Guest Post: The Unsung Villains of Yesteryears, by Balaji Vittal

Balaji Vittal has written several books along with Anirudha Bhattacharjee. I’d read and enjoyed their biographies of SD Burman and RD Burman, as well as their collection of top songs, Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; so when Balaji Vittal wrote to me informing me about the publication of his first solo foray into cinema writing, I was intrigued—especially as the premise of Vittal’s book sounded thoroughly entertaining. Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood explores the villains of Hindi cinema. From dacoits to smugglers to mafia dons and gangsters, from serial killers to terrorists and traitors, to small-time crooks, evil relatives, adulterous spouses, even anti-heroes: they’re all here, described in detail.

Pure Evil isn’t a book that fits completely into the time line of my blog, since a good deal of its focus ends up being on more recent cinema than Dustedoff restricts itself to. While I haven’t reviewed the book here, you can read a fairly detailed review I wrote on Goodreads, here.

And, while we’re on the topic, a piece Balaji Vittal wrote specifically to feature here as a guest post. On the unsung villains of the Hindi cinema of the 40s and 50s: nasty characters who were a little offbeat as far as villains went, in the films they featured in.

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To Sir, With Love (1967)

RIP, Sidney Poitier.

When I heard the news of Sidney Poitier’s death (on January 6th, 2022), one of the first thoughts that came to me was: what a sad coincidence, that the last English-language film I’d reviewed on this blog was one of his (The Bedford Incident). Then, the realization that, in so many years of blogging, while I’ve watched and/or reviewed several films of Poitier’s (including the wonderful Lilies of the Field, for which he won an Academy Award; The Long Ships; The Defiant Ones), I’ve never seen a few of his most iconic films, such as In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and A Raisin in The Sun.

I will watch those sometime, sooner or later; but for now, to commemorate the life and career of one of my favourite actors, I decided to rewatch a film I haven’t seen in several decades. The film that’s probably the one with which most Indians (at least) associate Poitier, about a school teacher who manages to change the lives of the disturbed and insecure students he has to teach.

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Ten of my favourite devotional songs

I made my first song list pretty soon after I started blogging. And once my blog began drawing some readers, I also began getting requests for themes for song lists. One theme (along with lullabies) that several people have requested over the years but which I’ve not yet been able to compile—till now, that is—has been that of the devotional song. The bhajan.

Mostly, I steered away from handling this theme because the most common and most popular bhajans just didn’t float my boat: I invariably found them too screechy and shrill. But as time has passed and I’ve been exposed to more devotional songs from the films of the 50s and 60s (in particular), I’ve realized that there are many bhajans that I do like. So, finally, a post. A list of ten devotional songs that I especially like. As always, these are from pre-1970s Hindi films that I’ve watched.

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The Bedford Incident (1965)

In my younger days, I used to watch a lot of war films: not the newer, more gory and violent ones, but the older, not so graphic type. My favourites were adventure films like Where Eagles Dare, though somewhere down the line I also developed a liking for more nuanced films, films like Battleground or Paths of Glory or La Grande Guerra, which showed the harsh reality of war, of the horror it is to go into battle, to fight a war plotted out by people sitting in a conference room far away…

The Bedford Incident is different. The people sitting in a distant conference room are there all right, but the real problem here seems to be not them, but the man who commands the USS Bedford. Captain Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a hard, embittered man who gives no quarter. 

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Aakhri Dao (1958)

This was one film where I had a tough time making up my mind: should I review it? Should I not? It’s not a great film, but it’s not absolutely abysmal either. And it has a luminously lovely Nutan, plus some superb songs (courtesy Madan Mohan and Majrooh Sultanpuri) to compensate for other drawbacks in the film. It’s also a film about a murder (as macabre as that may sound, always something that catches my attention).

If for nothing else, as an example of a film that could have been pretty good but ends up a damp squib, this, I decided, was worth reviewing.

