Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sound of Music - In conversation with P Susheela

Her name was synonymous with playback singing for several decades in south Indian cinema. I met her a few weeks back to do a story for The Times of India's 8th anniversary edition in Chennai, where she shared some fond memories of her musical journey and the city that became her home – Chennai. you can read the online edition here.

For those who have grown up on a staple of film songs in the last six decades, P Susheela is a name that requires no introduction.Earlier this year, the Guinness World Records deemed her the singer with the highest number of solo, duet and chorus songs.The laurel seems to rest lightly on her head, like several others that she has won in her illustrious career, including a Padma Bhushan and five national awards for playback singing. Susheela was the first singer to receive a National Award for playback singing, way back in 1969 for the song Paal Polave, in the movie Uyarndha Manidhan.“It was an AVM production and A V Meiyappa Chettiar was extremely proud that I had won the award. He organised a huge felicitation function for me in Chennai, which saw several dignitaries, including the then chief minister M Karunanidhi and the legendary playback singer Lata Mangeshkar being a part of it,“ she says.

While the Guinness citation refers to 17,695 songs from the 1960s, there definitely seems to be a lot more that have not been taken into account. “Back then, I didn't keep track of the songs I sang. There were times when I recorded over five songs in a day and my focus was on delivering the best to the music director. Now I am trying to trace the songs I sang and perhaps, the total number might come to approximately around 25,000."

The reward has not come overnight. For the sake of setting a record, many artistes deliver upon efforts which are done over a few hours. But with Susheela, it is a summation of the efforts of a lifetime, during which she has seen people rise and fall and trends come and go.“That was also a time when technology wasn't as great as we have today . Even if one singer or instrumentalist got it wrong during the recording, we would have to do the whole song all over again. But then, the singers before us had it even more difficult. We could read the songs as we sang them.Artistes like M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar had to act as they sang. They were truly great!“ The time Susheela broke into the music scene was also when a lot of churning was happening in the world of film music.In Bombay , Lata Mangeshkar had become a sensation, bringing in a new style of singing, which broke off from the likes of Zohrabai Ambalewali and Noorjehan. In the south, the era of singing stars had ended and heavy classical numbers were giving way to light music in films. Susheela became the face of a new trend, where she utilised her grounding in classi cal music to belt out one melody after the other. But the drill of film music didn't leave her with much time to pursue classical music.

“The classical music scene had towering giants like MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari and DK Pattammal. I went with the flow and got into films. I got a break when music director P Nageshwara Rao chose me from a list of new singers given to him by All India Radio. I used to sing for AIR and had also done a kutcheri there. I sang a song for the movie Petra Thai (1952) and thereafter, I got employed at AVM for a monthly salary . A V Meiyappan also employed a tutor for me to learn Tamil. I lived in Triplicane and we would often go to the beach.We also had trams in Chennai.Being in this city made things a lot more convenient for me as the recording of songs for any language would happen here,“ she says.

Susheela also became the chosen voice in Malayalam and Kannada as well. “In Malayalam, I began singing after V Dakshinamoorthy got me to sing the song Pattu padi urakkam from the movie Seeta. I didn't learn Malayalam. The music directors would help me with translation and pronunciation,“ she says. When Mughal-e-azam was being made simultaneously in Tamil as Akbar, Susheela was called upon to sing for the Tamil version. “There was a lyricist by the name Kambadasan, who would translate the Hindi songs into Tamil. He took me to Bombay and introduced me to the music legend Naushad. Till then, I didn't know who he was. Naushad was very impressed with my rendition of his songs and many decades later, when he was asked to compose for the Malayalam movie Dhwani, he agreed to take up the project on the condition that I sing his songs.“

Susheela clearly doesn't believe in a `then and now' comparison. “Those songs and movies were a product of the times. Today's artistes are also doing a lot of good work. After I cut down on films, I focused on stage performances. Today , artistes do a lot of stage performances early on in their career. I worked with some wonderful music directors.People like Viswanathan Ramamoorthy and K V Mahadevan gave me songs with a lot of variety. When I look back, there is no instance when I feel that I could have done something better. The music directors would make us sing 10 times and finalise the sixth take. They were such perfectionists.“

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A man for all genres: Guru Dutt

A still from the song Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam, where
 Guru Dutt  interwove poetry and cinema seamlessly

Two days back, many online articles and radio shows remembered Guru Dutt, whose 90th birth anniversary fell on July 9. What struck me most in those programmes was the complete focus on melancholy and tragedy, painted in a tinge of disillusionment and despair. There were references to the pain he endured in his personal life, which came out in his cinema. Of course, his tragic end in 1964 only made it easier to equate Guru Dutt with tragedy.

But was this the only side of Guru Dutt? It is very unfair that posterity associates this genius only with one brand of cinema. In fact, there were so many brands he spawned during his short career of over 15 years that one tends to take the parting images alone seriously. My first tryst with Guru Dutt's cinema began with classics like Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool and it took me almost a decade to experience his flair for action, suspense and comedy. Watching his early films left me wondering if I understood Guru Dutt at all, in all these years.

