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The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Posted by keith1942 on 9 July 2014

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

 

Posted in Bengali Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Tamil Cinema | Leave a Comment »

Highway (India 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 March 2014

Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and Veera (Alia Bhatt) on the last leg of their journey.

Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and Veera (Alia Bhatt) on the last leg of their journey.

This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.

Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.

The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.

I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.

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Vicky Donor (India 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 September 2013

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of 'Vicky Donor'

Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, the attractive young leads of ‘Vicky Donor’

Vicky Donor is a successful example of the ‘New Bollywood’ trend. With a relatively small budget and an ‘edgy’ theme it pleased both critics and popular audiences and became a hit. Produced by the Bollywood star John Abraham, it is the work of the pairing of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, the latter pair first meeting in the advertising industry. The trio have recently worked on Madras Cafe, a critical success, albeit much more controversial. Since its release was abandoned by my local multiplex chain, I’ll have to wait to see it but on the evidence of Vicky Donor, it should be worth seeking out. Perhaps, like Vicky Donor, it will get an airing on Channel 4 in the UK?

The ‘taboo’ in Vicky Donor is the subject of sperm donation and infertility treatment – a subject for comedy in many film cultures I think and Vicky Donor has been seen as similar to the Québécois film Starbuck from 2011 (now being remade in Hollywood). However, the Indian cultural context is quite different and what we get here is a ‘romantic comedy-drama’. Vicky is a young unemployed man living quite comfortably off his hard-working mother who runs a beauty parlour in the Punjabi ‘colony’ district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. One day he is spotted by Dr. Chaddha (veteran actor Annu Kapoor) who runs an ailing fertility clinic which needs to find a new donor of high quality sperm as soon as possible. Dr. Chaddha can tell just by looking at his face that Vicky will have a high sperm count. In one of the sensitive themes explored in the film we learn that Chaddha is looking for his ‘Alexander’ – a sperm donor who carries the genes of the Macedonian general who arrived in what is now the Punjab in 326 BC. This ‘Alexander’ represents what the subtitles call the ‘Pure Aryan’ legacy, a tricky concept for European audiences and many Indians I think. In the context, I would let this go but a serious drama around this issue would be interesting.

Vicky takes some persuading to become a donor but eventually the monetary rewards win him over and the next phase of the narrative deals with his meeting and courtship with Ashima, the rather aloof young woman at his local bank. I confess that I found the first part of the narrative rather slow and hard to get into but when the romance begins it picks up markedly. I realise now that it is important to set up the specifics of the Punjabi community. Vicky lives with his mother and his grandmother – a remarkably ‘progressive’ woman by comparison with her daughter. Ashima is a Bengali, so the second ‘sensitive’ issue is the play on the stereotypes of Punjabi and Bengali life. I was reminded of the Chetan Bhagat novel 2 States where the couple comprise Punjabi boy and Tamil girl. My impression is that Punjabis, Bengalis and Tamils are the most circulated regional identities in Indian popular culture. Interestingly writer Chaturvedi and director Sircar are from Punjab and West Bengal, but they have exchanged genders in creating the two lead characters. I was quite taken with the young couple and I think part of the charm of the film is that they were not stars (though the film’s success has now helped them get more lead roles. Ayushmann Khurrana has come out of TV where he has been a presenter and VJ. Yami Gautam similarly began in TV (ads and soaps) and this was her first Hindi film.

The final part of the film deals with the fall-out of the revelation of Vicky’s earlier ‘career’. By this stage I was enjoying the film very much and I thought the ending, though conventional, worked well. Overall, Vicky Donor does confirm the emergence of a new kind of Bollywood film. There is more reference to the realism of the lives depicted (at least in terms of regional culture) and the central issue is handled with some intelligence (although there does appear to be a major plot hole in the resolution). There are eight songs carefully integrated in the action, including this one sung by Ayushmann Khurrana that acts as a promo for the film – enjoy!:

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Satyagraha (India 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 August 2013

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in 'Satyagraha'

Amitabh Bachchan as the Gandhi-type figure in ‘Satyagraha’

I only see the occasional mainstream Bollywood film on release, but I try to keep up with how the industry is changing so I joined four other brave souls for a lunchtime screening of the latest film to star the ‘Big B’, Amitabh Bachchan.  I knew little about the director Prakash Jha except that he is an industry veteran. It was only afterwards that I realised that he had made similar films in the past, including Raajneeti (2010) which has a narrative comprising very similar elements to Satyagraha – and three key stars are common to both films. So, we are dealing here with familiar genre material for mainstream Hindi cinema: corruption in business, politics and the police force and a specific family situation involving possible betrayals of principle etc. My real interest is in whether the material is being presented in a different way, engaging its audiences differently etc. In particular, I’m interested in possible indications that ‘new’ Bollywood or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ is having an impact on the mainstream.

