Friday, April 26, 2013

Aap Ki Kasam

Aap Ki Kasam poster

For two-thirds of its length, Aap Ki Kasam (Your promise, 1974) is a delight. Poor boy Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) and rich girl Sunita (Mumtaz) meet at college; after the inevitable  initial misunderstandings, they tease, flirt and begin to fall in love. On a trip back to Kamal's village, Sunita's car runs out of gas (by design?) in the middle of a thunderstorm. Sunita has providentially brought along a thermos of tea; when she sips out of Kamal's cup, and then he turns the cup so that he sips from the same place, it shows how sexy suggestion can be:

Sunita sipping
Kamal sipping

R. D. Burman's and Anand Bakhshi's music, and the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar, continue the playful, romantic mood in "Suno Kaho":

Kamal and Sunita marry, and Kamal's friend Mohan (Sanjeev Kumar) gives Kamal a job in his electronics shop and a home next door to him in a little cottage. The newlyweds spend most of their time billing and cooing, and this gives us the perfect opportunity to enjoy the Rajesh-Mumtaz jodi in all its glory.

Kamal and Sunita's hearts beating as one

There's a moment in the film that perfectly illustrates their famous chemistry, when Mumtaz reaches out and gives a little tug to a tuft of Rajesh's chest hair. It's charming, touching, funny, surprising, and utterly believable besotted newlywed behavior. And judging from Rajesh's reaction, I'll swear it's an unscripted, spontaneous moment of unfeigned affection between the actors:

Mumtaz tugs on Rajesh's chest hair

When Kamal pretends to have a headache to avoid early-morning tennis with Mohan and stay in bed with Sunita, Mohan sends a doctor over to see him. The doctor tells Kamal (perhaps as a practical joke by Mohan) that he should abstain from so much lovemaking. Since the temptation is too great at home, Kamal and Sunita go to the park—which turns out to be filled with cuddling couples. Sunita teases Rajesh mercilessly in "Paas nahin aana" (Don't come near). "Don't forget," she tells him, "today you are under oath and love is banned!":

Kamal and Sunita go to a temple to pray for a child. Kamal tells Sunita (to her surprise, and ours) that he would prefer a daughter; sons, he tells her, are neglectful, but daughters always love their parents. (Foreshadowing!) They drink a celebratory cup of bhang, and are feeling no pain in "Jai Jai Shiv Shankhar" (Hail, Lord Shiva). Mumtaz under the influence is especially hilarious:

I would be perfectly happy to spend the rest of the movie watching Kamal and Sunita's love games, but of course neither they nor we can be left in such bliss. Discord soon arises in the form of Mohan's unhappy marriage and his (too close?) friendship with Sunita. Kamal frequently finds Mohan in his house, sharing coffee and laughter with Sunita, and begins to wonder whether Mohan has ulterior motives.

At a housewarming party, Sunita sings an exquisite love Mohan! But "Mohan" ("enchanting") is one of the names of Lord Krishna, and Sunita, as Radha, is singing about the God of Love as a sign of her devotion to her husband. But Kamal thinks she's confessing her "Chori Chupke" (Secret, silent) love for his sitar-playing neighbor and boss:

Things spiral downwards pretty quickly from this point. Kamal's suspicions are confirmed, or so he thinks, when he returns unexpectedly from work one day to see a man scrambing over the wall between his house and Mohan's. The back door is open, and Mohan's cigarettes are in his ashtray. Not only that, but Sunita greets him at the door with her hair disheveled and her sari disarranged, and Kamal notices the sheets on their bed are mussed. But instead of having an honest conversation with her, he shuns her without explanation, which she—entirely innocent, of course—finds bewildering and hurtful. And when she finally confronts him about his cold, accusatory behavior, Kamal goes too far...

And this is where writers Ram Kelkar and Ramesh Pant, and director J. Om Prakash, themselves go too far. We're forced to watch Kamal make mistake after self-destructive mistake, and subject himself to misery on self-inflicted misery. Even more fatally, Sunita virtually disappears from the screen.

The first part of the movie features many wonderful moments between Rajesh and Mumtaz, and the songs are classics. But the change of tone in the final hour is jarring: it feels like someone replaced the final reels of Vivah (2006) with the final reels of Devdas (2002). As a result, Aap Ki Kasam ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise.

You can watch Aap Ki Kasam on YouTube, for free.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Farewell to Caffe Venezia Opera Night

The murals at Caffe Venezia: a cat (in the doorway of the bakery) watches over our favorite table
Photo from Berkeleyside
On Tuesday we had dinner in a lovely candlelit square in Venice, surrounded by music. Or at least that's the way it felt as we attended the final Opera Night at Caffe Venezia. Venezia has been our favorite Berkeley restaurant for more than two decades; it was the place we'd go for birthdays and anniversaries and pre-show dinners. The restaurant was designed and decorated so that it seemed as though you were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Venice, an illusion fostered by Silvio Ronzone's cleverly detailed trompe-l'oeil murals (click on the picture above for a larger version).

