“Bollywood Homicide” Psych 4.6

(source: bollywood.buzzine.com)

You can watch the opening theme song here. Hulu has disabled embedding in a way that wordpress allows .

This episode was classic Psych through and through, from Shawn’s heckling of Lassiter (“Really? You’re down to hair jokes now?”), to Shawn calling Gus a different name, to Gus’s exasperation with Shawn (“Don’t go boneless on me, Shawn”), to Shawn misusing a word (“It’s called surveillance. I surveillate things. I’m a purveyor of surveillarism”–and a side note here that it’s not as cute to make up words when a word already exists in that form–e.g., “I survey things”), to Shawn saying the line that needs to be retired and put behind a locked glass case with all its medals and certificates, “I’ve heard it both ways.”

The writers of the show incorporated the Bollywood plot just the same as they incorporate other special elements–without knowing winks. This isn’t a terrible thing here; it’s a characteristic of the show that everything is just a flat backdrop for the main characters to riff in front of. [update: I watched the commentary for this episode. It’s strange that they had a Bollywood fan on staff but didn’t use that knowledge to make any references. On the other hand, I would wager a fair chunk of change on the fact that I am one of less than 10 Psych viewers who would have caught any reference anyway.]

The best thing about the episode was the reworking of the theme song. The blending of different styles of music was a perfect example of Bollywood, down to the use of the instruments and melody lines. I only have two complaints. One is general: so much Bollywood music these days sounds too much like the score from The Lion King. The other is specific: I wish the composers had chosen to have the “I know you know” phrase shouted by a group of Indian men, preferably also in Hindi,  and not just incorporated as a sample from the original theme song.

The second best thing came at the end when Shawn performed the customary “stand and explain the evil mastermind’s actions while everyone gamely waits to proceed with killing/kicking butt until you’re finished” (See Rowling, J.K., 12 pages in the last chapter of every book). A man walked past and threw a handful of color onto Shawn (because it was Holi) as he was in the middle of the sentence. It was almost as if the writers were acknowledging how unrealistic the “stand and explain” scene always is by interrupting it with a guy wandering through, taking his time, and clearly not in any danger.

The outfits the dancing troupe wore were nice, but the dancing itself was lame. Jai having wings put on himself and then being hoisted to ceiling while decrying his brother’s superstitions was funny and seemed to indicate some knowledge of what can go down (or rather, up) in a Bollywood film (for example, Rishi Kapoor “jumping” onto a horse in Kabhi Kabhie). I could tell right away that the actress playing Jai’s girlfriend was not Indian (she’s Afghani), but it’s Hollywood, so I can’t expect much. And Sendhil Ramamurthy is somehow only 50% as good-looking when he speaks in his native American accent. Usually people are most attractive when speaking with their native accent. My theory is that our faces are shaped partly by the shapes our language makes in our mouths, which accounts for some facial similarity throughout an entire country.

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Baiju Bawra, 1952

Baiju Bawra (source: oldhindifilmsongs)

Directed by Vijay Bhatt

This is a lovely story based on legend which was based on fact. When Baiju (Bharat Bhushan) is a young boy, his father, a classical/folk musician, is killed (in a scene that appears to be more of an accidental trampling than murder). Part of the reason for the circumstances that led to his death is the law that no one can sing within so much distance of the royal musician Tansen. The only way to be able to sing around Tansen is to challenge him to a singing duel; the one who loses dies, and the one who wins becomes the royal musician.