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Manoj Bajpai as the villainous local politician

Satyagraha is being promoted as a ‘political thriller’ that is ‘torn from the headlines’, enabling some reviewers to claim that this is a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ etc. I think that this is unlikely – but the film kept me entertained for its 152 minutes and early reports suggest that it is a hit in India (on 2,400 to 2,500 screens). The title refers to the practice of non-violent activism or resistance to bad government and specifically to the campaigns led by Gandhi. The Gandhi figure in the film is a retired headmaster played by Amitabh Bachchan who is trying to build a school for the poor children in his part of town in a district of Madhya Pradesh in North Central India – the literal geographical ‘heart of India’ (most of the film seems to have been shot around Bhopal). In one of those beloved Hindi cinema conventions, Daduji has a son, a brilliant civil engineer involved in developing the region with new roads. In a prologue we see the son about to be married and welcoming back his childhood friend, an orphan who has been more or less adopted by Daduji’s family. This is Manav played by Ajay Devgn – a very different ‘young man’ (the actor is in his 40s) who has chosen to become an unscrupulous entrepreneur in the telecoms industry. Manav is not very welcome now in Daduji’s household, but he returns when a tragedy occurs. The tragedy and its aftermath also attracts a crusading TV journalist played by Kareena Kapoor. For the media, the story begins when Daduji, finally snapping after the latest insult to poor people seeking their rights, slaps the local government official and ends up in the local cells. Manav with the help of one of Daduji’s former pupils (Arjun Rampal) organises a local campaign to free the old man.

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Ajay Devgn in one of several scenes of protests broken up by the local police

Manav’s prowess with mobile phone technology and social media use means that the campaign takes off very rapidly. This aspect of the film can be seen as both a contemporary reference and as an attempt to exploit some of the innovations of earlier similar films that feature social media such as Who Killed Jessica?. It’s also part of the film’s attempt to attract younger viewers with an element of youth rebellion like that in Rang De Basanti. But of course, this is Bollywood – all the technology works instantly on huge screens with perfect pictures etc. In fact there is an enormous amount of product placement which seems rather incongruous when the main thrust of the story at least moves away from the metros and artificiality of most Bollywood towards the poorest part of India. But then, this is billed as a ‘middle-class revolution’, requiring the audience to negotiate that knotty problem around what ‘middle-class’ actually means in modern India. I would say that all the main participants are relatively privileged, but to be fair to the script, the real story is about how this group attempts to take on leadership of the ‘ordinary people’ – and finds it quite difficult to maintain a Gandhian consistency of action. The script brings in questions of communalism as well as corruption and hypocrisy.

This isn’t a masala film if by that term we mean a mixture of romance, action, adventure and comedy. It sticks largely to the central narrative which commentators have suggested draws heavily on the ‘real world’ story of the campaigner Anna Hazare – especially as a hunger strike is included. The songs in the film are mainly integrated into the storyline – in the muted romance moments and as part of the large public events. This means that the traditional appeals to the audience, beyond the central social issue, come from the ‘large’ performances by the film’s stars. Amitabh Bachchan pulls out all the stops and is certainly worth watching. Kareena Kapoor struck me as miscast – but then casting a female Bollywood star as a glamorous reporter is now so clichéd in films like this that the role seems impossible. The most intriguing casting is that of the chief villain, the local politico played by Manoj Bajpai who was so good as the gangster leader in Gangs of Wasseypur. Here he gives a highly coloured performance, complete with what looks like a jet-black wig. He even has a comedy henchman. Having said that, in a mainstream popular feature, the villain needs to be distinctive and he fulfils the role well.

I don’t know whether the film will prove to be an example of how traditional Bollywood can hold on to its ‘all-India’ audience while it tries to please the younger, better-educated metro cinemagoers with more radical stories. Bollywood Trade suggests that its prime audience seems to be in those regions outside the metros – in Central India. Meanwhile Sharukh Khan in Chennai Express cleans up across the Hindi cinema universe. Perhaps I’ll try to catch it.

