Category: Indian Cinema

The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:

These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.

Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.

Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –

The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.

Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.

This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema.  Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.

The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.

Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.

The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film.  The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:

Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.

Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.

The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:

In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.

Vijay is a poet who

encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.

[including Meena].

Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.

The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title.  The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha

combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.

The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.

Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.

This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film

Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.

The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:

It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.

(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that

the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.

Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.

This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.

This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.

The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.

The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.

Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in

 

Recent films from India and Japan

Some posts on films from India, Japan and China are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. I’ve added a feed from that blog in the left-hand sidebar on this blog. If you follow both blogs you will get an alert for everything posted. Recent posts on The Global Film Book blog include the Malayalam language film How Old Are You? (2014) and the Hindi ‘independent’ film That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010). Japanese films include Like Father, Like Son (2013) and The Wind Rises (2013) plus the Chinese film A Touch of Sin (2013).

BIFF 2014 #20: Powerless (Katiyabaaz, India-US 2013)

Loha Singh – the 'Robin Hood' of Kanpur

Loha Singh – the ‘Robin Hood’ of Kanpur

Portrait Without BleedThis was the other film, along with Diego Star, that I picked out immediately from the BIFF programme and again I wasn’t disappointed. I have to agree with the brochure’s headline to its blurb on the film: “Lively, energetic and full of larger than life characters”. It’s good to see more documentaries from India making it onto the festival circuit. Many, like this production, involve some overseas input. The two directors Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa both have strong links to Uttar Pradesh in Ghaziabad and Kanpur respectively. Fahad Mustafa trained in Vienna and some of the film’s creative contributions come from his Viennese contacts. The majority of crew and HoDs comprise an impressive array of Indian talent. The film is a co-production because of the input of ITVS, the American organisation funded by public donations that feeds documentary programming into the Public Broadcasting System in the US.

The ‘powerless’ city of the title is Kanpur, with a population of nearly 3 million. Kanpur was one of the major industrial cities of British India (under the anglicised name ‘Cawnpore’) and was known as the ‘Manchester of India’ because of the large number of textile mills. Most of those have now gone (but we see an operating mill of the British India Corporation, now state-owned in the opening shots of the film) but many of the tanneries remain (there were once 400) and it is still known as the leather capital of India. Tanning requires power and creates water pollution. Because of the outages many businesses use diesel generators which add to air pollution. This is an unhealthy and poor city and the lack of electricity makes the situation worse. Kanpur has the worst electricity supply problems of any major Indian city and the residents are so angry with the local electricity supplier (KESCO) that they have taken to stealing electricity from whatever cables are actually live.

The documentary introduces three principal characters. The new boss of KESCO is Ritu Maheshwari and she is determined to reduce the theft of electricity and make the state utility more efficient. She establishes hit squads who tour the city threatening to disconnect those who are stealing. But as quickly as the squads move through the city, the specialist thieves like Lola Singh re-connect people illegally. He knows how to disable local transformers and how to attach the illegal cables – katiyas. It’s very dangerous work and at one point Singh shows us his twisted fingers and scarred limbs recounting the number of accidents he has survived. The fight then becomes three-handed when a local ‘community’ politician becomes involved, seeing the opportunity to boost his own status by bringing down the KESCO chief.

What we don’t see is any suggestion as to how the basic problem of energy supply can be resolved. The filmmakers argue that what they are concerned with is the inequality inherent in contemporary Indian society. They didn’t want to make a film about the poor as ‘victims’ or to be didactic in analysing the situation. They have tried to present both Ritu Maheshwari and Lola Singh in a balanced way and attempted to enable the issues to become visible as we watch them at work. The executive, for instance, suffers from chauvinism in her company. The film works so well because it is the product of highly competent documentarists augmented by commercial Indian filmmakers who contribute an excellent music score and sound design. It is very accessible and entertaining as well as a real eye-opener about the appalling state of Indian industrial infrastructure.

As India goes to the polls, the frustration with the Indian political system becomes more and more visible. As the filmmakers suggest, electrical power is not available on a universal basis. It goes first to the rich and India’s poor have the least access to electricity of any major population group worldwide. The people are ‘powerless’ in this sense. But do they have political power? I’m apprehensive about the result of the elections, especially if the BJP get a majority but I’m heartened by quality work like this film.

The film’s website gives more background and here’s a teaser trailer:

BIFF 2014 #1: Opening Night

Irrfan Khan with the titular tiffin tin!

Irrfan Khan with the titular tiffin tin!

Portrait Without BleedBIFF 2014 or the ’20th edition’ opened with The Lunchbox, the perfect choice. Festival co-director Neil Young told us that just a few hours earlier the film had won two major prizes at the annual Asian Film Awards organised by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Irrfan Khan won best actor and writer-director Ritesh Batra won for his screenplay (for his first feature film). This announcement chimed with the opening statements by BIFF’s other director Tom Vincent who told us that this festival programme had been conceived as an international event, that it would bring the world to Bradford – and showcase Bradford for the world. I reflected on my experience 24 hours earlier standing on Keighley Railway Station and watching yet another film/tv shoot taking place over on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway platform with extras in Edwardian costumes waving off a vintage steam train. Keighley is just one of the regular locations for film shoots in Bradford Metropolitan District that have helped to contribute to Bradford’s status as UNESCO City of Film.

BIFFopen

Tom Vincent opens BIFF 2014 with Neil Young

The Lunchbox builds a form of epistolary love story around the “one in a million” chance that one of the daily lunch deliveries in Bombay (from home to office by the city’s dabbawallahs) goes wrong. The mismatched couple, the woman who makes the food and the man who eventually eats it, start a relationship through notes passed in the tiffin tins. I’m going to write about The Lunchbox in detail when it gets its UK release in a fortnight. I need time to think about it and also to watch it again. I think it should do well in the UK and I hope that it matches the $4 million take in France – but that’s a tall order given the chronic state of UK film culture. Whatever happens in the UK, The Lunchbox has been a hit in India and abroad and it has got many people, not least Irrfan Khan himself, talking about what the film means for Indian cinema in the way it has been financed and produced as well as in the treatment of the story. Why, for instance, is it necessary to find co-production partners in France and Germany to get an Indian film seen abroad by general audiences – i.e. outside the South Asian diaspora? The commercial success of the film in India has made this question more pertinent than it would have been if it was only a critical success at overseas festivals.

There were moments when The Lunchbox didn’t seem like an Indian film at all – but then a host of local cultural references flooded in forcing me to reconsider. This is indeed a ‘local’ Indian film and a global film and as such the perfect start to Bradford’s international festival.