September 28, 2011: Amitabh ~ Changes and The Guard

Julie M:  Eklavya:  The Royal Guard…the only thing I can say is thankfully it was short (only 108 minutes), otherwise I don’t think I could have taken the high emotional level–unbroken by levity of any kind–much longer. This film plumbed just about every dramatic trick in the canon: death and mourning, secrets, loyalty and duty, father- and mother-love, admiration, jealousy, romantic love, intrigue, suspense, conspiracy, and, oddly, marksmanship. And beautiful countryside, stunning traditional costumes and jewelry (in a film set in contemporary times), and the coolest old fort ever.  Here’s the 60-second (non-subtitled, but you get the emotion) trailer:  Exciting, yeah?

Jenny K:  I liked Eklavya when I saw it in the theaters… a period visual treat.  Not that I remember that much, except for the “surprise” reveal toward the end. BigB was good, and as you said, and the cast is great, with Saif and his mother playing royalty (such a stretch!) but they did it well.  Vidya was good, as per usual, and you got to love a cast that has Boman, Sanjay, Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Shergill, who I usually like, even though he WAS in Mohabbatein. The producer/director Vidhu Vinod Chopra is often associated with quality productions, 3 Idiots among them.

 

Julie M:  I’d do a plot summary but there would be too many spoilers, so I’ll skip it.   The fact that the film started with a Shakespeare sonnet should have been the tip-off that the action would be very Shakespearean in its layers of plot and emotion. And it was, in spades. Amitabh Bachchan’s performance as Eklavya, the man torn between love and duty to his royal employers, was mesmerizing–I literally could not take my eyes off him. Saif Ali Khan as the young Prince was likewise excellent and mostly kept his shirt on. Vidya Balan as Saif’s almost offhand love interest did not have much to do except moon after Saif and lip-synch a pretty song, and her most dramatic speech was given as a voice-over, which I thought was a waste of a perfectly good actress.

Here’s Vidya’s song, “Chanda Re”: 

Even if you don’t understand Hindi, you can tell how dramatic and loaded the film is.  Lots packed into a short running time.

Sanjay Dutt had an all-too-brief role as the police chief who admired Eklavya at the same time he was resentful of how his family had been historically mistreated by the royal family. I think more could have been wrung out of that situation. Boman Irani was a little over-the-top, but still excellent, as the vengeful king, and Jimmy Shergill could have amped up the acting a little more as his jealous nephew–I know he’s up to it.

Normally I am not a fan of EFD, but that’s mostly because it usually takes a tiny bit of normal and perfectly understandable emotion and spins it out endlessly to no real point–we get it already. This was crazy-unusual emotion–the kind that nobody ever has to contend with in real life because, come on, who is ever in the position of having [spoiler alert]your son whom you can never acknowledge murder your beloved royal employer, and have it be your sworn duty to kill him in return? This is what movies are for, actually.

And I have to put this in even though there are no subtitles, because Saif is shirtless and for once it’s not gratuitous: 

 

Jenny K:  Not sure about that…Never seen the main celebrant shirtless in a Rajasthani funeral.  Only in the South.  Maybe it’s a Brahmin thing. 

Well, I’m glad to see you can handle Eklavya‘s EFD if given the right encouragement!   It’s occasionally worth the effort.

Julie M:  This one definitely was.  If Shakespeare would have decided to set a tragedy in India, he would have come up with something very similar to this, except in Shakespeare Eklavya would have killed himself in confusion, Saif would have been driven insane with remorse and Vidya’s character would have wailed over the end credits.

As it was, the ending was almost uplifting: [spoiler alert again] Eklavya declares his duty to be wrong (!!!), Vidya’s character forgives Saif’s character for killing his own father (!!!!!!) and Saif, throwing custom, tradition and royal protocol to the winds, publicly acknowledges Eklavya, a commoner, as his father (!!!!!). I mean, sure, it was set up that Saif felt stifled by all the tradition and custom of his homeland and position and had escaped to London to avoid it, but in that situation doesn’t the typical Indian film end with the son coming back, assuming his royal duty and realizing with pride that the old ways are there for a reason?  And the ending also seemed wrong for Sanjay’s police chief character. If he was so resentful, why would he be so happy to [spoilerscover up the misdeeds of the family who did his family bad? [end]

But despite all that, my verdict: Excellent–one of my faves.  It’s available on YouTube with English subtitles.

