Wednesday, July 16, 2014

hopping and skipping through the decades: Bengali mini-reviews

(Another in an irregular series of posts with various short-ish reviews in them. There's no theme to this collection other than "stuff I happened to watch.")

Saheb Bibi Golam 1956
When I first watched the Hindi version for our podcast on iconic female Hindi film characters and Amrita asked me what I thought of it, I said something like "It's powerful, but I never want to see it again." Since then, my tolerance for certain depictions of certain kinds of female suffering has improved, and good thing, too, since the earlier Bengali version is minute-for-minute just as painful as Guru Dutt's. I don't mean it's painful because it's badly made or boring. I mean painful in that watching these people make these choices and treat each other as they do is excruciating. This whole "we're suffering because that is the logical result of the only choices society gives us" basis of stories, whether the stories are written at the time depicted or after, is, naturally, kind of limiting unless the storyteller is really creative. Maybe it had fuller budgets/resources or longer run time, or its subtitles are better, or maybe just because I saw it first, but I much prefer the Hindi version of this story. The Bengali one feels very repetitive to me: Bhutnath (Uttam Kumar) looks lost/confused/sad,
Chhoti Bahu (Sumitra Devi) either expresses affection to Bhutnath or desperation to someone else,
Jaba (Anubha Gupta, with a far lesser role than I remember Waheeda Rehman having?) says something full of meaning she may not recognize,

or the Clock Master makes ominous pronouncements surrounded by heavy-handed symbols of time and its ruinousness.
I don't get nearly the sense of danger in the Bengali version that seems to haunt the Hindi one, which results in a corresponding lack in commentary on the decline of feudal society and all that juicy stuff that's in films like Jalsaghar. The debauched men don't seem as horrible, Chhoti Bahu's instant alcoholism doesn't seem as tragic, and Bhutnath has little personality at all. I'm often happy not to be hammered by histrionics, but if any story calls for them, surely it's this one. Amrita and I have discussed at length how Uttam Kumar's tendency to play things calmly and quietly works so well to balance out more dramatic expressions by people like Suchitra Sen, but in this film, nobody cranks it up, and the whole thing feels a bit limp and unimportant despite its beautiful, grandiose surroundings.

Saheb Bibi Golam is on the Angel youtube channel if you want to see for yourself. And according to this recent story in ToI, there will soon be a new contemporary Bengali adaptation of the story.

Pratham Kadam Phool 1970
If there's one thing I've learned from Bengali movies, it's very risky to fall in love with young Soumitra Chatterjee unless you're very sure you're in a film that is at least part comedy. Apur Sansar, Khudito PashanDevi, "Samapti" in Teen Kanya, Charulata, KapurushSaat Pake Bandha, Jora Dighir Chowdhury Paribar, Baghini, and Teen Bhubaner Pare (which released just one year before this and which I also wanted to rewatch last week but my DVD isn't working * sob *) doesn't go well. I actually love this about his dramatic roles, these movies that show that love and/or marriage aren't easy and that, regardless of what your parents or society at large say, it may be helpful to know someone for more than a few weeks before you marry them. Plus these stories set up many opportunities for him to look pensive or sad, for which I am America's biggest sucker.
This film has a lot in common with Saat Pake Bandha and Teen Bhubaner Pare: a young couple marries for love despite the disapproval of at least one parent, economic and/or family pressures set in, and things start to crumble.  After a truly cute meet-cute in a library and elevator, Shukanto (Soumitra) and Kalkoli (Tanuja) get married over the very specific objections of her parents, who want her to marry the wealthier Boren (Subhendu Chatterjee) and cut off contact with her once she marries Shukanto. They move into Shukanto's room in his family's home, where his horrible mother instantly makes them both feel like dirt about expenses and Kalkoli caves to pressure to get a job; unfortunately that job is working in Boren's company, and rumors begin to arise.
I have no idea why Kalkoli is so unwilling to get a job (there is no talk of them having children or of her taking on many duties in the house along with the three other adult women in this joint family); even before their marriage, she can't hold Shukanto's gaze when makes comments about how they'll be able to get their own flat since they'll both be working. Like Suchitra Sen's character in Saat Pake Bandha, she is completely unafraid to express her opinions and needs; also like that character, this puts her in direct conflict with the people who presumably hold more power over her situation than she does herself (her husband and mother-in-law). The way the finale of Pratham Kadam Phool puts a teensy little Band-Aid on this conflict is a massive cop-out, and you just know that these two people are in for more clashes and strife.

