When I first put Rocket Singh in my Netflix queue a couple of months ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The bag of reviews was mixed; some said it tried too hard to be offbeat, others said it didn’t try hard enough, some said it was boring, others said it was the best, under-rated film of the year, etc. etc. It wasn’t bad at all, even though it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be.
It stars Ranbir Kapoor as Harpreet Singh Bedi, a young man who barely passes his B.A. exam but is eager to try his luck at the one thing he is good at – making a sales pitch. He lives with his grandfather (a wonderful Prem Chopra, who is enjoying quite the comeback after years of being the snazzy ’70s villain), hangs out with some friends, and applies for a salesman’s job in a company of assembled computers. His eagerness and quick thinking get him the break, but equally quick thinking when faced with a moral dilemma lands him in hot water. He realises that making it in the cutthroat world of sales requires more than smooth talking – there are other kinds of grease that are important to closing deals, and his new boss humiliates him for his stupidity and naivete when faced with a corrupt client. In the doghouse, attacked by jeering colleagues with paper rockets, he fumes and swallows his rage, and then slowly and quietly rebels – he creates a rebel sales organisation within the one he works for, a company that practises all the ideals that his rotten company has eschewed: customer service, deliveries on time, etc. Not surprisingly, a period of dizzying success is followed by dramatic exposure, and then the final confrontation and denouement.
A lot of good, offbeat Hindi films start off very well, many hold their steam for a good bit of the narrative, but very few end well. I don’t mean a happy ending, obviously, I mean the ability to bring the story to an efficient and elegant close. Most go on for too long – this one is rather insipid after the neat buildup. It’s very bare bones throughout, relying entirely on the script and very quick, idiomatic dialogue to carry it through, and that itself makes it totally worth watching. It’s very funny, with some moments of sheer genius – like the one where Harpreet’s immediate boss warns him never to write his real name and affiliation in a company’s visitors’ roster, to avoid the snooping competition. He points to a name on the list – “Vijay Dinanath Chauhan” – and Harpreet nods, his eyes widening in comprehension. A rival salesman has tried to disguise himself and play a trick on his competition by signing his name as the don Amitabh played in Agneepath, but we are left to work that out; it’s to Shimit Amin’s credit that he doesn’t hit us on the head with that joke.
For the most part, I like this genre that is more about dwelling on these everyday conversations, lives and spaces than about a plot or a message. A lot of reviewers don’t quite seem to know what to do with these films – they are clearly not the song-and-dance extravaganzas, the We-All-Live-in-the-West hip romances, the gritty, gangster bloodbaths or serious art-house cinema. A lot of them – Khosla ka Ghosla, anyone? – are simply about bringing a particular neighbourhood slice to life. They are the successors to the Sai Paranjpye movies of the ’80s like Katha or Saeed Mirza’s Nukkad, of course with a lot less political bite than the latter’s films. And their joy is in getting the little things right and striking a chord with anyone who’s ever been in these environs. The office ‘get-together’ in Rocket Singh is cringe-worthy and absolutely spot on, right down to the moment where the songs change and everyone collectively stops dancing just for a second, and then goes yaayyyyy as another favourite film number comes on. It’s all about etching the silliness and pettiness of these moments, and the body language and everyday accents of the characters – grandpa’s Punjabi, the techie’s Dakhni, the peon’s Shuddhh Hindi – rather than any deep psychological exploration or moral ambiguities. We are tempted to read into it a darker story about the moral compromises that petty employment and ambition force on you, and even a reflexive derision at the ease with which some ambiguous choices may be explained away with small gestures: Harpreet’s own cheating of his company, for instance, is explained away by his keeping meticulous accounts to pay it back at a later date.
But for all of grandpa’s shock at his grandson’s activities, he bails him out. If there is no melodrama, there are no wrenching moral choices to be explored either. So after an interesting first half, it flags in the second and remains very superficially focused on the thin storyline, and that’s what separates it from something like Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, one of the funniest, haunting evocations of lower-middle-class Delhi, its consumerist aspirations, its gaudy interiors and its wonderfully flawed, attractive and human characters.
