Monday, July 21, 2014

Music, fantasy and colour in V Shantaram’s Navrang

V Shantaram’s 1959 film Navrang is, true to its title, one of the most brilliantly over-the-top explosions of colour and classical music in Hindi-film history, but it begins with a black-and-white sequence that is almost subdued. The opening credits appear over a stationary shot of a door, as a song with the refrain “Rang de de” (“Give colour”) plays alongside. It is more like a hymn, really – as if the singers are beseeching God (or the film’s director) to give a fresh coat of paint to this monochrome canvas. And he obliges: as the words “Screenplay and direction by V Shantaram” appear on the screen, the door opens and the man himself emerges, a deity giving darshan. Addressing us directly, Shantaram relates how he nearly lost his vision while shooting the scene with the bull in his previous film Do Aankhen Baarah Haath. A strange thing happened during those weeks when my eyes were bandaged, he says – I began to experience colours more vividly than I had before, and through this new movie I want to share some of those experiences with you. Upon which the screen transforms into a cornucopia of bright colours that spell out the film’s title. There will be no going back.

Narrative-wise, Navrang has many balls in the air, which gives it a certain unevenness, but also a pleasingly capricious quality. It begins in the 19th century, in a British-ruled Indian town, with an old man singing the stirring patriotic number “Yeh Maati Sabhi ki Kahaani Kahegi”. From his earliest years, Shantaram was a social-reformist filmmaker (he has a reputation as a proto-Bimal Roy in some circles) and pride in one's own culture and "maati" will be a central theme through this film. But as we go into flashback and meet the younger version of this man, Diwakar (played by Mahipal), the main plot point is introduced.

Diwakar, a struggling young poet, is disheartened by how quickly his wife Jamna (Sandhya, who was married to the director in real life) has slipped into her mundane domestic roles – looking after the house as well as his father and sister – and wants her to be more indulging of his fantasies. Disconsolate that she thinks it is shameless to dress up in colourful clothes, to do shringaar for her husband (“chhodo yeh vaahiyaat baatein!”), he starts daydreaming about Mohini, an enchantress with Jamna’s face but a markedly more playful attitude to romance, music and dance. (One might say that like Shantaram colouring his canvas in that opening sequence, Diwakar takes Jamna’s expressionless visage and projects his own desires on it.) “Mohini” becomes his muse and leads him to professional success as a court poet, but also ironically threatens his marriage, since Jamna becomes convinced he is in love with someone else.

Consequently, there are some intriguing scenes about the nourishing (but also potentially harmful) power of fantasy. “Zara muskura do,” Diwakar tells the apparition-like Mohini: he “directs” her to dress up just so, to cock her head in a particular way (some of these early moments may remind you of the obsessed Scottie in Vertigo, giving similar instructions to Judy, fitting her to the image he carries in his head) and even imagines her dancing about in a shiny blue outfit while going about her work in the kitchen, where she uses the chulha like it is a musical instrument. (A woman who can be glamorous even while she cooks delicious food for the family! What more could a man want!) But one can also see the fragility of these daydreams and the consequences they might have for the family and for Diwakar’s work. Nor can one forget the old Diwakar in the film’s framing narrative, telling a British baker he needs to take some food back home for his ailing wife.

Alongside this personal story are reflections on the relationship between art and the marketplace – does the latter destroy the former’s integrity, but then can one be an artist on an empty stomach? These are, of course, concerns of another major film of the time – Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa – but they are handled in a lighter way here. (The rabble-rousing pitch of “Yeh Maati” is similar to that of Pyaasa’s “Jinhein Naaz Hai Hind Par”, but the tones of the two films have little else in common.) One of Navrang’s liveliest sequences takes the form of an informal sammelan where Diwakar’s friend, himself a composer of lowbrow verses, performs “Kavi Raja Kavita se” (sung, incidentally, by the film’s lyricist Bharat Vyas) about the impracticalities of being a poet (“Yeh sab chhodo / dhande ki kuch baat karo / kuch paise jodo […] Kavi raja, chupke se tum bann jao baniya”). It’s a lovely scene, with plenty of camaraderie between the singer and his audience, and a wonderful performance by Agha as the friend (watching him here, one can see where his son Jalal Agha’s vivacity came from), but of course Diwakar and the others do have to deal with the very real repercussions of the art-commerce debate. And things will go downhill for him when, after the British take over the country, he refuses to toe the line by singing encomiums to the colonists.

