Pari (Hetal Gada), 10, and her younger brother, Chotu (Krrish Chhabria), 8, live with their aunt and uncle after their parents were killed in an accident. Chotu is blind – though we discover as the film unpeels itself that Chotu wasn’t always blind, that he became that way after becoming ill after being badly nourished, something which could have been prevented. Pari, though, promises her brother that he will regain his eyesight in time for his ninth birthday, that they will see rainbows when he finally can see again. When she sees a poster of her idol, Shah Rukh Khan, encouraging people to donate their eyes, Pari decides to write to him, sure in the belief that he will help Chotu regain his sight.
The village postmaster is indulgent, at first, sending a few of Pari’s letters on. But then he tells Pari’s uncle that enough is enough, he must talk to Pari, and reveal to her what everyone in the village knows – that their aunt has refused to pay for an operation that would restore Chotu’s eyesight. At the same time that she discovers that many of her letters have been left unsent, Pari also learns that Shah Rukh Khan is shooting a film on location in Rajasthan. She and Chotu run away from home; Pari is determined to go find Shah Rukh Khan. She is sure that if she could talk to him, he would help Chotu.
What follows is an incredible journey for these two youngsters. At the heart of it all is the delicate and beautiful relationship between the two siblings. Pari is determined to do anything to help her brother. Chotu – well, Chotu has a fiery temper and a sense of independence, as well as a wicked sense of humour, but his one and only fear is that he will not have Pari’s hand to hold on to. The love of this brother and sister for each other is lovely; so, too, is their constant bickering and bantering. They are true siblings, there for each other, but also willing to scrap and argue, most especially over their choice of film heroes. Pari, as we have seen, is totally devoted to Shah Rukh Khan. Chotu is a die-hard Salman Khan fan, even wearing a replica of the silver and turquoise bracelet that “Bhai”, as he’s known to his fans, wears. In one of the film’s most delightful and enjoyable moments, each morning before they leave for school, Chotu flips a coin. Whoever wins the toss gets to start a story about his or her favourite star. Pari complains that a win for Salman stunts her creativity; Chotu bemoans the inevitable romance track that comes with SRK.
Their journey is filled with wonder and danger, and even a few miracles. On their way, they meet strangers who help them, who watch out for them, and who save them, for not everyone they meet is looking out for their best interest. And almost everyone they meet has a story about Shah Rukh Khan – adding to the film’s charm and humour (and it has plenty of both).
Dhanak is a film with a message – with several messages, in fact – but director Nagesh Kukunoor never allows it to become preachy or maudlin. He’s aided aptly by all the performances in the film – Pari and Chotu’s aunt and uncle could easily have been seen to be evil, but instead, the actors give us enough nuance, which, combined with the excellent storytelling, allows us to accept them for who they are, and to understand that they are not bad people, they just need to learn to do better for the children entrusted to their care.
In some ways, I’m not surprised I so throughly enjoyed Dhanak; Kukunoor also directed two of my most favourite films, Iqbal (2005), about a deaf and mute youngster who wants to play cricket – and there, the brother/sister relationship also forms a strong core; and Dor (2006), a film about the relationship that grows between two women, one Hindu, one Muslim, when they are brought together over a challenging issue.
“Magic is everywhere,” says dadisa (Bharati Achrekar, whose voice viewers may recognize as that of the upstairs Auntie in The Lunchbox), a blind old woman who Pari and Chotu meet on their journey. “Once you see it, all you have to do is reach out and grab some in your fist and swallow it. And then you will see the magic in you.”
Nagesh Kukunoor must have grabbed a whole fistfull of magic, for his film Dhanak is just cracking with it.
(Dhanak opens in India on June 17, 1016, after a strong run on the festival circuit. This review was originally part of the Bollyspice coverage of LIFF2015.)
I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched Martin Prakkat’s latest directorial venture, that his titular character, Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan), was not unlike Winston Churchill’s description of Russia: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” In the case of Charlie, the key is a type of graphic novel, called “First Night”, that Tessa (Parvathy) finds when she’s cleaning up the room she’s rented from Usman Ikka (writer/director and occasional actor P. Balachandran). Tessa has already had some inkling that the room’s previous resident was someone important in the lives of those living nearby, some of whom show up at her door clearly expecting to find him, and occasionally disappointed when it turns out he’s not there. But “First Night” gives Tessa her first glimpse of the elusive Charlie, and when the story stops abruptly, Tessa goes in search first of the ending to a story she finds compelling, and then of its creator, who she finds even more compelling as she hears the stories of the people whose lives he’s touched.
There’s Sunikuttan (Soubin Shahir), the thief who holds the key to the night he spent with Charlie, which eventually leads Tessa to Kani (Aparna Gopinath), a doctor working in a remote community consisting mostly of older men whose families don’t want anything to do with them, but who are visited by Charlie. Most notably, there’s Kunjappan (Nedumudi Venu) with his stories of Treesa, the woman he loved but never married because of a twist of fate and weather. But there’s also Mathai (Chembun Venod Jose), a fisherman who tells Tessa the story of Charlie and Queen Mary (Kalpana), a prostitute whose daughter Charlie later saves.
Tessa is drawn to Charlie partly because of the mystery surrounding him, but also partly because she recognizes in him a kind of kindred spirit, exemplified by their boho clothing and their shared artistry – Charlie’s is in evidence everywhere in the room Tessa rents; Tessa’s is only mentioned by her mother in passing, though we also know one of the reasons Tessa rents the room is because she plans on taking a course of some sort. Both, we discover, are kind of free spirits as well – Tessa arrives home for her brother’s engagement only to find that her mother has taken the opportunity to arrange her marriage as well, to someone that both Tessa, and we, recognize immediately as an unsuitable match. Tessa takes the first opportunity to bolt, and how glad we are that she does, and that she takes up the quest to find the enigmatic Charlie.
