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the delightful Maya Bazaar, my attention was drawn to Miss Mary, because—like Maya Bazaar—this was a film that was originally made in Tamil and Telugu (as Missiamma/Missamma) and, in this case, then into Hindi too.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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Aakhri Khat (1966)

Hindi cinema has, for many decades (much of its existence?) been stereotyped. Mush, melodrama, music. The usual plot of countless films over the years has been dominated by a few given elements, even when the film’s main story may straddle other genres, such as thriller or comedy. You can’t have a Hindi film without romance, song and dance, and melodrama, seems to be the rule followed by most film makers.

Which is why the exceptions to the rule come as such a breath of fresh air. Majhli Didi, Dekh Kabira Roya, Kaanoon, Ittefaq… and this touching, tragic yet heartwarming story of a toddler wandering through the streets of big, bad Bombay.

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Designing Woman (1957)

At the time I got married I was working on a freelance project. The project was nearly complete, but I needed to let my client know some last details. In the course of our meeting, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be available for the next month, because I was getting married and would be away. “How long have you known your husband-to-be?” the client asked after he’d congratulated me. When I mentioned three years, he grinned. “Good,” he said. “I went to a wedding the other day, where the couple had known each other three days.”

We had a laugh over that, and wondered how long that marriage would last. I was reminded, too, of the old adage about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.

But, really, what risks do you run if you marry someone in the heat of the moment, without really knowing that much about them? What if you later find that you share very little in common? Or, worse, that there are downright scary people in your spouse’s life?

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Seema (1955)

Every now and then, I am reminded of a film which I’ve seen—often, many years ago—and which would be a good fit for this blog. Right time period, a cast I like, music I like. Some of these (like Pyaasa, Mughal-e-Azam or Kaagaz ke Phool) have been analyzed and reviewed so often and by so many stalwarts infinitely more knowledgeable than me that I feel a certain trepidation approaching them. Others are a little less in the ‘cult classic’ range, but good films nevertheless.

Like Seema. I remembered this film a few weeks back when I reviewed Naunihaal (also starring Balraj Sahni). At the end of that post, I’d inserted a very striking photo I’d found, of a young Balraj Sahni standing in front of a portrait of Pandit Nehru. Both on my blog and elsewhere on social media, some people remarked upon that photo: how young and handsome Balraj Sahni was looking in it. And I mentioned Seema, as an example of a film where Balraj Sahni appears as the hero. A hero of a different style than the type he played in Black Cat, but a hero nevertheless.

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Niagara (1953)

Some weeks back, I was reading AJ Finn’s psychological thriller The Woman in the Window, in which the protagonist is addicted to old cinema—especially noir and suspense films. I ended up not liking the book much, but at least I got one good thing out of my reading of it: some recommendations. Including recommendations for films that seem as if they were made by Alfred Hitchcock (who, I should explain, is one of my favourite directors), but weren’t.

Of those, one that immediately caught my attention was Niagara, directed by Henry Hathaway. I had heard of this film before—most memorably on IMDB, where I’d seen its poster and read a brief synopsis about a honeymoon couple running into another couple with marital problems. The poster, with a sultry Marilyn Monroe in a hot pink dress, coupled with that description of the film, didn’t conjure up an image of a Hitchcockian film.

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Die-Trapp Familie (1956)

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve seen many films that were remakes of others—and, like pretty much every homage that’s paid to an existing work, there’s no telling what the remake will be like in comparison to the original, even when the budget, the cast and the crew of the remake would appear to make it have all the odds stacked in its favour.

Too many remakes (Ben Hur is an especially grotty example) are an embarrassing example of someone setting out to remake a landmark blockbuster, and ending up creating something utterly forgettable. At the other other end of the spectrum are films that take an established classic, make a very good version of it, but are rarely remembered—The Outrage, an exceptionally faithful copy of Kurosawa’s famous Rashōmon—is one example. There are those, like The Talented Mr Ripley (a remake of Plein Soleil), Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (a remake of Twelve Angry Men), and The Magnificent Seven (originally, Seven Samurai) which are, to some extent or the other, well-loved and accomplished works in both versions.