I couldn’t find any clips with English subtitles, and the dialogue is so important to this film—you’ll just have to watch the whole thing!

And to balance it out…as an older BigB movie, I really liked Abhimaan (Arrogance, 1973). It was weird (as always) to see Amitabh in a romantic role, but then as the film went on it all made more sense why he was cast. And he and Jaya have huge chemistry together.

 

Jenny K:  I saw this film in 2005 when Amitabh picked it as one of his twelve favorite films when Lincoln Center wanted to do a retrospective of his work. As I couldn’t go, I chose a few of them to watch and liked this one best. IMDb says that Jaya and Amitabh liked this film so much that they helped bankroll it…which must have been quite a stretch, as they had only been working in film for about five years, at most, and Zanjeer was the most famous film he’d done to date. Sholay and Deewaar hadn’t happened yet. Here’s the whole movie with subtitles for those who haven’t seen it.

 

Julie M:  Plot summary: Subir Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan) is a well-known pop singer with tons of fans, nice house, doting manager/companion, and a hip wardrobe (for 1973). One day he decides to visit the aunt who raised him in the small village she lives in, and meets Uma Devi (Jaya [Bhaduri] Bachchan), the neighbor’s daughter, who also sings, albeit shyly. They fall in love, marry in the village and he takes her back to Mumbai. At their wedding celebration they sing a duet, and although Subir’s manager is excited to have them start singing together, a well-known musician warns against it. Then, of course, they are blissfully happy for a while afterwards. 

Jenny K:  I especially like the scenes with them together in the bedroom. Very sexy, without actually seeing anything. Wah, wah!  What chemistry! Lovely to see them young and in love.

Julie M:  They record a song, and it is an instant hit. They are hired together for concerts and playback, but slowly she becomes more popular than he is. Subir starts resenting her, drinking heavily and spending increasing amounts of time with his friend Chitra (Bindu), who adores him. He also quits singing in a fit of pique, but doesn’t tell her. Uma eventually realizes what’s going on and can’t watch him throw his talent away; she quits singing too and returns to her village, where she finds out she is pregnant. Ultimately she suffers a miscarriage and sinks into a deep depression, which finally rouses Subir to go and bring her home, where she doesn’t get any better.

Subir finally understands that she blames herself for his unhappiness, and realizes that the only thing that will make her happy is if he starts singing again. He hires a hall and schedules a concert–she perks up while he is on stage alone but when he starts singing their duet she bursts into tears. He brings her on stage, they finish it together, Chitra (sitting in the front row) realizes that he and Uma are made for each other, and the film ends with the audience’s applause. Here’s that final scene:

 Jenny K:  This film always reminded me of an Indian version of A Star is Born…the young wife gradually surpassing the older established husband… but with more of the religious aspect to it…and, of course, a happier ending, which actually, seemed more realistic than ASIB‘s. Beaucoup melodramatic, with James Mason walking into the waves and Judy Garland singing her solo to him onstage…”I am Mrs. Norman Maine!” Applause…Tears…Applause… I can’t believe that Karan Johar hasn’t remade this one with the genders flipped and SRK quavering that teary statement at the end of the film. Can’t you see it?

 

Julie M:  Oh, I can TOTALLY see KJ remaking ASIB. There was a whiff of that in Taal, perhaps, but to go whole hog…yes. SRK plus…who? Madhuri? Rekha?

  

Jenny K:  Would have to be someone like Rekha, who is older than SRK, if we were to do the whole gender flip thing…but I really think Dimple would be better for him…more sympathetic and believable. Madhuri is actually younger than SRK.

 

Julie M:  Anyway, I really liked this portrait of a man with a gigantic ego getting knocked down and finally learning to put that ego aside for the sake of his marriage.  Very moving—and unconventional for a man of that era—yet he is utterly convincing in all the emotions he is called upon to portray. And, as I’ve said before, ’70s fashions were made for his body type: even the most hideous shirt patterns look good on him. At one point he wears a beautiful rust-colored silk kurta over white pants that almost made me swoon.  

Have to say that this is quite the negative role for him. He is a spoiled brat, his manager is an enabler, and even though it’s part of Indian culture for men to assume women will keep the males’ needs as primary in the family, his character really fell apart when she started winning all the awards and getting the attention. One could read this as a frustrated diatribe against women’s liberation by the male establishment, but the ending is a realistic portrait of the compromises that everyone has to make in a marriage and how personal pride has to be put aside sometimes.