Ranbir Kapoor was surprisingly tolerable and convincing as a well-meaning fellow who grows into his true self when put against the wall, and that too without any of the legendary dialogue to help him ‘emote’ his anger and frustration. This is the first film I’ve seen him in. I can’t get used to how like his mum he looks, though, and I kept thinking of him as a thin, tall and turbaned Neetu Singh. Like it took forever to get the idea of a badly dressed and awkward Sharmila Tagore, when seeing Saif Ali Khan’s ghastly early films. But he didn’t speak Hindi in this fake, I-don’t-really-speak-this-language-you-know kind of English-medium accent that many of the characters in the new urban-chic Hinglish films do. He managed to blend into the gritty, sales world quite well, I thought. The starlet who played his somewhat dumb girlfriend in the film spoke like that, though, and it was very annoying.
All in all, a friday evening enjoyable spent, with a finished project at the end, too, which I shall blog about shortly…
For the last few weeks a song has possessed me in a way that very few film songs nowadays do. This song, malaa zaauu dyaa na gharii (please let me go, it’s past midnight!) is the opening sequence of a Marathi film Natarang that is making quite a few waves in Maharashtra. Based on the eponymous novel by Anand Yadav, the music is by a new composer duo Ajay & Atul, and this song is by Bela Shende, who I have heard often before this, but I must say I will listen to more carefully from now on!
Mainstream Marathi cinema, it would appear, is experiencing a bit of a revival after decades of extremely mediocre popular comedy/family sagas, and marginal arthouse themes. This film is about the lives and struggles of tamaashaa artistes – a popular dance/theatre form of some vintage in Maharashtra, and is garnering great critical and popular reviews. I haven’t seen it, but I badly want to!
The tamashaa’s main musical ingredient, the laavaNii, is frequently invoked as maraaThmoLaa, the very essence of popular Marathi culture. The comments on the youtube page for this song totally get the dancing wrong – the choreography and dancing are actually very true to the tamaashaa form. The moves are not always smooth and seamless; the neck and shoulder movements, and especially the rapid jerks of the torso, are all classic actions. Although the influence of classical Kathak footwork and turns is clearly visible, the distinctiveness of this dance, it seems to me, is in these jerks, the feet apart from each other, the rough edges. The main difference from laavaNiis I have seen in earlier films, is that the dancers seem a lot thinner than they used to be. I think they haven’t ‘bollywood-ised’ the dancing here, even the music and look is also unmistakably more modern. Here is another dance from the same film which is also very stylised, but does a great job of following these basic laavaNii moves.
I love the sound of the laavaNii – just the familiar opening dholki rhythms, the ting-ting-ting of the strings, and the footwork is very stirring. The language is bawdy, colourful and deliciously alliterative, with quick back-and-forths between the dancer and her companions, with a high-pitched chorus that backs up her pleas or complaints. Of course, the filmi ones are not always the real thing, but they are still very good.
Here is a classic filmi one, bugaDii maajhii saanDlii ga (I’ve lost my ‘earring’ during that tryst to Satara). I used to sing this song often, way back in school and family musical gatherings. It features the gorgeous Jayashree Gadkar, doyenne of Marathi films of the ’60s-’70s. Sung by Asha Bhosale in the original, it was still pretty melodious, even too melodious for the form, perhaps, but I like it a lot.
One of the last ‘tamasha’-themed films I remember seeing was Pinjara, which I really didn’t care for, but whose soundtrack became wildly popular. It starred Sandhya, a terribly hammy actor who is not known as the most graceful of dancers. Sandhya usually did all her dances like an exaggerated laavaNii, especially the jerky peacock-like neck movements. Even in this one, below, she is over the top. But despite the exaggeration, the song and dance are vintage, raucous laavaNii, and part of film lore – aaho daajibaa gaavaat hoil shobaa he vagana bara nava (Really, Sir! Do behave, what will the villagers say!). I love the opening sequence, where the lines musically mock the pretensions to respectability of village folk, who are worried about what the arrival of this attractive dancer will do to local morals.
