Friday, July 27, 2012

SHOLAY: Endings

Sholay, Amitabh Bachchan
I hadn’t seen Sholay for about three years when a group of us watched it again last Saturday night. In 2009, I watched with a slightly skeptical audience who seemed to expect India’s most famous film to solidify their impression of Bollywood (“It’s very long, isn’t it?” was the most repeated comment). And I was ready for a few draggy bits on this re-viewing.

But there really aren’t many (well, apart from the jailer scenes—and there I may have been influenced by an even earlier showing during which my Ohioan father-in-law just couldn’t handle a side of over-the-top comedy with his brutal western). From the horseback bandits’ attack on the train to the massacre of the Thakur’s family, from Jai and Veeru’s bravado to Gabbar’s “kitne admi” scene, from Basanti’s blither to Radha’s silence, everything about this film—the story, the characters, the landscape, the actors, the angles, the stunts, the songs—seems to have been touched by genius. By the end my emotions had undergone some serious dhishoom-dhishoom.

So how did it end?

Sanjeev Kumar, Sholay
PTSD Thakur Baldev Singh
For several years I’ve always chosen the Sippys’ original ending, the one the censors didn’t want audiences to see, in which the armless Thakur kills Gabbar after whupping him mercilessly with those iron-spiked shoes. But after re-watching the censor-imposed ending, I was moved by the police officer’s appeal to the Thakur’s reputation as an honorable cop. I appreciated the film’s call to look beyond our collective lust for vengeance, to acknowledge the Thakur’s loss without approving his taking the law into his own hands sidestepping of the law. How refreshing to think that doing the right thing might mean not doing what Gabbar himself would do if, uh, the shoe were on the other foot. I think I'll stick with this ending from now on.

And for my oldest friend, Brenda, who died this week after a terrible illness, here's "Yeh Dosti." I'm pretty sure she never stole a motorcycle--but knowing her made my life much richer anyway. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

SESH SANGHAT: Not Exactly Ageless

sesh sanghat, shesh sanghat, jaya prada, jayapradha
Still attractive, but SO not 23.

The next time someone tries to tell me how superior Bengali cinema is to mainstream Hindi cinema, I will say two words: Sesh Sanghat.

This film left me with one burning question: Who decided to cast Jaya Prada (who by my calculations was 47 at the time of the film’s release) as a 23-year-old? My guess is that the simple answer is this: Jaya Prada produced the film. 

The story of the young village girl, Raji, might have been effective if handled differently. She is singled out to work in evil Ramanuj Pratap’s household because he develops designs on her when he spots her while he's driving around in his luxe car. The young actress who plays Raji at age 15 is believable, and the dynamic among the women in the household--the aging, infertile first wife, the second "wife" who also arrived as a maid at 15 and bore the zamindar's child, and the helpless new arrival--is intriguing enough to support a film of its own. But that's not what this film is about. 

Raji is raped by the zamindar and becomes pregnant, runs away to her parents' house to have the baby, comes with her whole family to confront Ramanuj, and ends up attacked in the jungle and left for dead by the zamindar's thugs. A couple find her and bring her to their home to recuperate. But then the young actress's part is finished, and we flash forward a bit to see Raji as Jaya Prada. I thought, “Wow, interesting choice to focus on this character as a considerably older woman—not what I expected.” But then I realized that only seven years had passed and that the character is supposed to be a young adult, not a middle-aged woman. Every man who lays eyes on her asks for her hand in marriage. Not to be ageist—would that it were true that 47-year-old women were the standard of desirability! But this clunky casting made it hard to buy anything that happened thereafter.

Ashish Vidyarthi, Jaya Prada
Will no one stop him?
And then there's the bad guy--and the men who not only don't step up but are often actively complicit in the abuse. I certainly do recognize that there are men like Ramanuj (Ashish Vidyarthi, the gangster from Is Raat ki Subah Nahin) who think of women as less than human. (And can I just say that a Google search to jog my memory of Bollywood films with similar storylines resulted in way too many hits with the descriptor "HOT + SEXY," ewww ewwww EWWWWWW.) But when Raji meets Ramanuj again after that seven-year gap, the whole male population of the village where this woman has lived for years just stands around laughing as Ramanuj beats her, strips her naked, pours gasoline on her, and prepares to burn her alive. Nobody objects to or even looks unamused by this? Say it ain’t so. 

Immediately after the attempted involuntary sati, the rebel leader who sees Raji being dragged off by two armed men tells her, the way you do, that she has hands and that if she can't free herself, she deserves to die. The music swells so that you know Raji's summoning her inner Schwarzenegger; she flexes her arms in slow-mo, and with one thwaaannng the thugs gripping her go flying off in opposite directions. Ohh-kayyyy. We've moved into a whole different movie.

