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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Guns and Roses - A review of Ram Leela

After more than a decade, Sanjay Leela Bhansali returns to the turf he is most familiar with – the rural terrains of Gujarat, brightened up with the colours of its festivals, costumes, dhols, opulent sets and striking dialogues. Add to this the intensity of a shakespearean drama diffused with countless splutters of blood, along with elements of Bhansali's previous movies and Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela is ready.
The movie is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story of love between Ram (Ranveer Singh) and Leela (Deepika Padukone), who come from two warring groups in the hinterlands of Gujarat.  The relationship, that begins flirtatiously during a Holi celebration, ripens as the movie proceeds and the couple find themselves held back by deep rooted hatred, which has grown between the two groups over the past five centuries. They elope and try to set a world of their own in an attempt to erase their bloody history with their love.

Right from the opening scene to the closing credits, you can hear echoes of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. Sometimes they appear in the form of song sequences, tunes or even a few dialogues and picturisations. You are likely to admire this movie only if you loved the above mentioned films. At some points, the roses of the lovers seem to get lost in the firing of the guns. The songs, composed by Bhansali himself, are not consistently good. Some even stand out like a sore thumb in the album.  
But there are many reasons to celebrate Ram Leela. For a change, he places this movie in a real time and space, unlike his last two ventures which were set in some fairy land. The background score of Monty is among the best this year and it beautifully enunciates the emotions and high decibel drama of the film. While Ranveer Singh delivers a commendable performance, it is Deepika who shines bright all through the film. Their chemistry sets the screen ablaze, especially in the sensuous notes of Ang laga de re. Performance is indeed the high point of the movie. From Richa Chadda and Barkha Bisht as the widowed sisters-in-law of Leela and Ram, to Abhimanyu Singh as Ram's brother, they are a delight to watch. But it is Supriya Pathak who steals the thunder as the matriarch Dhankor Baa (Deepika's mother), who never for a moment seems out of character. The closing song Laal Ishq is a gem, that seems to be a fitting ode to love.

But besides being a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Bhansali beautifully incorporates elements of the Ramayana. From the abduction of Sita and the toughness assumed by Ram as a king to the metaphoric killing of Ravan at the end, the director blends a shakespearean drama with the Indian epic seamlessly. All these merits aside, the rich visual splendour of Ram Leela itself is worth a watch in a theatre. In spite of the director going overboard at many instances, Ram Leela is a romantic battle that is worth a watch.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Kaun aaya - The unforgettable notes of Manna Dey

I was hardly six years old when I watched Ramu Kariat's classic blockbuster Chemmeen (1965), which took the Malayalam film industry by storm. It is a film, which every Malayali is initiated into, right from his childhood. The only scene I retained for a long time to come was the one where Pareekutty (Madhu) sings  a ballad calling for his love Karuttamma (Sheela). The song was Manasa mayine varu. I was surprised years later, when I came to know from my mother that the songs of Chemmeen, which evoked a rich imagery of the coastline of Kerala, were composed by Salil Chowdhary, a Bengali. But then, Manna Dey too was a son of Bengal, whom the Malayalis lapped up for this song.

I had seen Raj Kapoor and Nargis under the umbrella in a rainy night singing Pyar hua ikrar hua several times, without knowing that it was Manna Dey who gave us this memorable number. There were many such gems from the golden era of Hindi cinema, which were immortalised by him. To think of it, he was the last living male singer from that era in our midst. Mukesh passed away in the mid 1970s, while Rafi and Kishore Kumar left a decade later. Talat Mahmood died quite a silent death in 1998; we had not heard from his right from the 1960s. Mahendra Kapoor passed away in 2008. But a fact not known to many is that Manna Dey began his singing career in films before any of them, in 1942, even before Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle got their first solo song.