One person leads to another; one story leads to another. Tessa and Charlie cross paths but never meet, perhaps because, even though Charlie is told Tessa is searching for him, he purposely, as Kani puts it, plays a cat and mouse game with her; despite his open and caring personality, Charlie might just be a little bit afraid of love of the romantic sort.
Charlie is an absolutely fascinating film loaded with dollops of magical realism and graphic novel style; but also, with references that I think are placed there deliberately, that are so subtle and so well integrated into the story (written by Unni R.) and direction, that I’m convinced they are there to give us the same sense of what Tessa is searching for: something familiar yet ineffable. I dearly would love to have a conversation with director Martin Prakkat and writer Unni R. about this feeling that I had watching the film, of things that seemed so familiar, and yet things I just couldn’t place as references.
And it’s certainly the first time watching Dulquer Salmaan that I could feel the connection to his father: something in his voice, something in Charlie’s style, reminded me so much, at times, of Mammootty. Mere coincidence, or purposeful? I’d very much like to know if I was right in thinking it was the latter.
Charlie as a character is a bit of a risky proposition: because Tessa only knows Charlie from what she learns about him from others, our early introduction to Charlie leaves him kind of a mystery for us, and doesn’t give the actor much room to breathe life into him. Thankfully, Dulquer Salmaan has the ability to make both us, and Tessa, curious about this man of mystery, and willing to go along for the journey to find him. As Tessa learns more about Charlie, the Charlie we see finally gains more layers and more depth.
And although the film is called “Charlie”, this film belongs, clearly, to Tessa and to Parvathy. It’s hard not to fall in love with a character like Tessa, who we recognize immediately as someone free-spirited, yet responsible enough to know she has a duty on some level to her mother and her family, even as she tries to escape it.
Jomon T. John has had quite a 2015, serving as cinematographer on Picket 43, Oru Vaddakan Selfie, Nee-Na, Ennu Ninte Moideen, and now Charlie – all of these films are beautifully shot, and Charlie gives John and art director Jayashree Lakshmi Narayanan (who worked together on Lal Jose’s Nee-Na) full scope to create Charlie’s magical and mysterious universe. Music director Gopi Sunder has delivered what is probably his best soundtrack after that of Ennu Ninte Moideen, with my particular favourites being Puthumazhayai (beautifully sung by Shreya Ghoshal) and Pularikalo (sung by Shakthisree Gopalan & Muhammed Maqbool Mansoor, with its lacings of Arabic musical style), not to mention Oru Karimukilinu, which so beautifully represents Tessa’s search for the magical Charlie who always seems to be beyond her reach.
I’m absolutely delighted that Charlie is my first entry in the #100MoviePact – it represents what I love about Malayalam cinema: excellent writing and direction, beautiful music, talented cinematography and art direction, solid acting by its leads, and a marvellous supporting cast (I’ve mentioned many, but Charlie’s supporting cast is extensive and impressive, including small appearances by K.P.A.C Lalitha as Tessa’s grandmother, as well as Renji Panicker, Joy Mathew, Tovino Thomas, and even Tamil film veteran Nassar as a mysterious magician). It also represents the kind of risks that the Malayalam industry is willing to take in creating thoughtful, magical, innovative films. Charlie comes from the same kind of filmmaking tradition that made me fall in love with the films of Kerala, and makes me so happy that I can share them with others.
Technorati Tags: Aparna Gopinath, Charlie, Chembun Venod Jose, Dulquer Salmaan, Gopi Sunder, Jayashree Lakshmi Narayanan, Jomon T. John, Joy Mathew, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Kalpana, Malayalam Cinema, Martin Prakkat, Nedumudi Venu, P. Balachandran, Parvathy, Renji Panicker, Soubin Shahir, Tovino Thomas, Unni R.
I couldn’t resist choosing Junglee to be part of the Try It,You’ll Like It! Blogathon. The purpose of the blogathon is to offer up classic films in order to encourage those who’ve never experienced them to do so. Normally, I struggle with the cut-off dates for some blogathons, because the films that would suit the theme beautifully often fall just outside the limit. In this case, though, I was delighted for a 1965 cut-off. I’m putting a little twist on my contribution, in that I’m recommending a film for someone who might be interested in seeing a little something of what Hindi commercial cinema (what Bollywood was before that term came into existence) is all about. Usually when the question comes up, the suggestions run along the lines of things like Devdas (the 2002 version) or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Bravehearted Will Take the Bride”), or, horrors, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (“Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness”). Don’t get me wrong. If any of those films are your favourites, or were your gateway into the wonderful world of Indian films, then I respect that. It’s just that, personally, they're not amongst my favourite films, so I hesitate, and you can’t encourage folks to drink the Kool-Aid unless, well, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid yourself.
That usually leads me to dig into the classic film vault with a recommendation for Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420 (“Mr 420” – 420 is a reference to a section in the Indian Penal Code, and is used in films as a shorthand to refer to a fraud or a con artist or a cheat). It is, I’ll admit, a good choice. Kapoor’s films are beautifully shot and full of wonderful songs. It gives me a chance to gush over the actress Nargis, who was never shot as beautifully as she was in a Raj Kapoor film.
But, I wanted something different. I wanted a film that exploded with colour and laughter and music and fun. And I knew immediately that there was only one film that I should consider for this blogathon – Junglee (“Wild”). Junglee takes us one step away from Raj Kapoor: it stars his brother Shamsher, affectionately known as Shammi. If you’re a fan of Satyajit Ray and have fallen under the spell of Sharmila Tagore, well, she made her Hindi film debut opposite Shammi Kapoor. In Junglee, it’s the debut of another actress, Saira Banu, all of eighteen and incredibly fresh-faced.
