One of the most beloved musicals of all time is sixty years old. And – no surprise – it’s not from here.
One of the more heartwarming YouTube ads of late carried this announcement: “Turner Classic Movies Presents Singin’ in the Rain 60th Anniversary Event in Select Movie Theaters Nationwide on Thursday, July 12 at 7:00 PM (local time).” This is how Hollywood celebrates its history, its heritage. Forget big-screen revivals – most films here do not even get an anniversary mention in print. In 1952, the year of Singin’ in the Rain, we had an equally famous musical in Baiju Bawra. But how many people who aren’t your grandparents still remember it? (Film critics don’t count.) Why hasn’t it slipped into pop culture the way Singin’ in the Rain has? (Even if you haven’t actually seen Singin’ in the Rain, there’s a strong likelihood you’ve at least heard about it, or imbibed its air through osmosis, say, from the song-and-dance homages in K Balachander’s Punnagai Mannan.) Well, maybe Baiju Bawra isn’t the greatest example under these circumstances, for Bharat Bhooshan in full-tilt tragedy mode can be quite hard to digest, but it’s not as if many people remember the other big hits of the year either, like Aan (with Dilip Kumar) or Jaal (Dev Anand).
Why does a film (or a song) shake off the fetters of its time and become immortal, the way Singin’ in the Rain has? One reason is that Hollywood films are seen everywhere, and get written about everywhere (even here, in this column in The Hindu, published in a city far away from Hollywood). So more people know about the film or the song, more people make it a point to seek it out, and more people inherit memories about the film or the song through parents and grandparents. The other reason could be that we, in India (and probably elsewhere in the world), are more inclined to check out a Hollywood film from 1952 or a foreign film from the same year (Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir, or Akira Kurosawa’s Ikuru) if we are told that that these are “classics,” whereas even if someone labeled Baiju Bawra or Aan or Jaal a classic, we may struggle to find the time and the inclination to investigate what the fuss is about.
I’ll be the first to admit that seeing older films isn’t always easy. It’s one thing to have seen a film (or heard a song) in your youth and locked it away in the memory vault as an exemplar of everything that was good about “those days” – and those films you can see over and over. (In essence, you’re not seeing the film as it is now, but as it was then.) But without nostalgic affections, it becomes more difficult to recalibrate the senses to the filmmaking rhythms of a bygone era, where the acting styles were different, the way they used music was different, the way they spoke was different, and even their clothes (which can sometimes make no sense, all these years later) were different. And yet, in my viewing experience, the older films from outside India seem less dated than the films we make here, which – a few exceptions apart – just don’t seem to last beyond a decade or two. Afterwards, they become curios but not quite classics.
I don’t know if I’d call Singin’ in the Rain a classic, because I’ve always been more a fan of Fred Astaire than Gene Kelly. (Believe me, that’s an important distinction, much like how you’d align yourself with the Beatles or the Stones – you may like both, but you cannot love both.) My transcendent moments of musical cinema include Shine On Your Shoes (from The Band Wagon; now there’s a classic) and Let’s Kiss and Make Up (Funny Face), and none of the numbers in Singin’ in the Rain are that blissed-out – but it’s certainly a marvelously entertaining movie. And the films of that era really knew how to segue to a musical moment. The songs were like perfectly poised ballerinas, taking off at a point in the narrative and landing perfectly at another point where the narrative waits in the wings, ready to take stage again. When we bemoan the loss of the musical, what we’re really mourning is the loss of writers and lyricists who knew how to make a movie sing.
We make the largest number of movies in the world every year, and most of them have songs – and yet, we make very few musicals, in the sense of films that use music organically to shape a situation (as opposed to cutting away to choreography in National Geographic-approved locations). And it doesn’t have to be always about rapture and romance. Mahanadhi is one of the saddest films ever made, grim north to Singin’ in the Rain’s blithe south, but it has an extraordinary musical moment in Peygala nambaadhey, which Kamal Haasan’s character sings, during a power cut, to his children who are scared of the dark. This multifunctional song is (a) a father’s moral instruction to his children (“face your fears”), (b) a bit of levity, (c) a sweet stretch showcasing this family’s dynamics, and (d) a hint that bad things can come at you from everywhere, whether from the television set (featuring terrifyingly distorted musical performers) or even a doting grandmother (who, jokingly, fashions herself into a demon goddess). That’s where the film is headed, into a zone where nothing and no one can be trusted, and this song shapes these themes in a casually understated manner. Fast-forward at your own peril.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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