Aurat (1940)

In 1957, Mehboob Khan produced and directed a film that has achieved almost iconic status in the history of Indian cinema. Mother India was the first Indian film to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won several Filmfare Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress.

Mother India is a fine example of the importance of perseverance. If you don’t get it right the first time, try again. Sometime along the way, somewhere and somehow, you will get to your goal. Also, if you did something well once, chances are you’ll do it better the next time round. Practice makes perfect.

I’m not talking about how Radha, the female lead character of Mother India (and of Aurat) manages to surmount all the obstacles in her path and emerge strong. I’m talking about Mehboob Khan himself, who was the director not just of Mother India, but of the film, Aurat, of which Mother India was a remake. Based on a story by Babubhai Mehta (and supposedly partly inspired too by Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth) and with dialogue by Wajahat Mirza, Aurat was a film Mehboob Khan only directed. Seventeen years later, now a producer in his own right, he remade the film, both producing and directing it. And how well he proved that if you do something well the first time round, there’s a good chance you’ll do it well, and even better, the second time round.

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Kangra Travels, Part 3: Dharamshala and McLeodganj

(To read the first part—Sirhind and Pragpur—of this travelogue, click here. To read the second part, Kangra and Palampur, click here).

In 2005, my husband and I went on a road trip through Himachal Pradesh. It was perhaps not the best time to visit: the monsoon had already arrived, and it was raining all across the hills. We were much younger and more adventurous, though, so we didn’t let that faze us. We went merrily on, umbrellas at the ready, driving slowly past a landslide near Baijnath, walking carefully down the slippery stone steps leading down from the Tashijong Monastery…

But not, obviously, carefully enough everywhere. Because, a few minutes after we checked into our hotel in Dharamshala and were walking to our cottage, I slipped on an algae-covered path and fractured my ankle. Our Dharamshala trip ended even before it had begun: the only sites we saw were an X-ray centre, a doctor’s clinic, and the hospital.

This time, therefore, we decided we had to see Dharamshala. Properly.

Deodars soaring up into the sky in McLeodganj.

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Kangra Travels, Part 2: Kangra Fort and Palampur

(To read the first part of this travelogue, Sirhind and Pragpur, click here).

After all the fun she had in Pragpur, the LO was not keen to leave. So, after a quick post-breakfast round of the premises, during which she collected a little green feather and sundry other treasures, the LO reluctantly consented to being bundled into the car.

Pragpur is less than two hours’ drive from Palampur, but one route lies through the historic town of Kangra, which is the district centre and also home to one of India’s most interesting forts.

Approaching the first of Kangra Fort’s many gates.

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Kangra Travels, Part 1: Sirhind and Pragpur

Yes, I do know that Sirhind is not part of Kangra, but bear with me. Because Sirhind, once a very important town of Northern India, featured in our itinerary for our summer vacation.

Back in March this year, I had to go to Dehradun for a literary event, and we decided to make it a family trip. A weekend in Dehradun, and our five year old daughter (the Little One, or LO, as she’s referred to here on this blog) didn’t want to return from the mountains. Not, of course, that Dehradun is, strictly speaking, in the mountains, but still. At least you could see the mountains, you could look up at those pine-forested heights and imagine a walk through that.

Therefore, we decided our summer trip would be a road trip to the mountains.

The mountains: these are the Dhauladhar ranges, seen from McLeodganj.

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Samskara (1970)

RIP Girish Karnad.

Yes, this is a belated tribute, but since I was about to leave on a summer vacation when the veteran actor, playwright and director passed away, I decided I would wait. Because, though the bulk of Girish Karnad’s career was after the timeline of this blog—his first film was in 1970, which pretty much marks the outer extent of Dustedoff—I had to pay my respects.

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Ten of my favourite tree songs

Two years ago, in May 2017, my husband, I, and our daughter—then three years old—shifted from Delhi to Noida. We had a lot of teething troubles, and even after we had more or less settled down, I kept missing (I still miss) the trees of Delhi. Not that Noida doesn’t have trees; it does. It’s just that the area we live in lacks the great big giants, many decades old, that are so much a part of Delhi.

But we do have a lovely little park in the middle of our housing society, and one day in June 2017, I took our child along there for a little picnic. We read a couple of books, she had a jam sandwich and some lemonade. We looked up at a stunning cabbage palm above the bench we were sitting on. I took a photo of that palm from our point of view, and later that day, I posted that on Facebook. I tagged it #LookingUpAtTrees. That photo became a landmark photo for me: it made me want to post more photos of looking up at trees. So I did. Over the next two years, I’ve become obsessed with trees (among the various other things I’m obsessed with). I photograph them, I want to know more about them, every time I travel, I keep an eye out for species not seen in and around the NCR. And, every week, I post a #LookingUpAtTrees photo (all of these posts are public, so if you’re on Facebook , you can see them even if you’re not on my friends network – just look for my personal page, Madhulika Liddle).

