Now why does that sound familiar?

In The Vikings (1958), a Northumbrian queen is widowed and raped by a Viking conqueror named Ragnar. She later gives birth to his child, a son whom she tries to protect from the hatred of the newly-crowned king of Northumbria by tying a distinctive amulet around his neck and sending him far, far away, to grow up in safety.

Twenty years, the baby has grown up and is a slave, still wearing the amulet—and now the sworn enemy of a Viking warrior who happens to be the son of Ragnar. And, coincidence, coincidence: both men are in love with the same woman.

And the climax comes in a fight between the two half-brothers.

Where have I seen that, or at least bits of that, before? Parasmani? Waqt? Aayi Milan ki Bela? Johnny Mera Naam? I’m sure a weeping Nirupa Roy (or Achla Sachdev or Sulochana Latkar) tied distinctive amulets on countless babies just before deserting them. And that countless heroes, unaware that they were on the verge of beating up their long-lost brothers, let fly at other men who appeared to be villains, but weren’t really—and were often anyway in love with the same woman the hero loved.

But what people will do for love! Even leave their identities behind. It’s amazing how people in films happily disguise themselves, for no very good reason. Except, it seems, for keen-sighted viewers to be able to say “A-ha!” to an easily hoodwinked hero/heroine (though it’s usually the hero thus deceived). Here’s an example: in West of the Pecos, Barbara Hale pretends to be a boy just because, in her opinion, it’s easier to be male than female in the Wild West.
And of course, Robert Mitchum, as Pecos Smith—otherwise savvy as they come, very macho and very sharp, doesn’t have the eyes to see this boy is no boy at all.

What’s even more baffling, when he does discover he’s a she, she leaves off pretending to be a boy—even to the world. Suddenly, it’s easy being female in the Wild West.

Reminds me of I don’t know how many Hindi films I’ve seen. Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani, Taxi Driver, Nau do Gyarah, Ji Chahta Hai, etc etc—all of which had women passing themselves off as men for the flimsiest of reasons. And then stopping for equally flimsy reasons. And getting away with it.

Disguises, though, don’t end at fake moustaches and baggy trousers. In The Major and The Minor, a lovely 20-something Ginger Rogers, too hard up to go back home to Iowa from New York, resorts to subterfuge. She passes herself off as a 12-year old so that she can travel on a half fare.

Hmm. Didn’t Kishore Kumar shave off his moustache and don a really ridiculous outsized sailor suit in the aptly-named Half Ticket because he didn’t have the money for a full fare? Or something along those lines.

Oh, and coming back to one of my favourite films: that lovely Judy Holliday musical, Bells Are Ringing. In which Judy falls deeply in love with a man she’s never seen; she’s only heard his voice (considering he’s Dean Martin, I’m not surprised). Such a sweet film…

… and so reminiscent of all those Hindi films in which we have heroines falling left, right and centre for men they’ve never seen. To be fair, though, our ladies are less swayed by the physical angle of it. If looks weren’t a criterion for the heroine of Bells Are Ringing, even a gorgeous voice isn’t a consideration for the heroines of films like Chhaya or Mirza Ghalib: they fall in love with a man’s intellect, with the poems or the prose he writes.

And finally, an old favourite: the conflict between love and honour. I thought this was something Hindi cinema specialised in. The unsuitable beloved (‘unsuitable’ because she happens to be a dancing girl or poor or otherwise unequal to the wealthy and highly respectable family of the hero) is approached by a close relative of the hero’s. Typically, this is a consumptive father (Nasir Hussain, usually) or a weepy mother (Nirupa Roy, again?) who pleads/coaxes/uses emotional blackmail to convince the heroine her man’s better off without her. Think Mere Sanam. Think Pakeezah. Think Bandish.

So what does she do? She knows he loves her too much to let go so easily—so she pretends she’s wicked and/or in love with someone else and/or was just playing fast and loose all this while. This also works perfectly when the heroine’s blackmailed by other miscreants who plan to harm the hero in some way.

The self-sacrificing heroine who manages to convince the hero she isn’t all he thought her to be, isn’t, I am glad to say, a Hindi film motif. Way back in 1936, Greta Garbo did the same in Camille. Hah!