The whimsical verisimilitude extended to a splashing central fountain, pigeons perched on a balcony, and a laundry line that stretched high above the tables. The laundry changed seasonally (on Valentine's day, the line was hung with bright red lingerie):

Note the pigeons (on the balcony at top left) and the laundry
on the line; photo by Gourmet G.
And of course, what would Venice be without opera? Every New Year's Eve Venezia presented an Opera Night, where singers from the Berkeley/West Edge Opera and other local companies would perform while your meal was served. It felt so festive to be sipping a glass of prosecco while being serenaded with the greatest hits of 19th century opera.

But to our dismay Caffe Venezia announced earlier this year that it would be closing at the end of May, and offering a final Opera Night on Tuesday, April 9. (Opera Night had begun as Tuesday Night Opera until it gradually became an only-on-New-Year's-Eve event.) We made sure to get reservations, but were uncertain what to expect with the looming closure.

The mood of the evening was bittersweet indeed, but this was one of the best Opera Nights we'd ever attended. Perhaps recognizing that this was their last chance to show their appreciation for the restaurant and the event, the audience responded to the performers enthusiastically. And the singers seemed to be inspired by their reception. The mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, in particular, playfully engaged the audience by singing "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816) and the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen (1875) while strolling among the tables and directly addressing (and sometimes caressing) the diners.

Among the many highlights of this truly delightful evening were two duets sung by Baggott and her soprano partner Jillian Khuner. The first was the Flower Duet ("Sous le dôme épais") from Leo Delibe's Lakmé (1883), one of the few operas with a South Asian setting. I wasn't able to find a version with the singers we heard at Caffe Venezia, so Elīna Garanča and Anna Netrebko will have to do:

The second duet was the Barcarolle ("Belle nuit d'amour") from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881); the act from which this duet is taken is set (appropriately enough) in Venice. The video below again features Garanča and Netrebko:

Savoring a deliciously earthy Refosco from Friuli as the accompaniment to my favorite Venezia dish, malfatti con funghi ("badly cut" pasta with a richly flavorful mushroom sauce), in the company of my sweetheart, while listening to Khuner and Baggott's gorgeous voices intertwine—it's hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to spend an evening. Perhaps we should regret the disappearance of the 18th-century tradition of having supper and drinking champagne while attending the opera.

Caffe Venezia’s warm ambiance, excellent staff (Amy was our attentive and efficient server on Tuesday), well-prepared food and affordable elegance will be sorely missed. Many thanks to everyone at Venezia who made every meal we had there over the years a special occasion. We can only hope that another restaurant in Berkeley or San Francisco will take over the tradition of Opera Night.

You can read about Venezia in longtime staffer Allison Etchison's article in Berkeleyside, from which the first photo of Venezia was taken.

Update 27 December 2019: This post has been updated with the correct identity of one of the singers, who was previously misidentified.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Prem Kahani

With a cast that includes Rajesh Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, and Vinod Khanna, the gender balance and narrative focus of Prem Kahani (Love Story, 1975) is definitely shifted towards the manly side. The "love story" of writer-director Raj Khosla's film is one of masculine friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

But by far the most interesting character in Prem Kahani is Kamini (the adorable Mumtaz). Kamini is in love with her next-door neighbor Rajesh (Rajesh), an apolitical poet who plans to become a teacher. The famous Rajesh-Mumtaz chemistry is in full effect in "Prem Kahani Mein":

Prem Kahani's superb soundtrack is by Laxmikant-Pyrarelal, with lyrics by Anand Bakhshi; the playback singers are Kishor Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd. Rafi and Mukesh.

Kamini's wealthy father, Judge Shrikant Sinha (K. N. Singh), is a supporter of British rule—the film is set during the days of the Quit India movement of the early 1940s, although the clothes and hairstyles scream mid-1970s—and he arranges Kamini's marriage with police inspector Dheeraj (Shashi). Defiantly, Kamini declares her intention to marry Rajesh. Her father tells her that if she goes against his wishes, she must carry her proposal to Rajesh herself—and she does:

Kamini proposes to Rajesh

But Rajesh's politically committed brother Brijesh (Trilok Kapoor) has been killed leading an anti-British demonstration. Rajesh, radicalized, has decided to join the freedom struggle. He sacrifices his love for Kamini because he doesn't want to see her widowed like his sister-in-law, and pretends that his feelings were never serious:

Rajesh rejects Kamini

Kamini, deeply hurt and angry, agrees to obey her father's wishes and marry Dheeraj.

Rajesh now embarks on a campaign of assassination and becomes a wanted man. He's wounded during a police dragnet, and is smuggled to the house of a close friend in the truck of the Pathan tribesman Sher Khan (Vinod Khanna):

Sher Khan promises to sacrifice himself

(Sher Khan doesn't realize how quickly his willingness to sacrifice himself will be tested.)