Junglee tells the story of Shekhar (Shammi Kapoor), raised in an upper-class family in which laughter and love are seen to be the failings of the underclasses. This, of course, gives Shammi Kapoor the opportunity to walk around looking like he’s swallowed a sour lemon (I’ve long thought that he modelled the performance on several of those of his own father, actor Prithviraj Kapoor) and generally behaving like a right royal stick-in-the-mud. Shekhar prizes discipline and seriousness above all; there is absolutely no room for emotion in his life. All of these are qualities that were important to his late father, and were dutifully passed on by his mother (Lalita Pawar).
So it’s a wonder, then, how Shekhar’s sister Mala (Shashikala) has turned out as she has – pretty, joyful, happy, and – horror of horrors – in love with Jeevan (Anoop Kumar), who is but a lowly employee in Shekhar’s firm. When Mala’s indiscretions are discovered, Shekhar takes her away to Kashmir in order to separate her from her beloved and end the relationship. And Shekhar’s marriage, already arranged with a rajkumari (“princess”) from a royal family, is destined to take place upon their return.
As fate would have it, though, Mala discovers that she is pregnant, and she is taken under the care of a local doctor and his pretty daughter, Rajkumari (Saira Banu) – and yes, this naming is deliberate, and will ensure that confusion ensues later on in the film.
Rajkumari is bright and fun and mischevious – everything Shekhar is not, and she annoys the bejeebers out of him, always flitting around and bothering him. But in one of the film’s key moments, the two end up stranded in a snowstorm, and Shekhar comes to realize how empty and colourless his life is, and the two fall in love. Mala predicted that only someone like Rajkumari could melt a stone heart like Shekhar’s, and she was right.
This transformation allows Shammi Kapoor to transform Shekhar into a character that would be so emblematic of his career – fun, goofy, charming, and inspiring everyone to “shake it like Shammi”. And the song that celebrates Shekhar’s transformation, "Chahe Mujhe Koi Junglee Kahen” (“Call Me Wild”) opens with that iconic cry of “Yahoo!” which would become more associated with Shammi Kapoor than anything else in his long career.
Shekhar's transformation is not welcomed by his stern task-master of a mother, who reminds him that the arranged marriage is looming. "What if I don't like her?" muses Shekhar, trying to find a way to tell his mother that he's done the unthinkable and fallen in love. He goes to meet the rajkumari, and her brother and father arrange for some entertainment, which is a perfect way to introduce the concept of the item number -- essentially a song that doesn't necessarily move the film's story forward, and that's there purely to entertain (thought these days, item numbers are often racy and titillating, all the better to get the ticket buying male public into the seats). Probably the most famous of the item girls was Helen, who appears here in the guise of Miss Suku. This, though, is one of those instances where the item number is actually worked into the plot of the film, with Shammi Kapoor's antics designed to have his future in-laws see him as mad, and, thus, unsuitable marriage material.
One of Junglee's central themes -- that there is something inherently noble about the upper classes, and, therefore, something inherently ignoble about the lower classes -- is one that is often found in films and television shows, and Junglee turns it on its head to reveal its flaws. The rajkumari that Shekhar is supposed to marry is part of a royal family that is decidedly down on its luck, and is hoping to cash in on the marriage in order to solve cash flow problems and avoid a prison term. In fact, they don't see anything wrong with trying to con Shekhar and his mother -- it's their duty, really, in order to restore glory to the family. Rajkumari is a princess in name only, but she and her father are decidedly good people, with good manners and good values, and she is decidedly the better match for Shekhar.
It's hard not to love a film that places value on the simple joys of life: love, laughter and flowers. And it's hard not to be smitten with a film that offers up so much fun.
This post is part of the Try It, You'll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid - do check out all the great entries! And if you're tempted to try Junglee, it's available freely and legally over at the Rajshri YouTube Channel (though you'll have to watch it in parts in order to have the English subtitles).
This is Raj:
Like any typical Canadian kid, Raj (Vinay Virmani) dreams of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs -- not only playing for them, but leading them to victory, to a Stanley Cup win for a team that hasn't seen the silver glint of Lord Stanley's punch bowl since 1967. I'm not much of a hockey fan, but even I have that date handy in my memory bank. Year after year, die-hard fans of my home-town's hockey team dream of getting just a little closer to that cup.
But Raj is also like many typical Canadian kids these days, who are the generation of immigrant parents who came to this country to make a better life. So Raj's fantasies end up mixed into those of his parents' culture, and his hockey victory is celebrated with Bollywood-style dancers. That is, until he's woken out of his reverie by his father, Darvesh Singh (Hindi cinema actor Anupam Kher). Darvesh takes great pride in telling the story of how he came to Canada with eight dollars in his pocket, how he sponsored his younger brother, Raj's Uncle Sammy (Indian actor Gurpreet Ghuggi), who took that eight dollars and turned it into the very profitable Speedy Singhs transport company.
Darvesh Singh's story is a familiar one here in Canada; but so is the story of his son, Raj, who grows up immersed in two cultures, that of his family, and the one that he lives in every day. Raj balances the expectations of his family -- working in his uncle's business, attending the local gurdwara -- with the life he really wants -- to become a hockey player.
Raj books rink time so that he can practice with his group of hockey loving friends, but he dreams of more. He dreams of taking on other teams -- "bigger...whiter..." as one of his friends describes them, teams like the Hammerheads, going head to head and coming out victorious. Raj wants to win the Hyundai cup.
