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Year-End Special: Reinventing the reel

No matter how unique they may appear, some of 2017's best films reflect continuing traditions of Indian cinema

A still from ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’.
A still from ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’.

This year, Hindi films found ways to reference Hunterwali, Padosan, Seed Of Chucky, Student Of The Year and Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin. These were passing mentions, revealing something about a character or enlivening a particular moment, but there were also deeper influences, often embedded deep in the DNA of certain films, that showed how the smartest directors are often those who recognize an old, good idea when they see one. As 2017 draws to a close, we take five of the best films this year and explain how they retool and reuse old themes for new storytelling.

Dance as self-expression

‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ (2017), ‘Teesri Kasam’ (1966) and ‘Guide’ (1965)

Hindi cinema has usually represented the courtesan, tawaif or nautch girl (each term linked to the others but also carrying subtle shifts in meaning or implication) as women performing for men, subject to the Gaze. Which is one reason why the final scene of Anaarkali Of Aarah—where the titular character uses a dance performance to reclaim her own sexuality, break the Fourth Wall and confront the powerful man who has been harassing her—is so exhilarating. Here is a woman expressing self-worth in a space traditionally associated with male privilege.

This is also evocative of two of Waheeda Rehman’s best roles: as Rosie in Guide and as Hirabai in Teesri Kasam. There are scenes in both films where the male leads—played by two of our biggest stars, the late Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, respectively—are cowed down by the passion and abandon with which the heroine flings herself into dance. In Teesri Kasam, the naïve Hiraman (Kapoor) idealizes Hirabai (Rehman) and is shaken when he learns that she has been performing in this “disreputable" field since childhood; in Guide, Raju (Anand) wants to heroically rescue Rosie from her shackles, but himself feels insecure and subservient when she moves into the performative realm.

Waheda Rehman in a still from ‘Guide’.

These are not feminist films in the direct, self-conscious way that Anaarkali Of Aarah is (it would be ridiculous to expect this, given that they were made in the mid-1960s), but they are remarkably progressive in their own contexts. And much of this has to do with Rehman’s personality. When in full flight as actor and dancer, she could make everything else in a film swim around her. Watch her magnificent snake dance in Guide and then that last scene in Anaarkali again; though separated by more than 50 years, they are part of the same conversation.

A still from ‘A Death in the Gunj’.

Familial ghosts

‘A Death in the Gunj’ (2107) and ‘Trikal’ (1985)

There are many ways in which to talk about Konkana Sensharma’s excellent directorial debut A Death In The Gunj—among them being its examination of the little cruelties and hegemonies that an “unmanly" man may be subjected to, even by a world that thinks of itself as modern. Shutu, played by the mesmerizing Vikrant Massey, has predecessors in our cinema: the many young men, in films like Parichay or Alaap, who prioritized “soft" pursuits like art (mainly music) or love over the family business, causing patriarchal wrath to descend on them.

A still from ‘Trikal’.

But A Death In The Gunj is also notable as an example of the ensemble family film. By this I don’t mean a multi-starrer about a large clan, but an intimate, chamber drama-like story where a group of people are together in a relatively small space for a short period, and many mini-tragedies and mini-comedies unfold simultaneously. In this sense, it is strongly reminiscent of Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, another film about a number of individuals with idiosyncrasies, personal demons and complicated interrelationships, and, like A Death In The Gunj, set in an atypical, old-world location (a mansion in 1960 Goa). Both works are marked by soft indoor lighting that makes the night-time scenes ominous and claustrophobic: Cinematographer Ashok Mehta made brilliant use of candle-light in Trikal, while lanterns dominate Sensharma’s film.

Interestingly, both feature séances too—though in the newer film, what seems at first to be a supernatural interlude turns out to be another cruel joke played on Shutu; while in the older film, there really is some form of magic involving Kulbhushan Kharbanda marvellously chewing up the scenery. Which is not to say that A Death In The Gunj doesn’t have its own ghost—albeit a more melancholy one.

A still from ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’.

The ‘adult’ romance

‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’ (2017) and ‘Anubhav’ (1971)

R.S. Prasanna’s Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, based on his own 2013 Tamil film Kalyana Samayal Saadham, is about a young man who, after successfully wooing the girl he has a crush on and getting engaged to her, is shattered by the realization that he has trouble performing in bed. The two of them try and solve this problem as the wedding date approaches and their families and friends begin to interfere in hilarious, embarrassing ways.