Among the earliest songs he sang was Tyagmayi tu gayi, for Vijay Bhatt's Ram Rajya (1943). His uncle KC Dey, who was a leading singer, was supposed to sing it but suggested his nephew's name instead. At the age of 24, Manna Dey sang a song that was picturised on the character of an aged Valmiki. For some reason, throughout his career, Manna Dey ended up singing more songs picturised on character artistes, than the young heroes. Many a time, he did not even know that the song would end up being picturised on old men or wandering minstrels (as in Boot Polish, Parineeta and Devdas).
A huge opportunity came to him in the mid 1950s, when Mukesh decided to focus on acting career (which  never took off) and gave a pause to his singing. That was when Raj Kapoor approached Manna Dey to sing the songs of Shree 420 and Chori Chori. In one of his interviews, Manna Dey recollected how Raj Kapoor and Nargis had enacted the entire sequence of Pyar hua ikrar hua before him and Lata as the song was being recorded. The result was magical. Both these films were huge musical hits, with the magic of Shree 420 travelling to Russia and the Middle East. The partnership with Raj Kapoor extended to movies like Dil Hi Toh Hai (Laaga chunri mein daag), Teesri Kasam (Chalat musafir moh liyo re) and Mera  Naam Joker (Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo). But at the end of the day, Mukesh remained etched in popular memory as Raj Kapoor's voice.

In complete contrast to the philosophical overtones of these songs, he was also the voice of Mehmood and gave an unbelievable tit-for-tat to Kishore Kumar in Ek chatur naar (Padosan). Who can forget his Hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain (Gumnaam). It became an anthem for those Indians, who were undeterred by their dark skin in their pursuit of love. Who didn't gyrate to the peppy party number Aao twist karen, again picturised on Mehmood in Bhoot Bangla?
But more than anything else, he shone most in his classical numbers and was given those rare opportunities, which even Rafi could never get, for all the backing he got from Naushadl. In the 1950s, when Shankar Jaikishen (till then seen as makers of popular music) got a chance to prove their mettle in classical music, they decided to recreate a similar spectacle as Naushad did with Baiju Bawra. They roped in Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the jugabandi Ketaki gulab juhi and had Manna Dey at the other end to reply to his musical might! Manna Dey shirked at the prospect of having to challenge the legend. Even Naushad had someone like Ustad Amir Khan to face a titan like Pandit DV Paluskar in Baiju Bawra. Not only did Manna Dey shine through with brilliance, he even won praises from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for his flawless rendition.

As a matter of fact, Manna Dey could have easily made a career in classical music as well. But he chose to be in films. His voice had the depth and gravity to pull of any difficult bandish. In the 1970s, he got many offers to sing for younger actors like Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra and he immortalised songs like Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand) and Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge (Sholay). It was his genius that he adapted his voice so well for actors across ages at the same time - character actors like Balraj Sahni (Ae meri zonrajabeen) and Pran (Kasme vaade pyar wafa) on one hand and the young upcoming ones on the other. I cannot even write in detail about his Bengali songs, where his contribution was immense. But the one rendition that I will carry forever was his adaptation of Harivanshrai Bachchan's Madhushala. Every couplet got a new meaning in his voice. Perhaps, he did not win the rat race because he never participated in it.

Jinhone sajaaye yahan mele, sukh dukh sang sang jhele,

Wohi chunkar khaamoshi, yun chali jaaye akele kaha

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Aftertaste of The Lunchbox - a review

The Lunchbox (Dabba) won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award at the 2013 Cannes film festival

Sometimes, a wrong train can take you to the right destination. This is the premise of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, produced by Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur and Arun Rangachari.
Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan), a no-nonsense, lonely widower, is having one more month to go for his retirement at a government office. A new employee at the office, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), is supposed to take over from him and constantly tries to learn work from him in vain. One day, a lunchbox is wrongly delivered to Saajan by a dabbawala and he relishes his lunch after a long time. The box, packed by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), was meant for her husband (Nakul Vaid), who is indifferent to her efforts to cook something new for him everyday. However, Ila basks in this new appreciation for her cooking from this stranger and sends him a note of thanks. The story is unfolded through a series of notes exchanged between Ila and Saajan, where they share special and mundane aspects of their everyday life. Ila constantly seeks advice from a neighbourhood aunt (Bharati Achrekar), who is only heard, but not seen throughout the film. As the date of retirement finally comes for Saajan, it is time for him and Ila to take stock of their lives and arrive at a decision.