What makes this film special is its matter-of-factness about everyday life.
I should read up on what was happening in Calcutta in the late 60s, but based on this movie, I'd guess it's a lot of tumult over women working outside the home, the resulting changes to structures and expectations in joint families, layoffs, and a shortage of jobs even for people with university degrees. (I'm thinking of Ray's earlier Mahanagar and later Calcutta Trilogy.) In addition to these big-picture changes causing characters to bump up against each other, there are little squabbles over meals, shopping, mending, and commuting that make these characters relatable. There's also a surprising intimacy between the newlyweds when they're finally behind the door of their own room (no, not like that), finding joy in each other's company and in their little team having made it through another day.
The problems here seem (I say "seem" because SUBTITLES) to result from people not going far enough in their conversations. I often want to yell "USE YOUR WORDS!" at movies, and in this case I think there is neither much attempt by anyone to explain why they take whatever position they're entrenched in nor to imagine (or ask about) the other person's perspective. There is no empathy, and sympathy quickly drains away too.

But isn't this adorable?

And I know you like pictures of old Calcutta. 

Datta 1976
Thank goodness for this Goodreads summary and discussion of the Sarat Chandra Chatterjee novel on which the film is based. Poor video quality and no subtitles mean I wouldn't have stood a chance otherwise. I have much dislike for Parineeta and Devdas, and I'm not sure I would have watched this film had I known who was responsible for the story before I began. Datta is one of Suchtira Sen's last films, and she's as strong as ever in yet another romantic pair separated by religion and money. But to be honest, I stuck with this film through my ignorance only because I wanted to see this iteration of Suchitra-Soumitra, especially once I realized she is the instigator in their flirtations (see the ol' "get him teach you how to use the microscope" ruse below).
Her saris and eyeliner don't hurt (Egyptian mural look ahoy!). And then Soumitra, who had been wearing his usual dhoti-kurta, walks in in a western three-piece suit and hat and my brain exploded. 
Isn't it interesting that we expect certain performers to look a certain way even though we know full well that their clothes are costumes given to them by other people and, ideally, dictated by the particulars of the story they're in? Even though I've seen Shashi Kapoor in person in very different clothes, in my head he's forever wearing some kind of colorful or patterned button-down shirt.

Before I leave Datta entirely, I should note that Samit Bhanja is kind of a jerk in it and Utpal Dutt is in his usual magnificent roaring form. If you've seen this film (or read the novel) and have more substantial thoughts than I do [Editor Self says: not hard], please do leave comments.

Chander Pahar 2013
Yet another Bengali film based on a Bengali novel (by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, author of the novels the Apu Trilogy comes from, as well as Ashani Sanket and Baksha Badal)! I really should have made that the theme of this collection of mini-reviews, but I've had a terrible time finding out anything about Pratham Kadam Phool, let alone its source material.

Chander Pahar has the most aggressive "this movie is a Big Freaking Deal!" marketing I've noticed yet in Bengali cinema. Whether it actually is a Big Freaking Deal is a matter best discussed by people who know more about contemporary movies than I do, but I like the film very much. (And no, I haven't read the book, which may make a difference.) Set in British East Africa in the early 1900s, the story follows the gleeful adventures of Shankar, a young man from small-town Bengal, who sets out for a job in the Uganda Railways and, at least in the movie, never meets a risk he doesn't love. After facing down several scary animals (the film opens with him running, panicked, from elephants), he joins a Portuguese explorer on a search for diamonds. More dangers, more adventures, lather, rinse, repeat.  
I wish I had seen Chander Pahar in the cinema—it must have been wonderful. The animal effects are way better than I expected based on...okay, based on a probably irrelevant comparison to the action sequences I've watched in new Bengali films. Behold the horrifying bunyip! (Bunyips migrated from Australia, apparently?)
Across the whole film, the only visuals that make me go "Oh come on now" are of a volcano erupting, and you'd think they could have somehow made use of actual documentary footage of that. 

