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 10: The Directors, Cut, or Not to Cut?

Jenny K:  Okay, as promised.  The directors list, based on what you’ve liked and not liked so far.  Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and these guys may throw you a quite atypical movie every so often, too. But here goes.

The weepy ones that you don’t like are usually by Karan Johar (warning signs, he always had multiple K’s in his titles, for Karan, I’d assume), Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra, his son. Probably won’t like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ( DDLJ) which is the first SRK/Kajol pairing and is considered a classic for that. I have problems with the amount of slapstick in the first half and the really overplayed fight scene near the end, but I like other bits of it quite a lot. Their chemistry is great and she’s lovely.  But they must have gotten something right, because it has been playing at the same theater in Mumbai, the Maratha Mandir, since the film opened, and hit its 800th week last February, still on the charts that week at Number 8! Really! Veer Zaara should probably be skipped, too. Lots of weeping in the framing story and much bad aging makeup and hair.

Large amounts of slapstick are usually found in the works of David Dawan and Priyadarshan. I avoid them almost completely except, occasionally when Akshaye Khanna is involved. He was in two for Priyadarshan that I actually liked Mere Baap Phele Aap, and one called Hulchul which, honest to God has the funniest wedding sequence in Indian movies…hilarious, mostly because of one actor Paresh Rawal who is perfection itself in almost every genre.  Huh, he’s in MBPA, too!

You’ve had mixed reactions to Sanjay Leela Bhansali who did Devdas (bleh) and Black (thumbs up). You might like, as I said before, Khamosh, the Musical and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and even Guzaarish which is his newest and has Hrithik in it, a remake of Whose Life is it Anyway? But probably should skip Saawariya which is supposed to be an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights, but gets very bogged down in its own atmosphere and blueness (Devdas was victim of too much redness, among other problems).

Ram Gopal Varma is their urban violence/gangsta director. Loves the seedy underbelly of city life. Some are good like Company that I sent you, others, mostly his most recent ones, I find highly missable. He also has one bright twinkly musical from early in his career, Rangeela, which I have a fondness for because Aamir does some wonderful acting and dancing in it, and for its Rahman score. It is a bit silly at times but the weepiness is confined to one scene that I remember, and Aamir is restrained about it. Touching. Let me know if I should send it in a future batch.

Vishal Bhardwaj seems to be becoming another gangland portrait artist, but he likes to draw from classical themes and so transcends mere thuginess.  He’s usually a safe bet for good ideas and interesting adaptations.  And GREAT music. Omkara, you’ve seen, Maqbool (a Macbeth adaptation) and The Blue Umbrella (a sweet, almost childhood fable) should be safe options.

Farhan Akhtar and his sister, Zoya Akhtar (Dil Chahta Hai and Luck by Chance) are almost a quality guarantee. They usually do things with a more modern emotional level.  Zoya has the new one coming out, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, that looks like a lot of fun.  Farhan produces films more now than directs, and acts a lot, too. For his acting, check out Rock On! (a sort of buddy film a la DCH with a “whatever happened to our band” format) which I quite liked and Karthik Calling Karthik (which slips only in the final scene for a good suspense film).

For films Farhan directed, most people like Don, a slick gangster film set in Malaysia, which has SRK in a dual role playing both hero and villain in a mostly convincing way. Boman’s in this one, too. BigB did the original Don, which most say was superior, though, again, his suits scare me. Farhan’s Lakshya is mixed for me. Good performances by Hrithik and Preity, better than Koi.. Mil Gaya (which HR & PZ did together, Farhan didn’t direct it), but the first and second half are very, very, very different, almost schizophrenic. Didn’t like part two much.  The dance number “Main Aisa Kyon Hoon”, coreographed by Prabhu Deva, is perfection, and almost makes up for the schizzyness.

Skip, Skip, Skip most of Subhash Ghai‘s films. Taal was a fluke. Pardes is the only one which has something to recommend, because SRK’s performance is good, but may be a bit too weepy for you. But he wears many a stupid outfit in it (aaak, that big white hat; ew, those overalls!)  and I’ve blocked most of it out. Skip Kisna, even with the splendid visuals a la Taal, Viveik looking pretty and tons of money thrown at it, it’s basically a boring film. Ghai’s early films are way way too old fashioned melodrama for you. You’d hate them.

Mani Ratnam (Dil Se, Yuva and Kannathil Muthamittal) as you’ve seen, I can’t get enough of his films. Own most of them…if they have subtitles. Tendency to use old formats and throw the odd unpleasantness in to spice things up for the Indian audiences to make them think, whether they want to or not. Likes explosions,  a lot.  Loves working with Rahman. Yay! They both are from the South, and he sometimes does versions in both Tamil and Hindi simultaneously. First Tier: The ones you have [Yuva and Kannathil Muthamittal] and Dil Se, also  Alai Payuthey(Waves), which is a more direct love story (remade, with his permission, with Rani and Viveik as Saathiya, but Waves is better) and Nayakan (or Vellu Nayakan) which is his tribute to The Godfather (tough but very good). Second Tier: Guru and Raavan(both with Little B and Aish), Bombay and Roja. Skip: Iruvar (Aish’s first film) for too much South Indian politics, that you have to know to get the full gist, and Thiruda Thiruda which is just too odd, even for me.

