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Salaam Bombay / Pyaasa

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  • Noel Vera
    The Undiscovered Country Noel Vera When most people think of Indian movies, they think of Bollywood, of men and women in colorful costumes, dancing and singing
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2002
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      The Undiscovered Country

      Noel Vera

      When most people think of Indian movies, they think of Bollywood, of men and
      women in colorful costumes, dancing and singing before elaborate sets; when
      more knowing people think of Indian movies they think of Satyajit Ray and
      his brand of understated realism. The world's perception of Indian cinema
      remains fixed on a juxtaposition of these two extremes--extravagant
      commercialism vs. austere artwork. Film critic Pauline Kael didn't help
      matters when she said "Ray is the ONLY Indian director; he is, as yet, in a
      class by himself...the Indian film industry is so thoroughly corrupt that
      Ray could start fresh, as if it did not exist..."

      Which is an amazing statement, one she'd probably never make if she knew
      better. Aside from Ray there are fellow Bengalis Ritwik Gathak ("Meghe
      Dhaka Tara" (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), "Titash Ek Nadir Naam" (A River
      Named Titash, 1973)) and Mrinal Sen ("Bhuvan Shome" (Mr. Shome, 1969)).
      There are Bollywood filmmakers like Bimal Roy ("Devdas") and Raj Kapur
      ("Shree 420" (Mr. 420, 1952)). There are recent art filmmakers like Adoor
      Gopalakrishna ("Vidheyan" (The Servile, 1993)) and filmmakers who have gone
      on to international mainstream success, like Shekar Kapur ("Bandit Queen"
      (1994), "Elizabeth," (1998)). Indian cinema is in fact a cornucopia of
      glittering jewels, of a scope and variety and beauty Kael couldn't even
      begin to imagine...

      �though one wonders what she thought of Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay!" (1988).
      The film, a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee, Cannes citation winner and
      darling of most film critics is often cited as Nair's best work--which may
      be true, for all I know (I've yet to see her "Monsoon Wedding" and I can't
      imagine it being worse than the silly soft-core pornography of her "Kama
      Sutra;" "Mississippi Masala" I remember little of, which isn't encouraging).

      Nair started out as a documentary filmmaker, and much of the picture gains
      from her off-the-cuff, streetwise realism; it's well-made, overall, though
      it suffers in comparison to the classics of the genre--portions of Hector
      Babenco's "Pixote," Luis Bunuel's great "Los Olvidados," and Vittorio de
      Sica's as-great-or-even-greater "Shoeshine." Critics mostly praise it for
      having refused to sentimentalize its street children, though you only have
      to think of the savage kids of "Los Olvidados" or Pixote's dead eyes as he
      points a gun to wonder exactly what their definition of "unsentimental" is.
      Perhaps it's what Cinemaya Magazine editor Aruna Vasudev says of "Salaam,"
      that "it presents the kind of India Western tourists like to see." Perhaps
      it's because while Nair's documentary style serves her well it doesn't
      transform the material the way Babenco's intense romanticism, Bunuel's
      unsparing eye or de Sica's simple humanism does. What might be needed is
      what those filmmakers have, what they succeeded in infusing into their
      works--imagination; exultation; and not a little inspiration...

      ...and then, of course, there's Guru Dutt.

      Dutt started out in the Prabhat Film Company where he befriended struggling
      actor Dev Anand, who promised that if he ever became famous, Dutt would
      direct one of his films; Anand became famous, so Dutt directed "Baazi" (The
      Game) in 1951. Dutt's films are characterized by a high visual style, smart
      dialogue, and strong sympathy for the lower-class underdog (with equally
      strong disdain for the upper-class cad); like John Ford (think of Ford set
      to playback music) Dutt worked within the system, making popular movies that
      also bore the unmistakable stamp of art.

      Dutt's masterpiece, "Pyaasa" (Thirst, 1957) is about an unknown poet named
      Vijay (Dutt) whose brothers have sold off his poems because he refuses to
      get a decent job and support his family. He wanders about, homeless and
      hopeless; he meets Meena (Mala Sinha) an old high school sweetheart who has
      since married a rich publisher, Mr. Gosh (Rehman); who in turn hires him as
      a manservant--then as quickly fires him when he's caught with Meena.
      Everyone looks down on him, everyone thinks he's a loser--except for this
      one girl, Gulab (the lovely Waheeda Rehman), and she's a lowly prostitute.
      The plot resembles Michael Curtiz's "Casablanca" (think of Curtiz set to
      playback music) with the sexes reversed: a crowd-pleasing melodrama about a
      male Ingrid Bergman (Vijay) who has to choose between Paul Henreid's
      idealism (Gulab) and Humphrey Bogart's practicality (Meena). Then Vijay is
      involved in a train accident, and everyone ends up thinking him dead...

