Dus Lakh (1966)

What happens when a vain and money hungry old man inherits millions? He alienates his family and hooks up with ne’er-do-wells who intend to part him from the money. Is this entertaining? Yes, surprisingly so. It’s the 60s so the design is of the more is more school, the songs are brought to life by Asha Bhosle and Rafi among others, and the cast is spot on. Devendra Goel keeps it all moving along despite the actors sometimes lapsing into melodramatic wallowing and scenery chewing.

Gokulchand (Om Prakash) is a widower, living comfortably with his married son and daughter-in-law (Ramesh Deo and Seema Deo), younger son (Sanjay Khan) and grandchildren (Master Ripple and Baby Sonia aka Neetu Singh). He is obsessed with money and feels that anyone else’s good fortune has somehow been at his expense. But finally his prayers are answered when his reviled brother dies and leaves him everything. Gokulchand tells Manohar to quit working, buys a big fancy house, and goes to a hill station to practice being rich and snobby. He meets Jerry (Pran!) and Dolly (Manorama), con artists who see him as easy pickings once they get his kids out of the picture. Is blood thicker than whisky and soda?

Om Prakash and Manorama get the bulk of screen time. While I have no patience with a vain, horny old man and his poor decision making I did quite like seeing the story develop around an older less glam pairing. But it is both funny and infuriating to see Gokulchand preening as Jerry and Dolly manipulate him so easily. Om Prakash is at his best when Gokulchand is very angry or very sad, and his moods permeate the whole family.

Dolly has a son, William (Brahmachari), to her Indian husband and a daughter, Kitty (Helen) to her English husband. Jerry fancies Kitty and money, Dolly likes booze and money, and Gokulchand takes to drinking and wearing shorty shorts like a duck to water. There is a lot made of English versus Indian manners and morals, with Dolly and Kitty representing the corrupting influence of Westernised women and Jerry as a Goan of convenient morality, and William as a simple lad who can’t afford long pants. Manorama does her usual shtick and her expressions are priceless. I really loathe Dolly as a character though, and not because she was a con. I allow that women had limited options and not everyone can be a builder’s labourer. But the way she pimped Kitty out was appalling, and William wasn’t treated much better.

Ramesh Deo and Seema Deo are charming as Manohar and Devki. Devki borrowed a diamond necklace from a friend to give to Rita as an engagement gift, promising to return it. Losing the necklace on top of being kicked out of the family home drove the little family to the brink. And while there was much agonising over loss of honour and standing, Manohar simply rolled up his sleeves and went to work as a labourer to make the money they needed. And so did Devki. I realised while watching the film again that their story reminded me a little of stories my Nan told me about how she and Poppy got through the Depression. I love a battler!

Manohar and Devki are too good to be true but even when the acting gets dialled up too many notches the actors stay connected to their characters and each other. Manohar slaps Devki in one scene but in context it was understandable while not being at all acceptable. And none of the bystanders held back on telling him off. So I was pleased to see the social rules in the film were anti wife-beating. They also had some really nice scenes talking about the family or their own relationship. And that is something that the film does well. People have to sort out their own problems, they need to talk about things, and then come up with a plan. And all that goes on in between everyone else erupting into dances, fights, and silly outfits.

Kishore (Sanjay Khan) is the youngest son, indulged by his older brother and sister-in-law, and the hope of his father. He’s an engineering student and like so many filmi heroes, appears to have been studying for a long long long time. He is in love with girl next door Rita (Babita). Rita seems to understand that Jerry is a crook and that Gokulchand is an idiot well before Kishore does. Kishore is both annoying and impractical without her influence. I don’t like Babita but he is a sap.

Rita is a bit of a drama queen and doesn’t mind a mock fight for the fun of making up afterwards. But essentially she is quite pragmatic and gets things done. When she sees an opportunity to get the necklace back, she bargains hard with Kitty. Rita did look like she’d rather lick a slug but she lets Jerry hold her hand and then executes her plan perfectly. Babita faced Helen in a dance-off and then again in a collaborative dance of pre-nuptial snark so I give her points for trying.

