Now that the festive time of year is good and over, it’s about time to turn away from the entertaining desserts of rom-coms and high adventure (bungeed villains flinging themselves off high-rises, indeed!) and settle in for a very hearty meal of Indian issue films. We found, from three different decades, three serious films and many amazing performances. Bon Appétit!
Julie M: Today’s feature was Rudaali (The Mourner, 1993). It was a fairly artsy film, directed by Kalpana Lajmi (niece of Guru Dutt) who also directed Chingaari, which I think you had recommended to me at one point.
Dimple Kapadia stars as Shanichari, a poor, low-caste village woman in Rajasthan with an extremely hard life. As the film opens, she is a youngish widow who is temporarily hosting Bikhni (Rakhee Gulzar), a professional mourner (or rudaali) called in to await the death of the local wealthy landowner or zamindar (Amjad Khan, most memorable as “Gabbar Singh” from Sholay, in one of his last film roles). She tells Bikhni her story: her mother abandoned her in infancy, her father died when she was young, she was married to a man who drank most of his wages and she has a retarded son. In flashbacks covering about 20 years she tells of the attraction between her and the zamindar‘s son, which turned into a job as maid to his mother and an illicit affair. This haunting song, which is sung as Shanichari is remembering the affair, is probably what anyone knows about the film:
When the zamindar first gets sick she is turned out of the house, and things go from bad to worse. Her mother-in-law dies, then her husband takes ill with the plague and dies, her home (a gift from her lover) is taken to pay the debt on his funeral rites and she and her son become indentured to the zamindari family for 15 years’ hard labor. Still she remains dry-eyed and resigned to her plight, even when her son (Raghuvir Yadav) impregnates a local whore (Sushmita Mukherjee) and marries her, then she aborts the baby. Her son runs away, and still she remains stoic. She asks Bikhni, who used to be an actress, how she can cry real tears for people she has never met when she can’t even cry for all the things she could cry about, namely, that everyone she’s ever loved has left her.
Jenny K: That Raghuvir Yadav is a surprising one…he’s in practically everything, especially when they need an affecting performance from a smallish but pivotal role. Does that in Salaam Bombay, too. In that one he surprised me by being rather young and handsome…never had seen him that way before. Just goes to show that we all have our day.
Julie M: I recognized him right off, but I didn’t get that he was supposed to be slow until later in the film when they talk about it. I thought he was just ornery. Anyway, while talking about all this stuff Shanichari and Bikhni grow close. Here’s the song where Bikhni comforts Shanichari after hearing her story, and Shanichari learns what it is like to be taken care of.
Afterwards Bikhni is called away on a mourning job. Unfortunately, she catches plague while she is away and dies, sending Shanichari one last message: Bikhni is, in reality, Shanichari’s long-lost mother. This news releases Shanichari; she is finally able to mourn everything that has happened to her, and she takes Bikhni’s place as the rudaali, becoming famous for the sincerity of her tears and intensity of her wailing.
Jenny K: Well, if she couldn’t mourn sincerely after getting a bombshell dropped on her like that, she would have to have been made of stone! Poor thing.
Julie M: Dimple Kapadia is, in a word, AMAZING in this film. She convincingly plays a young woman, a slightly older widow, and a supremely beaten-down, old-before-her-time crone. It’s quite an emotional (but not melodramatic) film, and she proves herself up to the task. This film is not to be missed.
Jenny K: I haven’t seen Rudaali, yet, but it sounds great…not a light amusement, of course, but interesting. And Dimple will always be one of my favorites. She always puts all of herself into a role, like the one we discussed in Being Cyrus, she is just totally committed to her character, whether or not it’s a flattering one.
Julie M: She was definitely the best thing about Hum Kaun Hai, for sure! Can’t wait until I get hold of a copy of Bobby so I can catch her at the beginning of her career.
[a few days later]
Julie M: I watched Fiza (2000) this afternoon. Compared to Rudaali it is not at all arty, but it is serious and highly melodramatic, which normally I get impatient with, but my jaw continually dropped at Karisma Kapoor’s fabulous performance. Whenever she was not onscreen my attention wandered… except, of course, in this “preparing for the action” scene, which I know was put in to please the ladies. Nice foreshadowing of Hrithik’s Dhoom 2 role–dead serious and focused.
Jenny K: I was sort of sorry when Karisma took a kind of backseat to her baby sis, Kareena. Not that both don’t do good work, but I think that Karisma tends to be overshadowed sometime by Bebo’s gift for finding the limelight. She isn’t always involved with lightweight fare as in Andaz Apna Apna [shudder] or Dil to Pagal Hai.
Karisma’s the best thing in Shakti, playing a distraught mother taking an active hand in saving her son from the influence of his psychopathic grandfather (Nana Patekar in full scene-chewing glory) and is quite wonderful in Zubeidaa, as a film actress in the ‘50s on her way to the top, who marries a prince and yet doesn’t live happily ever after. Rekha and Manoj Bajpai are with her in that one; strong performances all around. Maybe a bit too weepy for you, not sure, but you will like the score, all Rahman!
Julie M: Well, never fear, she’s back! In Fiza I really liked Karisma’s “girl power” dance number, taunting her boyfriend for not liking her the way she is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Brief plot summary: It is 1993. Fiza (Karisma) and Aman (Hrithik) are Muslim teenagers living with their widowed Ammi (Jaya Bachchan) in Mumbai–they are a a very cute and close family. One evening Hindu-Muslim riots break out; Aman rushes out to see what’s going on and is not seen again. Six years later he is still missing. Fiza is sad but has grown accustomed to his loss; however, the distraught Ammi still visits the police station weekly hoping for news. While out on a job interview Fiza spots Aman in the city and hope is again rekindled: she pawns the family jewelry for bribe money, causes a ruckus in the press and with politicians, disrupts her relationship with her boyfriend, and eventually tracks him down on the India/Pakistan border, where he has become a jihadist. The story of what turned him in that direction and what happens next (and next and next) is the stuff of high drama and even higher melodrama. Yes, people die.