Yesterday I posted the hundredth photo in the series (of a landmark tree: a sal tree at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun; it was planted in 1956 by the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad). With it, as always, was a brief write-up about the tree.

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Ten of my favourite Rajendra Krishan songs

2019 marks the birth centenary of two major lyricists of Hindi cinema: Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan. While they may have shared the same birth year, Krishan and Azmi appear to have been very different personalities. Unlike the ardently socialistic Azmi, Rajendra Krishan seems to have pretty much embraced the capitalist side of life (interestingly, he is said to have been the ‘richest lyricist in Hindi cinema’—not as a result of his earnings as a song writer, but because he won 46 lakhs at the races).

Also, unlike Azmi, who wrote songs for less than fifty films (up to 1998, when he wrote for Tamanna), Rajendra Krishan was much more prolific. Though he died in 1987, by then he had already written songs for more than a hundred films.

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The Perfect Furlough (1958)

There was a time, some years back, when I watched a lot of Tony Curtis films (I didn’t get around to reviewing all that I watched, though I did some, such as Some Like it Hot, The Vikings, and Who Was That Lady?).  I haven’t watched a Tony Curtis film in years, but when blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man sent me a mail informing me of a bunch of old classics that he’d discovered—good prints, too—on Youtube, I found that one of them was a Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh rom-com named The Perfect Furlough.

So I decided it was time to return from that furlough away from Curtis. And with a film that had him opposite Janet Leigh too! That seemed to bode well.

The Perfect Furlough begins in the Pentagon office of Col Leland (Les Tremayne), where a group of military psychologists have been summoned by the general to address a very specific and very troubling problem the US Army’s facing.

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Do Dooni Chaar (1968)

Mention Shakespeare and Hindi cinema, and most eyes light up. Vishal Bhardwaj’s tragedy trilogy—Omkara, Maqbool, and Haider—come immediately to mind for those who cannot think back further than the 1990s, if that. Those who belong to a certain generation (my own) will probably remember fondly the delightful comedy, Angoor, based on A Comedy of Errors.

Fewer, perhaps, will know that Hindi cinema’s tryst with Shakespeare is much older than Angoor. In 1928, a Hamlet adaptation called Khoon-e-Nahak was released; the same play was adapted for screen again in 1935, this time as Khoon ka Khoon, starring Sohrab Modi in the title role opposite Naseem Banu as Ophelia. In 1941, The Merchant of Venice was adapted as a film named Zaalim Saudagar. And in 1954, Kishore Sahu produced, directed and acted in Hamlet, an interesting and unusual film for Hindi audiences since it was a fairly faithful enactment of the play—down to the costumes, the names, etc.

Along with Hamlet (which seems to win hands down when it comes to popularity among Hindi film makers), another popular play for adaptation seems to be A Comedy of Errors. In 1969, it had been made (though with many departures from the original plot, and with no twin servants) as Gustakhi Maaf, with Tanuja in the double role, opposite Sanjeev Kumar. It’s interesting to note that while Sanjeev Kumar would go on to act in another adaptation of the play (Angoor), Tanuja had already acted in yet another version. Do Dooni Chaar, released in 1968 and quite clearly the inspiration for Angoor.

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Calamity Jane (1953)

The irrepressible Doris Day—star of such hits as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, the woman who pretty much embodied the wholesome girl next door, the voice that mesmerized millions—passed away earlier this week. At the ripe old age of 97, Doris Day had gone on working till well into her 80s: her album, My Heart, released in 2011, made her the oldest artiste to feature in the UK Top Ten.

On Dustedoff, it is not just Doris Day’s music, but also her acting skills that I wanted to pay tribute to. When I was told about Doris’s passing (by blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man, who left a comment on my blog shortly after her death was announced on May 13, 2019), I felt a wave of nostalgia for Doris Day—because I heard and loved her voice long before I knew who she was. My mother used to sing Que sera sera to me when I was a toddler, and there were some songs of hers on various LPs in our house. I don’t know which was the first Doris Day film I ever watched, but I do remember going on a Doris Day spree, and watching several of her most popular films pretty much one after the other. There are several reviews of her films on this blog, including Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, That Touch of Mink, and Midnight Lace.

