West side stories

Posted on November 5, 2016


At the Jio MAMI film festival with vampiric mermaids, touchingly liberal Indians, a donkey laden with symbolism, an unusual gay pairing, a rape fantasy, and a sparklingly restored version of ‘Teesri Manzil’.

This year’s Mumbai Film Festival played out differently. Usually, I flip through the catalogue and say, “I have to see this film. And this one. And this one.” This time, I went, “Oh, I’ve seen this one. And this one. And this.” I was part of the selection committee for international films. If people came with tag lines, mine would say: “I saw The Lure before you did.” This Polish entry is something I’ve been recommending to everyone. It’s got vampiric mermaids, lesbianism, and buckets of blood that lead to a murder investigation. It also has songs that go “Time’s flowing like sweat off a midwife.” Every festival needs an out-there attraction that offers the pure and singular visceral pleasures only the cinema can provide. The Lure was that film this year. Sometimes, the question isn’t “Does it make sense?” or “Is it an important subject?”. It’s “What would you get if Hunter S Thompson wrote The Little Mermaid?”.

A more surreal question was posed by the screening of Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Ghetto, 1977), the only Tamil film made by John Abraham, the maverick filmmaker from a time we weren’t yet labelling filmmakers as mavericks: What would it be like to see a work by this socially conscious, avant garde director in a PVR Gold Class screen, with reclining armchair-seats – each with a blanket, a reading light, a buzzer to summon an attendant – that must cost more than the film’s budget? What an exciting time Tamil cinema must have been for art-film lovers of the 1970s. If Rudraiah was channelling Godard in Aval Appadithan, here was Abraham, breathing new life into Bresson’s donkey from Au Hasard Balthazar. Bresson said his film’s much-abused animal was a symbol of Christian faith. Abraham’s donkey is abused by Tamil Brahmins. Even Abraham must not have been surprised that the film was banned. The sight of Kamal Haasan in a loincloth (in 16 Vayathinile) was shocking enough in 1977. The image of an elderly man wrapping the sacred thread around his ears as he sat down to defecate in the open must have been the straw that broke the donkey’s back.

But Abraham’s film – filled with animal skulls, infant corpses, and pointedly repeated shots of actions (even the intertitles are repeated) – isn’t about Brahmin-bashing. It’s about human-bashing. The community is a stand-in for hypocrisy and bigotry. There’s calm contemplation in the invocation of Nietzsche: “Can an ass be tragic? To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off? The case of the philosopher.” There’s fury in the invocation of Subramanya Bharathi’s Oozhi Koothu (The Dance of Doom), verses from which thunder over the final portions. Part of the fascination of watching a film from a unique filmmaker is how uniquely he hints at his foundational philosophies – through a copy of A Death in the Family, the novel by the writer/film critic James Agee, or a book by Che Guevara, who, had he stepped into that PVR Gold Class theatre, would have declared, “The revolution starts here.”

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To see N Padmakumar’s well-acted A Billion Colour Story is to see how little has changed since 1977. The film could be subtitled Muslim in a Hindu Ghetto. The “donkey,” this time, is a filmmaker named Imran Aziz, who married his college-mate Parvati. In one of the film’s many twee touches, they call their son Hari Aziz. That name isn’t just Hindu. It’s also Asimov. It comes from the mathematics professor in the Foundation series. Parvati, meanwhile, reads out passages from Jonathan Livingston Seagull as Hari goes to sleep. The boy calls his parents “boho,” and this applies to the director too, whose give-peace-a-chance characters seem to be smoking whatever Lennon was when he wrote Imagine. Imran sets out to make a film that will make Indians reflect on what the country has come to. The director does the same. The film bites off more than it can chew: it could be called A Billion Issue Story. Still, earnestness isn’t the worst thing, especially when Padmakumar transforms people from traditionally conservative communities (Jats, Muslims, Tamil Brahmins) into liberal beacons of hope and change. He makes you imagine.

And Sudhanshu Saria really makes you imagine. His film, Loev, is about gay characters, but not about gay relationships – at least the way usually depicted in the movies. Two men, one of whom is in a relationship with another man, take off on a trip. Are they exes? Friends with benefits? We keep wondering. Saria’s distancing ploy doesn’t help us empathise, but perhaps empathy isn’t the point. This isn’t a journey. It’s a ride. We’re simply meant to be co-passengers. Paul Verhoeven’s magnificent Elle, a black comedy about an intensely troubled woman (the superb Isabelle Huppert) who heals herself through what appears to be a rape fantasy, invites even less empathy. If the woman herself is in on the joke (her company makes video games that feed violent sexual fantasies), is it okay to enjoy the macabre humour? “Rape, obviously, is the most heinous crime imaginable,” the Emmy-winning comedian Sarah Silverman said. “Rape jokes are great.” Would we be laughing if Louis CK said this?