Some more research, a lot more delving into old Hollywood, and I just may be able to find the answers to a lot of questions that have bothered me.

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13 thoughts on “Now why does that sound familiar?

  1. Very Interesting post dusted off, it reminds me of a debate i was having with a friend on how most bollywood heroines both (early& recent) are of the fair skinned variety, one of the conclusions/arguments was that bollywood was always trying to ape Hollywood and since fair skin was the order of the day there, it had to be so for the Hindi film heroines as well, in a look at what we’ve got too kind of way. Indeed i’m aware of the fair = true beauty myth that exists in India, but i think hollywood and its influence on the hindi film industry perpetrated this even further. What do you think, its all very controversial i know, but its a topic that keeps coming up over and over again

    on a lighter note, I think it was in Mard (1985) where Nirupa Roy tied a distinctive amulet on her baby coupled with a knife made tattoo by her husband on the baby’s chest

  2. It irritates me beyond belief when people say: but Hindi cinema is so UNREALISTIC.

    Really? Isn’t that what movies are FOR, in general? Have people who say that ever SEEN a Hollywood movie? :)

  3. Very interesting post! So many movies have these plots….long-lost brothers/half-brothers falling for the same girl, girls disguised as guys, girls getting so easily convinced that the guy is better off without them and the the emotional blackmailing and etc etc…
    OMG…just the mention of Taxi Driver reminds of this scene where Dev Anand tells the girl that if she’s going to pretend to be a guy and his assistant, she should learn some bad words. After spending so long to convince her of this, she finally summons all her courage to say : tum paapi ho!!!!
    But no matter how senseless and illogical they sound, these are the ingredients of Bollywood that make it so endearing and entertaining.
    And that post of 10 Great Bollywood Mysteries is amazing. As a kid I always used to wonder why Police in Hindi films reach the scene only at the end and then somebody told me Kanoon ke haath lambe hote hai, per nahin :P

  4. And I also think that is why Bollywood is also floundering these days, because it’s trying half-heartedly to be realistic. And it doesn’t really know how. And in the bargain it’s forgetting what it does know. :(

  5. Stories are unrealistic all over, what I mind in both Hollywood or Hindi cinema is when it is badly directed/acted/ and on top doen’t even bother to fill up the own plot holes of their iwn tales!

    Or self-sacrificing=noble women….
    urgghhh

  6. bollywoodeewana: I am a little confused about the origins of this fairness=beauty business in India. On the one hand, the bevy of light-skinned women in Bollywood perpetrates the theory that fair is beautiful. On the other hand, even outside of films, it’s been a fairly (pun intended!) common belief. There are a vast number of ‘fairness creams’ out there in the market, and even a glance through the ‘matrimonial classifieds’ that appear in newspapers show that fairness is a much-desired trait for a potential spouse. A bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. I remember, when I was small, I went to visit my grandmother (who hadn’t seen me for a couple of years) and her first words were: “You’re not looking as dark as you used to!” Not strangely, that didn’t make me feel nice!
    I’m not sure to what extent the presence of blue-eyed blondes in Hollywood could have influenced the ‘fair is beautiful’ theory in Hindi cinema – I think it’s older than Hollywood. And not just in India, but in other places too. A German writer I know lives in Taiwan, and was saying that fair skin is almost deified there. His sister – whom he referred to as ‘pasty pale’ visited him, and nearly all his Taiwanese friends were gushing about how beautiful she was, simply because she was fair! I wonder if there’s a much older, socio-economic reason for this obsession with fair skin?

    memsaab: Absolutely! Whoever thought Hollywood made ‘real’ films that weren’t escapist has obviously not been watching Hollywood. They’ve been making escapist films much longer than we have – and I don’t see anything wrong with that! :-)

    sunheriyaadein: I love that Tum paapi ho dialogue! And Kalpana Karthik delivers it with such fervour too, as if she really thinks that’s the worst insult she can possibly belt out! (which reminds me of a long-ago article I’d read about the difference between Punjabi and Urdu. The writer – a Westerner who’d spent time in the subcontinent – said that you could get really crass in Punjabi – what with the MC and BC – whereas in Urdu, the worst you could manage was a “Aap se yeh ummeed nahin thhi!”)
    That Kanoon ke haath… bit is delightful too! Good one. ;-)

    Banno: Yes! We’re good at escapist stuff, so why not stick to it? And unsurprisingly, that’s the one thing about Hindi cinema that nearly everybody – both Indian as well as the few people abroad who like Hindi cinema – seems to prefer.

    bawa: Yes, I don’t mind escapist fare at all. But just give me well scripted, directed and acted films! As a case in point, films like Scaramouche or Bells are Ringing are completely escapist (or even Arsenic and Old Lace), but they’re so well made, I never found myself wincing while watching them.

