Today is the hundredth birthday of one of India’s greatest and most popular dancers of yesteryears. Sitara Devi was born in Calcutta on November 8, 1920, to a father who was a Sanskrit scholar and also both performed as well as taught Kathak. Her mother too came from a family with a long tradition in performing arts, so it was hardly a surprise that from a very young age, Sitara (her birth name was Dhanalakshmi) began to learn Kathak. By the time she was ten, Sitara was giving solo performances; two years later, at the age of twelve, she (having since moved to Bombay with her parents) performed onstage and so impressed film-maker/choreographer Niranjan Sharma that he recruited her to work in films.
Unlike several other skilled danseuses—Vyjyanthimala, the Travancore Sisters, Waheeda Rehman, etc—Sitara Devi did not let cinema take over her dance completely. She danced in a number of films, through the 40s and right up to Mother India (1957), which is believed to be her last onscreen appearance. She continued to give stage performances, even performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Sitara Devi wasn’t merely a film actress; she was also a great dancer. I wanted to pay tribute to her through a review of one of her films, and decided I’d choose Hulchul, which I wanted to watch for other reasons as well (more on this later).
Despite its having a cast of several people whom I like a lot (Waheeda Rehman, Dilip Kumar, Pran, Rehman, Shyama), a music director whom I like a lot (Naushad) and being by no means an unknown film, Dil Diya Dard Liya is one I’d never got around to watching. Perhaps it is because I had been told by knowledgeable readers that it was based on Wuthering Heights—and I could imagine what a confluence of Wuthering Heights (dark, grim, with two thoroughly selfish and unlikeable leads) and typical Bollywood (melodramatic, with no lead capable of being anything but noble, even if it’s only in the final analysis)—would be like. Mishmash, hard to bear?
But when I posted a Naushad song list in tribute on Naushad’s birth centenary last year, several people mentioned the songs of Dil Diya Dard Liya, and I decided it was time to take the plunge. If for nothing else than Naushad’s music.
Hindi cinema has, over the years, borrowed liberally from English literature. Shakespeare (Hamlet, and in more recent years, Angoor, Omkara, Maqbool, and Haider), Agatha Christie (Gumnaam), Arthur Conan Doyle (Bees Saal Baad), AJ Cronin (Tere Mere Sapne): Hindi cinema seems to have drawn inspiration from a lot of authors, whether or not that inspiration has always been acknowledged or not.
Here, then, is another film derived from a literary work by a writer in the English language. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, has spawned a number of cinematic adaptations (one of the first I ever saw starred Orson Welles and featured a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns; one of my favourites stars the brilliant Toby Stephens as Rochester). In Hindi cinema, too, Jane Eyre was made into a film: Sangdil. I’ve been wanting to watch this for a while, and when recently I finally got around to reading the complete, unabridged version of Jane Eyre, I decided it was also time to watch the film.
There is a story behind how I ended up watching this film last week.
I had first seen Shikast on TV years ago. I was a pre-teen, and didn’t much care for the film: it was too tragic, too angst-ridden, too lacking in entertainment, as far as I was concerned. For years afterwards, the only thing I remembered about the film was that it starred Nalini Jaywant and Dilip Kumar, and that through most of the film, Nalini Jaywant’s character sported a vivid crescent-shaped scar on her forehead. I had even forgotten the name of the film.
Most people tend to associate Dilip Kumar only with sombre, melancholy roles: whether it’s Devdas or Aadmi, Andaaz or Deedaar, Dilip Kumar seems to have been the obvious choice to play the tormented protagonist (hardly a hero in some roles). While his acting as the drunk, or the self-pitying cripple, or the doomed lover—or, actually, just about any other character—was faultless, Dilip Kumar was also splendid as the debonair and dashing hero. Or the clown. Or the flawed, but still attractive lover…
After all the unhappiness over the past week or so – first Ravi’s death, and then Joy Mukherji’s – you’d think the last film I’d want to see would be one that starred the ultimate tragedy couple: Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari.
But, thanks to Anu, who assured me that Azaad was loads of fun, I decided I should try watching this one. And yes, Anu: I loved it. Loved Meena Kumari’s pretty peppiness. Loved Dilip Kumar at his swashbuckling, handsome, thoroughly attractive self. Loved the smoke rings (almost perfect circles) that Pran blew. Loved Sai and Subbulaxmi’s awesome dancing. Loved C Ramachandra’s fantastic music.
Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal were, as Anu called them, ‘raja-rani’ (‘king-and-queen’) films, no matter how warped they may have been as examples of that genre. In line with my last post, therefore, here’s another film: also raja-rani, also set in the India of maharajas, evil plotters wanting to make a grab at a throne that’s not legitimately theirs, and a pretty lady at the heart of it all. Kohinoor, however, is a blessedly long way from Fritz Lang’s Indian epic. This film’s a rollicking farce mostly all through, with plenty of good songs, a great cast, and some superb comedy sequences.
A Johnny Walker film, but one that’s known for a lot else besides.
I always associate Bimal Roy with the Do Bigha Zameen or Parakh sort of film: deeply rooted in reality, both harshly real and heart-warmingly real. Stories about people like us, people with problems and joys like ours. His films are socially relevant ones that discuss issues like untouchability and corruption, poverty, alcoholism and the plight of those who aren’t economically or socially powerful enough to stand up for themselves.
Madhumati is the glaring exception, the extremely surprising entry in Bimal Roy’s filmography: a film that’s chockfull of everything one doesn’t expect of Bimal Roy. Reincarnation, spooks, multiple roles, atmospheric storms: one could almost think Ramsay Brothers. Thankfully, no; because Madhumati, though in a completely different genre than Bimal Roy classics like Sujata, Bandini, Do Bigha Zameen or Devdas, still bears the mark of a master craftsman. And it’s good entertainment value.
Having spent most of my life avidly watching Hindi films—especially pre-80’s—I’m inclined to be indulgent. I don’t bat an eyelid when a heroine’s hairdo goes from stylish bob to flowing tresses from one scene to the next. I don’t wonder how an arch villain can defy the cops of an entire nation (occasionally, most of the world) and still fall before the combined efforts of the hero, his comic sidekick, and a faithful pooch. I forgive completely illogical turns and plot elements, ascribing them to artistic license. I mumble a puzzled “What the—!” or “How the—!” or even a “Why the—!” and move on. Leader is one of those (thankfully rare) films that’s a “What/Why/How the—!” moment from beginning to end.