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)

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?

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