Pistolwali (1972)

pistolwali

I often wonder how gangs of ne’er-do-wells get along before they reach the critical mass that attracts a hero to sort them out, and what it is that they do all day. Pistolwali doesn’t answer the first of those questions, but it does provide plenty to look at as you ponder whether what they do all day is make their own outfits and fight over the dress-up box.

K.S.R Doss’ Pilla? Piduga? was either dubbed or partially reshot in Hindi as Pistolwali. Both (unsubtitled) films are on YouTube so choose your poison. I have chosen to use the Hindi version as some actors and both Helen and Jayshree T appeared to be speaking Hindi and this film is all about the authenticity…Plus I understood more of the dialogue even if I couldn’t read the significant clue written in blood.

Like so many other Telugu cowboy themed revenge films, this one is set in a time and place that exists only in Telugu cowboy themed revenge films.The movie opens with Raaka (Satyanarayana Kaikala) and his gang attempting a train heist. A brightly clad cowboy (Ramakrishna as Amar) puts them out of business from his perch in a convenient tree. It’s cowboys vs cowboys and hat colour is not a reliable indicator of anything.

Maybe if we saw the floral sunhats being stolen from helpless old aunties it might be suitably Bad, but instead it just looked like a job lot guaranteed to brighten up every occasion. And there was that one guy who just painted his scalp silver. Reeka (Prabhakar Reddy) seems to have fewer marbles and fewer outfits than Raaka. He throws childish tantrums that quickly escalate into homicidal rampages. And that is the nicest thing I could say about him.

“South Bombshell” (according to the poster) Jyothilaxmi is Neelu. She is first seen cavorting in a daring swimsuit but later changes into equally fashion forward pantsuits. The villains go too far when they steal from the temple, and Neelu sets off in pursuit. She swaggers, shoots and curses like a hero rather than a heroine relying on womanly wiles, and generally she rescues herself. Jyotilaxmi wears some abbreviated costumes and gets a big dance number, but Neelu isn’t a girly girl. Neelu gets roughed up by her adversaries but how to say this… they don’t get rapey and creepy with her despite the allure of her midriff. She is a foe and they deal with her as a threat, not as a plaything. She is tough cookie and I suspect it would take a bit to outrage her modesty in any case. When Helen gives it her all in Hoga Sa Hoga, Neelu fills the time honoured role of hero looking like they’d rather be elsewhere. Although that may also be professional item girl rivalry.  Neelu has her own ideas and just goes and does her thing. Even if that includes falling through a trapdoor and wrestling a (sight impaired) tiger.  And she has a straightforward approach to relationships.

Pistolwali-Graceful

I am not sure it was desire for authenticity or just directorial cruelty that had her struggling to get on and off horses, but it looked like Jyotilaxmi did a lot of her own action scenes.

The viewer learns that Raaka is Neelu’s biological father long before she does.  Raaka raped Lakshmi and left her for dead before also maiming his friend and rival for Lakshmi’s love. She fell pregnant as a result and she and the baby were taken in by her now one-legged true love who seemed to think it was the right thing to do. He may have been grooming Neelu for vengeance as well, but he seemed like an affectionate and over indulgent filmi Daddy. Neelu was none the wiser about her parentage until quite late in the film. That might all sound a bit progressive so let me assure you that the way it was revealed to her made me deduct a lot of the good parenting brownie points.

Ramakrishna is technically the hero but Neelu overshadows Amar in all respects. He does an OK job and he doesn’t get in her way, but apart from some excellent outfits he achieves little of note. Although I did giggle at his inept dealings with the ladies. On the subject of costumes, it looks as though each main character was issued with one distinctive pair of boots and they pretty much wear them throughout. Raaka’s boots were particularly special and Satyanarayana Kaikala was suitably over the top to match. And the outfits did help a little with identifying characters in the many and varied fights and action scenes. K.S.Madhavan threw everything and the kitchen sink into the stunts. However I have to say that the plot is quite cohesive and to an extent, I would almost say logical.

The background music is a brilliant mish-mash of fuzzy surf rock and funky Hammond organ with classic cowboy guitar strumming and the odd slide whistle. The song set pieces are unashamedly random and the film has an embarrassment of item girls that all get a guernsey in featured numbers.

Jayshree T is always so perky, I love watching her dance. She always seems to wear more hair than clothes but I never see her as really skanky.

 

Helen and her creepy blue contact lenses appeared in a nightclub song and Jyotilaxmi got a dance in a fabulous Fauxgyptian inspired village set with what may be happy go lucky tribal cannibals. The camera is often at crotch level which is a bit confronting. But to be fair, the camera wasn’t just upskirting the ladies. Once seen, never unseen.

