Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema - Part 1

The IIFAs came and went from Toronto without any visible traces. Truth be told, we were not expecting people to start flocking to the theatres to watch Bollywood movies, and we were not expecting to see some major shift in people's opinions of the industry either. No. Not really. Any effect that this extravaganza will have will not be quantifiable, though who knows, maybe we'll see some changes in the audience mix at TIFF this year.

But one thing that IIFA did leave behind was an initiative of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): Raj Kapoor and The Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a showcase meant to highlight the influence that the Kapoor family, whether as actors, directors or producers have had in Indian cinema. Granted, a couple of films have been added to the programme without really being connected to any of the Kapoors, but for the most part it's a Kapoor Khazana special! And what better time for it than during Kapoor Khazana, which, if you have forgotten, is a 2-month event hosted by All the links for posts so far can be found here.

Now I'm not a big fan of oldies, what with my severe case of melodrama allergy, so it's fair to ask: why am I even getting excited about a bunch of oldies being shown in a theatre? Well for starters because it's not just any theatre. This, my friends, is the house that TIFF built, commonly known as the Lightbox. It's not just a theatre, it's an experience in architectural revelry! So that definitely counts as a good reason to go.

But more importantly, how often does one get a chance, in a country other than India, to see a Mughal-e-Azam or a Shakespeare Wallah on the big screen? Even for movies I knew I wouldn't like (and my apologies to the people sitting close to me for constantly snorting and snickering during the overacted emotional scenes), I knew I could not pass on the experience of seeing them in the environment that they were made for: a theatre with a silver screen. And who knows, some might even appeal to me the second time around because it's a proven fact that the big screen makes everything better: the songs are better, the actors are prettier, the decor is more impressive, plus everything is... well... bigger. And lest we forget, Shashi Kapoor is definitely handsomer.

No really, so much handsomer on the big screen!
Now that everyone is clear on that last point, let me tell you about the movies I have seen so far. And a reminder that this goes on through July and half of August, so if you have any business in Toronto, don't forget to check it out.

:: Barsaat ::

Barsaat was one big revelation to me, and I may buy this movie just because of that. I had seen 2 or 3 Raj Kapoor movies before (on DVD) and well, I thought he was a good actor and all that but I was never bowled over and running back to the rental website to fill up my basket with more movies from him. I did love Teesri Kasam, I loved it, for sure, but I suspect it was more because of Waheeda Rehman than because of good old Raj. Well... Barsaat changed all that. I could not take my eyes off him. In fact, I was a little upset that there was so much screen time given to the other couple because honestly I just wanted to see Raj Kapoor and to hell with everything else. Yes, that was a huge shocker for me, and I will understand if no one can relate.

Barsaat is the story of two young men: Pran (Raj Kapoor) a poet / musician who believes anyone who loves with a true heart should be loved in return, and his philandering friend, Gopal (Prem Nath). As expected, Gopal only needs women as a plaything and rejects the idea of true love as the delirious invention of a poet's mind. Sure enough, there is a pure hearted girl in some village in the countryside, Neela (Nimmi) who is madly in love with Gopal and is convinced that he will come back to her. I confess, most of my eyerolls were dedicated to her, since she was by far the most drama-infused character in the story. Not that other characters don't suffer tragically as the movie progresses, but this poor girl spends all her time pining and forgetting to breathe, if I didn't find it so funny, I would have felt really bad for her.

A small sample in this song. which by the way, is the original I Hate Luv Storys title song!

Raj Kapoor is paired up with his legendary leading lady, Nargis. Now I confess I never quite got the "beauty" of Nargis, but I suppose that's not really important, what's important is that in this particular movie I could not get over her sniffling. I suppose it's a way of making the character cute and um... more country girl? But it made no sense to me. She is cute. And clueless. I guess in a modern film she'd be ditsy. But cute.

Anyway... The drama of the story is that Reshma finds out her father had fixed her marriage for fear of the traveler (Pran) turning out to be just another Bombay playboy. In the swirl of emotions following this conversation, her father tries to kill Reshma who is swimming across the river to get to Pran. As any respectable father would.

