October 26, 2011: The Classics and the Kapoors

Julie’s been going into the back catalogue lately and catching up with some old (OLD!) films, just to understand where the young-‘uns are coming from.  Here’s the conversation, condensed from about 2 weeks of back and forth.

Julie M:  So last night, had the house to myself and watched Awaara (The Tramp, 1951). GREAT movie, thank you so much for sending it!

For those who haven’t seen it: Raj Kapoor plays Raj (I know, right?), a poor kid in Bombay’s slums. He lives with his mum, doesn’t know who his father is, but mum makes sure he goes to school and has high ambitions for him. Unbeknownst to him he’s being watched by Jaaga, a well-known dacoit, and it is Jaaga who gets him kicked out of school so he has to make his way on the streets with Jaaga’s own “help.” Nevertheless, he is as honest and upright as he can be under the circumstances and still keep himself and his mom fed.

One day, as he is casing a bank prior to a planned heist for Jaaga, he meets Rita (Nargis), and is attracted to her, and through a series of interactions (and mixups) they become close. The rest of the film is the gradual uncovering of the truth of Raj’s parents, Rita’s identity, and a couple of interesting courtroom scenes, all of which are too spoiler-filled for me to relate in detail. The ending is a bit weird for a Bollywood film in that it’s neither happy nor melodramatically tragic. Have to point out, also, that the part of the young Raj is played by his real-life baby brother, Shashi Kapoor.

The story is told backwards: we find out a mind-blowing secret/spoiler in the first 5 or 10 minutes before we can really absorb its impact, and then it’s a giant flashback from there starting at Raj’s pre-birth and building up to the extremely high drama that the revelation of this secret requires. There is of course romance and song, and one dream-sequence number that is as mesmerizing as it is howl-inducing (check out the heavenly slide!).

This was my first viewing of a Nargis film and she is absolutely incandescent. Maybe it was the old-movie-ness of it but she totally RULED the screen when she was in frame. This was also my first full-length experience with the Rajster and he’s awesomely talented.  Raj did lots of films with Nargis and their chemistry is undeniable, but in this particular one he often paled in her presence.  But here is a number where they are equally matched, and SO cute together.

So, two thumbs WAY up for this one.

Jenny K:  You have to love Rita’s first entrance in the courtroom…she is just riveting.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  For some reason the whole film reminded me of Citizen Kane, maybe because of the flashback style and the lush black and white cinematography, though it was filmed ten years later. Nargis is just lovely…Sanjay has her eyes, doesn’t he?

Also, the man playing Raj’s dad, the judge, is his real dad, Prithviraj Kapoor, who is pretty darned handsome and charismatic. PK is the Emperor, nine years later, in Mughal-e-Azam, but isn’t as much of a looker in this one. Still a wonderful actor, though.  Here’s a number from the film…one of the first big (partly) color historical extravaganzas starring Prithviraj, Dilip Kumar (eternally mopey), and Madhubala as the dancing girl Dilip loves and can’t have. The big numbers were hand colored, that’s why the color is a bit jumpy in some places. Never been my favorite film, but had some nice moments.

Julie M:  I thought Prithviraj Kapoor looked like a 1920s star–he has the hair and the mouth that heroes of that era seemed to have. Nargis…is not strictly beautiful (not like Meena Kumari), but so very, very talented that she seems to glow. Her slightly crooked teeth, I think, make her so appealing.


Jenny K:  Part of it must be to do with the lighting.  Black and white has an eternal quality all its own, doesn’t it? Raj is unique, but to me, his appeal is equal parts Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman and even, occasionally, a bit of Clark Gable. Next I’ve got to try you out on Guru Dutt, another classic actor and see how you like him.


Julie M:  While you’re at it, I need a good Dilip Kumar starter movie…


Jenny K:  Can’t be a judge…I don’t get him at all…Mughal-e-Azam is one of his most famous and it is online with subtitles, but for $1.99. 

I don’t get Dev Anand, either, except in Guide, maybe.  