Megastar Dev (does he have a nickname?) is the only big-name person in this film, and his character is the POV for most of the observations and emotions. He carries the movie adequately on his ample, lion-battling biceps triceps shoulders. I haven't written about any of Dev's films yet because I haven't made it all the way through more than one, but I like him well enough in small doses, like his frequently WTF Telugu-masala-based song sequences. On a note of #masculinitybengal personal preferences, I have to say that historical clothing + contemporary musculature is a powerful combination. Dev looks much, much better out of his usual eye-scarring mesh shirts, acid-washed denim, spiked hair, and dudebro heroics. 
Shallowness aside, while I have no expectations of what this beloved-by-generations character should be like, the version of Shankar in this film makes sense if you buy the basic concept that he's absolutely smitten by adventure. All of his choices stem from that passion. He's a brave, generous, likable fellow, and you'd have to be made of stone not to share in his wonder at the situations he finds himself in. It's so nice to see a character who doesn't bewail the suffering and loss that derive from his own decisions. It's also nice for a movie to focus on a type of affection other than romantic or familial and on priorities that invigorate the imagination rather than revolve around revenge, honor, or romance. Shankar is driven by something internal but is as much a man of doing as of thinking (probably more, though without subtitles I shouldn't assume). He's self-reliant and competent at the frequent man vs. beast staredowns yet also very personable on the occasions he has to talk to with other humans. This is not a guy who's out in the wilds because he has no use for society (or society for him). He has run to Africa while still cherishing some of what he left at home. He's made a life-altering choice, and he's in it for the long haul. What I mean to express by all of this listing of traits is that Shankar is a different type of role than mass-y Indian film heroes often play, and Dev handles the combination of action, interaction, and introspection while looking pretty damn good in his safari wear. Not Colin Firth levels of wet shirt, but my preferred era of Bengali movies doesn't tend to chuck heroes in lakes.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania

Charmed. CHARMED.

It's rare that any film trying so hard to reference DDLJ and its twenty-year-old arm-flinging ilk actually succeeds as a romance that is both timeless and contemporary. What I love about Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania is that almost every aspect of it is collaborating in making a story that uses both its brain and its heart. Humpty denies that he has those virtues himself; he's all heart and no brains, he says, but we know that's not really true. And that's another great feature of the film: the characters may reference types and styles we've seen a zillion times but they are more complex than any collection of cardboard jokes. Feisty heroine from overprotective family; doofy hero with in-college swagger but a very everyday adult life ahead of him; stern patriarch, thuggish brother,* sympathetic mother. For all its DDLJ-ness, Humpty actually doesn't have an embrace in a mustard field, thank merciful Helen and all her seraphim. Writer-director Shashank Khaitan knows we've seen that before and don't need to see it again. 

Instead, he goes beyond what's familiar and tweaks these types, arcs, and expectations and lets them bump up against each other. The romantic lead is not always in synch with each other, probably because they're individuals and not just an instantly-formed couple. One of them is schmoopy while the other is distracted or scared; one of them wants big declarations but the other isn't comfortable in that particular moment. The bug-eyed father himself isn't perfect, he's willing to show that to his adversary and to his wife and mother, and they're willing to argue with him. The heroine is no goody-goody but she also very much cares about the people close to her, taking risks for them, and learns how to work the systems available to her. The hero only once and very briefly pretends to be someone he's not, and he immediately suffers for it and changes gears back to his open, unpretentious self. The fact that Humpty cries in romantic movies and in reaction to his own emotions is played neither for laughs nor as a ploy to snare girls. It's just who he is, and the film is confident enough in the characters and reality it creates to just let him be himself without motive or commentary. 

