Sunday, June 22, 2014

Harano Sur

This movie is insane, but I'm on board. I'm on board, but this movie is insane. You know what I mean?

It's insane because of its plot, an extreme version of stalking=love, its creepiness and ethics violations hidden by a white lab coat and the contemporary audience's indulgence of all things Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar. Psychiatrist Roma (Suchitra)
quits her hospital job over a disagreement with a more senior doctor (Utpal Dutt) about how to treat an amnesiac (Alok) (Uttam),
then takes the amnesiac to live with her at her father's house, and marries him as his health continues to improve.
When he has another accident and reverts to his first self, losing his second set of memories that contains their life together, she follows him to Calcutta and figures out a way to stay present in his life and reconcile these two phases of his identity.

From a twenty-first century perspective, one of the things that stands out about Harano Sur is that it frames stalking=love with the woman as the hunter and decision-maker and the man as the object of obsession. In addition to offering novelty in that flip, which fifty-odd years later is still unusual and, if the wild dislike of the brilliant-according-to-me Aiyyaa in 2012 is anything to go by, basically unfathomable to huge swathes of audiences, this inversion also situates the narrative squarely from the woman's perspective. Even when Alok has "returned," living his original life as a wealthy and obeyed businessman in the city,
the film is still much more about her than it is about him. For me, that alone is plenty of reason to watch a movie even if I think much of the rest of the lead character (and I do mean singular)'s decisions are terrible and immoral.

She is capable, competent, and (perhaps dangerously) confident in her abilities and her correctness. Not only does she know she's doing the right thing for her patient (and no one questions her on this point after she leaves this hospital early in the film, though she doesn't encounter anyone qualified to do so), she knows she's doing the right thing for herself, both professionally and emotionally.
Her sense of self being so tied to her professional abilities seems amazingly modern—outside of Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti HoonNaach, Abhinetri, and certain Madhur Bhandarkar films, I can't think of many stories that really emphasize a woman's career—even when they are muddled in with the romance. What's most amazing is that all of this happens outside any structure of external validation. She leaves the hospital early in the film, so no supervising doctor is watching the progress of the case, and she never mentions wanting to write up the findings of her course of treatment. She wants to cure Alok because she loves him but also to prove to herself that she can. There is both confidence and a desire to learn. It feels significant that she does not just let him go once she realizes his initial self is present again. She wants —needs?—to know that it is her influence and capabilities that have healed him, not just a random blow from a passing motorist. His love is important, but her own assessment of her work is equally so.

In her book Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in 50s-60s Bengali movies), Sharmistha Gooptu talks about the Uttam-Suchitra oeuvre as mainstream cinema's response to the post-Independence social upheaval in West Bengal, an isolated couple with very little by way of family support or control (their this absence perhaps a silent commentary on the crumbling of traditional social structures) having to make ethical choices before they are finally rewarded with their already-identified romantic love. The couple also represents a balance of tradition and change (romantic love as well as unalterable marriage bonds, for example). (See much more on these ideas in the chapter "Bengali Love Stories.")