Julie M:  What about Shashi Kapoor? I’ve gotten to know Shammi, so I need to hit the Kapoor brothers trifecta!


Jenny K:  Shashi I liked in The Householder, in Shakespeare Wallah, in Bombay Talkie.

He also did a lot of films with BigB like Deewaar and Silsila which I haven’t seen yet, but probably should, as it’s with Jaya and Rekha, too and was really talked about because it was supposed to be rather art-imitating-life.


Julie M:  Oh, I guess that was Shashi as BigB’s policeman brother in Deewaar, so I HAVE seen him in something!


Jenny K:  Yeah, but I think he only comes into his own when he’s out from under BigB’s shadow;  he’s a bit muted in close quarters.


Julie M:  Silsila was on my list to try and see for BigB anyway, so I’ll get to that. I’ve also decided to work my way through the rest of the India Times “25 Best Bollywood Films” list that I haven’t seen…thanks to your advice I was pleased that I have seen quite a few of them already.


Jenny K:  I’ve seen all but four of the list. You’ll like Arth…Shabana and Smita Patil, both very good. Mr. India is a superhero thing with Anil blessed/cursed with invisibility, I think. I didn’t like Mother India as I said before. But, you may like it. Numbers 18 & 20 are Guru Dutt, both good, but I’m surprised they don’t put Kaagaz Ke Phool in it, too.   Waheeda Rehman, who you saw in Delhi 6, is so beautiful in that.  And you should skip Satya, it is Ram Gopal Varma and very gangstery, if I recall.  QSQT is Aamir, same era as JJWS and more emotional romantic stuff, but very famous, nonetheless. I’ll send it to you. Pakeezah is another Umrao Jaan kinda film.


Julie M:  I’m looking forward to Bobby, with Rishi Kapoor.


Jenny K:  I keep meaning to see that, too…Dimple at 16 years old and a budding sex symbol. Oh, wait a minute…you should see the Devdas from 1955 that is on that list…it’s Dilip Kumar! And you never did finish SRK’s version. Some people like the DK version much better, and not so overblown.  Padosan looks very slapsticky, but IMDB has it online for free through Hulu.


Julie M:  Yeah, I do have to finish Devdas one of these days. Maybe I should see the DK one first and then I can get through the SRK one. Or maybe now that I’ve seen more SRK I’ll have patience with Devdas.

[a few days later]

I watched the 1955 Bimal Roy version of Devdas last night. I didn’t like the story any better, although this time I hung on until the end.

Here’s a clip of the beginning.

The most obvious difference is that the 1955 version spends significant time on the childhood relationship between Devdas and Parvati (Paro), and shows older backstory between the families. I think it makes the story a little richer. But the 2002 version is visually more lush, which I liked more (I found the 1955 version dull to look at). And has better music. I really liked Dilip Kumar as an actor (I want to see more!) and his portrayal of Devdas seemed more tortured but with less obvious effort doing so than SRK’s portrayal 47 years later. I guess that makes him better. Again, I need to finish the 2002 version to make sure.


Jenny K:  Ismail Darbar’s music from the 2002 Devdas is some of the best of his work that I’ve heard.  Doesn’t quite do as much for me as Rahman or Vishal Bhardwaj, but he still does some nice soundtracks.


Julie M: But in neither version (even less in the 1955 version) can I understand the attraction Parvati has for Devdas, as he is shown from minute one to be weak and selfish and downright abusive to her. Even after reading this scholarly analysis [by Corey K. Creekmur] and comparison of the 3 main versions I still don’t understand the fascination with the story.

Although did learn a lot from the article about the different filmmakers’ visions of the tale, particularly the 1955 version, which I felt upon my viewing to be the more artistic one despite the oodles of cash spent on the latest version.

So even though now I will go back and finish the 2002 version, I guess I am just never going to “get” Devdas. And if Devdas-the-story is an important part of the Indian psyche, I am probably never going to get that either.


Jenny K:  Okay, you liked Devdas, sorta-kinda, or maybe just Dilip. Not to my taste, but I grant, I haven’t seen him in that many films, so maybe I should look deeper. He was just too weak a character in Mughal-e-Azam for me to get his appeal. I like Bimal Roy as a director…did you end up seeing Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953), online?


