Sunday, January 13, 2013

mini-review marathon: the old-ish Bengali films, Soumitra edition

Abhijan
True confessions: I don't think I understand this film. With the exception of the abysmal Shakha Proshakha, Satyajit Ray's films have overwhelmed me (in good ways), but this one...no. Reading what other people have to say about it indicates that some find the casting of Soumitra as the Rajput taxi driver Narsingh—a cultural identification the dialogues emphasize over and over again—unbelievable, while others think he played against his delicately-mannered Bengali type quite successfully.
I don't know what mid-twentieth-century Rajput taxi drivers who find themselves in rural Bengal are supposed to be like, but a question of casting seems silly. If the English Daniel Day Lewis can play Abraham Lincoln 150 years later, why can't Soumitra Chatterjee play a fictional Rajput? The man is one of India's finest actors, especially under this director, and had already shown enormous talent in three of Ray's films (Apur Sansar, Devi, and Teen Kanya), so why not cast him? It is his job to be someone other than who he is. I do find it interesting that a basic description of his characters in Ray's projects to this point is "Bengali university student in Calcutta"—as it would essentially be in Charulata and the flashbacks in Kapurush in subsequent yearsbut these are all very different roles in fundamentally very different stories. Unfortunately, the makeup crew overcompensated in Abhijan—I like to think of them leaving a production meeting grumbling "We have to turn Apu into a Rajput?!?" and grabbing shoe polish in desperation—and their alarming application of pancake and what is surely fake hair everywhere above the neck works against a naturalistic portrayal.  

In Abhijan, Narsingh's determination and ferocity are (I think?) mirrored in his beloved car, barreling along the rural roads in a place neither of them really belongs. He very nearly crashes every aspect of his life (livelihood, friendship, romance), but what I cannot figure out is whether there is more to this series of bad decisions than "Rajputs are hot-tempered and tempestuous." The book Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray by Marie Seton says that Ray's initial involvement with the film was only as a screenwriter (adapting the novel by Tarasanka Banerjee), with the film to be directed by someone else, but that he was eventually persuaded by the producer/director to take over the whole project. Abhijan ended up being Ray's biggest box-office hit in West Bengal, which indicates that it connected with its original audiences in ways that it does not with me.

Seton also mentions that the giant boulders that appear several times in the landscape of Narsingh's journeys
is a representation of "the burden of sin" or inalterable forces in our lives that we must learn to live with, work around, or yield to. I am so glad I read this; I hadn't been sure what to make of the rocks other than a striking and stark visual that seemed to loom over the fates of various characters. 

Robi Ghosh, though, I understand. He is 100% excellent, convincing, and attention-worthy. Here he seems to be less comic sidekick than...moral relief, maybe, thanklessly struggling to keep Narsingh on the road. I love him.

And for the Ray drinking game: people looking through slats! DRINK!
And yes, that is Waheeda Rehman as one of Narsingh's love interests. She's great in her small, kind of stereotyped "prostitute with a heart of gold" role, standing the ground she is convinced is right and safe.   I'd love to see these two actors together again.

Monihar
Sweet girl (Sandhya Roy) attracts two brothers, one as her music teacher (Soumitra) and one as her love interest (Biswajeet), without them realizing the other's involvement. Illnesses and a vanishing family fortune (sped along by cagey servants) further complicate the relationships, even after everyone figures out they all know each other.
Click here for more filial exclamations by Soumitra.
As with Abhijan, it's Robi Ghosh who makes this film for me. He plays Soumitra's meddling, fast-talking musical agent, and it's hilarious to watch these two together, one tall, regal, and subdued, the other seemingly half his size yet far more energetic and emotional. His character isn't terribly important to the story, but he's the most fun person to watch, as the two brothers are kind of whiny and mopey and the heroine does little other than look cute and sing. Meh.

Side note: do any of you have strong feelings about Biswajeet? I've only seen him in a few things and find him pretty but not otherwise noteworthy, at least so far. Any recommended films?

Baksha Badal
A comedy of mustache-related shenanigans! These stem from psychological/emotional manipulation by psychiatrist Soumitra of Aparan Sen (to whom he has taken a fancy) and of her boyfriend (Satindra Bhattacharya). Soumitra and Aparna's bags get mixed up on a train, he angers her, she intrigues him, you know the drill. To someone who has only seen each film once, it does bear some resemblance to the later Gol Maal; both use the mustache as a way to signify two different types of men, and both have their male leads deploying his mustache status for personal gain.

