Book Review: Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

The 1936 Hindi film Jeevan Naiyya begins with a telephone conversation. An engaged couple, very much in love with each other, whispers sweet nothings on the phone. It’s all a bit awkward, and the young man in particular comes across as distinctly uncomfortable with all this koochie-kooing. This is not quite the mellifluous, effortless romance of a Jalte hain jiske liye, but it is, in its own way, a landmark scene. Because this is the very first onscreen appearance of a young actor who went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars: Ashok Kumar Ganguly, better known simply as Ashok Kumar.

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Anna Karenina (1948)

I have very, very vague memories of watching a Russian version of Anna Karenina years ago—it had been telecast on Doordarshan, with subtitles, and I, probably barely a teenager back then, understood very little of it.

But last year, having finally got around to reading Tolstoy’s novel, I decided I should find a cinematic adaptation to watch. Just to see how a screenwriter might interpret this pretty sprawling work (not as sprawling as War and Peace, but still). I read, in several places, that at least as far as English-language cinema is concerned, the 1935 Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo, was considered the best version there is. Despite much searching online, I couldn’t find a copy of it (the ones that were there were dubbed in other languages), but I did find this one, made thirteen years later and starring Vivien Leigh as Anna.

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Ten of my favourite bicycle songs

Today is World Bicycle Day, used to promote the use of bicycles as a cheap, healthy, and eco-friendly means of transport. I have to admit I actually never learnt to cycle (I fell too many times as a kid when learning, and was too much of a coward to persist).

But bicycles happen to be important and very visible means of transportation in old Hindi cinema, so why not a post to celebrate it?  The bicycle, as it is even now, is the one vehicle that’s available even to the not-terribly-prosperous. A character who owned a car, just by virtue of that ownership, was automatically identified as moneyed. If you could not afford a car but were not utterly broke either, you had a bicycle. It didn’t need expensive fuel, yet it got you around faster than if you just walked everywhere.

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Lukochuri (1958)

This film has been on my watchlist for a long time—many people, over the years, have recommended it to me as a good Bengali comedy—so when, on my ‘double roles’ post someone mentioned it, I decided it was high time I watched Lukochuri (‘Stealth’). I was a little sceptical; Kishore Kumar tends to go over the top when doing comedy, to the extent that I find him positively irritating in films like Half Ticket, Jhumroo, Naughty Boy, etc. But a Bengali film, I thought, might have a more sophisticated sense of humour? One could only hope.

The story starts in Jabalpur, where Kumar Chaudhury ‘Buddhoo’ (Kishore Kumar) is getting ready to leave for Bombay. Buddhoo works for a company which has transferred him to Bombay, and Buddhoo is bidding farewell to his father (Moni Chatterjee) and his Pishima (?), his father’s sister, who lives with them.

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Ten of my favourite ‘secondary romantic couple’ songs

Think of ‘Hindi film song’ and chances are, you will think of a romantic song. A hero and a heroine, in a garden or under a moonlit sky, singing of their love for each other: the quintessential Hindi film song. But besides the heroes and heroines, there were often, too, the secondary couple. The man was often the hero’s sidekick, the best friend who helped him defeat the villain, overcome the objections of the disapproving father, and so on. The comic best pal’s love interest, too, was often of a similar bent of mind: good-hearted, nutty, comic in her own way. Also (oh so stereotypically) often an Anglo-Indian or a Goan, a girl who had few inhibitions about dancing and singing with her man.

The secondary romantic pair served several purposes. They provided, if not comic relief, at least some moments of light-heartedness (think Johnny Walker’s and Kumkum’s characters in the otherwise so grim Pyaasa). They brought a ray of hope, a refreshing change from the melodrama and seriousness that might plague the hero and heroine; they often helped in very concrete, practical ways. And, thankfully for us, they invariably had at least one romantic song to lip-sync to, and it was often just as good as the ‘main’ romantic songs. Some of these, in fact, are iconic songs in their own right.

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Pehla Aadmi (1950)

Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s most familiar character actors, the very well-known Nasir Hussain (or Nazir Hussain, or Nazir Hussein, or Nazir/Nasir Husein, whatever; Hindi cinema credits are famous for being inconsistent). Not the same man as the film maker of the same name, but an important personality in his own right. Born in Usia (Uttar Pradesh) on May 15, 1922, Nasir Hussain came to cinema in a roundabout sort of way. Having worked briefly in the railways (where his father too was employed), Nasir had ended up joining the British Army, and was posted overseas—in Malaya—during World War II. Taken captive, he was freed and subsequently went oj to join Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, the INA.

