Sunday, October 02, 2022

Brando and Esther Williams, Hrishi-da and James Dean: vignettes from a movie nut’s mind

(My Economic Times column today)
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If you’re a true movie nerd, swimming in deep history, you can end up making strange juxtapositions and associations. This takes even more surreal form if you watch a range of films across cultures and languages. When Olivia Newton-John died a few weeks ago, I thought of the day, in mid-1998, when I watched Dil Se at one south Delhi hall and then drove wildly to another hall to catch a special screening of a remastered Grease print. On the way home a weird but joyous medley of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Jiya Jale" played in my mind. Even today, if I hear one of those songs, the other pops into my head by association.

Another instance: it was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s birth centenary on Friday, a significant date for Hindi cinema. But when I learnt, while researching for a book about “Hrishi-da”, that he was born on September 30, 1922, I also remembered – as an Old-Hollywood buff obsessed with dates – that James Dean died in a car crash on that day in 1955.

Mukherjee at the time was with Bimal Roy’s team, getting ready to direct his own first film Musafir, which would go into production a year later. When would he have got the news about the young American actor, and what (if anything) would he have thought of it? Though the world was a less connected place then, the Hindi film industry wasn’t cut off from international cinema (remember Suraiya crushing over Gregory Peck when he visited Bombay, or Hrishi-da and Raj Kapoor being part of a delegation that met Charles Chaplin in Europe). Still, the short-lived Dean – as the angst-ridden teenager in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden – may have been too new, brash and unrelatable a personality for the socially conscious Indian filmmakers of the era, who were besotted by Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon. (Hrishi-da’s own films – comedies and dramas – would be sympathetic to young people being bullied by conservative elders, but they used a very different idiom from Dean’s famous melodramatic shriek “You’re tearing me apart!”)

Anyway, if you go down this rabbit-hole of links and coincidences, there’s no end to it. And once in a while, an Instagram page about old cinema will throw up an image you never expected to see. Such as the one I saw recently of a young, beaming Marlon Brando on the sets of the 1953 Julius Caesar… sitting with the swimming star Esther Williams. While Brando is in his revealing Mark Anthony tunic, Williams (who was probably shooting at MGM for Dangerous When Wet) is dressed in similarly scant style, as she often was onscreen.

Startling as this image was, it made sense once you thought about it as a studio publicity pic, or as friends visiting each other during a shoot. During the big-studio era, there would have been countless times when different genres of films were being shot on the same day on a particular lot, perhaps only a few hundred feet apart. Most of us have our lists of favourite movie scenes, but it's cool to think about the construction of those moments, the chaos surrounding them, and what else was happening nearby. When Wikipedia started providing detailed information about such things, I used to look at the filmographies of various studios – Paramount, RKO, Columbia, MGM, Fox etc – and search for films I knew well that were produced or released very close to each other. Then I’d imagine that a particular scene in (for example) an iconic film noir was shot on the very same afternoon as another famous scene in a famous Western.

What if Esther Williams was shooting her underwater scene with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry on the same day that Brando was filming the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech? Imagine drone footage from cameras in the sky above the studio, swooping about and capturing these disparate cinematic moments as they were coming into being.

These little mental games can refresh the jaded movie buff, and I feel the same special pleasure when interacting with students who bring bold interpretations to something they have never watched (or heard of) before. I’ll never forget showing a group of 12-year-olds the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, fearful that they would be bored silly by this ambiguous footage of prehistoric apes and a black monolith – and then finding, when we talked about the scene, that they had constructed colourful theories about what was happening: one of them even postulated that the “birth of intelligence” scene was an origin myth for Hanuman the Monkey God, reaching for the Sun and locating his inner divinity.

What next – the famous Anand line “Zindagi lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye” as an epitaph for Jimmy Dean?

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Relishing A Trip to the Moon on a big screen (also: A Page of Madness)

In my latest class at the OP Jindal University in Sonipat, I experienced the pleasure of showing a group of young students a sci-fi film that was made more than a hundred years before they were born, and hearing them say it was the most entertaining film they had watched all week. A Trip to the Moon, 1902, in a colorised version (available on Mubi India, and also here) that captures the spirit of Georges Melies’s hand-painted versions of the film when he first made it. And with a funky/punky score that might seem jarring at first, but again fits the mood and spirit of this film really well. 

Crucially for me, it was the first time I was seeing this print on a biggish screen... it was quite the experience. (I also played the part of a Benshi for the students, standing at the back in the dark and providing them a bit of context here and there while the film was playing… hopefully without disrupting their enjoyment of it.)

And while on Benshi narration, another great silent film I watched recently was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, which is also on Mubi. This film was missing for decades, and rediscovered in 1970; there are scholars who believe film history might have been different if it had been widely available for study and analysis during those missing years.

 
A Page of Madness doesn’t have any inter-titles/subtitles because when it was originally screened in 1926 there was a Benshi explaining aspects of the plot to the audience. This means that the plot can be hard to follow for an audience today (briefly: it involves an asylum janitor who is trying to help his incarcerated wife), but the plot is not so important here: what’s more important is how brilliantly the film uses lighting, close-ups, superimpositions and double exposure to create a sense of a claustrophobic world (and an equally claustrophobic inner world). It’s quite an experience.
You can also watch it on YouTube.

(I plan to host an online discussion around silent cinema sometime next week, will update soon.)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Secret gardens and opulent Gurgaon complexes: on the new show Hush Hush

(Wrote this review of a new series for Money Control. P.S. a Juhi Chawla-starrer called Hush Hush and a Sunny Deol-starrer called Chup released on the same day?! This gave me a major nostalgic flashback to watching Sultanat in a hall in 1986)
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During episode two of the new thriller series Hush Hush, there was a point where I felt like the show was starting to come together. Near the end of the first episode, we had seen Ishi (Juhi Chawla), a powerful and controversial lobbyist, in an altercation with an unknown man – and the chain of events that led to her three closest friends Saiba (Soha Ali Khan), Zaira (Shahana Goswami) and Dolly (Kritika Kamra) becoming caught up in this situation. Now, just a few minutes of screen time later, Ishi is found dead in her apartment – suicide or murder? – and the friends, grief-stricken, are trying to process the events of the previous night, how they have been implicated, and what options lie ahead for them.

As the confusion and guilt mount, Saiba and Zaira are snapping at each other, while Dolly – the most traumatised of the group at this stage – is staring vacantly at her friends, feeling like a caged bird (a running theme for this character), unable to articulate her own thoughts. Meanwhile, in a separate thread, the cops led by Geeta (Karishma Tanna) arrive at the death scene for the investigation. All the principal characters – the five women who get star billing in the show’s opening credits – have now been introduced. There is a focused intensity in these scenes, in the anxiety of the interactions of Dolly, Saiba and Zaira, which comes together marvellously and is aided by sharp performances.