Harano Sur is also classic Bengali cinema canon. Even after seeing only half a dozen or so Suchitra-Uttam, I can't keep them all straight, and this one blurs easily into the general pattern of the couple uniting, then being torn apart, then uniting definitively by the end of the film (e.g. Saptapadialso directed by Ajoy Kar, and Bipasha). This pattern is fascinating, so allow me to share a lengthy quote from Gooptu's book about what's going on in the Uttam-Suchitra texts:
What makes the tormented male figure of these films noteworty is the larger potency it consigns to the feminine persona of Suchitra Sen. In the most emblematic films of the genre, the Suchitra Sen figure emerges as a controlling presence—almost a surrogate mother figure to the male protagonist, displaying an uninhibited openness in initiating the romantic process and an enormous resilience towards sustaining romantic love. While she continues to play the nurturing roles traditionally ascribed to women, her controlling gaze and agency are too potent to be contained within the conventional paradigm of femininity.  At the level of diegesis, it is significant that Suchitra Sen is a medial professional in her most icnoic screen portrayals, wherein she embodies the womanly nurture that men cannot give but also claims feminine spaces beyond the scope of the familial.... [In Harano Sur] she strides both worlds, playing doctor and wife, embodying the perfect balance  of resilience and vulnerability, subjectivity and objecthood. While her beauty is framed in the soft focus close-ups that are characteristic of the genre, her powerful presence is embodied through POV shots that structure the gaze of the audience.... The impaired families of the world of Uttam-Suchitra are re-ordered through the emergence of the romantic couple. Critical to this re-ordering is the figure of the woman who absorbs the crisis of masculinity without overtly posing a threat to the male order—a perfect balance of permanence and change. [p. 168–9]
It may be creepy to me that she marries a former patient (and in fact a current one by her own definition), but that dual role is absolutely critical to what the film is trying to do. She is serving him but very thoroughly on her own terms (and even in contradiction to what other people want). It is significant that in Harano Sur she flagrantly disobeys not only a male authority figure (the senior doctor at the hospital who is originally in charge of Alok's treatment) but later female ones as well (Alok's fiancee and mother).
Maa: "It's time to throw you out of this house. A loose character." Roma: "Mother, I'm not the one with a loose character. I'm as pure as you." Can't wait to see how Maa responds when she finds out in fact her son is already married to a woman who talks to her like this.  
In this defiance and self-confidence, she is completely supported by her father (Pahari Sanyal), whose role in the film is almost that of a mirror rather than a guide or sounding-board.

Somehow director Ajoy Kar (whose output in the year 1963 is seen on this blog: Saptapadi, Saat Pake Bandha, and the little gem Barnali) (and yes, I like the Soumitro ones better than the Uttam ones, though I haven't seen Kar's Parineeta with Soumitro as Shankar yet) is very successful with tricks that could very easily have become too melodramatic.** There is plenty of foreshadowing in very literal terms (at least in the subtitles).
I think this language works here because of the immediate establishment of Alok as someone who does wander off and for a legitimate reason. This is not just the language of immature, insecure, self-pitying fretting. This is what a responsible caretaker worries about. When Alok has his original memories and identity back, there is a scene of him inviting Roma to dine with him. Through this phase of the film she has worked hard to hide her actual identity, both as his doctor and as his wife, but at the commonplace interaction of dining she is unable to stop herself from fulfilling wifely duties of serving his food. Below you can see her serving him while the staff of Alok's fancy home serves her.
Alok's niece asks Roma to tell her a story. Roma gives her the short version of Siddhartha, but it's clearly an analogy for Alok too.
I was surprised by the comparison—I don't think I've seen a film compare a hero to Buddha before—but it works well, suggesting interesting ideas about what one can celebrate in detachment, even if that detachment is amnesia from traumatic accidents. In the film, the prince does not set out to leave his palace and riches deliberately, but he finds truer love and happiness once he does. Harano Sur also has the mother of all knitting scenes: after their marriage, Roma knits contentedly while Alok labors over job applications. When she walks over to him, he picks up her knitting and is delighted to find out she's making a sweater for him. This scene is right before his second incident of amnesia, so the sweater clearly stands for the life they were building together that is then disrupted. 
Ever dogged, she brings it with her to Calcutta and keeps working on it in Alok's house; when he doesn't entirely recognize it, she quietly unravels it with both resignation and hope, as seen in the exchange with his niece below.

Suchitra Sen is not my favorite Bengali actress by a long shot but she commands this film so well—as she should, given the script. As usual, her pairing with Uttam works best as they contrast one another in between the passages of sweet togetherness. As Roma becomes more and more desperate to cure Alok, restore their relationship, and maintain her self-respect, Uttam keeps a tight lid on any temptation to be crazy and puts his characters' confusion onto his face in ways that makes sense in their two different contexts. Initially Alok shows fear and gratitude, but later he is smug before his curiosity takes over and he realizes Roma's strangeness has something to do with the time in his life he cannot remember. 

Put all this together with beautiful trees and flowers, nighttime storms, and the big stars fully into their comfort zone as mutual, collaborative big stars, and it results in an engaging film with many passages of loveliness and many interesting ideas about love, responsibility, ethics, and caring for other people. It might be my favorite Uttam-Suchitra yet.

