Thursday, July 25, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Aman Ki Asha

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

Just before you zip off to watch four Indian secret service agents storm Karachi in an effort to bring “India’s Most Wanted Man” back, it might be a good idea to recap the films where Pakistan provided the setting for all the action. If Bollywood is to be believed, it is not only a cricket stadium where India and Pakistan lock horns.

Not satisfied with children of warring families falling in love, Raj Kapoor engineered a love story between children of warring countries in Henna. When Rishi Kapoor (playing an Indian) floated into Pakistan after a car crash (and a memory loss, for good measure), he was immediately adopted by a well-meaning Pakistani village and a fair maiden, Henna (played by Zeba Bakhtiar in her debut role). The romantic tale was short almost entirely in that village till Rishi’s memory returned (on the night of his wedding to Henna, as if the drama wasn’t enough) and he had to be carted back to India.  
While Raj Kapoor – always a votary of love and peace between the two neighbours – passed away before the film could be made (and Rajiv Kapoor directed it), it was clearly his message of Indo-Pak love being passed on.

The other doyen of Indian filmmaking – Yash Chopra – was born in what is now Pakistan and he retains a soft corner for the country, its people and its culture. In Veer Zaara, he fulfilled his dream of having a cross-border love story when an Indian Air Force officer (Shah Rukh Khan) fell in love with a Pakistani woman (Preity Zinta) and followed her into the country. He promptly fell victim to villainous forces in Pakistan and was thrown into jail for gazillion years. He would have died a quiet death till a Pakistani human rights lawyer (Rani Mukherjee) took on his case and brought their love story to a court of justice.    

The Pakistan Army is a large, disciplined, modern fighting unit till... Till (one deep breath) Sunny Deol took them apart singlehandedly. Rocky, Rambo and all such specimens of violent masculinity first wept and then peed in their diapers when they heard what happened in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha.  
Sunny Deol went to Pakistan to get back his wife (taken there forcibly by her family) and he started off on a low-key note. But when asked to shout a ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ slogan, he lost his marbles and picked up dumbbells. Actually, he picked up a tubewell and proceeded to steamroll his way through miles of Pakistani territory. The Army was only a small hurdle in his path.  

Bapi Sidhwa’s award winning novel The Ice Candy Man became a moving film by Deepa Mehta, who called it 1947 Earth. It told the story of the Partition through the eyes of a little Parsi girl who saw her ayah (Nandita Das), her lover (Rahul Khanna) and the ice-candy man (Aamir Khan) become pawns in a deadly game of politics and religion. Set in Lahore, it was nevertheless the story of every city and every family who lived during the dark hours of 1947.

Whenever India and Pakistan face off in a sporting arena, there is talk of it being a war. And when a player dies in the arena, it could really be the start of a war. That was the premise of a kickboxing story where an Indian athlete died in the ring, fighting a Pakistani adversary. His brother gave up his cricketing ambitions and trained to become a kickboxer so that he could take revenge. The talk of revenge did not go down kindly with the diplomats who were looking to reduce tensions between the two countries. In such a scenario, the return match was scheduled to be held in Pakistan.
The venue wasn’t the Gaddafi stadium but it was still... Lahore.

Given the somewhat tense nature of our political ties, our social and cultural ties with Pakistan are very rarely humourous. Often sentimental but almost never satirical.
Tere Bin Laden changed all that. Set in Karachi, it was the story of a down-and-out television reporter (Ali Zafar) who created a fake Laden video to get into limelight and fulfil his dreams of going to America. Needless to say, these things are never as simple as they are planned to be and soon we had a manic group of poultry farmer, travel agent, radio jockey and TV station owner caught up in an international conspiracy of catching the (then) world’s most wanted man.
When we watched a movie like this one, we realised how similar India and Pakistan actually were.   