Not a reflection on Jaya Prada personally; it would be a major stretch for any actress to go from village belle to action star to revolutionary leader. She has said that this film was her "gift to the people of Bengal." It's difficult to imagine the occasion for which such a gift would be appropriate....

Jaya Prada, Jayapradha
Action-figure Jaya Prada.
Jackie Shroff doesn’t fare terribly well either, looking more like a Madame Tussaud’s version of himself with every film. But at least he isn’t running around the jungle wielding a machine gun in dressy heels, struggling visibly to do the physical work needed to bust out of jail (we see Jaya for a painfully long period ostensibly doing a hand-over-hand haul up a knotted rope, clearly not getting anywhere, as her fellow Naxalites politely try to help her over the wall). And at least Jackie isn’t taking repeated tentative nibbles at a hand-grenade pin as if afraid of chipping a tooth, as Jaya does in another scene that looks as if it’s a first take she expected to end up on the cutting-room floor. (It didn’t.) 

So what on earth was director Ashoke Viswanathan thinking in including those clumsy shots? Was he unaware of (or indifferent to) the fact that including them makes both director and star look bad? Probably, since these are but two of the many clunky action scenes--with and without Jaya--that bring the excitement to a halt and have the peculiar effect of focusing our attention on how unbelievable it all is.

I can’t address the political questions to which the film alludes other than to wonder why we’re supposed to be aghast at some casual atrocities and supportive of others (the last thing we see of Ramanuj—admittedly a very bad man—is the villagers preparing to burn him alive as he slowly strangles from a tree limb, which strikes me as a sign that the justice system is not working with optimal effectiveness). I agree that it's not right for one man to have final say over the lives of dozens of villagers, or complete control over mineral-rich land that provides subsistence to those people. I agree that corrupt politicians and police officers are bad for everyone. I also object to beating children to death (which happens in Sesh Sanghat) and to being mean to puppies (which fortunately doesn't). 

Oddly, I can find no mention of this title on the IMDb at all—not in Jaya Prada’s entries, not in Jackie Shroff’s, not in Ashish Vidyarthi’s, not in Ashoke Viswanathan’s. Hmmm. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing. I’m sure I must have dreamed the scene in which Ramanuj is relaxing at home reading a magazine called Women’s Era.

On the plus side, Bappi Lahiri’s music is decent, and there’s an item number with some enjoyable faux-tribal dancing around a giant drum. But if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re better off sticking with Chandralekha. Let me save you the trouble and just point you toward this fine number that doesn't pretend to be anything other than sixty-odd years old.

Friday, July 13, 2012

JAI SANTOSHI MAA: Satisfaction

Jai Santoshi Maa
Box art: These are the keeper stills?
You don’t have to be a believer to fall for Jai Santoshi Maa, the low-budget mythological epic that held its own at the box office in 1975 during the reign of Sholay. Anyone who has ever felt like a persecuted underdog can relate to the story. Trapped in a house full of spiteful relations who treat you like a servant? Well, perhaps some personal attention from a magical beyond can convince you that life is pretty good after all. It worked for Harry Potter.

Of course, Harry has tangible evidence of that magical beyond starting at the age of eleven. But Satyawati, our heroine and the true believer of Jai Santoshi Maa, has nothing but her unshakeable faith that the goddess Santoshi will solve her problems if Satyawati worships with sufficient devotion.

You can probably see where this is going. Obviously, in order for Santoshi to reward Satyawati in the most satisfying possible manner, Satyawati must first suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—the more outrageous the better.

Jai Santoshi Maa takes place simultaneously in heaven among the Hindu gods and on earth in a timeless, filmi version of India. In heaven, Santoshi is the wished-for sister conjured up by Ganesha’s sons; on earth, the motherless Satyawati (Kanan Kaushal) ardently worships the goddess. First Satyawati wishes for a husband, and she falls for the handsome flute-playing Birju (Ashish Kumar) when she meets him once in passing. When he is summoned to play and sing at a temple ceremony honoring Santoshi, she sees that Birju is truly the man for her.

He admires her from afar. But on the way home from the ceremony, Satyawati is jumped by a dreadful dacoit and his leering gang (in a very creepy scene that drives home what life must be like for many a rural Indian girl whose back isn't being omnisciently watched). Birju saves her in the nick of time, and then it’s clear to both of them that they have already spent many lifetimes together.

