Not too long ago I went on a bit of a tear and watched about half a dozen Govinda movies in the space of a couple of weeks. My latest column in Outlook is my brain on Govinda, comparing his 1990s character to the ancient archetype of the Trickster.
There are certainly some ways in which this movie is a hot mess, but it really doesn't matter; Khuda gawah is thoroughly enjoyable in its bombast and excess all the same. As a ferociously proud Pathan, Badshah Khan, Amitabh Bachchan delivers every speech in a thundering string of capitalized abstract concepts: MOHABBAT! IZZAT! JURM! INSAAF! And it works, because Badshah Khan is himself a capitalized abstract concept given flesh. He is not a character, not a man, but a walking complex of pride and honor. Each time he booms "MAIN PATHAN HOON PATHAN!" it is clear that Badshah Khan is driven not by reason but by the weight of that legendary heritage.
Thus Badshah Khan's plot-driving bond with Ranvir Singh (Vikram Gokhale), the Rajput jailor who arrests and imprisons Badshah Khan, and also becomes his lifelong friend. Badshah Khan sees in this man a brother who also has an impossibly prideful lineage to live up to, and if "Tum Rajput, main Pathan" becomes almost a call of love between them, so too does the classic trope of respect between lawbreaker and law enforcer. When Badshah Khan requests a 30-day furlough for his marriage, Ranvir Singh bets his career on his faith that the Pathan will keep his word and turn himself in at the end of the month. Of course Badshah Khan makes good, and both the Pathan and the audience are deeply satisfied.
Then there are the two characters played by Sridevi, who are, both separately and put together, all over the map. First is Behnazir, who in the film's visually awesome opening (more on that below), proves a serious badass in the tribal competition of buzkashi, where horse-mounted contestants vie to collect a goat carcass from the wilderness and deliver it to the village. Behnazir matches Badshah Khan gallop-for-gallop in this (presumably) uber-mardaani pastime, and her ferocity in that wins his heart. (His subsequent courtship of her is shown in a grand and marvelous song, a hilarious filmi exoticisation of an Afghan tribal musical gathering. Great stuff, and completely commensurate with everything else that is BIG and entertaining and unintentionally silly about Khuda gawah.)
Badshah Khan and his sidekick Khuda Baksh (Danny Denzongpa, supergreat here as a good guy) gobsmacked when the champion buzkashi rider turns out to be Behnazir; Badshah Khan gets ready to take a chomp out of Behnazir.
Before surrendering her heart in return, though, Behnazir sends Badshah Khan on a mission to India, for revenge on HABIBULLAH (name always pronounced in all caps), the man who she says killed her father. One is left to wonder why a woman with the chutzpah and skills to hold her own in the buzkashi fray can't, you know, exact her own revenge. That would have been a pretty good movie, too. But it isn't Khuda gawah. Benazir has a few minutes of badass screen time, and then promptly begins her descent.
When told that Badshah Khan has died in India in pursuit of vengeance (spoiler: he hasn't), this once-fierce Behnazir loses her shit completely, and caroms into the realm of the "filmi mad" - mussed hair, muddy face, clad in a shapeless caftan, with but two modes of communication: the Mutter and the Wail. So much for the ferocious buzkashi champ that turned Badshah Khan's head.
Badshah Khan's successful revenge mission earns him the lifelong enmity of HABIBULLAH's brother Pashahhhhh (name always pronounced in an elongated whisper) (Kiran Kumar), a man who menaces the mountainous countryside dressed as a scarecrow.
Time passes, as it does in the movies, and before long Behnazir and Badshah Khan's daughter Mehndi (also Sridevi) is grown. Mehndi is the kind of Sridevi character who makes you want to plug your ears, because SCREECH, and lament the utter squandering of Sridevi's talent that was the 80s and 90s. Mehndi is that effervescent, hyperactive, dog-whistle-pitched type of heroine that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever met or spoken to an actual spirited young woman - or, more cynically and probably more truthfully, if the filmmakers believe that their principal audience never has.