This is one of my favourite heroine-centric B movies from 1972 and Jyothilaxmi is perfect as the righteous gunslinger. See it if you have ever harboured thoughts of wearing a fur trimmed vest with fringed pants but weren’t sure how to accessorise, or if you want a primer on tiger wrestling for the modern lady. 3 stars!

Malliswari (1951)

Malliswari-MalliswariB.N Reddi’s Malliswari is a film that almost every Telugu film fan praises as a masterpiece and a must see. It is so disappointing to see (and hear) the appalling state of the available copies, and also vexing that it is nigh impossible to buy on DVD. I would have loved subtitles. From the little I could pick out with my miniscule vocabulary, the dialogues seemed sensible and not overly filmi and the songs all seemed to fit in beautifully as an extension of the narrative.

Malliswari and Nagaraju grow up together in their peaceful rustic village. She calls him a monkey and he calls her a cat, but all the casual insults don’t mask their deep affection for each other. As Malliswari matures, her materialistic mother decides to nip the relationship with poorer Nagaraju in the bud. A chance encounter brings Malli to the Maharaja’s notice. In return for considerable payment, her mother hands Malliswari over to the palace as a Rani Vasam.Rani Vasam are forbidden to see or speak to men, and there was a lot of rigmarole for Malli even to see her mother and uncle. Nagaraju loses the plot, Malli mopes, but true love will not be torn asunder. When the king discovers Nagaraju and Malli have broken his rules, the penalty is death.

The female cast is superb and they all play off each other so well. Apart from Bhanumathi in the lead role, there is Kumari as the Maharani, Surabhi Kamalabai as Nagaraju’s mother, Rushyendramani as Malli’s mother and T.G Kamala Devi as Malliswari’s attendant Jalaja.

Based on the (rather thin) plot summary I found, I was expecting the men in the film to drive more of the action. I’m happy to be wrong about that. I wouldn’t describe this as feminist or ahead of its time, but the women are interesting and pursue their own goals and dreams. Malli is recruited into the palace against her will, but she is there because of her art as well as her beauty and is shown respect. Malli’s mother isn’t an evil shrew – just a materialistic woman who may even be motivated by wanting her girl to have an easier life. Jalaja isn’t a brainless servant, and while she and Malli become close she still cautions her against following her heart. And the enigmatic Maharani with a passion for art seems to be the real power inside the palace.

This is Bhanumathi’s film from the moment she steps into view. She gives Malliswari warmth and vivacity and is equally convincing when Malli feels sad and isolated. Her rapport with NTR is evident and I liked that Malli and Nagaraju seemed like friends as well as childhood sweethearts. In addition to her fine acting Bhanumathi also sang for herself (as did T.G Kamala Devi).

Her voice is beautifully expressive, and having the same voice for both dialogue and songs was wonderful as the songs are an integral part of the story and needed that same strong characterisation. When Malli is separated from her loved ones she yearns for happier times and for her bava, and her grief is as immediate and heartfelt as her joy had been. What I really liked was that even when Malliswari felt at her lowest ebb, she never completely gave up. There was always a spark of the vibrant and feisty girl we first met.

While NTR’s Nagaraju is important to Malli, he is often peripheral to the action so doesn’t dominate the screen as he has in other more hero-centric fare. His scenes with Bhanumathi are quite lovely and NTR’s doe-eyed charm is dialled up to the max. During a storm they take shelter in an old building, enjoying the adventure and singing to while away the time. It’s not a doom and gloom first love. When Nagaraju leaves home to make his fortune only to return and find Malli gone, he falls in a heap. Nagaraju ends up in a cave, sculpting Malliswari’s likeness and letting his hair get out of control as his clothes degrade to shreds. I found NTR’s portrayal of grief more theatrical than Bhanumathi’s and while I felt her pain I wanted to give him a bit of a slap and tell him to do something sensible instead of wallowing. I did a bit of eye-rolling in the final scenes where Nagaraju declared to the king that Malliswari was his life and he couldn’t give her up – I reckon the result had already been decided by the queen, and was based on her regard for Malli, not all the manly posturing. But this is a romance and since the chemistry and relationship building is so good, everything else diminishes.