He convinces the rink's custodian, Dan Winters (Rob Lowe), himself an NHL draft pick whose career was over almost as it began, mostly due to his inability to control his temper, to coach the team. He woos Dan's pretty sister Melissa (Camilla Belle). He...
It's true that Breakway is just a mish-mash of film clichés, tagged onto a story that comes straight from Bend It Like Beckham (complete with the actor who played the father in that film, Anupam Kher). It's true that though Vinay Virmani is kind of likeable and competent, he's really not got the acting experience, and perhaps the acting ability, to carry off the role of Raj, often sinking the film in the moments that require too much of him. To be fair to Virmani, this is his first film, and I've not seen anything he's done since, and I should correct that, because his growing filmography includes the film David, from director Bejoy Nambiar, and it would be interesting to see how he fairs in the hands of a director like Nambiar.
So we have the story of the underdog team fighting adversity to make it to victory. We have the immigrant kid fighting to make his place somewhere other than sandwiched between his family and society. The Sikh kid who takes off his turban and cuts his hair, to the utter disappointment of his father. The immigrant kid who doesn't want to be part of the family business. Smooshed in there is a bit of a love story.
It's really easy to look at Breakaway and see how it fails. But several viewings of Breakaway have had me seeing what the film does well, what it gets absolutely right.
First: the title. I love the title. It is, of course, a hockey term, but it also refers to a breaking with long-standing tradition, which pretty much encapsulates everything Raj is about. "I'm judged in this house for who I'm not," he tells his father, "and outside this house for who I am." Raj is the only one of his friends to make the choice to remove his turban and cut his hair; they don't judge him for it, but there are moments when Raj becomes an outsider for them, too. But "breakaway" sums up the need for the first generation born here to find some kind of balance between who they are, and who they are not.
Second: The Six. Breakaway is set in Toronto, and it celebrates that. It's a place where Raj can walk down Gerrard street and experience all the flavours of India, where you can play a game of shinny outside the gurdwara, where your music is likely a mix of bhangra (courtesy Jassi Sidhu) and rap, probably by Drake (who coined the term "The Six"). Where you can become a local television reporter, like Raj's cousin Reema, though you might have to fight to get more than the curry cook-off coverage.
Third: the Canadian experience. Some of Breakaway's most ham-handed writing comes when it spouts sections of the Canadian Human Rights code (though, you have to love a film that thinks it should be holding up that as our standard). But it also doesn't shy away from dealing with the racism that immigrants face -- though, quite honestly, I thought it downplayed it somewhat. I'm betting that visible minorities are exposed to far worse than what Breakaway dishes out, and we've seen some evidence of that in the news recently.
And if you think that the love of hockey by these Punjabi Sikh guys is totally a fiction created by the film, well, you'd be wrong. The changing face of Canada means the changing face of our national sport as well, or the changing language of coverage. In recent years, Hockey Night in Canada has broadcast games in Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and, perhaps most famously, Punjabi, with that commentary originating on the CBC, but moving more recently to OMNI Television. And Punjabi players are gradually making their way into the big leagues.
Here's a taste of what it's like. Pretty much hockey...in Punjabi.
Of course, now I'm wondering how you say, "Keep your stick on the ice" in Punjabi.
As well, it also shows that immigrants take on roles in every aspect of Canadian society, adapt to them, and require us to adapt to their needs. The complaint filed against the Speedy Singhs -- that, with the exception of Raj, they don't wear helmets -- is a reminder of the debates that have taken place in the this country about the role of the Sikh turban in public life. The niqab debate during our country's most recent election reminded many of us of the "turban issue" of the 1980s, when Baltej Singh Dhillon joined the RCMP and his request to wear a turban instead of the traditional Stetson changed not only RCMP policy, but that of many other police and armed forces. And those changes have resulted in more changes over the years, to the point where a Sikh, Harjit Singh Sajjan, was recently appointed as our country's Minister of Defense, and the internet abounded with images of him during his deployment in Afghanistan. One of the members of the Speedy Singhs has a day job with the local police force, and is seen several times in his uniform, which incorporates a turban. This is what Toronto is like, folks.
So, Breakaway may not be The Great Canadian Hockey Film. It may not even be a great Canadian film. But I'll always have a small soft spot for it for what it gets right about the Canadian immigrant experience. Plus, how can I resist a fantasy Bollywood ice skating number set in front of a wintery Taj Mahal? I cannot.
This post is part of the Winter Sports Blogathon hosted by Le Mot du Cinephilique -- make sure to check out the posts from all the participants, too!
When we first see Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), she’s the embodiment of the good Bengali wife, embroidering a B (for her husband, Bhupati) on a handkerchief, her workbasket next to her, making sure the servant serves tea on time. But as she goes to return a book to the shelf and take another one – the birdcage in the background echoes the fact that she, too, is caged in her beautiful, traditional Calcutta home.
As she hums – she is humming “Bankim, Bankim” – a reference to the writer whose book she eventually pulls from the shelf: Kapalkundala, a famous Bengali romance novel from the writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (who wrote India’s national song “Vande Mataram”, a prase to the motherland that inspired those in the Indian independence movement). The novel tells the story of a young girl from the forest, Kapalkundala, who falls in love with Nabakumar – they marry, and he takes her away to the city, Saptagram (a port town whose decline saw the eventual rise of Kolkota). Kapalkundala, however, finds herself unable to adapt to life in the city. The story is also one of infidelity and betrayal, as Kapalkundala’s father and the first wife of Nabakumar plot to separate Kapalkundala from her husband, by making Nabakumar believe that his wife is unfaithful to him, and interested in another man.