On the other far less interesting side of the story, Neela has damaged her lungs so much from all that pining and breath holding that she is about to die without Gopal. Just kidding. Well, not really. She is pretty much dying from pining, no other visible reason. Oh and she disappears in the second half almost until the end.

So why would I put Barsaat in my basket as soon as I got home that day? Well for one because I got the length of the movie wrong and had plans for immediately after so I had to leave at intermission. But really that's not it. The real reason was this is the first (and so far only) movie where I found Raj Kapoor unbelievably attractive. He's cute and adorable and such a joy to watch that I couldn't let this movie go into oblivion like the rest of them. The songs of course, were the second reason, and the art direction, a close third.

I dare anyone to make a shot as dramatic as this one in colour!
Gosh, almost like a Picasso painting!
If you can handle your melodrama better than me (which I suspect most people can), this might be a good one to catch for a different taste of Raj Kapoor when he actually smiles and is playful rather than tormented or silly.

Yes, I admit, this was my favourite scene!
Well, at least in the first half he looks happy. Also, watch it if you like your Waves of the Danube, it gets a LOT of ear time!

All that said, if I see one more woman throwing herself at the feet of one more man, I may just scream right in the middle of the theatre! Oh well... At least Barsaat had this little moment to make up for it.

:: Shakespeare Wallah ::

Now this is a movie I had been searching for for at least 2 years. I'm not very sure why I was searching for it, but I was damn certain I would love it. So the skies just opened up and a choir of putti started singing when my Canada Day weekend plans fell through and I found myself in the city with nothing but time between me and Shakespeare Wallah. Did it meet all my expectations? Was it worth spending a long weekend in the city for it? Yes and YES!

Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) is a handsome playboy from Bombay, who meets and woos an English actress, Lizzie, traveling with her family, staging Shakespeare plays across the country. Meanwhile he has a long standing relationship with a local film actress, Manjula. Shashi plays both heroines with such devilish charm that for a while I could not tell for sure if he was even involved with the film actress. I guess I'd be a sucker for his sweet words if I were the English girl, who in fact, turns out to be much smarter and much stronger than we initially give her credit for. I'm not surprised this movie needed a white actress because no proper Hindustani maiden would have been accepted in that role. Well, not unless she killed herself, died or was otherwise prevented from leading a decent life at the end of the film. Also, I can't think of one who would have done justice to the role either.

A short but sweet movie, Shakespeare Wallah talks among other things about the nadir of British influenced culture, pitching Shakespeare against Bollywood films. But the main theme of the film is change. The times were changing, people's lives were changing, societal norms were changing, and all these changes are subtly captured by a family who is neither from here nor from there, a family of British actors that have been in India for so long that they call it home, but they still can't let go completely of their past on another continent. The head of the family, Mr. Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendall) is the one we see most often voicing his concerns about this brave and young new world taking over, while his wife is usually the sounding board that reflects everything back after straining it through the concern for her daughter (whom she wants to send to England) and mixing it with a healthy dose of optimism.

Shakespeare Wallah is a fascinating watch as a social fresco, but that implies of course, that one can take their eyes off the mesmerizing Shashi Kapoor. Not easy, let me tell you, not easy. Nonetheless, if you do manage, you will find a strong female character that is willing to give up anything for love but will not be weighed down by its absence. Needless to say she was my favourite part of the film. The parents, struggling to keep their ideals alive while their post-colonial world is crumbling around them, were another highlight. But the most important highlight for me was the lack of weepy melodrama and weak characters. Everyone in this movie knows what they want and even in situations where they are helpless, there is no majboori-ness in sight.

One of the best movies I have seen lately, and definitely my favourite oldie so far.

:: Aag ::

Yes, it is dubbed Aaaaaaaag for a reason! And that reason is you will want to scream at the screen at least every ten minutes. Unless you're in a theatre full of people where you must limit your reactions to giggles, eye-rolls and frequent washroom and Twitter breaks.

No, that wasn't me I swear!

Ok... it was me.

This movie is so over the top in its emotions, that Greek tragedy as a genre pales in comparison. Never before has choosing a career been such a life and death issue. And never before has a man been so obstinately determined to find a muse and fulfil his childhood dream as Kewal is (Raj Kapoor). One thing this movie would never run out of is pathos.