Ritesh infuses The Lunchbox with a lot of warmth and compassion.  Many elements in this movie seem to be a fond recollection of the times we lived in many years ago. Sometimes, they appear in the form of handwritten notes in an age of sms and emails and sometimes, through a friendly banter between Ila and the neighbourhood aunt, in an age when we do not even know the names of our neighbours. Saajan spends a few evenings playing video cassettes of the popular sitcom Ye Jo Hai Zindagi, to relive the moments he spent with his wife, though with a tinge of regret of not having given enough time to her. With the stranger Saajan coming in, Ila gets a reason and incentive to live her life. Shaikh, who has grown up as an orphan, strikes a chord with Saajan and builds a life out of the broken pieces handed over to him.
The Lunchbox is driven by its well written script and stellar performances. While Irrfan and Nawazuddin yet again prove their mettle, Nimrat is a true discovery. She matches the performances of these wonderful actors with ease. Without appearing in a single frame, Bharati Achrekar endears herself to the viewers with her witty remarks and free advice. Even as the story flows seamlessly, we get brilliant shots of Mumbai, with its bus rides, local trains and streets bursting with people. With understated dialogues, warm performances and a relatable storyline, The Lunchbox gives you a memorable aftertaste.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Meena Kumari by Vinod Mehta: A Review

Meena Kumari's biography, initially published in the year 1972, has been republished this year by HarperCollins India.

It has been more than 40 years since the great tragedienne Meena Kumari passed away. While alive, she provided fodder for umpteen rumour mills with her siren like charm and her dramatic death, soon after the release of her swansong Pakeezah, left most questions related to her life unanswered.

Vinod Mehta, in his inchoate days as a journalist, wrote this biography of Meena Kumari, almost immediately after her death. The publisher obviously wanted to capitalise on the grief that moviegoers were still reeling under after losing their favourite heroine. He never met his subject and feels that this has lent some degree of detachment in his writing. But in a span of just a few months, Mehta met as many people as possible to gather a picture of Meena Kumari – her siblings, husband Kamal Amrohi, contemporaries like Nargis Dutt, film journalists, personal physicians, make-up artistes and anyone who had a word to say about his heroine, as he calls her throughout the book. A notable exception in this list is Dharmendra, who refused the author an interview for this book.

Mehta begins the story with Meena Kumari’s death and the perfunctory reactions from the film industry fellows to her death, which Mehta dismisses as ritual hypocrisy. He finds the reactions of his domestic help and driver more credible, as these were the people who went multiple times to the theaters to make her films a blockbuster. The chapters that follow are devoted to her birth, rise in the industry, her fall after her split from Kamal Amrohi, the making of Pakeezah and her death. There are three more chapters, where the writer tells how he conducted his research and critically examines Meena Kumari, the actress and the woman.

Mehta devotes an entire chapter to the making of Pakeezah, as Meena Kumari saw it as the most important film of her life, which was made over a span of 15 years. As a taxi driver Mehta met put it, “First Meena Kumari made this film with her money. Then with her death.” A problem with a book of this kind is that there are two or three generations of readers, who have never been to a cinema hall to watch a Meena Kumari film and many might have seen hardly a film or two on television. This book was initially released when Pakeezah was still going strong in the theaters and audience was flocking to see reruns of her first blockbuster Baiju Bawra. He also spends considerable time describing the making of Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam.

But there is not a single synopsis for the young readers to familiarise them about the plot lines of films, though he describes scenes from these movies while relating anecdotes. Even with such an elaboration on Pakeezah, there is no mention of the fact that Padma Khanna was Meena’s body double in some of the song sequences or that Meena Kumari revealed another aspect of her talent by designing the costumes for this film! There is nothing new from what Mehta had written in 1972, except for a brief introduction. Another problem is with the division of chapters. How can you talk about her stupendous performances and write about the mental agony that Meena Kumari, the method actress faced while portraying these tragic roles in a separate chapter? Meena Kumari’s fall in her personal life cannot be disassociated with discussions on Meena Kumari, the masochistic woman. He feels apprehensive of Gulzar (in 1972), to whom Meena Kumari had bequeathed her personal diaries, as he sees in him a competitor, who can write another and perhaps more credible Meena Kumari biography. To this date, Gulzar has not revealed the contents of the diary, save a few poems, which were published later in a magazine. Mehta even confidently declares that the Filmfare award for Best Actress and Best Music in 1973 would go posthumously to Meena Kumari and Pakeezah’s music director Ghulam Mohammed. Both these predictions fell flat.