Performed by a female lead dancer with (both male and female) accompanists and (male) interlocutors on stage, mainly to a male audience, the laavaNii’s themes are usually explicitly erotic. These songs featured regularly in most ‘rural’ themed Marathi movies from the ’60s, which featured beautiful dancers, well-meaning farmers, anxieties of respectability, ill-fated romances, and evil, mustachioed and turbaned headmen. The kinds of gender roles and stereotypes the form has underwritten or transgressed, its role in shaping a lower-caste, popular culture, and most importantly, the problematic ways in which films have incorporated this popular theatre, have seen some fine historical and feminist analysis in recent times, which I don’t want to reprise here. This post is mainly to share this recent obsession and some old favourites, especially with Mary, if she’s reading this.
I narrowly missed seeing Natarang when I was in Pune last month. I wish I was at Prabhat Talkies right now, watching it with all the noise and whistles around me instead of a few snatches on youtube.
I miss knitting. I have this awful gnawing feeling inside me; first I thought it was my research, which is sort of stalled at the moment for various reasons. I’m having a hard time conceptualizing some of it, which makes it difficult to go look for specific stuff in the archives – and while randomly losing myself in the catalogues is providing unexpected joys, these aren’t enough to tide over my anxiety that I should be More Organized And Have Something To Show At the End of My Sabbatical. Then I thought it was just the usual exhaustion that comes from so much travelling – I just booked a whole lot of tickets for many more trips over the next few months, and just looking at my itinerary is tiring me out. But it’s not just all this. I’m a bit out of sorts because I haven’t knit anything substantial since May. Here’s what I have to show for my efforts:
One lousy sock, a foot of lace, and some cables. I can’t even bring myself to properly cast on for the second sock, even though the anklets my sister has asked for should not take more than 2 days to knit, really. The lace is, well, stalled, and the cables for the Tweedy Aran Cardigan are so not calling me to extend them even though I know they have the potential to look like Neither Hip Nor Funky’s gorgeous version.
It’s not like I don’t want to knit these. To paraphrase the great George Costanza, it’s not them, it’s me. It has been hot, to be sure, and not really wool-handling weather. But it has also frequently been quite pleasant, and it’s not like my work is keeping me too busy. For some reason, I’m just not picking up the projects and enjoying them. I have actually been helping my mum figure out a couple of simple baby projects, but she’s the one knitting them.
Any ideas on how to overcome this? I so want to get back to it, cause I do miss it. I haven’t been on Ravelry in ages. Sometimes the threads, knitting and non-knitting, seem so distant. Even apart from Big Issues Debate, so much of it is so totally removed from any non-US concerns that it depresses me. Surfing all my friends’ blogs and seeing the gorgeous stuff they are making or queuing on Ravelry is increasing the gnawing feeling, plus after having been off Ravelry for so long there was virtually a deluge of new patterns. I thought of junking the aran cardigan and making something simpler – like I need yet another stockinette hoodie, but maybe it will give me a sense of accomplishment. Any pattern suggestions? Anybody else in the same boat as me (trying very hard not to use the words “knitting mojo”…..)?
Teaching for this Spring is over, thank God. This has been the longest and most painful semester ever due to some heavy duty personal and professional stress, and now that it is nearly over, I want to dance like these guys in this song, jaate the japan, pahunch gaye chiin, samajh gaye na?” (Was off to Japan, but ended up in China instead, what say?) and throw my limbs and composure to the winds in sheer abandon.
Nothing like Kishore Kumar’s mad comic genius and wildly mobile body, face and voice, to liven up one’s spirits. The film in which it is featured, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (If it runs, it’s a car) is available fully on youtube. See it – it is silly screwball comedy, as usual, but the soundtrack (by S D Burman), with lots of other Kishore songs, is superb. My favourite is Paanch rupaiyaa baarah aanaa.
The only silver lining to stress is that it keeps my fingers going feverishly. The Ribby Cardi body got done, and I added some buttons right away to see if it fits, closed. To my relief, it does.
Much of the knitting this semester got done as I obsessively watched TV episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, pretty much back to back. Netflix DVDs of TV series are perfect – mindless, and without the advertisements. But I thought I should take a break after an elaborate dream I had one night where Inspector Japp was complaining to me over a beer about Poirot’s dashed interference in everything, and I then took it up with Miss Lemon to tell Poirot to step back a bit, because his success rate was undermining Japp’s self-esteem. I woke up and was half-afraid that I would start lecturing in class in David Suchet’s affected voice and manner.