Aparna Sen, Konkona Sen Sharma’s mother. Much more of a serious issues director. Lot of films about women. Very influenced by the Bengali school of Satyajit Ray. I’ve liked almost everything I’ve seen. In chronological order, 36 Chowringee Lane, Paroma, Sati, House of Memories and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and 15 Park Avenue (both starring Konkona). Hardly a song and dance in them.

Rituparno Ghosh, “art film director” who is popular among filmfest circuits, I find rather pretentious and wouldn’t recommend anything except Raincoat which is a sort of tribute to O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, starring Aish and Ajay Devgan in rather quietly affecting mode. Flee Antarmahal with LittleB, like the plague. I’d suggest burning any copies you find, unless your library objects.

As to the older films, for the most part I skip the 70’s and the 80’s as they went completely disco for a while, though there are some exceptions. I find I like Hrishikesh Mukherjee (another Bengali) especially his film Abhimaan with BigB and his wife Jaya. Lovely quiet film and she almost acts him off the screen. Sorta kinda like A Star is Born. I like the 50’s and the 60’s more. Guru Dutt has a lovely, sort of dreamy style, especially in Pyaasa and Kagaz Ka Phool. Sort of sad, but transcendent.

Early Raj Kapoor is very nice, too, and you can see what western films he’s drawing from, in influence, not copying directly. A good time for exploration in Indian film. Awaara, his most famous, feels like Orson Welles in its cinematography, like he’d just finished watching Citizen Kane, and in Shree 420, he’s definitely pulling from Charlie Chaplin and maybe Douglas Fairbanks a bit. Indian films’ influences always seem about fifteen or so years behind the current vogue in Western films. But they always make their own “take” on them, and they are narrowing the gap quickly, closer each year.  I’m not sure I want them to “catch up” to international cinema.  Most of it isn’t a worthy role model these days.

Julie M:  WOW. Thanks!! I’ll have to run the lists through my library search facility and see if any are owned by the system.

I have to clarify that although overall I didn’t like Devdas, I didn’t hate the LOOK of Devdas. I loved the look and thought it was very beautiful, richly done and evocative. I thought the story was ridiculous, the melodrama over-the-top and the character of Devdas mewly (although SRK seemed to do a good job portraying it, at least in the first half, the only bit that I saw). But it was lovely and I would definitely see more by the same director if the look of the film is important and of high quality.

[a couple of days later]

Julie M:  Got Rang De Basanti from the library and, because I wanted something fun, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Saw JBJ this evening–funny and charming. Complete mindless enjoyment.

Jenny K:  I bought JBJ just for that number with Big B and the wig.  I had a feeling that BigB in that avatar could be the Father of Indian Flash Mobs if he put his mind to it.  I know I’d follow him 🙂

Howsoever, I didn’t like the film that much, though it wasn’t awful or anything. I have a problem with Bobby Deol. He’s handsome and all, but I like his “less handsome” older brother, Sunny, much better. Remind me to send you Border the next time. He’s not the sole focus, but it’s a good role for him. Their father, Dharmendra, was even more handsome. Dad did Sholay with BigB and it is sort of considered the classic Masala “Western”. Cons on the run kinda film. Was Amitabh’s first big break. I played it for my mom once and she made me fast forward through all the “ridiculous stuff” with the comic side characters, but “thought Amitabh had something”. You really couldn’t take your eyes off him, even though he wasn’t classically handsome.

[at this point Jenny tries yet again to tempt Julie into going to Vancouver, and fails…]

Jenny K:  Maybe the two of us could skip out of the Festival to one of the local Hindi cinemas on Saturday and go see something “crassly commercial” and not a bit “art house” like Hrithik and Farhan’s new movie that opens that weekend. Hmmm?

Come on, it was directed by Zoya Akhtar who did Luck By Chance, you liked that…[no response from Julie…I can sense she’s torn, but...] Oh, off the subject, sort of…I saw that they used  the “Baware” music from LBC on So You Think You Can Dance on Wednesday.

Julie M:  What…the circus number music was on Dance? I don’t watch that program, but under what circumstances does Bollywood music end up in an American reality show? Spill!!

Jenny K:  It’s primarily found a niche on SYTYCD, not reality shows in general. Some are nice enough, but some like the Baware number was rather weak, even though the main female dancer, Iveta, is a world champion in the ten main divisions of ballroom dance.  The songs are much too short and  usually only use two dancers, so they don’t really have a chance to duplicate the Bollywood experience.  I also think the choreographer is too influenced by Farah Khan, Saroj Khan and Vaibhavi Merchant to do anything particularly innovative on his own.  Check some out on Youtube.

Julie M:  I notice that most of the videos are from the British version–this makes sense because of the large Indian or Indian-heritage population there–but here it probably draws a big “huh?” from most of the viewing audience.

Jenny K:  Actually, most of the ones I saw were from the American version. Of course, I only looked at the top, say two pages of them. The among the ones I looked at from the US version were::
Nick and Iveta
Mollee and Nathan
Katee and Joshua
Caitlin and Jason
Kathryn and Jose
Kent and Lauren
Billy and Robert (in yellow!)
a group number set to Jhoom Bharabar Jhoom
And a girls group number to Dholna from Pyar Ke Geet

I’m sure you’re right that the London audience is much more familiar with it, but the American kids doing it has proved much more popular with our audiences than say the Russian folk dancing they tried… BO-ring…

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