The latest scorcher set in Pakistan is last week’s release – Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – the story of the Flying Sikh whose race started during the atrocities of the Partition and continued till he returned to Pakistan thirteen years later to take a shot at redemption.
Milkha Singh participated in an Indo-Pak Friendship Meet in 1960 where he competed against the top Pakistani athlete Abdul Khaliq in a race touted to be a contest between two countries. This showdown in Lahore gained more prominence in the film than his famous Rome Olympics race as Milkha raced not only to beat his competitor on the track but also the ghosts in his mind.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Uttam Kumar: A Guest Post by Reeta Chaudhuri

Beth, who has lately shifted her allegiance from Bollywood to Tollywood, has just completed a project on the Uttam vs Soumitra rivalry (imaginary or otherwise). To assist her, I asked my mother to put down her thoughts on the two heroes. I thought her perspective – of someone who saw their movies as they released – would be interesting. I was not prepared for this piece (which I would call amazing) that is reproduced below. 
This post was written in hand (over one evening), scanned by a friend of hers and mailed to me. There are some typos and rough edges, which I have intentionally left uncorrected. 

If you ask a Bengali (Kolkatan) to choose between Arsalan Biriyani and Oh Calcutta’s Sarshe Ilish Paturi, he’s sure to be cornered and find himself in a Catch 22 situation. But Bongs being Bongs always fond of arguments in the name of adda will sure give you a reason for their choice of one over the other. So in one such adda, if the discussion verges on films, the perennial debate is bound to crop up – Uttam and Soumitra, who is better? As for me, the question initially would be just like Biriyani and Paturi – both are good and so why and what for a comparison and choice? Aren’t we magnanimous enough to have space in our hearts equally for the two superstars who have regaled us with heart-rending performances in all their movies?
If Uttam Kumar is unforgettable in each and every romantic role he has acted in – Saptapadi, Pathe Holo Deri, Sanyasi Raja, Deya Neya, Mon Niye, Memsaheb, how can we ever forget Soumitra’s stellar performances as Ray’s Apu. Soumitra’s intelligent depiction of the sleuth in Feluda movies is as good as Uttam Kumar’s Chiriyakhana. Both performed as smooth operators in negative roles – Uttam’s Shesh Anka, Baghbandi Khela and Soumitra in Jhinder Bandi. In comedy too, they excelled with their innocent charm. Soumitra’s Chhutir Phnadey and Uttam’s Ogo Bodhu Sundori, Mouchak, Dhanni Meye had us in splits. When they shifted to character roles, they managed to win hearts with memorable acts in Agniswar, Nagar Darpane, Atanka and Asukh.

Admirers of Soumitra feel that nobody but him could perform the intelligent, grey matter-driven roles better while Uttam was criticised for overacting in films like Lal Pathar and Jay Jayanti. His delivery of English dialogues was not up to the mark. Even Othello’s speech in Saptapadi was dubbed by Utpal Dutt.
Similarly, Soumitra could never reach in romantic roles the zenith which Uttam attained. He appeared a little stiff and awkward compared to Uttam’s mesmerising romance.

I call myself a Double Mom. One the mother that I am, the other a tag I’ve given myself – Mad Over Movies. And I go to watch movies for entertainment, entertainment and entertainment. What are movies without oodles of romance for entertainment. So yes, you have guessed right. If I have to make a firm choice between the two superstars, my hand will go up a teeny bit higher for the complete matinee idol, the hero of heroes, for the one and only who was named ‘Guru’ by youngsters of our generation and whose life Satyajit Ray depicted so realistically in Nayak... and what a performance of a lifetime!
Even at the age of sixty, I just go weak in the knees at those killer romantic looks of his while watching them for the nth time, alone at home during summer afternoons, bringing a smile to my face and saying “ooh la la...” to myself! Harano Sur, Kal Tumi Aleya, Shudhu Ekti Bachhar... you name it and the smile flashes in your mind’s eye.
After performing in the Hindi adaptations of Nishi Padma (Amar Prem) and Deya Neya (Anurodh), superstar Rajesh Khanna had declared that he hadn’t been able to do full justice to Uttam Kumar because none in the film industry had that ‘million dollar smile’ (which, in Bangla, we call ‘Bhuban bholano hashi’!) Even after more than thirty years of his passing away, Bangla cinema is yet to find one such superstar who would send the crowd into ecstasy, euphoria and hysteria that we did whenever we got a glimpse of him.

The day he passed away – 24th July 1981 – my husband was in London and he used to call every evening. That day, hearing my voice, he asked – “Why are you sounding so low, so distanced?” I just started weeping and said, “Uttam Kumar is no more”. If this is not an affair to remember and continue with, what is?  