As tribute, I decided to watch and review a film whose lead character Doris Day described as her own favourite character, because Calamity Jane was closest in nature to Doris herself. “I was such a tomboy growing up, and she was such a fun character to play,” Doris said in an interview recorded in April 2019.

And yes, you get a taste of what sort of character this is, as soon as the credits have finished rolling in Calamity Jane.  The story begins with a song: a stage coach is racing along towards the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, and riding shotgun is Calamity ‘Calam’ Jane (Doris Day). ‘Riding shotgun’ is perhaps not quite the mot juste here; Calam sings, dances about, jumps around, swings over the side and onto the step, where she is joined in the chorus by the passengers…

When they arrive in Deadwood, Calam sings about not just all the stuff—everything from gingham to hair restorer—which she’s brought back for the people of Deadwood—but then goes on to introduce us to her best friends in Deadwood. One of these is the owner/manager of a theatre/bar/saloon called The Golden Garter: Henry Miller (Paul Harvey) looks prosperous enough, but also somewhat harried.

Another—with whom Calam has as many run-ins as she does agreements—is Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel), who is one of the few people who sees right through Calam’s tall claims of killing off hostile Indians left, right and centre. He is also the man in whom Calam confides about her disappointment that the man she is in love with, Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) didn’t even come to greet her when the coach arrived.

As it happens, Danny couldn’t have come. A couple of battered-looking men arrive in the saloon moments later, bringing with them bad news: Danny was one of several men who were ambushed by the Indians and killed. Calam is shocked, and refuses to believe it.

Before anyone can stop her, or even accompany her on this mad chase, Calam has rushed off by herself into the woods, where she’s able to frighten away a handful of Indians and rescue Danny , who is (much to Calam’s relief) alive. She unties him, gets him onto her horse, and back to Deadwood, where she boasts of all the Indians she killed in the process of rescuing Danny.

Wild Bill Hickok is, as to be expected, scornful: he doesn’t believe a word. Calam is not one to be put off by Bill’s scorn, and she gives back as good as she gets: I can do without you, they tell each other.

In the meantime, disaster strikes The Golden Garter. This establishment has a huge male audience, all of them clamouring to be shown good shows, great acts. Actresses like the gorgeous Adelaid Adams (Gale Robbins), for instance, who is so popular that her photograph, found free in a pack of cigarettes, is highly prized. (Not by Calam, who is disapproving of women who consent to be photographed in their underwear).

The famous Adelaid Adams is way out of Henry Miller’s league, but he’s managed to book an actress named Frances Fryer… only, now that Ms Fryer arrives, it turns out this is a Mr Fryer. Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson).

Henry Miller is so appalled and so worried—there is no time, the show is on in a very short while from now—that he can only think of one thing: disguise Francis Fryer as a woman and send ‘her’ on. Fryer doesn’t like the idea one bit but is forcibly pushed on—and, surprisingly enough (perhaps much of the audience is too sozzled to notice?) is actually able to draw some very leering looks from some of the patrons:

… though the more level-headed, clear-sighted, (and, in Calam’s case, sarsaparilla-swigging) ones can see something’s not quite right.

The farce falls through when Fryer’s wig accidentally comes off—and then it’s disaster for Henry Miller, who has to face a very irate mob. They feel cheated, they feel used, they demand reparation. Calam, jumping up onto a table to calm the men down (Henry Miller being her friend, her loyalty won’t let her sit back and see him getting lambasted). Calam’s way of calming the men down is to promise them grand spectacles, fabulous shows—oh, Adelaid Adams herself!

This goes down well and serves to defuse the situation, but when everybody’s gone away, Calam and Henry and Bill sit down to discuss it. There’s no way Henry can get Adelaid is going to leave Chicago and come to Deadwood (which is very aptly named). So Calam, who’s made this rash promise, had better attend to it.

Calam, therefore, all ragged and rough, clad in her deerskin clothes and ready to whip out her gun at the slightest provocation (or no provocation) goes to Chicago.

As it happens, on the night Calam arrives in Chicago, it is Adelaid Adam’s last appearance. She is going off to get married.

After the show, Adelaid goes to her green room, where her meek maid Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie) helps her change. Adelaid is busy talking about her plans to go on her honeymoon and beyond—in Vienna, Paris, London—and wondering what she’ll do about all her costumes. She thinks of throwing them all out, and then on a whim decides to gift them all to Katie. This it is that prompts Katie to ask diffidently if Adelaid might put in a word for her… after all, Katie can sing, and she can dance a little. Maybe in the chorus?

