one-a-decade mini reviews

Think of this as a very poorly organized survey course in Indian cinema studies.

Bou Thakuranir Haat 1953
A young Uttam Kumar, only a few years into his career, wears a lot of sixteenth-century frippery and tries to protect the aging Pahari Sanyal from machinations from a more sinister member of their royal family who also wants to throw off the Mughals.
This film comes from a Rabindranath Tagore work [drink!], itself based on real events in the life of a contemporary King of Jessore, Pratapaditya. To be honest, I was very confused through most of this film, I hope because I've never heard of any of these people before and had only a tiny sense of their historical context. I do get the sense that Bou Thakuranir Haat is less interested in the trappings that usually go into historical epics and more in showing the individual lives and human-scale factors and effects of political turmoil. Instead of swamping everything in miles of fabric and clanking armor, director Naresh Mitra (who also did the 1928 Bengali Devdas AIIIEEEEEEE) puts thought into little things like the constant hustle and bustle in a palace, servants quietly lighting lamps and soldiers patrolling the terraces in the background. This place feels more like a community than, say, either the Greeks or Indians in Sikandar. Still, there's plenty to look at, and despite not understanding the film much, I enjoyed it for the nighttime escapes by boat, palaces, accessories,
and wiggery. 
Also, some of the acting is ridiculous, as one expects (hopes!) from historical dramas of this era.

And behold this advice on how to get rid of dacoits by an unusual method.

Atal Jaler Ahwan 1962
There are a bunch of hard-to-find films in Soumitra Chatterjee's early career, so whenever one turns up on youtube, I automatically watch it as soon I can, regardless of subtitles or knowing anything about it, a behavior that leads to far more squee and screen grabs than it does to any experience that can truly be called "engaging with a film." But beggars can't be choosers, so I muddle through.

In this one, the brooding and emotional weight that Soumitra usually carries
are instead mostly undertaken by a young woman who looks a lot like Nargis (and because the credits are in Bengali, I'm only partially confident this is Tandra Burman),
who is in love with Soumitra but because of illness (injury?) has to watch from the sidelines as someone perkier and bolder makes a move on him. It's a cast full of regulars—Chhabi Biswas (in a beret!)
and Aparna Devi are his parents and Jahar Roy is his servant, plus Bhanu Banerjee is also around—and Ajoy Kar has directed some great films with Soumitra in this era (BarnaliSaat Pake Bandha), so this is another one to file under "watch again when subtitles/instant fluency in Bengali is available."

 Plus Soumitra wears a bow tie.

Mem Saheb 1972
Mem Saheb is very hard to discuss thoroughly without mentioning its ending, and a short collection of scenes in the last ten minutes has me rethinking what came before, but there's still a lot of material worth exploring out loud. The romance of journalist Amit (Uttam Kumar) and history student Kajal (Aparna Sen) is surrounded by a harsh economy, Naxalite uprisings, and Bangladesh's war of independence. It also features visual and verbal references to India's cultural resources, particularly in Calcutta and Delhi: the leads meet-cute on the train home from Tagore's Santiniketan, re-meet at an art exhibit, stroll in the botanical gardens, name-drop the National Library, sight-see throughout Delhi, and picnic at the Qtub Minar. Their lines of work also tie to the power of information and words rather than to money, which is a specter over Amit's early life, and no characters have anything to do with industry or commerce.

