Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Hundred Years of Indian Cinema: First Favourites List

As many of you cinephiles already know, 2013 celebrates Indian film industry's centenary, marking a hundred years since Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra was first released. I hope to write other pieces during this year on the evolution of Indian cinema but as I began thinking about film-making in India, I realised that many of my favourite films don't make it to the 'big' lists compiled by film critics and mainstream media.  So in this post, I decided to list some of my own favourites.

It is worth noting that this first list is made up entirely of commercial Hindi cinema - with its rather awful short hand, Bollywood - and not all cinema from India, as the country has multiple industries in multiple languages, each with its own canon of film conventions, milestones and texts.  The list is also weighted heavily towards the last forty years of cinema, reflecting perhaps my own location in time and a generational shift. Unlike many film scholars who write about Indian cinema's 'golden ages' of the 1930s or 1950s, I firmly believe that 1970s threw up some amazing films, stars and film-makers, all of which have received less attention than they warrant. Moreover, we have not stopped making great films a hundred years later, despite the overwhelming narrative of nostalgia that many of our filmmakers, critics and scholars repeat incessantly. Finally, the best Hindi films of the past century have not been necessarily 'art-house' or parallel or independent cinema, but often the purest form of commercially driven, blockbuster enterprise.

I have to say that picking this list was particularly difficult as I could come up with ten favourite films within all of ten seconds. However, this first list makes up the films I can not only watch as a film fanatic but also those texts that leave me wondering about technical and stylistic choices of the films themselves, and make me want to place these cinematic texts in their social, political, cultural contexts to understand the processes that informed such cultural production. I also wanted to stay off the usual list of 'greats' although you will notice that could not NOT include Sholay (Am a 70s kid, so no chance). So here goes:

1. Amar Akbar Anthony (1977): this mad-cap Manmohan Desai adventure with dizzying plot twists is also perhaps one of the most tightly constructed scripts.  Adbhuta (wonder) as its primary rasa is a risky strategy in of itself as it relies on non-realist narrative tropes but Desai pulls it off.  Indian independence, the Partition, communal harmony, urbanisation, class issues, post-coloniality all get pulled into this mind-boggling family saga but with his signature light touch so that the film is enjoyable for a child but provides layer upon layer of textual complexity for the scholar.  Only quibble: the women don't get much screen time although they do demonstrate more agency than most heavy-handed 'arty' cinema of the time.

2. Sholay (1975): The big boss of them all! Gabbar, Veeru, Jai, Thakur, Basanti, even Dhanno....the most stylish homage to Sergio Leone and one of the most superbly constructed films of the past century. Each technical element - sound, camera, editing, so on - all deserve entire books discussing the choices and complexities of constructing those.  Then add the perfectly plotted script, great acting by some of India's iconic stars, and powerful dialogue and there really is no argument against this being the best.  However, the film makes far more sense and is more powerful in the original (or now director's cut) rather than the censored version released during the Emergency. The uncut version is longer but has more narrative and emotional cohesion right to the final conclusion.

3. Bandini (1963): A Bimal Roy classic, though unrelenting for its karuna rasa, with possibly one of the bleakest endings in cinema. India's independence movement, changing social mores, and prisoner rehabilitation all collide in this neo-realist gem that ranks alongside the best in Indian cinema, which also features an extraordinary expressionist sequence where Kalyani poisons her lover's wife.  It also features this most gorgeous song which also marks Gulzar's debut as a lyricist.

4. Jaal (1952): Yes, a Guru Dutt movie! What I love about this early film by the director (and writer) is the deft Indian-ised use of noir elements. The camera, lighting, mise en scene, costumes, all echo well known elements of Hollywood noir, helped in part by the Goan setting which allows the film to deploy 'western' imagery with ease. At the same time, elements of crime, retribution, morality, as well as Indian cinema's long standing preoccupation with modernity, urbanisation and westernisation are tackled with a stylish, light directorial touch. In context of the full film, this beautiful song takes on far more complex - and sinister - tones of forbidden desires than often noticed.

5. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960): Often ignored as one of Raj Kapoor's minor films, this is also one of his overtly political films and not only for the nation-building narrative that many RK films took up during the 1950s and 1960s.  The 'naive' Raju also references the attempts to persuade the pre-independence Chambal 'baghees' (Bollywood has often elided baghees with dacoits) into mainstream, post-independence India. Unlike later films, Kapoor chose an overt political narrative with Raju as the idealistic outsider to bring change rather than a redemption based entirely on love.

6. Rang de Basanti (2006):  After 9/11, a quintessentially human exploration of terrorism, its motivations, and the human face of violence. History and modern politics collide and blend, with layers of film-within-a-film, past and present time scales and digital media all come together in an engrossingly post-modern text.  This is one of my favourites for its editing choices and the ways in which sepia and colour, digital images and mass media elements are deployed to collapse the boundaries of filmic narrative, history and memory and extra-filmic reality. Strangely enough the images from this film seem to have bled into reality after its release, not only in the candle-light marches for Jessica Lal murder but also in the televised footage of police brutality in December 2012. Yet another Bollywood film that gives lie to the myth that the industry does nothing more than candy-floss romances and sentimental melodramas.

7. Maachis (1995): Yes, a Gulzar movie. This time as a director.  This director's oeuvre over the past four plus decades merits an entire list of his own (Watch this space!) as each of his films is gorgeously crafted to blend narrative, literature, aesthetics and politics. But this film stands out for me as the first major critique of the excesses by the Indian state in Punjab. It  is also prescient in its exploration of the ways in which the state and individuals interact and how narratives of 'terrorism' help sustain (and extend) the state's hegemony of violence at the cost of human rights and lives. Events after 9/11 around the world have sadly proven Gulzar's view of the state right.

8. Chak de India (2007):  One of the past decade's 'small films' with very large ambitions. It plays out as a straight forward sports movies with all the well-known cliches, but with a difference.  The film puts women's hockey at its heart, features a restrained performance by Shahrukh Khan who breaks out of his star persona for a change, and begins to articulate an Indian Muslim identity that can move beyond the Partition and is de-linked from Pakistan.  And yes, some how all this is handled in a way that is fun and moving.

9. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958): Wacky, slapstick and outright hilarious comedy classic that turns into a gothic mystery mid-way, complete with a sinister mansion and a madwoman in the attic.  For an early film, the sexual agency and independence exercised by the women in this film (not counting the one locked up, of course, although she too escapes and organises help rather than wilting) is quite extraordinary. And of course it helps that it features the fabulously over-the-top eccentric Kishore Kumar and the most gorgeous woman to ever appear on Indian celluloid, Madhubala.

10. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012): Yup, I am right from the Hindi heartland so this one has to be included. This film is not only extraordinary in narrative scale, aesthetic choices and technical expertise but also is one of the most unabashed celebrations of the rural and popular cultures of UP and Bihar. Everything from the language to costumes to the music is global and local at the same time, capturing the global nature of the Hindi heartland today, freely mixing Chutney influences with folk songs, Ray Bans with behenjis, and high drama and violence with black comedy. In many ways, this film is an interesting beacon for the ways this industry may evolve into the future.

I hope to post again during the year about more films from India so this is really a starter list. I would love to know yours! But till I get to post again, happy 100th birthday, Indian cinema!