Mr Natwarlal (1979)

mr-natwarlal-poster

I love Mr Natwarlal. It has so much masala goodness, it always puts a smile on my face. We are given Amitabh as a hero with some unheroic ideas, Rekha as a gorgeous and quick witted village belle, Amjad Khan as a typical Amjad Khan villain, more familiar faces than you can poke a stick at, a catchy Rajesh Roshan soundtrack and writer/director Rakesh Kumar continues working out his tiger wrestling fetish. The only major negative is that some of the horse stunts have a look of careless finality for the horses that always makes me queasy.

Mr Natwarlal-playground

The film is framed with Amitabh narrating the story of a child that turns out to be himself, telling the story of his past to his own child. I only mention that so I have an excuse to post this picture of an awesome playground complete with lion statue. I suspected immediately that despite the plethora of cute kid actors I was going to love this.

Natwarlal (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smooth talking fast thinking criminal with Robin Hood tendencies. This dates back to a traumatic childhood incident when he was played by Master Laddu, and his older brother Ghirdharilal (Ajit) was entrapped by Evil Vikram (Amjad Khan). Natwarlal has been raised by his brother and sister-in-law (Indrani Mukherjee), who treats him as a son. Grown up Nattu is tricked by a heavily scarred man into stealing a diamond necklace and smuggling it out of the country. Scarface is actually Micky (Satyendra Kapoor), Vikram’s old (betrayed) business partner who is pretending to be one of Vikram’s Victims. Vikram likes his V symbolism. Poor Ghirdharilal keeps trying to nab his little brother to set him straight but Natwarlal easily produces alibi after alibi. He is determined to become a big enough crook to go after Vikram and set things to rights. Micky wants to use Natwarlal to take Vikram other out so he can take over the secret diamond mines. Revenge is a long and complex game, especially in masala films.

Natwarlal is an audacious crook and easily carries off the heist, even under the watchful eye of his brother. He heads to Chandanpur as instructed, arriving to find the village under a siege of sorts. Vikram is using a tiger (pleasingly, she is credited as Bharati) as a smokescreen for kidnapping villagers in small batches and forcing them to work in the mines. Now. Since the mining operation seems to take place on the river bank just a stroll or a long and desperate horse ride from the village, I would have thought people might notice their “dead” loved ones wandering about. But thanks to the filmi laws of locality blindness it seems not.

Natwarlal arrives suited and booted, toting a gun, unaware that village leader Baba (Kader Khan) has sent for a hunter to come and deal with their tiger issue. He isn’t interested at first in the village problems, being more focussed on the diamonds, but agrees that he is Avtar Singh, the hunter.  Amitabh makes switching from high drama to slapstick comedy look effortless. He is also nattily dressed for the country and Natwarlal must have been very efficient at packing such an extensive wardrobe into one small valise. And I suspect his boots have bullet evading properties.

That tree covered in people always makes me wonder how they got them up there, how long were they up there, and how they got down safely again. Also, given the speed and agility of those ladies the villagers may have been better advised to let them go battle the tiger while the menfolk stayed safely indoors. Sassy Shanno (Rekha) quickly sets her cap at the tall dance-challenged stranger, so Natwarlal gets a little distracted and seems quite happy to wait around.

Zimbo is despatched to check out the impostor as Vikram is quite certain he slapped the real Avtar Singh with a dead pigeon before having him killed. Poor Zimbo wasn’t mourned for long, if at all, when he disappeared under the quicksand. Ah well. No one is irreplaceable. Vikram is a surprisingly rational villain despite being completely nuts, and Amjad Khan seems to be having some fun with the grandiose threats. Vikram tries not to draw police attention, he acts with moderation to achieve a logical goal. But he can’t help branding everyone and everything he owns with a V and can’t just move on quietly or shoot the hero from a safe distance. Nooooo.

Natwarlal realises Vikram is behind everything and goes in search of trouble. Trouble finds him easily enough. Natwarlal rescues Shanno from Vikram’s not very bright goon squad. She is not good at taking orders not to stay out of harm’s way and actually rescues him back on multiple occasions. And they invent a new couples activity – tiger wrestling!

Rekha and The Big B’s on screen chemistry is always wonderful and while Shanno appears to fall for insta-love, Rekha plays her as funny and direct in their many scenes together so the relationship comes to life. Shanno gets her share of the big scenes too, and Rekha gave her fire and resolve. Amitabh also had good rapport with the tiger so I was vaguely hopeful that Bharati was not too traumatised by her many and varied fight scenes.