That last bit is so important: it's a very nonjudgmental film. At times this frustrates me: I wanted the heroine's brother to get comeuppance and her father to crumble under some kind of progressive smackdown, but they don't. But because this is a layered story, there is also change and growth. Characters have a lot more conversations than speeches, even in moments of drama and big stakes. They're also allowed to be naive and stupid without being diminished—or to critique other people for being so while still loving them and accepting them back into the fold. There's an honesty to the characters in this film that makes them dimensional and engaging. 

As for the players: if you'd told me after I watched Student of the Year that either Alia Bhatt or Varun Dhawan could do so well in such demanding roles, I wouldn't have believed you for a second. But here they are, vulnerable, sweet, interesting, and evoking the pros and cons of their self-confident early-twenties-something characters. Everyone else is also more than the one-note sort of performances (and roles too, to be fair) that side characters tend to get. Heroine's sister and hero's friends never fade out and parents have more to them than flatly blind protection/support. I do want more of a story for Humpty's dad—why does he let his son be such a yahoo? where is Humpty's mom?—but even he has more wisdom than you might assume based on his screen time. Other specific contributions worth mentioning are the makeup crew's passages of unrelenting smoky eyeshadow and baby pink lipstick for Kavya (I don't like this but it is noteworthy) and the many excellent schemes by the wardrobe department. I'm at Bunty aur Babli levels of covetousness for Kavya's and her sister's trousers...though demerits for most of what happens in "Saturday Saturday," which fortunately only plays under the final credits and thus does not too terribly poison the well of the very likable hero with its dudebro extraordinaire avatar for Varun or of the perfectly balanced maturity levels of Kavya with baby-faced Alia gyrating unconvincingly in a cage. This song makes no sense with anything that has happened before it (why is there a tank and a giant bat in lights on the wall?) and I almost wish I'd left the cinema instead of watching it on the big screen.

But those are such tiny quibbles. I'm delighted by Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and can't wait to talk about it more. It's been a long time, maybe since Band Baaja Baaraat, that I have felt so convinced of what a new, standard-ingredient romance was trying to depict. This is the kind of magic that can happen when characters are allowed to be actual people and given freedom to be interesting, to conflict, to work, to learn. On top of all of that, I get the feeling that the film is saying something about how families in certain segments of India handle the choices available to children, especially in the face of taking a chance on some freedoms that didn't work out well. Are the men in Kavya's family, and therefore the filmmaker who chose to create and include them, more regressive than in Geet's in Jab We Met? What does it mean to protect your children? Is control even possible (let alone desirable or useful)? Where do smiles and laughter fit in? Just as Kavya learns about her wedding clothes, sometimes in life the meticulously designed, blinged-out option really isn't what you need or love.

Update to post (August 2, 2014): This piece by Trisha Gupta wondering why Kavya does so very little (if anything) to get her groom is a very good question indeed. Why is this film all about the boy trying to convince the father, other than the DDLJ factor—and why is that still a choice a writer would make, two decades on?

* Early in the second half of the film, I got Love Sex aur Dhokha-type chills from these two. Eek! 