* I asked twitter for movies in which the woman is the stalker in "stalking=love" and got the following answers in addition to Aiyyaa:  ChaahatPyar Tune Kya Kiya, DarlingGupt, Pyaar Ki JeetKhalnayika,  Ohm Shanthi OshaanaShraddha, Julie Ganapathi.
** But this film is plenty melodramatic. Never let anyone feed you that line about how Bengali films are less melodramatic than Hindi films. That is bunk. Tell them to watch Saptapadi with their thinking caps on and get back to you.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Royal Bengal Tiger

Caveat: my familiarity with current Bengali cinema is limited and not well researched. I'm presenting my honest reaction and opinions, but please know that I am aware they are not supported by a lot of actual knowledge. Also, I watched this without subtitles (but with a native Bengali speaker). Further caveat: I figured out within about two minutes that this is in essence a remake of a Hindi film I saw a few years ago (and of other sources too—and I'll put a further quick note on that at the very bottom of this post after the footnotes), which is why this piece will be vague in parts. 

Even though my heart belongs to Calcutta in the 60s, I try to pay a little attention to new Bengali movies, more out of curiosity and an academic interest in the shape of the industry as a whole rather than particular affection for its current products. The Royal Bengal Tiger caught my eye because of its odd-couple lead pair: Abir Chatterjee (if you do not watch Bengali movies, you might know him as the very worried man holding The Canister on the metro in Kahaani) and, as the film's official facebook page lists him, JEET (the orthography says it all). To me, Abir is the poster boy of "reasons to make passes at boys who wear glasses" whereas Jeet grunts and punches people while wearing cleavage-bearing shirts in Telugu remakes. I am 100% confident there is much more to each of them than that, but such are my impressions from the films and songs I've seen and read about. Twitter friend Milagrenia, who is an actual anthropologist from Kolkata, started the hashtag #masculinitybengal in our discussions about representations and iterations of heroes from different eras, and we both thought this film would have to be a doozy of a document for that research.

The plot, in brief (which you can discern from the trailer if you'd rather see it than read it): Abhirup (Abir) is spectacles-sporting nice guy who seems to have a pretty good life but who witnesses and suffers several ongoing events involving jerks, bullies, and criminals. His son is bullied by a classmate, his wife (Priyanka Sarkar) is frustrated at his inability to get rent from a tenant, his boss is furious about a mistake at work (Rajesh Sharma), and and his friend at work (Shrada Das) is distraught when he won't protector her from thugs. After one very long, very bad day, a man running through a subway station crashes into Abhi on the stairs. At first it seems like just another insult to a man who doesn't take up much space in the world, but it turns out to be a happy coincidence: it's his old friend Anjan, who's in town for a business trip (his business seems to be selling buttonless [and thus time-saving] clothing to "the U S of A," as he says, but that's neither totally clear nor relevant). 
Abhi spills his tale of woe to Anjan, who inspires him to stand up for himself and for the people he cares about. This "standing up" skips over things like reasoned, calm conversation or verbal assertion and goes straight to property damage and beating people with metal pipes. Anjan flips a switch in Ahbi, cackling as he turns him from a decent human into that tiger. My take on the title is that Abhi is only the tiger in terms of rage and has very little majesty, stealth, or prowess, but The Royal Bengal Bulldozer doesn't have quite the same ring. 

The Royal Bengal Tiger comes to a more interesting conclusion than I was expecting when I first heard about it—and, it must be said, than the "Actually, violence is the answer!" message it depicts for most of the second half*—but unfortunately that conclusion seems out of nowhere. I hate it when movies do that. It's a failure in writing, which is extra sad coming from co-writer Neeraj Pandey, whose Special 26 I love. But in sum, there are some interesting moments for consideration re: #masculinitybengal. It is only Anjan who can move Abhi to any kind of action, even though they haven't seen each other in years, succeeding where the plight of the people in Abhi's day-to-day life or his personal ethics have not. This might be because, as far as I can tell, Anjan is the only person in whom Abhi confides. I don't think of him as a guarded person, really, but he is comfortable with Anjan in ways he doesn't seem to be with other people, perhaps because there are no expectations or obligations with one another. Anjan also doesn't judge Abhi the way other people do: he doesn't seem disappointed in Abhi's lack of actions (as his wife and child are), he doesn't retreat (as the colleague does), and he doesn't belittle or scream at him (like his boss). 

