Saturday, January 18, 2014


Ram Teri Ganga Maili ("Ram, Your Ganges Is Dirty"), the last film from Great Showman Raj Kapoor, features his son Rajiv, who bears a strong resemblance to his Uncle Shammi, and Raj's discovery Mandakini, a gorgeous woman with black hair and blue, blue eyes.

And breasts. Large breasts. Did I mention the breasts? I probably hardly need to mention them--after all, if you google this title you will get an eyeful--but I wouldn't want anyone to think that Raj's obsession with "generous scoops of flesh" had gone unnoticed. Yes, I noticed the breasts; I promise you that if you watch this film, you will notice them too.

The excellent Phillip's Fil-ums discussion taught me quite a lot that I didn't know about the relationship between this film's story and the Shakuntala story of old. I've heard of Shakuntala (after all, she makes a brief appearance in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun--oh, yes, I am that shallow). However, I didn't know the particulars, so I didn't recognize that this film's plot "recapitulates the Shakuntala story," which is itself a recapitulation of a tale from the Mahabharata. Color me enlightened!

And who knows? Maybe the original story aimed at titillation* of a dudely audience while acting oh-so-concerned about the fate of poor Shakuntala, who was really truly married and therefore the unsullied mother of a legitimate son. If so, then RTGM is definitely the recapitulation of the Shakuntala myth, because titillation and concern-trolling are very much in evidence in this story of lovely Ganga and her misadventures after her secret wedding.

The film opens with the river Ganga looking distinctly on the grubby side. There's even what appears to be a documentary shot of a human corpse drifting along face-down in the water; in the US such things only happen in times of major disaster (see Hurricane Katrina), and in those situations Americans tend to feel hat they're not supposed to stare. But Raj Kapoor invites us, even wants us, to stare--first at the river Ganga and then at our heroine Ganga (Mandakini), a pure and innocent girl from the Himalayas who falls in love with Naren (Rajiv Kapoor), the guileless and rather clueless son of a corrupt politician from Calcutta. There may be some surface tsk-tsking about how badly the men she encounters treat poor Ganga, but I think if Raj Kapoor meant to inspire any real empathy he would have spent less time zooming in on her breasts.

As everyone who has ever heard of this film probably knows, Naren is off on a jaunt to find the source of the river Ganga when he meets a rustic mountain girl of the same name. How can a city boy resist? For one thing, the girl-Ganga bathes in a white sari that becomes transparent when wet, singing that her arms call to him. Ganga, I won't be the first to point out that your arms are not the feature everyone notices.

Mandakini, foggy sheet
The foggy sheet doesn't do a very good job.
Reader, he marries her. It's legit--her brother (Tom Alter!) accepts her spouse, even keeping watch outside the temple during their wedding night. It's a fairly racy wedding night as Bollywood films go, though this time there is only side-cleavage for the slavering dudes. (I can only imagine how many coins would have been thrown at the screen in a Bombay theater by this point in the film.)

secret wedding, Mandakini, side cleavage

 Sadly, the brother is fatally wounded that night while fighting off the guy who thought he was going to marry Ganga, so there are no living witnesses who can vouch for Ganga's wedded status. And Naren, like Shakuntala's prince, waltzes back to Calcutta, promising to return for her with his grandmother's blessing.

Not to spoiler, but Granny dies before she can give that blessing, and guilt overwhelms poor Naren so much that he takes an awfully long time to come back for Ganga. An awfully long time. More than a year, in fact. When he does make his way back, he has run off without his father's permission, and the authorities are on his trail. This entertaining paagal subtitle shows one of the obstacles in his path: an outhouse.
Rajov Kapoor, it is my duty to keep you in this outhouse
In the US, an "outhouse" is an outdoor toilet, in case you're wondering why I find this hilarious.
Meanwhile, Ganga has grown tired of waiting for the father of her infant son (you knew there was a son), so she gets on a bus and starts her journey toward Calcutta. When she gets off the bus to transfer to the Calcutta train at her first stop, she lets a hard-looking beggar woman guide her to her destination, which is a big mistake.

Mandakini believes crafty beggar woman
Don't trust the beggar woman, Ganga!
The beggar woman takes her straight to a brothel and claims a fee from the evil madam for this luscious new girl, but Ganga flees. A bit later she asks a priest for help, and he takes her to his home and tries to molest her. I swear, every man in this film shows a psychotic lack of empathy, perhaps driven mad by the always-already-visible breasts.

At last Ganga catches the train. She's thirsty, but no one will give her water--a woman carrying a pot of water from the Ganges even refuses her a sip. A blind man offers sympathy for Ganga's starving child's dilemma (less coherent in the subtitle than in Hindi, but you get the drift).

We know he's telling the truth because we have just watched sadly as she tried without success to breastfeed her child. Raj Kapoor does an excellent job of getting the audience to empathize with the plight of this distraught young mother who cannot feed her hungry baby. No, that was sarcasm; Raj Kapoor instead does an excellent job of getting the audience to focus on Mandakini's almost entirely bared breasts. Alas, poor Ganga! Hubba hubba!

It turns out that the blind man isn't really blind, and he (like everyone else in the audience) has actually been staring at Ganga's breasts even when she thought she was unseen. He pretends to help her, then drags her to yet another house of prostitution. Poor Ganga. She doesn't escape this time because she knows there's nowhere to run. The people who want to make money off her bounteous breasts are absolutely everywhere.
(Ganga is the middle one.)
It's suggested that Ganga's singing is so lovely that the madam focuses on training her to sing and dance rather than calling on her to sleep with paying customers (at least at first)--so thank goodness she can sing. Therefore, in the end Ganga is sufficiently Umrao Jaan-ified to be called upon to perform at the wedding of a young Calcutta nobleman. Guess who? Yes, it's Naren! And there is something very familiar about that nautch girl. What is it? Neither her face nor her breasts are visible during the dance, so he doesn't quite recognize her at first. But he does finally know her voice. And so Naren and Ganga/Shakuntala are finally reunited, the baby boy gets to meet his daddy at last, and all is right with the world.

Mandakini, Rajiv Kapoor
Happy ending. See how happy they look?

So Ganga finally gets to take her rightful place as an honorable married woman, which is what passes for a happy ending to the story. Now that she is safely ensconced in her husband's house, there will be no more public displays of cleavage, I'm sure. And we have all been sensitized to the plight of young women who find themselves on the road without male protection, haven't we? Haven't we?

Well, no, we haven't. In fact, I'm not sure that "we" have done anything, since as a non-male viewer I don't know whether Raj cared that I was watching. But I watched, and I wondered what on earth I was supposed to feel. Pity for Ganga? Disgust at the men (and women) who take advantage of Ganga's innocence and helplessness? Outrage that a young woman on her own is regarded as little more than a prize buffalo to be  milked (sorry!!) for whatever money she can bring in? Irritation about the "dirty Ganga" metaphor in the title? I'm terribly conflicted about being asked to stare and snicker while I'm supposed to be fearing for Ganga's safety, so I guess the answer is "all of the above."
I wish someone would do for Shakuntala what Anurag Kashyap did for Devdas. This woman needs to arrive in a new century.

*Go ahead. Titter.