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bobby Jasoos

  • The female lead is front and center in the story, the emotion, and even billing and promotion. There are probably few women other than Vidya Balan that the film industry would risk doing this with—maybe Rani Mukherjee (Aiyaa, the upcoming Mardaani), Kangana Ranaut (unless Revolver Rani cancelled out Queen?), Deepika Padukone after her mindboggling 2013—and her being the unquestionable focus of a film is thrilling, which we haven't seen her get to do since Kahaani over two years ago. 
  • A woman—the woman—cares passionately about her vocation and is willing to sacrifice other concerns to it...and then figures out on her own what work/family/love/etc balance is right for her. Bobby has ambition, makes plans, does the grunt work, earns the money, signs the lease, and catches a bad guy all on her own. She also knows when to ask for help and, eventually, listens to the reminder that her loved ones are not cases to be solved. 
  • Central figures of both genders make mistakes. Absolutely nobody in this movie is perfect, least of all the lead. People worry, lie, double-cross, sneak around, hide from fears, give in to regressive mindsets, try to cover crimes with charity, and forget to think when they're excited. This freedom and complexity give so much richness to the story and the world of the characters without being capital-E Exposition-y.  
  • Mothers and other not-heroine-aged women have opinions. Tanvi Azmi and Supriya Pathak as Bobby's aunt and mother have richer than the usual "bodies filling this stifling middle-class home" roles. Even Bobby's friend Afreen, who is not at all the center of attention, is a young woman with agency and opinions. 
  • Some actors don't look like movie stars. Bobby's male friends of roughly her same age are a funny lot, actual characters who are distinctive and individually significant. And in one of Bobby's ploys to identify a particular girl, hundreds of very normal-looking young women are herded in. These may all be aspiring movie stars, but they don't look like it. This film is unafraid to have regular people in it.
  • Some actors do. I was about to type that all the glamour in the movie belongs to the men, and that might not quite be fair, but it's certainly true that the camera spends plenty of time on Arjan Bajwa's pleading eyes, Ali Fazal is often styled smartly enough to pop back to his tv job, and even Kiran Kumar looks very distinguished. 
  • Toss in some 1970s Manmohan Desai elements! For the sake of spoiler protection, I won't tell you what they are, but given my taste in movies they're welcome (though predictable). 
  • The song under the opening titles, "B.O.B.B." is creative and great fun, and its look and sound are suitable and cute. Unfortunately, none of that audio or visual style continues into the film. Does its jazziness remind anyone else of parts of "Aami Shoti Bolchi" from Kahaani
  • Geography is a character. I don't know the first thing about Moghlapura, but even if it's largely fictionalized and romanticized, Bobby's neighborhood has a big role in this film, with multiple characters commenting on its nature and only two small sequences (one of them a song) taking place anywhere else.
  • Some of those aforementioned masala elements are inserted out of nowhere and are assumed to make sense simply because this is a Hindi film. Oh alright, I guess I don't actually hate that, but it often stinks of laziness. It's the lack of context that bugs me. I'm sure it's very difficult to construct a script that has consistency as well as surprise and drama, but deus ex Manmohan Desai doesn't really jive much anymore. Pacing out the characters' discoveries and the audience's access to information is one reason Kahaani is so great; in Bobby Jasoos it's all tacked on near the end, letting the characters say "Oh of course we knew X Y Z" without showing us their clues, thought processes, or hunches. 