But last weekend in LA in the hotel room I saw an episode of something called “What Not to Wear” and I think I might have found another guilty pleasure. I cast on the Ribby’s sleeve with a DVD of its episodes. It is SO annoying in parts, but weirdly seductive. I oscillate between analyzing the coded messages the show transmits about the power of shopping and consumption to solve all kinds of self-esteem, body-image, emotional issues (“I want to dress better so my kids can be proud of me” – WTF????), and enjoying the Cinderella or Ugly Duckling story that unfolds every single time. Admittedly, it’s not as bad as another show I saw that night that involved all kinds of surgery and whatnot. Plus the two hosts are irritating and I don’t care for the whole “let’s make fun of you before we do your makeover”, but I’ve seen some of their advice about silhouette and fit and visual illusions on various Ravelry groups as well, and it’s most interesting. And of the few episodes I have seen, all the women were different ages and shapes, and it’s fun to see how they choose outfits for them.
So between Chalti ka Naam Gaadi and a feel-good Cinderella DVD this weekend, maybe my Ribby sleeves will get done soon too. Wish all my readers a relaxed weekend too!
First off, thanks so much everyone for your kind comments on the Swallowtail shawl! It’s speeding away to Calcutta even as I type this, and I’m waiting to see what the MIL says.
The other day some friends and I were talking about the practice, among popular female Hindi film singers, of singing in such a high pitched scale that it made you want to go and hide somewhere. I don’t mind it that much; I think Lata Mangeshkar, who popularized this style, has one of the most beautiful voices ever. Some years back a scholar argued that this high, virginal voice in film music and its move away from more throaty, sensual voices associated with Muslim singers like Noor Jehan or Shamshad Begum came to represent the young, postcolonial Indian/Hindu nation’s anxieties and desires in the 1950s. But this argument, while not without some merit, also failed to explain the tremendous popularity of Lata’s sister Asha Bhosale, whose voice and songs were anything but virginal. Asha Bhosale is tremendously versatile, having recorded both serious natyasangeet, the light-classical Marathi form, innumerable rock-and-roll adaptations for hindi songs composed by her husband Rahul Dev Burman, and also an album with, of all people, Boy George (don’t ask.)
The conversation reminded me about being in the college band way back when, and the fights the girls and boys had over the scales to sing these popular numbers in: the boys would refuse to budge and sometimes the girls had to sing in a weird falsetto to match. I hated doing duets for this reason. For one show, though, I was delighted about one Asha and Mohammed Rafi number, which was doable and a treat to sing. Alas, we couldn’t perform it because the male singer got cold feet at the last minute and refused to come on stage. I remember being very mad. Boys.
The song, O Haseena Zulfon Wali (O Beautiful one with the lovely hair) was one of my favourites from a film I heartily recommend: Teesri Manzil (The third floor). Barring the heroine, Asha Parekh (about whom the less said the better), this film had everything going for it: Shammi Kapoor, crazy contortionist, romantic and comic hero, R.D.B.’s music and a whodunit storyline by Shakti Samanta that was totally, delightfully predictable. This song also features the lovely Helen, the most gorgeous "vamp" dancer in Hindi cinema. I love the sets, the costumes, the zany dance steps; Shammi Kapoor and Helen clearly had a great time cavorting through the song and didn’t mind poking fun at themselves.
I am knitting furiously, trust me, but no visible (or bloggable) progress is being made on any of my current projects. So more distraction from – what else – Youtube!
This song is from Awaara (the Vagabond?), one of Raj Kapoor’s most famous 50s films. Kapoor was one of the leading directors of the post-Independence generation, his films becoming popular not only within but also outside India. We all used to hear, growing up, that the Russians loved his films. Just after I came to the US, I was walking along Harvard Sq. in Boston one day and I heard a familiar film song from one of his films being played on an accordion, by a Russian street performer. On the accordion it sounded vaguely like an Eastern European folk tune (which tells you how much I know about *that*, but I digress). Dang it, I thought to myself, I had no idea Shankar-Jaikishan, the incredibly talented composers for many of Raj Kapoor’s film music, had lifted some tunes from elsewhere.
After he was done, I asked the man what he had just played. Delighted, he yelled, arms wide open, “Raaaj Kapoooooooor!!” After I recovered, I sat by him and asked him if he knew any others. The next hour was spent happily, him playing many of my favourites from Kapoor’s films and me humming along.