Julie M:  I did indeed… and I’m thoroughly bummed out now. At least Disha had something of a happy ending.

Brief plot summary: Shambu (Balraj Sahni) is a poor farmer with a beautiful, pregnant wife Paro (Nirupa Roy) and only two bighas of land to his name (about 2/3 of an acre). The local landlord has convinced the neighboring farmers to sell their land to him so he can build a mill, but Shambu won’t sell, and the landlord concocts a scam with his accountant to inflate Shambu’s debts to the staggering sum of 235 rupees.

With no way to pay the money, Shambu temporarily shifts to the big city of Calcutta where he has heard the money is just floating in the air ready to scoop up. His son tags along.  Of course reality is nothing like that and Shambu has to live in a slum and work as a rickshaw driver for pennies a ride. The boy also works, as a shoe shiner. The rest of the film shows the ups and downs suffered by the family both in the city and the village, although everyone survives ultimately (spoiler alert) they lose their money, their land and their home.

But I have to say, I was completely glued to the screen for the entire two hours. It was like a soap opera of the poor. I was a bit dubious in the beginning as it seemed to me like it was the type of highly moralizing and deadly boring “noble peasant” film that pretty much every country has to produce at least once between 1945 and 1965. And it sort of was, but I was pleasantly surprised at its watchability. Balraj Sahni, under the rags and grime, was very handsome and I really became attached to the good-guy character of Shambu. And there is a cute scene where the shoeshine boys talk about seeing the film Awaara and sing the title song.


Jenny K:  Do you get the feeling that all the best depressing films are Bengali???  They do seem to know how to nuance the pathos, don’t they?


Julie M: Compared to Disha it’s clear that this was the grandaddy of the genre and a landmark in Indian film. And I couldn’t help but notice the physical resemblance of Nana Patekar in Disha to the character in DBZ that opens the film, and the inspiration of this number to a similar moment in Disha, where the poor people are trying to lighten their lives in song.

Although similarly melodramatic [Spoiler: Paro comes to the city and is almost instantly kidnapped, nearly raped and run down by a motorcar as she makes her escape–and the only rickshaw driver around to take her to the hospital is none other than Shambu!] DBZ is far from the escapist fantasy of Awaara, which has another poor but honest man as the lead character.

Even though you had already put the idea in my head that Aamir Khan had gotten inspiration from DBZ for the look of the countryside in Lagaan, I was even more tickled by the very closely related picturization and music of the “it’s finally raining” songs in the two movies. Here’s the one from DBZ, which occurs moments after the film starts:

And here’s the one from Lagaan.

Anyway, I thought DBZ was a great film, definitely worthy of the “25 Must-See” list and best of all, it’s online free with subtitles on YouTube. Here’s Part I.   


Jenny K: Though DBZ isn’t a film that I watch over and over again, it has been one whose memory sticks in my mind and lingers there.  Bimal Roy was certainly a master of his craft.


Julie M:  And finally, I got a good dose of Shashi Kapoor by watching Shakespeare Wallah (1965), not technically a Bollywood film since it’s British-made and in English.

Like most Merchant-Ivory films it developed too slowly for my impatient tastes, and I hated the Shakespeare bits for being bad and overblown, but I guess the troupe was not supposed to be a very good one. Shashi was excellent and GORGEOUS, but his character was not manly in the grand tradition of Bollywood manliness. I guess since it was an English film he didn’t need to be, but instead of the tragic hero (yes, Devdas was weak but he had a certain consistent sense of misguided but manly self-sacrifice) we got to see a pseudo-manly but ultimately scared and weak person too afraid to figure out what he wants.  So, good actor, bad character.


Jenny K:  Actually, I found myself being impressed by Shashi’s lack of vanity in doing this role.  His character is, as you say, not a likeable one, if lovely to look at.  He had to know that he wasn’t playing the hero when he chose it.