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For a less subversive evening, I slipped into a screening of Teesri Manzil (1965), which was playing in a restored version that reminded us that bright orange lapels were once a thing. The prospect of watching this film – written and produced by Nasir Husain, directed by Vijay Anand – on the big screen (my first time) was incentive enough. But there was also a panel discussion later, moderated by Nasreen Munni Kabir, and featuring the producer’s family (children Nuzhat Khan and Mansoor Khan, nephew Aamir Khan) and writer Akshay Manwani, whose new book, Music Masti Modernity, is about the cinema of Nasir Husain.(I will be in conversation with Manwani at The Hindu Lit for Life next January.) Sample nugget: “A number of Hindi films show the hotel or the club as a place from where the villain operates, or as a space that belongs to the vamp… On the contrary, Husain celebrated the club/hotel as a place of fun and music, where audiences – be it the youth or the elite – were entertained.”

As were the audiences in the theatre. Teesri Manzil, the first of the legendary collaborations between Husain and RD Burman, has two of the most iconic club songs of Hindi cinema. There’s O haseena zulfon wali, which is essentially what would happen if a Salvador Dali painting sprang to life, knocked back a couple of martinis, and began to boogie with Helen. Then there’s Aaja aaja, where Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh seem to be getting dance instructions from Elvis Presley in the throes of an epileptic fit. (Manwani’s book doesn’t confirm the rumours that the Filmfare committee, after viewing the sequence, was on the verge of instituting a new award category: Most Calories Burned during a Song.) This isn’t the first instance of a heroine performing in a club. There was Madhubala in Howrah Bridge (1958), seducing Ashok Kumar (and the audience) with Aayiye meherbaan. But her name was Edna. She was Christian, which meant she was “Western.” Asha Parekh, on the other hand, is Sunita. Teesri Manzil made it safe for good Hindu girls to have a good time in – you’d better be sitting down for this – establishments that served liquor. And what about Shammi Kapoor? Bhagwan Dada may have earlier established that the hero could dance too, but the hero as dancer-performer was still an oddity, an Uday Shankar in Kalpana, a Gopi Krishna in Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baaje. But Shammi made dancing so cool that shaking a leg became as much a part of the leading man’s CV as accepting a spoonful of gajar ka halwa from his loving mother. Shammi paved the way for Jeetendra in Farz, Rishi Kapoor in Karz, Mithun Chakraborty in Disco Dancer.

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The post-screening discussion yielded this anecdote. Salim-Javed, who wrote Yaadon Ki Baaraat for Nasir Husain, told him that they’d written a very similar film called Zanjeer, which also began with murdered parents. Husain heard their script and said what he was making was completely different. In his film, he said, music plays an important part. Indeed. The leading man of Zanjeer is haunted by nightmares about the white stallion hanging from the villain’s bracelet. The leading men of Yaadon Ki Baaraat are haunted by a family song. That’s why, despite a character arc very similar to that of Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer, we don’t refer to Dharmendra in Yaadon Ki Baaraat as an “angry young man”. It’s very hard to remain angry in Nasir Husain’s cinema. It is, however, very easy to feel young. Teesri Manzil is the happiest film ever made about a girl falling off a building and found in a pool of blood.

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It’s the songs. It’s O mere sona. It’s Deewana mujhsa nahin, with its opening note slightly higher than you’d expect, given the rest of the song. It’s Tumne mujhe dekha, which marked the return of Shammi Kapoor to the studios after a self-imposed exile, following wife Geeta Bali’s death. It’s Dekhiye sahibo. “What?” you ask? I don’t blame you. The biggest mystery in Teesri Manzil isn’t who killed the girl but why this song isn’t as well-remembered, as well-regarded as the others. Rafi opens the number in jazz-rock mode. Asha Bhosle operates in a higher octave, with semi-classical lines of melody more suited to a Lata bhajan. It’s a signature RD Burman recipe, a fluffy musical omelette made by breaking a dozen rules.

The situation is even more inventive. We have a grand tradition of invention in song, but the situations themselves rarely change. The happy song. The sad song. The hero-introduction song. Dekhiye sahibo is the nothing song. There’s practically no reason for its being. Asha Parekh tells her father she loves Shammi Kapoor. He asks her to bring him home. Had the song happened at that point, it would have been business as usual, just another happy song. Instead, we shift to Shammi waiting for Asha. He thinks he sees her and teases her. She turns around. It’s not her. The woman screams for help. An angry crowd gathers. By now, Asha has joined them. The song wavers between Shammi trying to placate the mob and Asha teasing Shammi by pretending she does not know him. It’s a musical situation not just because it’s a situation with music but because the situation is right out of the art form we know as the musical, where a scene has been manufactured just so that the spoken can cavort with the sung. Teesri Manzil – which translates to third floor – is the most special of Nasir Husain’s films because it marries his musical sensibilities with those of Vijay Anand and Shammi Kapoor. The film, thus, is two levels higher.

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