In the early 1950s, Dev Anand asked Guru Dutt to direct Navketan’s Baazi to keep an old promise that he had given his friend Dutt during the days of his struggle. Written by Balraj Sahni, Baazi was not only a big money spinner for Navketan, but it also set the road for an urban crime thriller in Hindi cinema. The template of an urban crime thriller in Baazi, as crystallised by Guru Dutt, was used for several years and India had its earliest tryst with urban noir. It was also in Baazi that Duru
Dutt began experimenting with his style of song picturisation, where songs were employed as an extension of the script rather than as random intervals. Remember how seamlessly Geeta Bali breaks into Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le when Dev Anand is undergoing a turmoil? His next movie Jaal was a suspense drama. With Jaal, Guru Dutt began his partnership with cinematographer VK Murthy, who remained with him till the end.

Guru discovered a new style of comedy in Aar Paar, which would
later find concrete shape in Mr and Mrs 55

When he ventured to start his own production house, Guru Dutt started with his own comfort zone of action and made Baaz, which was also the first film where he played the lead for the first time. Though it didn’t make much noise, he struck gold with the urban noir comedy Aar Paar, which also saw his partnership with music director OP Nayyar and writer Abrar Alvi. Aar Paar showed his penchant for urban stories, portraying the everyday lives of people in Bombay.

Mr and Mrs 55 was a satire on marriages in the
urban space and misplaced feminism

When one discusses the early comedies of the 1950s and 60s, one invariably ends up talking about Padosan and Chalti ka naam gaadi. But one of the most underrated comedies of Hindi cinema was Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55, which starred himself and Madhubala in the lead roles. It was not a very great time for Madhubala as an actress, after having been dubbed a ‘box-office poison’ especially after the failure of Mehboob Khan’s Amar. Mr and Mrs 55, a satire on modern marriage and feminism, not only revived her career but also was a smash hit at the box office. Today, one might agree or disagree with his interpretation of feminism as Dutt showed in his film but that does not take away in any sense the flair for comedy he showed in it. A huge share of its success goes to the dialogue writer Abrar Alvi, who lightened it up with the finest repartees, as opposed to depending on slapstick comedy, as was the norm then.
The influence of Hollywood-type stylisaiton is clearly visible in Mr and Mrs 55 and one gets to see a Bombay that one can never see again. While it established Dutt as a successful director, Madhubala also proved her comic timing and went on to try comedies in many of her later films. And how can one forget the quirky songs, which were sung in the most random spaces. Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji was sung between two lovers in an office during the lunch break and Dil par hua aisa jadoo was sung in a café. Who,but Guru Dutt could have given this film the fine finishing touch of a musical, making it look all so classy and not kitschy!
Raj Khosla was his assistant for many years and Guru Dutt produced the urban crime thriller CID to give Khosla a chance to direct a film. Guru Dutt had been to Hyderabad before the shooting of this film and spotted a new talent from Madras, who was a trained classical dancer and had already done a film in Telugu and Tamil. He not only signed her for CID as its vamp but also discovered his muse. , Waheeda Rahman, later co-starred with him in all his productions till the end. Their chemistry not only lit up the frames of his films but also caused havoc in Guru Dutt's marital life.

Guru Dutt never took himself seriously as an actor and that explains why he wanted Dilip Kumar to play the lead in Pyaasa , his masterpiece. When Dilip Kumar turned down the film, Dutt donned the greasepaint and lived the role of Vijay, the character which went on to symbolise India’s disillusionment with the new system and its broken promises of freedom. Every man goes through that phase in life when he is an idealist. Pyaasa was Guru Dutt’s attempt to immortalise that idealist in each one of us. Apparently, the script of Pyaasa was written by Guru Dutt almost a decade back. He was only waiting to find a strong footing in the industry before venturing into a sensitive subject.
The success of a serious work like Pyaasa strengthened his resolve to tell the audience his own story. Kaagaz ke Phool, which came out two years later, was partly autobiographical and was India’s first cinemascope film. It bombed, causing him a loss of Rs 17 lakhs. Its failure broke him from within and he refused to give his name in the directorial credits in his films thereafter. He produced Chaudvin ka Chand (directed by M Sadiq) and Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam (directed by his long-time associate Abrar Alvi).

In a space as constrained as the four ends of a cot, 
Guru Dutt summarised the pangs of loneliness in the song Na jao Saiyan
Having been a trained dancer under the legendary Uday Shankar, song picturisation came naturally to him. Not in the sense of naach-gaana or dancing around trees as songs turned out to be in the hands of tasteless filmmakers later, but as a tool of effective storytelling. The man who could funnily break into Sun sun sun sun zalima, could also evoke the deepest of pathos in Dekhi zamane ki yaari. His dramas and tragedies were cinematic gems, which won acclaim in India after they won appreciation in European film festivals. But that does not, in any way, take away from the auteur his mastery over crime, suspense and comedies. Yes, Guru Dutt does remind you of a failed dream seen through the tainted tones of a glass of liquor but he equally belongs to those lazy and breezy evenings of fun and frolic. From period films and dramas to crime thrillers to comedies, there was hardly a genre he didn’t work upon successfully and across the world, not many filmmakers can claim such a credit. Perhaps, Guru Dutt was the greatest cinematic genius we never saw in Hindi cinema, whose life was cut short by an overdose of sleeping pills. He was then making Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, teaming up with OP Nayyar after almost a decade. His brother Devi Dutt refuses to call it a suicide and says that it was only an accidental overdose of pills. Perhaps. Mahedra Kapoor's song in this film was meant for Guru Dutt - 
Badal jaaye agar maali, chaman hota nahi khaali
Baharen phir bhi aayi hai, baharen phir bhi aayengi

Friday, June 19, 2015

Life, art and other thoughts on Kaakka Muttai

When I was in Class 2, I saw my classmate having something called Maggi during the lunch break. I went home and told my mother that I wanted that thread-like thing that my friend had in her tiffin box and even showed how she ate it.The next day, I opened my tiffin box to see something that looked like noodles but it wasn’t Maggi for sure. It didn't look nor taste like it. My mother had deceived me with a healthy rice sevai. She never made Maggi for a long time at home as she believed strongly that it wasn’t good for health. Before you think that this post has my two cents about Maggi, let me tell you that this incident sprang up in my mind as I watched debutant director M Manikandan’s Kaakka Muttai (Crow’s Egg) that came out two weeks back.