Also, this is only the 2nd film I’ve seen “young” Jaya in, and I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that both times she played very shy and subdued characters, or if it’s the kind of role she is drawn to. Just once I would like to see her doing a character who is happy. When she wasn’t in the frame with BigB she was very flat; again, can’t tell if that’s the character she was playing (a woman who only comes alive in the presence of her husband, in which case, ick) or if it’s her normal mien.

 

Jenny K:  I haven’t seen that many of her films, but she always seems to find roles with gravitas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a light role, unlike Shabana, who takes time out from angst to do a comedy every so often. And Jaya took a good amount of time off to raise the kids. As I’ve said before, she’s always the one who can make me cry, no matter how many times I’ve seen the scene…”He just made a mistake, Naina…he was a good man!” Sniff, sniff…just thinking about the church scene in KHNH…I get all teary.

 

Julie M:  Gravitas is one thing–Shabana and Manisha do gravitas–but making a name for oneself out of absolute stoicism and blank expression, particularly in one’s youth, is completely different and kind of a risky career choice.   I read that it was doing this film that tipped Jaya towards taking that many-years-long acting break when she started having kids–to avoid the breakdown of the marriage.

 

Jenny K:  I see what you’re saying about Jaya, but only seeing five of her films, I don’t want to make that assumption that she let herself be pigeon-holed. She was the top actor in her graduating class, over the men, even… Hey, found this article on Amitabh’s appeal by the fabulous David Chute who says if we want to see Jaya as a “diminutive firecracker” and a “headstrong teenager” we should look for Guddi and Mili, both by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. 

 

Julie M:  I have to say, for a story that has music at its core, I really wasn’t all that moved by the songs. They all sounded very similar and were quite slow, and although I know she’s a national treasure, something about the quality of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice in these songs really grated on me.

All in all, both Eklavya and Abhimaan amply show what star power BigB has, and has always been.

 

Jenny K:  Just goes to show that whether you swathe him in lurid polyesther or bury his magnetic mug in birds-nest-crazy facial hair, Amitabh Bachchan will always emerge the quintessential star…some things about him will never change.

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6 Comments

  1. Amitabh will always be the true King of Bollywood to me. I’m very excited for his Hollywood debut, which, if I remember it right, will be happening next year.

    • Yes! In Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” which I am also looking forward to, to see if Leo can pull it off. I read that Amitabh has only a one-scene role, and that he waived his fee. I hope it’s his big American break: Hollywood really needs him!

  2. Jenny–what a great article by David Chute. Thanks for including the link!

    • I love reading David’s reviews. He’s based in LA and is a real connoisseur of Bollywood movies. He reviews for LA Weekly and says a lot even when the reviews are capsules. Love this bit from the Delhi 6 one…

      “The story of an American-born Indian who accompanies his ailing grandmother (Waheeda Rehman) to Delhi and, duly appalled and enchanted by what he sees, undergoes a cultural conversion, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 attempts to address the generational, economic, and religious problems dividing modern India, but does so in an unapologetically broad, whacked-out way, with each of Bollywood’s four food groups (corn, cheese, treacle, and nuts) present and accounted for. “

  3. I really liked Abhimaan for three reasons, One, the issue of artistic people in marriage not beating each other out for fame is very realistic and a terribly difficult problem. Actually, it doesn’t have to be competing actors or singers, but just professionals vying for their careers….marriage kind of worked “better” when wifey got her ego boost through the success of her husband and hubby never had to have his ego bruised. Two, Jenny, you are so right about the bedroom scenes….so sexy! And, three, when Amitabh does that “thing” where he touches the corner of his lips a couple of time (indicating she should give him a kiss), he is totally charming. I felt there was a similar moment in Zanjeer when he went right ahead and ate the food/drink Jaya brought him…when she tried to stop him because she had touched it…gave her a look and goes right on eating it. Both remind me of the train station scene in DDLJ where Shahrukh makes that funny tch noise and say’s, “No, I won’t come” when asked by Kajol if he will come to her wedding….and then gives her THE LOOK. Aaahhh….I am such a sucker for those little moments that have so much meaning in them.

    • I agree, Pat…when they have such a gift for the small moments, it’s a wonder that the usual go-to is for the slapstick. Maybe the overtly emotional moment is too uncomfortable for most.


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