Here’s the title song for Satyagraha:

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London Indian Film Festival #2: Bombay Talkies (India 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 August 2013

Naman Jain as the boy performing as Katrina Kaif in Zoya Akhtar's segment of BOMBAY TALKIES. (AFP PHOTO / VIACOM18)

Naman Jain as the boy performing as Katrina Kaif in Zoya Akhtar’s segment of BOMBAY TALKIES. (AFP PHOTO / VIACOM18)

Bombay Talkies is a portmanteau film celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema and featuring four short films by leading Indian directors. The film led the Indian presence at Cannes this year and as it has been widely discussed in the trades and festival reports I was keen to see it. I enjoyed all four short films but the final section – a kind of musical salute to Bollywood featuring a host of stars – didn’t really work for me.

The four directors chosen (or did they volunteer?) for this enterprise seemed to me to fall into two camps. Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar represent a kind of Hindi cinema ‘royalty’. Johar almost personifies Bollywood with his creation of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 and his work on subsequent spectacular blockbusters with Yash Chopra productions. Zoya Akhtar has been slightly lower profile but she is the daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani and sister of actor Farhan Akhtar as well as working in a variety of roles as writer and director.

Nawazuddin Siddiqi as the failed actor in Dibanakar Banerjee's segment

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the failed actor in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment

The other two directors represent various forms of ‘new’, more independently-minded Hindi cinema. Dibakar Banarjee has directed four films including Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), which I enjoyed very much and Shanghai (2012) which has been critically-acclaimed but annoyingly not released in the UK. Anurag Kashyap has become the principal figure in ‘Indian Independent Cinema’, especially after the popular success of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).

All four short films have a connection to Hindi cinema in some way and in particular to commercial filmmaking in Bombay. Johar’s story hinges on the emotional impact of ‘filmi music’ whereas Akhtar’s story is about childhood dreams fuelled by adoration of a young star (Katrina Kaif). By contrast, Kashyap’s story deals with a different kind of fandom associated with the iconic figure of Amitabh Bachchan. Banerjee’s film, which for me was the highlight, focuses on an out of work actor (played by the charismatic Nawazuddin Siddiqui, arguably the hottest star in Hindi cinema at the moment) and his accidental involvement in the shooting of a scene from a typical Bombay movie.

Rani Mukerji and Randeep Hooda in the Karan Johar segment. The careful composition tells you everything about the marriage.

Rani Mukerji and Randeep Hooda in the Karan Johar segment. The careful composition tells you everything about the marriage.

The two ‘inside’ films have Bollywood gloss and stars – Rani Mukerji for Johar and Ranvir Shorey for Akhtar. Johar’s film seemed the most unreal and contrived, although its presentation of an unhappy marriage and the intervention of a young gay man has possibilities. Akhtar’s film would possibly win the popular vote with its focus on a small boy who doesn’t want to play football as his father suggests but wants to dance in films instead. It is certainly very enjoyable. The opening shots of the other two films immediately take us out of the artificial world of Bollywood and into the ‘real India’. In Banerjee’s film, the central character wakes from his bed on the balcony of his apartment, overlooking a flyover and a major road. Inside the stifling apartment is wife and daughter help him prepare to go out to look for work. I was intrigued to see that the film is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray (Patol Babu, Film Star, 196? – does anyone know the publication date of the story?), but on reflection it does feel like it has connections to Ray – or at least to a literary take on Indian popular cinema in the 1960s. Banerjee is a very interesting director but I was saddened to see him make rather disparaging remarks about ‘regional cinema’. This was in response to a direct question about how the 100 Years of Indian Cinema seemed to ignore regional Indian cinemas, focusing primarily on Hindi language cinema. Banerjee was taking a Bengali story and transposing it to Bombay. I think I read that Siddiqui used a Marathi accent, but I’m not sure if any Marathi dialogue as such appears in the segment. Anyway, you are wrong Mr Banerjee, various regional cinemas continue to prosper despite the attempted hegemony of Bollywood.

The long train journey to Bombay in the Anurag Kashyap segment.

The long train journey to Bombay in the Anurag Kashyap segment.