As you now realise, there could not have been a better (or worse) day to post this.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Resemblance Entirely Coincidental

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

As Milkha Singh promises to scorch the track and celluloid this week, he comes in a long line of Bollywood films inspired by real life characters. Very few films name their inspiration to avoid the obvious problems of lawsuits and outrages for cinema liberties taken but you have to be Rip Van Winkle not to recognize them!

The other Singh – Bhagat – is easily the most inspiring freedom fighter of the country. Shammi Kapoor (Shaheed Bhagat Singh), Manoj Kumar (Shaheed), Ajay Devgn (The Legend of Bhagat Singh), Bobby Deol (23rd March 1931: Shaheed) and Siddharth (Rang De Basanti) have portrayed him – including two films in quick succession in 2002.
BONUS HERO: Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s close ally and confidant, has been played by two of India’s biggest stars – Aamir Khan (in Rang De Basanti) and Sunny Deol (in 23rd March 1931: Shaheed).

Milkha sprints in right after another film on an athlete, lesser known in real life – Paan Singh Tomar. Irrfan was the armyman turned steeplechaser turned bandit, who was seen as something of a symbol of whatever is wrong with Indian society. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s masterpiece traced Tomar’s life from his salad days in the Army to his tragic end as a wanted bandit. But he didn’t see himself as a bandit but as a rebel. “Beehaad mein baghi hote hain. Dacait milte hain Parliament mein.” Can’t argue with that!

Heroes aren’t the only ones to inspire Bollywood. Villains are also very charismatic icons.
India’s most wanted man – Dawood Ibrahim – is undoubtedly the most ‘inspiring’ villain around as several films have characters either based on him or playing him. Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday had him orchestrating the Mumbai blasts of 1993 from Pakistan. In a few days, a gang of RAW agents will be going to arrest him in D-Day, where Rishi Kapoor will be playing him.
And of course, Ram Gopal Verma has immortalized him with Company where Ajay Devgn played a character loosely based on him as did Randeep Hooda in D.

Dawood’s predecessor in Bombay’s underworld was Haji Mastan Mirza – a very charismatic character, who epitomized the honourable Don mould before the underworld became all murky.
His life was the basis of what is widely called the ‘perfect screenplay’ – Deewaar. Amitabh Bachchan’s smouldering intensity lent unprecedented glamour to the character though both the subject and the writers refused to accept any links.
Ajay Devgan played him in Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai and in an interesting scene, Kangana Ranaut’s character wondered if a film should be made on his life and an intense actor called Amit should play him.
BONUS GOONS: Maya Dolas and Manya Surve were two small time goons in Mumbai underworld till Viveik Oberoi and John Abraham played them and got shot at Lokhandwala and Wadala respectively.

Not only gangsters, cops also spawn movies.
Rakesh Maria – the investigating officer of the Mumbai blasts – was played by Kay Kay Menon in Black Friday but easily the most popular cop on-screen is ‘encounter specialist’ Daya Nayak. The most famous film on the ‘encounter’ phenomenon is Ab Tak Chhappan (which was produced by Ram Gopal Verma). Subsequently, RGV directed Department (widely debated if it was his worst film) in which Sanjay Dutt’s character was said to be based on Daya Nayak.
Several not-so-well-know movies happened but after he was investigated on corruption charges and for underworld links, the movies seem to have dried up.

When a young Delhi girl called Jessica was shot at a happening party by a youngster from a political family, she made headlines. And eventually, a film.
A headline from The Times Of India became the title of the movie – No One Killed Jessica – and the crusade for her justice was led by her sister Sabrina (played by Vidya Balan) and a feisty journalist (played by Rani Mukherji). It was widely discussed that the journalist was based on NDTV’s Barkha Dutt but was never officially confirmed though the news channel in the film was NDTV.

Guru was the story of an ambitious Gujarati boy who went abroad in search of fortune, didn’t find it there and came back to create it here.
Dhirubhai Ambani was Independent India’s greatest businessman and Mani Ratnam paid a superb tribute to his exciting life, glamourising some elements and changing a few. Abhishek Bachchan put on tons of weight to play the self-made tycoon, who went from being a polyester trader to a multi-billionaire who single-handedly created the ‘equity cult’ in the 1980s.
As his nemesis, we had Mithun Chakraborty playing a character based on Ramnath Goenka – the idealistic newspaper owner who took on the tycoon for his not-so-kosher business deals.