Since Baiju is now an orphan, another musician takes pity on him and takes him to a village to raise him. Baiju grows up with a village girl, Gauri (Meena Kumari), as his close friend; they have a call and response melody that they sing to each other based on the call people give across the river to the village that lets Gauri’s father know someone wants to be rowed across. Two things originally complicate their happy union and Baiju’s career as a musician: Gauri has been promised to another man since she was a girl, and Baiju cannot forget his grudge against Tansen (whenever Tansen is mentioned, Baiju’s face freezes, his eyes fix long and hard, and he seethes the name, “Taaanseeen.”). It is up to the village to decide if Gauri will be released from her betrothed, and events seem to be moving in that direction when Baiju saves the village from an attack by a band of vigilantes led (rather astoundingly) by a woman. The plot further complicates, and I won’t give it all away, but it’s always twisting and bringing in something new. The climax of the movie is the musical duel between Baiju and Tansen. When the winner is decided, the loser declares, “You did not win today; music won”—a sentiment that should be well-remembered in terms of most professions.

Song Highlights: Naushad pulls out all the stops to create believable music that feels organic (the call and response across the river), folk, and classical. Most Western ears will be entirely untrained in any type of Indian music, yet Naushad is still able to bring a distinction and meaning to all these types. To promote this believability (I can’t say authenticity, since I know it isn’t “real” classical music), actual Indian classical singers were used as playback singers for the musical duel.

Tidbits: The movie is in black and white and obviously shot on sound stages, yet the intensity of the acting performances brings enough vibrancy that these things hardly register. This was one of Meena’s first starring roles as an adult, and she brings her whole presence to the character, even if it is not as finely tuned as some of her later performances—her eyes speak volumes, even if her head movements feel staged.

Be on guard for some bad translation work, which sometimes results in quite the poetic phrase: “I want to singe in that flame.” Most of the time a viewer can overlook the translation work, since that’s a common issue, except when the lines are obviously stilted, such as, “He’s become mentally deranged!”

Rating: The movie has what I think is an unnecessarily tragic ending (i.e., it was easily preventable and not earned by the events leading up to it). In spite of this, it is very appealing cross-culturally—which is in part due to the legendary origin of the plot.

Library Collection: An excellent choice for a historical collection; it is significant in Bollywood history and it is a fine piece of storytelling.

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Mughal-e-Azam, 1960

Mughal-e-azam (source: inewsindia)

Directed and screenplay by K. Asif

The plot for this movie comes from the legend of Prince Salim. The staging (very set-specific) of this film is a relic of the time, but this has the advantage now of heightening the legend effect. Also heightening this is the recolored version that was released in 2004, and which was the version I saw. The bright colors have the disadvantage of not being as nuanced as films actually shot in color later. Even if you obtain a black and white version, two songs and the last half hour will be in color (this was all they could afford at the time, since the movie was already becoming the most expensive one made). Not once does the viewer feel that the story is taking place on a realistic plane, but the immersion in the legendary plane heightens the intensity of  the script, which is poetry, and the scenes, which are fantastic (a girl as a statue, a palace of mirrors, speaking in candlelight). The story follows the romantic relationship between Prince Salim and one of the palace servants, Anarkali. As a Western viewer, it was unclear to me exactly why their relationship was so forbidden, but I think it was due to differing religions, the way they kept it hidden at first, and the laws of the time, which lead to Anarkali having to be put to death. Her last request is to spend a night with the Prince. There are many stunning scenes, a few of which I mentioned earlier, but of note should be the final plot twist, which is more heartbreaking than normal.

Dilip Kumar, as Prince Salim, turns in a stone-faced performance, but like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, this does, for once, work in the character’s favor. Salim is a stalwart future leader, and his stony stares at Anarkali are easily interpreted as the fixed gaze of someone who does everything in straight, strong lines.

Song Highlights: The great Naushad was the music director here; the songs are interesting but not particularly memorable. Plot points do move forward during the songs, which is true of all good Bollywood movies (in particular, plot points involving character development and relationships). Anarkali does sing a heart-rending plea when she is locked in the dungeon.

Tidbits: There is much to be in awe of during this film, and one of the most amazing aspects is the script. Credit must also be given to whoever did the translation, but the script in the original language is so strong that it shines through and supersedes the translation. Here is a sampling of some of the best lines:

“They are not wounds, but flowers. For flowers to die is an insult to spring.” (Salim says this while refreshing himself in a battle tent. Then he looks at his sword) “It is not only an assassin but also a beloved. It is rose-bough and also a sword.”