Adelaid is dismissive. Katie just doesn’t have it in her. Leaving Katie to her own devices, Adelaid now rushes off, gone forever to marry, to roam Europe… and Katie, resentful of the put-down she’s received at the hands of her late employer, decides to comfort her by proving—to herself, even if she can’t to anyone else—that she does, in fact, have it in her. So she dons the costume Adelaid wore for her last performance, and dances about the green room, singing the same song Adelaid sang.

This is when Calam, who had managed to catch a glimpse of Adelaid performing onstage, arrives outside the door. She hears the song, she opens the door and comes in, and after some initial panic (Katie mistakes Calam for a man), the two women get down to talking.

Katie soon realizes that the dress, the song, the dancing, and the very fact that there is a superficial resemblance between herself and her former employer means that Calam has mistaken Katie for Adelaid Adams—and now Calam invites ‘Adelaid Adams’ to come to Deadwood to perform, because Deadwood is crowded with men who’re yearning to see her dance and sing for them.

Katie, whose one desire has been to go onstage, is very tempted. She asks Calam about Deadwood: where is the nearest railroad? How far is it from civilization? (That’s the gist of her queries, and she’s pleased to find that it’s very far). And, having heard Calam talk about a photo in a pack of cigarettes, she also discovers that that obscure little photo—not a close-up of Adelaid Adam’s face—is all the audience at Deadwood knows of the famous actress.

Katie—or ‘Adelaid Adams’, as Calam thinks she is—agrees. Calam takes her back to Deadwood, and drives in in great style. Katie receives an extremely enthusiastic welcome.

And the stage is set for a pretty much complete turnaround of Calam’s life. Because before her horrified eyes, not just Bill but also her beloved Danny go off, starry-eyed, in the wake of ‘Adelaid Adams’. Plus, an industry insider—Francis Fryer—still being around means that Katie’s identity isn’t exactly safe.

How will it all pan out? For Calamity Jane, and for Katie?

Martha Jane Canary, ‘Calamity Jane’, was a real person. Like the character Doris Day portrays in this film, Calamity Jane was a rugged scout and frontierswoman who was illiterate and loved to boast of her exploits—boasts which were not (again, as in this film) believed by those around her. She lived in Deadwood for a good while, and was friends with Wild Bill Hickok. While Calamity Jane claimed (in her autobiography, which she dictated) that she had married Hickok, the general opinion seems to be that this is an example of one of her tall claims.

Calamity Jane, however, takes that historical character and the very basics of her character, and uses it to spin an entertaining yarn that’s full of humour, song and dance, and some romance.

What I liked about this film:

The entire package, which is lots of fun.

The story (by James O’Hanlon) is simple but well put together, there’s plenty of humour, and the songs are good. But, what I especially liked:

Doris Day. She’s really good as Calamity Jane, leaping about, dancing, swaggering with her chest thrust out, speaking out of the side of her mouth, being mannish and very physical—and always holding centre stage. This was one film where, whenever the leading lady came onscreen, I couldn’t help but watch her. Doris was a gem as Calam.

The songs, all of which are pleasant (the music was by Sammy Fain and the lyrics by Paul Francis Webster). Some, however, stand out for me: the opening The Deadwood stage, which has a very infectious beat is one. I can do without you has delightful lyrics, and Doris Day and Howard Keel enact it brilliantly: not just singing, but dancing about, clowning around.  The black hills of Dakota is dreamy and beautiful, and My secret love, a childhood favourite of mine, is not just a lovely song but also a great example of Doris Day’s singing talent. (It also got the only Oscar Calamity Jane won).

And yes, I must make special mention of the dialogues, which are often delightful. Here’s an example. Calam and Katie are going off in a horse-cart to Calam’s cabin, where Calam has invited Katie to stay. Various admirers have congregated to say a rueful goodbye to Katie, and Bill is at the forefront.

Katie to Bill, smiling: “And Mr Hickok, please feel free to drop in any time.”
Bill: “Thank you kindly, Ma’am.”
Calam (who’s been listening in on this conversation): “Feel it, but don’t try!”

What I didn’t like:

The blossoming of the romance is all too sudden to be believable. Yes, I’ve seen enough Hollywood musicals to know this is more the rule than the exception, since it’s a tough ask to fit lots of songs, a coherent storyline, and a believable romance into what’s usually below even two hours,  but still.

 

Despite that, though, a good film. And an appropriate one with which to remember Doris Day.

 

RIP, Doris. May your films continue to live on, may your voice continue to charm generations to come.