Kashyap’s film starts in a similar milieu in the centre of Allahabad with a young man ‘working’ the crowds on the street when he is summoned home where his father is ill in bed and wants him to go to Bombay as he once did for his own father. The son’s task is to meet another, more successful older man from Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan, and persuade him to bite into a local delicacy, a murabba – a form of preserved sugared soft fruit such as a plum or mango, carried in the film in a large pickle jar. He must bring the half-eaten sweet back to his father who believes that he will then be able to connect directly with the great man. Allahabad in North East India is around 24 hours by train from Bombay so it is a major trip for the young man who is very well played by Vineet Kumar Singh. In some ways his arrival in Mumbai is similar to that of the hero of Satya – Anurag Kashyap’s first script for Ram Gopal Varma in 1998.

The final part of the film is the appearance of a host of Bollywood stars in what I thought was a fairly unimaginative dance sequence. The saddest aspect of this was the use of a series of archive clips from earlier decades of Hindi cinema, many from prints in very poor condition, some appearing to be old VHS copies, heavily pixellated. I can’t imagine what the Cannes audience made of this. Still, if it acts as a wake-up call for rights owners to get off their backsides and start to use some of the money wasted on current productions to restore the classics it might be a good thing.

I hope that Bombay Talkies gets a UK release so that audiences can see the mainstream and more independent directors under the same conditions.

Hears the murabba song by Amit Trivedi for the Anurag Kashyap segment (be warned, it’s very catchy!):

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Yeh Jaawani Hai Deewani (India 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 June 2013

The four friends on the trekking holiday – a composition that clearly attempts to resemble a conventional holiday photograph.

The four friends on the trekking holiday – a composition that clearly attempts to resemble a conventional holiday photograph. From left to right: Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Kalki Koechlin and Aditya Roy Kapoor.

Here’s India’s biggest film of the year so far, a Karan Johar production no less. The Hindi title translates as ‘This Youth Is Crazy’ – not really very helpful as a title as the film is bang-centre mainstream and conventional. I decided to see it partly because I’ve been impressed by two of the leads, Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin, in previous films and partly because I wanted to try to keep abreast of where mainstream Bollywood is going. I enjoyed the film but the central story is probably not strong enough to sustain the running time of around 150 minutes and the second part of the film seemed less successful than the first.

The first half is told in a flashback to eight years ago when three friends from school each now in their early twenties are about to set off for a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. Aditi (Kalki Koechlin) then meets a fourth acquaintance from school, Naina (Deepika Padukone), who decides at the last minute to join the trip. Studying medicine, Naina is trying to escape from her image of being the school nerd. The two young men Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) and Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor) rather ignored her at school and the trip is Naina’s chance to prove them wrong. After the intermission, the film moves into full-on wedding mode. To be fair, it’s not quite the wedding we were expecting but in narrative terms it’s not really exploited that much. What was also disappointing for me was that whereas in the first half there was some grounding in ‘real India’, albeit for middle-class youth, the second half is typical Bollywood indulgence in glamour with overseas shoots and a beautiful Udaipur palace location. Throughout both halves, the colours are bright, the dancing impressive and the music often deafening (especially in a relatively empty cinema for an early evening show).

Nevertheless I found the film interesting. It does what Bollywood ‘coming of age/romance/musicals should do and offers mainstream entertainment that is fresh and palatable for most audiences. Ranbir Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin are wasted because they aren’t asked to be different enough. Deepika Padukone takes her opportunity well but Aditya Roy Kapoor is also not given enough to do. I’m not giving too much away if I say that the film’s resolution is what we expect but that it is undercut by a composition that sees Bunny/Ranbir’s face in close-up gazing towards the audience over Naina/Deepika’s shoulder with an ambivalent expression. The ending (on New Year’s Eve) also sees one of the characters in isolation – with a drink problem and a failing business. This doesn’t seem conventional at all.

Hunting round the reviews I found some interesting comments. Bollywoodtrade pointed to what were claimed as links to 3 Idiots.  Bunny does in fact follow a similar career path to one of the three students and he carries around a letter for the first half of the film that he produces at Intermission time and which changes the narrative. There is also a succesful engineer in the film – a ‘moneybags’ set up to marry someone. I’m not sure that there is much else but the comparison is interesting Chetan Bhagat’s novels seem to offer much more depth in their ideas – even if some of the film adaptations don’t take them too far – and I don’t think that Yeh Jaawani Deewani will prove to be as influential as 3 Idiots. However, the bollywoodtrade review makes some other points. It’s a review drawing on a screening in Indore with ‘real audiences’ and the reviewer quotes the approval of an older man approving of the message that ‘marriage should come before career’. The review also suggests that the film is successful because the ‘wedding season’ is in full swing in India (and it’s true that, much like Monsoon Wedding, there is some focus on what goes into the wedding preparations). On the other hand, the film is seen as in some way ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ in that the younger male and female characters discuss physical relationships quite openly – and that they drink in the manner of Western young people (too many spirits for my taste). This latter isn’t new of course, whisky drinking was a feature of Hindi cinema in the 1960s – but it was usually a sign of a dissolute life.

