Door Gagan ki Chhaaon Mein (1968)

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…

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Khandaan (1942)

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.

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Spartacus (1960)

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.

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Ten of my favourite muhaavara/lokokti songs

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.

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Polosatyy Reys (1961)

Or, in English, Striped Trip. Also known in English as A Lively Voyage.

I happened to watch this film in a roundabout way. I’d started off watching a completely different film (although—like A Lively Voyage—also Russian): Andrei Rublev, an ‘essential film’, a classic about the 15th century iconist. After half an hour of watching that, I decided it was too much. Perhaps I was just not in the right mood; perhaps the combination of disconnected episodes, a bad print, and the fact that I have been under a lot of stress lately—perhaps all of that contributed. I junked Andrei Rublev and looked around for other films among my bookmarks. I found this one, recommended by a blog reader, who had also very kindly sent me a link to a subtitled version.

A Lively Voyage begins tamely enough. Shuleykin (Evgeniy Leonov) finds himself in a tropical port at the other end of the world, and desperate to get back home to Odessa. He’s so desperate that he will take on any work on any ship heading for Russia—as long as he can come home. Fortunately, he has found an agent (Nikolay Volkov) who assures Shuleykin that he can get Shuleykin a job on a ship.

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Ten of my favourite ‘recording studio’ songs

A former reader of my blog—who left in the wake of much rancour—had, as a parting shot, told me that she had got a good laugh out of seeing the completely idiotic themes I thought up for song lists. I know she won’t be reading this, but I thought of her when compiling this list.

Not that I think this theme is idiotic (or that any of the other themes I gave chosen so far are, for that matter), but that it’s an unusual theme. The point is, I see a situation or hear a word or a phrase in a song, and I realize that this is not the only song I’ve seen this in or heard this in. It rings a bell, and I remember all those other songs that have been (for example) picturized in a similar setting.

For example, a recording studio. Considering there are accomplished singers in just about every Hindi film (barring the very occasional songless film like Kanoon or Ittefaq), it’s not utterly surprising to find at least some of those people not merely singing at parties or while dancing in gardens: some of them are accomplished enough to be able to sing professionally. In recording studios, on radio, for albums, and so on.

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Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya (1963)

For those who’ve been following this blog since pretty much its inception, or who’ve explored some of the older posts and specials on Dustedoff, it should come as no surprise that I am a fan of Shammi Kapoor. I have seen most of the star’s films from after his watershed year of 1957 (which was the year Tumsa Nahin Dekha was released, catapulting him to sudden stardom), and I’ve seen several from the early 1950s as well.

Finding a 60s (or late 50s) Shammi Kapoor film that I’ve not seen before is therefore a matter of singular excitement [or was; I have begun to realize, after several less than enjoyable experiences, that there is a reason most of these films aren’t better-known]. This time, when I came across Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, I approached it with caution. Pandit Mukhram Sharma’s name among the credits bolstered my hopes somewhat; he wrote some good stories, so I began thinking this might not be too bad.

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The Big Clock (1948)

For someone who loves books with as much passion as she does old cinema, it’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that I get especially excited when I discover a screen adaptation of a book I like—or vice-versa.

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock. I had never heard of it before, and the first couple of chapters of the book didn’t endear me to it: too dry, too full of journalistic jargon, too business-y. But I persevered, and suddenly, the story took a turn that caught me by surprise. And then it became such a gripping, unputdownable book that I ended up racing through it, eager to see where it would go.

… which was why, when I found it had been also made into a film, I approached the cinematic The Big Clock with some trepidation: would they have been able to do justice to it?

As it turned out, yes. More than justice.

The Big Clock centres round a mammoth publication company, named Janoth Publications, after its owner, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). Janoth Publications is housed in a multistory building, each floor being devoted to one publication churned out by the behemoth: Styleways, Sportways, Newsways, and so on—and, the publication which becomes the focus of this story, Crimeways. As its name suggests, Crimeways is devoted to crime reporting, and is headed by George Stroud (Ray Milland).

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Miss Mary (1957)

This film has been on my watchlist for a long time now. Earlier this year, when I reviewed the delightful Maya Bazaar, my attention was drawn to Miss Mary, because—like Maya Bazaar—this was a film that was originally made in Tamil and Telugu (as Missiamma/Missamma) and, in this case, then into Hindi too. I was already aware that the film had some lovely songs, and Meena Kumari in a light-hearted role is always a pleasure to watch.

Plus, it stars Gemini Ganesan, whose birth centenary it is today. He was born on November 16, 1919, into a distinguished family that included his aunt Muthulakshmi Reddi, a much-respected social reformer who was instrumental in passing the Devadasi Abolition Act. Thanks to Muthulakshmi, Ganesan was enrolled at Ramakrishna Mission Home, and acquired a fairly strong ‘classical’ education here, including Sanskrit, the Vedas and Upanishads, and yoga. As an adult, though, Ganesan’s career graph was rather more eccentric: he harboured dreams of becoming a doctor, attempted to join the Indian Air Force, and ended up teaching chemistry at Madras Christian College. In 1947, a job at Gemini Studios (from which Ganesan drew his screen name) led him to receive a casting offer from the studio—and Gemini Ganesan’s acting career was launched.

Gemini Ganesan, b Nov 16,1919

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Allahabad Adventure

A couple of months back, I received an invitation from an Allahabad-based cultural group named Sanchaari. Sanchaari hosts an annual event focused on culture in different forms: food, crafts, the performing arts, and literature among them. One of Sanchaari’s members had noticed my Food and Food Movie project, and decided it might be a good thing to talk about at the festival. I accepted.

So, I was booked to travel on the overnight Prayagraj Express from Delhi to Allahabad, to arrive in Allahabad (yes, I know it’s officially Prayagraj now, but for me, this city will always remain Allahabad) the next morning.

Most lit fests I’ve been to have been fairly predictable: you take a flight or train, you arrive at the destination and are taken to the hotel where you’ll be staying. A volunteer (usually a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student) will massage your ego by calling you “Ma’am” and insisting on doing pretty much everything for you. You will be taken to the venue, you will make friends with organizers and others at the fest, you will speak at your session (and before that, have kittens wondering how many people, if any, will turn up for your session).

This one, the Sanchaari Sanskritik Parv, was not destined to follow the norm. This one, as it happened, turned out to be an adventure from the word go.

Near the Sangam at Allahabad: an elephant ambles along.

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