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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

 

Highway (India 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.

Vicky Donor (India 2012)

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!:

Satyagraha (India 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: