Wednesday, July 31, 2013

DUSHMAN: Breaking Good

Rajesh Khanna was so widely known as the "first superstar" of Indian film that this designation appeared in most of his obituaries when he died last year. It's also widely known (if not admitted by his Wikipedia entry) that Amitabh Bachchan's stardom eclipsed Rajesh Khanna's after a few years, and I confess that I find that unsurprising--Amitabh's mid-1970s films remain among my favorites, whereas I often find myself a bit less excited about a film once I see Rajesh Khanna's face on the box.

Maybe it's because I had already fallen for Amitabh's Vijay persona before I encountered Rajesh Khanna for the first time, and then--like the Indian public in the 1970s--I couldn't go back. Or maybe it's chemistry: Rajesh Khanna, aka "Kaka," and I just don't click. Amitabh himself may have been won over by the title character's irrepressible sunniness in Anand, but I was not. (Maybe this is one of those Jerry-Lewis-and-the-French issues; my completely unscientific study of U.S. non-Indian Bollywood fans reveals that few feel much in the way of Kaka-thusiasm.)

But a friend assured me that Dushman would offer superhit music and a "good social message," which I am totally, unironically predisposed to love--so here I am, writing about a Rajesh Khanna movie from the Superstar period before that upstart Amitabh got all the acclaim.

I do find Rajesh Khanna more appealing when he is not exhibiting his heart of gold-slash-love of life. At the beginning of Dushman, his character, Surjit Singh, is a truck driver stopping to get drunk with a nautch girl somewhere along the route. This initial song shows Kaka at his most cynical--which is, IMHO, far preferable to goopy nice-guy Rajesh Khanna--saying unflattering things to Bindu* as the truck-stop dancer:

Seldom have I seen such a matter-of-fact, if fully-clothed, one-night-stand in an older Indian film! Why, the characters don't even seem to like each other much when they fall in bed together. Cut to the sun streaming in and waking the pair in the morning, the driver having stayed much longer than he meant to. So now he's both debauched and late, still drunk and still drinking. In the fog he barrels along too fast, swilling from a bottle, and kills an improverished farmer.

You knew it had to happen; there must be something for Rajesh Khanna to spend the rest of the film making up for. The farmer leaves behind a lame father, a blind mother, an unmarried sister, two small sons, and a widow (Meena Kumari, just a year before her death and looking sadly the worse for wear) who is in no mood to forgive. Surjit's day in court makes clear what an unapologetic blame-shifter he is. But the magistrate, played by Rehman, steps in to try a social experiment (perhaps atoning for driving poor Meena Kumari to drink); he declares that Surjit will spend the next year living with the family whose son/husband/brother/father he took away, coming to a better understanding of his crime and filling the gap left by the farmer's death.

Now, I'm all for cultivating empathy, but you have to admit there are flaws in this approach to punishment. It seems rather harsh to require the distraught family to live with the murderer, even if the worthy goal is for him to care for them as the dead man would have. (Imagine if George Zimmerman had been sentenced to move in with Trayvon Martin's father!) 

I couldn't help wondering, too, if the value of the lost life would have been spelled out in such purely economic terms had the dead man not been a poor villager. So, say, if Surjit had run over Shah Rukh Khan's character in DDLJ, would he have been sentenced to flunk out of college and tour Europe in his place? But I digress. Anyway, the farmer was the support of his family, and now he's gone, so Surjit has to take care of the old folks, marry off the sister, and feed the kids, all while dealing with the Wrath of Meena, who teaches the smallest son that the guest's name is "Dushman" ("Enemy").

After a single day of pitchfork-wielding yokels, hungry children, dramatically unhappy grandparents, and no food or water, Surjit determines to run away from his village "prison," only to be nabbed and brought in front of Rehman. I'm hungry, he whines, and Rehman patiently and slowly explains that the family was as dependent on the farmer as Surjit has been on them this first day, and that it's his job now to improve their lives somehow.