Kitty (Helen) is not happy at being raffled off like the meat tray at an RSL, but she can’t just up and leave her family so she treads a line. She steals the necklace from Jerry, which Dolly thinks is brilliant. Kitty agrees to help Rita in exchange for Rita winning Jerry’s dubious affections and thus freeing her up for a more salubrious affair with Kishore.

While the kids are crooks, they look out for each other and try to help Kishore as they know he is being unfairly accused. Her brother William is probably the most decent of this bunch. He might steal but he doesn’t like to lie. Kishore apologises to Kitty at one point for misleading her and while she is too quick to forgive, I liked that he still felt she deserved an apology despite the taint of association with Dolly and Jerry.

Pran plays the reprehensible Jerry for laughs, and the occasional flashes of menace don’t quite land. He speaks a Yoda-esque English, saying things like “Leave not father rich” and wears loud checked suits. His expressions are even less subtle than Manorama.

I realise this doesn’t sound all that entertaining or comedic. But if you know that the finale takes place during Gokulchand and Dolly’s wedding which is also a costume party complete with a man in a giraffe suit, Helen and Babita playing keepings off with a bag of money, a duel between Kishore and Jerry, and Manohar languishing in hospital being transfused with what looks like a bottle of tomato sauce, then all is indeed well that ends well.

I have a lot of affection for Dus Lakh despite feeling that watching a family torn apart because of greed is not comedy gold. Babita and Sanjay do nothing for me but luckily they are not the main event. See it for excellent use of Helen and a whole lot of decent character actors getting more than just a comedy subplot. 4 stars!

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Pinky Beauty Parlour

Pinky Beauty ParlourAs we are told in Pinky Beauty Parlour, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but we all have very different ideas of what makes someone beautiful. In the UK (at least until a few years ago and we all were made more aware of skin cancers), people felt that being brown and tanned was more attractive, while pale complexions were thought to be unhealthy. So I always find it strange that the opposite applies in India, where skin bleaching agents are hugely popular and I’ve seen many women apply turmeric paste to make themselves look paler. Whatever the reason for this obsession with paler skin, the idea that fair = lovely seems to be deeply entrenched in India and that’s the subject Akshay Singh tackles in his first film as writer/director. The cost to society of this odd belief is the main focus of the film, although police brutality and the struggle for women to have their independence also get some coverage. That makes it sound like a very dark and disturbing film, but in fact, it’s just the opposite. Pinky Beauty Parlour is more of a murder-mystery/ comedy and has been successfully shown at numerous film festivals including Cannes, Mumbai and Ottawa and this week was shown as part of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

Growing up in Benares, Bulbul (Khushboo Gupta) and her younger sister Pinky (Sulagna Panigrahi) have always looked very different, and people frequently comment that they don’t look like sisters. Bulbul takes after her father, and is more dark-complexioned while Pinky is fair, like her mother. Despite their differences the sisters have a good relationship, but it’s notable that when their parents die, Bulbul sends Pinky off to work in a beauty salon in Delhi.

Bulbul runs the Pinky Beauty Parlour where she has a number of staff including odd job man Khanna (Abhay Joshi) and driver Dulal (Akshay Singh). Things are generally going well until one of the beauticians tells Bulbul she can no longer carry out home visits when her possessive boyfriend insists that she stop. At the same time one of Bubul’s most annoying clients decides to sue the beauty parlour for failing to make her beautiful despite numerous facials and treatments. The court scenes are hilarious but also ensure that Bulbul is seen as a sensible and rational woman, completely different to her demanding clientele.

Pinky is called home from Delhi to take on the client home visits and help out in the salon, but shortly after her arrival a dead body is found on the premises. Police officers Jata Shankar Singh (Vishwanath Chatterjee) and Sami Akhtar (Jogi Malang) waste no time in declaring the death to be suspicious and soon everyone is under investigation for murder.

