Kismet (1943)

Kismet 1943 poster

Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet was one of the biggest box office hits of the time and it still has a charm and elegance I find most appealing.

Kismet-Freedom

Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) is newly released from his latest jail stint. The first thing he does is to pick a pickpocket’s pocket and merrily resume where he left off, straight to his old fence (David). The owner of the much-stolen gold watch is an old alcoholic who was going to sell it to buy a theatre ticket. His daughter was going to perform and while he was estranged from the family, he dearly wanted to see her triumph. Shekhar seemed sympathetic and a little amused, but had no intention of confession. He just treated the old guy to a ticket and off they went.

Shekhar hears the old man’s story in a flashback that features Baby Kamala (Kamala Lakshman) dancing beautifully as his little daughter. Present day Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) sings a rousing patriotic song declaring India to be the property of Indians and not various foreign interlopers. She looks a frail but intense young lady, leaning on a crutch for support. But Shekhar wasn’t just on a social outing – he spotted a fancy necklace on the wife of Inderjit (Mubarak), the theatre owner, and decided that it would do nicely. Shekhar stashes the necklace in Rani’s belongings and manages to evade the police. He breaks into Rani’s house and really doesn’t explain why despite her half-hearted questioning. She decides Shekhar is a Nice Man as she assumes he is a friend of her father so therefore, Good. The police, led by Shah Nawaz as the inspector, know that Shekhar is a Bad Egg. He moves in to her house as a tenant, and while he initially uses Rani to improve his own situation he becomes emotionally involved and wants to help. He doesn’t do anything by conventional or honest methods and when worlds collide, Shekhar, Rani and their burgeoning love are all put to the test.

Rani’s leg could be cured if she could afford surgery and therapy, Leela is pregnant to her spineless boyfriend Mohan, and Shekhar is finding things to care about in life and weighing it all up against his relatively free existence. Who really owns the significant necklace? Will Rani dance again? Will Leela’s life be set to rights? Will Shekhar be able to live the life he wants with Rani? Will Rani accept his chequered past? And whatever happened to Inderjit’s long lost son, the one with his name tattooed on his arm? Oh masala, you’ve been around a long time!

Ashok Kumar is wonderful. He has a genial neutrality about him as Shekhar accepts that people are probably doing things for their own reasons, and those reasons are none of his concern. He isn’t a criminal out of any antisocial sentiment, and it could be argued that his brand of theft is generally not violent. My biggest issue with Shekhar was his choice of headgear. It just didn’t seem very stealthy for a thief! He is often seen through windows or doors, not really immersed in the action but appearing to be involved. And he always has an escape route. Shekhar may have a cynical outlook but his smile lights up the room. Ashok is charming and plausible as the gentleman thief, and it is easy to believe that poor sad Rani would be drawn to this competent, caring, and rather dashing beau.  Shekhar is an anti-hero who becomes heroic through his certainty of purpose and an ease in owning his choices and the consequences. He doesn’t play the blame game and actively tries to prevent his misdeeds harming others. Yes he even steals from the rich to give to the poor.

Rani and Shekhar had a nice rapport and their lullaby duet is sweet, with Dadamoni singing for himself. He isn’t as good a singer as he is an actor but there is something earnest and yet a bit cheeky in his vocal that is endearing.

Mumtaz Shanti plays Rani as melancholy and tending towards passive, but there is spirit in her teasing scenes with Shekhar and she faces down the rapacious manager and social snobbery of Inderjit with apparent ease. She must have been strong to carry on and keep her sister and crumbling household together after their father shot through. Mumtaz has a stagey and mannered acting style that hasn’t aged well so I found her less engaging than Chandraprabha or Ashok Kumar who were warmer and more natural.

Anil Biswas uses a full orchestra and chorus to provide a lush and melodious soundtrack. The songs range from patriotic anthems to wistful love songs. Ameerbai Karnataki sings for Rani, and her strong, earthy tone gives the character more substance than a more girlish or twittery vocal would have.

And if that isn’t enough, there is a young but recognisable Mehmood in his first film appearance as the childhood version of Inderjit’s missing son Madan. David as the fence was so young I almost didn’t recognise him. V.H Desai is fun as Banke, the inept but enthusiastic thief trying to get Shekhar to join in a big robbery. Kanu Roy is Mohan, the man who gets Leela knocked up but can’t man up enough to tell his father. And how nice it was to see a girl who was pregnant out of wedlock be treated like a human being by her family and friends. Leela contemplated suicide but her father didn’t hesitate for a second before taking her side. Chandraprabha gave Leela a nice dash of defiance that would have made such a pretty girl irresistible to wishy-washy Mohan.