An interesting premise--I couldn't help wondering what a modern film would have Surjit do to earn his keep. (I understand that cooking crystal meth in Albuquerque is fairly lucrative.) But this film, from the spinning center of the First Superstar Era, seems to assume that the audience is already on board with the idea that Rajesh Khanna must be a good person, deep down. In spite of the bad-boy persona being troweled on pretty thickly at the beginning, nobody watching Dushman could imagine that Kaka has it in him to do anything other than the right thing from here on out. Surjit Singh is as transparent as glass, like a character in a fable--which is to say, like a character played by Superstar Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna channels Nargis.
There's still enjoyment to be had in Dushman. A host of villains try to steal the farmer's land, which is supposed to be haunted. In a plot perhaps borrowed from Scooby Doo, the ghost is really Mumtaz, who is hiding her earnings in the field at night to keep her drunken grandfather from stealing the money for liquor. Surjit Singh solves the ghost mystery and wins over the hungry children, who help Dushman Chacha to perfect his Mother India impression while plowing the field. Dushman Chacha repairs machinery, learns farming, and pays it both forward and back. The villain burns the crops, but the stoic villagers vow to plant more. Eventually, everyone except Angry Meena is firmly in the I Heart Dushman Chacha camp.

Once Surjit Singh has traded his dusty black truck-driving outfit for a white suit and accidentally misplaced his moustache, he and Mumtaz become an item. I find her cute rather than beautiful and think she lacks a certain edge (in spite of the drunken grandpa backstory, soon to be repurposed for Dabangg's leading lady), but maybe that's why she pairs so well with the easily tamed Rajesh Khanna. Whatever! She dances with great verve, and she appears onscreen with a truly great Freudian typo:

Obviously, at this point, only a curmudgeon (MEENAAAA!!) would oppose the total acceptance of Dushman Chacha as village good guy. Since the first moral-dilemma plot of the film fizzles out with so little fanfare, I did enjoy seeing a second dilemma involving Meena: the villain kidnaps Mumtaz and plans to rape or kill her, or both, and Meena is the only one who knows--but if she keeps quiet, Surjit Singh will be blamed. What will she do??

Do I have to tell you how it ends? Really?

Well, OK, but don't tell anyone. Amitabh arrives as Vijay, and Rajesh Khanna is finally free to appear in Red Rose.**

*Oh, I do love Bindu.

**Having re-read Jai Arjun Singh's fabulous post on Red Rose while adding the link above, I realize that he's already said pretty much everything I'm saying here about Rajesh Khanna, only better. And he also did this. Could there be a more fitting last word?

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Once the basic needs of life are taken care of, what makes a person happy? Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani tackles that question, sort of, but if you ask me, the film is arguing for giant Bollywood production numbers as one of life's great pleasures. And since really good naach-gaana strikes me as a prime reason to be cheerful, you will get no argument from me on that.

Watching the first number in YJHD, which happens right at the beginning of the film, I realized how very long it has been since I've watched a song-and-dance extravaganza that was this much fun. I've heard the argument that it's a comedown for the great Madhuri Dixit to appear as a tawaif in an item number, but I'm just grateful to see her dance again. Her beauty is all the more poignant now that her face has a few lines, and the spring in her step seems undiminished. And what joy there is in her dance-off with Ranbir Kapoor! The situation requiring the dance remains vague to me (he's an intern on a documentary shoot, she's the subject of the film, and there seems to be a lot of innuendo), but as the kids say, whatever. It's the kind of dance number that makes me glad to be alive and reminds me of the wonders of unapologetic Bollywood. I grinned like an idiot all the way through.

And if there is a future for Bollywood as we have known it in this age of the Hindi indie (and I love both)--Ranbir Kapoor is the one I would pin my hopes on. Watching him dance is one of the reliable pleasures of today's cinema, and if the merest excuse is all it takes to get him started, well, hooray! Even when he isn't dancing--even when, as in this film, his character seems a hair underwritten--I'm willing to go along. A not-very-studious young Indian citizen gets a full scholarship to Northwestern with so little effort that his friends don't even know he's applied? A journalism degree leads to a job as a globe-trotting cameraman (the kind who breezes through Rome at sunset, not the kind who gets shot at in Afghanistan)? The cameraman job leads to an offer to be the host of a reality show that involves living in Paris for six months, apparently minus the Real World-style psychotic roommates? OK, fine, let's not look too closely. If anyone on earth has that kind of luck, why not Ranbir Kapoor?