As a contrast to this, AccessBollywood, a blog by an ‘entertainment writer’ in Chicago, takes the film to task for its sexism. Kathy Gibson suggests that the film switches gear away from Naina in the first half to focus on Bunny in the second half. She thinks he’s a bit of a jerk and that the narrative should remain focused on Naina. I agree with her overall view of the film and as I’ve indicated already, I think that Deepika Padukone has the best-written part and she handles it well. There is a sequence towards the end of the film when Naina persuades Bunny to stay and watch a sunset rather than dashing off (he’s been to lots of places and done lots of things, perhaps he should chill a bit more?). There is a running discussion about following dreams and deciding what to do with your life which I found quite affecting. This was good writing and the actors were capable of building on that but the script overall didn’t seem to know where to take it. One of the failures for me was not using Kalki Koechlin to the full. This woman has got a lot to offer but at the moment it seems to be independent cinema which knows how to exploit her talents to the full.

So, overall a fun night out but perhaps don’t try to read too much into Yeh Jaawani Deewani.  On a technical level, however, it’s clear that Bollywood entertainment is in safe hands.

Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

BIFF 2013 #12: Mughal-e-Azam (India 1960)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 April 2013

BIFF19logoThe second of Bradford’s presentation of some of the landmark films of Indian cinema, Mughal-e-Azam, is a little easier to write about than Kalpana, but only because it conforms to aspects of Hindi popular cinema. As a production it is out on its own. The print we watched on Pictureville Cinema’s big screen was the 195 minutes print held by the BFI and last screened widely during the BFI’s Imagine Asia season in 2002. The print was in pretty good condition and appeared to be colour stock. The mainly black and white image thus had that grey-blue appearance. There are two key sequences in the film in colour, one just before the Interval (which therefore had a colour title) and the other at the end of the film.

Mughal-e-Azam is perhaps best described as an epic ‘historical romance’. The gigantic production is reputed to have taken ten years or more to bring to the screen – so long in fact that Indian cinema had already begun its conversion to CinemaScope and Technicolor by the time it finally reached cinemas (this explains the black and white Academy ratio format with colour inserts). It was for a long time the most expensively produced in India and the money is certainly there on the screen. I’ve never seen studio sets quite as lavish as these. The story is set in the court of the third great Mughal Emperor, Akbar who ruled most of India from 1556 to 1605 (the empire would be at its most extensive under Araungzeb in the later 17th century). Many commentators have noted that this was roughly the same period as Elizabeth I in England and there is certainly an Elizabethan drama feel to the film’s narrative which deals with the Emperor’s unruly son Salim who is sent away to war at age 14 as a cure for his indolent lifestyle. On his return as a warrior he defies his father over his love for a ‘maid’ – a dancing girl in the court troupe. He refuses to give her up, claiming that his love is greater than his need for power or glory. But eventually he goes to war against his powerful father with all the consequences of family feuds amongst the powerful. The Emperor is played by the magnificent patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, the father of Raj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar is Salim and the girl, re-named by the Emperor as Arkanali (‘pomegranate-blossom’) by the beautiful Madhubala. Salim’s mother the Rani (Queen) is played by Durga Khote.

The black & white Academy frame – avoiding 'colourisation' in the DVD.

The black & white Academy frame – avoiding ‘colourisation’ in the DVD.

It’s not difficult to see why the story – or at least the context since the film narrative is myth rather than historical fact – is so important in terms of Indian national identity. The film actually starts and ends with a map of India hovering over a model layout of an Indian landscape (strangely clunky in a film where set design is otherwise fantastic). The map seems to speak as ‘Hindustan’ about its history. Not only did Akbar reign successfully for so long but he also promoted at least the sense of religious tolerance. His marriage to a Rajput princess and the inclusion of Rajput warriors as his close advisers and guards allows the film to portray both Islamic and Hindu ceremonials and rituals. (The Rajputs were the great warrior caste of Hindu India and provided the majority of rulers of the ‘princely states’ in Northern India.)