In her favor, though, Mehndi drives in road rallies for a living - a clever updating of her mother's horse-riding chops, and a funny one too, because the first half of Khuda gawah seems to be set in the 17th century, while the second half is in the present. And Mehndi shows some ferocity of her own, like the 1.0 version of her mother; at the end, she participates fully in thrashing the bad guys, together with her Rajput counterpart, Ranvir Singh's daughter, Heena (the also always fierce and often underutilized Shilpa Shirodkar, whom I will always adore because Mrityudand). (Badshah Khan's and Ranveer Singh's bonding ritual includes this cute choice of names for their near- simultaneously born daughters; they give the two girls the same name, with a little cultural twist, so Khan's girl gets the Hindu version of the name and Singh's girl, the Muslim version. But it's notable that while Mehndi inherits her father's propensity to bellow "MAIN PATHAN HOON PATHAN!" at every opportunity, the best Heena can muster is "Main Rajput ki beti hoon!" In the universe of Khuda gawah, at least, Pathan knows no gender but only boys can be Rajput.)
All of this is just delightfully silly, bombastic, over the top, and often unintentionally hilarious, making for a completely entertaining film. But at the foundation of it all is some truly remarkable technical craft for which Khuda gawah must be given complete credit. I do not know the technical vocabulary but the picture quality is much sharper and richer than many films of its era. The opening scenes especially, of the buzkashi players' thundering gallops across the bleak, baked Afghan landscape, are actually jaw-dropping.
Not gonna lie, it's beautifully shot. Click on the still for full-sized glory.
Folks, it was my great pleasure to join Sujoy Singha and Beth Watkins for Sujoy's "Best of Bollywood" podcast roundup for 2014. Please listen and share, and let us know what you thought was remarkable - for better or worse - about last year's Hindi films.
About two-thirds of the way through Govind Nihalani's Ardh satya, a retired rural cop (Amrish Puri) laments the difficulties that his son, Anant Velankar (Om Puri), is having as an urban police officer in Bombay. The senior Velankar paces, distraught and muttering. He taught his son how to conduct an "encounter" without leaving marks that could support brutality charges. And he urged his son not to move to the city - it's much easier in the villages to work out deals and cover-ups when things do go pear-shaped. In the city, there is too much pressure and too much oversight.
The senior Velankar is himself a violent, abusive man, and the son he raised did not want to be anything like him. Anant wanted to study philosophy, not join the police force. And having joined the force to appease his rageful, controlling father, he wants to do the job well and with integrity. As a young Bombay police inspector, though, Anant's idealism is quickly broken as he learns what the rules of the game that cops and gangsters play really are.
Anant's struggle with the truths and half-truths about the operation of evil in that society form the core of Ardh satya's bleak and sad and riveting study. The is not merely an exposé of police corruption and misconduct - it's likely that Nihalani's audience would have been well aware of such happenings and would not have needed them exposed. What makes the film so powerful is what it reveals about the toll these realities take on a human being who wants to rise above them but, being merely human, struggles to find the strength to do so.
Anant's superiors dance to the tune of the local gang boss, Rama Shetty (a chillingly charismatic Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a Bal-Thackeray-like figure who both runs illegal gambling and smuggling operations, and runs for political office. Anant arrests some of Shetty's men, and is appalled to see Shetty have them released with a single phone call. Soon after, Shetty extends an invitation to Anant, offering a sort of deal where each can benefit from the other's position.
Both Amrapurkar and Puri do intense things with their eyes.
Anant refuses, in disbelief and disgust. Still, Anant is no shining Dudley-Doright type; the violent temper he got from his father and a tendency to overdo the brutality in encounters gets him into trouble with his superiors, even in the context of the vicious practices of the Bombay police force. And when Anant does find himself facing discipline, the same shady palm-greasing that thwarts his own attempts to serve justice on Shetty now work to his benefit. The hypocrisy tears him apart.