And it is such a pity that Hush Hush never finds this focus and rigour again. As the show progresses it continues to be engaging in a way that almost any moderately well-put-together crime series can be if you have enough time as a viewer (or if you *have* to see it for reviewing purposes): you keep watching, since there are minor cliff-hangers here and there, you have become invested in a couple of the characters, you like the actors… and most of all you’re hoping, even as your gut instinct tells you no, that the narrative and the pace will somehow get better. But Hush Hush lets itself become diffused and loosely structured. And this despite having done a reasonable job of setting up its premise and giving us basic information about the lives and challenges of its high-society protagonists (for instance, Zaira is managing the many stresses and deadlines that come with running a fashion label that has gone international; Dolly learns that her ovulation cycle is being tracked by her persistent mother-in-law who wants a grandchild to carry on the family legacy; Saiba is ostensibly in a more settled family unit, but there seem to be dormant tensions in her marriage, and a question mark about why she left her career as a journalist).

The other side of the class line is represented too, in the form of Geeta, and through some amusing asides in the screenplay. “Sir-ji, siyaappa ho gaya,” we are told a building security guard said after Ishi’s body was discovered in her plush apartment – it’s a direct, rustic, wide-eyed exclamation that seems worlds removed from the rarefied lives of the La Opulenza complex and its air-kissing residents. There is also some on-the-nose dialogue: a cop saying “Inn ameeron ke life ka ‘behind the scenes’ kuch aur hee hota hai”, another remarking “Inn ameer logon ke alag hee chochlay hote hain.” And a little lecture from Geeta’s mother, along the lines that rich and poor people may not be innately different from each other, but money changes everything.

An earlier, better series, Made in Heaven – which also started by seeming to be exclusively about the lives of rich socialites before turning into a more nuanced examination of class conflict – got much of its frisson from what we gradually learn about the protagonist Tara and her journey into wealth. One isn’t, of course, demanding that every show employs a similar structure or method, but given how much Hush Hush seems to invest in its principal characters (and how sincerely the main actors approach the material given to them) there are too many holes, and not enough providing of back-story. It would certainly have been useful to know a little more about how Ishi, Zaira, Saiba and Dolly came to become such a close-knit group of confidantes in the first place. (This is especially relevant because there are notable age differences between them; the show’s first scene, a flashback set in 1978, makes it clear that Ishi is now in her early fifties, while Zaira and Dolly must be at least a couple of decades younger.)

Conceptually and thematically, there is much of interest in Hush Hush, which begins with an allusion to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden – about an orphaned girl undergoing a process of healing – and goes on to suggest that life-affirming secret gardens for lost children may be much harder to come by in the real world (or at least in the farmhouses of Gurugram). But the series becomes a slog in its execution, the kinetic energy of that second episode giving way to long ponderous encounters between characters where too much is said too slowly, with dialogue that doesn’t feel like it could have come from Juhi Chaturvedi (who has written some fine films in the past decade). In one embarrassingly poor family scene, Benjamin Gilani as a patriarch harps on about tradition while his son stands up to him with a “You keep your fucking money and you keep your fucking legacy”. Some seemingly important side-stories – such as Geeta’s romantic relationship with another young woman who is being pressured to get married – aren’t fleshed out or given the weight they need.

As the boy who had crushed on Juhi Chawla for a short while in the 1980s, it pains me to say this, but her droning dialogue delivery made me thankful that she had such a small part during the show’s midsection: though Ishi is central to the plot – the enigmatic figure whose past life is the key to the psychological mystery – she appears mainly in short flashbacks, setting up (inadequately realised) suspense about what led to her fate. She does get more substantial screen-time in the end-section, though, and a few scenes with Ayesha Jhulka (who plays Ishi’s childhood friend Meera) that can be mildly nostalgia-evoking if you’re in the right mood. For an 80s or 90s kid, there is some honest enjoyment to be had in watching Chawla and Jhulka, actresses from a very different era in Hindi cinema, speaking unselfconsciously melodramatic dialogue to each other. (“Main tumhein kaise chhod ke ja sakti hoon?” “Tum toh mujhe bahut pehle chhod ke chali gayi thi.”) At the same time, perhaps because we have become used to today’s OTT shows being grittier, more subdued, there is something anachronistic about these scenes – especially since Hush Hush’s uneven structuring means that the younger women are suddenly off screen for large patches of time.

All this notwithstanding, some sense of resolution or closure would have been welcome. But my overall disappointment with the series coalesced into a sinking feeling in its final moments when I realised that season 1 wasn’t attempting to be a stand-alone story: at the end threads are still untied, the bad guys are running free, there is a new death and the arrival of a new character, all of which provides the set-up for a presumed second season. I won’t be queuing up for that one. 

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Friendship and vendetta in 1984: on the new film Jogi

(Wrote this review for Money Control)
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My chief memory of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 is how distressed my grandfather – a proud man who had retired from the Army as a Brigadier a decade earlier – was when he had to blank out the “Singh” on the nameplate of our house in a posh South Delhi colony. That this was probably the worst thing to happen to my immediate family during those days means, of course, that we were very privileged compared to scores of other Sikhs who bore the brunt of the violence – and it was only years later, through news reports, literature (Ranjit Lal’s The Battle for No. 19, Jaspreet Singh’s Helium) and films (Shonali Bose’s Amu), that I began to process the full magnitude of what had happened.

Ali Abbas Zafar’s new film Jogi, set in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, is about the horrors visited on some of those less fortunate families. Jogi (played by the always-likable Diljeet Dosanjh) lives in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri. As a day that began like any other quickly turns surreal, he watches uncomprehendingly; before anyone can even understand what is going on, his brother-in-law has been burnt alive in his shop, and goons are coming for every Sikh they can find.

Many of these goons, we soon learn, are convicts who have been let out of prison by the local councillor Tejpal (Kumud Mishra), for the express purpose of collecting bounty. Rs 1,000 per dead Sikh. Or Rs 5,000 if the victim has a high profile. An infrastructure is in place for the slaughter: weapons, large quantities of diesel. Science teaches us that every action has an equal reaction, the councillor explains – words that echo Rajiv Gandhi’s famous line about the ground shaking when a big tree falls.

