Saturday, April 07, 2012

Andar ki baatein: on inside references in movies

The new film Agent Vinod has a scene where the eponymous spy (played by Saif Ali Khan) looks into the eyes of a girl named Ruby (Kareena Kapoor) and deadpans the lyrics of a beloved 1960s Hindi film song: “Yeh jheel si neeli aankhen / Koi raaz hai inmein gehra?” (“These lake-blue eyes / Is there a secret deep within them?”)

The lines work well enough in the given context – this is a world of double-crossers and triple-crossers, and Vinod (probably not his real name) doesn’t know if Ruby (definitely not her real name) can be trusted – but the seasoned viewer will catch another, more playful layer: the girl who was serenaded thus in the 1960s film – Kashmir ki Kali – was played by Saif’s real-life mother Sharmila Tagore. (In an earlier scene in Agent Vinod, Ruby injects Vinod with truth serum and persistently asks “What did your mother call you when you were a child?” - a question that might acquire a different shade when you remember that Kareena and Saif are in a relationship offscreen.)

Incidentally the actor who performed that old song was Kareena’s real-life grand-uncle Shammi Kapoor. A few months ago, another new film, Rockstar, paid tribute to the recently deceased actor by replicating part of the song, with another young Kapoor – Ranbir – imitating Shammi’s famous gyrations.

If any of this confuses you, you are clearly new to the world of Hindi movies. In an industry dominated by the cult of the star personality and built on dynasties – with star children and grandchildren proliferating everywhere – it isn’t surprising to find sly little allusions and homages of this sort. Nor is this an entirely new phenomenon: sticking with the Kapoors, one wonders if Raj Kapoor was being a touch devilish in giving his grandfather Dewan Basheswarnath a tiny part as a judge in his 1951 film Awaara, considering that the old man had once “decreed” that no one from his family would join films!

Much has been written on mainstream movies indulging their stars, even if it means winking at the audience at the cost of a narrative’s internal rhythm: I’ve lost count of the number of times Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan have appeared together in “cameo” scenes that exist merely to add to the family-video collection (Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag and Delhi 6 being among the most embarrassing cases). But nudge-nudge moments can exist even in lower-profile films
– the ones we tend to associate with integrity - and in scenes involving non-starry actors.

Early in the 1987 movie Jalwa, two friends – one doing push-ups, the other walking by – see each other from a distance and engage in a bit of playful name-calling. “May your mother-in-law run away with a eunuch!” one yells. “May your sister-in-law marry a gorilla!” the other replies. Credible buddy-buddy banter, you’d think, but there’s a subtext. The actors playing this scene – Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor – were wedded to sisters in real life, and their mother-in-law was the venerable actress Dina Pathak. There is probably a minuscule chance that the dialogue is coincidental, but we should know better.

Shah and Kapoor were – then, as now – among our most respected actors; the sort of performers who are (in a
somewhat simplistic view of acting) expected to always "sink" into their parts and leave “themselves” behind. But both men have appeared in films containing inside references that are best appreciated by the other members of the crew. In fact, Kapoor’s character in Jalwa is named Albert Pinto, which is an allusion to one of Shah’s early roles (the name has also slyly been used in other films such as Jaane bhi do Yaaro - which also mentions its own director, Kundan Shah, in its opening scene).

When we see a finished film – especially a good, satisfying film created by a pooling together of notable talents – it’s possible to forget that the cast and crew weren’t just professionals doing their jobs; that they may also have been exhanging private jokes behind the scenes and finding small ways to keep themselves entertained during what is often a mundane, long-drawn-out and frustrating process.

This isn’t excuse-making: I'm not condoning movies that overdo self-indulgence at the expense of the narrative. But it’s also worth remembering that when movie characters are played by people whom we are familiar with (even if they are supposedly chameleon-like actors), we rarely experience them as blank slates anyway. On a conscious or subconscious level, we bring what we know of them – their real lives, their previous roles – to the experience. It’s part of what can make the movie-watching process intimate and unreal at the same time. You smile indulgently at the Saif-Sharmila reference, but for that moment you forget about Agent Vinod.