And, thus, in the first five minutes, Ray masterfully, yet subtly, establishes the themes he will explore throughout the rest of the film. Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) is a wealthy intellectual with an interest in politics and in India’s freedom movement in particular. His wife, Charulata, is intelligent and interested in literature, in poetry, in the arts, but as Bhupati has no time for her, she ends up as the bored and lonely wife of the film’s English title (The Lonely Wife). When Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) comes to visit, he and Charulata end up developing an intimate relationship based on intellectual companionship.
Bhupati ends up bankrupted when Charulata’s brother and and sister-in-law swindle him out of his money, and his despair at this betrayal causes Amal, meanwhile, to realize that he has betrayed his own cousin, too, because of the feelings and the intellect that he has nurtured in Charulata. Amal decides he must leave, but when he later sends a letter to Bhupati, who shares it with Charulata, finally reveals that she is heartbroken at his departure. She attempts to hide these feelings from Bhupati, but he discovers her feelings for Amal, and is himself, in turn, betrayed and bewildered at what is happening.
I’m a fan of Indian cinema from its most mass-y commercial output to its brilliant arthouse films, but even for me, Satyajit Ray’s films stand apart. Ray’s films are breathtaking in their beauty and brilliance, in their thoughtful construction and talented technical and artistic creation. And yet, I rarely write about Ray’s films. This is, partly, because so much has been written at a scholarly and critical level that I wonder if there is anything left to say about them.
This, of course, is ridiculous. The wonderful thing about art – all art, including cinema – is that each person has their own particular way of engaging with the work. What I see in Ray’s films may, in part, match what you see in them, too. But my experience, my worldview will allow me to engage with the film in a way that might be quite different from you, too.
For me, Ray’s films never get old, never become boring. I can watch them over and over again, and each time get something a little different out of them. Sometimes I just watch how the camera moves. Sometimes, I’m entranced by the lighting. Sometimes, I let the acting wash over me with its brilliance. Or I look for the little details, the things that deepen and enrich the experience of the film.
As I re-watched Charulata for the purposes of this blogathon, I couldn’t help being distracted – no, that’s not the right word – let’s say “attracted”. Attracted by those extra details, the things Ray adds to emphasize his ideas, to make them understood without having to tell us anything. Show, don’t tell, is one of those maxims writers are often given, and though it’s almost trite to say it, it’s also a powerful way to tell a story. In that vein, let me just share a few of the things I adored in my latest viewing of Charulata.
Amal's entrance is heralded by the sudden windstorm, which has everyone scrambling to close shutters and gather things in. Amal bursts through the door with the wind, and his entrance just blows right over Charulata. In one fraction of a moment, Ray tells us everything we need to know about this relationship. If we weren't sure, the reference to Krishna might be a help, as Krishna is often used as shorthand for a man who will prove charming to women. Amal is, indeed, playful and charming.
The Heart-Shaped Paan Box
Is this a symbol of Charulata offering her heart to Amal -- actually, more than offering, insisting he take it? Up until now, Charulata's sister-in-law made paan for Amal, and Amal refuses to take paan from Charulata when she offers it to him. At this moment, though, Charulata takes the paan box from her sister-in-law, making up the excuse that she puts too much lime in it, and prepares paan for Amal.
Charulata's Opera Glasses
The opera glasses are Charulata's way of connecting with the wider world, a world that she is isolated from. I love as she flits from window to window, opening and closing the shutters, in order to watch passers-by outside. But there's also a moment where she turns the glasses on her husband, further emphasising the distance between them as Bhupati works tirelessly on his newspaper (which he jokingly refers to as Charulata's rival).
The Embroidered Slippers
If any object demonstrates the transfer of emotion from husband to cousin, it's the slippers. In the film's opening scenes, Charulata embroiders a handkerchief for her husband, but promises that she will embroider him a pair of slippers, and we later see her working on them. But in the end, it is Amal who is given the slippers, not Bhupati.
Oh, I defy anyone not to fall totally and completely under the sway of Soumitra Chatterjee. His Amal is intelligent, playful, and thoughtful, and Chatterjee is a brilliant actor. There is a series of moments in Charulata that are simply breathtaking to watch. Bhupati has learned of the betrayal by his brother-in-law, and talks to Amal about it, moments after Amal has realized the full force of Charulata's feelings for him. Bhupati speaks about betrayal in general terms -- the material losses he can survive, but what about the human losses? How do we go on, asks Bhupati, when the people we put our trust in don't even respect us enough to return that trust, or to live up to it? Amal watches in the background, and his face changes with each phrase Bhupati utters, revealing the force of those words on Amal as he realizes his own betrayal of trust.
The Broken Nest
"The Broken Nest" is, of course, the title of the Tagore novella that Ray based his film on. In the film's final moments, Bhupati realizes Charulata's betrayal of him. She realizes that her husband has heard her weeping for Amal. But she gathers herself together, and offers him her hand, which he takes, not looking at her. A copy of Bhupati's newspaper lies on the floor. So much is left unsaid, and yet we understand everything just in this one moment.
This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, a week-long celebration of all things Criterion Collection! Be sure to check out the entire blog roster, there are some amazing films being written about.
In this wonderful and delightful version of Aladdin, a shaitani (demonic) magician, Hikmat (S. N. Tripathi), calls up a Light Vampire in order to discover the secret to fulfilling his dearest wish, i.e., being Emperor! Of! The! World! The Light Vampire describes a lamp which will give him this power -- but also tells him that in order to get hold of the lamp, he will need the help of an honest person with 21 moles on his right arm in the shape of the lamp. Oh, and if he abuses the honest person in question, he will lose his chance to get the lamp.
