully admit to having an inexplicable obsession with Jhinder Bondi. Mock as you will.
** Did you realize Utpal Dutt is actually younger than Uttam Kumar? Neither did I until just now.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Sikandar (1941)

Epically epic! Not terribly high in historical accuracy, but wonderful to behold and thoroughly thought-provoking about empire and political virtue from pre-Independence India. Sikandar manages to be completely entertaining while still indulging in lesson-dispensing from Aristotle (Shakir),
who is surprisingly in Persia with Sikandar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Rukhsana (Vanamala) as the film opens,
An article I'll link to below refers to Sikandar's outfits as "knee-length." Ummm...those aren't knees. It also says no one would wear outfits like this as well as Prtihviraj Kapoor again except perhaps Dharmendra, and with that I completely agree. 
and Puru (director and producer Sohrab Modi),
who debates the value of war with various other kings. It'd be so easy for a film like this to be ponderous, with too much throne-room ego-clashing and not enough fighting, but Sikandar rolls along merrily. It helps greatly that the music (both songs and the background score, by Rafiq Gazhnavi and Mir Saheb), sets, and costumes overall are a delight. Both Puru and Sikandar have capes that could double as tents for their armies. Backdrops are clearly painted, but the palatial architecture and furniture are lush and full.

The lighting and other effects are super too, in particular the lightning flashing during a thunderstorm as Sikandar prepares his troops to cross a river (the Jhelum?), illuminating the soaked soldiers in all their armor and huge plumed helmets while the wind whistles and fires roar in the background. This is surely filmed in actual darkness with strategically placed lights, which on its own seems tricky enough, but Modi adds in dozens and dozens of horses, tents, rocks, and a forest too.

I'm not certain that Indian cinema has improved overall in its presentation of historical battle scenes in the 70-odd years since this film was made. For starters, the staging of the Greeks vs Hindustanis is clearly full of actual people, horses, and elephants, since there is no CGI in 1941.
The actors and the camera are in the thick of things. Trained elephants very carefully lying down to indicate they've been felled is not convincing (and hooray for that), but the clouds of dust and giant roars of the crowd are. Sikandar's armor looks just as realistic as, if not better than, anything in Jodha Akbar or Veer, perhaps because old black and white film doesn't have enough detail for us to see the costuming tricks but perhaps because these wardrobe wizards are actually combining materials intelligently instead of relying on pre-molded pec-shaped spray-painted plastic.

Also key to the film's success, I think, is Prithviraj Kapoor.
For starters, his physical presence strikes me as absolutely perfect: not just because he's beautiful and has Greek god wavy hair but because he's simultaneously imposing and dynamic. The writer (Sudarshan) gives the character some important complexities—he's obedient to his teacher and the gods yet clearly considers himself the rightful ruler of the known world; he's imperious yet makes sure to remember the lowliest member of his troops when gifts are distributed; he bellows in front of armies yet stomps around in juvenile snits when things don't go his way, flinging his cape here and there—and Prithviraj somehow rolls all these things up into a very flawed but likable character. Says Sukanya Verma in Rediff: "Almost every sentence coming out of his mouth reeks of narcissism. But Prithviraj Kapoor humanizes his pomposity, turns him into someone who isn't self-indulgent on purpose, he just doesn't know better because he is the best. Such arrogance is almost naive."
Verma also says "Spontaneous, natural acting wasn't the trend back then and it takes about 10 minutes to adjust to Sikandar's verbose theatrics. Once you get used to it, there's much to appreciate in the marriage of booming baritone and vigorous physicality." I'd agree firmly with that too: no one in this film is easy to watch by today's standards but they are all powerful and compelling. If the style puts you off, try to hold out a little bit longer until you're swept up in all the action and ideas.

Everyone I've discussed this film with has mentioned how easy it is to see traces of each of his three sons in Prithviraj Kapoor in Sikandar. In the picture above, for example, I see Shashi in his face but Shammi in the stylized, exuberant gesture. Watching the film made me realize how much arrogance is a part of what I associate with the Kapoor men, even more than might come naturally from careers as filmi heroes, although it takes a different form in each of the sons. Shashi inherited (or used, I'm not sure which) the sort of golden, confident version, in which the central male figure is truly befuddled when he realizes someone doesn't return his affections or agree with him; Shammi got the "Look at me look at me look at me!" antics and certainly built most successfully on the energetic gestures and movements; and Raj...well, the man can pout.

Another aspect of Sikandar with which I am utterly smitten is how it challenges what I think is going to happen. It is a blast of surprise against my...I'll say hubris (to be appropriate to the film's subject) in thinking I know what a Hindi film is going to do. Of course I didn't expect any major feature film to narrate the story of Alexander the Great as that era's historians understood it, but I reeeeally didn't expect, for example, Aristotle to show up in the Persian capital with Alexander and remind him how important it is not to be distracted by women when you're planning battles in foreign lands. "He who would conquer the world should stay away from women," says Aristotle. Putting aside the refusal by the narrative to acknowledge anything other than married heterosexuality even when depicting ancient Greek culture (and I'm sure a Hollywood version of his story made in this era would do the same), this little detour into the risks of romance establishes a theme about the power of love.