Mehta writes that even the mighty Dilip Kumar felt uneasy when he had to act opposite Meena Kumari. Yet, there aren't many inputs from Dilip Kumar to give us an idea of what it was to share the screen with her. Nargis shared with the writer a few personal anecdotes. But what did she think of Meena as a contemporary actress, we do not get to know. Meena Kumari spent considerable time with Kaifi Azmi to get her poems evaluated by him. While there is no mention of this fact in the book, no input from Kaifi Azmi is there to evaluate Meena, the poetess. The absence of Dharmendra's inputs also leaves a void in the narration.

While there are ample comparisons between the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Meena Kumari in the book, there is another comparison in the Indian context, which most people are not aware about. Meena Kumari's life is very surprisingly similar to that of Tamil thespian Savithri. Both were powerhouse performers, both of them could give goosebumps to their male co-stars, both settled for already married men and were left longing for love all their lives and both died of excessive drinking. Besides, Meena Kumari displayed her humorous side in LV Prasad's Miss Mary (1957). This was a remake of the Tamil superhit Missiamma, where Savithri had done the same role.

 However, this book will be treasured by Hindi cinema enthusiasts, for it gives rare insights into the thinking and state of mind of the legend at various points in her life. Present day artistes can find inspiring stories about her acting methodology and professional commitment. Even when she was in the jaws of death, she made sure all her pending projects were completed. Mehta relates anecdotes about her miraculous ability to transform herself completely once the camera was on and leave her physical illnesses aside. Most of those who were contacted for this biography are not there anymore and hence these interviews are of immense value. Besides, this came at a time, when biographies were not a well developed concept in the Indian literary market. The best thing about the book is that this does not deify Meena Kumari and instead, humanises her. While popular versions of her story hold Kamal Amrohi responsible for the mess in her life, Mehta gives his readers a well-told version from Amrohi's point of view as well.

But all these inputs just end up being a bundle of “watertight stories” which are all contrarian. As Mehta himself puts it, every event in her life has at least four versions and there is hardly any event in her life, which can be called ‘undisputed’. In a scene in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, where the character of Choti Bahu is introduced to the viewers, Guru Dutt’s character looks at her in amazement, unable to decipher her thoughts. Perhaps, no biographer can ever unravel her enigma.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Times of India

Friday, August 16, 2013

The heroes of Shaheed (1965)

After almost a decade, I happened to watch Manoj Kumar’s classic Shaheed, which retold the story of the glorious revolutionaries of the late 1920s, who led a parallel battle against the British rule. From a cinematic perspective too, this film, directed by S Ram Sharma and produced by Kawal P Kashyap, is a landmark, for this marked the birth of Manoj Kumar as we know him.