The film shows events leading up to the death in flashback as the police interrogate everyone involved. Chief among their suspects is Dulal, but the more the police look for answers, the more secrets and questions they find. As the investigation gets steadily more complicated it seems more and more unlikely that Jata and Sami will find out what really happened one night in the beauty parlour.

Pinky Beauty Parlour is a good mix of drama and black comedy in this murder mystery with a difference. The characters are all beautifully portrayed and are a good mix of different personalities, but all with typical ‘small-town’ features. Bulbul is a sensible business women, but is hampered by her darker skin which continually sees her treated as less than her sister. Pinky is beautiful, and knows it, but is upset by her sister’s treatment of her, not really understanding the resentment that lies behind her sister’s actions. Both Khushboo Gupta and Sulagna Panigrahi are excellent and make the most of their excellent dialogue to further develop their relationship during the flashback sequences. Akshay Singh is simply brilliant as Dulal whose timid appearance and quiet demeanour initially make him an unlikely candidate for the murderer while the revelations of his unexpected depths are funny but also rather poignant given the events that follow. Vishwanath Chatterjee and Jogi Malang add plenty of comedy as the bumbling police officers on the trail of the murderer, but while their methods of interrogation (including one memorable scene with a radish) are very funny, their casual acceptance that torture is the way to get answers is another issue highlighted by the film.

The music too is good and the songs fit well into the film without disrupting the narrative. Gagandeep Singh’s cinematography ensures that Benares looks amazingly beautiful in the shots taken across the Ganges, but that when seen closer up, the view isn’t quite as pleasant. It all adds up to a well-balanced film where every small piece seems to fit perfectly in its pre-ordained place.

The overall message of the film is that discriminating against those of have a darker complexion is not only a source of great harm but is also a behaviour that makes no sense. No-one is less attractive simply because they have a darker skin tone and the news stories shown at the end highlight the ultimate cost of such prejudice. However, despite the important message, the film isn’t judgemental or moralistic in any way, but is instead entertaining and funny which makes the harsh reality of the final frames even more shocking. Akshay Singh and co-producer Bahnishikha Das are to be commended on blending entertainment with their statement on one of society’s ills that rarely gets a mention in cinema. Pinky Beauty Parlour definitely deserves a full theatrical release which hopefully will happen soon. But until then, catch it if you can on the festival circuit for an engaging film that intelligently mixes drama and comedy while shining a light on a more serious society issue.

Mom (2017)

Mom

Mom starts out with an interesting take on the step-mother/daughter relationship but takes a turn midway to end as a standard revenge film with a haphazard second half and an overly mawkish finale. Thankfully Sridevi is outstanding as the mother hell-bent on revenge, and Sajal Ali, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the rest of the cast are all excellent, making Mom better than average, despite the film’s flaws.

The first half of the film explores the tension between Devki Sabarwal (Sridevi) and her step-daughter Arya (Sajal Ali). Arya is the daughter of Anand (Adnan Siddique) and his first wife, and she bitterly resents Devki for taking her father away from her and her memories of her dead mother. Although Devki and Anand have been married long enough to have a child of their own, Arya still isn’t reconciled to her step-mother and the resulting acrimony affects every moment the family spends together. Adding to the tension is the fact that Devki is a teacher and Arya is a student in her class which allows Arya to continue the teacher/student formality even when they are at home by always addressing her step-mother as ‘madam’. The difficulties of dealing with a moody and resentful teenager are compounded by Arya’s animosity towards her stepmother, while Anand is caught in the middle trying to keep the peace. Generally Anand is a passive character who drifts along seemingly not too bothered by his daughter’s rudeness which I presume is to allow Devki the space to take centre stage later in the film. However, the relationship between Devki and her step-daughter is handled well with the family dynamic appearing authentic and the dialogues realistic, and perhaps it’s not too far a stretch that Anand avoids the situation at home rather than getting too involved.

