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).
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.
In 1957, Mehboob Khan produced and directed a film that has achieved almost iconic status in the history of Indian cinema. Mother India was the first Indian film to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won several Filmfare Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress.
Mother India is a fine example of the importance of perseverance. If you don’t get it right the first time, try again. Sometime along the way, somewhere and somehow, you will get to your goal. Also, if you did something well once, chances are you’ll do it better the next time round. Practice makes perfect.
I’m not talking about how Radha, the female lead character of Mother India (and of Aurat) manages to surmount all the obstacles in her path and emerge strong. I’m talking about Mehboob Khan himself, who was the director not just of Mother India, but of the film, Aurat, of which Mother India was a remake. Based on a story by Babubhai Mehta (and supposedly partly inspired too by Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth) and with dialogue by Wajahat Mirza, Aurat was a film Mehboob Khan only directed. Seventeen years later, now a producer in his own right, he remade the film, both producing and directing it. And how well he proved that if you do something well the first time round, there’s a good chance you’ll do it well, and even better, the second time round.
Balraj Sahni ranks as one of my favourite actors. He brought a sense of dignity to pretty much every role he essayed, and there were very few roles which he could not pull off convincingly. That said, there was a certain type of film that he very often got slotted in: the family drama. These films, often made by production houses like AVM Productions, equally often followed a fairly predictable pattern.
A close-knit joint family (with Balraj Sahni as its head, usually as elder brother) lives in one home, each member of the family devoted to the other, each going out of their way and being self-sacrificing to smoothen the way for the others. Then, as the result of a wedding (usually of a younger male relative, often a character who’s the younger brother of Balraj Sahni’s character), a somewhat headstrong chhoti bahu enters the household. She is warmly welcomed and is inclined to be as sweet to others as others are to her [after all, the hero has fallen in love with her; she cannot be out-and-out bad]. But, someone evil and self-serving or just plain old malicious lurks in the vicinity. A neighbour, a close relative (often a step-relative, step-brother, step-sister, etc, of the bahu—since, again, blood relations can’t be all bad) or other person who despises the family for its saccharine sanctimoniousness, decides to throw a spanner in the works.
With the result that poor Balraj Sahni’s character gets the short end of the stick. He and his long-suffering spouse lose their home, their child (or children) fall ill, someone goes blind, they are nearly [not definitely, since they have so much self-respect] reduced to begging in the streets.
My family first acquired a TV in 1982. For the next few years, Doordarshan remained our main source of entertainment. And the films Doordarshan telecast at 5.45 PM every Sunday (and a couple of times during the week, mostly at odd times) were the highlights of the week. We saw loads of films during those years. Everything that was shown—from the simply horrendous Fauji to Fedora, which I didn’t understand—was grist to the family mill.
Looking back, I now realise just how tolerant I was back then of cinema that now induces irritation at best, ‘kill-this-film maker’ fury at worst. Watching Adalat now, after having first seen this when I was a pre-teen, I can see that what I thought of as a tragic but entertaining film is really not that great. In, fact, almost tedious.
One of the main characters in Prince of Foxes was a man who actually existed in history: Cesare Borgia (1475 (?) – 1507 AD). This post is about a film that features one of Cesare Borgia’s contemporaries, a man born halfway across the world, seven or eight years after Cesare Borgia was born. A man as ambitious as Borgia, and a man who had as marked an impact on the history of India as Cesare Borgia did on Italy. This was Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty – without which we wouldn’t have had the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, murgh musallam, and who knows howmany Hindi films.
Humayun is (as the name suggests) more about Babur’s son and successor Humayun (who, coincidentally, was born almost exactly a year after Cesare Borgia died – Borgia died on March 12, 1507; Humayun was born on March 7, 1508). But the film begins with Babur (Shah Nawaz) invading India, so Babur does play quite an important role in the scheme of things.
Frequent readers of this blog have probably realised I have a soft spot for ‘real life’ stories: Gladys Aylward, Dr Kotnis, Changez Khan, Shahjahan: I’m game. Of course, I don’t always end up with films that bear any resemblance to the life of the person in question, but there’s no harm in trying.
So, another. Afanasy Nikitin was a horse trader from Tver in Russia, who came to India in the late 15th century, having started off from Tver in 1466. His travels took him down the Volga River, through Persia, and then via dhow to India. He is believed to have disembarked in present-day Maharashtra; over the years that followed, he travelled through a large part of peninsular India, including Bidar and Vijaynagar. He died in 1472 in Smolensk, on his way home; his travelogue of India, however, endures: entitled Khozhdenie Za Tri Moray (‘The Journey Beyond Three Seas’), it describes in detail all that Nikitin saw of what was to him a wild, exotic land like nothing he knew.
As I’d mentioned in my last post, I’m not much of a Raj Kapoor fan. I have seen most of his films, but I like very few of them. Jaagte Raho, a flop when it was first released (even though it won an award at Karlovy Vary) is one of the exceptions: an RK film that I found engrossing and worth the watch. Part of it probably is the fact that it features a veritable who’s who of 50’s Hindi cinema character actors. Part of it is due to Salil Choudhary’s superb music. And more than that, it’s because this is a well-scripted story, socially relevant in a tongue-in-cheek way.
I’m always on the lookout for old, offbeat Hindi films. Something without the hackneyed romances, the clashes between rich/poor, urban/rural, good/evil, the sudden breaking into song and the neat tying up of all loose ends once the regulation three hours are up. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against masala films—some of my favourite old films are masala to the spice-sodden core. But somehow a film like Kanoon, Ittefaq, Anokhi Raat, Kabuliwalaor Dekh Kabira Roya, each unusual in its own way, has a certain je ne sais quoi. So does this, Nargis’s last film. There’s something a little hat ke about a film in which the romance is really quite minimal, and the strange light-and-shadow personality of a schizophrenic woman is the main focus of the plot.