I’d watch Ashok Kumar in just about anything, so when the awesome team at Edu Productions made Kismet available, I wasted no time in getting a copy. I often complain about how hard it is to get a decent copy of older Indian films, especially with subtitles. At last year’s Indian Film Festival Melbourne the print of Garm Hawa provided was in such bad nick it was unplayable.  I’ve read journalists taking potshots at actors like Amitabh and SRK, saying that they should do more to preserve Indian film heritage and that it is their duty. I’d like to know why such a huge industry that presumably tips a bit of dosh into the government coffers, as well as keeping the entire sequin industry afloat, needs to leave it all up to actors. Surely there has to be a better solution. And I am grateful to the lovely Edu Productions team who are doing their bit to find, clean up and most importantly share some enjoyable and beautiful films that are out of copyright. And I will stop before I get on my high horse and rant about unfair copyright claims on YouTube.

Kismet has everything I ask for in a romantic drama, namely romance and drama, and wraps it up with charm and humanity. There is redemption and a celebration of looking for gold, not for dirt.  4 ½ stars! (Minor deduction for Rani’s moping. Even when it is justified, excessive moping tries my patience. )

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Kalicharan (1976)

Kalicharan poster

Kalicharan is a modest film in many respects. Subhash Ghai directed with masala verve while Jainendra Jain wrote a fairly staid screenplay, sometimes seemingly at odds with each other. Relying more on the cast than on gimmickry, there are still some surprises.

Prabhakar (Shatrughan Sinha) is an outstanding policeman on the trail of a mysterious crimelord. He deduces that the man known as Lion is none other than respectable businessman Din Dayal (Ajit), a close friend of his boss and father figure I.G. Khanna (Prem Nath).  Prabhakar is ambushed and has a serious car accident, which eventually kills him, but not before he leaves a cryptic note. I.G. Khanna is mourning the loss of his protégé and wondering how to break the news to his own daughter Anju (Alka) who saw Prabhakar as a brother. Then there is the question of Prabhakar’s kids, Pinky and Chinky (Master Bittoo and some other kid). Fate brings retired jailer David (David Abraham) into the picture. He recognises the corpse of Prabhakar as his prisoner Kalicharan. So I.G. Khanna does the only sensible thing. He gets Kalicharan released from jail, takes him to Simla and tries to train him to act as Prabhakar. Of course Kalicharan had his own troubled past, but in true masala style, all paths lead to Lion.

Kalicharan-the denKalicharan-its a tiger Lion

Well they might have lead to Lion a lot sooner if Lion could consistently tell the difference between a lion and a tiger as a decorative motif.

Shatrughan Sinha has the power to out-ham almost any other actor in almost every film he has made. I have an equally amazing power, that of being able to forget Shotgun is in almost any film. I love Aa Gale Lag Ja and Kaala Patthar and yet am always mildly surprised when he turns up. Anyway. He plays both Prabhakar and Kalicharan with bluster and supreme self-confidence.

There is little to distinguish between the two characters other than the dialogue they utter and he makes minimal efforts to differentiate them (a grimace here, a furrowed brow there). I was more impressed by his costumes. Some appeared to have been provided by the upholstery department.

Kalicharan-David and Prem Nath

Prem Nath was that rare man who out-hammed Shotgun in this instance. Almost all of his dialogue is delivered as a shout, and if there was an award for Most Enthusiastic Cursing, he would romp it in for his use of “BASTAAAAAARD!”. He was also ambushed by the wardrobe team a couple of times but it’s not like there was any subtlety being smothered by his outfits.

Reena Roy’s Sapna is an educated girl who swears profusely and decides to take revenge for her brother’s death. Sapna just gets on with things. Including this dance which she invited Prabhakar/Kalicharan to attend as it might give him more hope for his life and make him less depressed.

The wardrobe department seemed to be fascinated by Sapna and tried out many looks, not all of them successful.

Kalicharan-Sapna as a bad girl

I was amused by her undercover bad gal attire. But Reena Roy managed to overcome the fabric based challenges and her performance is both well-constructed and masala appropriate.

Kalicharan-more outfits

She is generally good even in a terrible film, and makes the most of the opportunities to expand her character beyond the standard dialogues.

Kalicharan-Alka

Alka was less memorable as Anju, the saree wearing good girl and sister figure, but she was more of a plot device than a character.  She called on Kalicharan’s humanity when I.G. Khanna was more intent on curbing the criminals’ baser instincts. Oh the transformative power of tying a rakhee!