[Did a version of this for my Business Standard column]


  1. Andaz Apna Apna:
    Prem (Salman Khan): Maine ye film Sholay dus baar dekh chuka hoon (or something along those lines).
    Amar (Aamir Khan): Haan, tere baap ne jo likha hai. :)

    1. Andaz Apna Apna is so filled with film-industry references that it makes you gag. Shakti Kapoor, as the weirdly comic-bookish Crime Master Gogo, claims to be related to Mogambo (from Mr India). Raveena Tandon plays a character called Raveena (she’s ‘Raveena from London’, which also rhymes with Raveena Tandon) and Karisma Kapoor’s character is called Karishma. Juhi Chawla makes a cameo as herself. In one scene, Aamir’s character calls her ‘J-J-Juhi’ and she says, ‘Oh, mainay socha Shah Rukh Khan aaya hai!’, which is, of course, a Darr reference.
      But I seem to have missed that superb Sholay reference!

  2. Abhishek: ah, yes! Thing with Andaz Apna Apna (and JBDY too, I suppose) is that the generally manic tone of those films makes it easier to justify such meta-references. But it's also interesting that Kundan Shah (who, needless to say, has a feel for manic humour) didn't care for the use of his name in the opening scene of JBDY - that was a bit of improvisation by Naseer, and Kundan felt it was inappropriate to take the audience "out" of the narrative so early in the movie.

  3. Main hoon na was a montage of homage-moments, no? Gol Mal (the hero and his brother being Ram Prasad and Lakshman Prasad), the Masoom theme, the reference to Basanti and the run-away-tanga, even SRK's dress was meant to evoke a 1970s Don-like Amitabh, and Sushmita called Chandni (and dressed accordingly). I thought it was all good fun since the movie didn't take itself seriously, but many people who didn't get all the allusions were quite puzzled at the pastiche of references.

  4. Radhika: yes, but this is about stars alluding to their own real-life selves (or real-life families). Otherwise, of course, there are many films with meta-references - including cases of actors explicitly playing themselves, as in Luck by Chance and Om Shanti Om.

  5. OSO had that -
    Ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahin ban sakte.
    Beta Sooraj, likh le, likh le, baad mein kaam aa jaayega.

    And others.

  6. The words Yeh jheel si neeli ankhen koi raaz ... are etched in our minds independently of the visuals. They don't even remind me much of Shammi and Sharmila. And Kareena and Saif? Not at all!

  7. Would you put Khamosh in this list? Three of the main characters are named after their real selves, and almost play themselves in the movie, save for the fact that the plot is entirely fictional.

    When I saw the disclaimer "any similarity to any person living or dead is *purely* coincidental" in the end, I laughed. Not to take away anything from the movie. It's brilliance all the way.

    And since we've brought up JBDY, how can we forget that Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra (the two protagonists) were named after none other than the ADs, and now legendary filmmakers in their own right.

    Or how about Ajay Devgan (did I spell it correctly?) saying "nahin mai Ajay Devgan hoon" to Paresh Rawal's question in Golmaal?

    Or in the legendary Gol Maal, Deven Varma played himself (but not a cameo really). Amitabh also has a walk-in scene, and we see a (behind-the-) scene in the movie which was shot for another movie altogether (Jurmaana IIRC).

  8. Anon: I'm not saying "Yeh jheel si neeli ankhen" would in itself remind you of Saif and Kareena (heaven forbid). Just saying that when Saif says the lines in a tongue-in-cheek way onscreen, it's hard not to make the association with his mother in KKK. Also, for me at least, the song's visuals are very memorable - one of those few instances in an old Hindi movie where the picturisation does justice to a great song.

  9. ThisBloke: Khamosh is a slightly different case, I'd say - since its narrative explicitly involves the making of a movie.

    how can we forget that Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra (the two protagonists) were named after none other than the ADs

    Oh, believe me, there's absolutely no question of my forgetting anything about that movie! At times, I wish I could. *Insert wry smiley here*

    in the legendary Gol Maal, Deven Varma played himself

    Again, an actor playing "himself" is not really what I'm talking about here. But yes, that was Jurmana being shot in Gol Maal - I mentioned it in this post.

  10. "You smile indulgently at
    the Saif-Sharmila reference, but for that
    moment you forget about Agent Vinod." Heh, but surely that's a good thing - forgetting about Agent Vinod!
    Loved this post.
    Oh, and does this count - the Salman cameo in Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahaani? The whole katrina-salman-ranbir situation?

  11. Andaz Apna Apna's in-joke is particularly commendable because the writers don't go out of their way to underline the joke. Thus, making the joke far more enjoyable when one discovers it (perhaps on a repeat viewing).