  • Threads are tied up waaaaay too easily. Particularly, the arc with Bobby's dad (Rajendra Gupta, doing a killer Resting Disappointed Patriarch Face) is a mess, and again we see a character having an incredibly important realization but it's out of the clear blue sky and expressed too quickly, denying it both sense and emotion. 
  • Both Bobby's dad and Kiran Kumar's arcs end up feeling sexist and regressive in that way you might not quite notice until after you've wiped away the little tear that's crept out of your eyes. Get that Jab Jab Phool Khile in Waqt clothing outta here.
  • Spackle. Either Vidya Balan actually has the world's most monochromatic face or someone was way too happy with the pancake. I think the problem here is that Bobby, unlike most heroines, spends time deliberately looking ugly or strange, and thus there needs to be greater contrast  between "regular" and "in disguise." Whenever Bobby is just Bobby, she looks like she forgot to scrub off the base layer of whatever get-up she was just in. I didn't catch any dialogue about this, but I think it's understood that Bobby doesn't really care about her looks (dingy sneakers, few accessories), so a very made-up everyday face doesn't make sense for this character.
  • Bland songs.  Other than "B.O.B.B.," the songs here are ok at best. "Jashn" gives that strange feeling when the gap between face and voice seems obvious, which Bollywood falters with so seldom that it really stands out here. "Tu" is beautiful but is so much more lush and schmoopy than anything else in the film that it jars, and the film has given us no sense that Tasawur is likely to have a fantasy sequence like that. I do love that the sappy song comes from the male romantic lead, not the female, but on the other hand why'd he have to imagine her with such a makeover that she no longer looks like the same Bobby? And "Sweety" is...I don't know, cute enough but disposable. 
  • Is it just too similar to one of the star's previous films without being as thoroughly competent  and complex and gripping? It's not fair to call this film Kahaani Lite just because it features Vidya Balan in a distinctive urban landscape hiding her identity, carrying a backpack, and looking for things, but there are passages where it really does begin to quack like a [Bengali for "duck"*]. The dangers in it are much less formal and threatening—no police or intelligence agencies here—but there is also the same satisfaction, here much happier, of a woman defining and completing a quest. 
I left the theater feeling disappointed with Bobby Jasoos, but I can neither put my finger on what's actually wrong with it nor supplant that disappointment with any of its significant strengths. Somehow nothing in these lists is enough to make or break the film. The fact that a big-name star has done a n unglamorous film about an imperfect woman who works for achievements on her own terms really is important to the cinematic culture, and in that regard it joins a list of films like Queen, Aiyyaa, and Chak De India that I greatly respect—but only in that regard, because those are movies I love and enjoy, too, and Bobby Jasoos isn't quite that. It truly is not a bad film in any way, and if you like Vidya** it is worth your time (even if you wait for DVD, because there's nothing big-screen-dependent in it). A Vidya fix is no small thing, and since, Shashi ki kasam, I will never watch the dire-sounding Shaadi Ke Side Effects, this will have to do for now. Maybe I can chalk this up to a case of expectation management, assume I wanted far more from the film than was likely, and try to be mindful of the many, many aspects of it that I'm grateful for.   