Despite the havoc it brings, their friendship is actually good for Abhi in some smaller, self-improvement kinds of ways. Anjan's philosophy seems to be that Abhi can do better and that he can defeat what scares him. It's also under Anjan's influence, indirectly, that Abhi takes one little step towards something he wants that is independent of this sort of avenging arc; it's a small moment of purely self-indulging pleasure that regular Abhi wouldn't dream of sampling. Except he clearly does dream of it (as he does of an episode of smaller-scale violence against one of his tormenters earlier in the film before Anjan arrives), or it wouldn't be there for "new Abhi" to act on. Even though he's not actually in this small scene, here Anjan moves from being a sort of cheerleader for retribution to a more complicated id. 

The duality set up by the characters' natures is probably too broad to correspond literally to our actual lives, but it might work as a mirror of societal ideals for men in their prime that don't allow for complexities and variations by situation. A man is either either sheep or a tiger, though he might move from tiger to sheep when he meets with a stronger tiger. I don't think the film is saying these limited options are good for us as individuals or as a society, but these are the versions of men it shows.** Boys (Abhi's son) and older men (represented by Barun Chanda, whose role in the story I won't share because SPOILER) seem to have more leeway for balanced behavior and assertion without aggression.   

Since I do spend so much of my "West Bengal via the movies" time in earlier decades, I like seeing how contemporary movies depict homes, city streets, etc, and I think the design crew of this movie did a great job at establishing full senses of places and the context of Abhi's everyday life entirely visually. There's nothing artificial-looking about his family's flat: their hodgepodge of furniture and decor looks accrued over time, not carefully selected in one fell swoop from a showroom or flea market. The Royal Bengal Tiger does have a song traveling the requisite checklist of Kolkata landmarks, but it also shows a much different version of the city in which major roadways are deserted and metro cars are spotless and empty, all in aid of the story. This is a thoughtfully created film. Abhi's situation turns extraordinary once Anjan shows up, but everything else in the story and in its telling make this a compellingly ordinary world. Even Anjan himself looks pretty ordinary: he's just the hipper, swagger-ier side of the coin of Abhi's settled, office-wallah style (look how similar their clothes are, really, when they first meet in the image above). All of this might be the film's strongest selling point, actually—there's a consistent sense of "this could be you." It's not the all-caps action hero who gets sh*t done in this movie. It's the quieter, buttoned-up all-but-uncle. 
And he is surrounded by people who wonder what in the world is wrong with him when he starts thrashing people and will have to face the consequences for his vigilante violence, a real-life fate most heroes never have to consider. 

If you share my interest in perusing what's going on in the press regarding Kolkata's films these days, I cannot recommend this movie's official facebook page highly enough. It is a fuh-ass-inating sample of contemporary film marketing and presentation of celebrity. Slash WTFery (see below). You decide.

* The most mind-bending is when he encourage his child to strike his bully in the line for their school bus but then breaks it up and gets the kids to shake hands and agree to be friends. Subsequent scenes reveal this plan to have worked exactly as Abhi hoped, with the two boys palling around. Really, movie? 
** I kind of wish Anjan had been a woman, but I guess Kahaani already referenced a Durga advisory figure?

A note on the, um, source material of this film: in addition to the Hindi film it reminds me of, I'm told that it's also a clear remake of a very famous American film that I haven't seen.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Bombay Talkies

The idea of bringing together four sort of dissimilar yet still big-name directors to tell stories about the power of cinema in honor of Hindi cinema's centennial is such a good one. The component films by Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, and Anurag Kashyap (which play in that order) are strongest when they stick to that mission of celebrating the magic, both light and dark, of movies. Imagination, passion, talent, family, promises, dreams—and, I think very significantly, the decision to act on those things—are all depicted thoughtfully and compassionately. There is support and empathy for small-scale individuals, which is an unusual offering from an industry known for bombast and family or community values. People make difficult decisions that we suspect will have un-filmi outcomes, some of which are even depicted bluntly. A streak of resignation runs throughout the four stories, with characters realizing and largely accepting that life is not always like the movies.