The movie tells a story, now familiar through history textbooks and multiple re-tellings on the silver screen. The movie begins with a description of India as a country where mothers like Jijabhai have brought up sons like Shivaji to fight fearlessly for the cause of freedom and where the likes of Maharani Lakshmibai have chosen death over a life of slavery. In the same country, Bhagat Singh (Manoj Kumar) grows up in a family of patriots. 
Ma, ab toh azaadi se pyar ho gaya hai....
Dekhna, ek din mera pyar manzil tak zarur pahunchega
Well into his youth, he comes in touch with other revolutionaries like Chandrasekhar Azad, who form the Hindustan Socialist Republican Party. Protests erupt all across the country as the Simon Commission arrives in India. Lala Lajpat Rai succumbs to a few injuries he suffers from a lathi charge at one of the rallies in Lahore. Bhagat Singh and Rajguru avenge this death by killing Inspector Saunders, who was involved in the lathi charge. Bhagat Singh escapes incognito with Durga bhabhi (wife of revolutionary Bhagwati Charan Vohra, played by Nirupa Roy) to Calcutta by shaving his beard and later throws a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly with Batukeshwar Dutt to oppose the Defence of India Bill being tabled there. All the revolutionaries get arrested due to the treachery of Jai Gopal, who turns into a government witness. In the prison, they protest against the abominable conditions there and even refuse to participate in the court proceedings, which turns out to be nothing but a sham. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev are sentenced to death and they embrace it with a smile on their face and song on their lips, as the entire nation seethes with sorrow and anger.
Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai
Manoj Kumar spent many days talking to Bhagat Singh’s mother, who provided vital inputs about her son for the story. These interactions were evident in the final work, as the mother-son chemistry between Kamini Kaushal and Manoj Kumar proved to be a high point in the drama. Another major source of input was Batukeshwar Dutt himself, who was contacted by Manoj Kumar and his team to get intricate details of the lives of the revolutionaries. Dutt was sentenced to life imprisonment by the British government and was rearrested again after his release for his participation in the Quit India movement. But sadly, he contracted tuberculosis and died in near penury, in 1965, at AIIMS, Delhi, almost a forgotten hero. Worse, no biographer or historian contacted him to record the details of what happened in the hey days of the revolutionary movement. Shaheed becomes an important work for this reason as well, as it contained first-hand information provided by BK Dutt, who saw most of what happened in the lives of the revolutionaries. Manoj Kumar also got inputs from Manmanth Raj Gupta and was also involved in the Kakori case. When Bhagat Singh's mother attended the National Awards ceremony, where the film received three awards, she received a standing ovation from the public. The award money was given to her by Manoj Kumar.
Prem Chopra, as Sukhdev, played his role to perfection
Prior to this, there were two cinematic versions of this story in place - Shaeed-e-azam Bhagat Singh, by  Jagdish Gautam, which had Prem Adeeb as the hero and Shaheed Bhagat Singh, which had Shammi Kapoor as Bhagat Singh and Prem Nath as Chandrasekhar Azad. Both the films had failed at the box office and expectations were not high from this film either, as none of the actors in the lead roles were huge stars, barring Pran, who did this role for a pittance, as he liked the story.
The screenplay and dialogues by Din Dayal Sharma and BK Dutt held this film up like strong pillars. They even won the National Award for Best Screenplay that year. Even in the face of death, the sense of humour shared by the revolutionaries came out time and again through the dialoguesWhen the revolutionaries tell each other in jail, on meeting after a long time, Aisa lagta hai barso baad mile hai, the jailor retorts, much to their glee, Fikar mat karo, ab barso saath hi rehna padega. When Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt are being led to prison, the police van is stopped by a herd of goats being led to a slaughterhouse and Bhagat Singh remarks, “Chalo, yeh bhi kasaikhane jaa rahe hai”. But what gave the viewers goosebumps were the songs, mostly written and composed by Prem Dhawan. The song Ae watan, undoubtedly one of the finest patriotic songs of all time, is used across all crucial scenes in the film to heighten the drama. The element of paradox is also used effectively in the movie. In the court scenes, the attempts of a judge to maintain order in the court are juxtaposed with the mayhem created outside by the protesters. The prison into which the revolutionaries are led into before their death has the grafitti 'Live and Let Live' on its walls. The scenes of prison torture end with a constable yelling 'Sab theek hai'.
Laut kar aa sake na jahaan mein toh kya
Yaad banke dilon me toh aa jayenge
In what looks like a casting marvel in retrospect, Shaheed has three famous villains in a positive role – Prem Chopra as Sukhdev, Manmohan as Chandrasekhar Azad and Pran as Qaid Singh. Manoj Kumar’s partnership with these artists, along with Madan Puri (who played the jailer)and Kamini Kaushal continued in his other projects as well. Shaheed paved the road for Manoj Kuamr’s and Hindi cinema’s patriotic journey through the 1960s and 1970. Such was its impact that on seeing it, a much impressed Lal Bahadur Shastri asked Manoj to make a film on his slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’. The idea resulted in his next blockbuster Upkar. It’s for this simplicity, poetry and straight-from-the-heart story-telling that Shaheed remains the best movie on Bhagat Singh to have been made in Hindi cinema to this day.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Immortal dancing queen - An interview with Vyjayanthimala

Rarely do you get a chance to meet an icon whom you have adored since childhood. It is even rarer that you get to strike a conversation with them. As a Hindi film buff, I have grown up on umpteen classics of Vyjayanthimala and last month, I got a chance to interview her as well. I saw her perform at Kalakshetra, in Chennai and later followed up with her for a telephonic interview. It would be an understatement to say that I was brimming with excitement talking to one of the biggest icons Indian cinema has ever seen. The below interview with Vyjayanthimala was published in The Times of India on April 28, 2013. 