But to discuss this film principally in terms of its plot might mean overlooking what a visual and aural feast it is. C Ramachandran’s score is full of gems, from the duet “Kaari Kaari Kaari Andhiyari” to the Holi song “Arre ja re Hat Natkhat” (which reaches a crescendo when Sandhya dances simultaneously as a man and as a woman) to the popular “Aadha hai Chandrama”. And Navrang contains some of the boldest use of colour I have seen in a movie. Watching its elaborate musical scenes, I was reminded of the Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, especially the magnificent ballet performance at the centre of that film. But no other film I can think of has anything comparable to the costumes worn by Sandhya in this film’s many fantasy sequences. One scene has “Moti the Smart Pony” in something of a dance duet with the actress, and the animal seems almost in awe of this bizarrely costumed two-legged creature in front of him (if you wove random images from the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey together into an outfit, and then stitched a few unconscious peacocks on it, you might get something close to what Sandhya is wearing here).

If you have no taste for the deliberate theatricality and artifice of Shantaram’s staging, or if you can only take so much of dancing ponies, peacocks and wonder elephants spraying coloured water about, this film might not work for you. I loved most of it though. It must have been some big-screen experience back when it was released.


  1. I saw the film on DD aeons ago and had mixed reactions. It would probably have worked for me if it wasn't for Sandhya. I don't like her acrobatic dancing and facial contortions, don't consider her an actress at all. (Waheeda Rehman could have played the part beautifully and transformed the film.)
    Mahipal isn't as off-putting but he isn't much of an asset either. Bharat Bhushan would have been a better choice.

    That said: there was a lot to love in the film. Thanks for the Kaviraj Kavita sequence which I didn't remember. Agha and Bharat Vyas are both under-appreciated

    1. Anon: I'm a big Waheeda Rehman fan and get your point, but have to wonder: would she have fit the mood and tone of this particular film? Theatricality is so central to its effect, and someone like Rehman might have brought a naturalistic acting style to it - how would that have gone with the film's general mise-en-scene (with the deliberately over-the-top elements in the Holi song, for example) or with Mahipal's performance? And would WR have agreed to wear those completely over-the-top costumes?

      Bharat Bhushan, on the other hand, probably would have fit into the Shantaram world (saying this with only a few dim memories of BB). Though I was fine with Mahipal.

    2. Meat for an interesting longer discussion here, though. I feel like Waheeda R at her best often had the effect of transforming a film in ways that could work against the film's overall tone, so that she seemed almost like a stand-alone component in it. (Wrote about this in the context of Khamoshi once, and even Trishul, where she brought interiority to a short Bachchan-ki-maa role that was probably meant to be a cipher. And of course her grounded performance in Pyaasa set against the overall baroque tone of that film.)

    3. Shantaram always used 'relatively weak' actors in his films when he thought he had a very strong narrative backed up some great artistic sets and production of dances as an form of art..
      That may also in fact would maintain the focus on the aspects that he would like to emphasize. And he did succeed, as well.

    4. (same anon again)
      Come to think of it I can't imagine Waheeda Rehman in those costumes, even if she was professional enough to wear whatever the role required. And I can't imagine her playing a seductress either ("mohini") , doesn't mean she couldn't have done it. She would have been better than Sandhya anyway.

      I still think the film needed better, more attractive actors. Think of Nicole Kidman & Ewan McGregor in the equally over-the-top & colourful Moulin Rouge. They added some emotion to the film

    5. Just found a Guardian review of Moulin Rouge that says what I tried to: "In such a maelstrom of excess, the actors themselves have to anchor the movie as best they can ."

    6. I think Navrang is in a different genre of movies. If you think of the time when it was produced, in the 50s, you can fall in love with Sandhya and Mahipal. The honesty and simplicity of the film along with the pure emotion of the poet's love for his wife touches your heart. It is a very romantic film. What touched me was that with so much purity, V. Shantaram showed how the poet was living his fantasies and truly loving his wife at the same time. It is basically a movie of different times. For example how Mahipal leaves his wife's home without touching the food due to the insulting attitude of her father. It is a movie when thinking was different and sincerety was considered a very valuable trait. Times were slow then!.

  2. Really glad to see this article... every time I see some of those song sequences I get blown away... sadly not much of heard nowadays of Ramachandra or Bharat Vyas...

    Another Shantaram fav for me is the final stage dance in Geet Gaya Pattharo Ne... I guess he gradually shifted from neorealist tales to fantasy/musicals... But he is one of the few people who could pull off such things...

  3. Radhika Oltikar9:37 AM, July 30, 2014

    Jai, doubt I have the patience to watch the movie, but greatly enjoyed your piece.

    P.S.: Don't think it's fair to dismiss Sandhya (as I often hear people do). She was certainly no looker, but watch her in the Marathi classic "Pinjara," and you will realise her's is an extremely intelligent and nuanced performance.

  4. Er, hers! :P