Shortly after Jogi and a few dozen others hide in a local gurudwara, his childhood friend Ravinder (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), a cop defying Tejpal’s political orders, offers to transport Jogi and his family to safety in Punjab – an operation that wouldn’t be too difficult to pull off with just a small number of refugees. But Jogi insists that everyone else – close to a hundred people – must be taken along, and this becomes the film’s plot-mover, the engine that turns it into an action-adventure thriller about escaping a cauldron.

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This is, it almost goes without saying, a very well-intentioned film, telling a story of horrific times with dignity and compassion – and also perhaps with an eye to making a larger, more universally applicable statement about the vulnerability of minorities in a country where the politics of bloodthirst and vengeance play out quickly (and where police can be given instructions to cooperate with the agenda of the moment). It is full of images that are clearly at the service of larger idealism: Sikhs being given shelter in a dargah, for instance, with food served to them by maulvis. (Jogi and Ravinder get essential help from another friend, a Muslim, who owns a truck company; so here are people from three faiths coming together to deal with communal hatred.)

There are issues at the execution level, though. Jogi firmly believes in spelling things out – no such thing as too much exposition – and protracting the emotional moment as much as it possibly can. Which can defeat the purpose in a race-against-time narrative like this. It’s understandable that there is much sentiment to be milked from a scene where Jogi tearfully cuts his hair in slow motion; but the languorous pace here and elsewhere belies the urgency of the situation. Responding to Jogi’s mother’s shock about the loss of his hair, a Sikh priest pedantically explains that he has made this big sacrifice to save them all, so it will bring him closer to God. This need to constantly underline is also manifest
in the film’s Incessant Flashback Syndrome – too often, just a few minutes after we have seen something happen, we are given sepia images and dialogues from the same episode as a character recalls them: this is the sort of spoon-feeding that seems based on the assumption that viewers have such low attention spans now (perhaps they do, or perhaps they are constantly checking their phones while watching) that they need every dramatic moment regurgitated.

While there are a few hard-hitting images of riot violence, there is also some fairly basic visual shorthand – repeated aerial shots of Delhi with smoke plumes rising from one or two spots, for instance – and some old-fashioned storytelling: a widowed woman continuing to stitch a shirt for her husband (even though she knows he was killed) before embracing reality and breaking down; an altercation in a bus where Jogi and his father are improbably the only ones who don’t know yet about the assassination.

The performances are as sincere as everything else in the film, though Ayyub, a fine actor, has little to do beyond looking worried (and being understandably startled by Jogi’s explosions of anger towards him). The major acting chomps are divided between the antagonists: veteran Mishra (who just about succeeds in transcending the very stereotyped aspects of his role as the power-obsessed councillor using Sikh bodies as a stepping stone) and Hiten Tejwani as an enigmatic, stone-faced character named Lali who turns out to be very central to the plot, since he has an old score to settle with Jogi.

That score-settling is explained in a flashback sequence that comes late in the film and feels structurally very off – it involves the sudden, very belated introduction of an important person in Jogi’s life, and the hurried depiction of a life-changing episode. This also brings a strange, hard-to-define friction to the narrative. On one hand, this is a big-picture story about a major national tragedy and about a man who chooses to look out for his whole community rather than just his own family and loved ones; but on the other hand, as the full scope of the relationship between the protagonists becomes clearer in the final act, the line between personal and political is blurred; we see how events of the past define the actions of people in the present. Jogi sometimes moves uneasily between being a social commentary about one of modern India’s biggest tragedies and being an intimate thriller about private vendetta.

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Sunday, September 04, 2022

A brahmin, a butterfly and a 121-year-old 'love story'

What you see here are a couple of blurry images from the 1901 film The Brahmin and the Butterfly, by the legendary magician-cum-pioneering director Georges Méliès. He plays a flute-wielding “brahmin” who summons a large caterpillar from the forest, affectionately kisses it (the caterpillar kisses him first in case you’re worrying about consent), then puts it in a cocoon whereupon it transforms into a beautiful butterfly and then a princess. Brahmin and princess frolic and gambol for a bit, but then there’s one final twist. All in a running time of under two minutes.

This is one of the works from cinema’s first decade that I have been watching as part-preparation for a film history/film appreciation course that I will soon be teaching at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. The little film is most enjoyable on its own terms, but I also thought it notable as possibly the first cinematic expression of the idea that love means trying to control/change another person into the image you have fixed in your head. That theme is central to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the force of its execution in that film (as well as the subtextual commentary on a director/artist trying to dominate and transform his actors/raw material) has made Vertigo a critical favourite for decades now. But Méliès was there a full 57 years before (in a much more rudimentary form, of course) – and he was also an illusionist by profession, using people and objects as shape-shifting tools for his art.

Anyway, the critic Paolo Cherchi Usai called The Brahmin and the Butterfly “the most beautiful love story of early cinema", which is a more concise description. You can watch it here. (Many other
Méliès films are available online too.)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz, and a new film about a murdered writer

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column)
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A couple of days before the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, I happened to watch the new Malayalam film 19(1)(a), which is about the killing of a writer-activist – and about the effect of this writer’s words on a young woman (the unnamed protagonist, played by Nithya Menen) who barely knew of his existence before he walked into her photo-copy shop with a manuscript… just a few hours before being murdered.

19(1)(a) is a slow-paced, occasionally meandering film, but it has many powerful, moving moments that will stick with me for a long time. Such as a shot of the writer Gauri Shankar (played by Vijay Sethupathi) sipping tea in the dark, looking abstractedly towards the camera as we hear the sound of the motorbike bearing his assassins (the scene evokes Gauri Lankesh, as well as Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and other slain writers and artists of our time). Or another striking shot of the Menen character, clutching the manuscript, silhouetted in the door of her shop, the camera slowly drawing back to show the larger world outside the small one she has so far been circumscribed in. Or a scene where she looks up at trees, appearing to properly register their presence for the first time, as she listens to an environmentalist talking about the importance of plant conservation. Even before she comes into contact with the writer (or his manuscript), we sense that here is someone who has been stifled by circumstances; that she has the tools to broaden her horizons, and needs just a little push.

Much of the current conversation around Rushdie understandably centres on the daring, the controversial or the explicitly political aspects of his work: The Satanic Verses, the 1989 fatwa, the continued willingness to dissect and critique religion even in the face of death threats. And yet, for me, 19(1)(a) was a reminder that writers can be “dangerous” (in the best of ways) even when they aren’t dealing with hot-button subjects, or mocking an ancient book that people hold sacred (or criticising a current authoritarian government with its own fanatical following). Despite its homage to Gauri Lankesh and others, the story is quite generalised in some ways: we learn little about the exact nature of this Gauri’s writing, apart from getting a broad sense that he is against Hindutva politics and that he encourages people to stand up for themselves (and to always be personal and honest when they write). We don’t get precise information about who had targeted him. But that may be part of the point: by the film’s end, the young woman hasn’t become radicalised about a political or social issue, but she has found new ways of seeing. Which can be enough.

