Between Reviews: Love Letter to a Love Story

LOVE LETTER TO A LOVE STORY

APR 6, 2008 – ONE REASON THEY’RE CALLED “MOTION PICTURES” could be that they’re never at rest inside your head. They infiltrate, then gestate, then mutate _ sometimes combining with memories from other movies and morphing into a different genetic creation altogether, and sometimes overlapping with your own wishful thinking to become an amalgamation of the film you saw, the film you thought you saw, and the film you wanted to see. The latter _ the film I wanted to see _ came up recently when a recent acquaintance, a film-school student, and I were jamming about the movies in general, and about Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai in particular.

We both agreed it was one of our favourite films, and I said what was most fascinating for me was the unresolved sexual tension between Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (well, between the characters they play, actually, but then you knew that). Seen from one viewpoint, there’s nothing stopping them from nudging the emotional aspect of their relationship towards a more physical plane (in fact, he firsts meets her in a brothel, where he picks her from a lineup, and surely not because he wants to coo Kanne kalaimaane into her ear) _ but on the other hand, acting on this impulse would border on paedophilia, because she has regressed into childhood. After hearing me out patiently, this film-school acquaintance _ RS Prasanna, who’s recently completed a documentary on Balu Mahendra (more about that later) _ had just this to offer: “But none of this is explored in any way in the film.”

And I countered that it was there, if you looked for it. It’s buried in the landscape of the film’s narrative _ and if you marked an X and started digging at the point where Kamal discovers that a local has tried to rape Sridevi, if you stopped to think about the fury that this discovery engenders in him, you’d see it right there. Couldn’t Kamal’s rage be as much the result of the would-be rapist’s actions as the fact that this man has dared to look at Sridevi as a woman _ an impulse that Kamal is no doubt suppressing every minute of his life with her at home.

Every time he tries to think of her in grown-up terms, she’s made him revise that notion. He gets her a sari to wear, and he imagines her in front of him, the very vision of womanhood _ even motherhood, if you want to mine these frames for further subtext, for in this dream, she cradles him in her arms, nestles his head near her bosom and feeds him a glass a milk _ but when she finally comes out of the room she’s gone in to change, she’s back to being a child, the sari bunched around her in hideous, hilarious tufts. So after this rebuff, couldn’t you view Kamal’s anger towards the man who tried to rape Sridevi as the explosion of these festering frustrations? “Here I am, controlling my every hormonal impulse, letting the lover inside me be quashed by the father and the brother and the tender caregiver inside me _ and you think you can just barge in and have her body?”

This contention, of course, led to a lot of heated debate _ the kind where no resolution is possible because both parties are right; we are, after all, talking about subjective and hypothetical interpretation _ and the good that came out of this is the advance copy of the Balu Mahendra documentary that Prasanna dropped off subsequently, for my viewing. (Note to self: The next time you’re railing at the heavens at your choice of profession, at having to sit through One Two Three and Race and Rama Rama Kya Hai Dramaaa, remember these rare moments of grace.)

Titled Balu Mahendra _ Art & Craft: A Master Class Session, the film has the director talking about various aspects of his craft and career, and revealing unexpected shades of his personality. I never got this from his films, but the man comes off as something of an unabashed romantic. His first viewing of Pather Panchali was at a film society he formed in his college, and when the screening got over, he recalls that it was raining outside. “I went out and got drenched and danced and laughed,” like Durga and Apu in the film. “That was our way of celebrating Pather Panchali.” And later, a different kind of confession, that one of his hobbies is “butterfly watching, if you know what I mean.”

In between, filmmaker K Hariharan lauds Balu Mahendra as “an emotional Hitchcock,” and Kamal Hassan remembers fondly that, at first, he thought, “Either this guy is a genius or he’s mad.” A pause. “He was both.” Proof comes through clips from Balu Mahendra’s work, mostly from Kokila, Moondram Pirai, Sandhya Ragam and Veedu _ and thankfully, none from Neengal Kettavai, that steaming pile of contempt he hurled at his audience _ and once again, I was struck by a scene from Moondram Pirai, the one where the dinner that Kamal is preparing gets burnt and he vents his bile on poor Sridevi.

I haven’t seen the film in a long while and I’d forgotten what an accumulation of Kamal-isms this stretch is. He needs to go out and buy food now, so he hurriedly pulls on a pant and a shirt. He opens a drawer in this haste (to locate his wallet) and its contents crash to the floor _ among them a bottle of ink, now reduced to a spreading stain of red. Kamal _ the peerless manipulator of props that he is _ skirts around the mess and tries to push the drawer back into its recess. No amount of fidgeting helps, so he drops it in irritation. He continues tucking his shirt into his pants, and locates the wallet in another shirt hanging on the wall. He grabs it and tries to stuff it into the front pocket of his pants, and he tries again, and then discovers that these pants have no pockets, so he places the wallet inside his shirt and strides out. People often point to Kamal being inspired by Marlon Brando, but Marcel Marceau is a more likely progenitor in this case. It’s a masterly physical performance by an actor at the peak of his powers, in a film by a director at the peak of his powers _ and it’s just one of the reasons Moondram Pirai will never meet the fate that befell its protagonist. This is one film that will never end up sad, alone, forgotten.