The basic idea of an imposter using his superior intellect to get something he wants at the cost of others is such a chestnut that it needs very skilled hands to make something compelling out of it. Fortunately, the screenplay is by Ray (who also did the music) and based on a story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, whose works are also the basis of the Apu Trilogy and Ashani Sanket. However, all the good writing in the world cannot change the fact that at its core this story sees the unchecked triumph of a very unethical person (who should be barred from professional practice at the very least), and now that I have finished the film and am no longer under the sway of the admittedly entertaining portrayal of the story, it's hard not to be frustrated by that.

Aparna is much less impressive here (1970) than she was in Teen Kanya almost a decade earlier. Fussy younger woman is not the easiest role to sell, either, and unfortunately her stomping around doesn't work as something lovable to an older, highly educated man without dredging up weird Electral stuff that I don't want to think about. She's certainly a live wire in her own way, but to me she didn't seem very pleasant. The match seems even less appropriate than it did between their worlds-apart characters in Teen Kanya, frankly. Soumitra has better chemistry and more natural, peer-like conversations with one of the other adult female characters in the movie (Gitali Roy, who is in Charulata and Mahapurush), making me wish Aparna came off as more mature. I also think the characteristics they demonstrate in the film bode ill for their romance after its end; they're both egotistical and he borders on domineering. Then again, I saw this movie without subtitles (relying on the discussion at Old Films and Me for the plot), so there may be more mutuality in their exchanges than I could discern.

Thank goodness the filmmakers gave the dual role to someone plenty capable of it. The Many Moods of Light Comedy Soumitra, with their attendant costuming and mustache (or not), contribute a lot to the pleasure of the progression of story. He has some hilarious expressions and gestures of "Fraaaaaack" when his cover is almost blown. I haven't seen much of his comedic range yet—Basanta Bilapmoments as Feluda and in Teen Kanya—but so far so good. As with Khudito Pashan, it probably isn't necessary to be a Soumitra fancier to like this film, but it helps.
How does he make his face look so much older here than in the rest of the film? ACTING!

I'd like to see it again, with subtitles if at all possible, hoping that the dialogues temper my misgivings and provide as much joy as the ascot and brainy specs.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

mini-review marathon: the old-ish Bengali films, Uttam edition

The internet indicates that there is an Uttam Kumar/Soumitra Chatterjee camp rivalry. Helen above, I find the fan camp thing so irritating and tiresome. But since I have six films to discuss and only energy to write about three, here is the Uttam half of my recent Bengali viewing (Soumitra's soon to follow—never fear, Sonpapdis!).

Before getting underway with the films, I'd like to recommend a resource that actually discusses in an intelligent manner some of the differences in the types of characters and films done by the two actors and thus the cultural ethos each speaks to. I'm not done with it yet (which is why I won't try to summarize what it says about Uttam and Soumitra as cultural figures), and if you are as new to the topic as I am you will probably be swamped by people and film names you don't recognize, but so far Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation by Sharmistha Gooptu seems a solid overview of the history of Bengali movie-making, with individual chapters on a few of the broader trends and most important players. It's an interesting and not overly pretentious read.

However, I most definitely get the sense that the author is in some way defensive of Bengali cinema; there's a slight but persistent tone of "these movies are better than those [Bombay's, specifically]" (and maybe even "ours/yours"), an attitude that is probably betrayed by the book's specifically worded subtitle. The author elaborates the phrase "an other nation" into the theme that Bengali cinema has long been a separate world from Hindi films, creating its own narrative for the nation, as well as one that operated earlier and more profoundly in an international context, in terms both  of movies being seen outside India and of influences coming in (owing in part to Calcutta as the former capital and long interested in outside ideas, new technology, etc.). But like I said, I'm not done yet, so don't please don't take that as my final opinion. And because it's a proper academic book, it has footnotes, an index, and an extensive bibliography, should you want to know more. There's also a chapter on Ray that I think stands alone fairly well—and is extensively reproduced in Outlook here. There's even a Kindle version of the book for rent on Amazon, so go, read!

Sare Chuattar
If imdb is to be believed, this gentle comedy (from the Bhanu-Jahar stable, I think?) is the first Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen pairing.
The story is set in a boarding house, and it follows several of the residents through day-to-day problems and family entanglements.
Uttam and Suchitra have a classic "We hate each other! No wait, we love each other!" romance in the watchful and eager-to-comment presence of their neighbors. This might be another film whose humor is really lost in translation—or maybe even lost to the passing of time, no longer able to reach jaded millennial first-time audiences like I am. It's pleasant enough, but I like the comedy, romance, and performances in Bhanu Goenda Jahar Assitant much better.