Probably the most debated ‘inspiration’ is also the biggest.
In Gulzar’s Aandhi, Suchitra Sen played a politician who gave up on her married life to pursue her father’s political ambitions.  As she aged into having a white streak in her hair, the country went into a tizzy about the movie being based on Indira Gandhi’s life. The film was banned during the Emergency (AFTER it had run for twenty-two weeks). The producers went blue in the face explaining it all to be a coincidence though logic is never called upon in these situations. 

BREAKING NEWS: In the forthcoming Satyagraha, Amitabh Bachchan is playing a character based on Gandhian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare. Water cannons, hunger strikes, Gandhi topis are being called into action as citizens of India take on the political class. And hopefully win. (We are also waiting to see if Ajay Devgn is playing Arvind Kejriwal in the film.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Bongo Lawlona

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.
The tongue-twister in the title simply means 'Bengali women'.

As Sonakshi Sinha prepares to wow the critics in her new avatar as a Bengali girl called Pakhi in Vikramaditya Motwane’s period romance Lootera, this is absolutely the right time to look at legendary Bengali women in Bollywood.
No, not Bengali stars but Bengali characters.

One of the earliest Bengali characters in popular Hindi cinema was the eponymous Miss Chatterjee, who was the subject of Johnny Walker’s attention in the song Suno suno Miss Chatterjee (from the film Baharein phir bhi Aayegi). Ostensibly set in Calcutta, the song had inimitable Johnny Walker wooing his Bengali girlfriend with many words that (apparently) rhyme with Chatter(jee) – for example, Matter, Better, Letter!

In Do Anjaane, Rekha played Rekha Roy who went from being a regular housewife to a star of the Bengali film industry. The story seemed to be innocuously set in Calcutta and no overt Bongness was displayed till we realize that Rekha starred as the heroine of a film called Potibrata (Pati-vrataa, to the rest of the country). Her accent was a little dodgy but the audience seemed to lover her ‘ek chutki sindoor ki keemat’ kind of role.

Of all the Bengali characters in Bollywood, Rakhee in Kaala Patthar probably had the most subtle appearance. She was introduced as Dr Sudha Sen – an idealistic doctor in a coal mine clinic. She spoke no Bengali in the film and restricted herself to wearing Bengal handloom sarees to show her roots.

If Devdas is the most famous Bengali character in Bollywood, then his girlfriend Paro would be the second-most famous.
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version, Bengali culture & language was distilled to one word as Aishwarya Rai went Issshhhh… with varying levels of pitch and volume to display her Bongness. Opposite Dilip Kumar, there was true blue Bengali actress – Suchitra Sen – playing Paro.  
And in Dev D, Anurag Kashyap transported Paro to Punjab and had Mahie Gill laying out mattresses in the middle of mustard fields. Kya adaa, kya jalwe tere, Paro…

In Kamal Haasan’s ‘magnum opus’ Hey Ram, he was an archaeologist married to a Bengali woman Aparna played by Rani Mukherjee, the archetype of the sexy Bengali woman in a traditionally worn saree, with a large bindi, larger eyes and a husky voice to die for. We were never told how a South Indian archaeologist married a Bengali school-teacher. And after Kamal Haasan dived under the sheets with her, nobody asked.

As Saif Ali Khan put on batik kurtas and drove around Victoria Memorial in Parineeta, the object of his affection and childhood sweetheart was Lolita – which can only be described as the Second Most Typical Bengali Name of All Times (losing the top spot to Paromita, probably). Vidya Balan played the Bong belle with aplomb before she left to become Silk in Southern climes.  

In Dhoom and Dhoom 2 (and most likely in Dhoom 3, as well), ACP Jai Dixit was married to a motor-mouth Bengali girl – Sweety, played by Rimii Sen. She spouted a few sentences in Bengali when angry and switched back to Hindi when being an eye-candy-in-hot-pants.
As if one Bengali woman wasn’t enough, Bipasha Basu played TWO Bong women in the Dhoom 2 by being Shonali Bose and Monali Bose though no mention of fish and football happened from her side.