A lot of the humour comes from how the dialogues are delivered or those small beats in timing. There are some light Sholay references which made me laugh despite the drama brewing, especially Shanno’s Basanti-esque dance while she was being held captive at the diamond mine. I also enjoyed the irascible Natwarlal’s journey to loving something more than himself.

Will they overcome the dastardly Vikram and his all singing all dancing food juggling henchmen? Will Ghirdharilal and Natwarlal make their peace? Will Shanno get her man and her sheep? Will the starving villagers eat the tiger? (Spoiler – no!) Will Natwarlal ever stop blaspheming? Will Vikram get his comeuppance in a satisfyingly poetic manner? So much plot, so little time!

The locations are gorgeous and so is the cast. If you like masala with a modicum of moderation this is a great film.  4 stars! (Deductions for animal welfare concerns and annoying ghostly subtitles.)

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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!

Kaala Patthar

Kaala Patthar is a total masala package that has something for everyone, plus a dollop of social justice. The essential characters are present – heroes, anti-heroes, spirited heroines, eye candy, villains. The main players are outsiders who find themselves caught in the conflict between profit and humanity played out in a privately owned coal mine. There are no surprises in the plot, but some excellent performances give the drama added substance. And director Yash Chopra also provides fights, songs, romance, bromance and dodgy science to complete the masala formula.

Amitabh is recognisable from the first glimpse of his tall figure and loping stride. Vijay is an enigma, full of smouldering anger and despair as the man trying to escape his past and perhaps make his future a short one. He is educated, and has an uncanny ability to wear white trousers in a coal mine without getting too grubby. The mines were a place to hide as he served his largely self-imposed punishment. A former ship’s captain, he made the wrong decision in a moment of stress and paid the price, although how a private shipping line captain could be court-martialled is never explained. Vijay was with the workers but didn’t consider himself one of them, constantly speaking of their struggle and their lives. He was friendly enough, and is seen to have a smile and a laugh in several scenes, but it is clear this is his own personal purgatory. Time and time again he risks his own safety to prove to himself that he is not a coward. Amitabh’s performance is outstanding, convincing even as he utters the most pompous dialogues. He plays Vijay with compelling restraint and brooding energy.

Sudha (Rakhee), the company doctor, is drawn to the educated, articulate miner and he is attracted to her integrity and dedication. They have strong chemistry in their understated scenes alone together even though at times she looks more like his Ma – but perhaps that’s just the caretaker in her character coming through. And Rakhee does look like a mature woman, not a fluffy girly heroine. Sudha and Vijay appear as adults weighing up a future relationship, not kids chasing each other around a park. Sudha seems to have a greater capacity for forgiveness, or at least the understanding that we need to let ourselves off the hook sometimes.

Ravi Malhotra (Shashi Kapoor), the new engineer, is all shiny and action oriented, a stark contrast to the weary and bitter Vijay. Ravi is concerned about the miners but doesn’t seek to be one of the masses, just to manage them in a more humane way. He isn’t all talk – he buys new machinery and makes changes to try and improve worker safety, and forces management to pay a promised bonus. The people rejoice!

I like that the ladies dance neatly in lines and are mostly segregated from Mac Mohan and the rest of the miners who seem to prefer a freestyle approach.

Ravi’s popularity and success irks money hungry boss Puri Dhanraj (Prem Chopra). Ravi is charismatic and the role is a good fit for the charming and articulate Shashi. He has a light but not frivolous energy that helps keep the moralising from bogging the story down.

Anita (Parveen Babi) is supposedly an investigative reporter, but if she ever investigated anything more complex than choosing a lipgloss I will be very surprised. She is very pretty but it’s not always enough. Anita writes an article that is highly critical of the privatised mine, and while this annoys Dhanraj, it pleases Ravi which might be Anita’s priority. Although Anita’s character was interesting, Parveen’s screechy acting in the more dramatic exchanges was painful so I was relieved when she reverted to flouncing around the countryside with Shashi.

Mangal (Shatrughan Sinha) is an escaped criminal who has taken refuge in the anonymity of the mining camp. I don’t think of Shotgun as a particularly subtle actor and this performance didn’t change that perception, although it is very enjoyable. Mangal swaggers around camp, stirring up trouble and trying to be the top dog. He is bad through and through, until he comes good when it counts. His final scene is totally unbelievable, he overacts wildly, and I don’t think his decision could really have been that helpful, yet it is a perfect masala redemption.