Kalicharan-Danny DenzongpaKalicharan-one legged Trishul fight

Danny Denzongpa has a small role as a one legged bootlegger, Shaka. I love Danny as a villain with heart of gold. Plus seeing him hop around trying to stab Shotgun with a trishul was quite fabulous. Kalicharan was such a manly man’s man that to level the playing field he also fought on one leg.

Kalicharan-Danny and Shotgun

That is the stuff masala bromance is made of.

Kalicharan-ShettyKalicharan-Shetty and co

Shetty is the stuff masala villainy is made of, and this role is one of many cookie cutter bad guys he played so effortlessly. He is at the start and finish of Kalicharan’s life of crime, the career goon who will do anything without qualm. Of course, Shetty also provided Shotgun with a tragic back story as his motivation for going off the rails.

Ajit is suave and slimy as the urbane mastermind with an excess of phones and a deficit of scruples. I’m not sure the fluffy dog says “Evil Mastermind” but he seemed interested in proceedings. Din Dayal/Lion remains in the background for most of the film, but rapidly loses his cool as Kalicharan draws closer. I’ve seen his tiger strewn den before in Fakira and maybe something else.

Kalyanji-Anandji provided the soundtrack and the background score is great. Brassy, dramatic and a bit funky, the music lopes along and lifts the energy of the action scenes.

But of all the things I was expecting in the club item, Father Christmas was not one. The other songs are less successful but I blame some of that on the lyricist who decided that what we needed was lots of “lalalala’s” a few ‘OoohAaaahOOoohAaahhh” choruses and a repetitive “KALicharan KaaaalicharAN KalicharAN” vocal.

The action is directed in a fast and pacey style while Shotgun’s delivery is ponderous and he may as well have been carrying a sign that said ‘Look at me!’. But you need a certain amount of swagger to carry off this sort of role, and its knitwear, and he has that. There is an excellent transformation scene when Kalicharan first dons the police tunic. He twirls around, standing on what I picture to be a lazy susan, as I.G. Khanna looks on admiringly. And that is about it for special effects in this film. The compulsory fight in a godown full of things stacked up only to be knocked over is very entertaining. And there are clues hidden in books. A nice low tech solution to criminal communications.

Good masala films often reflect on social issues and personal integrity and while I don’t think this is a great film, Kalicharan also examines some big ideas. Redemption is a theme – from the titular hero’s transformation to smaller decisions made by the likes of Shaka. Sapna’s brother was killed for dobbing on Lion but his friend eventually tipped off the good guys in return. Respect and responsibility were often mentioned as things required in order to live a decent life. Kalicharan was a kind of Pygmalion as Khanna and David argued over whether a criminal could be reformed.

Most masala films also rely on needlessly elaborate schemes. Din Dayal hires a mute assassin with theatrical flair (who I think is in a few Telugu films as a baddie too) to go after Kalicharan. Shetty has an array of backup plans that require, say, a train to destroy a warehouse when a bomb is just not destructive enough. And a bit more communication and a lot less manly man brooding would probably have resolved things a bit sooner. But everyday common sense is not what I watch these films for. I did like the insistence that people have responsibilities as well as rights and that not everyone is a lost cause.

If you have low Shotgun tolerance, this is not for you. But if you like him or at least don’t break out into hives at his appearance, then give it a whirl. Reena Roy is delightful as usual. Subhash Ghai trots out some classic filmi moments, and had the good sense to include Helen and lots of balloons. 3 stars!

Baton Baton Mein

Made in 1979, I found Basu Chatterjee’s Baton Baton Mein more interesting as a portrait of generational change than as a somewhat dated romantic comedy.

Apologies – the DVD and my laptop are refusing to communicate so there are no screencaps forthcoming. I will over compensate with video clips. Anyway, seeing the polyester in motion really lets you know it’s the 70s!

Nancy (Tina Munim) lives with her widowed mother Rosie (Pearl Padamsee) and little brother Sabhi (Ranjit Choudhary). She catches the train to her office job each morning, commuting from Bandra with Uncle Tom (David Abraham). Nancy is a modern girl, wearing immaculate 70s fashions and makeup. One morning, Uncle Tom notices an equally stylish young man noticing Nancy. Tony Braganza (Amol Palekar) is a caricaturist at a city advertising agency. Tony and Uncle Tom pass notes back and forth to Nancy’s embarrassment and the delight of fellow commuters. Tom decides they should all be introduced and they hop off the train at Churchgate and chat over cool drinks.