While on the topic of Bipasha Basu and a Bengali woman called Shonali, we introduce:
1.      Nishigandha Dasgupta – a hotshot MBA in Corporate, who cut a sexy figure in a sharp suit.
2.      Shonali Mukherjee – an even hotter architect who was the object of a geek’s affections in Karthik Calling Karthik.
Neither of these characters was marked by any distinctive Bong stereotypes. Nor did they break into Bengali mid-sentence. But their names sure caught attention! 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Filmi Fridays: Oh, Forget It!

My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.

A man who has stolen a ton of money cannot remember his partners in crime. Natural.
It seems he cannot remember where the money is either. Not so natural.
Memory loss is a very unnatural thing, made completely natural by Bollywood. And Ghanchakkar is the latest addition to this list. So, we take a look at the missing memories of Bollywood!

A man’s girlfriend is killed. He is so badly injured that he gets a rare case of amnesia – he loses his memory every fifteen minutes. He doesn’t remember who the killer is and tries to catch him by putting together clues that he will forget in the next quarter hour. To protect his knowledge, he trusts nobody, snaps photos and takes notes obsessively. Sometimes, he tattoos vital information on his body so that he doesn’t forget.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento got a masala twist as Aamir Khan stared at us relentlessly from the posters with a “Who is Ghajini?” tattooed on his chest.
So, who was Ghajini? Didn’t I tell you fifteen minutes back?

A man is found injured lying next to a railway track. A childless tycoon finds him and raises him as his own. The man has no memory from before the accident and his memories as the tycoon’s son gradually become his existence. Till… there is always a till.
Amitabh Bachchan in Do Anjaane and Salman Khan in Tum Ko Na Bhool Payenge both got stuck in the till when their memory returned and there were accounts to be settled. Do you remember who they were up against?

Rishi Kapoor’s car crashed into the river and he floated into Pakistan. He had lost his memory and found Henna, forgot his real name Chander and got named Chand. If there is a medical theory which says that a man gets his memory back if the circumstances of the memory loss is replicated, then Henna depicted it perfectly. And it left Henna with the small matter of having to get her Indian husband past the Pakistan border.
If trans-memory wasn’t enough, there was a trans-border subplot too!

In Sadma, Sridevi (as a young woman) lost her memory partially. She lost everything till the age of five. As a woman-child, she fell in Kamal Hassan’s lap and started a romance like no other.
This twist was repeated in Salaam-e-Ishq where Vidya Balan lost only the part of her memory that contained her marriage. John Abraham, playing her husband, had the unenviable task of reminding her of himself. A woman forgetting John Abraham? Hmm, that serious?
And the latest page out of this book was taken in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, where Shah Rukh Khan got a knock on his head and reverted from his current girlfriend (Anushka Sharma) to his earlier flame (Katrina Kaif). If this doesn’t pass a strong message to Anushka about her overacting, then nothing ever will.

A hired gun is sent to kill a beautiful woman. His efforts are cut short by an accident and he loses his memory. He no longer remembers who he has to kill. He is put in the care of a lady doctor and they promptly fall in love. If you don’t know that his memory will eventually return and he will realize that the doctor is his planned victim, then you haven’t watched too much of Bollywood.
Aditya Pancholi was the amnesiac mercenary and Madhuri Dixit the lady doctor in Sailaab.
Now who remembers a single scene in the film apart from THAT song? And you were laughing at poor Aditya Pancholi, eh?

What do you call an amnesiac you find on a cliff (teela)?
Aamir Khan became Teelu in Andaz Apna Apna, the zaniest guy not to have a memory. He lost it when a woman hit him with a stick. Or did he? Well, there sure was a doctor to treat him. And the treatment was as zany as the patient. It hitting the same spot on his head with the same stick and feeding him Mirchi Salad.

Alzheimer’s Disease is a rather scary condition.
In Black, Amitabh Bachchan was the eccentric tutor of the triple-handicapped Rani Mukherjee. As his untiring efforts set his student on the path of light, he himself sunk into an abyss of memory loss. In a role which swept every award ceremony in that year, Amitabh Bachchan transformed from a dynamic teacher to nearly a vegetable. 

In Amar Akbar Anthony, Nirupa Roy was chasing after her three sons and husband when a branch of a tree fell on her. BANG!
And she lost her memory.
Wait a minute?
Did she? She forgot all about her family?
How did she go blind then?
Aha… that reminds me. She did not lose her memory. She lost her eyesight.

Okay, scratch this entry off the list. And put it down to my bad memory.