Mem Saheb seems to be a tale about rewards of education and of pan-Indian patriotism as much as it is a love story. Although Aparna Sen is 19 years younger than Uttam Kumar (very visibly so in this movie), Kajal very much acts as a nurturer and guide to Amit, who mentions early in their relationship that his mother died when he was young and that his father was a cold man. (Her father has died as well, so maybe this age gap thing works for her—though I don't know how old Amit is supposed to be.) While finishing her MA, Kajal meets Amit through a mutual friend and is mostly won over by his flirting

but also responds with philosophical arguments and specific recommendations for him to advance his career, sending him reading assignments
and then eventually off to Delhi to try his hand at journalism at the national level. To me this reads as a version of "Those who know the past control the future" motto on the history department bumper sticker on my family's car in the 1980s: whole, functional adults in the modern world of the film need to be fluent in reading and critical thinking. They also come across as class markers (hence the film's title, I assume), but ones that are not strictly inaccessible. Cultural literacy and productivity are also important in Mem Saheb's world, embodied by this educated woman who goes on to be a teacher to other women. Kajal never judges Amit for his past poverty and tenuous career; instead, she just prods him to work harder and not waste his talents. His boss at the newspaper in Calcutta gives him similar advice: even when he has to lay Amit off, he tells him to keep writing. The villain in Mem Saheb is not wealthy people trying to keep the throngs out. The real enemies are complacency and the forces who threaten stability and disrupt work.

The other notable thread to me in Mem Saheb is its frequent depiction of the growing physical relationship between the romantic pair, who are never married in the course of the film. There's a lot of very close snuggling in cars, they go on a trips together (and are shown lying in beds, talking through the wall of their suite of rooms), she enters his bedroom while he's still asleep, and I have a sense from the subtitles that if you know Bengali there are a few innuendos scattered around.
The end of the film could really color what I make of all of this, so I'll say no more here, but I do think this is a good entry into the list of Bengali films that seem a lot less worked up about sex than Hindi films of comparable eras do.

I highly recommend Mem Saheb. It's a charming romance made much more interesting by its relationship to the social and political contexts that are shown with as much care as the love story. Mem Saheb is available with English subtitles on the Angel youtube channel, but be warned that the description of the film there has a huge spoiler. 

Desh Premee 1982 not Manmohan Desai's finest. That opening sequence of Amitabh with barbed wire around his head while lashed to a flagpole, his blood dripping to the ground and forming the word "inqilab," might be the very moment Desai began to lose his grip.
Sometimes more is just too much.

I don't hate Desh Premee—in fact, I enjoy it more than Coolie—but it does feel out of balance. There's no one particular element that damages it, but there are just a few too many repeats or reiterations of the ingredients. For example, I would not want to do without the settlement of Bharat Nagar (come on) representing various subgroups of the Indian population, each represented by an awesome movie star (Shammi Kapoor for Sikhs, Prem Nath for Tamil Nadu [not sure why him and not MGR etc—too busy being politicans?], Parikshit Sahni for Muslims, and Uttam Kumar for Bengal), thus forming a rough draft of the regional hero action team film I've dreamed of. But I'm not sure I needed them in so many fights with lathis—though again, I would never, ever want to miss out on Uttam Kumar doing his darndest to fight Shammi Kapoor or Amitabh Bachchan.
I also love components like the torture wheel, Navin Nischol's disguise in the casino, the arc of Amitabh and Hema Malini's marriage, the family reunions, and even the blood transfusion equipment in the ambulance, crashing around wildly in contrast to the stately, foundational blood drips in Amar Akbar Anthony.

My most specific complaint with Desh Premee is one of omission: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? Hema is pretty boring with the little material she is given, and Sharmila Tagore and Parveen Babi don't matter to the film at all. This lack is such a disappointment after movies like Suhaag and Parvarish and even Aa Gale Lag Jaa, where the women are as significant as the men. Oh, and the bits with Amitabh as Mehmood being "Tamilian" and the "in hiding as 'negroes'" arc, of course. So very bad, and I would love to read someone who really knows about depictions of race in world cinema in general and Indian films in particular to sink their teeth into it. (If you've read such a piece, please post it in the comments.)