The support cast is hard to identify due to the paucity of detail available but I did manage to put some names to faces. Surabhi Kamalabai is given a small but challenging role as Nagaraju’s mother. She is a servant to Malliswari’s family and so is often a silent observer of goings on and has little dialogue to express her feelings. When she fears Nagaraju is dead or lost to her she cracks up (so that seemed to be a family trait) and goes a bit over the top, but is set to rights when her boy comes home and they can have a good cry. I recognised T.G Kamala Devi from Patala Bhairavi. I looked up her filmography and was amazed and quite delighted to see she was a billiards player, and won the Indian Womens title twice – when she was in her 60s! Doraiswamy (another familiar face, this from Devadasu) is the inarticulate father who regrets sending Malliswari away but doesn’t stand up to his wife. Kumari looks the part as Maharani Tirumala Devi, exuding confidence and a subdued energy in her scenes. Plus she gets to wear some stunning bling. I should mention Baby Mallika and Master Venkata Ramana who played the young Malliswari and Nagaraju. Both were lively and playful, and matched the adult stars well in terms of looks and mannerisms. I also liked the gossipy village ladies who always seemed to be at the well, passing comment on everyone else.

The set design is very pretty but is quite generic. I felt the actors were the real focus and the sets provided an appropriate backdrop. I really liked the episode at the fair as it was attractively shot and showed more of Malli and Nagaraju’s personalities, especially in a scene with a fortune teller. There was even a man in a bear suit. The music is outstanding, as it should be in a film about a singer. There are over a dozen songs in the film and composer Saluri Rajeswara Rao employs a range of styles to fit the scene and emotional tone. The songs are placed well and are a logical extension of the drama so they reinforce the actors characterisations. Music is always present, whether as a childhood favourite, a soulful plea to the heavens, a performance given for royalty or a simple work song to speed the day along.

There are several uploads of the full movie on YouTube and other sites. The official running time is 194 minutes but I haven’t managed to find the full version – most are missing around 20 minutes but not always the same 20 minutes. The sound and picture quality on every copy I have found is subpar. But if you can persevere with the technical issues, this is a beautiful film and a firm favourite of mine. Bhanumathi is superb, NTR is a perfect foil for her, and B.N Reddi blends everything into a very charming story with love and music at its heart. 5 stars!

Megabirthday 2014

 

Megabirthday2014

Another year, another Megabirthday just around the corner! We’ll be celebrating things Chiru related during August and of course you’re invited.

Pop over to the Facebook page *points at link on righthand side of page* and vote for one of the topics I’ll be writing about, or leave your ideas in the comments. Current suggestions (courtesy of Liz and Katherine) are:

  • Chiranjeevi’s cowboy years
  • The many hues of Chiru – a study in colour (but how to pick just one colour?)
  • Chiranjeevi the Serious Actor

Join in by posting on your own blog, let me know, and I’ll collate and publish the links. Or just watch for the #megabirthday2014 hashtag on Twitter and have a chat about all things Chiru. Like this.

If your eyes still work after the 2m 44s mark, check out those boots! And those moves.

Khal Nayak

Khal Nayak poster

Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak is a fairly predictable cops and robbers story twined with references to the Ramayana which adds depth and resonance.  There are some excellent performances, stylish visuals and excellent music. But at a shade over 3 hours, the pace is stately to the point of plodding and there is too much emphasis on the meaning, and not quite enough on the drama.

Ram (Jackie Shroff) is assigned a case to bring down a terrorist organisation. Ballu (Sanjay Dutt) is the poster boy for Roshida’s (Pramod Muthu) gang. When Ballu escapes from jail, Ram is accused of neglecting his duty to go spend time with his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). When what looks like every policeman in India is put on Ballus’ trail with no success, Ganga finds a way to infiltrate the gang. She sees that Ballu is not quite as bad as he seems, although he is far from being misunderstood. Eventually the police close in, and Ganga is caught between Ram, duty, and her empathy with Ballu.

Madhuri looks stunning and delivers a strong and engaging characterisation. There is nothing simpering or weak about prison officer Ganga. When she sees an opportunity to help Ram restore his reputation, she asks for his support. Then she does it anyway. When she sees Ballu needs medical help, she just goes and gets a doctor because it is the right thing to do. Madhuri does some wonderful deliberately bad acting when Ganga, having captivated Ballu, joins the gang and goes on the run.

Then in Aaja Sajan Aaja she is simply incandescent as she dances for her Ram. Madhuri was also lucky as Ganga dresses in Indian attire, not the hideous synthetic 80s gear that Ballu wears when he tries to impress.

