Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rangeela (1995)

Today's post is a joint venture with our friend Ajnabi over at Paisa Vasool (or Not). By her own admission she is a relative newbie to the world of Bollywood but her fresh view on the medium clearly shows that she 'gets it' just as well as those of us who have grown up loving it.

It was the summer of 1995 and I had just graduated from med school with only four weeks separating my last gasp of student life and the beginning of residency, aka my first real job. So I decided to take a quick trip to India to recalibrate my soul and took my buddy Hasan on the assignment with me. We landed in Bombay and after checking in to our hotel we decided to seek out the legendary 'Metro Theater' and watch whatever movie that happened to be playing there. The Metro was built in 1938 by MGM Studios (thus the name) and was THE premiere place for both Bollywood and Hollywood movies released in India for over half a century. With almost 1500 seats and a pedigree up there with the best cinema halls in the world we knew that we would not be disappointed no matter what movie was being shown.

International flights to India invariably arrive in darkness and very early in the morning thus allowing one to get right to sightseeing if sleep can be successfully fought off. We had a lovely breakfast of chai & biscuits on Juhu Beach and arrived at the theater in time for the noon show. The scene that awaited us was nothing short of chaos - throngs of people, police literally beating back the crowds with sticks and jolted us into the reality that we were indeed in the birthplace of Bollywood. The sign out front which read 'House Full' did nothing to deter us and from previous experiences we knew the next step was to find the guy selling 'tickets in black' with those magic words रंगीला written on a piece of wafer thin paper.

There were several scalpers about and they were all surrounded by desperate moviegoers looking to make a deal - in fact the whole thing resembled what the trading floor on Wall Street must look like. When our turn came we were offered the ever elusive balcony ticket and to make the deal even sweeter, with it we were entitled to get in 15 minutes early to see a 'Super Duper Laser Show Production featuring The Spirit of Rangeela'. How could we say no to that even though the Rs 150 we were forking over were six times the original price? We got our snacks/popcorn/Thumbs Up and were ushered promptly into our seats for the start of an incredible first day in India. Yes, the laser show was in reality a bunch of spinning lights on a globe and the Thumbs Up could have been a little colder but at that point we were just having too much fun and the movie itself did not disappoint one bit.

'Rangeela' was the first soundtrack made for a Hindi film by A.R. Rahman and alot of careers were riding on it's success. Ram Gopal Verma had no real hits to his name and other than a role as a child in 'Masoom', Urmila was a virtually unknown actress. Aamir Khan was an established name but had a couple of flops prior to the release and there as in Hollywood, you are only good as your last movie. Only Jackie Shroff (or Jaggu Dada as he is affectionately known in his native Gujarat) was a proven name but had been given a supporting role and ironically was playing a movie star. The careers of all the principal players were never the same as the charisma of the two leads and the popularity of the soundtrack propelled this movie into becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.

Playing the street smart orphan Munna (Aamir Khan) whose friendship with the starlet who dreams of making it big Mili (Urmila) and how their relationship gets tested when a Bollywood actor Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff) gets into the fray made for an immensely watchable plot. Aamir Khan's dialogues and delivery using the slangish Bombay Hindi was something not seen since Amitabh did it to perfection with 'Don' almost twenty years earlier. And Urmila, playing Mili with equal parts sweetness and vamp, earned herself a Filmfare Award nomination for best actress. One of my favorite scenes from the movie finds Munna (in an attempt to show Mili that he is indeed as suave as that lout of a Bollywood actor Raj Kamal) donning a YELLOW suit and taking Mili to the Oberoi Sheraton where he is (unknowingly) foiled by an autograph signing Raj Kamal. Sweet, funny and tragic all in one fell swoop.

Yes, at the end of the day it's the soft heart under the tough exterior of Munna & the real feelings of Mili under her desire to become of a movie star that make this movie a must see for any Bollywood fan. But let's not forget about the landscape changing soundtrack that shook up the very foundations of popular filmi music as to why this movie is still so fondly remembered today. A.R. Rahman snagged a record 3 trophies at the Filmfare Awards that year - best Hindi soundtrack for 'Rangeela', R.D. Burman award for best newcomer for 'Rangeela' and best Tamil soundtrack for 'Bombay' (whose songs were later recorded in Hindi for it's subsequent release worldwide). Video of title track below

Rahman's mix of East/West sounds that never strayed far from their Indian roots were reminiscent of Bollywood soundtracks from the 60's but carry his unique signature on them . The catchy songs don't sound dated and are as fresh and lively today as are all of Rahman's recordings to date. My favorite song from the movie is Yaaron Sun Lo Zara sung by Udit Narayan & Chitra. As far as the rest of mine and Hasan's trip went, suffice it to say that it couldn't have gone wrong after a beginning like that and that it concluded with cold beer & prawns on a beach in Goa watching a beautiful sunset while our new Goan friends cooked us a meal on an open fire behind us, but that's a story for another day ;)

The above picture (taken this year by the way) has absolutely nothing to do with the movie but is just a little bonus for all the Urmila Mantodkar fans out there. With her combination of looks and talent I just can't fathom why we don't see her in more movies.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nishant (1975) & farewell to Akbar Ali Khan

Based on a true story, Nishant was avant garde filmmaker Shyam Benegal's sophomore effort (after Ankur) and with it he brought back what would be his favorite muse for her second movie as well, Shabana Azmi. If you are looking for the prototypical Bollywood naach-gaana fest then this is not your type of film. It is (at times) difficult to watch, has no songs, contains very little music and has a feel as bleak as the dusty village where it was shot. But as I have said before, I appreciate it when a film challenges the viewer and though you may not like what you see on screen, 'Nishant' delivers an emotional wallop like few films do.

