I have been watching Hindi cinema for most of my life. And for most of my life, too, I have been happily swallowing all the many outlandish tropes and elements that are part of this realm. Not the least the many obscurities and questions that surround songs: how do people think up a tune and words at the drop of a hat, with no rehearsals whatsoever? How do two people who are not even within earshot of each other, manage to sing—perfectly—a duet? Where does the music come from? And how do people who are dancing about energetically manage to sing at the same time?
The naachne-gaanewaali so derided by the ‘shareef’ of Hindi cinema is, in essence, an unlikely character. The Vyjyanthimala of Sadhana, who dances with so much energy, or even the Meena Kumari of Pakeezah, her dance often more sedate, but a dance nevertheless… or the many, many other onscreen naachne-gaanewaalis, from Minoo Mumtaz in Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi to Kumkum in Dekh idhar o jaadugar: they must be having Olympic athlete-standard fitness levels to be able to dance so vigorously and sing so well at the same time.
But there is the occasional naachne-gaanewaali who doesn’t dance. She only sits, or, at the most, stands up a bit and languidly moves about. No proper dancing. Not, I think, because she realizes that it’s well-nigh impossible to do both at the same time or that she’s conserving her energy, but perhaps because that’s the filmmaker’s way of showing that she is relatively pure. This invariably happens in cases where the heroine is the naachnewaali, sitting in a kotha or other similar house of ill-repute and forced to use her beautiful voice to earn her living. Only her voice, mind you. No more.
What can one write about a film about which so much has already been written? Dare one even attempt a review?
But since I did watch Pather Panchali (‘Song of the Little Road’) recently, and since it is such an iconic film, a review is in order.
Satyajit Ray’s debut film has been hailed as one of the hundred greatest films ever made, but its making was fraught with difficulty for Ray. Funds were hard to come by, since investors were unwilling to put their money into a film that had no major stars, no songs (though Ravi Shankar did compose the background music for Pather Panchali, a score which forms an important part of the film), and was so bleakly real. Pather Panchali eventually ended up being funded by the government of West Bengal, and took three years to make.
Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali begins in a small, sweet way which nevertheless manages to establish the main theme of the story: the poverty of Hori (Kanu Bannerjee) and his little family. Hori is a priest, a learned man, but he is constantly trying to make ends meet. He is not at home in this scene, where his wife Sarbojaya (Karuna Bannerjee) is doing her chores. Hori’s cousin, the elderly widow Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi, an octogenarian veteran actress whom Ray coaxed out of retirement to do this, her last role) also stays with the family.
Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite authors, and when, the other day I discovered that one of Heyer’s books had been made into a film, I managed to find a copy on YouTube. Though the hard-coded Greek subtitles on this copy are a little distracting, at least I was able to watch The Reluctant Widow, aka The Inheritance.
The film begins on a night in the English countryside. Elinor Rochdale (Jean Kent), who has just gotten off a stage coach, is hailed by a groom with a carriage, asking her if she has come in answer to the advertisement? Elinor says yes, so she gets into the coach and is taken to (as she assumes) the home of Mrs Macclesfield, who has employed Elinor as a governess for her young son. Elinor, once wealthy, is in sadly reduced circumstances since the death of her father, and with nowhere to go and no other means of keeping body and soul together, has chosen to work.
Insaaf ka Mandir is a relatively little-known film which I’d seen many years back, but had forgotten most of. It was fellow blogger Jitendra Mathur who reminded me of this, and my memories of the film were pleasant enough for me to want me to rewatch and review this.
The story begins with Sunil (Sanjeev Kumar), a student who’s just completed his law studies at college when he receives an urgent telegram: his father is very ill, Sunil should head home immediately. A classmate of Sunil’s, Sunita (Snehlata), comes by and, in a brief conversation, confesses to Sunil of her love for him; Sunil, embarrassed, tells her that he will not do anything against his father’s wishes.
Agatha Christie is one of those writers I can depend upon to invariably entertain. Often, her books are downright brilliant; the occasional book may not quite match her own standards, but it’s a rare book that is so bad I would regret reading it.
It goes without saying, then, that I am always game for a film based on an Agatha Christie novel. Murder Most Foul is based on Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead; the book was the 25th in the Hercule Poirot series, though the film (directed by George Pollock, with a script by Jack Seddon and David Pursall) made Miss Marple the detective.