Saptapadi
When I asked for recommendations of Uttam-Suchitra films, many people told me this was at the top of their lists.
With rainstorms, alcoholism, wartime medical service, bombings, and horrible parents who do not support their children's Hindu-Christian romance, this has many ingredients for Epic Romance. It is much to Uttam Kumar's credit that the film rarely feels that way, generally listing to something calmer, though still very cinematic. Suchitra gets the raw end of this script, big time; her character, the truculent Rina Brown, does not get to show any likable sides until at least 45 minutes in, and a party tune nearly sinks her as she struggles to lip-synch laughable lyrics like "On the merry-go-round let's ride and roll. On the merry-go-round let's rock our soul."  (WTF were people smoking in 60s Calcutta that merry-go-rounds seemed rock n' roll?). I gather the iconic image from this film is the pair's song on a motorcycle, but it didn't work for me either, again in part due to whatever Muppet-y business she's doing with her face.

Fortunately, the script snaps into place, and the more emotional moments of their romance are much better crafted. My favorite parts of Saptapadi are the smaller-scale ones, like their individual, quiet mulling over changing feelings and the very sweet and caring exchange they have after he receives terrible news from his family.

For the record, I am also unimpressed by the film's rendition of a scene from Othello voiced by Jennifer Kendal and Utpal Dutt. I don't know how this kind of acting was received at the time, but to my ears almost 50 years later it is artificial and forced, especially Jennifer, of whom I would expect much better given her theatrical upbringing, though if you've watched her parents at work in Shakespeare-Wallah you know exactly where she got it. What say you?

Chowringhee
Chowringhee has that Robert Altman feel of almost countless threads weaving together, this time set in a Calcutta hotel with Uttam Kumar being understatedly suave in a dapper suit as the invaluable front desk staff who keeps the guests and management happy even when he doesn't like what they're up to. He is utterly charming in his romantic arc with Anjana Bhowmick
This picture is here simply because I've never seen a woman in a 60s film want to be a pilot and I think it's freaking awesome.
Other characters include Utpal Dutt as the owner of the hotel (named Marco Polo, for reasons I did not intuit), Subhendu Chatterjee as Uttam's protégé, Biswajeet as a juvenile rich boy, and Supriya Debi as the "hostess" he loves (poor woman—the makeup department makes her look like a drag queen). Uttam gets most of the comedy, including this exchange about how the job description had required him to speak Bengali like Rabindranath, English like Shakespeare, and Hindi like Tulsidas, but he had showed up with only the following qualifications: 
I too can speak Bengali like Shakespeare!
Everything balances very nicely in Chowringhee. No scripted story and no performance take away from any of the others, which can be a tricky feat to pull off in these kinds of multi-arc projects. Depending on your taste or mood, certain stories will appeal to you more than others, and if memory serves there are at least three unhappy endings, which I tell you as warning because two of them are very sad indeed.

No doubt I am too uneducated in the subject to make pronouncements about what I think of Uttam Kumar as an actor,  but I do want to say that after five of his films (all from the 1960s except Sare Chuattar above) I really like his style of calm that somehow communicates very readable, relatable emotion, whether it's regret, hesitation, love, whatever. Sometimes it seems his default facial expression is slightly smug (not aided by the occasional Dev Anand-y puff of hair), but once he starts moving, that disappears and is replaced by whatever is appropriate for the scene. He also has a fun twinkle in his eyes during some of his comic scenes that I really like. It's there in Nayak too, that expression of "This is silly, but I'm a nice guy so I'll go along" or "I think I'm really quite fond of you, so I'm going to see if I can get you to play with me awhile longer." A self-assuredness that does not devolve into arrogance and is actually more interested in conversation than declaration is so appealing.

And if you have any Uttam recommendations for me, please let me know. I plan to clean-sweep the Calcutta DVD stores of subtitled Soumitra, so why not sprinkle in some Uttam in as well?

Monday, January 07, 2013

WHATAY! 2012 in review

I meant to do this, and then I was on the Tripple Eggs podcast for the same purpose (in which I discuss some of these same ideas in longer form), and even contributed a smidge to Upodcast's year-end episode, so then it felt redundant. But now everyone seems to be writing things down, and I feel left out. So. Here you go.

(Apologies to Get Filmy and everyone else who did the "long, specific, and funny category names" thing already. It's too fun to resist.)

