December 1, 2011: A Suitable Boy suits me fine

I just spent the last month reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, 1400+ pages long, ten years in its writing and finally published in 1993.  I selected it because a) although not an award-winner it’s an English language classic  b) I love epic novels and c) it’s about India.  As a piece of literature it is unparalleled for both its scope and characterizations, and for Bollywood addicts it will seem both familiar and highly explanatory.  A novel like this can provide insights into culturally-driven motivations that no film, even the most melodramatic ones, could handle.  I simply adored it.

The time period is 1951-52 and the setting is (primarily) the fictional state of Purva Pradesh, in the the fictional city of Brahmpur, a large university town along the Ganges that seems to be a couple of days’ train ride to both Lucknow and the “big city” of Calcutta.  The story centers on three extended and interrelated upper-middle-class families–the Mehras, the Kapoors and the Chatterjis–and their friends, the family of the Nawab of Baitar (the Khans).  Every character in every family, as well as several of their friends, acquaintances and bosses, gets a narrative arc.  Some of the tales are poignant, such as feckless and citified Maan Kapoor’s sojourn in a rural village where he learns some key life lessons, and a tragedy that befalls a young character during a religious festival.  Some are joyful–I loved the story of Savita Mehra Kapoor’s pregnancy and birth experience.  And, frankly, some of the narratives, particularly those discussing finance, verge on boring.   Seth even inserts himself, as a character writing a very long and meandering novel.

Although the thread tying the novel together is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable boy for her youngest child, Lata, to marry, it

Author Vikram Seth

actually ranges very widely from city to rural village, from politics to academia to industry, to religion and cultural customs, to fashion and movies and literature and food and gardening and law enforcement and astrology and…you get the picture.  In fact, I can’t think of anything that isn’t addressed in some form in the novel.  Love, or rather, marriage, is the book’s central theme, with Lata accumulating no less than three suitors and proposals and trenchantly observing several other marriages for clues as to which choice will be best for the life which she intends to lead.  (interestingly–the choice of no-choice does not occur to her despite several unmarried-woman role models)  Who will she choose?  Will it be Amit Chatterji, the published writer ten years her senior but with whom she has so much in common?  Or will her mother’s preference prevail–the up-and-coming shoe executive Haresh Khanna who has not a few personality flaws?  Or will Lata follow her heart and marry Kabir Durrani, a fellow college student who is the one boy her family has deemed completely off-limits to her because of his religion?

Calcutta, c. 1950

Even though translating this novel to the silver screen would be absolutely impossible, I could see it done on television as a mini-series.  In fact, it was released as an episodic, five-hour  BBC radio play in 2002 with some actors Bollywood fans might recognize:  Boman Irani, Roshan Seth, Rahul Bose and Ayesha Dharkar.

But as a novel it’s as entertaining and diverting as Bollywood’s best.  Described by most readers as “Jane Austen meets Tolstoy,” A Suitable Boy will likely excite devotees of the Yash Raj imprimateur, stuffed as it is with cultural mores, wicked characterizations (Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra is hilarious in her social-climbing vacuousness, a perfect match for her husband Arun Mehra’s Anglified snob), oh-no-she-didn’t gossip, affairs, secret identities and several instances of unrequited love (some of them hideously tragic) before the inevitable happy ending.  There are even song interludes–or rather, poetry interludes that serve the same purpose as filmi songs.  One can have a great deal of fun casting the novel as a film from among current stars, and in fact I would encourage it to make the book come even more alive.  There is even a bit of film fandom:  the characters are obsessed with the current film release, the Nargis/Dilip Kumar starrer Deedar, which has been showing to packed audiences for months and its songs are on everyone’s lips.  This movie is described in the novel as being so emotional that it makes grown men sob uncontrollably, and has “…an unusually tragic ending, but one which did not make one wish to tear the screen apart or set fire to the theater.”  In fact, it is so popular that the ticket-buying queue retaliates on an annoying woman by blurting out the ending, spoiling it for her.   In short–it’s the perfect movie. (watch it online free here, unfortunately without subtitles)

And for those who completely fall in love with A Suitable Boy and want more, rest assured that Seth is working on a sequel called A Suitable Girl, set in modern-day India and nominally concerned with 80-year-old Lata’s search for a match for her grandson.  Even though it’s set to publish in 2013, look for it in…oh…2020 or so.  (I’m so mean)

Calcutta beauties, c. 1950

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!

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