There is a scene in Kaakka Muttai, where the two boys from the slum, while talking to their grandmother, keep insisting on having a pizza, flashing the flyer of a pizza outlet that has opened shop in their locality. She asks them to buy a few vegetables so that she can make it for them. She then slices the tomatoes, capsicums and onions as shown in the flyer and evenly places them out on a freshly spread out batter of dosa. The kids taste it and know they have been duped and resolve to find a way to have a pizza by themselves.

Once, when we were at a South Indian restaurant, a lady at the table next to us ordered a vegetable uthappam and when her son asked if this was pizza, she thought for a second and said, “Yeah! This is Indian pizza.”
There is a joy of discovering life in Kaakka Muttai. The whole movie is laced with numerous sarcastic takes on the current social and political scenario in the country. You get free colour television sets at ration shops but rice and pulses are still scarce. Protest marches are guided more by a Rs 100 note and biriyani than anything else. Lofty ideals are less important than ensuring that you have enough to eat to survive, not even live, if you know what that actually means. Our society is an amalgamation of many clubs. It’s not enough to have money to enter a fine dining place. You need to look rich too. But in the middle of all that, not bothered by the social commentaries of the filmmaker,  the kids – Periya Kaakka Muttai and Chinna Kaakka Muttai – are out there, trying to find the road that will lead them to their pizza and in the end, it doesn’t even matter.

At the surface level, Kaakka Muttai might be a movie about the journey of two slum dwelling kids who are out to taste their first pizza, something that they are willing to work hard for. But it is also, as we may realise, a story of our own lives, about people who are in search of something that seems exotic to us when we do not have it but cease to find it alluring once we have it. 

There is a reflection of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in Kakka Muttai, by which I do not suggest in any way that the latter was a rip off from the masterpiece. It is an inspiration in the sense that a work of art always can be. Somewhere you can see the two brothers of Kaakka Muttai discover life the way the siblings Apu and Durga do in Pather Panchali. In both these films, the mothers of these kids hope for a better tomorrow even as they try to meet the requirements of their kids in the best possible way. In Pather Panchali, Apu and Durga's father Harihar is oblivious to the complexities of problems that they face, partly because of his naivety and partly because he can't help it and in Kaakka Muttai, the father cannot help as he is serving a sentence in jail. And yes, there is the benevolent old aunt in Pather Panchali and the grandmother in Kaakka Muttai, who are blamed by the women of the home for spoiling the children. Yet, the kids strike a very beautiful bond with them.

Yet, there isn’t any melancholic air about Manikandan’s film, unlike Ray's masterpiece. It celebrates life at every turn so much so that you enjoy all the big and small moments of the protagonists through their eyes and not for a moment does the filmmaker want you to express any pity for them. Yes, the kids Vignesh and Ramesh have delivered a performance that is beyond words and have won a well-deserved National award. So have the other actors, most notably Iyshwarya Rajesh, as the mother of the two kids. But this is a high moment for Tamil cinema and let us celebrate it, for a work like this doesn’t come way too often. You might have seen children, slums and their lives in Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire. But unlike them, Kaakka Muttai is not self-indulgent and doesn’t even try to take itself too seriously. That’s what makes it a gem worth more than a watch.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Here's Crazy - In conversation with Crazy Mohan

He has redefined comedy in cinema and has been at the forefront of an active theatre culture in Chennai. Crazy Mohan talks about his inspiration, works and the city of Chennai. This interview was published in The Times of India