A few weeks back, Kalakshetra organised a dance festival dedicated to its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale. As Vyjayanthimala presented a non-stop performance for close to two hours, Rukmini Arangam (the theatre hall at the institute) was packed with her fans, art aficionados and well-wishers. The chairs were full and viewers sat down on the floor and stood on knees to get a good view of performance. At the age of 78, Vyjayanthimala still packs a punch in her performance and stardom seems to cling on to her.

“Even as a child,  I would restlessly run from one room to the other and my grandmother would say, ‘Her legs are sure to make her a good dancer!’ I was hardly five years old when I performed before the Pope,” says Vyjayanthimala, recollecting her growing up years. It was later that she started learning Bharatanatyam from her guru Kitappa Pillai.

She was the numero uno actress of her time and made the ability to dance an essential ingredient for the Hindi film heroine. Acting, she says, was never on her mind. The focus remained on dance. "Back in the 1940s, no one from a good family was encouraged to act. My grandmother wanted me to concentrate on my academics. In the late 1940s, director MV Raman of AVM happened to see my dance performance. He was looking for a new face for his movie Vazhgai. He convinced my grandmother and I was signed in. I was so shy to tell her friends that I was acting in a film and felt that they all would mock me,” she says.
In 1949 Vazhgai was released and was a huge success. Vyjayanthimala was suddenly called a natural actress. “I simply worked as Raman sir asked me to. He treated me like a child and having danced many times on stage, I did not feel awkward facing the camera,” she says. The movie was later released in Telugu as Jeevitham and was again, very successful. In 1951, Vazhgai was released in Hindi as Bahar and the song Saiyan dil mein aana re, picturised on her, became an instant hit.

Immortalising Chandramukhi in Devdas (1955)
The floodgates of the Hindi film industry opened to Vyjayanthimala and she was swarmed with offers and success. “I was signed in for Nandlal Jaswantlalji’s film Nagin (1954) and my dance number Man dole mera tan dole took the nation by storm. I did a very beautiful film called New Delhi with Kishore Kumar, where I did a bhangra number. People were seeing a woman do bhangra on-screen for the first time,” she says. But the film that really transformed her career was Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), in which she played the role of courtesan Chandramukhi. “Till then, my identity in the industry was that of a dancer. Devdas gave me recognition as an actress. Chandramukhi stands apart even today in cinema for being one of the earliest characters of a prostitute with a heart of gold. She knew the ways of the world and yet, when it came to love, she was all giving for the person she fell for,” says Vyjayanthimala, who has high regards for the cinema of Bimal Roy. “He always stuck to realism and anyone could easily identify with his characters. The re-incarnation drama Madhumati was not exactly the kind of film he would make. It was one of his most commercial ventures and yet, he added so much  lyricism to it.”

Dil tadap tadap ke keh raha hai - In the reincarnation drama Madhumati
Today, when there is resurgence of discussion on women’s empowerment and fair portrayal of women in cinema, Vyjayanthimala considers the directors of the golden era as people who understood the female psyche while making films. “In the 1950s and 60s, films were quite ahead of their times in the way they portrayed women. BR Chopra’s Sadhna and Raj Kapoor’s Sangam had very progressive female characters.”
In the course of her work, Vyjayanthimala had to overcome many shortcomings. “I never sought the help of a dubbing artiste for any of my films. I learnt Hindi attending the classes of the Hindi Prachar Sabha and insisted on using my own voice.” Having been a student of the legendary DK Pattammal, she even was a trained Carnatic musician. “In the late 1960s, I did a Bengali film Hatey Bazare, directed by Tapan Sinha, where I co-starred with Ashok Kumar. I was humming a tune from the film before the shot and Tapanda was standing behind me. He instantly told me to record the song in my voice. I was hesitant but he was happy with the outcome,” she says. The film won the President’s gold medal that year. Another film, where she had to put in special effort to master the diction was Dilip Kuamr’s 1961 blockbuster Gunga Jumna. “Dilip sahab helped me a lot with the Bhojpuri dialogues in it. Gunga Jumna went on to become a landmark and inspired many films later in Hindi cinema,” she says. But the film that captured the best of her as an actress and dancer was Lekh Tandon’s 1966 classic Amrapali. “I really enjoyed working in it. I played the role of a dancer who renounces all her fame to become a Buddhist monk. During shooting, I used to take a lot of time to don the costumes designed by Bhanu Athaiya. It was a wonderful theme and I enjoyed it.” She continued her success story with many other super hits like Suraj, Jewel Thief and Prince.