The story centres round Raj Kumar Saxena ‘Raju’ (Shekhar), a mechanic who works in a garage, and lives in a tiny room above the garage along with his friend and colleague Popat (Johnny Walker). Popat has been having a chat with a wealthy customer, Muthuswami Chetiyar (Mirajkar) and is keen on getting Muthuswami to invest in a garage for Popat. The incentive Popat offers is a match for Muthuswami’s daughter: Raju, he says, will be a fine bridegroom. Because he guesses Muthuswami will not be eager to marry his daughter to a mechanic, Popat takes care not to let on that the groom he has in mind is that figure hunched over a car at the other end of the garage…

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Ten of my favourite Hindi film double roles

Some of you may know that besides being devoted to old cinema, I also watch a lot of modern Korean dramas. My love for K-dramas probably has something to do with the fact that the average Korean TV show has more than a passing resemblance to classic Hindi cinema, from star-crossed lovers (with one usually very wealthy, the other poor), to disapproving parents whom one cannot dishonour by rebelling, to hate-turned-to-love, and so on. They’re addictive, and though I don’t get the time to watch much Korean drama, I have enjoyed pretty much all I’ve seen so far.

The last K-drama I watched was the 2018 show, Are You Human? In this one, a brilliant robotics engineer is forced to leave the country after her husband (supposedly) commits suicide and their little son, Nam Shin, is taken away by her tyrannical father-in-law, who’s a very wealthy and powerful chaebol. The engineer, missing Nam Shin desperately, creates a marvel of AI, a robot designed to be exactly like her son. Twenty years pass, and Nam Shin, now grown up, is nearly killed in an attempted murder and goes into coma. To stop his company (he’s on the verge of inheriting his grandfather’s business empire) from sliding into the hands of baddies, his mother, along with a couple of friends, gets the robot to impersonate Nam Shin.

While the story was entertaining enough, what really struck me about Are You Human? was the acting of the male lead, Seo Kang Joon. The human Nam Shin is an abrasive, arrogant man who hides pain and trauma behind a façade of swagger and brusqueness. The robot Nam Shin is completely different: guileless, innocent, emotionless but with the rule to help humans hardwired into him. Two diametrically different personalities, and Seo Kang Joon played them brilliantly. It wasn’t as if these two characters looked different—they were identical—but Seo Kang Joon, just through body language and expressions (his eyes!), was able to show the difference between them even without dialogue. Brilliant.

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Auntie Mame (1958)

Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” says the eponymous Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell) on more than one occasion in this delightful film about an eccentric woman who is obliged to look after her orphaned nephew. Mame Dennis, indeed, is not one of the ‘poor suckers’ she so derides; this is a woman who lives life to the full (and a little beyond), grabbing happiness with both hands and not giving a damn, mostly, for what the world thinks.

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Around India’s Towns in Ten Songs

Towns and cities. Not countryside, not rural hinterland.

As a family, we’re very fond of travelling. At least once a year, we make sure we go on a road trip (usually) that would take us through several towns, spending a couple of days here, a couple there. Exploring places beyond what we’re familiar with.

Of course, with the pandemic, that’s on hold for the time being. Though my husband and I are vaccinated, the LO (the ‘Little One’, our seven year old daughter) isn’t, and we don’t want to run any risks. So, we’re stuck at home, and I confine myself (and occasionally the LO, who is also fond of old Hindi film songs) to watching videos that take us places. Songs that are filmed in places far and wide, songs that go beyond the usual tourist attractions. Songs which make you feel you were, for those brief few minutes, in another town.

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Kalapi (1966)

A Gujarati film starring Sanjeev Kumar.

I am always keen to watch regional films starring people I’m familiar with from Hindi cinema. With (say) Bengali cinema, it’s not too difficult—so many Bengalis (Sharmila Tagore, Kishore Kumar, Biswajeet, Suchitra Sen, Mala Sinha, etc) were big names in Hindi cinema, and managed to do quite a bit of work in Bengali films too, many of which are subtitled. With Punjabi (which I understand enough of to be able to get the gist without having to rely on subtitles) it’s also satisfying, because Punjabi cinema seems to be pretty much completely populated by the same names one keeps running into in Hindi cinema: Nishi Kohli, IS Johar, Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Indira Billi…

But to come to this: I stumbled upon Kalapi completely by accident, and immediately bookmarked it. Because a subtitled version is available on YouTube, here (though I must warn you, the subtitles are pretty bad), and because of Sanjeev Kumar, one of the greatest actors of Hindi cinema. Also, I am on an eternal quest to find old regional language films that are subtitled, and since I’d never watched a Gujarati film before, this would be a first for my blog.

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