There is wonderful variety within the telling of the four stories: humor and fluff are used in various purposeful ways, the details in sets and locations create instant richness in the lives of people with whom we will spend no more than forty-five minute, and there are significant characters of different ages, backgrounds, and identities. For a project that might be assumed to have such a glamorous purpose, Bombay Talkies' stories feel contextualized in a remarkably normal world (or at least are meant to evoke it), with no infusion of glamour or escapism that the audience is supposed to accept as real in the context of the film. Maybe this ordinary setting is an affectionate tribute to the billions of everyday people who have filled cinema halls over the century?

Karan Johar's piece ("Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh") is cruel and bleak in its own sort of soapy and probably oversimplified way, and I certainly never expected that from a KJo film. I'm so impressed with what he tries to do, creating a moving story out of three characters who according to mainstream Bollywood traditions (of which he is the standard bearer among this collection of filmmakers) should be unappealing and unsympathetic or even outright demonized: a gay man (Saqeeb Salim) who disobeys his father, a woman (Rani Mukherjee) who acknowledges marriage cannot solve or subsume everything and refuses to stand by a husband who cannot make her happy and whom she can never please, and a head of household who finally braves a moment of letting the facade crack and the pieces of it fall.
"Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh" uses film songs to inspire but also to create a world of retreat and protection. It's so easy to imagine Dev (Randeep Hooda) in the chair in his record room with earphones tightly on, losing himself in old film albums instead of facing his problems. And what a lovely contrast with the little girl at the train platform who has an equal love of songs but none of the comforts of a physical collection or special place to hear them and for whom songs are her way of engaging with the world and making it notice her.

Dibakar Banerjee's "Star," based on two Satyajit Ray stories,* is the favorite segment of most people I talked to when Bombay Talkies came out last year. For me, it will have to share that spot with KJo's  because what he offered was so unexpected and moving to me, whereas I have more exacting standards for Banerjee, who over his career has created four very different but consistently impressive, engaging, and interesting feature films. This is the only of the four shorts that I wish could be a feature film on its own, and that is due not only to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance—THAT FACE!—but also  to the story and its almost otherworldly treatment, with the taken-as-normal emu and imaginary Obi-Wan type figure (the protagonist's teacher) who dispenses important life lessons from a dumpster on a gaping, eerily quiet film set for the movie within the movie.
The irony of "Star" is that the brightest glow, the most shiny shining, happens at the central family's home, well out of the range of cameras and crew of its fictional Ranbir Kapoor film, and is utterly unscripted. The power of cinema and, more importantly, the pull of telling and hearing stories stay with us long after we leave the theater or the set. It's lovely.

"Sheila Ki Jawaani" by Zoya Akhtar too shows a not-quite-real figure of inspiration: floating fairy Katrina Kaif is based on a real person but we know she never appears in the flesh in front of little Vicky (Naman Jain) who dreams of being a dancer and matches her every step. I worry for Vicky and his sister Kavya (Khushi Dubey) as they age into teenagers, when hiding their dreams will be harder and their father (Ranvir Shorey)'s demands will mount (maybe leading eventually to the tragic beginning in "Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh"). Leaving them in their self-made concert, happy with their friends and neighbors and working together to achieve things they both want, is probably the most escapist moment in Bombay Talkies. I love how well Zoya's segment links to the others: the confidence and assertiveness of children even when they are at the mercy of uncaring, unseeing adults (like KJo's film), the ritual of adornment at the dressing table and the meaning of what we choose to wear and look like (also KJo's),
the expert who comments on dreams and dedication and work ("Star"), and the absolute faith we place in celebrities and the strange ways we respond to their presence ("Murabba"). She's also the only filmmaker who lets her characters actually go to the cinema, reminding us of the locus of all this power.