 

Sanjay Dutt is so very good in some scenes that it makes me angry at how bad he is for much of the film. He adopted a range of bizarre grimaces and physical tics that I think were meant to emphasise the animal side of Ballu, but just made him look ridiculous and clumsy. When he dropped the exaggerated mannerisms and just channelled the emotions, he was compelling and raw. While asserting his ownership of Ganga, Ballu accidentally defends democracy and becomes a Nayak for those people. His awakening to being respected and enjoying that feeling was nicely done, even though there was a lot of literal flag waving to make sure the point didn’t escape unnoticed.

Jackie Shroff is perfectly competent as Ram, and only tries to tear his clothes off once so that was good. For my money Ram is the least interesting character. He knows he is right, everyone knows he is right and he is not averse to using extreme force against Ballu to prove how right he is. While there is an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, there is minimal character development for Ram. A relationship between Ganga and Ballu would be a Very Bad Idea but I thought marrying Ram could be a bit suffocating.

The Ramayana elements were more obvious to me on a recent re-watch than when I first saw it, particularly the twists on that narrative. I couldn’t help but compare this with Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (which I greatly prefer to the Hindi Raavan). In Raavanan, Ram revealed his darker side and could become as Ravana but Khal Nayak seems to say rather that Ravana has the potential to be Rama. I liked that the question of what makes a hero or a villain was articulated and that this was more than a glorification of Rama. Ganga didn’t sway from her beliefs when she was frightened, and kept her faith in Ram. Ram wanted to believe Ganga but society and the law demanded she was still put to trial. I was annoyed that she had to have her virtue validated by a thief and murderer, a man so despicable in the eyes of the law that he had besmirched her just by his proximity but whose word was still worth more than hers. I know she is Sita and he is Ravana, but still. The film plays with some of the conventions especially around the notion of hero and villain. Ram is also helped by Ballu’s testimony, his reputation restored by the hand of a sinner.

Ghai doesn’t quite go the whole hog but he does use a range of staple masala ingredients and has a lush visual style. Ram and Ballu have bloody fights that crash through walls and take to the treetops. There are long lost childhood friends and dreary paeans to motherhood. There are coincidences, speechifying and tearful reconciliations galore. The evil mastermind Roshida has a nasty disposition and lots of cats who do a fabulous job of reacting to stuff.

Rakhee gets a lot of screen time as Arti, not all of it crying. Neena Gupta makes an impression as the striking Champa. Ramya Krishnan is charismatic as Ballu’s girlfriend Sophia, and also gets both versions of the title song. What a waste to have her in such a small role, but how great to have so many powerful actresses in one film. The female characters are strong and quite distinct, but Subhash Ghai stays firmly within the conventions of 90s masala so none of them break the mould of Ma, the friend, bad girl etc.  Oh, and Anupam Kher does his customary shtick as Pandey the prison warden.

There are interesting observations about the conventions of parenting and filial behaviour. Ganga tries to evoke Ballu’s sentimental side by talking wistfully of how much he must love his Ma and how hard it must be for him to live on the run. He calls Ganga out on trying to manipulate him through sentiment, but he rejects that as unimportant to him. Question – If a villain shouts ‘Ma!’ in his sleep and there is no one to hear it, does he have feelings?

Mind you, when Ballu is beating Ram up because why not, Arti hits Ballu for assaulting Ram, Ballu shoves her so Ram belts him for hitting a Ma, then Ballu fights back and Arti comes back at him to stop him using violence.  A move straight out of the Nirupa Roy Filmi Ma Manual.

The songs are extensions or amplifications of the narrative as well as being beautiful and usually pleasingly melodic.

I am not so fond of that title track, although it does epitomise early 90s style and Ramya Krishnan works that beaded gear for all it’s worth.

Khal Nayak-Fruitbat

I had to pity choreographer Saroj Khan. Between Dutt’s own ‘dance’ style and the outfit given to Ballu in the final song, he looked more like a demented fruitbat. Seeing Ballu and the boys try their seductive dance moves on Ganga was highly amusing. But she choreographed some beautiful dances for Madhuri. I went to see the Temptations Reloaded show up in Sydney last year, and the roof nearly came off when the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche played.

The first hour of the film could be condensed to around 20 minutes with no great loss, but things get much more interesting once events are set in motion. While it is a visually strong and often darkly dramatic film, the pace suffers from Ghai’s concentration on symbols and stylised elements rather than closely following the emotional arcs of the characters. Very much worth watching, but some patience is required. 3 ½ stars!

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

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Akira Kurosawa’s story can be summed up simply.  Two greedy peasants are persuaded with the promise of reward to escort a man and woman across the border and smuggle a load of gold hidden inside firewood. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general and that the gold is intended to help Princess Yuki rebuild her clan. There is action and humour, greed meets idealism, relationships are tested and altered, and everyone learns a little along the way.