“The mind accepts the beauty of your art. The heart does not.” (when viewing work by the royal artist, who could be said to be responsible for the whole mess. It’s also something that I could say of many current literary fiction writers.)

“It quivers; perhaps the prince’s heart is in it.” (when looking at the candle flame)

“Anarkali, your opinion is: we agree that love devastates life. Yet is it not fulfilling that after death the world remembers you? We shall see, by shaking someone’s world with our love. For that you get these thorns.” (Salim to Anarkali when presenting her with thorns.)  She replies, “—I am fortunate. Thorns need not fear fading.”

“Did God grant your prayer for my life so you could be master of it?” (the queen to the prince) He replies, “Master of my heart beats?”

“Our India is not your heart to be ruled by a slave-girl.” (the king to the prince) He replies, –“And my heart is not your India, for you to rule.”

“Then the emperor should also punish unruly moths which fall in love with the flame…imprison the flower-loving bumblebee that hums sweet melodies of love…dam the stream that would be one with the ocean.”

Rating: As with Baiju Bawra, the legendary nature of the story lends itself well to cross-cultural acceptance.

Library Collection: A definite must for a historical collection; this was an important and famous film.

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Parinda, 1989

Parinda (source: planetbollywood)

Directed and story by Vidhu Vinod Chopra

Much is made of this film, especially in terms of its directing—the cinematography, the music, the images the camera dwells on. I found these qualities irritating—it was like Bollywood trying to prove that it could do Hollywood, but trying so hard that everything came off as precious—like college students who write very serious poems comparing their personalities to different characters in The Wizard of Oz (I’m referencing myself…I think I’m old enough to laugh at that now). The title means “bird,” and birds caged or taking off in flight are used throughout as heavy-handed metaphors.

The plot is no surprise—two brothers are left homeless on the streets, so the elder takes up with a gang to pay for their lives and to send his brother off to a good school (the brother unknowing the whole while). The younger brother, Karan, played by Anil Kapoor, is that bothersome stock character, the happy innocent (especially off-putting is the way these characters laugh). Jackie Shroff, as the older brother, is frightening in his active, powerful role—he moves and kills with agility, but his face shows his growing disquiet of soul. The head of the gang is a caricature of evil, but the story does attempt to humanize him by showing his sorrow at the loss of his family. Madhuri Dixit plays the love interest of Karan; here is where some of the preciousness comes in. They kiss on screen and after their marriage, their wedding night is shown with the camera moving slowly along shadowed naked limbs—everything is really drawn out, as if the filmmakers are frightened, fascinated, and extremely proud of the fact that they’re showing something not normally in a Bollywood film. All this removes any ounce of chemistry that may have been relayed on screen (if there actually had been chemistry between Kapoor and Madhuri). The plot is not surprising  until the end, when it takes a turn away from the usual Bollywood way of wrapping up brother against brother. The film ends in flames, but there is nothing satisfying about the surprise; it’s the difference between watching the Yule log on TV and having an actual fireplace (perhaps this comparison works if the latter is Deewar). The only real shining point is Jackie Shroff’s character portrayal (and this is coming from a big Madhuri fan).

Song Highlights: Although the music is by the great R.D. Burman, no song really jumps out. There is a humorous song between the two brothers as they prepare for the wedding, but even that feels overwrought. The movie opens by using “Fanfare for the Common Man” over a pan of the city, and later the “Ride of the Valkyries” is used during an action scene, but these Western classic staples only show more clearly how the movie does not reach the level of filmmaking it is reaching for. Of any Bollywood film I have seen, this film is the best argument against critics who think Bollywood should conform more to Western aesthetics. If Bollywood weren’t what it truly is, what would be the point? We could just have Americans waltz in and take over the industry. The reason that they can’t, and the reason Bollywood filmmakers can’t go the other way, is as good as proving that they shouldn’t.