I mean just look at the poster!
Also, apparently, they will never run out of Nimmis, there's a new one at every corner.

Jokes aside (though you can tell that was pretty much a summary of the experience the person next to me had while trying to watch the movie), there is a very interesting theme that Aag brings up, and with a better treatment this theme could have turned the film into a favourite of mine. We're not just seeing the misunderstood artist, or the Galatea who cannot live up to the expectations of her Pygmalion, or the artist's search for truth. We're seeing a clash between different visions on art and its meaning.

We don't get to debate whether physical beauty is more powerful than the beauty of one's soul, instead we are asked to reflect on the true origin of art: is it one with Truth or is it one with Beauty? As Kewal keeps searching for that fountain of truth inside Nimmi's soul, we realize that we cannot be sure how much truth there is inside his own soul, and whether or not it's his own truth that he hopes to uncover inside her. His constant search for the muse of his childhood and his impotence in fulfilling his only dream present him as an incomplete artist, one who perhaps will never find his own soul and his true inspiration. Or if he does, will it be too late? Is burning the outer shell and bearing one's soul really the only way to be a complete artist? Or is the need for compromise and empathy a sine qua non condition for finding your truth in this imperfect world? The last scene will give us a hint.

Interestingly the one accomplished artist of the film is ridiculed by Kewal, however, he is the one who empowers the young man to fulfil his dream of putting a play on stage. He is after all the only one to come out victorious. Perhaps a little moment of reflection on the always underappreciated patrons of arts? Or a bone thrown to the dogs?

With a somewhat predictable and yet somewhat open ending, the film doesn't answer any of these questions. I didn't want it to either. But I did want to be able to reflect upon the philosophy behind it without cringing and laughing at the memory of Nargis, hand to forehead, a vision of artificial tragedy that will probably haunt me until the end of my days.

Nonetheless, my $12 were once again well spent on seeing a very young and very talented Shashi Kapoor playing the role of young Kewal, and also by the exquisite art direction. When they say they don't make them like they used to, Aag is a good example, for better AND worse.

:: Mughal-e-Azam ::

What a difference the big screen makes! I didn't care much for Mughal-e-Azam when I rented the colourized version and watched it, except for the fabulous songs. But what I didn't know then was that you need a big screen to realize the sheer opulence of this movie, to see just how epic every single frame in it is. And epic is a word I used a lot after this screening and will probably always use going forward whenever Mughal-e-Azam is discussed.

It's not only the movie that needed the big screen, the legendary Madhubala also needed it to prove to me why so many consider her beauty breathtaking. I didn't think much of her before, but she really is beautiful beyond words on the big screen, the lady was made for black and white and for the silver screen, there is no doubt in my mind about that now.

Mughal-e-Azam in short, is the story of Akbar the Great's heir falling in love with a court dancer. Akbar opposes, naturally, which only strengthens the youngsters' resolve to see their love triumph. A classic conflict between the old order and the new, between love and duty, between parents and lovers, between mind and heart. And if you think this plot doesn't warrant a 3.5 hour extravaganza, watch this one to be proved wrong.

When I decided to go see this at the Lightbox I said I was only going for the songs. And while I came out of it with so many other magnificent moments to remember, I have to say the fact that I saw Teri Mehfil Mein on the big screen is still, by far, the highlight of my entire Lightbox experience (sorry Shashi, you're second). Everything about this song from the lyrics to the vocals to the music to the camerawork to the expressions of the singers is sheer perfection. I have yet to see another that challenges its status in my heart.
I can't find a video to embed in black and white so follow the link above, or watch below in colour. 

Apart from the opulence of the visuals in general, there are little moments of brilliant camerawork that will stay with you even when the glitter of the palace halls has worn out: Madhubala's face lit by a single candle, the twinkle in her eyes that will soon become a tear while another is already slithering its way down her cheek, these are the moments that celebrate black and white films in a way that colour can only aspire to.