* "Haash," I was later told on twitter.
** Are there people who don't like Vidya? Scram!

Friday, July 04, 2014

Nayak and A Hard Day's Night

Criterion and Janus Films have restored and re-released A Hard Day's Night (1964), opening in theaters in the US starting over the long holiday weekend. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time and looking and sounding so good after decades of VHS and tv is a thrill. What I don't remember appreciating in all my previous viewings is what it has to say about pop celebrity in the mid 1960s. It is that particular point that made me keep thinking—amid the jokes, personality, energy, and THOSE SONGS—about Satyajit Ray's Nayak (1966), released just two years later and also a loosely fictionalized but reality-grounded story of a day in the life of someone very, very famous. *

Even the poster for this re-release reminds me of Nayak: stark black lines evoking both movement (starburst, train tracks) and constraint (the center of a target, blocked by a grille, as Ray loves to depict windows). AHDN is much, much more concerned with the former, as suits the absolutely frantic pace of stardom and life in general for the Beatles in 1964. But underneath all of that are reminders of the power of the public gaze. This image of Paul behind a cargo compartment grate is actually in a scene of his weariness at being responsible for his grandfather (everybody now: "He's very clean!") rather than being himself trapped everyone's stares, but it works both ways. 
Throughout the film but particularly in his escape from the studio—"paradin'"—Ringo also flips the gaze around, snapping photos all over the place. This is played for humor: the camera does not really give Ringo much power, but it's clearly a mode of expression for someone who sometimes feels boxed in behind his drums. His attempt at a selfie in a thrift store coat ends with the camera in the water, as though any effort to frame his life on his own terms is, at least for the present time, doomed. 
It's been a very long time since I read any analysis of AHDN, but I don't think the writers or stars were trying to emphasize any kind of specter of celebrity; however, even (or maybe especially) at this point in their careers, any kind of attempt to document the Beatles or evoke their reality is necessarily going to give glimpses of the stress, danger, and just sheer craziness of their lives. The hero of Nayak (Uttam Kumar as Arindam Mukherjee) is much more a seasoned pro than the Beatles are, able to switch off his public persona when it's about to crack him yet also still able to have fun with it when doing so benefits or amuses him. One of the film's two striking dream (nightmare) sequences reenacts a nasty incident in the public eye that the star has just experienced, and he is rattled by all the incessant stares of the impersonal onlookers. 
The public gaze in Nayak is a menace, and Arindam is proud of his ability to weather and control it. Here he has raised the curtain on a window when the train is in a station, suddenly subjecting his new friend, journalist Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), to the throngs and their imagination, almost threatening her with the effect his presence has on what those outside might assume.
The civilians in AHDN who get caught up in the Beatles' orbit enough to interact with them are at worst confused but mostly delighted to be there: train passengers, other young people out on the town dancing at a nightclub, other entertainers at the tv studio, a little boy Ringo encounters on his solitary wandering.
There's a difference in their celebrity. People seem to expect certain responses from Arindam and accept him as having authority, even if they judge his line of work harshly or just want something from him, whereas the Beatles are new enough that studio professionals tsk-tsk their attitude and their manager tries (and fails) to boss them around. In fact, George is mistaken for someone completely different than who he very famously is, and he is told by some kind of marketing schmuck that he knows nothing about the tastes of teenagers. This might also be commentary on their lines of work: film is seductive yet not entirely respectable, and rock and roll consumes us while resisting our control.

The opening sequences of A Hard Day's Night and almost all of Nayak take place on a train. The train is much more metaphorical in Nayak, but the films share that notion of characters being contained (or trapped, depending on the mood) even while moving forward. It also isolates famous people from most of their publics and gives them a chance to show a little more personality than they can in more formal or more broadcast situations. Both films show a civilized society in miniature forming in the train, even in the presence of such big stars, and especially in contrast with what's outside.
The Beatles, being younger and in a cheekier context, also manage to escape the train while still being on their journey, taunting the stuffed-shirt passenger in their first-class compartment who clearly thinks they don't belong there and won't let them open the window or turn on their radio. It's a great little moment that essentially breaks the laws of physics but works perfectly as a statement of the power of youth and fun, contrasting with the old order.
Arindam too sasses people in his compartment. He has no interest in polite conversation, maybe because he's heard it all a million times or maybe because he's flippant and funny by nature and is allowing himself a little vacation from chitchat. This gentlemen critiques the Indian film industries by saying "Our motto has always been to produce more and produce rubbish," to which Arindam replies "Yes, that's probably why we have to resort to family planning."
Like the Beatles, he doesn't take his public persona too seriously, even as the films demonstrate that both care deeply about their work. Other people, however, have more serious uses for them, at least at first: the Beatles' beleaguered minders, Norm (Norman Rossington) and Shake (John Junkin), can never maintain order, and Arindam is considered prey for Aditi before they both let their guard down and become friends.
In both films the stars never do anything with negative consequences for their profession. They misbehave (the Beatles go AWOL and Arindam has a nervous breakdown in the dark hours of his journey) but recover in time to keep up their images. Again maybe due to youth and even the arena of their celebrity, the Beatles are never shown as fully bad; their rebellion against authority figures is fun and actually gives them power. Arindam, on the other hand, is in despair, but only Aditi knows it, and she will keep his secret. When the train stops and the public sees him again, all is as it should be.

Escape is a theme in both films, with the Beatles given more opportunity for and being much better at it than Arindam. His escape comes mostly in dreams, and even they turn dark after offering a few moments of fantasy and fulfillment. 
To me, the grassy field sequence in AHDN almost feels like a dream too: stylized, no dialogue, sped-up motion, actions and formations that make no particular sense other than as gratification.