A still from ‘Anubhav’.

A sexual dysfunction comedy isn’t the place you would expect to find it, but Shubh Mangal is also that rare recent Hindi romance where two people in a relationship actually sit and thrash out their problems like adults (something even the relatively mature protagonists of Qarib Qarib Singlle couldn’t do). In its incisive but sympathetic view of how intimacy (and the lack of it) can affect a relationship, Prasanna’s film recalls Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav, in which Tanuja deals non-hysterically with the problem of her and Sanjeev Kumar’s stagnant love life. Though Anubhav is an arty drama and Shubh Mangal an out-and-out comedy, both recognize, almost 50 years apart, how hangers-on and family members must be removed from the equation and embarrassing subjects discussed forthrightly (and with a laugh) by couples seeking a healthy, loving

A still from ’Newton’.

The perils of idealism

’Newton’ (2017) and ‘Satyakam’ (1969)

Amit Masurkar’s Newton—about an idealistic government clerk, a stickler for rules, sent for election duty in Naxal land—carries echoes of a nearly 50-year-old film with a similarly unbending hero: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, about a young engineer, Satyapriya (Dharmendra), who refuses to compromise even if it imperils the people who are dependent on him.

In some ways, the differences are just as important. Newton has a dry sense of humour (a herd of goats obediently bleat “haiii" as if in response to the question, “Do you have voter IDs?"), while the stately 1969 film rarely permits itself a smile. But at the centre of both stories are two earnest men whose inflexible commitment to their principles is often a source of frustration to everyone around them.

A still from ‘Satyakam’.

And yet, here’s a modest proposal: Neither film is unequivocally supportive of its hero. This is more obvious in the newer film, because it is more multilayered at a surface level and allows for perspectives other than Newton’s—notably that of chief of security Aatma Singh (a terrific Pankaj Tripathi), who understands ground realities and the nature of realpolitik in a complicated country better than Newton does. Or the local girl who tells the clerk, with a quiet smile, “You live only a few hours away but you know nothing about us."

However, Satyakam—on the face of it a more moralistic film—also has scenes where the protagonist has a mirror held up to him (in one case by a character who might otherwise have been stereotyped as a slimy opportunist). Though Mukherjee repeatedly claimed that it was his favourite work, his career is more noted for protagonists who have a much greater sense of fun than the dour Satyapriya—people like Anand and Gol Maal’s Ram Prasad, who contain multitudes and are more understanding of the chimerical sides of human nature.

Both films allow us to reflect that if the world were made up entirely—or even mostly—of Newtons and Satyapriyas, then yes, it would probably be a better, more ethical place; but it would also be much blander, more robotic, less human. A landscape of clockwork oranges.

A still from ‘Trapped’.

Making do in Mumbai

From ‘C.I.D.’ (1956) to ‘Trapped’ (2017)

Trapped showed that the more you pare something down, the more it seems to lend itself to varied interpretations. You could evaluate the film as a genre offering—an urban survival film. Or you could view it through the lens of Rajkummar Rao’s performance and club it with other films featuring a single actor, of which 1964’s Yaadein, with Sunil Dutt, is a rare Indian predecessor.

One might also see Trapped as a continuation of a very old theme: how difficult and isolating life in Mumbai can be. So many films have commented on this that you could build a gently depressing playlist: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yahan (C.I.D., 1956); Chin-O-Arab Hamara (Phir Subha Hogi, 1958); Yeh Bambai Shahar Ka Bada Naam Hai (Kya Yeh Bombai Hai, 1959); Seene Mein Jalan (Gaman, 1978). What sets Trapped apart is the way director Vikramaditya Motwane takes the spiritual challenges presented by the metropolis—strikingly delineated in 2015’s Island City and innumerable other films—and gives it physical form. Shaurya (Rao) is on a literal island, not a symbolic one; he’s physically, not emotionally, cut off from his fellow beings (another 2017 film, Noor, had the line “Mumbai, you’re killing me", but it should have come from Shaurya). And his actions tap into something that’s become its own filmic truism—the ability of Mumbaikars to adapt and manoeuvre their way out of a bad situation.

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