Jenny K: You sound so happy about that…so bloodthirsty!
Julie M: Well, I thought I ought to warn people. It’s quite unnerving, actually, and I think something like this would not have been possible in mainstream film until Dil Se’s paving the way a couple of years previous.
Jenny K: It’s funny that they named it Fiza if it’s all about war and terrorism. I looked about online, and it translates to variations on “a pure wind filled with love and romance” to “God’s Blessing”. In either case, it seems a strange title.
Julie M: Maybe it’s supposed to be ironic, since he’s a terrorist? Hm. Unfortunately the filmmakers kept breaking the mood by putting in item numbers like this one with Sushmita Sen, and this equally random, but depending on your orientation a much more interesting one, with Hrithik.
I understand why they’re there–otherwise it would be an overly intense film–but they do not advance the plot or provide useful characterizations, and I found it difficult to get the mood back to the main action afterwards. It could be for this reason that the film tanked a bit in the box office. My favorites were the ones that added rather than distracted, like this one with music by A.R. Rahman.
Jenny K: Weird…A Rahman song in the middle of an Anu Malik soundtrack. Wonder what went on there. Not at all usual, as they are more often competitors…story there, I daresay.
Julie M: Well, it was a qawwali (Sufi devotional song), and seemed to call for a specialist, and they couldn’t get Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? All in all, it’s a great message film–“we are all Indian no matter our religion”, a message that even the jihadist Aman is fighting for–and fabulous performances by all three lead actors make this a win. Even though it was only his 2nd film released (first one that he actually signed to, which is an interesting fact), Fiza showed Hrithik as much more than the chocolate hero he was in KNPH. Well, at least the second half of Fiza did. The first half showed him to be too sweet, and I am not a fan of him in sweet parts. All my thumbs and big toes are up for this one, which I think may make my Top Ten up near Dil Se.
Jenny K: I may have to watch it again when it comes back in the returns…I don’t remember being quite that impressed by it. Not that I disliked it, or anything, but it was just so-so for me.
[the next week]
Julie M: I really loved Salaam Bombay (1988). Mira Nair is a genius. Much like I did with Deepa Mehta’s Water, I loved how the film was unafraid to portray the gritty and unpleasant reality that Bollywood likes to cover up–the street kids, the prostitutes, the drugs, the poverty and the dirt. You mentioned Nana Patekar’s performance–while I liked it, I thought that Raghuvir Yadav was the stronger actor in this film as the drugged-out older best friend of the street boy Krishna. No wonder this is ranked among one of the best films ever made, and why it didn’t win the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar in 1989 is a mystery. (oh, yeah, because it was some Scandinavian film, urk)
Jenny K: I know! No accounting for taste. It was more impressive, still, when you realize that SB was Mira Nair’s first full feature film. I watched it again last night, first time since I started all this Bolly-madness, and it is even more deeply affecting, now. She certainly knows how to spot good talent. As to Nana, I liked his performance, but in this film I’m remarking more on his presence…just electric. I’m glad you pointed out Irrfan Khan as the scribe or I might not have noticed.
Julie M: Although this film is relatively plotless, the episodic narrative concerns Krishna, a young boy who ran away from his village home after a misunderstanding and makes his way to Bombay, where he lives on the street, selling tea, plucking chickens and even turning to crime as he tries to earn enough money to return home and make up for what everyone thought he did wrong. It’s just heartbreaking. The adults in his new life include Baba (Patekar), a drug kingpin and a pimp; Rekha (Anita Kanwar), Baba’s prostitute-girlfriend and mother of young Manju who has a crush on Krishna; and Chillum (Yadav), whom we understand to be a grown-up street kid who is also an addict and a runner for Baba.
Jenny K: This was only Raghuvir’s second film. Can you believe it? So talented even at that inexperienced stage. He’s done so many things since then. Did you know that last year he even played Hitler? Yep.
Julie M: Here’s the beginning of the film, where the runaway Krishna has joined a traveling circus and is abandoned by them, occasioning his relocation to Bombay.
Jenny K: The kid who played Krishna, Safiq Syed, was wonderful, too. Won an award for best child actor that year, but only managed one other film in his career, one called Patang, about four years later with Shabana and Om Puri. The plot sounded similar from a description I found…small group of thieves that worked the trains for food and loot, mostly children, led by a Fagin-esque Om, who was in love with Shabana’s character, yet another prostitute with a heart of gold…her son, Shafiq, bears the burden of Om’s interest. I can’t find it available anywhere. Well, Safiq’s now repairing and driving autorickshaws for a living. The fickle hand of fate.
Julie M: My understanding is that he wasn’t really an actor, he was just a street kid that Nair found. She also filmed the brothel scenes in a real brothel, and the madam in the film was the actual madam of that brothel. How she got such amazing performances out of non-actor people…it was more like a cross between a fiction-film and a documentary. If you want to catch it, most of Salaam Bombay seems to be on YouTube, subtitled in English, but in a lesser resolution. Here’s part 1 (of 12).
I would rate this a MUST WATCH, not just for fans of Indian film but for fans of any kind of film, in any language.
Leave a comment
No comments yet.