Rating: In spite of my own analysis of the use of more Western aesthetics, to general viewers, these aesthetics may make it easier to swallow than other films.

Library Collection: It’s considered a stand-out film of the 80’s, but I don’t think it is necessary to understand Bollywood films on a fundamental level.

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Shree 420, 1955

Shree 420 (source: indian-video.ru)

Directed by Raj Kapoor

In lists of recommended Bollywood films that include only one Raj Kapoor film, Awara is usually the film chosen. But Shree 420 shows his style just as deeply, and the plot and music are just as moving. Awara’s plot feels more realistic, though, and because it deals with law and rule, it carries more weight. Raj and Nargis again star as the main male and female protagonists with the sorry fate of society and Raj’s particular actions complicating their eventual union. Here Raj plays his Chaplin-esque character as a man who comes to the city with a Bachelor’s degree, a positive attitude and not much else to recommend him. He dresses frugally but is ready to sell any of his meager possessions to help get himself set up for a job or even feed another hungry mouth. Nargis is a poor teacher (she teaches children who pay to gather around her—not in a classroom) who crosses paths with Raj, and one of their first interactions regards him selling his certificate of honesty to the pawn shop. She makes a remark about how sad your state of life must be if you will sell your “honesty,” and the theme of honesty is thus begun. The way it is referred to may be more obvious than we are used to today, but it doesn’t feel cheap or blatant or gross. Raj soon gets himself involved with a ring of card crooks and then a housing Ponzi scheme, and it all comes to quite the fun climax (I won’t ruin it). One of the most affecting scenes is when all the poor people who invested their money in order to have nicer houses built for them come to demand the return of their tiny savings. The promise of standard housing for all is indeed a seductive vision.

Song Highlights: Shankar-Jaikishan wrote the delightful score for this film. There are many standout songs, and most of them will be easily recognizable to any Indian. Raj begins the film strutting down a dusty road, singing about how his pants are Japanese, his boots are English, his hat is Russian, but his heart is Indian in “Mere Joota hai Japani.” Nargis sings a lesson to her children while Raj looks on; the way the song is incorporated into the scene feels organic—there is no abrupt bursting into something such as  “do, a deer” or “getting to know you.” Because of how her character is set up and the way she acts during the song, it even seems reasonable that she actually planned this lesson as a song (“Ichak Dana Beechak Dana”). But most remarkable of all is the song “O Jaanewale.” This song achieves what most Bollywood songs and frankly any musical inclusion in a film or show do not achieve: perfect emotional resonance. Raj is leaving Nargis’ character after choosing the deceitful way of life. Her body remains watching him leave, but a ghost-like body springs out of her and moves towards him, stretching out its arms and singing with deep yearning. The real body of Nargis, though, remains in its unyielding pose. This is most like how a song could actually happen in real life; our physical selves do what we think is best, but our hearts’ bodies move on unhindered, doing ridiculous, laughable,  unwise things. The other songs in the movie are wonderful, but there isn’t room to describe them.

Rating: Raj’s films are usually very accessible to Western audiences.

Library Collection: If you can only collect one Raj Kapoor film, I suppose you can follow most lists and get Awara, but you are missing out on one of Raj’s other classics (which has better music than Awara, I might add). This is a good choice for both historical and entertainment collection purposes.

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Satya, 1998

Satya (source: dhintana.com)