Not even the plot bothered me as much as the first time, proof that either the big screen, or the black and white, or a second viewing does improve this one (not sure which of the three, could be all of them). It's still over the top like nothing else, but somewhere in the middle of the amazing songs and in between gasps at the brilliant use of lighting, I even forgot to snicker a few times. What an experience this movie is. No wonder it was unsurpassed for years and years, it's sheer awe to watch it in all its glory.

And now what you ask? Now I have commitments that prevent me from catching a lot of other gems that are scheduled during this event, but I do have plans to see at least another 3, so look out for Part 2 of this post in August. Unless they're all really really bad, in which case... well, I'll spare everyone the eyerolls.


me said...

Wow! I now really wish I hadn't read this post, because it's filled me with pity. Pity for you at not appreciating the gem that is Aag ;) but mostly self-pity at missing out on the exhibit and the delights of seeing films like M-e-A, and the gorgeous Shashi, on the bigscreen. Life really ISN'T fair.

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! I know, I keep saying I don't deserve this, especially when there are so many other people out there who would give an arm and a leg to see AND appreciate stuff like Aag on the big screen! It's not fair at all. :) Though don't get me wrong, I am still VERY grateful that this whole event is happening, which is why I am going even to movies I have been warned I will hate. After all, even when I can't stand the OTT drama there are many other aspects that I know I will appreciate.

Well, when IIFA comes to NZ, it'll be my turn to be jealous of *you* :)

Anonymous said...

Yay! I'm glad you liked Shakespeare Wallah. I love it. It's such a beautiful looking film (and Shashi only enhances that), but the sense of change and impending loss makes it touching as well. Felicity Kendal was such a minx in her role, and I loved the little vignettes of her playing cards or chatting to the stagehands and the backstage stuff. It looked so spontaneous and fun. Cheers :) Temple

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Temple, yes, certainly one to own and rewatch! That was the only downside about watching it in a theatre, that I couldn't replay favourite scenes afterwards :) Felicity Kendal was great, and I am pretty sure the reason why I loved this movie so much is that last shot of her. :D So rewarding!!
Now on to other Shashi delights, cannot wait! :)

micaelix said...

wow... you don't even know what you miss by not liking the classics that much.. i found 2 of favorites on this list - Barsaat and Mughal-E-Azam - and i just added Aag and Shakespeare Wallah to my netflix list and i'm sure i'll love them. I remember having Mughal-E-Azam on my rental list for a very long time and when i eventually received it in the mail it took me a long time to watch it. I felt really bad i had taken so long. I love black and white movies but i have to say, seeing it first in color i actually love it in color. The songs are wonderful. I love the same song Teri mehfil main qismat. All my indian friends laugh when i tell them i like these old movies, but i think there was so much more innocence and true feeling in them, and no amount of special effects can give me the same effect as that.
At the same time one of my friends gave me a original poster of Pakeezah, convicing me to watch it. It's a close secong after Mughal-E-Azam, this time a beauty in black and white :)
Old is gold!

micaelix said...

lol i take that back.. Pakeezah is in color too

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Roxanita! I get this reaction a lot from other Bollywood afficionados: what?? you DON'T like oldies??? But I am also not a fan of old Hollywood movies, the acting just drives me nuts. I seem to have the same problem with old movies across the board. Then again, I am the same person who can't stand certain modern actors or directors because they are too melodramatic, so I make sense in my own little head :)

That said, it's hard to resist the charm of certain moments and of certain actors, so I am always willing to give them a chance if movies like these fall in my lap.

I do want to see Pakeezah eventually, and I still have that other oldie you recommended long ago (Aradhana), it's sitting on my shelf. it just takes me longer to be in the right frame of mind and level of patience to watch them. Different strokes for different folks... :)

Thanks for stopping by! Hope all is fab with you this summer!

micaelix said...

Adarhana.. it's melodramatic allright.. butnit reminds me of past times, when i snuck in the village cinema with my younger cousin.. i must have been 8 years old... magical moments.
As i always said, i love all classics, Hollywood and Bollywood, back home i used to watch old Hungarian movies with my grannie, another one i found on netflix and was very happy about it was Sissi, Austrian. You are right, different strokes...
My summer is going ok.. managed to get some sun on me cheese-white skin :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! Yes, I expect full melodrama from Aradhana too :) Good to have it confirmed by you. :P

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