Bela Bose, Jai Santoshi Maa
Bela Bose is up to something.
In short order Satyawati and Birju are married. Obviously, all can’t continue to go smoothly—if it did, would there be a movie? The troubles come when the other sisters-in-law begin to dump all over both Birju (who wants to play music, not work in the fields) and Satyawati. The leading evil bhabhi is played by the addictively enjoyable Bela Bose, a dancer with a fabulously expressive face who does one of the best sneer-hmmph! combinations I’ve ever seen. (And apparently she had a long career, hooray! Perhaps there is a god after all….) The women laugh at Birju! They want him to earn a living! They feed him… gasp… leftovers!

leftovers, Ashish Kumar, Jai Santoshi Maa
Meanwhile, in heaven, the Big Three goddesses Laxmi, Durga, and Brahmini become jealous of the attention Santoshi is getting from Satyawati. They determine to make Satyawati’s life perfectly miserable and force her to renounce her devotion to Santoshi. To that end, the goddesses ensure that the sisters-in-law drive Birju out of the house (by means of the aforementioned leftovers, which suggests that I’ve been shockingly insulted over and over again since childhood without knowing it), then raise a storm that nearly drowns him as he travels around looking for work, then give him amnesia so that he forgets Satyawati—waiting patiently at home enduring terrible abuse and poverty—and starts to fall for another woman.

You’d think that Santoshi might take up arms against Satywati’s sea of troubles somewhat earlier in the game since the goddess is herself the object of jealousy and derision in heaven. It’s as if the devi and her devotee were new girls in parallel high schools populated by mean girls, and we wait—as in life—for the cruel ones to get their richly deserved comeuppance. But the goddess bides her time, and so things go from bad to worse for her loyal follower. Finally, Satyawati, whose long fasts have given her raccoon eyes like an Edward Gorey flapper, is so downtrodden that she can’t even buy the grams and jaggery necessary for her final Santoshi puja. Santoshi comes to earth in the guise of an old woman (clang! go the cymbals as she is edited abruptly into the scene) and presents weeping, starving Satyawati with the offering.

The film isn’t finished with us yet, even though Birju returns (now rich, having learned the jeweler’s trade and apparently forgotten his wish to be a musician) and Satyawati becomes the luxuriously dressed wife of a prosperous independent household. The mean-goddess triumvirate and the odious bhabhis—now jealous of Satyawati’s good fortune, because it’s always something—are still hoping to get the last word. They get their chance when Satyawati invites everyone to a big celebration in honor of Santoshi. (Check out Bela Bose here, pretending she’s joining in wholeheartedly—but noooo!)

Bela Bose and her henchwoman sneak off and squeeze limes into the food (a no-no for a Santoshi puja, apparently), which causes all the children eating at the festival to drop dead (!!!). The families blame Satyawati—her anger at her mistreatment, they claim, caused her to poison the children of her former tormentors—and things look blacker than ever before in Satyawati’s gloomy life until FINALLY Santoshi puts in a personal appearance, resurrects the dead kids, makes the guilty bhabhis confess, and sets the throng of onlookers cheering her power and her devotee’s spotless perfection. In heaven, the mean goddesses apologize for their misdeeds. All is again right with the world.

Jai Santoshi Maa, It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart
Can't get no satisfaction.
How appropriate that Santoshi means “satisfaction.” My goodness, who wouldn’t find it satisfying to see physical proof of the deity’s existence and the smiting of a bunch of baddies all rolled up in one? As when Clarence the bumbling angel saves George Bailey* from his Christmas Eve plunge into the river in Bedford Falls, we root for the heavens to pay attention and the good to be rewarded, however unlikely the prospect seems in the face of so much opposition. Hello, you beautiful old Savings and Loan! Goodbye, Potterville! (Not you, Harry. Different Mr. Potter.)

It’s said that Santoshi was but a minor goddess before this film stormed the box office, but fans (many of them women who presumably found that this story spoke to them in ways that Sholay and Deewaar didn’t) treated the theaters as temples and bowed before the onscreen goddess, which was enough to move her to a more important place in the pantheon. I love when religion bends to the will of humans instead of the other way around.

As Real as the Velveteen Rabbit.
*Or if we’re definitely talking magic and not religion, we might note similarities with another great Jimmy Stewart movie, in which we are exceedingly gratified to learn that Ellwood P. Dowd isn’t just imagining that an invisible giant rabbit has chosen to be his friend. Harvey or Hagrid, Clarence Odbody or Santoshi Maa—I don’t have to believe any of them are real for them to bring me great joy and satisfaction. Ahhh.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Nirmal Pandey, Ashish Vidyarthi
In the past couple of weeks I’ve watched several films about the Mumbai underworld that I had never heard of before: Waisa Bhi Hota Hai (about which much more here), Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, and now Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996).