On the superficial side…the only thing I remember fixating on was that he was romancing his sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal, in that misty walk they took together. His real wife, Jennifer, Felicity’s sister, played someone else in the film altogether. Odd…perhaps they wanted someone younger against him, or someone more of a known quantity in England, which Felicity is. I really enjoyed Felicity’s autobiography White Cargo which told about the times in India with her family. 


Julie M:  She was REALLY young in SW.  I think she was supposed to be around 17 or 18 at the most.  A real ingénue, both on stage in the troupe and in moviemaking since this was her debut film.


Jenny K:  Very true.  I’d forgotten that.  However, you should see Jennifer Kendal (Kapoor) in her prime in Bombay Talkie with her hubby, or in an award-winning turn in 36 Chowringee Lane….an Aparna Sen-directed mood piece.  So, lots of worthwhile treasures to find in Classic Bollywood, if you are willing to dig back a bit in time!

Part 3: SRK, Saif, Salman and Shirtlessness

Julie M:  I went to the library this afternoon (half-day off) and picked up 2 movies which looked good, but were not on your lists. I looked them up and at least one of them seems to be a good choice — Chak de! India. I’m kind of a sucker for inspirational sports movies about women and girls and this one won a bunch of awards, so I figure I won’t abandon it at the intermission.  The other one is Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, which said nothing plot-wise on the back jacket but when I looked it up at home it seems to be the first Indian film about surrogate motherhood, so I bet it was too controversial to talk about in the video store. We’ll see about that one.

The video in my library about the blind woman is not Black, it’s  Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, 1981, starring Amitabh past his prime. Worth it? The description seems unduly complicated.

So where do you end up meeting people like Hrithik Roshan in person?

Jenny K:  Both the ones you got are fine. No alarms, unless Salman Khan scares you…he occasionally does me, takes his shirt off WAY too much in my opinion. He’s beefed up so much he’s built like a WWF wrestler these days. Maybe not so much when C4 came out. Chak De is a bit disappointing for me as it’s billed as an SRK film, but it’s really more about the girls on the team…as it should be, but for oglers of Shah Rukh, it doesn’t do that much.

Never saw Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, but Amitabh’s usually good even when his wardrobe is scary (anything in the 70’s…especially that 7 Brides for 7 Brothers remake that I’ve forgotten the name of) [Satte Pe Satta]. His legs are just way too long proportionately, for overalls with boots but somehow, unexplainably,  he carries it off.  And, in my opinion, BigB has never left his prime…just looks better and better with mileage 🙂

I met HR while working a live Bollywood concert in Fairfax. Aishwarya was there too, but I just saw her from a distance. I just chatted at him as he went in the door past me. “The crowd seems to really be glad you’re here…” or something equally witty on my part. He looked at me with those eyes and grinned as he went in. Heck, I’m glad I got something coherent out at all. I almost blacked out when I asked Amitabh a question at Filmfest DC.

Julie M:  OK–watched Chori Chori Chupke Chupke–enjoyed it but the DVD I borrowed was in “anamorphic widescreen” and the picture was all distorted. The only thing I didn’t like were the several HUGE chunks lifted directly from Pretty Woman–with dialogue pretty much intact. But otherwise an entertaining experience. Salman Khan didn’t take his shirt off once, although in one scene he was in a very tight white T-shirt. Will watch Chak de India! this afternoon.

[time passes…]

Julie M:  Two more movies…Chak De India was GREAT, loved it, not typical Bollywood but was refreshing. I thought there was plenty of SRK and for once I liked every facet of the character he played.

Lage Raho Munnabhai was merely OK. It’s not the type of movie that I watch generally, in any language; in fact I pretty much avoid the genre. I liked the Munna character, though, and I liked the last moment of the film when we FINALLY get to see the fiancé and it’s LittleB. (probably tickled the audience too)

Tried to get Kuch Kuch Hota Hai from the library but they system doesn’t have it. I have to decide whether it’s worth going through interlibrary loan or if I should just buy it. It can’t be too expensive if I get it used through secondhand DVD sources online.