Depiction of the Blight on Hindi Film Characters of 2012, aka Traffic Safety
Shanghai, Cocktail, Heroine, Talaashand, I am told, Jab Tak Hai Jaan

Women Doing Stuff
SO MANY WINNERS THIS YEAR, both fictional and real! Female heroes. Directors. Music directors. Writers. Festival films. Mainstream films. Younger. Older. HURRAH!

The Unpopular Movie That Does Have a Few Supporters but We're Not Terribly Vocal about It, and I, for One, Do Not Need You to Love It like I Do
Agent Vinod

The Unpopular Movie That Has an Increasing Number of Supporters and We're Terribly Vocal about It
Aiyyaa

Possibly Worth It for the Significant, Unconventional Ending
Ek Main aur Ek Tu

Will You Please Just Stop Now/Lotus Rising from the Muck
Madhur Bhandarkar/Kareena Kapoor in Heroine

Can't Dance (or Act), So Don't Ask Her
Sonam Kapoor, most recently evidenced by Players

Emotional Outburst
Sharman Joshi in Ferrari Ki Sawaari

Proper Grown-Up Role by a Proper Grown-Up Actor
Sridevi in English Vinglish
(Side note: I haven't seen Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi. Is it a contender?)

Surprisingly Shakespearean Inhabitation of a Villain

Rishi Kapoor in Agneepath

Brilliantly Understated Inhabitation of a Villain
Farooq Shaikh in Shanghai
Runner-Up: Adil Hussain in English Vinglish

On-Screen Story, and It Just Happens to Be True
Supermen of Malegaon

Comeback Jodi
Deepti Naval and Farooq Shaikh, in person (Listen Amaya, which premiered at the 2012 Chicago South Asian Film Festival in September, and releases very soon!) and invoked as the epitome of non-filmi, soft, quiet, more subtle romance (Aiyyaa)

Overall Soundtrack and Music Director Zindabad
Gangs of Wasseypur I and Sneha Khanwalkar

Hip-Flicking Earworm
"Pyaar Ki Pungi" from Agent Vinod

Character-Singer Harmoniousness (aka Keepin' It Real) Earworm
"Voh Dekhnay Mein" from London Paris New York

Earworm That Perfectly Suits and Captures the Film It's In
"Ami Shotti Bolchi" from Kahaani. It's chaotic and bipolar, Usha Utthup with hoarse metal. Read the translated lyrics if you haven't (here's one option; the internet seems to love to say that English can never express thoughts first formed in Bengali, but whatever, I gotta start somewhere). That song, er, tells the truth.

And Speaking of That, Calcutta, You Sexy; or, the Year Beth Finally Found Another World of Indian Cinema That Grabs Her Even 10% as Much as Hindi
Bengali Cinema of the late 1950s through mid-1970s

My Favorite Films of 2012
5. Agent Vinod
One of a few films this year that kicked up a fuss in one direction or the other with a vehemence I really do not understand, this was the most fun I had at the cinema all year, and that includes seeing two movies in Bombay. Duplicitousness is Saif Ali Khan's sweet spot (a trait I explored in a WSJ column here) and I loved seeing him employ it for the motherland. While acting his age. And wearing an impeccably tailored wardrobe. Too bad the ending(s) wasn't (weren't) similarly carefully trimmed.
4. Vicky Donor
I don't require every movie to be realistic (obviously), but smaller-scale—yet still well-developed and complex—characters are a refreshing change of pace, especially when portrayed so charmingly. The ethnography of regional cultures and the wedding (which for all I know are insultingly shallow and facile, but they don't scream as such) are unexpected additional pleasures.
3. Shanghai
At first I thought "Huh? This isn't the Dibakar Banerjee I know and love!" but then I realized it is, just employed in very different ways. The epic profile of this filmmaker by Jai Arjun Singh in The Caravan is just as masterful.
2. Kahaani
Through the shenanigans of various circumstances, I saw this three times in the cinema within about six weeks, and with each viewing it got stronger (except for one plot hole that presented itself to me almost immediately in my first viewing, which was even unsubtitled, so it's not like the problem is hard to spot), and different performances, visual details, and layers of the story came to the fore at different times. This film is not only very rewatchable but it morphs with each viewing—and how perfect is that in a film in which characters routinely state and experience that the world they inhabit is not what it seems.
1. Aiyyaa
The more I think about it, which is a lot, the more I'm calling it full-on revolutionary, in addition to fun, hilarious, clever, loving, and feminist. Watch this space, and several other blogs, for a podcast in the near future.