Friday, November 29, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood

It's time once again for my roundup of movies, television shows, books, and music first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year. In our classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz in Aap Ki Kasam (Your Promise, 1974)

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz: Prem Kahani

Somehow after Bollywood viewing that's spanned 10 years and nearly 300 films we had never managed to see any of Mumtaz's movies before. I regret that we didn't discover her sooner—she and Rajesh are wonderful together. Their chemistry is utterly delightful to watch, as in Laxmikant-Pyarelal's title song for Prem Kahani (Love Story, 1975):

But the course of true love doesn't run smooth. In the days of the Quit India movement, wounded freedom fighter Rajesh (Rajesh) seeks refuge from a police manhunt with his childhood friend Dheeraj (Shashi Kapoor). Two inconvenient problems which Rajesh has overlooked: Dheeraj is himself a police inspector, and he's celebrating his wedding night with his new bride Kamini (Mumtaz)—the woman Rajesh loves, but rejected so that his martyrdom wouldn't burden her with widowhood. The stage is set for conflicting loyalties, parallels to Puccini's Turandot, and barely suppressed emotions surging unbidden to the surface.

I wrote in my original post on Prem Kahani that "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." Mumtaz is not only adorably vivacious and playful, she can convey profound depths of feeling, as in "Phool aahista phenko" (Gently pluck the rose):

As Memsaab wrote in her wonderful review of Prem Kahani: "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."

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore: Amar Prem

Mumtaz is not the only heroine who makes a superb jodi with Rajesh. Last year we also saw two of the movies in which he was paired with Sharmila Tagore, Aradhana (Adoration, 1969) and Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972). Both have great soundtracks; Aradhana's songs were composed by S.D. Burman and Amar Prem's by his son R.D. Burman. "Chingari koi bhadke" (A raging fire) is a beautifully melancholy example of R.D.'s art:

Anand (Rajesh) is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and seeks solace in the arms of the courtesan Pushpa (Sharmila). As in Prem Kahani, their love story does not have a conventionally happy ending, but that's one of the things that makes the film so emotionally affecting. As I wrote in my original post on Amar Prem, it "remains radical more than 40 years on for suggesting that true families are those formed by love."

Waheeda Rehman in Teesri Kasam

Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman: Teesri Kasam

We also explored some other classic movies this year. Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, 1966) is a gorgeously photographed, wistful film featuring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman, and excellent songs composed by Shankar-Jaikishen (lyrics by Shailendra).

Hiraman (Raj), a bullock-cart driver, is hired to transport the nautanki dancer Hirabai (Waheeda) to her next performances at a village fair. Over the hours they spend together on the lengthy journey they form a deep attachment. Hiraman awakens emotions in Hirabai that for many years have remained buried, as we're shown in the lovely, sad "Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar" (My beloved has become my enemy):

Hirabai recognizes, though, that no matter how much she cares for Hiraman (and he for her), they inhabit different worlds. As I wrote in my original post on Teesri Kasam, "Sometimes, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, love can't conquer all....Teesri Kasam is a minor-key masterpiece that rewards multiple viewings."

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood


  1. I think I definitely need to see Teesri Kasam, it looks fascinating.

    Overall, I approve of the "Year of Rajesh." Not that you need my approval, of course ;) I find his films are great at fitting my diverse spectrum of moods. Perhaps that's why I've seen so many in the last few months. Also, it doesn't hurt that he is frequently re-paired with certain co-stars, which makes you feel as if you get to see further exploration of relationships that you weren't ready to let go of yet.

    As for the Rajesh/Mumtaz pairing, I like it as well. In Aap Ki Kasam it really sizzles (even if the film is rather difficult to watch march to its doom), but I loved them in Prem Kahani (which was a much stronger film than I expected to see). They really have a good working ability to create humor with one another . . . especially in Sacha Jhutha and Apna Desh. The similarity in their child-like, almost silent-film-esque antics make me feel as if I am watching two innocents find one another (a la Chaplin and Goddard in Modern Times) and decide to be social misfits together.

    Rajesh and Sharmila are always more worldly, I think. No matter who their characters are supposed to be (young lovers in Aradhana, an odd family unit in Amar Prem, or social outcasts in Raja Rani), I always feel that they are together because of their unique mental connection and shared perspective. If the world is sort of beyond the ken of Rajesh/Mumtaz . . . Rajesh/Sharmila are themselves beyond the world :)

    P.S. The song you posted from Amar Prem was my favorite of the film . . . so haunting.


    1. Miranda, I liked your "innocence vs. experience" comparison, and I think it's heroine-driven. Mumtaz so often radiates vivacity and joy in her films with Rajesh. The Mumtaz-Rajesh jodi makes the first two-thirds of Aap Ki Kasam, where she and Rajesh meet, fall in love, and become besotted newlyweds, one of my favorite films. (The final third, where Mumtaz is largely absent and Rajesh spirals downward, is one of my least favorite).

      Sharmila frequently portrays women who must undergo wrenching trials: in Amar Prem she is trapped in a violent marriage, contemplates suicide, is sold into a brothel, is treated as an outcast by her neighbors, and is brutally separated from a child she loves as though he were her own. When she and Rajesh meet, it's the coming together of two wounded souls. "Chingari Koi Bhadke," hauntingly sung by Kishore Kumar, and with the striking visuals of the couple drifting on the river at night, expresses this sense of doomed love with a paradoxical beauty.

      Sacha Jhutha and Apna Desh are now on my "must watch" list—a list which keeps growing longer and longer...

      Definitely watch Teesri Kasam when you have a chance; Waheeda gives an unforgettable performance.

      Many thanks for your comment!



  2. phool ahista pheko... While I'm not an expert,doesn't it mean, "gently toss/throw the rose" not pluck?

    1. Why, I'm so much less of a Hindi expert that I can't tell you. From the context, though, I think "pluck" may be the meaning intended. I was going by the subtitles in the version of the film I watched, which you can see here (the song begins at 4:00 if the direct link doesn't work):

      Rose petals are tossed during the marriage ceremony, which may be one intended association. But the rest of the lyrics speak of roses as being delicate and growing among thorns, which would seem to relate more to plucking them than tossing them. Is there any Hindi speaker out there who knows?