This one “dam bhar jo udhar mooh phere, woh chanda” (If only the moon would look away for a moment) is one of those classics, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. It is no secret to my friends that I am not a Mukesh fan. His nasal voice always hovers on the brink of the right note, never quite striking it or going fully off key. This one is typical, but still, the song survives him. Both Raj Kapoor himself and Nargis, his leading lady in many of his films and widely rumoured to be the same in real life as well, sing ostensibly to the moon, telling it to hide behind the clouds so they can be alone. Although later songs would often trivialize it through crude depictions of flowers crashing into each other or worse, this song is, in my opinion, one of the best expressions of the Bollywood aesthetic that hinting at physical intimacy was more sensuous than actually showing it on screen.
Seeing this clip after so long, I’m struck by the chemistry between Raj Kapoor and Nargis: they were good actors, no doubt, but they look totally in love. Kapoor also took on a Chaplinesque persona later on that was intensely annoying, but here he still looks quite handsome inspite of the weird hair (he’s a rakish thief in the film) and the early onset of the Kapoor obesity curse. And oh, I totally didn’t notice the strategically placed anchors on Nargis’s shirt earlier.
This title inadequately paraphrases a song I like very much, Nain lad jai hain to manwa ma kasak hoi bekari from the film Gunga Jumna. Yesterday I met some old college pals after a long time, and one of them was, like me, a total old songs buff. We sang many songs together for hours like we used to in college; even though his voice is suited to Talat Mahmood and Hemanta songs, we also remembered and sang this one by Rafi. Of course, I found it on Youtube today.
It’s in the Bhojpuri variant of Hindi, and the video makes the song’s meaning quite clear. Gunga, the hero, is having a good time with his friends, just after having realised he’s fallen for the washerwoman Dhanno (Vyjantimala, who smiles shyly simpers at the end). This was one of Naushad’s most popular soundtracks, using folk tunes and rhythms of eastern UP and Bihar. I love the off-beat whistle and Rafi’s alaap at the beginning and end. The choreography was by Hiralal, who often collaborated with Naushad, and the male dancers’ moves are typical of his style. I like how the colours are quite drab, quite unlike some of the over-the-top costumes and jewellery that typifies today’s Bollywood. The film itself is quite interesting; describing a young man’s turn to crime in the face of rural exploitation, it struck an early note of pessimism against the Nehruvian utopias following Indian independence.
The song features Dilip Kumar (real name Yusuf Khan) was a lot older by the time this film was released in the 60s, but who was the blockbuster star of the 50s. He looked a lot better in b/w. He, more than any other Hindi cinema star, had an excellent sense of music and rhythm. A pukka rasik, you can tell, in all his song sequences. Before Amitabh strode across the screen he was easily my favourite. He also sang beautifully himself; listening to his melodious Laagi nahi chhoote chahe jiya jaye from the film Musafir makes me wish he had sung more. His voice resembles Talat Mahmood’s a lot. He clearly had a ball filming this song. I hope you enjoy it!
I liked posting the knitting obsession film so much that I decided to make a habit of it. I’ve become addicted to Youtube, and it’s wonderful collection of old Hindi film music videos. One song reminds you of another, you wonder if *that* one will be there, and perhaps *that* one, and before I know it, hours have passed. So I thought I’d periodically share some of my favourites with you.
I saw this one after a very long time. From "Tere ghar ke saamne" (In front of your house), a light-hearted romantic comedy where the hero, an architect has to live up to some silly promise he makes to he heroine about building a beautiful house right opposite her father’s palatial bungalow. Stupid story, as most popular Hindi films go, but like most films of the 1950s and 60s, some of the most wonderful music. This one is a solo by my favourite male singer Mohammed Rafi, and picturised on Dev Anand, who was quite the hottie of that generation (and also for a lot of us who grew up after he was past his prime). His slightly-startled expression, the bobbing head, all of it was lapped up like crazy. The woman he’s serenading is Nutan, also a major actress of this period. The stairs they are ambling down are those within the early 13th century minaret in Delhi, the magnificient Qutb Minar. It’s such a simple and impossibly romantic song, I love it.