As we settle for a conversation at the residence of Mohan Rangachari, he is brimming with excitement over the success of his play Chocolate Krishna, which has completed 760 shows and is on the way to touch the 800-show mark. It is not theatre alone that keeps him on his toes. Paintings by him adorn the walls of his home and he excitedly keeps checking the score of a cricket match. But then, writing has been his mainstay.
“Your career is destined regardless of what you study," says Mohan, who did his graduation from the Government College of Engineering, Guindy. "You have to develop as many hobbies as possible at a very young age so that you can take one of them seriously as a career later in life and also have something to look forward to after retirement. God chose me. I didn't choose my career. I only see myself as a custodian of humour."
Going back in time, Mohan gets nostalgic about the people who inspired him in his life, right from his wife, his mother, grandmother and his teacher Janaki. "My teacher sowed the seeds of good literature in me. Under her tutelage, I began reciting lines from Veerapandiya Kattabomman for a play. As a mark of tribute to her, I decided that I would name the heroine in every movie written by me Janaki," he says. There are other names that crop up. "My guru Agnihotram Ramanujar Tatachariar made me see the divine in everyone. In everybody's laughter I can see God. Kanchi Paramacharya once said that a humourist is the closest to God because he makes people happy. To think of it, the origin of slapstick comedy goes back to the puranas, when Vishnu did thoppukaranam to make Ganesha laugh and get the sudarshana chakra out of his belly. But in the space of literature, I was heavily drawn to the humour of Devan and PG Wodehouse. There is exaggeration to the limit of absurdity in the humour of Wodehouse," he says. 
Mohan's flair for the unusual was noticed when he was in college, as he wrote the play The Great Bank Robbery. He got the award for best writer and actor from the hands of Kamal Hassan that year. Little did he know then that the duo would make one of the most successful writer-actor pairs in comedy, in Tamil cinema. "Kamal is a polyglot. He is well-read in many languages. I have many friends who are Palghat Iyers and I used their lingo to the hilt when I wrote Michael Madana Kama Rajan. While writing Thenali, Kamal and I listened to several tapes of Radio Ceylon to get the Ezha Tamil right for his character." 
It's been close to 40 years of writing now and Mohan believes that theatre has improved since 1976, when he started working. Picking his favourites on Chennai's theatre scene, he names Augusto and S Ve Shekher. "I have also been a huge fan of the plays of Balachander, Cho Ramaswamy and Sivaji. Initially, theatres thrived on the sabha model. Today, it is sponsored by corporates. In some ways, theatre has taken the Twenty20 model. But it is fine, as I believe that trend is the best friend." Mohan also says that serious quality work can take time to take off and find recognition. "Remember, when Krishna narrated the Bhagvat Gita, he only had one person in the audience but today, it has won over the world."
Call him a complete Chennaiite and he corrects you promptly. "I am a complete Mylaporean. I was born here, studied at PS High School, my theatre activities were centred around here and even Kamal's office, where I spent a lot of time, was in Alwarpet. I feel homesick even when I go to Mambalam. Before I write the first line of a play, I place them at the feet of Goddess Karpagambal to seek her blessings," he says. So how does he define himself at the end? "I am a jack of all trades and master of fun."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Decoding a Phenomenon

A review of Rajesh Khanna - The untold story of India's first superstar by Yasser Usman

In a scene from Kati Patang, Rajesh Khanna says, on a rather philosophical and romantic note, to a gathering of pretty girls - Kavita banayi nahi jaati, ban jaati hai, apne aap.... Jab kisi ki sundata, ankhon se hokar mann mein sama jaati hai. Sundarta aisi jo apni nazuk dor se kisi ko apne aur kheech ke sab kuch bhula deti hai, madhosh kar deti hai... ek khoobsurat shaam ki tarah. (Poetry is not written. It just happens when a piece of beauty enters your heart through your eyes. Beauty such, which draws you towards it and makes you forget everything, much like a beautiful evening).

He breaks into Yeh shaam mastani, listening to which an entire generation of women believed that Rajesh Khanna was singing for them. There is a similarity between Khanna's explanation of poetry and his own phenomenon, for no one really knew what drew millions towards him. His superstardom was like the twilight; it existed for a short while but then, his story could never be repeated by any superstar after him. Something similar to Yeh Shaam mastani, madhosh kiye jaaye!
Each woman in the audience believed that every blink of his eyes and every nod of his head was only for her. Girls of the 1970s did not simply go for a Rajesh Khanna movie to see it; they went on a date with him with every movie outing of theirs.

Aradhana, the blockbuster which changed his fortunes,
establishing him as the King of Romance

You get many such details in Yasser Usman's biography of Rajesh Khanna, whose meteoric rise was not only unprecedented, but also quite undecipherable. It's quite tricky for a writer to completely fathom the zenith of a superstar's appeal if he has not grown up watching him. Which is why Yasser begins his book saying, "To Rajesh Khanna. Wish I had witnessed your superstardom." This book helps a reader experience an era, when films didn't run, Rajesh Khanna did.
Yasser begins his journey with the end - the funeral procession of Rajesh Khanna. The sea of humanity that swarmed the streets of Mumbai made him wonder what it must have been like, when Kaka, as Rajesh Khanna was known to all, was at the peak of his superstardom. The author admits that he wasn't a big fan of Khanna himself, which actually lends an element of objectivity to the book. At a time when biographies usually end up as hagiographies, with a customary innocuous negative remark here and there, Yasser's account of Rajesh Khanna brings out the superstar's failings with the same candour with which it brings his dizzying heights of success.  

Rajesh Khanna's fans returned albeit, in his death
The writer has based his research on a plethora of stories and interviews that appeared in the 1970s and 80s in film magazines and journals, such as Star & Style, Stardust and Filmfare. He wasn't able to talk to actress Dimple Kapadia. Hence her side of the story is put together like a jigsaw puzzle from the interviews she gave in the 1980s to various magazines after she walked out of Khanna's home. He has spoken to Khanna's contemporaries as well, but we do not know who they were, for they chose to remain anonymous. But a credible chunk of the story has come from script writer Salim Khan, who has also written the foreword for the book.

Khanna's comic outing with Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi
The book reads almost like a movie. Yasser ends the chapters at crucial turning points and the book is well-structured. A couple of editing errors, which are very few in number, could have been avoided. There is an account of Khanna's life before he became a superstar. While his personal life gets a lot of mention, Yasser also analyses the success of his landmark films, such as Anand, Bawarchi and Amar Prem. His rivalry with Amitabh Bachchan and his descent are elaborately written.

