22 April 2013

Post Facto -- Cinema Non-Paradiso: Make-believe and the movies in Bellissima

A still from Bellissima
uchino Visconti is universally recognised as one of the world's great filmmakers. His neo-realist works — the rough-edged La Terra Trema and the masterful Rocco and his Brothers — are on countless film school lists, and his lush literary adaptations — Lampedusa's The Leopard and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice — are regularly numbered among the world's best films. But his third film, Bellissima (1951), has never got the attention it deserves. Such praise as has come its way has been focused on the exceptional performance Visconti drew from its lead actress: the magnificent Anna Magnani, playing a movie-mad nurse obsessed by the idea of having her five-year-old daughter snag a part in a film. Magnani aside, the film has been relegated to the status of a 'minor work', a comedy. The great Pauline Kael, for instance, condemned it with characteristic pithiness as "full of contradictory impulses, and... marred by a too pat ending glorifying the wisdom of the common people".
I can see what Kael means about contradictory impulses — Bellissima does seem to speak in multiple voices — but I think that is its strength (more in a bit about that). It remains, for my money, among the finest films ever made about the complicatedness of parental ambition — and about what the movies mean to us.
Bellissima opens in Cinecitta, Rome's famous film city, where Maddalena (Magnani) has brought her little daughter Maria (Tina Apicella) to audition. But the child has disappeared, and we see Magnani wandering the grounds, searching desperately for her, even as a man with a megaphone announces the missing child's name over and over again at a piercing volume: "Maria Cecconi! Maria Cecconi! " From that frantic start, the film transports us quickly to the little girl being discovered placidly dipping her feet in a pool of water. The shift in tone is played for laughs. But it is also an instance of the multiplicity that seems to me to make this film so fascinating — the constant fluctuation between broad caricature and unbelievably nuanced characterisation, between a satirical distance and a warm, profound sense of empathy.
he most obviously caricatureish moments appear in the 'crowd scenes': Maddalena's nosy neighbours descending upon her as soon as they scent a domestic quarrel, or the masses of pushy mothers at Cinecitta, each trying to edge her child forward in what is clearly a cutthroat scenario. They all seem cut from the same cloth: petty and ridiculous, deliberately spreading rumours to dishearten the competition. They are not meant to elicit our sympathy or even interest — only our laughter. And yet, it was a real scene like this one that created the film: Bellissima (lit. beautiful) was conceived when Visconti was looking for a child actor for a different production and found himself surrounded by 4,000 mothers, each shouting, "Mine is bellissima!"
But Visconti's achievement is to zoom in on a woman who is very much part of this crowd, and turn her into someone we cannot dismiss. Maddalena's frenetic attempts to cobble together money for whatever she thinks will get her daughter the part — a fashionable haircut, an acting coach, a crash course in ballet, a bribe to a man who offers to send flowers to the director's wife — may seem utterly irrational, and just the sight of the child's wan, tired face as she jumps through these hoops is likely to elicit outrage from a contemporary audience. But it is a tribute to the film's humanising of Maddalena that as one plan after another collapses, what we feel is not so much relief for the child, but disappointment for her mother. Maddalena's actions might seem short-sighted, but her gaze is set on a screen in her imagination. And seen in the light of that dreamscape, her frailties seem utterly and resolutely human. This is a woman like so many we know, for whom the drudgery of real life is made bearable only by the thought that there is another kind somewhere out there — illuminated, however briefly, in the dark of the cinema. "It's so not make-believe," she insists to her husband, her trustfulness both vulnerable and determined.
The film's most devastating scene involves the shattering of that trust, with Maddalena watching in disbelief as the film crew dissolves into laughter while viewing her daughter's screen test. She stomps into the studio and tells them all what she thinks of them, grown men laughing cruelly at a child crying, but the damage has been done. The dream is broken.
Visconti could have ended the film here. But he adds a second climax: the director sends word that the crying girl is the one he wants to cast, but Maddalena refuses to sign the contract, having seen through the illusion that is the cinema — or the world. I am loath to sound as dismissive as Kael, but my subconscious self seems to agree with her about the ending: I first saw Bellissima ten years ago. When I watched it again recently, it was as marvellous as I remembered — but my memory had erased the final scene, preserving the film as I felt it ought to have been.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

14 April 2013

Mocking 'filmi-ness': more on Chashme Buddoor

A guest column I did for Business Standard:

A still from Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor (1981)
Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor, a light-hearted and mild-mannered comedy which also gave us an unforgettably sweet romance between a bespectacled, padhaaku Farooq Shaikh and Deepti Naval as the irresistible but real girl next door, was recently restored and re-released in theatres alongside a new David Dhawan remake. A distressed Paranjpye has charged Dhawan with having killed her delicately funny film by injecting it with double entendres, bawdy jokes and a general crassness so antithetical to the sensibility of the original that to call the new Chashme Baddoor a remake was a travesty.