While on readers being influenced by writers in tangential ways: I have had a fragmented relationship with Rushdie’s work. During my early months in journalism, when I was sinking into contemporary Indian literature for the first time, I read – and loved – most of his early novels in a heady rush. It has now been two decades since I was stirred by Midnight’s Children and Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh (and stirred and exasperated in equal measure by The Ground Beneath Her Feet) – but, much as I remember my discovery of those books with great pleasure, eventually I formed a longer-lasting relationship with his non-fiction, especially his writings on culture and pop culture. This included his delicious takedowns of the mini-series The Far Pavilions (“the two central characters, both supposedly raised as Indians, have been lobotomized to the point of being incapable of pronouncing their own names. The man calls himself A Shock, and the woman An Jooly”) and David Lean’s A Passage to India, and his sharp critique of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

It also includes his eloquent counterpoint, in the essay “Outside the Whale”, to George Orwell’s seemingly fatalistic advice to writers to stay out of the political arena, to “get inside the whale… give yourself over to the world process, simply accept it, endure it, record it”. In his own essay (written long before The Satanic Verses or the fatwa), Rushdie wrote these words, which seem even more intensified now: “The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places […] in this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escape from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.”

(Note: In his Introduction to the collection Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie admitted that years after writing the piece, he felt he had been a little unfair to both Orwell and Henry Miller. This sort of introspection, this willingness to return to one’s old views and to self-correct is *also* a form of continuous, unflinching engagement with the world.)

Most of all, I had a special love for his long essay about the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which is so passionate, personal and detailed that I forgave its condescending tone against the “trashy Bombay film”. Within the framework of a piece that works perfectly well as solid long-form film criticism, Rushdie engages in self-analysis, shows himself to be a knowledgeable movie buff (imagining the “contemptuous wildness” that WC Fields may have brought to the role of the Wizard, for instance), and reflects on how this film necessarily plays differently when you watch it as a child (believing in the infallibility of adults) and when you watch it as a grown-up who knows that in the end “we all become magicians without magic”. Speaking from a very personal position, he sees the destinies of Dorothy and the Wizard as a parable for the migrant condition, and suggests that the classic song “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants. And in one unforgettable passage he points to the many unknowable ways in which one creative work may be infected by another, noting that after watching the film as a child, fascinated by its vivid colour scheme, he dreamt of green-skinned witches – and decades later subconsciously worked that memory into a description of the green Widow, the Indira Gandhi figure, in Midnight’s Children.

Amidst the much more topical writing in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across This Line, it was a thrill to experience this piece – one of the first long essays I read by an Indian writer (however westernised) about an old Hollywood movie. For a while, it was one of my many guiding spirits or totems when I wrote long-form personal pieces on cinema, and later when I reached out to authors for contributions to an anthology. To me, it represents Rushdie in a way that even his best novels don’t.

One of the most moving scenes in 19(1)(a) has the young woman visiting the home of the dead writer’s sister, then sitting down outside and imagining that the writer has come and sat beside her. She looks at this ghost, he doesn’t acknowledge her presence, and yet one gets the impression that he also feels an invisible entity nearby – a kindred spirit, someone who gives him added motivation to keep going? Here they are, writer and reader, occupying different dimensions yet mysteriously connected – each a spectral, vitalising presence by the other’s side. 

(A related post, from 10 years ago, centred on Rushdie being prevented from appearing at the Jaipur lit-fest: on "liberal extremism", and soft oppositions to freedom)

Saturday, August 13, 2022

HT spotlight: a short piece about Hindi cinema 1977-92

The Hindustan Times has this good-looking package which divides the Hindi cinema of the past 75 years into five eras, with separate essays on each. I contributed a short piece to the 1977-92 section, with Jaane bhi do Yaaro as the fulcrum. The piece is below.
(Yesterday, as it happens, was the anniversary of JBDY's release – I discovered only a couple of years after my book was published that the film's release date coincided with the date of my own advent into this so-called world. Some things are apparently “meant to be”…)
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Jaane bhi do Yaaro just happened somehow,” the late Kundan Shah told me once. He looked distracted, as if he still hadn’t understood why this small, madcap satire that he put together with a group of friends – almost in the spirit of a student film – had become a canonised cult classic. “We didn’t make it with the idea that anyone would ever watch it.”

We did watch it, though, over and over until it became one of the most-quoted Hindi films of its time – from “Thoda khao thoda phenko” to “Gutter ka paani alag, peene ka paani alag” to “Maine vastra-haran ka idea drop kar diya”. For those of us who first saw it as children on TV, the most astonishing thing about JBDY was that it was full of “boring” art-movie actors – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor – and yet it was wacky and frenetic and more outrageous than anything in the mainstream: a corpse on roller skates, slices of cake being tossed about, the Pandavas trying to disrobe Draupadi. It wasn’t until years later that one grasped the acerbic social commentary below the zany surface.

In some ways, the hard-to-categorise nature of JBDY makes it representative of the most enduring Hindi cinema of that period. When we think back on the late 1970s through the 80s, we speak in binaries: “mainstream vs parallel”, “commercial vs art”. There is something to this categorising (with the escapism of a Manmohan Desai at one end of the spectrum and the grittiness of a Govind Nihalani at the other), but many notable films occupy an unclassifiable middle ground between those modes.

“Unclassifiable” because the official Middle Cinema was still around, as were its directors who had begun their careers a decade or two earlier: this period saw Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal, Khubsoorat and one of my favourites, the underappreciated comedy of marriage Rang Birangi; Basu Chatterjee’s Khatta Meetha and Chameli ki Shaadi; Gulzar’s Angoor and Ijaazat. Add to this the work of Sai Paranjpye – evergreen, feel-good films like Chashme Baddoor, about a diligent young man and his roguish pals, and Katha, which transposes the hare-vs-tortoise fable to a Bombay chawl.

But equally notable were some films that are hard to label. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who assisted his FTII buddy Kundan on JBDY (and gave his name to one of the protagonists), made the meta-movie Khamosh the next year, a murder mystery set on a film shoot, with Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar playing versions of their real-life selves. Saeed Mirza, another of Kundan’s close friends, made Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho, which again combined slapstick comedy with social commentary (through the story of an elderly man who tries to fight injustice).