And, oh, by abusing the Light Vampire three times (as our magician does), one loses the ability to call upon the Light Vampire. Never fear, we'll see the Light Vampire again, because he delights in showing up when the magician fails, just a little extra neener neener on the side to make up for the abuses suffered at the hands of Hikmat.
The honest man in question, is, of course, Aladdin (Mahipal -- of whom I'm not particularly a fan, but I do like him here) -- so honest in fact, that although he vows to defy the Sultan's edict that no one from the town may be in the street when his daughter the Princess Badar (Meena Kumari) passes, he decides to lie and say he didn't see her, losing a bet. Oh, and the fact that he is instantly smitten with the Princess (and she with him) doesn't hurt, either.
Aladdin, however, has the misfortune of running into Hasimbeg, the son of the chief minister to the Sultan, and insults his horse. Since the horse is a gift from the Sultan, this is tantamount to insulting the Sultan himself, whereupon Aladdin is arrested and (in a scene filled with delightful wordplay, in which Aladdin offers up veiled requests for the Princess to remove her veil, but which causes the other participants to consider him mad) sentenced to be whipped, then thrown out of town.
As Aladdin is strung up for his whipping, our friendly magician arrives in town, and sees the moles on Aladdin's arm. After Aladdin is tossed out of town, the magician seeks him out, concocting a story about being Aladdin's long lost uncle, and offering to set Aladdin up with treasures if, well, he will just give him this dirty old lamp as a reward for his efforts.
They head to the cave that the Light Vampire has said holds the magic lamp, and Aladdin heads in. However, he refuses to give his "uncle" the lamp before being pulled up out of the cave, and watches as "uncle" gets crankier and crankier as Aladdin wonders what's up with the lamp, wanting to know its secret.
In a huff, Magician Uncle locks Aladdin in the cave, and the Light Vampire shows up to have a good laugh at his expense -- see what happens when you don't listen to the Light Vampire and abuse the honest man? You don't get the lamp! No Emperor! Of! The! World! for you!
Aladdin discovers, quite by accident (he brushes cobwebs off the lamp) that rubbing the lamp brings forth the djinn (genie), who offers to serve Aladdin's every need. They fly back to Aladdin's home, which is transformed by the djinn, and Aladdin begins his journey to win the princess and overturn the evils of the kingdom.
Homi Wadia's Aladdin is filled with magic and mohabbat (romance), dopplegangers and comic sidekicks, but what makes it truly a wonderful watch are both its special effects and art design, as well as its wonderful songs. Homi Wadia, of course, is the man who gave the world the wonderful Fearless Nadia (the alter ego of Australian actress and stuntwoman Mary Ann Evans, introduced to Indian films by Homi Wadia's elder brother, J.B.H. Wadia -- she later married Homi Wadia, too), and it's true that the vast majority of his films as director feature her. But Homi Wadia also directed quite a number of films either based on or inspired by Arabian Nights type tales, including three versions of the Aladdin story, and two versions of Alibaba (not to mention one version of Hatim Tai, a story that Wadia's special effects guru, Babubhai Mistry -- a pioneer of effects in Indian cinema who worked extensively both as a special effects master and as a director of fantasy, religious and mythologically themed films -- would also go on to direct a version of himself).
In fact, one of Babubhai Mistry's later films (as director) is one of my absolute favourites -- the delicious Hatim Tai. But of all of his films, I think I love Mistry's work on Aladdin Aur Jadui Chirag most of all -- there's something almost childlike and playful about it all, which only adds to the film's charms.
And oh, the music, from S.N. Tripathi (yes, the same S.N. Tripathi who plays the magician Hikmat here) and Chitragupta! Seven in all, and they deserve a post on their own (which I think they will get, they are so good and illustrate so well how to integrate story and songs). But Sharmaa Ke Zara ("Don't Be Shy") (sung by Asha Bhosle and Shamshad Begum) is a particular delight. The serving maids recognize that something has happened to their princess, that she's fallen in love, and they encourage her to tell them about it. I just adore their teeny conical henins, as well as the moon and the stars as ornaments in Meena Kumari's hair (and oh, how pretty she is in this film).
All in all, Aladdin Aur Jadui Chirag is a delightful spin on an Arabian Nights tale, and well worth the watch.
And, oh, yes. Bucklers are swashed.
This post is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. You really need to go read the rest of the contributions, gathered by host Movies Silently.
After breaking up with his American girlfriend, Audrey (who his parents know nothing about), Ravi Patel goes on a trip to India with his family, and decides to allow his parents to arrange his marriage. It sounds like a simple enough concept, but the documentary Meet the Patels shows us that nothing about marriage is ever simple.
This is a story, on one level, about the challenges of the children of immigrants as they try to bridge what is for them two competing cultures, both of which they belong to, both of which are important to them, both of which define who they are. The film highlights the contrasting views of the immigrant family and their children – for the Patel parents, the system by which they got married is still viewed as the more appropriate one for their culture, to ensure that their children end up with spouses who will be compatible with the *whole* -- and by whole, read extended – family. And there is a point to this notion, as Ravi contemplates during those moments he spends with his extended family. He sees the love and the care and the joy that they experience together, and on some level, he knows he wants this.
Perhaps he’s vulnerable because of the breakup with Audrey, but Ravi realizes that these things are important to him, too, and he decides to allow his parents to set the arrangement of his marriage in process. He has rules, though – he definitely wants the girl to be American born, like he is, thinking that in this way, she’ll share some of *his* values, too, and will understand both his love and need for his Indian family and culture, but will also fit in with his American side, with a range of friends of different ethnicities and experiences.