In many ways this is the kind of narrative – and the kind of film – that were it a British or American film, I would probably avoid at all costs. Why then was I held for over three hours? I think it is a mixture of the exotic (no matter how global in outlook you wish to be, the exotic always has an allure), the spectacular (the sets in colour and with the myriad of reflecting mirrors are superior to anything else I’ve seen and many sets match the almost expressionist qualities of Kalpana), the beautiful dialogue (even in translation the Urdu poetry works), the history and the star performances. But above these, perhaps, is the music and the dancing. I think there are around a dozen songs – more than in contemporary Hindi cinema. By the end of the film I think I was hypnotised by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing and Madhubala’s dancing.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

No One Killed Jessica (India 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 3 April 2013

Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the sister who attempts to get justice – initially without support.

Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the sister who attempts to get justice – initially without support.

How do we decide the criteria to distinguish ‘New Bollywood’ or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ from the mainstream? It’s a difficult question and No One Killed Jessica offers a particularly difficult case study. In institutional terms it was made under the banner of the ‘indie brand’ of an Indian major studio – UTV Spotboy. Its writer-director Raj Kumar Gupta received praise for his first film Aamir (2008) and the music comes from Amit Trivedi, the rising star of Indian cinema. Dig around and there are links to Anurag Kashyap as well as the more high-profile producer Ronnie Screwvala. On the other hand, the film features Rani Mukerji in a diva-like performance (seemingly required by the script) and at times displays a sentimentality that places it firmly in the mainstream entertainment camp.

But it is the film’s theme and the way that Gupta approaches it that sets up the dilemma over classification. The story is based on the real-life case of a middle-class Christian woman in Delhi who was shot in an incident at a party in 1999. The case took seven years to finally clear the judicial system and for the young men responsible to be cleared of charges despite committing a serious crime in front of several witnesses. These young men were the sons of influential politicians and business people. A public outcry generated partly via media coverage saw the verdict re-assessed by the High Court. The film narrative appears to be faithful to the main facts of the case and a film which addresses bribery, corruption and the misuse of power in India is certainly not in the Bollywood mainstream. But having said that, I found the presentation of the narrative was not as effective as it might have been.

In the main I have to agree with the verdict offered by Omar Ahmed when the film was released in the UK in early 2011. In attempting to detail what happened over a long period of investigation and court procedure involving witness intimidation and corruption, the filmmakers ended up with a broken-backed story in which the first half is led by the excellent  Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the dead woman’s sister, seeking justice, only for the story to switch to the media campaign featuring Rani Mukerji as a TV ‘personality’ reporter/presenter which dominates the second half. Omar sees a problem in the film’s use of family melodrama, but this is my one dispute with his reading. By focusing on the impact of the killing on the family, the narrative has the possibility of grounding its social mission in a particular stratum of Indian society. At times the script does take us into the lives of ‘ordinary people’ who are faced with dilemmas caused by poverty and physical fear – and onto the streets and into the houses of those people. But these opportunities are wasted because the film doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. It would have been better possibly to move further away from the original story and to downplay the TV reporting angle and expand the social narrative – we don’t learn enough about the central family. The impact of a death like this on a family was at the centre of the first series of The Killing and the Danish TV series has illustrated just how effective this narrative idea can be.

I think that the real problem is that No One Killed Jessica ends up being a compromise which fails to produce either a potent commercial melodrama or thriller or a genuine independent film with a clear social purpose. Instead, the commercial elements seem ‘stuffed in’. This is a shame because interesting elements such as the use of social media to construct a mass campaign are negated by Rani Mukerji’s portrayal of the worst kind of ‘star reporter’, so familiar from the Bollywood mainstream. I should point out that the inclusion of scenes referring to the media campaign being partly inspired by audience responses to the 2006 feature Rang De Basanti suggest a range of further questions about what the potential impact of No One Killed Jessica might be. However, I don’t think that this reference gets in the way of my general criticism of this later film.  Although it was only a moderate commercial success No One Killed Jessica did receive nominations at the Indian Filmfare Awards. Ironically its only win was for Rani Mukerji as ‘Best Supporting Actress’ – the Bollywood star system survives another attempt to make different kinds of films.

Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Indian independent | 2 Comments »

 
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