As the nagarvadhu Amrapali
When she renounced the fame of films after her marriage, she devoted more time to her dancing career. “I consciously kept films apart from dance. It was very difficult to start with but I think that discipline helped me do well as a dancer too. I am a very religious person and that has reflected in my dance performances as well,” says Vyjayanthimala, who has been doing a lot of research on the works of saint poets of Tamil Nadu. Of special note are her dance productions on Krishna Bhakti. “I enjoy doing these pieces. For me, Andal epitomises all the religious philosophies and vedic thoughts. Hers was an unconditional love, involving complete surrender to the lord.”

Recently, she wrote her memoir Bonding. While some might have been irked by the candour of the book, Vyjayanthimala remains unfazed and doesn’t mind calling spade a spade. “Even as a child I have been open and candid about what I have felt and have not been diplomatic; Rajiv Gandhi, our former Prime Minister, used to say that the same about me. I have never regretted this attribute of mine.”
Today, Vyjayanthimala is one of the few stalwarts who can claim to have been in the midst of action in the golden era of Hindi cinema. “People say the 1950s and 60s comprises the golden era of cinema. I think I was fortunate to be there at that point of time and work with some of the most amazing people this industry has ever seen, right from the directors, co-artists to musicians and technicians. It was an education for life.”

Friday, May 10, 2013

An ode to Bombay cinema

On May 3, 1913, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke released India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra in Bombay and marked the genesis of the largest film industry in the world. Exactly 100 years later, four leading filmmakers of the day have come together to pay a tribute to cinema in an anthology titled Bombay Talkies, named after the studio started by Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani in the 1930s, which launched legends like Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Madhubala, Rak Kapoor and Dilip Kumar.

The first film, titled Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh, is directed by Karan Johar. It dwells upon the impact of Hindi film music on our lives and stars Rani Mukherjee, Randeep Hooda and Saqib Saleem. Karan plays on the theme of homosexuality and uses two songs – Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh and Lag ja gale – composed by Shankar Jaikishan and Madan Mohan respectively, to show the unhappy lives of three individuals involved in the business of making news. Karan comes out of his comfort zone to come up with a fine work, which however falls short of capturing the enormity of Hindi film music.

The second film, Star, directed by Dibakar Bannerjee, is based on Satyajit Ray’s Patol Babu and shows one day in the life of a failed actor Purandar, who serendipitously hogs lime light for a few moments as an extra in a shot. Nawazuddin Siddiqui excels in his part as Purandar and owns it completely. Dibakar also captures the hysteria that surrounds a film star and the adoration bestowed on them by the masses, using the example of Ranbir Kapoor in this case. The movie is a tribute to the siren-like charm of the tinsel town, which makes and breaks dreams, but gives a hope to continue dreaming at the end of the day.

Cinema influences us like no other medium and while some of us have realised our dreams through the characters on screen, some have taken a leaf out of the lives of their idols on-screen to become like them. This is the idea behind Zoya Akhtar’s film Sheila Ki Jawani, which brings out the conflicts of a school boy, who, much to the chagrin of his father, aspires to become a dancer one day. Zoya fills this piece with innocence and a sense of freedom, celebrated through Katrina Kaif’s item number Sheila ki jawani.

The fourth film, titled Murabba, is directed by Anurag Kashyap and throws light on the deification of film stars in our country. A dying father asks his son Vijay (the most popular screen name of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s) to get the superstar eat a portion of a murabba made by his wife and bring the rest of it home for him. He believes that eating the leftover murabba would cure him of his illness. Paying homage to the God-like status achieved by superstars like Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, this tragic comedy is about the persistence of a fan to get darshan of his idol.

