Just ten days ago, this blog celebrated the birth centenary of an actor who pretty much came to exemplify the ‘Hindi film villain’ of the 50s and 60s: the inimitable Pran. Today, it’s time to celebrate the birth centenary of another actor who carved such a niche for himself that his name became nearly synonymous with a particular kind of role. Iftekhar, who brought so much dignity and intelligence to his usual role of police officer or lawyer—or army officer, or doctor…
February 1920 was a very important month for Hindi cinema, though of course the fledgling cinema industry in India back then didn’t know it. But that month, a century ago, marked the births of three major actors (and one not so major, but by no means a non-entity). One was Pran, born on February 12th. Another was Iftekhar, born on February 22nd (a birthday shared with Kamal Kapoor). And between Pran and Iftekhar, born on February 16th, a man who was not just actor, but also writer, director and producer: IS Johar.
If Hindi cinema has ever had an iconic onscreen villain—not a villain in one film, but in film after film—it has got to be Pran. There have been other actors, from Wasti to Ajit, Ranjeet to Madan Puri, who have played memorable villains in films: but none, in my opinion, was quite able to sustain it and make it so much his forte that his own name became a synonym for villainy (it’s common knowledge that for many years, Indian parents refused to name baby boys Pran because of Pran).
In film after film, from period dramas like Halaku to comedies like a Half Ticket, from weep fests like Do Badan to supernatural stuff like Madhumati—Pran was in them all. With aplomb, he carried off every shade of villainy, whether it was the lisping and ruthless truck driver Mohan of Kashmir ki Kali or the tuneless dacoit-cum-gentleman of Munimji. He even did the occasional unusual role (as a doctor in Aah, and as a kotha frequenter in a cameo in Devdas), until, in the late 1960s, he began to play some sympathetic characters as well. From the cynical Malang Chacha of Upkaar, to Dev Anand’s long-lost brother in Johny Mera Naam, to his role in Zanjeer: Pran proved that he wasn’t just a great villain, he was a great actor, period.
Today would have been Pran’s hundredth birthday: he was born on February 12, 1920 in Delhi. And, to mark the occasion of his hundredth centenary, I thought I’d review a Pran film with a difference. Not Pran as the villain, but Pran as the hero. A young, gangly Pran, probably not even twenty-two years old yet, plays opposite a girlish Noorjehan in one of the first Hindi films to get a lot of pre-release publicity: Khandaan.
RIP, Kirk Douglas.
One of the last living legends of Hollywood has gone. Kirk Douglas passed away on February 5th, at the age of 103. A ripe old age, and a life that seems to have been as heroic as the characters he portrayed onscreen. Kirk Douglas grew up in a Jewish ghetto as the son of immigrants from what is now Belarus; his athleticism (he became a professional wrestler at an early age) was what eventually helped him pay for an education and go on to win a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’s acting career (on stage, at the time) was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and he, having enlisted in the US Navy, did not return to theatre until ceasefire in 1945.
The post-war period also resulted in a breakthrough into cinema for Douglas, leading him to his first role, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). From this point onwards, there was no looking back: over the next 60 years, he acted in many films, some of them landmarks in the history of cinema, like Lust for Life, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory. Besides his impressive acting career, Douglas was also involved in various humanitarian causes, donating funds for causes as diverse as a children’s hospital and a television and motion picture fund.
As tribute, therefore, to Kirk Douglas, my review of one of his most famous films, a sword-and-sandals epic about a rebellious (real life) slave.
I must admit to a great fondness for proverbs: there is something about the earthy wisdom, the often humorous or even irreverent insight into human nature offered through these that is very memorable and hard-hitting. And (though I may be prejudiced here), there’s something about proverbs and idioms in Hindustani (muhaavara and lokokti) that is hard to beat. Many years ago, I remember reading a newspaper advertisement in which ‘Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghaat ka’ had been translated into English—and the entire flavour lost in the process, even though there was really nothing wrong with the translation itself. The point being that there are some things that need to be conveyed in the original language (the ad was for a Hindi-language newspaper).
Old Hindi cinema tended to use a lot of proverbs and idioms. Characters often bunged in a muhaavara in dialogue (I have actually come across, in some films from the 40s and 50s, phrases that were immediately identifiable as proverbs, but which I’d never come across before otherwise). And, sometimes, there were proverbs in songs as well.
(The first part of this travelogue is here).