Other little similarities that may or may not mean much: 
• I don't know what to make of the funny old men in the films other than comedic moments. Paul's grandfather is a lot more trouble than Mr. Chatterjee the film critic, but he seems to be kinder too. Both provide little moments for the stars to react against. They might be representations of the establishment and respectability that are fading in the face of pop celebrity?
• The performed version of self. It seems to be fun and very natural to be the Beatles, consistent with the dominant tone across AHDN. But they're also shown changing into their famous velvet lapel suits, very different from what they've been wearing throughout the rest of the film. As much as I love their name in lights coming up at the end of their show, especially in contrast to the more arty, less blatant backdrops that appear earlier (specimen photos of beetles; stacked, rotated images of the boys with their arms outstretched), it's a little ominous when you think about it from our perch in history. They will never escape being Beatles, and it's a force that will burn out surprisingly quickly in comparison to the careers of some of their peers. 

For Arindam, a hoarding for one of his films exists in a dreamscape he wants to flee. Does he not like who he is in the films or who he's become because of them, or perhaps he fears being locked forever into that kind of image?
Is this commentary on Uttam Kumar's matinee idol status, examined in the light of the most famous non-mainstream director who famously usually worked with another male star?  
• As probably happens in lots of films about popular celebrities, there's brief discussion of whatever the larger, dominant market in that field is. In AHDN, there's the famous "How did you find America?" line, basically a throwaway moment that doesn't do justice to just how significant and incredible the Beatles' invasion of America really was. In Nayak, of course it's a reference to Hindi films, made a little more poignant since Uttam Kumar did do Hindi films but not to any particular acclaim (and one of them, Chhoti si Mulaqat, was a flop that almost bankrupted him). 
• Photographs of the stars. Again, probably inescapable in stories about celebrity, and in both films I think they remind us of the sometimes disposable and replicated nature of stardom.

Are these the same image that's framed on the wall in the screenshot above?
In AHDN the photos are even thrown out of a helicopter at the end, jettisoned as unnecessary cargo or descending from heaven, take your pick. There are also images of the Beatles scattered around the film, like on the cover of reading material held by various people (one also shows Elvis too) and a copy of John's book In His Own Write sitting on a shelf. In the case of AHDN the photos help further blur the sense of how documentary the film actually is. They didn't just make up a book with John's face on the cover: they used the actual cover of his actual book.

More ideas on these two films or on other mid-60s movies that deal with mega celebrity? Tell me!

* A brief introduction to Nayak for anyone unfamiliar with Indian films, perhaps hopping over from I've Got a Beatles Podcast: written and directed by Satyajit Ray, whose Apu Trilogy you may have watched in a college cinema course and who is generally considered India's top entry into any kind of world cinema director's club, this film was actually conceived to be made with Uttam Kumar, the incredibly famous and beloved movie star from Calcutta who plays Arindam, the incredibly famous and beloved movie star from Calcutta in the film. So just like A Hard Day's Night, Nayak does not expressly claim to be a documentary yet is clearly based on real events and attitudes and the perceived reality of its subject. Also like the Beatles, Uttam Kumar disappeared long before anyone might have expected: he suffered a heart attack while shooting a film at age 54, leaving a void in the Bengali film industry that some people claim has still not been filled. To give you a taste of his popularity, the subway station in the filmmaking neighborhood of Calcutta has been renamed in his honor—Mahanayak Uttam Kumar, "the Great Hero"—and covered with images of him and his films, and there is a larger-than-lifesize metal statue of him in a roundabout just outside it. 

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

GUNMASTER G9! special audio post with the Cultural Gutter

We're late to Mithun Month (IST?) but now that we're here, we're armed with ONE WHOLE HOUR of podcast goodness on not one, not two, but THREE Mithun films: Surakksha (1979), Wardaat (1981), and Guru (1989).

(Or download here.)

Additionally, I did a podcast with Sujoy over at One Knight Stands about the equally fantastic Mithun film Karate (previously written up for a guest post at Die Danger Die Die Kill here). Click here to listen. Warning: you WILL get the film's ├╝ber-repetitive theme song stuck in your head.