Put down that copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Symbolism! You'll spoil your dinner! Roti Kapada aur Makaan

If we didn't already know it, Om Shanti Om made sure that filmi fans associated Manoj Kumar with covering part of his face with his hand. I don't know why on earth this should be, do you?

And if the rumors of him talking about suing are true, then he needs to get a sense of humor about himself pronto.

Now that I've seen Roti Kapada aur Makaan, what I want to know is whether one of his other major traits is indecision. Why should he wear one hat when five will do? He's the writer, director, editor, producer, and hero. He makes it an ensemble full of other stars: Shashi, Amitabh, Zeenat, Moushumi Chatterjee, and Aruna Irani. He divvies out the threads of the story among many interesting characters. When I started the movie, I figured these would all add up to excess, but I have to admit that I found RKM to be a mostly entertaining take on a straightforward story, using all these resources to support its admirable message. The number of characters and their various back stories came together well to show a picture of an interconnected community in which everyone suffers when any one component becomes selfish. It doesn't take Manoj's character being named "Bharat" for you to figure out that the collection of characters and their plight represent India, a socialist-ish version of India in which we, the people, must care for each other and keep the nation pure and noble. Its use of teary or steely self-sacrifice is too heavy for my taste, but I'll assume that that's a concept that has importance and resonance to the movie's original audiences and times and move on.

Let me put it this way. If RKM were an elevator - a patriotic elevator in Delhi, ridden and operated by representatives of every corner and population of the country, working together to reach a better life - it may be rising, but it's at maximum capacity. The addition of any other element to this about-to-burst film would have exceeded the load limit and sent it crashing to the ground.

Now for the aspect of the movie that I found truly mind-blowing: the non-stop barrage of image- and story-based symbolism. "Why imply something if you can show it in diamonds and fake blood?" seems to be the school of thought. Some examples:
Will Zeenat be involved in heartbreak?

Whose blood might that be in the part of her hair?

What do you think happens to the woman in this sari?

She couldn't possibly be raped by the local flour merchant, could she?

Oh no! Do I sense someone feels confused out of sorts with what's going on in his life?

We couldn't just have the "bad" son reform. He had to become a soldier who lost an arm while sneaking behind enemy lines to stop an evil plot.

To make matters even more distracting, there were a lot of weird visuals too. Sometimes they amplified the already thick symbolism, and though I found them completely unnecessary, I could understand why they were there. But at other times they seemed to be just for kicks.
We're in looooooooove!

But how will our future turn out?

For whom does Aruna dance?

Guess which one is the good girl!

Returning to that decision-making problem I alluded to earlier, it's as though when Manoj got around to working out the visuals of his movie, he was a kid in a candy shop. No camera trick too devoid of nutrition, no filter too sugary-colored, no symbolic imagery too indulgent. It's good to try new things when you make a movie, and to have some fun, but not to the point of distracting attention from your message. Maybe I'm just too 2008 on the other side of the world to connect to this, but I found it all to be waaaaaay too much. "We get it!" I kept screaming at the screen.

Roti Kapada aur Makaan also disappointed me by squandering its potential for Shashitabh. I know Sakshay is the pair of the day, what with us all waiting for Tashan, but give me some Shashitabh any day. (Shashitabh fans, please note: I'm planning a piece exploring Shashi-Amitabh pairings and what makes them so very great. After I watch Deewaar, of course. Contributions and collaborations welcome.) Both have enjoyable characters who help the hero, but this is all we got, even though it wouldn't have been a stretch to let them interact more, especially in the rambling fight scene at the end.

What a shame.

Anyway. If you like heavy-handed, sometimes obvious, sometimes trippy symbolism in a serious, usually well-acted movie with a message, then Roti Kapada aur Makaan is the movie for you! Other appeals include: Amitabh being patriotic and heroic but not mired down in jingoism, one-armed Amitabh on a motorcycle vs. ten bad guys, Moushumi as a strong, non-schmaltzy female character*, Aruna as a stumbling drunk, and the token Sikh character beating up people in a sewer.

