Friday, March 30, 2007


Right off the start with an opening shot of a decrepit old film director entering the gates of his erstwhile studio while a giant statue towers over him, the pace is set for the strangely surreal shots and unconventional camerawork that inhabit the rest of Kaagaz Ke Phool. In many ways this opening scene is reminiscent of Citizen Kane, the 1948 Orson Wells classic that employed the concept of gigantism (if anyone remembers the camera panning the huge gateway to a gargantuan gloomy palace of the fallen from grace media moghul) to underline the insignificance of the personal and the mortal.

This liberal borrowing from a Hollywood classic was not at all unusual for the time. Hindi cinema had always looked to Hollywood for inspiration and technique. Also the fifties were a decade when Indian cinema was struggling to carve its own niche. A niche that, as the subsequent decades would show, stuck to storytelling in the old melodrama-musical format while borrowing heavily from Hollywood and Italian neorealism.

After decades of telling tales of gods and goddesses, kings and noblemen, the 50s saw Bollywood celluloid showcasing the struggles of the ordinary man; the Awaara, the 420, the Pyaasa, the Do bigha-owning peasant and the all sacrificing Mother (India). And in telling these new stories more effectively, cinema had to adopt to new modes of expressions and techniques; scenes had to be composed with more care and plots had to be restructured around the dance and music. Overall these led to major changes in filmaking styles from 30s and 40s. Guru Dutt, one of the leading filmmakers of the time, played a major role in this metamorphosis.

In an earlier film Pyaasa, the audience got the first glimpse of Dutt's experimentation with the plot and technique. In this unconventional story of a misunderstood poet, Dutt showed the poet's relation to fame, his romance with a nautch girl and his ultimate rejection of society as he walked away with the girl. For Hindi cinema, hitherto, given to Devdas-esque rejection of a prostitute, this treatment was refreshingly new. As was the depiction of the romance. For something that was quite centerstage to the story, the romance was underplayed. And yet it was very touching and endearing. Dutt had folk singers sing of Radha's yearning for Krishna, while Waheeda playing the prostitute Gulabo, looked on with a smile laced in melancholy.

In Kaagaz Ke Phool, the story of the fall of a film director, it wasn't the plot or characterization or the format alone that set it apart; Guru Dutt also made major technical improvisations. These would be easily obvious even to a less discerning eye especially in the picturization of the songs.

Technically there was a lot going for Kaagaz.... For starters, it was the first film in India to be shot in cinemascope. Then, there was V. K Murthy in whose hands the camera and stock came to life (1). And nowhere was this more evident than the Waqt Ne Kiya picturization. Here, with Murthy at the camera, and S.D Burman's music blending with Kaifi Azmi's lyrics while Geeta Dutt poured molten gold over the soundtrack, was born the rarest and most beautifully shot song sequence of Hindi cinema. It was another matter that an equally complex tale was being played out in real life too, as husband Guru Dutt was using Geeta Dutt's mellifluous voice to woo the beautiful Waheeda with the song.

This has often been called the beam effect scene; the shaft of light that served to light Waheeda's face also served to signify the passage of time, dim and disappear as it did with the protagonist's exit from the scene.

For a film that had so much going for it, Kaagaz...'s characters were not very well sketched out. And that was perhaps the film's greatest drawback. Dutt is said to have realized this later and accepted that while it was brilliant in parts there were reels where the screenplay dragged or was irrevelant.

In the story with had autobiographical shades, the protagonist film director Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt) is estranged from his wife and child. Sinha meets a young lady Shanti (played by Waheeda Rehman) on a rainy night and parts with his coat since she is wet and cold and poor as well (sardi zukaam muft mein milte hai par garam coat ke liye paisa lagta hai). Shanti comes to his studio to return the coat, and inadvertently walks into a scene being shot; the director upon seeing the rushes is convinced of her histrionic abilites and persuades her to enter filmdom. Gradually a romance develops between the middle aged director and young Shanti. When this features in gossip magazines, the director's daughter implores Shanti to leave her father. Which she does. But in the legal battle for his daughter's custody director Sinha loses to his wife. From then on Suresh Sinha's life takes a downward spiral, his films flop and he takes to drink. Shanti pleads with him to make a comeback with her (she is still a popular star) in a new film but his pride comes in the way. At the end of his life he becomes a loner, an impoverished man, working as an extra and living a vagabond existence.

And yet in his fall and in the ignominy of his defeat, there is a grace and a ethereal quality, that never quite allows the viewer to wallow in his sorrow or proclaim him a failure.