The story begins late one night, as a village constable goes about his rounds. He heads for a pub (which is closed, but where he’s obviously expected). At the window, the policeman is handed a mug of beer, which he downs happily, while sitting at a bench outside. He’s so engrossed, he never realizes there’s high drama silhouetted in a nearby window.
When it comes to Hindi film composer duos, for me there’s none greater than Shankar-Jaikishan. By no means the first (Husnlal Bhagatram, for one, predated them) and definitely not the last (there have been many others, from Laxmikant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji to more recent duos like Anand-Milind), Shankar Jaikishan were unparalleled in the sheer quality of their work. They composed some of Hindi cinema’s best-loved tunes, all the way from Westernized club songs to ghazals, from dreamy love songs to peppy folk numbers. Versatility, finesse, and that ability to appeal to the common janta, to have ordinary folk humming their tunes: these were some traits which set Shankar-Jaikishan apart.
I got introduced to Mark Twain’s books about the rambunctious, adventure-seeking Tom Sawyer and his best friend, Huckleberry Finn in my early teens. I read a lot of Twain in those days, and—as tends to happen with me when I’ve read a lot of one author’s works—over a period of time, they started to blur. I forgot which books I’d read, and which I hadn’t.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one such: I couldn’t recall whether this was among the books I’d read. But, while making my very sporadic way through The Daily Telegraph’s list of 100 Great Novels Everyone Should Read, I found this book on it, and decided I may as well read it. And, as often happens when I read a book that’s fairly popular (in this case, an acknowledged classic), I followed that up with seeing if it had been made into a film. Sure enough, it had: a 1960 adaptation starring Tony Randall was what I chanced upon.
Today marks hundred years of the birth of one of Hindi cinema’s finest directors: Hrishikesh Mukherjee was born on September 30, 1922, in Calcutta. Beginning in the late 1940s, Mukherjee worked as a film editor in Calcutta, before moving on to Bombay, where too he continued as editor, gradually moving on to direction as well. Mukherjee’s first film as director was Musafir (1957), and while it didn’t fare too well, it set the tone for a lot of Mukherjee’s later works: films about everyday people, with everyday triumphs and everyday sorrows. His were not the masala films that have always tended to dominate Hindi cinema, and yet—whether he was making classic comedies like Chupke-Chupke or Golmaal, or more nuanced, sensitive films like Majhli Didi, Satyakam, or Abhimaan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made films that were hard to fault. He is one of the rare directors for whom I will watch a film just because it’s been made by this person.
One playback singer sings for two (or, in some cases, more than two) people who lip-sync to the song onscreen. Within the same song, not two different versions of the song.
You’d have thought that wouldn’t be very common, given that a lot of our playback singers have had such distinctive voices that you wouldn’t expect two people in the same setting to be singing with that same voice. But then, reality and Hindi cinema have never been the best of friends; and anyway, there were probably other considerations: one singer is cheaper than two; it’s easier to get recording dates if you don’t have to juggle dates for two people; and all said and done, Hindi cinema is all about the willing suspension of disbelief. If three women (or four, or five) can all ‘sing’ in Shamshad Begum’s voice, so be it.
The next morning, we’d planned to go as early as possible to the Taj. This, given that the LO eats in a very leisurely style, meant that we eventually ended up leaving the hotel by around 8.30. It was a little cloudy at the time, but nothing, we thought, that might be a problem.
You can use fossil fuel transport till only outside a kilometre of the Taj; so our Ola taxi dropped us off, and we set off on foot, pursued hotly all the way by guides offering their services. We managed to fob them all off (we’ve been here several times before, and given that I did a lot of research on the Taj and Agra in general for my book Engraved in Stone, I do know a fair bit), and bought our tickets (Rs 200 per adult Indian if you want to go inside the mausoleum; Rs 50 if you’re content to see everything else but not enter the mausoleum).
Security, of course, is quite stringent, and this was where we ran up against an obstacle.
For the Agra trip, the LO had brought along a prized possession, a plastic tiara. This she insisted on wearing, in the fond belief that Mumtaz Mahal deserved a visit from someone dolled up like a maharani (never mind that the tiara didn’t quite match with the jeans, T-shirt, and Crocs the LO was clad in).