Salaam Bombay / Pyaasa
- The Undiscovered Country
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
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
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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