  7. Obsession with fairness can probably be traced at least as far back as western colonization of the non-European world—but I wonder if there is even something deeper than that which was partly an enabler of colonization…would be interesting to know if the Mughals valued fair skin above darker? (some research for you Madhu?) :)

    Even in the west, fairer skin has been prized above tanned for centuries (until the last one)…upper-class ladies went to great lengths to protect themselves from the sun, to keep themselves from looking like working-class peasants who were out in the sun all day.

  8. kenjn60: Thank you for stopping by!

    memsaab: I’m not sure if the Mughals valued fair skin over darker, but it just may be possible, since the Mughals, being of Central Asian origin, would have been fairer-skinned than the indigenous people. But then, it wouldn’t have begun with the Mughals, since there had been previous rulers too (for instance, in Delhi itself, beginning in the 12th century) who were from Central Asia. Maybe there was an association between being of the ruling class (and therefore wealthy too) and being fair – simply because one was of a certain ethnic origin?

    I seem to recall having heard a similar fair Aryan vs. darker Dravidian theory dating back to ancient India… but no idea, really.

    I remember that ‘fairer skin vs tanned’ thing about the West. There was an article on how the entire outlook got reversed in the 21st century, because being wealthy in the later 1900’s implied having the time and the leisure to go out and sunbathe! :-)

  9. Kirk Douglas in a lost-n-found masala-flick? Mitch falling for a girl-disguised-as-a-boy? :-D Considering how dear such plots and disguises were to Shakepeare, I wonder why they are called “unrealistic”? Shakespeare is LITERATURE, ergo, anything happening in HIS plays should be “real”. Right? ;-)

    I remember watching The Major and the Minor for the first time and thinking – so THATS where the Half Ticket story originated. Why couldnt they have stuck with the original tale and let Madhubala be the pretend-teen? Would have saved us from Kishore’s painful “comedy”.

    As to the fair=beautiful, I’ve always thought it might be something to do with the upper castes in India being normally lighter-skinned than the lower castes – so anything approaching a darker skin is taken to be more lower-caste-like, and therefore not good looking. And I dont think all heroines are fair-skinned. For example, Rekha is known to be “dusky” but she always looks fair onscreen. I think the fairness of heroines onscreen has a lot to do with their make-up. Thats the only explanation for all heroines looking fairer than the Kapoor men, for instance. It appears that “dusky” is becoming a bit more acceptable now, since Bipasha Basu is not always awash with “fair” make-up.

  10. You’re so right, Shakespeare is the ultimate masala freak! – lost and found, identical twins, women disguised as men (and vice-versa) and so much else. And oh, yes: Madhubala as the pretend teen would have been much more bearable than Kishore Kumar – I found him really hard to stomach. That’s the main reason I don’t like Half Ticket, even though the music’s good. The Kishore-as-little-boy thing was really too painful.

    Yes, Rekha was pretty dusky (and she looks it in a couple of her very early films), but as you say the heavy makeup made her – and others not so fair – look much fairer than they were. Again an attempt to conform to the fair is beautiful theory? But yes, I’m so glad more dusky women like Bipasha Basu (who I think is very beautiful!) are now considered much more acceptable onscreen.

  11. Thank you for the link to that article – it made for interesting reading (disturbing, too, to realise that this obsession with fairness is more prevalent than I’d thought). Was reminded of this again yesterday while I was returning from a doctor’s appointment. It was around noon, with the sun really hot, and I saw a few people – men and women – going about wearing elbow-length cotton gloves, to protect their arms from an unwanted tan! Wearing sunscreen to prevent damage to your skin is one thing, being so madly obsessed with not getting tanned is another.

    “Kanoon he haath lambe hote hain, per nahin” literally means “The arms of the law are long; its legs aren’t!”

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