A virtual 'Who's Who' of Indian cinema star in this movie including the aforementioned Shabana Azmi, Nasureedin Shah (in his debut), Kulbushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad and a smoldering 19 year old Smita Patil appearing in just her second movie. Nishant went on to win the prestigious National Award for Hindi Cinema in 1975 and was officially selected as a nominee for the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The story is unsettling and at times infuriating but the film itself is compelling if only for the fact that it shows something different and gives the movie fan a chance to see so many living legends of Indian cinema in their early days.

We are introduced to the character of the Zamindar (a surprisingly buff Amrish Puri) early on in the film as someone who is not to be taken lightly. He takes whatever he wants from whomever he wants without any disregard to how his actions affect others. Ironically he is shown to be a highly religious man and the very villagers who loathe his presence are forced to seek his blessings on all auspicious occasions.

The underrated Girish Karnad plays the new schoolmaster of the village who arrives with his beautiful wife and young son but soon comes to see the ugly truth of his new surroundings. The Zamindar has 3 younger brothers who all share his sense of entitlement and in this scene are explaining how the schoolmaster can make extra money by letting them 'borrow' his wife for the evening.

Shaken by the brazen disregard for societal norms, he spends that evening sitting with his family in their modest surroundings. Having told the brothers that he is not interested in their offer he does not suspect (nor does the audience) that his wife would soon be kidnapped in full view of the entire village from his home. Unable to stop them on his own he begs the villagers to help him and then goes to register a complaint at the local police station.

Patel (Kulbushan Kharbanda) is the policeman who feels for this man but knows he is powerless to do anything about the abduction. It would have been easy to make the cop a caricature and dismissive of any complaints against the powerful family. But Kharbanda's take on the role is to make an almost sympathetic character who at the end of the day is a coward but one who the audience understands is just a cog in the powerful machine that is the Zamindar's world.

Rape scenes in any movie are difficult to watch but few of them convey the feeling of bleakness so subtly as this movie does. The morning after Sushila (Shabana Azmi) is abducted and brutally raped by the brothers of the Zamindaar begins with the aerial shot above. No words nor any music accompany the scene and the silence is what makes digesting what has just happened even more horrific.

Shushila is kept as a prisoner in the house for most of the movie while her husband tries in vain to get her out. Watching his attempts to help her by talking to the police all the way up to the government officials fall on deaf ears all while she is getting brutalized night after night is numbing. I almost wanted the schoolteacher to bust down the door of the house Amitabh-style and teach them all a lesson with a good thrashing but unfortunately Bollywood doesn't always work like that. Much of the story takes place during this part of the movie - the schoolteacher finally taking his story to the priest who, as a man of god, decides there is a limit to evil, Sushila's resentment towards the husband that is letting her languish in this house of horrors every day, the youngest brother's Vishwam (Nasureedin Shah) growing infatuation with Sushila and his wife Rukhmani's (Smita Patil) disgust with everything that she is witness to.

Nasureedin Shah's first film role introduces us to a spineless character (Vishwam) that we are not used to seeing him play. Not entirely comfortable with the way his brothers treat women as objects he nonetheless joins in the fray the first time he sees Sushila. As his feelings for her grow stronger it puts an enormous strain on the relationship with his wife Rukhmani and it is through this deft ability to hold his own ground around these two powerful actresses that a star is born.

And last but not least we have Smita Patil in the role of the long suffering wife Rukhmani. Her presence in the film elevates it into art every time she appears onscreen. Her transformation from a passive wife who tolerates what goes on around her to one that eventually becomes disgusted with what she is witness to is powerfull and proves as another reminder that she was taken from us entirely too early at the age of 31. Watching the movie hurtle towards it's powerful and controversial ending is not easy but then again, real life never is.

Ali Akbar Khan, the foremost virtuoso of the lutelike sarod, whose dazzling technique and gift for melodic invention, often on display in concert with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar, helped popularize North Indian classical music in the West, died on Thursday at his home in San Anselmo, Calif at the age of 87. His father was a stern, sometimes brutal taskmaster, rousing his young son at dawn for several hours of practice before breakfast and continuing well into the evening of what were often 18-hour days. Allauddin Khan had elevated the status of instrumental music, previously regarded as inferior to vocal performance, by synthesizing various regional styles into a modern concert style. His son absorbed his encyclopedic knowledge of North Indian music and eventually outstripped him as an instrumentalist. The song for today is Water Lady (Panihari) from the album 'Garden of Dreams'. Ustad (honorary title meaning master) Khan and a thirteen-piece East/West orchestra perform classical ragas and Rajasthani folk songs. Combining sarod with Western classical instruments such as the cello, violin, bassoon and oboe, Khansaab brilliantly merges Eastern and Western musical traditions to produce an album of astounding beauty.