Copyright ý2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Between Reviews: Dutt¡¯s Entertainment

DUTT’S ENTERTAINMENT

AUG 10, 2008 – THE FUSTY CLICH_ ABOUT LIFE IMITATING ART and art imitating life sprang to gruesome life on the evening of October 9, 1964, when Abrar Alvi went to Ark Royal, Guru Dutt’s flat on Peddar Road, to flesh out the final scene of Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, in which the heroine dies a “sad, lonely, disappointed death.” Each one of those qualifiers would, in a matter of hours, apply to the demise of Dutt himself _ who had, that day, committed himself to a series of agitated phone calls to his estranged wife, Geeta Dutt.

Alvi remembers, “She had refused to send across their baby daughter so that he could spend time with her, and with each call his anger mounted. At last, he had delivered an ultimatum… or so he seemed to suggest. ¡®Send the child or you will see my dead body…’ You know, the kind of things one says when one is angry and one’s tongue gets a bit out of control.” Alvi finished his scene close to midnight and sat down for a late dinner. Dutt was monosyllabic throughout the meal, and finally said he’d like to retire. Alvi concludes, “I never saw Guru Dutt alive again.”

It is bit of a masterstroke that Sathya Saran opens Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey with this death scene, for the author instantly establishes what the rest of her book emphasises in no uncertain terms _ that Alvi and Dutt were inseparable during their decade-long relationship, which began when they met on the sets of Baaz in 1953 and ended that fateful night of 1964. The highlights of the intervening years are recounted with great gusto by Alvi, and Saran does well to stand back and simply listen.

The thing about someone else’s story is that there’s no real way of arriving at the veracity of the chapters, at the truth of the characters, and the best recourse, sometimes, is to let this teller himself tell the story. Accordingly, large portions of Ten Years with Guru Dutt are chunks of Alvi’s reminiscences, with Saran alternating each stretch with some editorialising of her own. The effect is that of thumbing through the very entertaining transcript of a those-were-the-days interview, laden with nostalgic nuggets as much about a bygone age of living as a bygone era of filmmaking.

Given his moment, finally, under the sun _ after decades of malicious speculation whether it was really he that directed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam _ Alvi seizes the opportunity like a Saharan wanderer prostrating before the first well that’s not a mirage. He emphasises that Guru Dutt was involved only with the song sequences. “We were shooting a difficult scene,” he says, “Rehman is in bed, paralysed, and I had shot it in a way that neither Y.G. Chavan, the editor, nor Guru Dutt could make sense of. There were shots of flying leaves interspersed.”

Chavan, perhaps, went and complained to Dutt, for Alvi soon received a summons. No sooner had Alvi entered Dutt’s office than Dutt started shouting, “Who do you think you are? Is it your film? It is my film.” Alvi waited till his producer calmed down and replied, “If Chavan had told me that you wanted an explanation of the way I have visualised and shot the scene, I would have stopped my work and come.” Alvi left the room, went back to his house and dashed off a petulant note to Dutt. “Do what you want with the movie. I want no credit _ I have nothing to do with the film.” And Dutt wrote back, “You have directed the movie, the credit is yours, and the discredit, if any, is yours.”

Having peddled his most significant ware _ “I still have that precious letter with me” _ Alvi relaxes to regale us with how, for instance, Waheeda Rehman’s rise to the big leagues may not have been possible in the absence of a driver suffering from night blindness and a buffalo that was startled by the horn of a car. We learn, along the way, that not even Guru Dutt was free from being “influenced” by Hollywood (The Man with My Face is mentioned in the same breath as CID, which Dutt’s assistant Raj Khosla directed), though Alvi’s account makes it clear that it’s one thing to sniff out what’s interesting about a film and distill that essence into a brand new bottle and quite another to assemble a frame-to-frame copy.

Later, Alvi tells us how Guru Dutt’s visit to a kotha _ in preparation for Pyaasa _ led to one of the most unforgettable moments in the film; he was sickened by the sight of a heavily pregnant girl being forced to dance, and that repulsion forced its way into the song, Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai. It was SD Burman who tuned that immortal piece of verse, but not all his experiences with composing the film’s music were as elevated. Upon being commanded by Dutt to compose Sar jo tera chakraaye along the lines of a number from the film Harry Black and the Tiger, Dada Burman, Alvi recalls, came to him and wondered, “What is this that Guru is asking of me, public mujhe maarega.” A creator in nervous apprehension of being caught red-handed before a wrathful public _ how endearingly quaint this notion appears today.

Copyright ý2008 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.