1 Talking about V. K Murthy's camerawork, one can never forget the playful light and dark oscillations between the dancers and their shadows intersecting with the pillars casting their long shadows, in Sahib Biwi Ghulam's "Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nehi aayegi", another classic song picturization of Bollywood.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Your Excellency,
The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers- possibly congratulating themselves for imparting what they imagine as salutary lessons. This callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers, which have in some cases gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority, relentlessly careful in something every cry of pain of judgment from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is building the noble vision of statesmanship in out Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous, as befitting its physical strength and normal tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance , are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings. And these are the reasons which have compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.
Yours faithfully,
6, Dwarakanath Tagore Lane,
May 30, 1919

Check out this documentary by Satyajit Ray.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

NAYA DAUR (1957)

During the first national elections in the early fifties as crowds cheered Nehru with Pandit Nehru Zindabad, he would stop them and urge them to say Naya Hindustan Zindabad instead. In tune with the times, it is this Naya Hindustan that formed the backdrop of many of the 50s and 60s films. The Nehruvian march toward modernity, with mega iron-steel plants and huge dams would come at a huge human cost as the new technology temples of modern India came up on agricultural lands and replaced the labor force with machines. Indian cinema reflected these trends; while Do Bigha Zamin showed the plight of those dispossessed of their agricultural land, Naya Daur's premise was the struggle of human labor against the onslaught of mechanization.

And yet Naya Daur does not pit man against machine or the haves against the have-nots. Indeed, it does not pit anyone against the other (at least ideologically it doesn't). As the protagonist Shankar (played by Dilip Kumar) says to the mill owner "garib ko to bus do waqat ki roti chahiye" and "apki jeb bhi bharti rahe aur gareebon ka pet bhi." And later "humko machine se koi bair nehi." In short, take the middle path. Keep both man and machine. Above all don't upset the apple cart.

That is not to say that the struggle that forms the plot of the film is irrelevant. Far from it. Naya Daur was probably one of the earliest films that juxtaposed class struggle with mechanization and modernization. That in the march toward progress, benefits from technology would be reaped by the few who could afford it in the first place. The mill owner of Naya Daur for instance.

Over the decades this theme would be taken up by Indian filmmakers, but the best works generally emerged from the world of parallel cinema. A classic film of this genre is Jahnu Barua's Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (it's a long way to the sea) where an old boatman loses his livelihood when a bridge is built over the river on which he ferries passengers. The talented Barua tackled the subject with immense sensitivity. In the real world many ways of life do go extinct, and Barua did not falter to show the poignancy of the situation.

But Bollywood caters to a more varied taste!

Back to Naya Daur. The film is set in a basti where folks are in complete harmony with the benign landlord, a bespectacled bearded Nasir Hussain in dhoti and chadar, who doubles as a father figure to his subjects. These men are either employed in benign patriarch's mill or drive tongas for a living. No biradaris, unch-nich or jaat-paat. The people eat together, play together, even pray together. The basti thus becomes the microcosm for the Naya Hindustan.

In celebration of the pan Indian ethos running throughout the film, Vyjayanthimala can wear a half saree or thaavani and dance the bhangra. The dress code is a bit strict in the men's apparel section as the rural folks wear dhoti irrespective of their position and wealth, and the city bred are suited booted. But pro-progress suited booted is not necessarily anti-people. So as a foil to the patriarch's son Kundan (played by Jeevan) who swears by progress-via-machines, there is the city journalist Johnnie Walker. If Mr. Journo's appearance and English khitpit does not bother the bastiwalas it is because his dedication to their cause comes as a part of the package.

The idyllic life in the basti gets a jolt as the landlord's city bred son takes over the reins of the fiefdom. Obsessed with making more profits, he mechanizes his mills and fires his workers. He even gets a bus to drive passengers around, thus putting the tongas out of business. Challenged to a bus vs tonga race from the station to the temple, Shankar, the leader of the tongawalahs accepts and together with his people builds a short road with a bridge to the temple to win the race. Through all this he has the support of his lady love Vyjayanthimala, who not only lifts the first pail of mud on her head but also puts her own life on line and throws away the stick of dynamite that was intended to destroy the bridge.

But it was funny to see the lady's delicate hands (manicured nails, beautifully designed bangles et al) pick a bucket of shoveled earth and balance it on her dainty head.

Being part of mainstream cinema there is obviously no room to address the complexities and conflicts of class and modernization. It would be interestingly to see how these hierarchies intersect. Although the villagers are not the silent suffering types and do rise to the challenge, it is only inasmuch as their livelihood is at stake. Unfortunately an understanding of their collective power dawning on them is never explored. I know this is no place for comparisons but one is reminded of the Naseer character in the last scene of Manthan, where he gleeful proclaims "sosoty aapni hai" (the cooperative society belongs to us); this after realizing that the cooperative society belonged to him and others and not to the shahari babus.