Then there was the work of Pankuj Parashar, which included some droll films that are still under-watched – the Farooque Shaikh-starrers Ab Aayega Mazaa and Peecha Karo – as well as better-known works: Jalwa (a Beverly Hills Cop remake with Naseeruddin Shah as a muscular action hero!) and Chaalbaaz, which used mainstream stars (Sridevi, Rajinikanth, Sunny Deol) and a familiar Seeta aur Geeta-inspired story but was full of off-kilter moments where it seemed to be winking at the audience and saying let’s not take all this seriously.

In some obvious ways, the 1980s wasn’t a quality decade for commercial films. Even as a boy who loved the “dhishoom-dhishoom” and the testosterone-fuelled posters (with three heroes glowering at us), and waited breathlessly for the Friday release of titles like Jaan Hatheli Pe and Mardon Waali Baat, on some level I knew this wasn’t “good cinema”. In earlier eras, the 1950s for instance, Indian films had been in conversation with other movements around the world (being influenced in form and content by Hollywood, while also trying to emulate the socialist cinemas). But in the 70s and 80s, most mainstream Hindi films were cut off from the outside world, in a vacuum, regurgitating old formulas and archetypes. In the years leading up to liberalisation, before India opened up and let the world in, culturally and otherwise, there was a sense that the film industry didn’t know what it was trying to be.

However, there are important exceptions, such as the films of JP Dutta (Ghulami, Hathyar) and Rahul Rawail (Arjun, Dacait) which were more stylish and visually inventive than most of what else was happening in the decade. There are also some of the breezier Amitabh Bachchan-starrers, which, while obviously being big commercial films, defied Angry Young Man formulas: light comedies such as Do aur Do Paanch (in which Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor try to out-prank each other), or the rambunctious Satte pe Satta (inspired by Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), hold up better today than his more conventional action films.

There were standalone hits like Disco Dancer, which would become a huge success in the USSR. There was the young Govinda’s disruptive presence, with nascent signs of his comic talent even in his pre-David Dhawan phase. And there were the films with the gloriously inventive villains’ dens: from blockbusters like Shaan and Mr India to less successful works like Teesri Aankh which, amidst its overall mediocrity, has a magnificent climactic musical-fight sequence where a singing Dharmendra infiltrates a lair and finds himself in a multi-level video game.

In fact, one can imagine the hapless photographers in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, Vinod and Sudhir, caught in one of those plush lairs with spiky walls and shark tanks – after all, one of the crazy characters who never made it to the final version of JBDY was a short-sighted hitman called the Disco Killer, played by a young Anupam Kher!

Another of my favourite JBDY anecdotes is that the film almost had a scene featuring a philosophical talking gorilla, the costume for which would have been the werewolf get-up used in Raj Kumar Kohli’s big-budget multi-starrer Jaani Dushman. That little story encapsulates the zanier side to this era, in which very different varieties of films brushed against each other in unexpected ways.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Small-town football, magic, love: thoughts on Jaadugar

(Did this review – of a film that has drawn lukewarm responses, but which I enjoyed a lot – for this month's Reader’s Digest India)

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The success of the web-series Panchayat – a rooted, old-world, quietly funny show about an engineering graduate who becomes a Panchayat secretary in a UP village – has created a fan following for actor Jitendra Kumar, who many movie viewers first saw as Ayushmann Khurana’s lover in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Kumar is likable and direct even when he plays irritable or frustrated characters (as he often does in Panchayat, navigating village protocols and bureaucratic red tape). He expresses a distinct, wide-eyed personality even though he seems so down to earth, so much a part of the crowd, that Amol Palekar might look like Greta Garbo in comparison.

Playing the lead in the new film Jaadugar, Kumar retains that affability even though his character, Meenu, is close to being a narcissist, someone who often claims to be in love – and probably means it – but is too self-absorbed to listen to what the other person is saying. A running joke involves his cluelessness about important information because he hadn’t been paying attention when it was repeatedly relayed to him. Kumar’s goofiness is on display in these scenes – like the one where he accosts a girlfriend’s family on a train, thinking they are heading off to get her married – but one can equally understand why the women are so exasperated. “Tu sunnta nahin hai na?!” exclaims a no-nonsense eye doctor named Disha (Meenu’s latest crush, played by Arushi Sharma) in a particularly funny moment.

What offsets Meenu’s cockiness – and lets us root for him to a degree – is that the screenplay keeps pulling the carpet out from under his feet: another comic motif is that of this “hero” saying grand-sounding things that prepare us for him to do something big… but then in the next shot we see that hard reality has struck.

Meenu lives in a small town (Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh) known for its soccer culture. His late father was a footballer who had aspired to win the town’s premier trophy with his team, but the son has no interest in the sport or in being the inheritor of his dad’s dreams. Instead he is obsessed with magic, and performs basic tricks at birthday parties and wedding functions. (“Main hoon Magic Meenu. Part-time lover, full-time jaadugar.”) Meanwhile his uncle (nicely played by Javed Jaffrey, with a stammer that might have been actorly showboating in other hands but is credibly done here) needs his help to complete a football team of no-hopers, and to challenge for a trophy that has been out of reach.

“Dil jeetne waale ko kehte hain Jaadugar,” goes a line in the film, and the script finds a way to connect love for magic with love for football, and to throw in regular romantic love as well. After one girlfriend walks out on Meenu (you can’t fault her) he falls for Disha, but there are complications which stem from her relationship with her father. And, ultimately, a demand that will test Meenu’s probity and create some suspense for the final match played by his team.

Which means Jaadugar has a lot going on, but somehow that doesn’t matter, anchored as it is by the pleasant lead performances – and, importantly, by a feel for its small-town milieu. Most of the soccer team members (and their interrelationships) are depicted with economy and humour (Hemant the goal-keeper can stop even a bullet with his right hand, someone says; but he can’t stop even a snail with his left), and the bantering two-person commentary during the matches, with director Sameer Saxena as one of the commentators, is often very droll. (“Doosri team ussko aise gher rahi hai jaise woh paani-puri waala ho” – though of course the subtitles turn this into “They have surrounded him like he’s the last slice of pizza at a party.”) Biswapati Sarkar’s script has nice little surprises, mini-twists and tonal shifts, including the balancing of pathos with comedy: consider that the protagonist is someone who lost his parents to an accident as a boy – and his uncle feels guilty about this – but the screenplay still manages to derive some low-key fun from their interactions.