Does this book help a reader understand the phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna, the superstar? To a great extent it does. You can almost feel the hysteria around Khanna and will agree (even if you are not his fan) that no superstar could ever achieve the zenith that Rajesh Khanna did. But does it explain the psyche of Jatin Khanna, the human being? To some extent. In parts, the writer is as puzzled as the people who lived around Khanna at that time, for Rajesh Khanna seldom revealed what was in his mind to anyone. The most beautifully written chapters of the book describe the fame that came to Khanna after the unexpected blockbuster Aradhana, his meeting with Anju Mahendroo, many years after their split and the last years of his life, when Rajesh Khanna fought hard to win back his fans. And the fans did return, though with his death.
It's quite strange that while many books have been written on Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and even Shah Rukh Khan, Hindi cinema's biggest superstar was left untouched by many biographers. This one could very well be a benchmark for a biography on Rajesh Khanna.

Friday, December 12, 2014

First Day, First Show - The Rajini Phenomenon

Image: The Times of India

There is nothing quite spectacular like the release of a Rajinikanth blockbuster in Tamil Nadu. His superstardom has got cemented with each successive release. This year, with his birthday coinciding with the release of his blockbuster Lingaa, the celebration cannot get bigger. The idea of First Day, First Show cannot be explained in words when it comes to a Rajinikanth film in Tamil Nadu.

Crackers are being burst and the cut outs of Rajnikanth, towering over cinema halls, are being offered ablutions with milk. In the days to come, houseful boards will be the mainstay at many theatres in Chennai. In the last few days, Rohit Menon, a city-based marketing professional, has been trying to get tickets of Lingaa, only to be disappointed.“I wanted to go for a first-day, first show with my family and friends. But I haven't been able to get any ticket for Friday and I will have to miss this opportunity . It's a big deal to watch a Rajinikath film on day one,“ says Rohit.
Having shifted to Chennai five years back, he saw the frenzy around Enthiran (2010) and was awed by the hysteria around the film on the day of the release.“I grew up on Amitabh Bachchan in Mumbai and to see the aura that surrounds Rajinikanth is totally mind-blowing,“ he says. The journey has been similar for Amrit Raj, whose exposure to Rajinikanth began with movies like Hum, Andha Kanoon and Chaalbaaz in the 1980s. “The whole decade of 1990s, when the Rajini phenomenon took the south by storm, people in the north were quite untouched by it,“ says Amrit, for whom things changed in 2007, when Sivaji: The Boss, was released in theatres in the north, dubbed in Hindi. “Moviegoers in the north were totally taken by surprise when they got a tryst with this frenzy that swept the country and it just grew bigger over the last few years,“ he says.

Pradeep Jain, who trades in dubbed films in the Hindi market, says that Rajini's popularity in the north started shooting northwards with the dubbed release of Sivaji and went through the roof with Robot, the Hindi version of Enthiran. “Later, Basha and Chandramukhi were also dubbed for satellite release and even today, Sivaji and Robot fetch high TRPs on television every time it is aired,“ he says.

It goes without saying that the release of a Rajini film is a festival in itself. “It's a collective celebration and people usually do not go for a Rajinikanth film alone. It's an experience they have with their friends and family members. My father-in-law is 80 and yet, he wants to watch Rajini's film on the first day . That's his charisma, which attracts cinegoers from the age of eight to 80,“ says V R Shankar, Manager, Devi Cineplex. Today, with a huge majority of cinema halls having gone the road of online booking, the serpentine queues one witnessed in the 1990s might not be a feat to rival. “In 1995, when Muthu was released, it had a phenomenal run here and Rajinikanth turned into an inimitable icon with back-to-back hits. But the wonderful thing about him is that he still is the undisputed superstar of Indian cinema,“ says Shankar, who remembers Rajini visiting Devi theatre for the shooting of Annai Oru Aalayam, in the late 1970s.

While growing up in Ayanavaram in the 1990s, Justin George never missed a single first day, first show viewing of a Rajinikanth film. He would have posters of Rajini pasted all over the walls of his room, only to be rebuked by his parents later. “The very first memory of cinema I have is watching his Panakkaran (1990) in a theatre, when I was three years old.Every time a new release of Rajini came out, I would run to a nearby shopkeeper, who sold the latest film posters. I saw the first shows of Muthu, Arunachalam, Basha, Padayappa and Sivaji on the first day of their release. There were occasions when I got beaten up when the police tried control the swelling crowd outside the cinema halls. We would fight tooth and nail to lay our hands on a ticket,“ says Justin as he goes on to describe his experience in further detail. “On the first day, you can't even listen to the dialogues or even follow the story . There will just be a larger-than-life jubilation in the theatre, which is beyond description. That would be the case in many single screens across Chennai and even today, that's how it is in the single screens,“ he says. 

It was in his school that Rajinikanth began his first tryst with acting. During his school days, Rajinikanth spent a lot of his time acting in plays. On one such occasion, he played the role of the Kaurava prince Duryodhan in the play Kurukshetra.This was, perhaps, just the beginning of many negative shades that he would play in his career and in his early days, he played the anti-hero and villain to the hilt in movies like Apoorva Ragangal, Moondru Mudichu and 16 Vayathinile.