    Contrast this with perhaps the biggest in-joke opportunity loss in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, where at the end, Abhishek B & Bobby Deol are riding on a bike with a sidecar. Unfortunately, Shaad Ali spoils it all by playing "yeh dosti..." in a very obvious, non-diegetic manner.

    In-jokes are particularly seen in films made by next-gen Bollywood filmmakers such as Rohan Sippy (Bluffmaster is full of them) & Farah Khan.

    I'm looking forward to a film where the credits say: "This film had no references to Sholay."

  12. Oh love it when this happens. My favourite is when in Kabhi Kabhie, Shashi Kapoor asks his family doctor, Doctor Kapoor (played by Parikshit Sahni) whether he will join him for a drink. When the good doctor refuses, Shashi walks of mumbling, "Kaisa Kapoor hai, peeta-veeta nahin hai??"

  13. There's a brilliant moment like this in Annie Hall when Woody Allen says he's standing with the "cast of The Godfather", referring to two irritating autograph-hunters. One of them acted in The Godfather, and of course, there was Diane Keaton herself.

    But the line worked, because the two guys actually looked like they could have been extras in The Godfather. You didn't need to get the reference to find it funny (which can't be said of some other of Woody's jokes).

    Is that the test then? Does the line work independently of its off-the-film context?

  14. Shaad Ali spoils it all by playing "yeh dosti..." in a very obvious, non-diegetic manner.

    Ramanand: I get what you mean, and why you would have preferred it to be more subtle - but I also think JBJ is very overtly a film about storytelling and myth-making. So perhaps the use of "Yeh Dosti" to underline the visual could be justified.

  15. Shekhar: that's a great example - had no memory of it at all.

    aandthirtyeights: yes, I remember chuckling at that Annie Hall scene because of Keaton, but didn't know one of the other guys was also in The Godfather.

  16. Ah, I get it . And I remember incidents like that in quite a few movies, which totally escape my memory now.

  17. Also, Antonioni Park deserves a mention here. Of course, mentioning that in this blog is like informing maa about mausi (a popular Bangla saying).

  18. Jabber - what do you think of Agent Vinod? worth watching or no? i've still not seen it

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. I think there's a scene in Pyar Ka Mausam where someone says (about the character of Shashi Kapoor), "Apne aap ko Shashi Kapoor samajhta hai."

  21. I don't know if you've seen Housefull 2, or even intend to, but something similar came to my mind when the film opened with banter between two brothers - chintu and dabboo (real and reel names) Somewhere I feel, the film-maker lacks enough creativity to concoct a new story in those 3 hours and so as a starting point, or add-on, borrows from real life. It's fine for a spoof to borrow, but for a film with a boasting screenplay, very unjustified. Also, the Agent Vinod thing can be passed off as an intentional co-incidence (if you know what I mean) but to base your whole story on something like that is very uncreative.

  22. Nice. There is a similar incident in Chaar din ki chandni where Anupam Kher asks to actress that if you were a boy then you were called, she looks at chandrachood singh who has a role in the movie and says Chandrachood.

  23. When are you reviewing "Agent Vinod"? :)

  24. Oh, and this moment from Raju Saab. (Courtesy: Beth Loves Bollywood)

  25. There was a time not a single movie featuring Aishwarya Rai would fail to make a 'joke' about her being Miss World. Salman in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam - "aise ban rahi hai jaise Miss World ho"; Anil Kapoor in Taal - "khudko Miss World samajti hai kya?"

    My favorite beauty queen in-joke is from Biwi No 1 where Anil finds Salman cheating on his wife with Sushmita Sen and chastises him - "Tum bhabhi se chupke yahan aish kar rahe ho!" Salman replies, "Aish nahi, S(u)shhhh!"

    The lamest beauty queen joke on the other hand, is in Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein - "Ladki ko thoda bhav do, khud ko Miss India Asia Paciifc samajti hai"... because the girl in question is played by Dia Mirza, get it? Very. Lame.

  26. Ok, here's another one, again very lame. In a film where Padmini plays a central character, Pran (who'll end up marrying Padmini) is telling a matchmaker what kind of a wife he wants. Qualifications include dancing like Vyjyanthimala, face like Helen, figure like Saira Banu... "in effect," he concludes, "she should be like Padmini." I literally rolled over the floor laughing.

  27. What about that exxtremely self-indulgent reference in No Smoking... Pakhi Pakhi Pardesi from Dil Se playing in the background when Ranvir Shourie is on screen?