And amidst all this there is also a palpable sense of achievement when the Adarsh Nagar team draws level with an opponent for the first time ever in a league match – before going on to bigger things, aided by underdogs such as the team’s only woman player, an outsider who hadn’t expected to be included… and of course the self-absorbed young magician who has to learn to grow up and listen. This isn’t a grand tournament, and this is very far from a sports film full of inspirational speeches – it’s a small pond. But that doesn’t mean the frogs in it can’t have a sense of pride and aspiration, while dealing with their own struggles.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Came late, left too soon – two new books about Sanjeev Kumar

(The latest India Today has this piece I wrote, touching on the two new Sanjeev Kumar biographies. As you can see, I have borrowed their cheeky headline for my post.
I also moderated a book-club chat a couple of days ago with Sumant Batra, co-author of An Actor’s Actor. A video of that chat is on the Books Etc Facebook page, and should be accessible even if you don’t have an FB account. The link is here.)
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Among the many anecdotes told across two recently published books about Sanjeev Kumar (or “Haribhai” as he was known, being Harihar Jariwala by birth), there is a poignant story about an interviewer asking the acclaimed actor why he kept playing old men. Hari’s reply: a fortune-teller told him he wouldn’t live long, so he tried, through his roles, to “live” an age that he would never experience firsthand.

Kumar did in fact die at 47, succumbing to a genetic heart condition that had plagued him for years (and was not helped by a careless lifestyle filled with late-night eating and drinking sessions). For the last decade and a half of his life, he was one of Hindi cinema’s most canonised actors. Movie buffs who are well-versed with the 1970s and 80s know how admired he was by his peers, as well as by viewers who cared less for starry mannerisms and more for “character acting”.

But for those who came of age later, Kumar is in danger of being forgotten (or even barely-known). Despite having worked in many sorts of films, including formally adventurous works by Basu Bhattacharya (Anubhav), the relatively grounded “Middle Cinema” of Gulzar, Basu Chatterji and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film (Shatranj ke Khiladi), much of the cinema he is most associated with is today seen as quaint and creaky. Unlike many of his contemporaries who continued working – with varying results – past their sixties or seventies, he has been off the radar for well over three decades: one can only imagine the opportunities he would have got if he had been around, and had stayed fit enough to do good work, during the multiplex and OTT eras.

And so, any literature on the man is welcome. But here are two books by major publishers, within a year of each other – the first an “authorized biography” with inputs from the late actor’s surviving family, and the second co-authored by his nephew Uday Jariwala (who is also acknowledged in the earlier book). You’d think they might represent different approaches to the actor’s life and art, but that isn’t quite the case. Structurally, the major difference is that An Actor’s Actor follows a straightforward chronology, starting with Harihar Jariwala’s family background and early life, before covering his peak years. On the other hand, Sanjeev Kumar: The Actor We All Loved is more free-flowing and playful, moving back and forth in time, including first-person accounts by Hari’s friends, family and admirers.

Most of the milestones, pitstops and stumbling blocks are covered: the early death of Hari’s father, leaving him the oldest male child at age eleven; his struggles to establish himself as an actor, first in the theatre and then in film; the brief period as a leading man in much-derided “stunt films” (this was a lithe Sanjeev Kumar – or “Sanjay Kumar”, his initial screen name – at his most dashing and hero-like); the award-winning parts in films like Koshish and Dastak. There are anecdotes about his generosity of spirit, and an emphasis that though he suffered heartbreak he was not an unhappy man. Inevitably there is some repetition and overlapping between the books – for instance, in the accounts of controversial episodes that once provided fodder to gossip magazines: the near-wedding to Hema Malini (one reason for the relationship to fall through was the condition that his wife would not continue to work), or the closeness with the married Nutan which culminated in her slapping him in front of a film unit.

Needless to say, given the official or near-official status of these publications, there is a tendency to tiptoe around less savoury matters. One running theme – which couldn’t have been avoided or glossed over by anyone attempting a Sanjeev Kumar study – is the actor’s notorious unpunctuality. Even with the knowledge that mainstream Hindi cinema was far from an exemplar of professionalism in the 1970s (remember all those stories about actors doing multiple shifts in a day, stumbling from one shoot to another, often unaware of the name of their character in the film of the moment), the stories of Sanjeev Kumar’s late-coming are legion. Perhaps this is something the authors could have been more seriously critical of, rather than going down the anodyne route of “but everyone always forgave him because he was so good once he did get down to work” or “he was so pleasant and had such a warm smile, it was impossible to stay angry at him”. It might also have been a way of commenting on the workings of an industry where one of its most respected practitioners was regularly allowed to get away with keeping his colleagues waiting for hours.

Adulation follows its own path, though; what we are left with are tribute books that will hopefully motivate at least a few young readers to seek out and develop an appreciation for the Hindi cinema of Sanjeev Kumar’s time.

(Here is a column from a few years ago, awaiting a Sanjeev Kumar book and discussing my ambivalent feelings about him)

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Girl, cocaine, maida – thoughts on Good Luck Jerry

(Reviewed this pleasant but messy new film – now on Hotstar for Money Control)
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You know those musical sequences that accompany the closing credits in Hindi films now? The ones where the actors go from performing a song straight to breaking character, so that you can’t tell if this is a promotional spot or a collection of goofy outtakes or an elaborate home video made for future generations of the crew’s family. I usually tune out of those scenes quite fast, but with the new film Good Luck Jerry – a comedy-thriller about a young Bihari woman who works for Punjabi drug dealers to raise the money for her mother’s medical treatment – I watched the closing-credits sequence all the way through.

The song is called “Snake Bite”, wherein Janhvi Kapoor and Deepak Dobriyal strike hip-hop poses while animated neon designs – serpent tongues, hearts, bat-wings, a Jughead Jones hat – bedeck them now and again. The scene has only a very tenuous connection with the film that preceded it, but this seemingly mismatched duo is having fun: Dobriyal is always good to watch (we see so little of him anyway these days) and Janhvi made a few naagin gestures that reminded me of her mom, and it’s all nice and goofy in a good way. It made me wish there had been more of this particular brand of zaniness in Good Luck Jerry.

What there is – in a story adapted from the Tamil film Kolamaavu Kokila, and transposed to a still-very-much-udta Punjab where one can now apparently find drug-runners under every rock – isn’t bad. It would be difficult to make a poor film anyway when you have performers like Dobriyal and Mita Vashisht in important supporting roles, an appealing enough Kapoor in the lead, a colourful cast of characters, a quick-paced plot, and Raj Shekhar lyrics that smoothly incorporate words like “paracetamol” and lines like “Beauty beauty beauty beautiful tu / Tootte sitaaron waali dhool tu” in describing this small-town milieu and the state of mind of the aspirational characters in it.