Oh, and Shashi in white suits. I guess he's supposed to be spotlessly noble?

Fine by me!

* I have some questions about this character and what the movie was saying about her, but I can't raise them without spoilers, so if anyone wants to chat about this, email me.


Anonymous said…
I don't know Beth...that picture of Amitabh with one arm screams CLASSIC! CLASSIC! to me.

- Nandini
Unknown said…
yes, i love a good amputation
Mother of God, Shashi looks good in this.

And I third the one-arm approval.

(And a Shashitabh post?! OH BOY!!)
Nandini and bindifry - I have never found Amitabh as attractive as I do here - it was a real "like father like son...damn!" type of moment. And in this photo, you can see him using his teeth to start his motorcycle - even though his good arm is just resting on the handlebar. It's that kind of movie.

PPCC - tooootally. Here's another. The suit! The ties! The spats! The curls! Eeeeee!
I've watched this one a long time back as a teenager, and couldnt bring myself to finish it- too much self-praise by Manoj! :D
I have a copy of his "Purab & Paschim" sitting at home, begging attention- encouraged by your blog, I shall now bring myself to watch it....:)
OMG. His hotness is unparalleled.

God, I love Shashi.
Unknown said…
this film is on it's way to my home. thanks for the inspiration! will get back to ya!

hey-where's the karz review?
Unknown said…
RKM has bad memories for me. I had endless nightmares about that rape scene in the movie.

This movie was also the beginning of one of the most successful hero partnerships in Bollywood - Amitabh and Shashi or as I like to call it: Amitabh and whoever else. (Sorry, Beth)

But I must say I enjoyed the send up of Manoj Kumar in OSO.
Shweta - very heavy on the self-praise. And boy oh boy, I look forward to your piece on Purab aur Paschim!

PPCC - yep yep yeppers.

Aspi - it's a very disturbing scene. I couldn't decide if I should write about it - don't want to scare people away! But it is truly creepy. And then repeatedly referred to throughout the movie. what I do like is that her being raped does not giver her a horrible name for the rest of the movie. She's not blamed for it, right? Wow!

As much as I love Shashitabh, I do think you're on to something in your Amitabh + X formula. All I can is, I like him better as part of a hero pair than I do on his own. Of course I can't think of a single example of him on his own (in the 70s, that is, not now, because Amitabh now is so ridiculous most of the time that I don't even want to include that pattern in my essay).
Anonymous said…
About those white suits...I was watching "Baazigar" last night and SRK was in a white suit, which made me think what I've thought before with some Hindi films: Since white is the coulor of mourning in most of Asia, while the western world mourns in black, would it follow that we can flip flop our ideas of what white may symbolize? I mean SRK in Baazigar wasn't so nice, but then again, the more I think of it, his acts may have been justified, or are they? Dammit, the Bollywood mind twist in full effect. I'll quite while I'm ahead, or am I behind?

All the best,
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sita - um...I doubt willy-nilly flip-flopping is a sound idea. But I'll investigate about white and black in various cultures, because now I'm curious. Librarian to the rescue!

7:36 PM
Ooh, a very interesting point, Sita! But don't forget that Bollywood (or any aspect of culture, for example) was hardly created in a vacuum - Hindi filmmakers and costume designers are no doubt well aware of how black is used in Western productions (Darth Vader, Neo in the Matrix, and all other manner of toughness, moral ambiguity if not outright villainy) and are thus probably influenced by that use as well (SRK as Don seems to wear a lot of black, doesn't Gabbar Singh also wear black?).
Anonymous said…
I saw this movie many decades ago. The one shot that I remember, that stuck to my mind like glue, was Amitabh doing dand-baithak - a pointless exercize where you go down on your haunches and stand up.

Usually meted as a punishment by an authority, figure, in the year of 1974, after the Oil Crisis, with a nation in shortages, with Bombay High yet to start giving dividends, it was tough times in India.

And Amitabh in that scene represented an Indian going through the motions - while it rebuilt itself. Cinematic history, if ever.
2ndlook - Thanks for sharing that context - what a great piece of commentary!

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