From Jackie Shroff's weeping Labrador in Teri Meherbaniyan to Jacques Tati's joyful Parisian strays in Mon Oncle ... here's the latest instalment of my Yahoo! India column.
Update: the complete piece:
If you were a child watching Chitrahaar in the mid-1980s, the title song of a film called Teri Meherbaniyan undoubtedly lies buried in the dark crannies of your mind. Its refrain was almost too soulful to bear - prolonged and lugubrious ("Teri Meherbaaaniyannn, Teri Qadardaaaniyaaann"), it mimicked the yowling of the movie's protagonist, a black Labrador named Moti. Listen to the complete song once and you're ready to bay at the moon.
We'll never know if Moti did his own playback singing in a human voice, but it must be conceded that he was an intelligent animal, well-versed in such rituals as the garlanding of a dead body and the lighting of a funeral pyre after carrying a matka around it a few times. (You don't call that intelligent? Don't complain to me about it.) When his beloved master Ram, played by Jackie Shroff, was murdered by thugs, Moti performed the last rites himself and then scampered off to take badla (which, in 1980s Hindi cinema, was a post-death ritual as important as any other). In between, he had flashbacks to his puppy days when Jackie took him to the vet. No dog gets misty-eyed thinking about his first vaccination, but Moti did; that shows you what a special dog he was.
Perhaps, if you were an eight-year-old animal lover, the scene where Moti wept for the slain Ram brought a tear to your own eyes. Then perhaps your mother - an animal-lover herself - smacked you on the side of your head, telling you that the people who made the movie didn't care about the dog's feelings; they were tormenting the poor thing with glycerine, knowing full well that animals didn't express their grief by shedding tears. Heaven knows how badly Moti had been treated on the set, she perhaps said. Now stop sniffling and finish your lamb curry.
Even so, Teri Meherbaniyan was the first film I can recall that choked me up. The song, like everything else from the 1980s, is now on YouTube, and before watching it I look sneakily over my shoulder - it's the sort of childhood memory you're supposed to be embarrassed about. But on another level, I'm grateful for the existence of any Hindi movie that gave a non-human creature an interior life, no matter how cheesily or manipulatively it was done. (Besides, any dog that allowed Jackie Shroff to bestow multiple smooches on him must have been heavily sedated before the shoot, so Moti couldn't have been in much pain.)
One understands the practical problems in having an animal play an important role in a film. Earlier this year in Vagamon, Kerala, I saw some of the shooting of Anup Kurian's forthcoming The Hunt, starring Naseeruddin Shah. In the film, Shah's character Colonel has a steadfast companion, a German Shepherd named Kuttapan, and Kurian's script repeatedly comments on the dog's reactions when Colonel says anything to him. Getting those little expressions on camera was another matter, though. Kuttapan was played by a handsome young chap named Tipu, who had worked in around 50 Malayalam films before this one. But he was principally an action star - in his earlier movies he specialised in playing police dogs running after criminals - and all this acting and reacting lay beyond his skill-set. (Imagine Jean-Claude Van Damme suddenly thrown into the part of Horatio.) Under the blazing afternoon sun, many retakes were needed, and the crew was further inconvenienced by an ill-tempered cow that kept fluffing its lines. "Actors are cattle," Hitchcock said once, but this shouldn't be taken to mean that cattle are actors.
It's a pity, because I wish more movies had animals as part of their canvas, even if they aren't doing anything too attention-grabbing. As the writer Vandana Singh points out in her fine piece "The Creatures We Don't See", much of our art testifies to the self-absorption of our species and the banishing of other life-forms from our consciousness. "Pick up any regular piece of fiction," she writes, "and you'd be guaranteed to find in it not one animal that would play any role other than backdrop ... In almost every TV science-fiction show, the ship that travels across space is a sterile, hospital-like environment where you rarely see a plant or animal."
The dog sequences in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle are my favourite examples of organic yet unobtrusive use of animals in a film. Tati was a great practitioner of slice-of-life comedy, chronicling the whimsical little moments that we rarely notice, and Mon Oncle is a film of two parts. Around half of it is set in a sterile, gizmo-packed house inhabited by a bored little boy and his control-freak parents. But the other half is set in the warm, cheery world where the boy's uncle Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati) lives - a world of little street markets, war-ravaged brick buildings and ramshackle jhuggi-like flats - and central to the vivacity of this landscape are the stray dogs who have the run of the neighborhood. The film begins with them: we see them sniffing around garbage cans, opening their lids to peer inside, bounding after a horse-driven cart, peeing on the kerb. We discover that one of them lives in the remote-controlled house and has temporarily escaped to play with its mates in a friendlier environment. They beautifully offset the ordered, mechanised lives elsewhere in the story.
A lot of care must have been put into the filming of these scenes, and the moments that seem most spontaneous are probably the ones that were most meticulously planned: don't miss the shot near the end, outside an airport, where one of the dogs looks upward and cocks its head just as we hear the sound of a passing plane. But the scene that would make it to my all-time list of favourite movie vignettes is the one where Hulot is talking to a vegetable-seller. Sticking out of Hulot's shopping bag is a large head of fish, eyes intact, mouth open in a threatening expression; tied under the cart is the vendor's pet dog. As the bag waves about beneath the cart, dog and fish lock eyes and the unnerved mutt starts snarling at the fish-head. It's a magical little moment, stunning in the simplicity of its concept, so well-executed that it seems artless.
"The fact that about forty technicians have to wait patiently while a dog condescends to relieve himself on a lamp-post gives me great financial responsibilities," Tati once said wryly. But it was more than worth it. As his animals run back and forth across the invisible border that separates a charming old city from its growing concrete suburbs, they add depth to the film (without actually participating in its plot the way Moti did in Teri Meherbaniyan). I think of them whenever I see a pack of stray dogs playing on cement-powder mounds near a construction site, and I wish there were movie roles for more of them.
(Earlier PoV columns: 1, 2, 3)
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