The close friend Rajesh has chosen to hide with is none other than...Dheeraj! And sending the irony meter pinging off the scale, Rajesh's unexpected arrival at Dheeraj's house interrupts Dheeraj and Kamini's wedding night. But Dheeraj has the right priorities:

Dheeraj is indifferent to his wedding night

Despite Dheeraj's and Rajesh's supposed closeness, apparently neither one has ever mentioned Kamini to the other. Of course, this puts Rajesh and Kamini in a painful and awkward situation, and they both pretend that they've never been anything more to each other than neighbors. But there's still plenty of emotion simmering beneath the surface, as in "Phool aahista phenko" (Gently pluck the rose):

When Dheeraj finds out that Rajesh was once in love, he puts him on "trial" with Kamini as the judge. She delivers her verdict on Rajesh's behavior towards the unnamed girl:

Kamini's verdict: Rajesh should have been honest

Of course, Kamini herself isn't being fully honest with Dheeraj—or, perhaps, with herself, as Rajesh's presence brings old feelings flooding to the surface (or should I say pouring down like the monsoon):

(Notice how, at the end of the song, Rajesh closes the windows—symbolically closing off the resurgence of their feelings for one another. It's just one of Raj Khosla's many telling directorial touches in the film.)

Meanwhile, Sher Khan has been arrested and is being tortured to reveal Rajesh's whereabouts, and Dheeraj can't intervene without throwing suspicion on himself and endangering Rajesh. (If you're thinking, as I'm sure you are, that this scenario is eerily similar to the moment in Puccini's opera Turandot when the servant girl Liù is tortured so that she'll reveal the true name of Prince Calàf, the parallels don't end there.)

As the police manhunt for Rajesh closes in, and as it becomes harder for Rajesh and Kamini to conceal their (former?) love from Dheeraj, Kamini is forced to make a final, fateful choice—a choice which, if the men had been listening, she made long ago...

Kamini with a gun
You don't mess with Kamini!
Kamini is an incredibly compelling character: smart, courageous and complicated. And Mumtaz is wonderful in the role. In a film packed with male stars, she more than holds her own, and makes Kamini the focus of our sympathies

For an additional take on Prem Kahani (including the gorgeous lyrics of "Phool aahista phenko"), please see MemsaabStory. From this wonderful review, Memsaab on "Phool aahista phenko": "This is Hindi cinema at its finest, honestly. So much communicated so beautifully in one simple song! How to explain it when someone says 'Oh, Bollywood—those are musicals, right?' Sigh."

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Suggested reading: Revealing likes, illusory control, and sadistic parents

curly fries
Do you feel smarter?

F You: In college I thought that what people liked—especially their favorite music, movies, and books—told you everything you needed to know about them. It was one of the surprising discoveries of adulthood that the complexities of personality can't be defined quite so easily or simply.

Or can they? Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that Facebook "likes" can be used to guess with a high degree of accuracy your gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, religious affiliation, whether you're a smoker, and even whether your parents split up before you were 21. As Geoffrey Mohan writes, perhaps it's not unexpected that someone who likes "Proud to be a mom" is most likely female and a parent. But more surprising is that David Stillwell and his Cambridge colleagues found that likes also correlate with traits such as intelligence, openness to new experiences, and conscientiousness—at least, as far as these traits can be accurately measured by personality tests. ("Liking" curly fries correlates with high IQ, while liking Hello Kitty indicates that you are open to new experiences but not highly conscientious.)

One or two of these correlations could be dismissed as statistical happenstance; taken together, they can create a highly detailed picture of who you are. And it doesn't matter whether, in any individual case, the correlations are accurate, as long as employers, insurance companies and marketers think that they are. What you like can say a great deal more about you than you may realize. (Geoffrey Mohan, "On Facebook, you are what you 'like,' study finds" Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2013)

Somini Sengupta
Illusions of control: Of course, we're all concerned about Internet privacy. Aren't we? But when you create an account on a site, you often must enter personal information such as an e-mail address and even your date of birth. We often do this without thinking—and as Somini Sengupta reports, with such key pieces of personal information sites can find out a huge amount of additional data about us.

Behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisiti has explored what motivates us to act against our own interests and surrender important personal information. And he's made some disturbing findings:
  • We are inconsistent: If shoppers are offered a $10 coupon and told that it will be increased to $12 if they share information about their purchases, only about 50% agree to share. But if they are offered a $12 coupon and told that it will be decreased to $10 if they keep their data private, 90% agree to share. 
  • We are irrational: Participants in a study of lying, stealing and drug use were far more willing to share data that could personally identify them if they were given a greater degree of choice about what information to share. 
  • And we're distractable: Students surveyed about cheating were far more likely to admit to it if an unrelated offer popped up while they were answering the survey. 
It seems that we find the illusion of control and choice far too reassuring. (Somini Sengupta, "Letting down our guard with web privacy," New York Times, March 30, 2013)

Adam Phillips
Parents as sadists: Psychologist Adam Phillips writes about parent-child dynamics, and concludes that parents can't avoid acting in ways that are perceived by the child as sadistic. And sometimes, even with the best-intentioned parents, it isn't just perception: "The parent who punishes the child for his tantrum—punishment being itself a kind of tantrum, a despair about the rules rather than their enforcement—says to the child: my tantrum is more powerful than yours, but tantrums are all we have got...The punitive parent is giving the child what we have learned to call a double message: he is being told by someone who is enraged by their frustration that he should not be enraged by his frustration." (Adam Phillips, "The magical act of a desperate person," London Review of Books, 7 March 2013)