Jerry (Kapoor) is working in a massage parlour as the film opens, to the disapproval of her mother Sarbati (Vashisht) who makes and sells vegetarian momos for a living (“Darjeeling ke hain, bana Bihari rahe hain aur pel Punjabi rahe hain”). Worse is to come for the family, though, when Sarbati is diagnosed with lung cancer – curable, but the treatment will cost over Rs 20 lakh. After Jerry and her younger sister Cherry (Samta Sudiksha) inadvertently have a run-in with cocaine dealers, Jerry discovers that transporting the maal can be very lucrative business, and thus begin her adventures with various oddballs, from the smitten Timmy (Jaswant Singh Dalal) and his gang to the distributor Malik (Saurabh Sachdeva) who trades not just in drugs but also in fish metaphors (and even places Jerry’s cellphone in an aquarium to ensure that no one eavesdrops on them).

Meanwhile, each of the women has a swain in waiting: an elderly neighbour has a soft spot for the widowed Sarbati, a young man perpetually dressed as a groom wants to marry Cherry, and of course there is the nominal “hero”, the swaggering roadside Rinku (Dobriyal, with a wider palette of colours in his hair than Janhvi has in her clothes). But part of the film’s purpose is that these male characters – who might have been protectors in another sort of narrative – are destined to remain side-kicks and more often than not turned into comic figures, while the women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. This motif will reach its logical conclusion in a promising but overlong scene where a lecherous villain, a possible sexual threat to Jerry and her family, is efficiently dealt with by them (while the three suitors wail away outside as they imagine what might be happening).

Good Luck Jerry has a few enjoyable moments, especially the ones involving a limited number of characters: the family scenes between Jerry and her mother and sister (after her cancer diagnosis, the pragmatic Sarbati gets all made up for a photo-taking session for the picture to be used after her impending death; may as well do it now, she says, while my face is still healthy). Or the ones where the over-confident Rinku keeps misunderstanding everything and coming up with the explanations that suit him best (“Oh, she doesn’t want me to drive the van because she wants me to sit with her”)… until the tables are turned on him and he realises that “his” girl has been leading a more adventurous life than he could imagine.

But there are a few too many supporting characters trying too hard to be eccentric in their different ways, and things inevitably get diluted as people randomly pull out guns and wave them around (an elderly drug-dealer named Daddu is treated as important by the script, but he did nothing for me). The film also has a tonal problem: on the one hand, it seems to want to be an out-and-out black comedy with cartoonish undertones in the vein of a Delhi Belly (also a story about innocents caught up with unsavoury types), but on the other hand the mother-child-cancer story can’t avoid making a few detours into sentimentality.

Hindi cinema has set a low bar for itself in recent times, and a moderately entertaining, sincerely made film like this one probably deserves some respect. But Good Luck Jerry is too often inert, and weighed down by the conflicting tones and the busy-ness of its plot, much like the bed filled with dozens of little bags that Jerry has to transport around in one sequence – a few containing the promised stimulants, others just salt or powdered sugar or maida

(My other Money Control pieces are here)

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The brusque writer and his polite creation: thoughts on RK/RKay

(Did this review of a strange and compelling new film for Money Control)
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The first shot of Rajat Kapoor’s new film gives us a dimly lit corridor (in a run-down hotel, perhaps?) with glimpses of a man and his clones entering and exiting doors until the screen is busy with RKs moving back and forth, each oblivious to the others. Watching the scene, I was reminded of images from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, set largely in a purgatory-like hotel where a playwright settles down to try and find his writing muse.

This seemed a random link at first, a visual coincidence, but as RK/RKay continued it felt a little more like a deliberate homage. Much like the beleaguered Barton, who learns that “the life of the mind” can be fraught with disillusionment and peril, writer-director RK (played by Kapoor) is a tortured artist struggling with the creative process – with his inner demons and insecurities (that opening shot may well depict the dusty nooks and crannies in the maze of his mind) as well as the problem of being surrounded by plebeians who (in his view) don’t understand him.

Consider RK’s lowbrow producer Goyal (Manu Rishi). In a particularly funny scene, RK is screening his almost-completed film Mera Naseeb – a strange period concoction set in the indeterminate past, probably the 1950s, complete with a heroine named Gulaabo (Mallika Sherawat) and a villain named KN Singh (Ranvir Shorey). “Picture Urdu mein banaayi hai?” Goyal says, looking unimpressed as he hears the ornate-sounding dialogue for apparently the first time (surely it’s too late for a producer to have such an epiphany!) – then he mutters something about such a film being “difficult” for the “common man”. Another assistant chimes in by telling RK “This film is not as third-class as your last film”, and follows this breath-taking proclamation with “Keep the faith.”

As if all this weren’t deflating enough, RK’s insecurities seem to take a tangible form when Mehboob, the lead character in Mera Naseeb, escapes the movie and emerges into the real world. Since Mehboob is played by RK himself, what we now have is a doppelganger tale with two Rajat Kapoors trying to make sense of each other’s existence and personalities: one is courtly and old-world and speaks in elegant Urdu (and makes superb biryani at short notice), while the other is impatient, curt and understandably frustrated by this turn of events.

The interplay between the writer-director and his fugitive creation is revealing. The fictitious-now-real Mehboob has a habit of starting sentences with “Mere Abba kahaa karte thay…”, whereupon the exasperated RK begins grilling his character: “What IS the name of this Abba whom you keep quoting,” he asks Mehboob. “And what did your Ammi look like? Do you remember?” The answer is no, of course, because Mehboob only has the information he is required to have for the purposes of the film; he is a blank slate otherwise. But this exchange also finds its counterpoint in a later scene where Mehboob gets back at his creator with an equivalent of the question “What about you? Who is writing your script?”

A crisis involving a double, the slow blurring of identities through role-play, the fickleness of memory, the illusory nature of the self… these themes were also at the heart of Kapoor’s 2008 Mithya, which still needs to be rediscovered as one of the best Hindi films of its time. At least one scene in RK/RKay – where Mehboob, persuaded to go back to the world he emerged from, realises that he is meant to die and strongly resists this fate – reminded me of Mithya. But RK/RKay is also, importantly, about the relationship between an artist and his creation, which can acquire a life of its own and get away from its parent. “Even the character you wrote doesn’t listen to you,” goes one observation in the film, “Marzi ka maalik hai.” But beyond the specific fantasy scenario presented in this narrative, isn’t that observation true for any artist who sends his work out into the world and then finds he has lost all control over it; that readers, viewers, critics will respond to or interpret it in their own ways?