And there is this, an instance of a good film which few people seem to know of (at least, few English-speaking, Hollywood-watching people), but the remake of which became such a cult classic that even now, more than five decades later, little children (my daughter included) are taught songs from it in school, and the city where it was set—Salzburg—has, as some of its prime tourist attractions, the places where it was shot.

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Kiiroi Karasu (1957)

Literally, Yellow Crow, though this poignant little film is also known in English as Behold Thy Son.

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a non-Indian, non-English language film. I have several bookmarked on Youtube, and after some trial and error (a couple of minutes of this, ten minutes of that) settled on this one. Kiiroi Karasu was directed by Gosho Heinosuke, the man who directed Japan’s first talkie (and who was, for a while, the President of the Directors’ Guild of Japan).

I began watching this film with few expectations. In fact, I didn’t even read a synopsis of the film, so I had no idea what I was getting into, not even what genre.

Kiiroi Karasu begins at a Buddhist shrine. In front of a massive monolithic Buddha sit a bunch of school children, sketching and colouring for all they’re worth.

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Pyaar ki Baatein (1951)

I came across this film while I was doing research for my post on Khayyam (who composed two songs for Pyaar ki Baatein) and I was immediately intrigued. Because this film starred somebody whose career I’ve always been a bit baffled by. Trilok Kapoor, younger brother of the stalwart Prithviraj Kapoor, and uncle of three immensely popular leading men—Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor—had the looks and the talent to make it big (not to mention the family connections, so important in the Hindi film industry), but why did his career veer away into the realms of mythologicals? Why did a man who starred opposite famous actresses like Noorjehan and Nargis (in Mirza Sahiban and Pyaar ki Baatein respectively) end up playing Shiv (or other mythological characters) in one film after another?

I still don’t know, and watching Pyaar ki Baatein only befuddled me further on this count. Because it’s exactly the sort of film, I think, that should have led Trilok Kapoor to star in more of the raja-rani type of films that so many (in my opinion, less attractive) actors, like P Jairaj and Mahipal, made their own.

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Sitaaron Se Aage (1958)

When I was reading Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s The Prince Musician, I came across a mention of this film, which I had never heard of. But the songs listed as being part of Sitaaron Se Aage were familiar to me, and both leads—Ashok Kumar and Vyjyanthimala—are among my favourites. Recently, reading HQ Chowdhury’s Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, I was reminded again of Sitaaron Se Aage, and decided it was high time I watched it.

And what a showcase of SD Burman’s music this film is—right from the start. It begins with Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka, with Lattu (Johnny Walker) and his cronies, the pickpockets Bajjarbattu and Nikhattu, going about relieving passersby of their belongings. The three end up outside a theatre, where the superstar actor Rajesh (Ashok Kumar) has just completed yet another highly-acclaimed performance.

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)

Frank Capra is one of those directors I thought I pretty much knew when it came to style. The everyday American, the humour, the gentle wisdom, the often feel-good charm of films like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, and (this is one of my favourites, the ultimate in whacky humour) Arsenic and Old Lace.

If I hadn’t known Frank Capra had also directed (well before any of these films I’ve named) the unusual and erotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen, I don’t think I’d have billed this as a Capra film. There is a sensuality about it, a boldness and an air of exotica that is uncharacteristic of Capra’s more popular works. Of course, part of that is due to the fact that the Hays Code, while it had been introduced in 1930, was not yet being strictly enforced (that was to kick in only around 1934), but even otherwise, there is something about this film that struck me as unlike Capra.

But, to start at the beginning. The Bitter Tea of General Yen begins in Shanghai, during a civil war. It’s pouring rain outside, refugees are streaming into Shanghai, and a group of missionaries have gathered at the home of one of them to celebrate a wedding. One of their group, Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck). Bob and Megan haven’t met for the past three years, but Megan is on her way now from America, about to arrive in Shanghai so that she can marry Bob.

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