After his INA experience, Hussain could not find an alternate career and wound up doing bit parts in theatre. From here, a chance meeting with Bimal Roy finally brought him into cinema. Their very first film together (they were to go on to make several more films, with Nasir Hussain in front of the camera and Roy behind, such as Parakh, Do Bigha Zameen, and Devdas) was this one: Pehla Aadmi, in which Nasir Hussain was not just an actor, but also assistant to the director—as well as the writer of the story and the dialogues.

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Wahan (1937)

Aka Beyond the Horizon.

When I began this blog, it was with the intention of indulging in my love for old cinema. While that has remained the main objective of my writing here, I’ve added to it a desire to make this a means of documenting old cinema (especially Hindi cinema) too. Not all old cinema, since that would be too mammoth a task for one person to take up; but films that I think are worth documenting, in particular if they seem to be otherwise obscure now. Films that are landmarks in Hindi cinema history; films that were somewhat different, perhaps, from the usual.

Or, as in this case, films that allow us a glimpse of familiar faces that we know from another, later, period. Leela Chitnis, the perennially poverty-stricken and very distressed mother of 60s cinema, stars in Wahan as an Aryan princess, and Ulhas, the well-known character actor of the 50s and 60s, appears in his debut role as her fiancé.

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Do Phool (1958)

I have watched hundreds of Hindi films. Many of these I’ve reviewed here on this blog, and for many of those, I’ve had readers mention that so-and-so film was actually a remake of so-and-so Hollywood film, or was inspired from this novel or that play. In some, of course, I’ve been able to spot a source immediately: the grand mansion being run as a hotel by its manager who then forces the owner to pretend to be a guest is lifted from Come September and used—without any credit for the original idea—in both Kashmir ki Kali and Mere Sanam. Adalat is a remake of Madame X; Aradhana of To Each His Own; Gumnaam of And Then There Were None… all uncredited. And umpteen others.

This is something I find very irritating. The amount of work that goes into coming up with a good plot is substantial, and if you’re acknowledging that by thinking it worthy of being copied, then you should certainly think it worthy enough to pay for. But by calmly hogging all the credit and assuming that Indian audiences won’t cotton on to this plagiarism, and Hollywood (or foreign writers), too far from the world of Hindi cinema, will be oblivious.

Anyway, that’s a long, convoluted and messy topic, which I should probably leave for later. For now, the reason why all of that came to my mind: because this film does give credit where it’s due. Not, unfortunately, to the writer of the book (Johanna Spyri), but at least to the book itself.

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Three Men in a Boat (1956)

Today is World Book Day, so it seemed appropriate to post something related to books: a review of a film based on one of my favourite books.

I must have read Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat when I was in my early teens. A not-quite-story of three men who go down the Thames in a boat, along with their dog. Many descriptions of the countryside, of sights to see and places to visit. Several reminiscences of various events and incidents that aren’t even part of this trip. No romances (and yes, I must admit to having been a fairly typical teenage girl in being quite addicted to romances). Three Men in a Boat, seen only from that limited point of view, would not have sounded like a novel that would appeal to me.

But it did. And how. I laughed my way through all the adventures, the madness, the utterly hilarious trip that this was. Jerome K Jerome (who, by the way, was amazingly versatile, writing very well in various genres, including horror) brought to Three Men in a Boat a humour that I find irresistible. He’s very witty, of course, but what makes that humour even more brilliant for me is the fact that it’s so relatable. The circumstances, the incidents, the dialogues: all could have happened to one of us; what makes Jerome so hilarious is that he manages to exaggerate the nuttiness just that wee bit that turns it utterly hilarious. Something as simple as what happens when two men try to put up a tent in pouring rain; or when they get together to pack for a trip…

How would that translate into a film? I have always been a little sceptical, since much of the humour of Three Men in a Boat lies in Jerome’s language, in the brilliant way he looks at everyday incidents through that deliciously witty lens of his. The story itself is bare of a plot of any sort.

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Ten of my favourite Hasrat Jaipuri Songs

Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s greatest lyricists, the very prolific and versatile Hasrat Jaipuri. Born in Jaipur on April 15, 1922, ‘Hasrat’ was named Iqbal Hussain, and took to writing poetry fairly early in life. In 1940, not even 20 years old, Hasrat moved to Bombay, where, though he attended mushairas and wrote (and recited) a good deal of verse, he was also obliged to take up a job as bus conductor. This job helped him make ends meet for the next 8 years, when Hasrat had the good fortune to be noticed by none other than Prithviraj Kapoor at a mushaira. Kapoor was so impressed by the young poet, he recommended Hasrat to his son Raj, who was then in the midst of planning Barsaat (1949). Hasrat was taken on to write songs for the film, and that was the start of a very long association with RK Films—Hasrat wrote lyrics for all of Raj Kapoor’s films for the next two decades and more, invariably alongside fellow lyricist Shailendra.

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