The film ends with the celebratory song Apna Bombay Talkies, which encapsulates the fun, frolic, drama, action, romance and the stars of Hindi cinema. While all the four films have their high points, it is tad disappointing that the format of all these films shuns the formula of a commercial Hindi film and there is nothing in it for the perennial Hindi film fan, who has played the most important role in the success saga of this industry. But this is also a moment to look back at a phenomenon called cinema, which has propelled the desires, dreams, hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians over the last century. Bombay Talkies is a commendable effort, though Hindi cinema could have had more to its credit.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Over the last one year so much has been written and said about Indian cinema turning 100. Every news channel and magazine has milked this topic in every possible way and yet, the entire effort looks very superficial. CNN-IBN and History TV18 have roped in Karan Johar to give nuggets of trivia in a programme that is called Bollywood@100. Majority of the discussions about Indian cinema’s centenary has been zeroed down to a celebration of Hindi cinema, with a cursory mention somewhere of Ray and his Apu Trilogy. Basically these shows and features have only reinforced a wrong notion, that is rampant, that Bollywood is Indian cinema. Nothing can be farther from truth.

I am a die-hard fan of, what we call today Bollywood and, what I prefer to call Hindi cinema. 100 years on, we still keep a Hollywood-inspired name to refer to our film industry and worse, we have Mollywood, Kollywood and list of endless woods to add to the nonsense. But for all the glory and glamour of the films that have come out of Bombay, Hindi cinema is only 82 years old, considering the fact that the first Hindi talkie - Alam Ara - was made in 1931. Raja Harishchandra, made by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke in 1913, was a silent film and if there had been sound at that time, Phalke would have most probably made it in Marathi and not Hindi. Today, the irony is that Marathi cinema has been dwarfed in its home ground by Hindi cinema, with its pompousness, scale and grandiose.

With all due respect to our Bombay film industry, in the last 100 years, our regional film makers have kept the aesthetics of cinema alive far more successfully than their counterparts in Mumbai. The Hindi film industry has survived on regional talents to keep itself going. The quality of films coming from these regional stables have been as good as, if not better, than the Hindi productions. What would have been Hindi cinema without visionaries like Guru Dutt (a Konkani from Calcutta), Bimal Roy or Asit Sen? How incomplete would be its music without the melodies of RC Boral, Hemant Kumar, SD Burman, Salil Chowdhry, AR Rahman and Kishore Kumar? Didn’t Hindi cinema feast on the bilinguals made by New Theatre in the 1930s and 40s, which were all made in Calcutta?
 Where would our haughty heroes go without the south heroines, who not only gave the men a tit-for-tat when it came to performance and screen presence, but were also fiercely competitive superstars of their time - Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rehman in the 1950s and 60s, Rekha and Hema Malini in the 1970s and 80s, Sridevi in the 1990s and Aishwarya Rai and Vidya Balan in the post-2000 era. The sound engineers from the south have transformed the Hindi soundtracks over time. More than anything else, when struck by writer’s block, the film makers and screenplay writers of Bombay have borrowed stories right, left and centre from regional films, most often, without giving any credit to it. For example, did anyone know that movies like Ram aur Shyam, Seeta aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz and Kishan Kanhaiya were all drawn from the NT Rama Rao starrer Ramudu Bheemudu? Barring Ram aur Shyam, which was remade by Nagi Reddy in Hindi, none of the others ever spoke about it. But when it came to representing the south in its films, Hindi cinema mostly caricatured it.

To top all this, now the Bombay film makers go and hijack a collective birthday party and bamboozle the regional players out of all the discussions and the media too plays along. But the fact is that without the likes of Satyajit Ray, SS Vasan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shaji N Karun and many others, whose names cannot be recounted here, Indian cinema’s glorious story would not have even come half its way. 
The other day, a report in The Times of India said that the reels of the iconic blockbuster Mother India, at the National Film Archives, were damaged and were in danger of being lost forever. In Hollywood, many years back, leading directors and stars pooled in cash from their pockets to restore their classics. The script writers of the 1970s and 80s made a career out of Mother India and Salim Javed remodelled Sunil Dutt’s character Birju to create what we today know as the Angry Young Man.  Forget any help from the government; it is not in a position to save itself, forget the reels of Mother India. While the superstars can very well have their IPL teams, private islands, yachts and luxury villas abroad, it wouldn’t cost them much to pool in funds to restore the films, to which they owe their careers. That would be a real ode to cinema.

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