The three films all share a kind of tonal dissonance that sometimes works (i.e., Waisa Bhi’s scary yet endearing Gangu Tai and Vishnu) and sometimes doesn’t. RGV’s Shiva, for instance, suffers from incomprehensible casting: there’s the more or less realistic Shiva (Mohit Ahlawat), who struck me as believably upright, even when smiting a cafĂ© full of baddies Amitabh-style, but as far less believably in love with Nisha Kothari, about whose lip-quivering impersonation of every feeling—desire, fear, righteous indignation—the less said the better. And then there’s the cartoonish don-turned-politician Bappu (Upendra Limaye), who seems to have been plucked up, like Dorothy in the tornado, from an altogether different movie.

Sudhir Mishra, the director of Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (“Tonight There Will Be No Morning”) and a star and co-creator of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,  has a cast full of intriguing actors. Nirmal Pandey, who was very likeable as the only man worthy of Phoolan Devi’s love in Bandit Queen, is the antihero Aditya; I admit that had I been doing the hair and makeup I would have toned down the Fabio impression, but the long-haired-yet-buttoned-down look he sports here works for the cheating ad man that Aditya turns out to be. The other lead, the conflicted don Ramanbhai, is Ashish Vidyarthi, who was affecting as the mute Ratan in Naajayaz, another film featuring a regretful gangster; here is the excellent song "Barsaat Ke Mausam Mein" from that film, in which Ashish Vidyarthi is seen holding the umbrella over Naseeruddin Shah’s head:

Like Waisa Bhi Hota Hai, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin has as its ostensible hero a temporarily homeless advertising exec whose chance encounter with the underworld results in a life-changing experience. Aditya has been booted out of his apartment by his wife, Pooja (Tara Deshpande), who has just discovered his affair with the singer played by Smriti Mishra (who was also the young Sardari Begum the same year). Aditya is monopolizing the phone at a bar by repeatedly calling Pooja to explain himself—she keeps hanging up—when he becomes irritated that a young hothead is interrupting him, wanting to make a call.* The angry youngster turns out to be Chhotu, the youngest member of kingpin Ramanbhai’s gang (and Raman’s little sister’s boyfriend), and when Raman steps in to stop the boy from fighting with Aditya, Raman himself intercepts the tight slap that Aditya has intended for Chhotu.

Ashish Vidyarthi
I didn't say nice, I said honorable.
By this point in the film we already know that Raman is reasonably honorable, as kingpins go; he’s a man who values hard work and treats his gang like family (with the good and bad that that implies). We’ve watched him take the time for a heart-to-heart with his right-hand man Vilas (Saurabh Shukla)—whose supposed disloyalty Raman had planned to punish with death—and we know that as a result of Raman's patience, he has learned that Vilas remains true and can be spared. We know, too, that Chhotu, in a panic, has accidentally killed Vilas’s wife, turning Vilas’s imagined disloyalty into the real thing. Raman regrets the killing and the loss of his brotherly relationship with Vilas. But Chhotu is family, too, and Raman stands by him.

And we get the sense that Ramanbhai would agree that Chhotu could use a little smackdown. In fact, it seems that Raman would laugh off Aditya’s slap—an insult clearly intended for someone else—were it not for the fact that another kingpen’s henchmen are also in the bar, watching the events and waiting for Raman to respond with vigor. (Does anyone ever apologize for misdirected slap-administration? Just wondering.) So instead Raman has to uphold his honor conspicuously—and that means that Aditya must now become his target.

As the title implies, the film takes place over the course of a single night. During the eventful hours of darkness, Vilas will stalk Raman, accompanied by a stranger unhinged by a wife’s suicide; Raman and his men will stalk Aditya and his upset wife all over Mumbai; Aditya will try to protect Pooja, which means asking the mistress to house the wife for a few hours and also breaking the mistress’s heart; and a corrupt police inspector will stalk all the gangsters while taking bribes from them on the side.

Good guys?
Meanwhile,  the gangsters envy the “tip-top” material goods of middle-class office workers like Aditya and his boss, knowing that they will never have such luxury. Aditya, on the other hand, has everything—a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, a beautiful wife, money—but he lies and cheats, and heartbreak is clearly in store for one or both of the women in his life. He’s not making a living from smuggling, but he’s not exactly a role model.

A climactic encounter in a trainyard squares Ramanbhai against Aditya, and the film seems to leave somewhat open the question of which is the more honorable man--or perhaps just the less dishonorable one. But the final wrapup surprised me by suggesting that we’d known who to root for all along. Or perhaps Sudhir Mishra is simply saying that we’ve known all along what sort of person must win when old-school gangsters face off against modern ad executives.

Either way, there are probably more questions than answers left at the end. And the film closes with the same question that it opens with: “What is life?” As the lyrics tell us, nobody knows, and anyone who finds the answer regrets it.

*I couldn’t help thinking that in just a couple of years, Aditya would have a mobile phone, eliminating this plot point for good and all. Then again, cell phones don’t necessarily mean an end to trouble with gangsters--or with girls named Pooja. Just ask these guys.