I watched both films last week, and I have to confess that while the old one has lost none of its delicate charm, the new one is a rambunctious and rather enjoyable ride. The new film, like the old one, centres on a trio of young men (inaugurating a whole Hindi film tradition of male friendship movies since). One is the sincere student who reads Economics textbooks for pleasure, while the other two spend their time gadding about the empty leafy avenues of 1980s Delhi in search of girls. Or to adopt the celebratory whoop with which they greet every sighting of young female flesh - "shikaar!". The reference to prey may sound shocking, but there's something about Omi and Jomo's unthreatening comicness that makes it not just alright but hilarious. And yet the indiscriminateness of their attentions is enough to indicate the unabashedly joyful sexual basis of their interest. Paranjpye's world may have been innocent, but it was not coy.

That frank vision of youthful (male) hormones is a clue to what made Chashme Buddoor such a remarkable film: its absolute outsiderness to the conventions of the Hindi movie - and even more, the quirky, tongue-in-cheek way in which it chooses to play with those conventions.

In 1981 - the year in which Chashme Buddoor released - the top 10 grossers at the Hindi box office included four Amitabh Bachchan starrers (Yaarana, Kaalia, Naseeb and Lawaaris) replete with dramatic father-son battles and villainous villains on whom revenge had to be wreaked. Other films in the top 10 were a colonial fable involving revolutionary Indian pirates and evil Britishers (Kranti), a reincarnation-revenge-romance (Kudrat), and two stories of star-crossed young lovers (Ek Duuje Ke Liye and Love Story). This was the cinematic universe that Chashme Buddoor emerged into - a universe whose high drama and heroic stunts it both distinguished itself from, and gently but thoroughly mocked. From the first scene, in which the Mehdi Hassan classic of the scorched heart Yeh dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai plays as accompaniment to our heroes' silent communion over a shared cigarette, to having them imagine their romantic conquests as a medley of old Hindi film songs, Chashme Buddoor never stops making fun of our filmi-ness.

Sai Paranjpye was not unique in this sort of mockery. The urban "middle class cinema", represented among others by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar, enjoyed poking fun at the more unreal aspects of Hindi films. One of their favourite things to mock was the ubiquitous double role. Gulzar pushed it to its limits (and returned it to source) with Angoor (1982), his superb adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, giving us not one but two pairs of twins. And Mukherjee's Gol Maal (1979) used the idea of fake identical twins as the masterful basis of its comic plot. (Rohit Shetty's reworking, Bol Bachchan, 2012, was grotesque, among other things, because it created a "real" humshakal for Asin - seemingly unaware that Gol Maal's humour was based on mocking the proliferation of twins.)

But Chashme Buddoor went further than those. There's the marvellous scene in which Amitabh and Rekha appear to demonstrate a Hindi movie-style wooing - and how "the technique" falls flat in real life. Earlier, Jomo (the late Ravi Baswani) pretends to be a Bombay producer "talent-scouting" in Delhi, and, in his imagination, Deepti Naval giggles delightedly to hear that "there's a bit of a vacuum in the industry after Jaya ji" that she can fill. In the scene as it actually unfolds, Jomo is crisply rebuffed: she never watches Hindi movies.

Yet, when Naval and Shaikh fall in love and find themselves in a flower-filled Delhi park, they cannot but burst into song. "How do those people in the movies think up rhyming words and tunes on the spot?" muses Neha to Siddharth, before seguing neatly into a half-jokey rhyming song, holding a large flower up like a microphone. And while the climax sets out to stage a kidnapping so that the hero can rescue the heroine filmi-style, Paranjpye decides to play with our now-established expectations by turning the fake kidnapping into a real one. We may laugh at Hindi movies, she seems to say, but we also inhabit them.

David Dhawan, self-declared acolyte of Manmohan Desai - a specialist in mistaken identities and long-lost reunitings if ever there was one - has made a much louder, filmi-er, lowbrow film than the original. But it is also a cheery, self-conscious send-up of the raucous comedies for which he became famous in the 1990s. And in that combination of self-consciousness and inhabiting lies his tribute to Chashme Buddoor.

7 April 2013

Film review: David Dhawan's Chashme Baddoor

"Full disclosure: I have always been a Chashme Buddoor fan – the delicately romantic, hilariously funny 1981 film starring Farooque Shaikh, Deepti Naval, Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Baswani is one of my favourite Hindi films ever. And I have never been a David Dhawan fan. I spent the 90s avoiding the raucous comedies that Dhawan produced in quick succession, most successfully with Govinda – Aankhen, Raja Babu, Banarasi Babu, Saajan Chale Sasural, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan. The only David Dhawan film I can remember laughing rather than cringing at is Hero No. 1, where Dhawan remade another classic of our quietly funny ‘middle class cinema’- Bawarchi. And Dhawan’s 2011 release, Rascals, starring Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt and the unfortunate Kangana Ranaut’s cleavage, was among the most distressingly sexist, grotesquely tasteless films of the year.

So I went into David Dhawan’s remake of Sai Paranjpye’s classic expecting to abhor it. Imagine my surprise that I did not, and then my shock when I found that I was thoroughly enjoying myself."

Read the whole piece HERE.