This twist on the typical tale of historical Alexander also gives Rukhsana a chance to spar feisitily with Aristotle—and sets up the bizarre sight of her throwing a shawl over him and using it as reins to trot him around a garden fountain. Given that Aristotle is involved, you should take heart that the game of horsey (and the whole scene) is more philosophically complex than what I've just described, but the gist is that Sikandar realizes Aristotle is right and that a woman can distract a man from his ambitions. He vows not to see her again until he has conquered India, and as he goes, she says "Peace of mind comes not from war or victory but from peace and love." That's a perfectly Bollywood battle cry, especially since these troops are invading rather than defending the desh, and, in a move that will surprise historians everywhere, the Greeks gallop off towards the subcontinent on their clip-clopping horses singing "Life exists because of love, so let it be spent in love. At the feet of beauty, give up your heart, give up your life.... Life is a gamble; don't look at it from afar. Step up to it, and put your life on the line." (See "Zindagi Hai Pyaar Se" here.) Rukhsana, for her part, is visibly inspired by that last little bit of lyrics. As any good filmi girlfriend or sister would, she goes along to India anyway and—again, the historical record may not bear this out—ties a rakhee on Puru in order to protect Sikandar from him in the looming battle.

That's the kind of ruler Puru is. A promise made to a total stranger who forces herself upon him as a rakhee sister is enough to stop him from the ultimate victory on the battlefield. He doesn't want to fight but he knows he must, because stopping a power-hungry land-grabbing egomaniac is the right thing to do, even though he is such a jovial chap. (The last clause aside, the rest of it seems a clear statement of contemporary events the year the film released.)
One of his princes proposes that Hindustan is sure to triumph over Sikandar (unspoken: whereas Persia did not) because so far Alexander has not yet met anyone who values self-respect. ("I think we'll have to agree that Persia drools while Hindustan rules," said Cultural Gutter, my viewing companion.) It's really too bad Darius is dead by this point because I'd love to hear his contributions to these discussions of conquest and right. One of the Indian princesses (Meena Shorey, enunciating Hindi in a style I've never heard before), trying to spur her reluctant brother Ambhi (K. N. Singh) to join Puru in the fight, says that "He who cares only for his own life cannot do anything in this world." She's talking about her brother, who would rather ally with Sikandar and be done with it, but it's a good dig at the egotistical invader too.

I know so little about the film industry in the era Sikandar was made, and I'm wondering if the fact that it was released at all indicates the British were either not terribly involved in the censor board or just didn't have the energy to bother much, given what else was on their international plates. Perhaps they saw Sikandar as a European hero and didn't think much about the film beyond that? Or do they see him as representing Germany, with wise Hindustan inspiring in him better behavior and being the only place where he listened to the gods telling him to turn back his relentless drive for conquest? (The fact that his troops are about to mutiny because they desperately want to go home has less impact on the cinematic emperor.) An article in The Hindu a few years ago says that the film was later banned in some cinemas for its power in inspiring nationalism, and indeed there is significant conversation about the dangers and indignities of having a foreign ruler. It's curious to see a story where the invader is so...I can't exactly call Sikandar nuanced, but he and his desires are more complex than most filmi villains. I don't even think it's fair to call him a villain. He's the threat to and opponent of Hindustan in the film, but he's not evil. Still, it's interesting that we can read different contemporary empires into him, and it's downright amazing to see a film this patriotic that has such an empathetic and engaging enemy.

While thinking about Sikandar's status as more of an equal than an enemy, it occurred to me that it's almost possible to read Sikandar as a typical love triangle in which neither of the heroes (monarchs) competing for the girl (India) is bad, and they have similar status or backgrounds and might even be friends (peers), and their interactions and competition might illuminate virtues and ideologies, but in the end one of them must be wiser or more virtuous and therefore satisfy us as the champion. And then it occurred to me that perhaps Sikandar is like Student of the Year, only instead of completing a scavenger hunt and bike races to get Alia Bhatt/admission to an Ivy League university, the heroes are battling over the even more priceless motherland. Which is probably for the best for Puru, because there's no way he'd win the dance-off.

Watch the restored version of Sikandar (with English subtitles) by Edu Productions on their youtube channel here. Additionally, if you want to refresh your knowledge of the actual history, I recently watched and loved Michael Wood's BBC documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, in which he and a crew follow Alexander's whole path, key segments of it on foot just as the armies did. It's worth a watch just to see the harsh (and breathtaking) terrain and distance, but for me the highlight was getting a sense of just how many cultures are involved in this incredible period of history. In fact, it is this documentary that finally spurred me to watch Sikandar, because Michael Wood actually discussed the film and there is footage of him watching it in a theater somewhere in...I think he's in Pakistan at that point. To me, Wood's film stacks up plenty of evidence to indicate that Alexander was profoundly out of touch with reality (or perhaps even mentally ill), whether with just delusions and narcissism or also, later, with sociopathic revenge. That background makes this film's portrayal of him all the more interesting, as it manages to constrain his contradictions of character into a sympathetic whole. I cannot find anything admirable in the real Alexander when his whole history is considered, but Sikandar shaves off his ruthlessness and presents him as driven by exuberance and hunger that can be redirected by input or sound arguments from worthy rivals. I wonder what this film's portrayal of Alexander says about the general Hellenistic legacy in Indian history and culture—he is decidedly not of Hindustan in this film, but he is alike enough that he respects its leaders and in fact his life is spared because of Rukhsana's use of an Indian tradition. He is foreign yet not as "other" as we might expect. He's not right for India, but he's worthy of it.
The chessboard of his dreams of Indian empire.