Niahalani's telling of this bleak tale is deeply effective. With all his anger and flaws, Anant is a startlingly sympathetic character, with an anguished yearning to right his path, brought into sharp focus by his tender relationship with Jyotsna (Smita Patil), a college instructor with whom he shares philosophy and poetry. Jyotsna is Anant's respite from the vicious dark of his job; she seems to ground him in the world he wants to live in. But her hold isn't strong enough as the stresses mount; Anant begins drinking, even as a cautionary tale pops up now and again, in the form of a disgraced and pathetic alcoholic officer named Lobo (Naseeruddin Shah) who cannot let go of the fantasy that he will someday get his job back.
Jyotsna observes Anant's increasing distress with a loving but skeptical eye; as he becomes more troubled and erratic, she gives him mamy chances but ultimately chooses to protect herself, rather than get more deeply involved with a man so clearly headed toward tragedy. This is an unusual sort of agency to see in films, where women are generally self-sacrificing and dedicated to shouldering any burden to benefit the men they love. Instead, Jyotsna chooses to liberate herself, and it is both a relief and a heartbreak. Anant too achieves a sort of liberation in the end, consistent with his principles but in a far more tragic mode.
These are just a few of the unflinching elements that make Ardh satya shine though all its hardness and grit. The film is like a police thriller in which the filmi elements have been stripped away, leaving gut punches in place of dishoom-dishoom, and raw feeling in the place of melodrama. In one scene, Anant and his colleagues visit a dank den in which a bar dancer wears an outfit and does moves that wouldn't be out of place in a Helen song. But the sparkly escapism of Helen's songs is drained out of the image; it's monochrome and dark, tinged with a sour kind of dread, and the men leer the way filmi villains do, even the sympathetic Anant. In scenes like this, turning movie tropes on their heads, Ardh satya gets right under the skin.
Of all the dreary and pretentious Raj Kapoor movies I've watched, Barsaat has to be the worst – at least it's a solid tie with the unbearable Aag. It's hard to believe that this is the same filmmaker who made Shree 420, which I adore. Barsaat has none of the elements that make Shree 420 such a delight – a charming hero who undergoes real character growth, a heroine with some will and personality, an uplifting message about something larger than the scope of the auteur's own navel. Barsaat, put simply, is a drag.
Raj Kapoor's character Pran is a self-absorbed, self-important young man. He speaks in what must to him seem poetic proclamations; but they resound as smugly-delivered adolescent expressions of the Byronic ideal. This would be fine if the audience were meant to reject them as such, but these ideas of Pran's are apparently offered in earnest: that love is measured in longing and pain, that love without tears isn't love, that love reaches purity only when it is utterly joyless. Feh.
Barsaat fails because Pran's foil, Gopal (Premnath) is a more richly-drawn and interesting person than Pran. Sure, Gopal is a cad; he plays fast and loose with the love of a country girl (Nimmi), with tragic (if thoroughly predictable) results. But he also banters with Pran and is the only person who seems to see Pran's pompous hot air for what it is, at least until the end, by which time he has adopted Pran's tiresome philosophy. Gopal makes some mistakes in this movie (something Pran never does, of course), but given the choice I'd much rather have a drink with him than with Pran, so insufferably far up his own ass.
Premnath bantering with Raj Kapoor; Nimmi moony over Premnath. There is also a weird interlude featuring KN Singh as an oafish lout who kidnaps Nargis and tries to force her into marriage.
Barsaat fails too because Nargis's character, who loves Pran, is almost as vapid and agencyless as her character in Aag. (At least here, she gets her own name, and doesn't have an entire persona assigned to her by Raj Kapoor's character.) It's bad enough that she falls for Pran's overblown intensity and his grandiose philosophy, but the giggling ingenue is a waste of Nargis's gravity and presence. For the man who discovered her and made a star of her, it seems to have taken Raj Kapoor not a few years to figure out what to do with all Nargis had to offer on screen. Watching Barsaat and Aag, one has the feeling that young Raj Kapoor had never met or talked to an actual woman.
At least there is some impressive cinematography to enjoy.
The only highlights of Barsaat come in a few songs, especially those in the first half hour of the film, like the superb title song in which Cuckoo fronts a troupe of musicians and dancers dressed as Kashmiri villagers.
Text (c) 2006-2014, Carla Miriam Levy.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this weblog are mine alone, and do not represent the views of my employer or of any other organization with which I may be associated.