Channo (a radiant Neetu Singh) makes a living selling ornaments and trinkets to the miners and their wives. She is boisterous and bright, and even Vijay responds to her warm personality. She and Mangal have an unconvincing romance and I got the impression that Channo picked him more because he was new blood rather than any real attraction in the first instance. Channo has a couple of significant scenes, and one decision is pivotal. There is a very suspenseful scene where Channo is pursued and almost raped by some ne’er-do-wells from the camp, saved in the nick of time by Mangal. It seemed odd that a girl who knew the area so well would take a lonely path she was clearly a little nervous about, no matter how big her hurry. So while it was dramatic and Neetu was very convincing, it jarred and I wondered if there was a better way for the plot to turn.

Neetu is more than capable of handling the emotional range Channo requires. And her presence means at least one of the female cast can dance!

The supporting actors are excellent. Well, Prem Chopra played the usual Prem Chopra type sleazy villain with no redeeming qualities but he does it so well and he is pretty much the yardstick for that kind of role.  Mac Mohan as card sharp Rana and Parikshat Sahni as Jagga stood out, and it was nice to see Iftekhar in a fleeting appearance. While there is an impressive cast of supporting artists, most of the extras are an anonymous backdrop of the unacknowledged masses. There are some moving scenes of miners waiting in silent vigil outside the house of a dying colleague, or waiting for Vijay as he has treatment. They bide patiently, watching everything and waiting their turn.

The music by Rajesh Roshan is excellent and while there are only a couple of big song and dance moments, the songs are all integrated into the story and do reveal much about the characters and the environment. Shashi’s entrance to Ek Rasta Hai Zindagi perfectly expresses his nature and the different world he is coming from. Ishq aur Mushq has a bittersweet tone that matches Sudha and Vijay’s burgeoning relationship.

Yash Chopra is a talented story teller, and Salim-Javed’s script is excellent especially the dialogues. The mine is a bleak non-glamorous backdrop that allows the people to dominate. It’s a visually dark film, with lots of scenes in the tunnels or at night, so the performances draw the eye rather than fancy sets or costumes.

I have some issues with the decision making in the final scenes (I suspect that in real life, it would not have been a happy ending if people did what they did but you know, filmi physics and all that), and the set construction team relied a little too much on papier mache but these are small quibbles. You can’t beat Kaala Patthar for excellent character focussed vintage masala,  with the bonus of a fabulous cast. 5 stars!

Heather says: Kaala Pathar is vintage Yash Chopra from the days before he got tied up in NRI romance stories and when he was still producing films that were both novel and entertaining. It’s a great story full of action, melodrama and issues of social justice which speeds along to an exciting conclusion. The characters are compelling, and the female actors make up for their limited time onscreen by their impact on the story – softening their male counterpoints enough to allow more insight into their personalities.

I love the way the two leads Vijay and Ravi are introduced, and that their respective characters can be deduced after just a few moments in their opening scenes. Instantly the coal begrimed Vijay is established as anti-authority with heroic tendencies as he ignores the company line and charges into the mine to rescue some trapped workers. It’s Amitabh in his ‘angry young man persona’ and it’s no surprise to learn later on that he harbours a dark secret or that he believes pain is his destiny.  Ravi on the other hand, is immediately recognisable as a ladies man when he first appears via a song, wearing a jaunty cap and sporting a rather fabulous scarf with a motif of large white daisies. Happy and with a more relaxed attitude to life Ravi is idealistic with more socialist views and really not my view of a ‘typical’ engineer. But then again I’m rather prejudiced since I know so many engineers. Ravi’s drawing which demonstrates exactly why mine shaft number 4 is so dangerous is classic Bollywood engineering at work, and his skills in this area may explain why Ravi is working in such an undesirable job.  Shatrughan Sinha turns in a great performance as the escaped prisoner Mangal and allows yet more melodrama to be added to the story.

The various romances are handled in a subtle and subdued way which works well within the disaster movie format and I appreciate the restraint shown here. Rakhee Gulzar is beautiful as the doctor working under such difficult conditions while Parveen Babi gets a chance to show some teeth as the more feisty Anita, and Neetu Singh gets the best moves.  I even like Prem Chopra’s unrealistic and totally villainous mine owner who has no redeeming features whatsoever. It’s all very Dickensian and melodramatic, but so much fun. The story is generally well paced, although rather long, and I felt that the scenes of the inevitable disaster at the end did drag on a little. The mine walls were also a little shaky and I’m sure everyone could escape more easily, if not as spectacularly, if they’d just push the walls aside. Despite the occasional dodgy effects and rickety sets, the disaster theme is well depicted and I was interested to learn that the mine disaster portrayed here was based on real life events at Chasnala. A must see film for sure – 4 ½ stars.