Deepika Padukone
What "plain" looks like in the movies.
The foil to Ranbir's Bunny is Deepika Padukone's Naina, a glasses-wearing girl who spent her formative years studying so hard that her schoolmates didn't even register her presence. (Let us pass lightly over the Hollywood/Bollywood convention that if a girl wears glasses, then she cannot be considered attractive, even if she has a face like Deepika Padukone's.) Now she's preparing to be a doctor, but a chance encounter with a free-spirited former classmate (Kalki Koechlin) makes her decide on a whim to go spontaneously trekking in Manali. Naina and Bunny--also old schoolmates--meet cute shortly before the trip, which starts with an unexpectedly poignant drinking game in a crowded train compartment that reveals good-girl Naina as the odd one out among her more flirty, flighty young companions.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease, changing yourself for a boy
What I was afraid of.
My daughter, who has experienced just under 14 years of life, pronounced this film "predictable," but based on my longer time on earth I'm convinced it was not at all a given that Naina would fall for Bunny without actually losing herself in the process (think of what Olivia Newton-John went through in Grease to get the boy). While the spontaneous Manali trip may seem out of character for careful planner Naina, she proves there that she has a sense of adventure and plenty of good humor. She also falls for good-time loverboy Bunny, but just as she's about to tell him how she feels, she learns about his sudden serious Northwestern plan, which a studious girl like Naina wouldn't think of derailing. Instead, she decides to forget him and buckles back down to her chosen career path.

We catch up with Naina and Bunny again after the interval, when they're eight years older. The occasion for the old friends' reunion is the wedding of Kalki Koechlin's character, who is engaged to marry not Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor), the fourth old trekking pal on whom Kalki once had a crush and who has become something of a loser, but the wacky, plump Kunaal Roy Kapoor (last seen by me having some serious intestinal distress in Delhi Belly, and, for what it's worth, the brother of Aditya). I expected, then worried, that Kalki would ditch her bumbling but sweet fiance for her old flame, but fortunately, YJHD doesn't take that path either. The four friends get to know one another again. Bunny has soared, while Avi has also tried to make a living having fun and failed. Kalki has found a dependable, traditional guy and discovered that she likes being solid and respectable; Naina, who has always been respectable, has remained alone and seems OK with that choice.

The wedding/reunion is the occasion for yet another showstopping number from Ranbir*, and I throw it in here because who doesn't need the occasional delirious good time?

I'm not going to say that it's a spoiler to mention that Bunny and Naina do eventually end up together, but for a good part of the film, that outcome doesn't feel certain. How nice, at least, to see these two not making any decisions about pairing off until after a conversation acknowledging that they want different things from life. Bunny raves about the famous burgers of San Francisco (burgers?? but never mind), while Naina extols a home-cooked biryani. In the end, Bunny is pulled earthward, in traditional Hindi-film fashion, by realizing that being at home more would have given him more time with his big-hearted and doting father (Farooque Shaikh, awwww). His teasing, sweet relationship with dad and stepmother (Tanvi Azmi, also adorable) makes the belated attractions of family life a little more believable.

In the end, it feels pretty satisfying for Bunny to come to Naina and not the other way around. They may not have worked out all the problems that they'll have to resolve, but at least they're thinking things through. And so, after the film, was my daughter, who wisely noted, "He can travel, and then come home. Or maybe she can travel with him once in a while."

And then while they're in the same place, they can do a lot of big fluffy Bollywood production numbers. And that, my friends, sounds like more than enough for a happily-ever-after.

*Am I imagining this, or does someone really shout "Ranbir!!" when he shows up at the beginning of this video?