I cannot tell if "Murabba," Anurag Kashyap's funny tale of duty and faith, is tongue in cheek or not.  Maybe it's both staggering toadyism and a self-aware critique of the same? Those of you who understand the nuances of Hindi will have the best shot at figuring this out; to me the visuals, body language, facial expressions, and even the story can support both readings. And either way, this piece  recognizes the absurd: the longer it takes Vijay-from-Allahabad (Vineet Kumar Singh) to achieve the mission he thought he could do in a day, the more frantic and invested in it he becomes. The person who started as a phlegmatic young man turns into as much of a loon as the look-alikes and prophets he meets outside Prateeksha.
"Murabba" follows this fevered pitch with a funny and (to me) unexpected de-escalation of the drama, and in an appropriately filmi way it re-establishes the balance of fan and celebrity, of telling stories with being in them.

I really have only one problem with Bombay Talkies, but it's a biggie. In some significant ways, this film is ragingly sexist. Just like the utter fail of a Filmfare cover in honor of the Hindi cinema centennial the featured only Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, and Shahrukh Khan in an ignoring, maybe even a negation, of female contributions or even presence, taken as a whole Bombay Talkies consistently assumes that the male experience and point(s) of view are the universal and the default. There are some significant females in the stories here, but if you measure the importance given to each character's thread, the overwhelming majority of emphasis is on males. Mothers are less prominent and effectual than fathers, and sons are more important than daughters. Each of the four fails the Bechdel Test quite spectacularly, even when women of different ages or states of being imaginary are included. Let's look at each individually and see how little regard they have for female voices.
• "Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh" is, in my opinion and much to my surprise, the best on this front. While I do not find all of KJo's films troubling regarding women, we must never forget that this is the man who has presented probably the most egregious destruction of a non-standard-femininity heroine in Bollywood history (perhaps tied by the fall-in-line makeover of Konkona Sen Sharma's character in Aaja Nachle) and a heterosexual (ahem) love triangle in which the center woman was the least relevant character in the film (Student of the Year). Rani Mukherjee's character feels whole to me; while her marriage is certainly a central focus of the film, we also see her making decisions voicing her own thoughts about her own desires and needs. She makes a close new friend on her own and she clearly cares about her career. The little girl at the train station, who should by demographics be utterly powerless, is an important figure, though mostly for what she tells us about or sparks in the male leads.
• "Star" also has a little girl with more influence than we might expect, even though I don't think she wields it deliberately. There's also a female crew member in the film within this film who has quite a few lines, but she is mostly talking either to the hero of the film we're watching or about the hero of the film he's in. Women are a large part of the texture of the central character Purandar's life: his wife, his daughter, all the neighbors in the apartment building with whom he cheerfully shares washing-up duties.
• "Sheila Ki Jawaani" too has a young girl of importance who makes decisions and maintains her own rights while also helping her brother get his. Their father is not so equitable; he's much more interested in promoting sports and physical strength and that sort of aggressive, extroverted leadership in his son than he is in the travel dreams and social needs of his daughter. Their mother is of little help; she quickly gives up challenging her angry husband (is too harsh to call him abusive? He seems abusive to me) over his treatment of their children. I don't know what to make of the Katrina Kaif fairy other than being disappointed in her line delivery. On the one hand, she's an ambitious woman succeeding mostly through her own drive and over some horrendous odds (and again, the focus of Bombay Talkies on the power of cinema comes to the fore); on the other, she's a massively idealized figure whom the characters in the film do not actually know. Actual-Katrina does not get to speak to the characters in the story the way actual-Amitabh does in…
• "Murabba," in which no women speak at all, leaving me likewise speechless.
The title song at the end, full of archival clips and current stars singing about the film industry as musical cues relate to their famous songs, is probably the most odious to me because the only "real person" in it is a (young) man. A whole theater full of seats, all empty except for one reserved for the chosen male child. Why not a theater full of people with the camera spending a little bit of time with several different people, both individuals and groups? And what about the power of cinema to bring us together, to create to and reinforce shared culture? Transporting and amazing one individual with cinema is a grand idea; eliminating all but one civilian face and implying that the 25-year-old man is a surrogate for us all is lazy bullsh*t.

As with the Filmfare cover, maybe attending to the hero above everything else is indeed the ultimate way to honor Hindi cinema. How sad.

*  Infusing a celebration of Hindi film with India's most famous film figure but who rarely worked in Hindi, perhaps as a nod to both the filmi nature of some of Ray's work and to all the Bengali stories that have become Hindi films? Sneaky. Point: Bengal.