When Nishanth Ramakrishnan is not busy with his MBA classes in a B-School, he acts in short films and also makes some of them. An aspiring actor, he has seen Rajini films like Thillu Mullu, Basha and Thalapathi over and over again. “I have seen Apoorva Ragangal many times over just to see him opening the gate in the scene where he is introduced for the first time. Purely from the standpoint of entertainment, he has enormous style, which is his forte. Whether it is the Rajini of the 1970s or the Rajini of today, there has been a class in his style, which has only endured over time. People keep asking who will be the next superstar. I think he is the only superstar,“ he says. 

There is news pouring in from fans queuing up outside Sathyam cinemas the first day, first show of Lingaa right from 2am. The first show of a Rajini film doesn't wait for sunrise. The sun rises to a Rajini film.

This appeared in the special feature Naan Rajini, brought out by The Times of India, to mark the birthday of Rajinikanth

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Upkar - The birth of Mr Bharat

Thanks to new TV channels like Zee Classic and Set Max2, a lot of old Hindi classics have gained entry into our drawing rooms yet again. During the Doordarshan days, we would invariably end up watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi on Aug 15 or Oct 2 every year. Yesterday, I happened to watch Upkar (1967) after many years. Since childhood, the one song that has been an instant recall at the very mention of patriotism has been Mere desh ki dharti
A nation resting on the rifles of its soldiers
 and hoes of the farmers
The name Bharat stuck onto Manoj Kumar after Upkar
and he used this name in his later films as well
Manoj Kumar had written and directed Upkar, a story about two brothers – Bharat (Manoj Kumar) and Puran (Prem Chopra), who choose different paths in life. Bharat, who supports the family working in the fields every day, is educated but chooses to stay back in the village, as he feels that it’s one’s duty to till the land and feed the nation. Puran studies in the city and wants to return to the comforts that come with urban life. Differences crop up between the brothers, after Puran’s ears are poisoned by his uncle and a local trader. Very soon, he demands the partition of their ancestral land. Bharat, in order to maintain the dignity of his land, gives it entirely to Puran and walks away to join the army. War breaks out between India and Pakistan. Puran joins ranks with hoarders and black marketers, who create an artificial food shortage in the market. Bharat gets badly injured in the war and returns, almost bleeding to death.  Meanwhile, Puran, realising the malicious intent of his uncle, becomes a government approver and helps the police nab hoarders and black marketers. Bharat needs to be operated upon and his hands have to be cut off. Bharat undergoes great mental agony after he loses his hands in an operation. But the next day, he sees Puran tilling their ancestral land. Bharat has regained the arms, once lost to partition. The favours (Upkar) of the mother earth can now be returned.
Asha Parekh as Doctor Kavita,
who studies in a city but practices in the villages

Upkar was the genesis of Prem Chopra donning shades of grey,
before he went on to play villanous roles in other films

Upkar begins where Manoj Kumar's Shaheed (based on the life of Bhagat Singh) ends and tells the story of a nation fighting its problems after independence. While Shaheed was about the struggle involved in creating a new nation, Upkar discusses the issues involved in preserving the integrity of a young nation state. The film opens with a dedication to the former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Manoj Kumar had shown his film Shaheed to Shastri, who was very impressed with the work and asked Manoj Kumar to make a film on the farmers and jawans of India. It’s with that thought that Upkar’s story was written. After independence, India’s educated elite, especially the English-educated, saw themselves as different from the masses of the country and failed to understand the real issues of India. In such a scenario came Manoj Kumar’s Bharat, who was educated but chose to fight the problems of his motherland. India was undergoing an acute food crisis in the mid 1960s and Shastri had then decided to fast every Monday, a practice, which was replicated by masses across the country in solidarity with the PM. Led by a morally upright Prime Minister, the average Indian was willing to slog an extra mile to see a better tomorrow. 
The storyline revolved around most of the burning issues of the 1960s. This generation was born a few years before independence and was also the last torchbearer of Gandhian idealism. This group often came in conflict with the group that was growing restless and wanted to break off from the old rules. Collectivism of India was in direct conflict with the new individualistic culture.  Urbanisation had made land a commodity and inadequate agricultural production pushed the nation towards starvation. Rural life has obviously been glorified in Upkar. Urban India has been criticized for encouraging a new class structure, where one section consists of owners and the other of workers.
Upkar marked the beginning of a new phase in Pran's career.
As Malang chacha, he made a shift to character roles
Kamini Kaushal, as the mother, was a metaphor for a nation
 that could not afford another partition
Bharat’s battle against hoarders, overpopulation and rural-urban migration constantly resonated with the masses who watched Upkar, who wanted the old idealism to live on. Asha Parekh played the village doctor Kavita, who spoke to the women about family planning and its advantages, a decade before Sanjay Gandhi launched his sterilization campaign. Asha Parekh wanted to be a doctor in real life but ended up in the film industry and hence, was elated to play the role of a doctor on-screen . The rise of demagogues and public rationing is attacked in Pran’s dialogue, “ Rashan (Ration) pe bhashan bohot milta hai, par bhashan pe rashan koi nahi”. Kanhaiyalal, who had made the character of Sukhilala, the evil money lender, immortal in Mother India, repeated his feat in Upkar as well.
Puran returns to lend support to his elder brother after he loses his hands
and repay the debts of Mother Earth
Aruna Irani made a brief appearance in one of her early roles
In the scene where Puran demands partition of the ancestral land, his brother says, almost echoing a wounded nation, “Main Bharat hoon. Hamesha hi batware ke khilaf raha hoon. Main batwara hone nahi doonga.” (I’m Bharat. I’ve always been against partition and I will not let it happen). It was the voice of a nation that had been cut into three two decades back. The release of Upkar also coincided with the Green Revolution, which changed the face of agriculture for in the northern plains for a long time.