No such fate awaits the bastiwalahs here. Nowhere is their love for status quo more evident as when the statue of a goddess (Maa to the villagers) is found buried in the road construction path. For all the talk of a new order, the villagers fear a curse and change the course of the road. Shankar does protest but the elders prevail. So much for the Naya order!!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

AFSANA (1951)

It was while searching for Ashok Kumar starrers that I stumbled upon this oldie. But a few reels into the movie and the plot began to look vaguely familiar. Now a 1951 film can be a lift off from an older work, but my chances of having seen that original would be pretty remote. As things stand, my ten digits are sufficient to keep track of all the 50s films I've seen. For pre-50s, an ape hand would suffice.

If it wasn't an earlier version could it be a later one. It was, as I soon remembered.

Two decades after its release, Afsana went the way of many Bollywood films, that is to say it was recycled or remade. Called Dastaan in its new avatar, it, unlike other remakes, kept the plot and scenes almost unchanged. The new name, too, was a mere word play on the older one. Afsana, a Urdu word means a tale or a story as does Dastaan. The deja vu I felt was on account of having seen the remake many years ago.

Watching an original and a remake offer a marvelous opportunity to see first hand, the changes in styles of acting and film making in the intervening years. This is especially true if much has happened in those years that have shaped the entertainment industry. A peek at the Devdas series from Pramathesh Barua to SRK via Dilip Kumar can articulate the story of a voyage in film making better than any tomes on the history of the celluloid ever could.

Hindi Cinema of the early 50s carried many elements of the earlier decades. And Afsana was no exception. First, there was extreme awkwardness in all matters related to any emotion. Also the 30s and 40s had made it almost mandatory for the lead pair to look extremely uncomfortable with each other. This translated to zilch chemistry. Obviously there wasn't too much romance and passion on display; but even when there were such moments, the dialogues stumbled out of the actors' mouths as though the sole purpose of their existence was to be gurgled off at the first opportune moment. A fine example of this would be our own Dadamoni, Ashok Kumar singing Mein baan Ki Chiriya to Devika Rani in Achyut Kanya while both dangled from the branch of a tree.

And yet, decades later the same actor showed his fine mettle in an array of films. Whether he played the husband in the romance triangle of Gumrah, or the father in Mili or the aging grandfather in Satyakam, Ashok Kumar could always be depended upon to give a splendid performance.

Aside from the lead actor, the female counterparts in Afsana were endowed with a liberal dash of histrionic incapability. Then, came the bane of the 40s. The nasal tone. Watching this combination today, it is hard not to be amused by the scenes that were meant to be melancholic. When the small boy who grows to be Ashok Kumar is lost in a mela, or when he grows up to find his wife cheating on him; situations that could cull some empathy from the audience then, can merely garner a chuckle now.

In contrast to the gawkiness in acting, the fashion sense was fairly good. This is especially true of the women who, thanks to the styles of the day, were bequeathed with a timeless ageless look (if anyone's seen pics of Maharani Gayatri Devi of the 1930s, you'll get what I mean). In Afsana, both heroines wore short styled hair, exquisite jewelery, well cut clothes; an ensemble that wouldn't be out of place even today. This, however, is not surprising, as the trend for style in Indian cinema goes back earlier. As early as late 1930s, when Himangshu Rai had cast women in unconventional roles that demanded well cut and designed dresses with stylish accessories that were far beyond the times.

Cut to the story. Twin brothers (played by Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar double roles in the original and remake respectively) get separated in childhood in a mela. The twins have a friend in a small girl (played by child artiste Tabassum) who in a precocious form of Sati Savitri-esque is devoted to one of the twins. To make recognition easier, there is the birth mark on only one of the brothers. The lost twin ends up as a judge (he has also lost his memory in the meantime so he doesn't know where he comes from and who is pining for him) while the twin at home is a rich businessman. Tabassum grows up to be the actress Veena (Sharmila Tagore in the remake), singing and playing melancholic music for her lost love (lost twin) while the twin at home nurses a soft corner for her. Fates change and the lost twin and the pining girl get to meet whereupon she recognizes him from his birth mark. Songs and tears later, amnesia finally leaves him but there is still the business of sorting out his other life where he has a wife. To make matters easy this is an unfaithful wife who is cheating behind his back with a friend. Eventually justice is served and the good twin gets the pining girl.

Two decades later (decades that had seen more realistic acting, more melodrama, better camera work), the remake fares better than the original. For one, there is visible chemistry between the lead pair, Dilip Kumar and Sharmila. The pace is faster, the fight sequences are well shot and the sets are more convincing without the cardboard moons for the lovers to serenade. Taking advantage of all the realism (!!) Sharmila and Dilip Kumar actually do a good job of pretending to be in love and have some human rather than wooden moments. Obviously there is some excess in every department, so an overabundance of tears ensues with sudden bursts of music to underscore the high points of melodrama, just in case you miss it.