The film serves as an excellent explanation and analysis for those non-Indians who might not be familiar with the process of arranged marriages. It also serves to outline the frustration both of Ravi and his parents: Ravi, for going through this process, and not really finding anyone who could be “The One”, and then finding himself moving to reconnect with Audrey; his parents, because they see their children getting older, and other people’s children getting married and having children, and this is precisely what they want. And they feel that Ravi really isn’t invested in the process – a feeling that only ends up confirmed when Ravi finally confesses to them that he’d had the relationship with Audrey -- his mother, in particular, ends up feeling betrayed, not so much (she says) by the idea that he was seeing someone outside his culture, but more because she sees this omission on the part of Ravi as a lie, and she hates the thought that he could lie to her.
Meet the Patels reveals the Patel parents to be smart, loving, funny, and definitely a product of their culture, which they safeguard, and they still contribute to life back in their hometown in India, through a charitable foundation they run. So it’s important for them that their children have this kind of experience of family, one which involves placing importance on the value of that culture, and the value of family, in a way that they don’t see in American society, perhaps.
The film ties Ravi’s narration of the story to the footage shot by Geeta Patel (Ravi’s sister, and a writer/director in her own right) through the use of animation – the animated portions are just the storyboards for the animation, which they liked the rough finish of, and which suit the “home video” feel of the film – a quality that came about because, essentially, it was Geeta trying to learn to use a camera, and it shows -- but the film owns this, and it becomes just another of the film’s charms, and serves to emphasize the notion of the film being about family in the broader sense, and not just about this Indian family – we all know family vacations like these, and can relate to them, and that helps us relate to the things that are perhaps not as familiar and which are more culturally specific.
Ultimately, though, Meet the Patels reveals some broader truths about the nature of family, and the relationships we build both within and outside our families. Parents want their children to be happy. Children want to make their parents happy. How that happens, though, is often messy and complicated – and the happy endings we’re seeking are often not the ones we originally had in mind. And, as Ravi’s story reveals, sometimes we just have to let go and let our stories take us where they want to.
Once again, it's time for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley! I will be sharing my thoughts on the newly restored Apu Trilogy, by director Satyajit Ray.
I could tell you all sorts of things about the Apu Trilogy that you’ll no doubt have read elsewhere: that Satyajit Ray was inspired, most particularly, by Italian neo-realist cinema such as that of Vitorio di Sica, whose “Lladri di biciclette” or “Bicycle Thieves” is a film that makes me weep, no matter how many times I’ve already seen it; that it was based on two works by Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, which Ray eventually adapted into the three films of the trilogy; that the trilogy forms a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, focussing on the life of Apu; that the film is visually beautiful but is also langorous and winding and requires patience on the part of the viewer.
I could tell you that Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”, the first film in the trilogy) was critically acclaimed, that it won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 1955, and the Best Human Document award in Cannes in 1956; that Ray produced a masterpiece in his first film, though most of his cast and crew was untested – cinematographer Subatra Mitra, for example, had never worked a film camera.
I could tell you many things, but none of them could prepare you for the beauty of this newly restored version of the whole Apu Trilogy, a restoration that took seven years, that took Ray’s negatives, burned in a fire two decades ago, and turned it into a beautifully and meticulously reconstructed 4K version. I could tell you, as the press materials did, that “The Apu Trilogy brought India into the golden age of international art-house film, following one indelible character, a free-spirited child in rural Bengal who matures into an adolescent urban student and finally a sensitive man of the world.”
And even if I told you all these things, even if I emphasized how important they are, especially the restoration, all of them pale in comparison to what is truly important here - the story of Apu and his family: Apu’s father, Harirar Roy (Kanu Banerjee), an educated man who longs to earn his living as writer, who instead earns a meager living collecting rents and through his role as a pujari (priest), and who eventually leaves his family alone for a stretch of many months while he goes to find work in order to provide for them, and to restore his ancestral home, falling into ruins. Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), constantly working to keep her family from falling completely into ruin like that ancestral home, a task that proves too much for her in the end. Apu’s elderly auntie (a cousin of his father), Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi), who sings the children to sleep, and who is at the mercy of Sarbajay’s taunts until she finally leaves to stay with another relative. Apu’s sister, Durga, with whom he shares many of the joys of life on the worn and dusty footpath: running after the sweets seller; viewing the images in a bioscope, the vendor promising images of the Taj Mahal; enjoying the first refreshing rains of the monsoon whilst sitting under a tree wrapped in Durga’s shawl; hearing a train whistle and running to see a train for the first time.
If you think that Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece is only for lovers of black and white, art house cinema, then I invite you to think again. Pather Panchali is for anyone who has followed the siren call of the ice-cream truck on a summer’s evening; for anyone who has mended a piece of clothing until there is almost nothing left to mend; for anyone who has sold a box of precious and favourite books just to be able to buy Christmas gifts; for anyone who has asked help of friends and family just to get by another month; for anyone who has stood out in the rain after a stretch of hot, sultry, dry weather, just to feel the freshness of each drop as it falls; for anyone who has lost a friend, or a sister, or a child, or a parent, and who still feels the grief of that loss. Pather Panchali is for all of us. Those folks at Cannes, who awarded the film for its humanity, well, they were on to something there. Pather Panchali documents the human experience, with its struggles and joys. Does it reward us for our patience? Oh, yes. It does.
There is a pivotal moment in Satyajit Ray’s film Aparajito ("The Unvanquished", the second part of the trilogy): Apu’s mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) descends a staircase, obviously torn by the decision she must make after the death of Apu’s father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee). Should she remain as the cook for the family she has been working for in Benares, happy with her work, even though this would mean taking Apu to Dewanpur? Or should she take up the offer of her uncle, to move to a house he has in the village of Mansapota, where she will at least be sure to be looked after? She pauses on the staircase long enough to watch Apu through a barred window, and it’s at this moment that she makes her decision.