Nancy lives mostly in her own head. She spends her time listening to western music and reading in her room. She has been disappointed in love before, having been jilted by a co-worker. I am not sure I really bought that prior relationship as it seemed fairly one sided and may have been exaggerated in her imagination. But Nancy is determined she will hold out for the right kind of man, which she says is no man at all. She is caught between being her mother’s little girl and being a more independent young woman. Tina Munim is very pretty and often that seems to be all that she needed. She does try to show the tension between the judgemental and childish side of Nancy and the warmer and more spontaneous young woman she could be, so I warmed to her character over time. Her rapport with Amol Palekar is nice and in the scenes where Nancy is less reserved, Tina lights up with her beautiful smile.

Tony is a bit weak, self-centred and unwilling to commit or work too hard at anything it seems. He is plausible and charming, much like a used car salesman, and breezes by on a smile and a compliment. His mother is domineering and thinks her son is both too good for anyone and not good enough by half and that undermines Tony’s ability to get motivated. Amol Palekar hits a perfect mix of average guy and dude who has tickets on himself. He can’t believe Nancy would fail to fall for him but at the same time he won’t take their relationship beyond seeing each other at her family home. Tony’s brash confidence sparks some fun moments, especially when Philomena Aunty (Leela Mishra) has him in her sights. But he is all mouth and trousers, and when it comes to making a commitment he is found wanting. If Tony wants Nancy he has to grow up a bit and say so, but he shies away from marriage. Will he ever grow up? Not if his Ma can help it. Tony’s dad (Arvind Deshpande) is the quiet henpecked type, but offers his son some advice when he most needs it. Please enjoy Tony moping around in his PJs to Kishore Kumar’s lovely vocal.

The romance didn’t really interest me that much, but the family tensions and arguments rang true. The younger generation were trying to be more independent while still respecting their elders’ wishes and traditions, and struggled to articulate what they wanted. Rosie wanted Nancy to get married, Tom thought Nancy at 19 or so was already leaving her run a bit late, Tony’s parents had an eye to social status in their future daughter-in-law and Nancy’s aunt Philomena was just scandalised by everything. Rosie was a blabbermouth, vulgar but kind, and Mrs Braganza (Piloo J Wadia) wasn’t impressed with her son’s duplicity or her potential in-laws. Snobbery and social rules caused all manner of drama, some very funny and some quite moving. It was deftly done, and the good natured feel of the film carried through even in the confrontational scenes. The ladies in particular carry off their characters with great humour and excellent comic timing.

Both Nancy and Sabhi belittle Rosie in many ways. They find their Ma embarrassing and vulgar and often tell her not to make a fool of herself. It isn’t motivated by spite, but it shows the change from Rosie’s homemaker generation to the younger educated ones who have different aspirations and challenges. And Nancy and Sabhi are teenagers after all. But when the chips are down, family rallies for family and they have that rock to rest upon. Basu Chatterjee shows the negative aspects of his characters but doesn’t judge them harshly. It adds a welcome tang of realism in what is otherwise a very sweet film.

Sabhi is one of my favourite characters. He is such a boy; grumpy, self absorbed and so very dramatic. He observes the goings on and can’t see why people make such a big deal of things. He adds sarcastic commentary, sometimes via his violin, and the odd theatrical tantrum. His gig at a local hotel provides an excuse for this parade of 70s style and terrible dancing (to the tune of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’).

Often when a girl is introduced as a Christian in modern Hindi films it is code for ‘slut’, which I find quite peculiar. Or alternatively a Christian girl might be portrayed as so sheltered that she is virtually a nun. Again – bizarre to me. I enjoyed this depiction of Bombay Christians as middle class people with lives in which religion was one of many factors.

The sets created a strong sense of how people lived. Rosie was a widow but kept her own neat, comfortable home. No one seemed to pity her or think she was just waiting to join her husband in the hereafter. The Braganzas were a bit more affluent, but not really posh. The issue of money came up when it was revealed that Nancy was currently earning more than Tony, but he had greater earning potential down the track so that was dealt with. People were pragmatic without being greedy or grasping. It was all very relatable.

The supporting actors are well cast although I couldn’t see the point of a couple of characters. Asrani makes a very small appearance. Uday Chandra plays poor Henry, a boy who pines after Nancy for the whole film. Tun Tun appears in an imagined sequence and is her usual over the top self. They don’t add much but neither do they detract from the story.

The soundtrack is perfectly in keeping with the styles of music the characters listen to, which means lots of western influenced easy listening sounds and nothing terribly exciting.  I don’t know how Rajesh Roshan got the idea of using ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ as the basis for Uthe Sabke Kadam, but it left me giggling and singing along, almost as tunelessly as Rosie.

Baton Baton Mein is a sweet slice of life romantic comedy that gives a nice sense of Bombay back in the day. See it for the charming performances, the glimpse of 70s public transport, and as a pleasant and engaging comedy. 3 ½  stars!