Hidden Fortress (or Kakushi-toride no san-akunin) is cited as one of the inspirations for Star Wars, and there are numerous comparison reels and articles available online if you want to learn more. While that was one of the reasons I first saw the film some years ago, it isn’t what I remember it for. This is an action packed adventure with great characters, a ripping yarn told with a splash of verve and wit. Just my cup of tea.

Hidden Fortress was also Kurosawa’s first film using the then new widescreen technology and he makes the most of his locations and staging. Using grand outdoor sets to bring a sense of realism to the background, plus Kurosawa’s own exceptional editing skills, this is almost an immersive viewing experience with nothing to break the sense of watching history unfolding. There is something about seeing a vast crowd of extras in a battle scene and knowing they were all real people, not CGI additions. It makes the epic seem even more so. In fact the camera shakes a little in a mass prison break scene, presumably from the vibration of hundreds of men running down the stairs. Kurosawa (and his cinemataographer Kazuo Yamasaki) can swoop from wide expanses and grandeur down to the small personal moments easily overlooked and forgotten.

On another level, the film may also be an ode to Toshiro Mifune’s thighs. Despite wearing the Edo period equivalent of shorty short shorts, General Rokuroto Makabe is an imperious leader of men. He tracks peasants who stumbled over some of the Akizuki clan gold and cons them into helping him. He torments them, seeing them as weak and venal with none of the ideology or purpose befitting a true warrior. But he comes to value their street smarts and knack for self-preservation.  Mifune is a charismatic actor with a robust presence. He turns in a well judged performance in a film that provides a great showcase for his charismatic alpha male persona. His horseback chase and subsequent duel is wildly suspenseful, with the camera barely able to keep up, yet you know Rokuroto will win because he just looks invincible. And seeing the general participate in a fire festival dance with dour determination to pass for a local peasant having fun was amusing.

Misa Uehara is Princess Yuki, a feisty princess in disguise trying to survive and rebuild her family’s domain. For some reason this disguise also involves short shorts but nothing too unladylike. She appears to be unfeeling but is keenly aware of the sacrifices that her people have made and the burden that places on her.  Another character says of her that she is more masculine than she is a girl, and she is certainly more competent and independent than many a movie damsel in distress was ever allowed to be. Although fleeing for her life, Yuki also gets to experience the real world for the first time in her 16 years and she finds it quite enchanting when she can put her cares aside.

She sees good and bad in people, observes poverty and other social woes. She is generally cool and decisive but doesn’t lack empathy so I found her interesting and sympathetic. I wondered whether her decisiveness was a sign of great leadership or just typically teenaged black and white thinking, but generally Yuki does the right thing. Yuki wins people’s loyalty as they believe they can trust in her integrity and not just because she has Rokuroto Makabe and his sword at her disposal.  Uehara’s timing and reactions are excellent, especially in scenes where Yuki is pretending to be a mute. Apart from being limiting to an actor, that also places the character in extra jeopardy as she is limited in her ability to respond without breaking her cover. Her dancing at the festival was an expression of joy and release, an affirmation of the strength that could come if she survived the fire.

The story is largely told through the squabbling peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki)and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). They are repellent and a little endearing by turn.  They roam through the post war landscape complaining bitterly that they didn’t get to make a profit despite all their (alleged) hard work. They seem to have no loyalty or principles beyond making a buck and will turn on each other at the drop of a hat. While these Everymen bring a lot of the comedy to the film they also provide the contrast between rarefied aristocratic living and a more dog eat dog perspective. The first time they see Yuki, they follow thinking a girl alone in the forest would be easy. Later on the journey, despite now knowing her as a travelling companion, they see Yuki asleep and draw lots for who should go for a walk and let the other one rape her first. When the chips are down, they cling to each other and eventually see the bigger picture. Given that most of their dialogue is moaning and crying, both actors do well to give their characters such vivid and distinct personalities. I didn’t mind seeing them suffer, but I would have wielded the editing scissors a little more in their direction.

Hidden Fortress-Hyoe Tadokoro

Susumu Fujita has a small but significant role as Hyoe Tadokoro, an old adversary of Rokoruto Makabe. His wry expression conveys volumes as he squares up against a respected foe and tries to face down the blazing indignation of Yuki.

I was thrilled to see this included in ACMI’s recent Samurai Cinema program and to have the opportunity to see it on a big screen for the first time.  It is a tale of derring-do, the grand visuals still place the human element at the forefront and the characters are easy to invest in. Well, maybe not the comedy peasants so much. 4 ½ stars!