Ram Jaane 1995
Timepass. I like shaded hero Shahrukh (Ashoka, Chak De India, Don, and of coure Darr) more than spotless or sappy (Kal Ho Na Ho, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, or even Ra.One and Om Shanti Om). He's the outstanding feature of this film by far, demanding and meriting all the attention in a way that absolutely works for me—energetic, funny, brash, and sharp. I won't spoil the plot for those who haven't seen it, but his is a very consistent character whose values play out in ways I didn't quite expect. Ram Jaane is not a good man, really, but he is absolutely sympathetic, with a sharp edge and sense of humor despite a life whose core is bleak and would have long ago imploded a weaker person. Actually, he reminds me of an Angry Young Man, but maybe a little more cynical than tragic. And who can forget the Batman-themed nightclub in which Shahrukh dances to "Pump Up the Bhangra" (note the giant Batman icon in the silver curtain) before pulling a gun out from under his dance partner's wig?!? That is the BEST THING I've ever seen.

Krishnakanter Will 2007
Ugh. Plodding arty Bengali film is plodding. It's way too long, and you can quickly tell it is going to dissolve into people making bad choices and deliberately being manipulative and otherwise horrible to one another. I haven't read the Bankim Chandra Chatterjee novel on which this is based, so maybe the blame mostly lies there, but this story could have been told in a more nuanced and thus more compelling way. One problem may be that someone other than growly action star Jeet should have been cast as the lead male character whose moral quandaries I gather we're supposed to find interesting but are in fact facile and (decidedly not em-) pathetic. "My wife or my mistress? HOW CAN I CHOOSE?" Just put it away, jerk. Put. It. Away. And maybe get the crew to pay as much attention to the "dark" character's makeup as they did to the lovely mansion's decor instead of plastering Monali Thakur in a non-human color of shoe polish or spray tan. (My laptop, in an amazing burst of self-protection, refused to play this DVD, so I don't have screen caps to show you.) Since Upperstall already put energy and thought into a very good and funny review, you're best off reading it and then forgetting this film. Sample quote: "Soumitra Chatterjee’s Krishnakanta is just the right mix of wisdom, charity, and moral rectitude but his terrible wig tends to spoil the show."

Obhishopto Nighty 2014
File this one under Bengali films that are wound up about sex. This is mostly a loud, "naughty" comedy that isn't very sexy (perhaps on purpose). It follows a cursed nighty first worn by a 1980s bar singer who was driven to suicide by the sleazy man she loved. 
This 2010s Bengali film version of 1980s Calcutta nightlife looks a lot like 1970s Hindi films. (This is a compliment.)
The nighty then finds it way into the hands of various women who become lust-crazed and act on their passions with mostly inappropriate men. I'm not sure what to make of this plot, even in the comedy setting: is female desire automatically a joke, or is the joke actually on anyone who automatically laughs at desirous women without thinking about it? Does the inescapable power of the nighty absolve the women and their partners of infidelity? And why must the women appear to be so penitent afterwards? 

Obhishopto Nighty also has some laughs at the film industry. For me, this was the funnier track, with a struggling starlet ditching her man from back home as she flees for opportunities in the big city and is eventually courted by different film industries
"Bollywood," obviously.
and entangled with a gross producer before being saved by a film hero in a meta cameo appearance. Most of this is fairly broad, but I still laughed. My favorite part of this is a room of censors watching bits of the film itself on a screen framed by neon-lit scissors.
I did not like this juvenile depiction of Rituparno Ghosh. I was about to say it's too soon to play with this kind of stereotype, but there's no good time for jokey portrayals of a marginalized person or group. It hurts to see this after watching something like Aarekti Premer Golpo—not a great film either, but at least it strives to promote humanity for the outcast.

However, I will always appreciate Obhishopto Nighty for taking the ubiquitous portraits of Tagore across Bengali movies to their logical extension. I've joked before about "The eyes of RabTag are upon thee!" but they really are in this film, so much so that after this woman, a student of Rabindrasangeet, does something objectionable, the next view of the Tagore wall shows the back of his head, as though he refuses to look her in the eye.


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