Related to this is the constant reminder of artists as creators operating in a higher realm vs artists as everyday people. With writers, for instance, a big gap can exist between the deep feelings they express, the poetry they are capable of, and their “real”, prosaic (or even unlikable) selves. RK is the one who writes intense romantic lines for his protagonist, but Mehboob is the one who really feels and lives those emotions (while RK himself, in regular life, seems a detached, unromantic sort – his wife certainly seems more taken by the fictional creation). I was reminded of how often starry-eyed readers – at a literature festival, for instance – have been disappointed by a real-life meeting with their favourite author, and found it hard to imagine how this sullen, uncommunicative creature could have produced words that touched them so deeply.

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RK/RKay is the sort of film that has one constantly on the look-out for allusions to other works – from Shakespearean soliloquies (Mehboob spouts versions of “As flies to wanton boys…” and “If you prick us do we not bleed” – a reminder that his creator RK, much like the real-life Rajat Kapoor, is likely a Shakespeare buff) to Milton’s “Did I beseech thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?” (which was also used as an epigraph for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And of course, cinema: there is a very cosmetic similarity to the Buster Keaton masterpiece Sherlock Jr (as well as later films in its vein, such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) but there are also the films whose posters and stills bedeck RK’s editing room, from respected classics like Fritz Lang’s M to 1930s genre movies like The Invisible Man or The Mystery of Mr X. (RK and his creation are both invisible men in different ways. Mehboob vanishes from the world of the film he is in – the scenes he was in play out exactly as before, except that he can’t be seen in them; on the other hand, RK himself is probably feeling invisibilised by the reactions to the film he has so passionately put together.)

It’s easy to use descriptors like “philosophical meditation” for such a narrative, but what’s equally important (especially given that this is a rare instance of a subdued, non-mainstream film that has got a theatrical release before making it to OTT platforms) is that RK/RKay is fun and engaging and can probably work even for a viewer who doesn’t care too much about the philosophy or the references. Apart from the dark humour built into the general premise, there are laugh-out-loud moments and lines like “Hero hee nahin baith raha film mein toh audience kya baithegi?” Or, when RK is first told about Mehboob’s disappearance and is assured that there isn’t a technical issue: “Machine theek hai toh kya problem hai? Existential?” (Kapoor brings the same knowing sarcasm to this line reading and a few others as he did to his best scenes as the CBI investigator in the series Scam 1992.)

The film is fun for the most part, anyway: I thought it slowed down in its final leg, with a few random and forced moments involving the fictitious villain KN Singh, and a stretched-out ending that wasn’t hard to guess at. But then, such is the deeply self-referential nature of this film, it’s possible to imagine that even that may be part of RK/RKay’s design. As someone tells RK after watching Mera Naseeb, “The film is lagging a bit in the second half.” I’m not sure any filmmaker would deliberately make a portion of his film uninvolving just to be “meta”, but if anyone is perverse enough to do such a thing it would probably be Rajat Kapoor. 

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Reluctant hero – on Ashok Kumar and other early movie stars

(My latest Economic Times column)

In an early scene in the 15-part series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a few thoughts are offered about the birth of screen personalities in cinema’s first years. A woman is shown facing the camera; when she turns around there is a cut so her face can still be seen (the camera has “jumped” to the other side to follow her). Then there is a sudden close-up, and narrator-director Mark Cousins notes that at some point in film history the actor rather than the set became central. The possibility of a star – a performer whom an audience could relate to, feel drawn to – arose. As close-ups of eyes and faces, images of people “thinking”, became common, viewers began projecting their own feelings onto these celluloid Gods.

And it followed that the first stars played interesting characters – Chaplin’s Tramp – or had striking personal qualities, like Buster Keaton’s deadpan athleticism or Douglas Fairbanks’ rakishness or Lillian Gish’s ability to make everyone feel protective. Or they might be singularly good-looking, features made more luminous by imaginative lighting and costuming. This wasn’t restricted to fiction films either: the Inuit man in the classic documentary Nanook of the North, gazing out at us with a frank smile in his first scene, is a natural movie star too.

To varying degrees all these people were confident in their own skin, they liked acting and savoured the attention of the big bulky camera. None of this applies to the man generally regarded as Hindi cinema’s first major male star, Ashok Kumar (originally Kumudlal Ganguly) – who, as a much-told tale has it, was a very reluctant “hero”, nervous and diffident when he was plucked out of a laboratory job at Bombay Talkies and asked to work opposite Devika Rani (because her leading man, with whom she had had an affair, was no longer available).

That story, and many others, are in Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, first published in 1995, now out in a revised edition with a new Foreword and Afterword. As a rare instance of one important film personality (Ghosh was a celebrated screenwriter) writing about another as a friend, this book is warm and conversational while also showing a breadth of knowledge about its subject’s personal and professional history – the tone often reminded me of Garson Kanin’s memoir about his close buddies who also just happened to be Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

When he first watched Achhut Kanya in 1936, Ghosh tellingly says, “we were struck by Ashok Kumar’s genuine innocence compared to the sophisticated ‘innocence’ of Devika Rani”. By the time he met the actor fifteen years later, Ashok Kumar wasn’t so “innocent” any more – he was an established star and producer, a key figure in the Hindi film industry.

“Dadamoni” has, of course, made appearances in other cinema books before and since; and given his long career, it is fascinating to see the different avatars that appear in these publications. Dev Anand’s autobiography describes the young Anand meeting his idol – the Ashok Kumar of these pages is a suave, confident figure sitting in his office and blowing smoke rings at his starry-eyed visitor. Kishwar Desai’s book about Devika Rani offers amusing glimpses of the shy young man who was
terrified of his co-star, with whom he had to perform intimate scenes. ("Kumud tried, over and over again, to wriggle out of the commitment, including pretending to fall sick and threatening to chop off his hair.") Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1940s essays present his friend as a man who was sometimes irritated by attention but also aware of the benefits of fame (and Nandita Das’s film Manto depicts a suit-clad Ashok Kumar swishing his way through a party held to celebrate India’s independence: clinking glasses, making speeches, socialising effortlessly).

All this adds up to a story about someone only gradually becoming acclimatised to the new role he was forced to take on. And it’s a reminder that while stardom can be an elusive, alchemical thing (where a mysterious relationship immediately arises between a screen persona and the audience who encounters it in a dark hall), it can also have very mundane origins and can build over time. What a vast gap there was between the young lab boy of the 1930s who felt the urge to rush off to the toilet every time he had to shoot a difficult scene, and the Ashok Kumar of the first scene of Mahal a decade later, the subject of one of Hindi cinema’s great star-reveals: a disused chandelier is pulled up to the ceiling and the camera simultaneously tracks in to show a man who had been hidden from sight – rapt in attention as he listens to the ghost story being told to him, but also very much a star in a stylish pose, aware of the effect his first appearance will have on his audience.