Manoj Kumar went on to make Purab Aur Paschim a few years later, where he tackled the topic of brain drain. Upkar caught the imagination of the nation. In 1968, the film was the top grosser at the box office and won six Filmfare awards, for Best Lyricist (Gulshan Bawra - Mere desh ki dharti), Best Dialogue, story and director (Manoj Kumar), Best Supporting Actor (Pran) and Best Movie. Mahendra Kapoor won the National Award for the song Mere desh ki dharti and Upkar also won the President’s silver medal for the Best Feature film. Many parts of Upkar might seem didactic today but nevertheless, the fears expressed in the movie continue to haunt the country even today. In the end, Upkar is a call to the nation to rise and take collective responsibilities. It's sad that  Manoj Kumar has become a subject for parodies today, with his face palm gesture. But his Bharat continues to be the prototype of a patriotic hero, who takes ownership and delivers for a cause. Let the idealism live on.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A trailblazer called Hum Aapke Hain Koun

Yesterday, an entire generation was made to feel old, after being told that Hum Aapke Hain Koun turned 20. Time just flies like no one's business. Every year, some film or the other celebrates a milestone. But Hum Aapke Hain Koun was not any other film. It was not just nostalgia that made this film important for us. Sooraj Barjatya's Hum Aapke Hain Koun changed the dynamics of the Hindi film industry forever; it wasn't just another blockbuster.

Having spent my childhood in the Middle East, I never went to a theatre to watch a film for a long time in my life. But it wasn't just me who was away from the theatres in the 1980s. The Hindi film industry, in the 1980s, went down the drain completely and lost its theatre audience to video cassette libraries and television serials. Yes, there were blockbusters coming out every year. But the condition of theatres had gone from bad to worse. Hence, Hum Aapke Hain Koun was released only in a limited number of theatres across the country, where the entire family could have a good viewing experience. The film premiered at Liberty Cinema in Mumbai, on August 5, 1994 and viewers thronged to those limited theatres where it was being screened. Across the country, many theatre owners took cue and began renovation activities in their cinema halls. The family audience, which had remained away for over a decade, was returning to the theatres.

Madhuri Dixit came to be known as female Amitabh Bachchan
 after delivering back-to-back blockbusters

Shooting the climax scene

But the ground for Hum Aapke Hain Koun was being prepared right through the late 1980s. At the core of Hum Aapke Hain Koun was the idea of family, drawn from the Indian epic Ramayan. Ramanand Sagar's blockbuster TV serial in 1987 created a longing for the good old family values among the audience. There were reported instances of siblings having buried their differences after watching the serial, especially the Ram-Bharat milap episode. The collectivist spirit of the Indian society (as opposed to the individualism of the western society), with the joint family system as its base, was revived. But in real, India was changing. Urbanisation had led to the rise of nuclear families and the joint family system was largely a piece of nostalgia, a reminder of 'the idea of home' for most Indians, especially the NRIs settled in various foreign countries. Sooraj Barjatya's first production Main ne pyar kiya, was in many ways an early indication of what he sought to deliver to the Indian audience. Romance had been killed in an era of violence and revenge through the late 1970s and 80s. Main ne pyar kiya and Qayamat se qayamat tak set the standard for the kind of cinema that would dominate in the 1990s.
Hum Aapke Hain Koun also made a superstar out of Madhuri Dixit. This diva was launched by Rajshris in Abodh (1984), in which Sooraj Barjatya was an assistant director. But after Hum Aapke Hain Koun, she wasn't just another star. Sobriquets like 'Female Amitabh Bachchan' were being showered on her. Salman Khan carried forward the lover boy Prem for the next few years, till he realised the Dabangg side of his persona. 

Music became a major highlight of this movie, with 14 songs!
Sooraj Barjatya giving instructions to Reema Lagoo
To think of it, Hum Aapke Hain Koun did not even have an original story. It was a remake of Rajshri's 1982 hit Nadiya Ke Paar. The story, set in the rural heartland, was adapted to suit the urban sensibilities of the 1990s. While romance was an important highlight of Hum Aapke Hain Koun, at the core of it was the fulcrum of family. While many critics wrote off the film as an extended wedding album, it had struck the right chord among moviegoers. The decade of 1980s was a time when people skipped the songs while watching movies on their VCRs or worse, many libraries even deleted songs according to their whims. Songs were treated as toilet breaks in theatres. But how could one delete songs in a movie where relationships were forged over songs and dances? Hum Aapke Hain Koun restored the lost glory of the Hindi film song, though the trend began with the musical success of Main ne pyar kiya and Qayamat se qayamat tak. HMV, which was running on losses, saw brighter days after 1989.
Today, the coy smiles of Renuka Shahane, the didactic and sanskari lectures of Alok Nath and the silly idea of a widower being married to his sister-in-law might elicit laughter. Many spoofs of Hum Aapke Hain Koun can be found in social media and their observations are not misplaced. But there can be no denial that Hum Aapke Hain Koun was the need of that era. Along with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), it was a breath of fresh air in a time filled with gore and blood.
Madhuri won a new fan in painter MF Hussian,
who made a series of paintings on her