The executive secretary at my office was bemoaning the sorry state of daytime dramas, so I’m going to lend her K3G. Another convert?

Jenny K:  Good for you…your first convert 🙂 I almost think that any hard core soaper might like KHNH better…all that hiding your illness and illegitimate children and denying your own love for your lover’s future happiness stuff. Would seem almost like dropping in to Llanview or Genoa City. She might also like Dil Chahta Hai, good drama but in more manageable doses.

Julie M:  Oh, I’m sure she’d like KHNH as well or better, but I don’t own that one. (I don’t recall an illegitimate child in KHNH?? did I miss something?)  I can see that this new hobby is going to get expensive… 🙂

Jenny K: [Spoilers: Highlight to view] Yes, the little girl that Naina’s mother adopted was the father’s illegitimate child with his mistress. That was the whole thing that caused the reconciliation scene in the church. The father killed himself because he felt so guilty about foisting his child on Jennifer, and she was so noble about it, and loved the girl as her own. Then everyone got all teary when SRK brought out the letter and the grandma had to eat crow and make up with Jennifer because she had actually been a better daughter in law than she could have hoped for, lying for her husband to protect his reputation. [End of spoilers]

The trick to beat the expense is, I think, to find your local rental places, or join an online DVD rental club, or get a few others hooked and you each buy a couple and then share them around…I’ve done all three 🙂

Julie M:  Oh, yes, I forgot about [spoilers] the adopted illegitimate child. It seemed a minor plot point once the whole “he’s dying” thing came to the fore.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Saw Bunty aur Babli this evening. SO cute, and the music is fun. I could swear I had heard the “Kajra Re” song somewhere before–am I dreaming? Anyway, fun to see the Bachchan-Rai trio performing together. Thanks for the recommendation.

Jenny K: Yeah, I particularly like the “drunk” scene before “Kajira Re”, where BigB tells the story about his lost love…he’s hilarious, in that and in the “music video” at the end over the credits. I just love him.  No, you’re not crazy. “Kajira Re” was in that first list of my favorite videos that I gave you.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  OK, got Devdas out of the library (finally). I’ve only watched the first half–or I think it’s the first half, up to the point where Paro gets married and moves into her husband’s mansion, and Devdas wakes up to find that he’s been out for 2 days and Chandramukhi took care of him. I’m afraid it’s too much for me. The costumes are fabulous (it’s supposed to take place in the past, right–somewhere around the turn of the century? They have gaslight but not electricity, it seems, and the British are still in charge so it has to be pre-1947) and the songs make sense, but the drama is too drawn-out for my taste. I’ve peeked online so I know what happens–is it worth seeing the rest of the film?

Jenny K:  I see you agreed with my opinions on Devdas rather than Corliss’ ones. But you have to have seen it if you are making a “full study” of current Bollywood. Devdas, the character, just kills me… [Spoilers] You’d think that Paro would have liked him more if he realized his mistake, dusted himself off and made the most of his privileged life and made her proud of him. But no…the best he could do was do the prototypical monster mope of all time and drink himself to death in epic style.  Ooops…I should have said SPOILER! Sorry. But if you “peeked” maybe it isn’t a surprise.  If you don’t want to finish it, don’t. It affected me sort of like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary…what sheer waste of literary/filmic space wasting time on those egomaniacal losers. SRK is certainly cute, especially in his death scene…should one look cute in your death scene, is it appropriate? You could skip to that to glance at it, if you wanted. Definitely hit the Play All button on the songs menu and watch ’em. Great staging, great costumes, every one. I especially liked the “Chalak Chalak” number and the “Dola Re Dola” number is good, as I think I said before. Persevere…

Julie M:  I will skip the rest of Devdas as I still want to like SRK, but will play all the songs. The choreography, sets and costumes are just stunning.

Saw Hum Tum this weekend. Cute, kinda like When Harry met Sally without the deli scene. Did not buy the Karan character as a professional cartoonist (not enough personal discipline) but Saif Ali Khan was sweet in the role (just as sweet as he was in KHNH).

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