On the third day after we arrived in Nairobi, we were scheduled to leave for Masai Mara. Our driver, Joseph (“Jesus’s father?” the LO asked, when she heard his name) arrived early in the morning, and we set off a little after 7 AM.
It was the first working day after the long Christmas break, so lots of people were out and about on the streets: children scurrying to school (Joseph said the usual school timings are 7 to 4: long!), people piling into minibuses called matats, and just generally a lot of bustle. We’d soon left behind Nairobi, with its skyscrapers and its tall trees, and were into the wooded mountains. The highway was lined with dense stands of trees, some crowded with yellow or pink flowers.
In between, there were villages and little towns, and so many things that reminded me of India: Ashok Leyland, Mahindra and Airtel signs, of course, but also banana plantations, brightly-painted houses, and baboons by the side of the road (Joseph said that travellers in matats pitch out ears of half-eaten maize or bits of half-chewed sugarcane, which is what attracts them). I saw little garages that simply call themselves ‘puncture’ (a step up from India, where I’ve seen them labelled ‘puncher’), hotels which are actually no more than restaurants—and ‘viewpoints’, places that offer a panoramic view of some specially spectacular landscape.
Sometime last year, a brilliant wildlife photographer, Gurcharan Roopra, inspired me to go to Kenya on safari. I’d praised Roopra’s photos on Facebook, and later, in a private message, mentioned how much vicarious pleasure I got out of his gorgeous shots of African wildlife. He suggested I go on safari too; he would put me in touch with a good safari operator.
I discussed it with my husband. We were initially hesitant; we realized it would be expensive—possibly the most expensive trip we would ever have made. Could we afford it? Should we? Most importantly, could the LO (our Little One, who turned six in January this year) be able to handle it?
I watched Guide for the first time when I was about twelve or so. Till then, all the Hindi cinema I had watched was predictable, comfortable, simple enough for a pre-teen to know what to expect. Or so I thought.
Because Guide defied every norm I thought I understood. Heroes, not even when they were the anti-hero Dev Anand had played in earlier films like Baazi, Kaala Bazaar or House No. 44, did not go anywhere near another man’s wife. Heroines, even when they were married off against their wishes to men other than those they loved (as in Dil Ek Mandir, Gumraah, or Sangam) stayed true to their marriage vows and sooner or later left their past behind (I was to watch Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke only much later). They absolutely did not leave their husbands and start living with another man.
And heroes did not die. As when I watched Anand, when I watched Guide too, I kept thinking, “This isn’t it. He isn’t dead, he can’t be dead.”
Several years later, I had to study RK Narayan’s The Guide at school, and I pretty much knew what to expect—but once again, I found myself surprised, because the book was in many ways different from the film. The book had won its author the Sahitya Kala Akademi Award (the first book in English to win the award), and the film won accolades by the handful—and continues to do so, fifty-five years after it was released. It has been analyzed, discussed, derided, lauded. Personally, other than for its music and Waheeda Rehman’s dancing, I have never really liked Guide much—but even I, when offered the opportunity to read this collection of essays about Guide, couldn’t resist it. Partly, perhaps, because I hoped to be able to discover what fans of the film saw in it that I didn’t.
In 1956, Waheeda Rehman made her debut in Hindi cinema in CID, with Dev Anand (Waheeda wasn’t the heroine of CID—Shakila was—but she had a good and somewhat offbeat role as the vamp with a heart of gold). Over the next decade and a half or so, Waheeda and Dev Anand were to go on to act together in several more films, probably their most famous pairing being in the hugely popular Guide (1965).
I have watched, as far as I know, all of the Waheeda-Dev films over the years. The only one that (again, as far as I know) I hadn’t watched yet was this one. Time, I decided, to make amends for that.
As in many other films of his, Dev Anand in Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja is a crook—a thief, to be precise. We are introduced to Chhagan (Dev) when he’s in a shady-looking dive, buying a bottle of booze. Shortly after, Chhagan is accosted by ‘Langad Deen’, a partly-crippled character (played by Jeevan), who has a bit of news for Chhagan: a steamer is about to begin the journey down the river to the pilgrimage spot of Shivsagar. Langad Deen has it on authority that among the people on board is a wealthy jeweller who is carrying a very valuable diamond to be offered up to the god Shiv at Shivsagar.
Today marks the birthday of Jesus Christ, but also of a man who was pretty much regarded as little less than a god by thousands of music lovers in India between the 40s and the 60s. The one and only Naushad Ali, who was born on Christmas Day, 1919.