Dir. Mehboob Khan
Aan may be the most awful movie I ever loved watching. Its story is full of regressive and revolting portrayals of love and feminine agency. Its hero is Dilip Kumar at his smarmiest, all smirk and swagger and absolutely no humility or charm. And once again, in that venerable tradition that never ceases to grate on me, this arrogant piece of work is loved by two different women.
Among the many despicable achievements of Kumar's character Jai Tilak is the repeated belittling, throttling, and even threatening to drown Mangala (Nimmi), his childhood friend who, despite the constancy of this treatment, is in love with him. If that's not bad enough, Jai himself loves his locality's haughty, Jodhpur-wearing rajkumari, Rajshree (Nadira), and gives her the old "your lips tell me no but your eyes say yes" routine, insisting that she loves him - or will come to love him, anyhow, which is all the same to him. He shows that he is willing to bank on her future love, by physically (and arguably sexually) assaulting her throughout the movie, as if all will be forgiven when she realizes his truth. It's a funny thing about Jai, that he treats the woman he loves and the woman he's indifferent to just about the same. Both are subject to beatings if they don't do just what he happens to want in the moment.
There are a few more threads in the story of Aan. Rajshree is the younger sister of a kind-hearted maharaja (Murad) who enjoys staging cheerful public games and giving gifts to his subjects. The maharaja perceives the dawn of a new era; he announces a plan to cede royal power entirely, naming the people themselves as his heir. This is too much for Rajshree and the maharaja's ambitious brother Shamsher (Premnath); he arranges to have the maharaja killed so that he can sieze power for himself. (Shamsher also kidnaps Mangala and treats her not significantly worse than Jai ever did. But you see, Jai is the hero, while Shamsher is the villain. So when Shamsher manhandles Mangala, it's bad.)
Thus Aan is in part framed as a kind of allegorical triumph of populism over monarchy; Jai's triumph over Shamsher is the triumph of the regular guy over the most entitled, abusive, and self-serving aspects of aristocracy and anti-democracy. But that is not Jai's only victory (see what I did there?). Much more central to Aan, and highlighted by its title, is Jai's taming of Rajshree's pride. Jai is supposed to have won her over with his boldness but also to have taught her a lesson in humility. In the second half of the film, after the villagers flee an an attack from Rajshree and Shamsher's army, Jai kidnaps Rajshree and forces her to live among the rabble in the villagers' refugee camp. Rajshree is quickly brought to earth by her inability to perform tasks that the village women do day in and day out, such as grinding flour, carrying water, and mending clothes. Her pride eventually gives way under this populist onslaught, and Aan's glorification of the everyman is underscored. Mehboob Khan seems to have missed the irony of lessons in humility coming from smug, arrogant Jai, who hasn't had a humble moment in his life. But just like the physical abuse of Mangala, arrogance and superciliousness are only evil when perpetrated by the nominal villains, not by the anointed hero Jai. And perhaps they are even worse when committed by a woman; Rajshree is not so much a lover to be wooed as a filly to be broken, like the mare Jai wins from Rajshree at the maharaja's games.
And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this film even with its hot mess of a story. For one, it is absolutely glorious visual gluttony. The sets are marvelous, even fantastical. The interiors of the maharaja's palace are a ceaseless parade of delights, festooned with animal sculptures, baroque pillars, elaborate fountains.
On the left, wall sculpture of tiger attacking elephant. On the right, Rajshree's bathroom. Rajshree's bathroom.
Rajshree's dungeon is accessed through a door made of an enormous pair of crocodile jaws that swing open onto the imposing stone staircase. Shamsher's dungeon (yes, each has his or her own. The modern rajkumar and rajkumari need personalized spaces in which to toss those who displease them) features huge spiked pillars, sliding wall panels, and a cage in the shape of a tiger's jaws, which opens to release an actual lion when Shamsher flips an outsized, gothic-style electrical breaker.
Mehboob Khan with technicolor is both a kid in a candy shop and a bull in a china shop. Each scene seems calculated to outdo what came before, delivering spectactle in every sense - especially the interiors, though there are some gorgeous exterior shots as well, such as the palace gaming arena, a terrific holi song, and a stampeding camel herd. A dream sequence late in the film marries large scale and dizzying color with marvelously inventive design; the result is literally fantastic.
And apart from the sumptuous visuals, Aan has Nadira. Oh, Nadira. I have observed before that she melts my shorts. Here, she delivers Bette Davis cheekbones and Joan Crawford intensity, in a performance that is hugely theatrical. It is a wildly melodramatic delivery that amplifies each emotion with eyes, brows, nostrils, lips that never stop working. Every muscle in her face is pressed into service with focus and intent, for a performance that is simply over the top in all the best ways.
Also, perhaps because she is an outsider, a Jewish actor appearing in her first film, Nadira gets to do stuff in Aan that you don't often see Hindi film heroines doing - riding horseback, wielding pistols and rifles (and firing them), and just generally being fierce. As Rajshree, vibrating with pent-up rage and passion, viciously proud and paralyzingly haughty, she seems as likely to go off as the loaded pistol she tucks in her pocket when she finds Jai swashbuckling his way into her private chambers.
There is nothing restrained about this performance - indeed, it is the opposite of restrained - but Rajshree is constrained, and Nadira's presence and ferocity convey those emotional fetters with absolute clarity. It's a shame that Aan sees Rajshree as a shrew to be tamed. Imagine what this character could do with some agency, some ability to free all that intensity and channel it toward something other than loving a domineering, arrogant man. That would be a hell of a movie.