      "Pyaasa" is pure bathos, an ultramasochist's fantasy, with the whole film
      predicated on taking the sufferings of this sensitive young artist
      seriously. What probably gives the game away (aside from, well, his
      homelessness, his involvement with two beautiful women, and his refined
      sense of integrity) is the moment where Vijay appears at an auditorium
      entrance, transfixed by streaming light, his arms stretched out on either
      side in the classic cruciform pose. It's often true that it takes an
      egotist to think he can be a lead romantic actor and a bigger egotist to
      think he can be a filmmaker; how big an egotist would you need to be to
      think yourself a lead romantic actor AND a filmmaker?

      What saves "Casablanca" from being a camp comedy classic are the haunting
      Max Steiner score, the hyperactive camera of Michael Curtiz, and the utterly
      convincing performances of Bogart and (above all) Bergman in the leads.
      Listen to a line like "kees me--kees me as eef for da last time!" and it's
      impossible not to laugh�until you catch sight of Bergman's tragic,
      unbelievably beautiful face and the laughter dies on its way up your throat.
      "Pyaasa" has that same kind of transformative magic--this is hilarious
      material that should have you doubled over except for three things: SD
      Burman's music is lovely, the performances are incredible and Dutt turns out
      to be a master filmmaker, within shouting distance if not an actual equal of
      Ray himself.

      Dutt's showmanship and visual deftness are nothing short of astonishing.
      When Vijay sings to Meena ("Who knows the kind of people they are?") the
      camera repeatedly leaps away from him and rushes towards her, suggesting
      both the intense impact his singing is having on her and the enormous social
      distance separating them both (think of Spielberg set to playback music).
      Later, Vijay stands brooding on a balcony while Gulab watches him from
      behind; the sequence where she sings, alternately sidling up to and
      shrinking away from the object of her desire, is as skillfully shot and
      edited a suspense setpiece (Will she hug him? Leave him? Stab him in the
      back?) as in any noir film. The climax, set in Vijay's fateful auditorium
      as he sings of disillusionment with material wealth ("This world of palaces,
      of crowns, of thrones") is a thrilling a piece of moviemaking, with the
      crowd rising up in adulation, then furious riot (think Abel Gance set to
      playback music).

      Dutt has a genuine Midas' touch; anything he touches turns into gold. He
      takes a scene like Vijay's masseuse friend Abdul (the inimitable Johnny
      Walker) looking for customers in a park and creates a lovely little comic
      gem of a solo--with Walker's elbows akimbo and his massage oil in a pair of
      cruets, he looks as if he planned to turn someone's hair into tossed salad.
      He even takes a whorehouse visit, where a prostitute is forced to entertain
      despite the wails of her sick child, and turns Vijay's sung response ("These
      alleys, these houses of attraction") into a genuine cry of pain and moral
      disgust (no narcissism in sight). The relentlessly noirish camera angles
      and lighting; the sometimes gritty, near-documentary imagery (the railroad
      yard, the waterfront), the occasional deadpan in-joke (Meena at one point
      reading a "Life" magazine featuring Christ on its front cover) round up
      Dutt's capacious bag of tricks.

      Dutt in a way resembles another master of cinematic bombast, Orson
      Welles--like Welles he's a liberal and humanist; like Welles, if you scratch
      the surface you're likelier to find emotional cliches than a rigorous and
      coherent political philosophy. Like Welles, Dutt cares about the poor and
      downtrodden, but only in a way that feeds his personal demons (he's on their
      side because he likes it that way). What makes his and Welles' films
      profound aren't the liberal sentiments but the obsessions working away
      behind them--in Welles' case, his fascination with death and decay, in
      Dutt's case his anger over the world's hypocrisy. You might say that's why
      their visual styles are so expressive--they're not only covering up their
      political shallowness, but also a complex knot of emotions they'd rather not
      reveal (and yet are too great artists not to).

      And we're not even enjoying all that the film has to offer, I suspect. The
      subtitles are serviceable, but if you ignore the translation and focus on
      the actual dialogue being spoken (or rather, sung)--if you listen to the
      rhythms, the strange sounds and aural concordances--you'd suspect that the
      lyrics to the many songs in the film are as rich in rhyme and meter, as
      steeped in romance and gothic doom as, say, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
      Think, in short, of Poe set to playback music.

      "Casablanca" is a dinky little melodrama set in a fantasy nowhereland where
      the problems of three people, we are eventually made to believe, amount to
      something more than a hill of beans in this crazy world. "Pyaasa" is a
      dinky little melodrama set in present-day Calcutta (partly shot in actual
      locations) where the problems of one person, we are eventually made to
      believe, amount to the world's most important hill of beans--such is Dutt's
      achievement. A great film, absolutely.

      ("Pyaasa" will be showing at the CCP Little Theater on June 8 at 1.30 pm and
      June 9 at 9 pm)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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