Directed by Ram Gopal Varma

This is commonly called India’s first real gangster movie, and it is often praised for its depiction of complex characters on both sides of the law—there is no one righteous, not one (except perhaps the female character Vidya). For me, though, the stars of the film are J.D. Chakravarty’s heavy-lidded, dead-staring eyes, whose blank depths reflect no childhood trauma that led him to this life—it was just the road he happened to set on, and his amorality kept him on it. You get the feeling he would have reacted to life the same way if he had happened to fall in with the owner of a call center instead of a gangster main player. For some reason, the people in his life take an interest in him—from the gangster player he meets in jail to the girl next door. The interesting thing about this movie is that nothing is presented as if the audience is supposed to sympathize with anything—that I appreciated. Even the girl next door, who lives with her mother and stroke-ridden father and dreams of being a playback singer—her situation is pathetic, but it’s never presented to us as if it should tug our heartstrings. The overall effect of the movie is gritty and real, and the camera certainly is fond of sweeping over the dirty, poor sections of Bombay/Mumbai. In terms of achieving an aesthetic that will pacify Western-loving critics, this film comes much closer than Parinda—and in a much more genuine way. Without trying to pick it apart too much, I want to say that the film gives off the feeling that the director came to his conclusions to film this way through exploring film from an Indian perspective, whereas Parinda feels as if it arrived at its presentation by studying Western film and trying to force the two styles together. The cutting from scene to scene is noticeably abrupt and jarring—even hard to follow (most of the time in Bollywood films, even if the cutting is abrupt, you still know where you are in the next scene). The songs are not remarkable in any way.

The title word means “truth,” and the film does a good job of showing how the truth of who is honorable, good, and being kind changes depending on which side you stand—the policemen endure the same moral choices and choose the same brute force that the gangsters endure and choose. People on each side have families they love and job promotions and security that they worry about. At the end of the film, the director states that his heart goes out to those who feel they have no choice but to follow the path of violence and evil—he wishes for everyone to search their own minds and understand why they do what they do.

Tidbits: Well-known stars were not used for this film, but a couple actors did go on to achieve more renown afterwards—Shefali Shetty, the wife of the gangster player here, went on to star in Monsoon Wedding.

Rating: Even though the film succeeds at developing organically from Bollywood aesthetics, its significance will not be apparent to the casual or first-time viewer.

Library Collection: It is historically significant if you want a good representation of a variety of films from the 90’s. Otherwise, it doesn’t hold that much entertainment value.

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CID, 1956

CID (source: bollywoodbadmaash)

Directed by Raj Khosla

This movie attempts to capture a madcap detective spirit, a cross between the Nick and Nora films and a noir film. It’s a fun little movie, but it doesn’t hold a candle to any Western-produced film in either of these genres. I am probably too biased to give this movie a fair review, since those two genres are two of my favorites. What I’m trying to say is that the film does not succeed in the standards it sets up for itself in the beginning (incidentally, this is a concept I learned from Elizabeth McCracken at Iowa). The plot mystery is clear enough early on, and most of the movie is spent following the main character, played by Dev Anand, as he is on the run from a false conviction and as he tries to find the people who will prove his innocence simply by their existence. The action is fast but the dialogue is weak; in Hollywood noir and madcap films, even though the story does not dwell on characters, their short lines and acting scenes are so well-produced that it makes up for character development. In this film, the screenplay is mediocre, which means the characters are never fully developed. The stock characters feel more like wooden popsicle sticks than stock (you have to admit there is at least a modicum of substance in stock). This was the first film in which I saw the rather famous Johnny Walker, who was known for playing the jester role. I found him annoying, but that’s because I always find that character type annoying—I’m talking more the Gomer Pyle type character than Danny Kaye or Donald O’Connor (who were very good at what they did). Waheeda Rehman made something of a debut as the mystery woman, and Dev Anand is every inch deserving of his sobriquet “Debonair Dev” (he moves rather like a cross between Clark Gable and Cary Grant).

You can decide for yourself if it is a good or bad thing that this review was littered with references to Hollywood. I make every effort to analyze Bollywood on its own terms, but this film couldn’t fend off the comparisons.

Rating: The story is accessible, but the script is so poorly written that most Western viewers won’t give it their time. The film quality is also unfortunately not well-taken or well-restored (I don’t know if it’s one or both). The picture is dark and shadowed, but not in an intentional way—just in a way that looks like the film itself has not aged well.

Library Collection: There’s no real need to collect this unless it is requested. There are other examples of films with Dev Anand that would equally show his qualities.

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