Everything changes one night when 18-year-old Arya goes to a Valentine’s Day party at a farmhouse and doesn’t return home. She is abducted by four men in a black four-wheel drive, and Ravi Udyawar brilliantly builds and maintains the tension as he switches between a frantic Devki desperately trying to contact Arya by phone and horrifically effective overhead shots of the vehicle slowly cruising along deserted roads. The soundtrack adds to the sense of menace and there is a chilling, heart-stopping moment as the car stops and the men change who is driving. It’s horrifying because we know what is happening but all the more effective as nothing is ever shown of the violence until Arya is dumped at the side of the road.

Reading about the film and watching the trailer I was worried that Mom might go down the route of so many films about rape but Ravi Udyawar gets this part of the film totally right and sensitively handles an assault which is too often inappropriately sensationalised or set up to blame the victim. The anguish and despair felt by Devki is also well portrayed, as is Arya’s reaction, while for a change the police are rather more sympathetic although the process of gathering evidence does seem fatally flawed.

When the courts offer little in the way of justice, Anand puts his faith in an appeal and a more rigorous series of tests, while Devki has a more practical approach to her daughter’s rapists gaining their freedom. Anand’s reaction here does seem rather less plausible, but to some extent does fit with his earlier ‘ostrich in the sand’ approach to his daughter. Devki is aided by a private detective, Daya Shankar Kapoor aka DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who is sympathetic to her mission. But with detective Mathew Francis (Akshaye Khanna) suspicious of Devki and Arya still as distant as ever, it seems that Devki has set herself an impossible task when she sets out to seek revenge.

Devki is shown as a strong character right from the beginning. She promptly and efficiently deals with an unpleasant incident in her classroom and appears determined to break down the barriers between herself and Arya, despite her step-daughter’s frosty attitude and carefully maintained distance. Sridevi looks radiant too while the scenes between her and Adnan Siddiqui have a genuine warmth and easy affection that speak of a good relationship. After the assault, her reaction to her daughter’s injuries is wonderfully histrionic but perfectly apt for the situation while her trepidation and uncertainty come across clearly as she embarks on her revenge. However, the screenplay doesn’t help here as DK insists that they meet in secret and the pair then proceed to arrange rendezvous in conspicuous public places where they speak to each other without seeming to take any precautions at all. Even the association with DK seems rather unlikely given their first meeting, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui runs with it regardless and manages to give his character plenty of appeal despite his slightly disreputable appearance. His DK is a more sympathetic character than first appears and he is excellent at conveying his own horror and understanding of the situation to Devki. The dialogue between the two tries to give some rationale for Devki’s actions and there is plenty of symbolism included during their meetings, but it’s really the performances from the two actors that allow any suspension of disbelief and make it even vaguely possible that Devki could act as she does.

Akshaye Khanna does the best he can with the role of the police officer assigned to Arya’s case but his character has little to do and doesn’t seem to know which side he should be on either. Mathew Francis seems to be a capable enough office but his investigations are only shown briefly and he never seems to be a serious threat to Devki’s plans. I also have some issues with the portrayal of transgenders and the completely evil nature of Abhimanyu Singh as one of the perpetrators which seems too over the top in a film that already has plenty of extreme emotion.

Anay Goswamy’s cinematography is excellent and the music from A.R.Rahman evocative and perfectly suited to each mood of the film. Where the film falls down is in the predictable nature of the second half and its failure to address the topical issue of violence against women except by suggesting the usual vigilante payback as the way to go. Naturally it makes for a more exciting film this way, but it would have been more satisfying to see more of the family’s reaction, more of Arya’s own story and her father’s struggle for justice. Better too, if Ravi Udyawar had stuck to the fractured relationships and the impact of assault, rather than following the well-trodden path of failed justice and pay-back. Even the scenes of revenge (as clichéd as they are) are glossed over swiftly and the police investigation relegated to a few brief dialogues with a bizarre about-face by Detective Mathew Francis appearing out of the blue, just in time for the film climax. Sridevi is always worth watching, but her co-stars here are all equally good, even though Girish Kohli’s screenplay limits their contribution to the story. Worth watching for the excellent performances, technically good presentation and well executed first half, just don’t expect anything more than a typical masala ending.