 For those born in the 1980s, watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun in the theatre with their family was the dominant movie viewing experience to cherish from their early years. So hugely successful it was that for many south Indian friends of mine, this was the first Hindi movie they watched in a theatre. It ran for an incredible 100 weeks at Liberty Cinema, where it premiered and joined the ranks of Mughal-e-azam and Sholay to become one of the biggest grossers in the history of Hindi cinema. So while we laugh our hearts out watching Salman and Madhuri fight over a pair of shoes through a song, we cannot quite write off a film, which not only formed an impressionable childhood experience for an entire generation, but also made filmmakers consider 'family' as their target audience while making a film.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The charm of Dedh Ishqiya

A major challenge faced by most script writers while coming out with a sequel is that they have to dish out something that will retain elements of the old and yet, will captivate the audience with something absolutely fresh. Abhishek Chaubey's Ishqiya had a finely written script, street smart humour, strong characters and some wonderful songs. Retaining many of these elements, Dedh Ishqiya is the first hit of the year and what a pleasant way to start off!

Dedh Ishqiya  brings back Ifteqar (known as Khalu, played by Nasseruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi), who land up in another mess while finding crooked ways to make easy money. They steal an expensive necklace from a store and many adventures lead them to a poetry symposium being organised by Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit), the widowed begum of Mehmudabad, who will marry the best poet from the gathering. Ifteqar sees a good opportunity to spend the rest of his life there in peace and Babban takes wildly to Begum’s maid and confidante Muniya (Huma Qureshi). But beneath all this facade of poetry, the imposters fall in deep trouble, not before they cover the seven steps of love.

Nasseruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi maintain the momentum of their chemistry seen in Ishqiya. The only other pair that which has ticked off well in popular imagination is that of Munna and circuit in the Munnabhai series. Their fun, repartees and insecurities bring in plenty of homourous moments. It is wonderful to see that Shah lets the talent of his female co-stars come to the fore, be it in IshqiyaThe Dirty Picture or Dedh Ishqiya. Actors like Vijay Raaz and Manoj Pahwa, who seldom get roles they are worthy of, shine through the film.
There are two things you should thank the makers of Dedh Ishqiya  for having brought back to cinema – Madhuri Dixit and the genre of Muslim social. Madhuri dances like a dream to the steps of Pandit Birju Maharaj's choreography, who has worked on the wonderful kathak piece Jagaye saari raina. As the Begum who takes to dance after ages, Madhuri springs like a bird freed out of her cage. She finely balances the coquetry of a courtesan with the elegance of an aristocrat, seasoned with oodles of humour. Watching her you wonder how her talent was largely wasted by filmmakers in the 1990s. To complement her at every step is Huma Qureshi, whose comic timing and brazen acts are a joy to watch. It’s heartening to find a beautiful story on female bonding, which has rarely been explored in Hindi cinema. In Ishqiya , Vidya Balan stole the thunder from the very talented Arshad Warsi and Nasseruddin Shah. Even in the sequel, the women are the real show stealers. 

Begum Para and Muniya, in a rare story of female bonding
The Muslim social genre once ruled the roost with movies like Chaudhvin ka Chand, Mere Mehboob and Mughal-e-azam in the 1960s. The genre waned by the end of 1960s and Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah was its last fort of its glory. In the later period, the attempts towards revival with MS Sathyu's Garam Hawa, Muzzafar Ali's Umrao Jaan and Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar were rather scattered. But these were flash in the pan appearances and the genre was almost dead. But Dedh Ishqiya has given a glimpse into that genre once again. There is an element of hiraeth in it, a longing for the past, which surfaces throughout the film. Begum Para tries to uphold a culture that has few takers today. There is a hint of movies like Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar, where the old world zamindars create an atmosphere of the bygone world in their private space for their psychological satisfaction. But the era has ended and as we see it, Begum Para knows it too well. 

Like his previous films, Vishal Bhardwaj has given music that blends well with the story. What is notable about in Dedh Ishqiya is the inclusion of some of the most memorable ghazals of Begum Akhtar, one of the greatest ghazal singers of the 20th century. What better way of evoking the milieu of a bygone era than entreating us to gems like Woh jo hum mein tum mein qarar tha and Hamari atariya pe. Vishal Bhardwaj proves his mettle as a dialogue writer too. Listening to those repartees and couplets in chaste Urdu is sheer eutony.

There are loose ends in the script. Why did Begum stop dancing? How did Ifteqar know her during his teenage years? Did they have a strong relationship and did the Begum really love him? Abhishek has given this peek into their past and it leads to nowhere, ending up as an unnecessary distraction. The women do not have as strong a back-story or a finely layered personality as the protagonist Krishna (Vidya) did in Ishqiya.

Sometimes you wonder how can no-brainers like Chennai Express and Dhoom 3 make money in billions, while a movie like Dedh Ishqiya, with all the elements of a quality entertainer, doesn't get a blockbuster opening. But history decides which film is worthy of being watched over and over again and when that stock is taken years later, Dedh Ishqiya  will not find much trouble fighting for a space. Madhuri's charm, its lilting music and the bravura performances will only endure with time.
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