This scene almost sums up everything about her role in Aparajito: the troubles of a mother, alone after the death of her husband, trying to do what’s best, and obviously worried about her future and that of her child. And a child on the cusp of adolescence, where he will learn more about what he wants out of life and will learn to take his first steps alone in the world.
Sarbajaya decides to return to Bengal, to her uncle’s house. The uncle also ensures that Apu can be trained to become a priest, as his father was. Apu does, but he longs to go to school, and Sarbajaya gives in to his begging. Apu, it turns out, is a very good student, and as an older adolescent he is offered a scholarship to study in Calcutta, where he moves, juggling his studies with work in a printing press (in return for his room and board).
Aparajito reveals a Satyajit Ray continuing to expand his technical skills as a director, and the restored version of the film only serves to underline this, revealing the beautiful camerawork. Ravi Shankar’s score, once again, serves to echo the film’s emotional beat. But Ray’s story is also at the heart of this film, reducing Apu’s family to two, himself and his mother, and thus serving to place emphasis on the nature of motherhood and the relationship between mother and child, particularly as that child grows into adolescence.
Apu’s growth as an individual, though, shows him prepared to take decisions about his own future – he knows he wants to continue his studies, wants to study science, and wants to go to Calcutta to do so, a decision he takes before consulting with his mother, telling his headmaster that he will try to convince her. But that need bumps up against that of his mother to look after him. She is thrilled that he’s done well in his studies, happy that he will get a scholarship, but the realization that this will take her son away from her immediately turns her mood. At first she insists that Apu will not leave, that he will stay and continue to look after her by working as a priest, as did his father. This is the eternal struggle between parent and child: the parent wants the child to stay, the child must break away and find his own way in life. Sarbajaya eventually relents; Apu sets off for Calcutta.
Teen-aged Apu is almost universally recognizable: he is upset when he is tossed out of a classroom, yet he also skips classes. Reluctantly returning home to visit his mother, yet also reluctant to leave her. Spending his breaks sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. Dreaming of travelling, knowing his mother would never agree to it. Writing to his mother, but never as often as she’d like, not knowing that she is keeping her illness from him, even as she begs him to visit her. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, an obviously ailing Sarbajaya imagines she hears Apu returning, and hesitantly makes her way to the door. All she sees are fireflies in the dark, and not even this can ease her sorrow at being alone.
Apu returns home one final time, after someone else decides to write to him to tell him his mother is ill, but he arrives too late. The realization – that he has come too late, and that he is now alone -- causes him to drop to the ground and begin to weep, all the while calling out for his mother. His great-uncle encourages him to perform the shraddha, the ritual honouring one’s dead parents, and to remain in the village as the priest. But Apu knows that with his mother gone, this place no longer holds anything for him; his road leads him back to Calcutta.
There is a most beautiful moment in Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”) where Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) stands looking at a sunset. When the camera focuses on him, however, we can see the moonrise over his shoulder. It can’t help but make me think of that famous and oft-quoted phrase of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa:
“The quiet but deep observation, understanding and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. … I feel that he is a “giant” of the movie industry. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.”
This is especially true of the final film in the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar. In it, Ray gives us an adult Apu – alone in the world after the death of his mother, leaving his studies because he no longer can afford them, searching for other work to sustain him even as he writes a novel.
If The Apu Trilogy recently screened to sold-out cinemas and extended runs, I firmly believe that this is only in part due to the extraodinary restoration work. I truly believe that people everywhere connect with Ray’s films precisely because of that “understanding and love of the human race”, an understanding that travels beyond time and place. Who among us cannot identify with Apu, going for a job, and being told he is overqualified? Who has not been in love, and who has not been heartbroken or griefstricken at the loss of a loved one?
Yes, Ray’s films explore such things as the tensions between rural and urban India, between tradition and modernity. And how else would Apu end up married to his beloved Aparna if it weren’t for a tradition that would see her remain unmarried unless someone stepped up to replace a clearly unsuitable bridegroom? Ray also gives us the incredibly handsome and talented Soumitra Chatterjee as Apu, and the exquisitely beautiful (and also talented) Sharmila Tagore as Aparna, both essaying their first film roles. The screen practically crackles with their chemistry whenever they are together, and they would go on to star in two more of Ray’s films (including my personal favourite, Devi). The best moments in Apur Sansar are those that reveal the days following their marriage, in which they go from being total strangers (what Aparna knows about Apu on their wedding night is only what his friend Pulu has told her) to deeply in love. And indeed, when Aparna dies in childbirth, Apu is so griefstricken that he blames his own son for her death, turning his back on him to wander throughout India, fulfilling only the minimal responsibility for him by sending money to Aparna’s parents for his care.
And when it looks like Ray will leave Apu, and us, in this state of being totally bereft, something happens. Pulu finds Apu, and manages, somehow, to reach something in him. Apu goes to find his son – Kajal (one of the film’s loveliest moments occurs when Apu and Aparna are talking about her returning to her parents’ home to give birth. Apu asks her what she has in her eye; she responds, “Kajal”, meaning the kohl that lines her eyelids, but it is also a reference to their future son), who is a wild child, naughty and mischevious, and also curious about his father, in that way children are, curious, wanting to know him, and yet angry at him for the rejection he feels.
Apu’s efforts to befriend his son, therefore, are rejected; Apu, we think, is destined to return to Calcutta alone again. But Ray gives us a glimmer of hope – Kajal follows the departing, dejected Apu; when it becomes clear to Apu that Kajal may accept him in a different role, that of friend and not estranged father, he realizes they have a second chance as they set off together.
All images courtesy Janus Films, who also provided the screeners of this restored version of The Apu Trilogy.