Monday, May 26, 2014

Book, opera, Bollywood: The strange journey of Lalla Rookh, part 3

Shyama as Lala Rookh

Edward Said's influential book Orientalism (1978), in the words of scholar Sadik Jalal al-'Azm, "situates Europe’s interest in the Orient within the context of the...expansion of modern bourgeois the expense of the rest of the world in the form of its subjugation, pillage, and exploitation." Western European images of the non-Christian cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central, South, and East Asia, are thus "shot through and through with racist assumptions, barely camouflaged mer­cenary interests, reductionistic explanations and anti-human preju­dices." [1]

The strange journey of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh complicates this picture in a number of ways. First, as I suggested in the first post of this series, Moore saw British imperialism in India as a mirror of British imperialism in Ireland. His sympathies are clearly with the victims, and not the perpetrators, of "sub­jugation, pillage, and exploitation." And while he was necessarily portraying a culture with which he was not directly or personally familiar, he clearly strove to represent it with as great a degree of accuracy and cultural sensitivity as possible (even if the scholarship of his day was imbued with Orientalist assumptions in Said's sense). In Moore's work, in which disguise plays such a large role, the exotic is a mask placed on a critique of both the dominance of conquerors and certain expressions of resistance by the subjugated. Of course, it's also a love story in which readers are clearly intended to sympathize and identify with the troubadour-king Feramorz and the princess Lalla Rookh.

Even though Felicien David's opera Lalla-Roukh focussed exclusively on that love story and edited out Moore's political allegories, as I pointed out in the second post of this series, I don't think the opera falls into the trap of romanticizing a mysterious Orient. Marriages arranged between powerful families for political and economic advantage remained the rule among the nobility in 19th-century France, as well as India. So when Princess Lalla-Roukh determines not to proceed with her arranged marriage with a king after she falls in love with a man she thinks is a penniless troubadour, she is acting in defiance of norms existing in Western as well as Eastern cultures. This is hardly a picture of a backward and benighted East being contrasted with an enlightened West. Also, Lalla-Roukh's melancholy arias place her at the affective center of the opera; it may be a comedy, but the music signals to us that we are to take her feelings and emotional dilemmas as seriously as our own.

The 1958 Bollywood movie Lala Rookh

But the strongest evidence that the story wasn't seen in India as exploitative, reductionist or racist is its adaptation in the late 1950s as a Bollywood film. Perhaps it was a self-conscious gesture of cultural re-appropriation on the part of the filmmakers; more likely, producer Ismat Chughtai, director Athar Siraj, and screenwriter Kaifi Azmi (father of actress Shabana Azmi) just knew a good tale when they heard it.

The version of Lala Rookh available on YouTube does not have English subtitles, and my comprehension of spoken Hindi is next to non-existent, so my understanding of the storyline is heavily dependent on Dustedoff's wonderful review. Any misunderstanding of the action or misinterpretation of the characters in what follows, though, is solely my responsibility.

When the movie opens we encounter Shah Murad (Talat Mahmood), king of Noorabad, walking the streets of his city in disguise. Hearing the sounds of a banquet coming from the house of Hassan (Lotan), the Shah and his manservant Mansoor peek in at a window to watch the festivities:

Diguise and eavesdropping / spying / voyeurism are elements from Moore's story that will be given even more importance in the film.

When Hassan's "friends" and neighbors discover that he has no money to pay for the banquet, they flee in disgust (and in fear of being asked to contribute to the cost of their own pleasures). The Shah decides to test Hassan's character by playing a joke on him; the Shah's jesting and teasing nature, displayed throughout the film, makes explicit his association with Krishna (an association made in Moore's original version as well).

The Shah and Mansoor go in and pretend to be weary travelers in need of some food. Despite having just been eaten out of house and home, Hassan literally sells the clothes off his back to provide his guests with some refreshment. Hassan may be a bit of a buffoon, but at heart he's generous, and he (mostly) tries to do the right thing.

No sooner does he serve his guests the food, though, than it disappears (up Mansoor's voluminous sleeves while Hassan's back is turned), and they plead for more. Eventually Hassan is driven to despair, and he's about to kill himself when the Shah overhears and realizes that the joke has gone too far. Not knowing when to quit will be a recurring problem for the Shah: there are several more instances over the course of the film where a joke is carried to a point where it has near-tragic consequences, including for the Shah himself.

So does Hassan's almost-suicide determine the Shah to reward his generous subject and end his misery? Not quite: the Shah decides he wants to play another joke or two first. He puts an opiate in Hassan's wine-cup, and when Hassan wakes up the next day, he's in the palace, and everyone is treating him like a king:

He also meets and is immediately smitten by a comely maidservant, Para:

After a day of lording it over the palace staff, though, Hassan wakes up the next morning back in his own bed, as powerless and impoverished as ever. His mother and his neighbors don't believe him when he claims to have been to the palace and to have met the Shah. He runs to the Shah to complain, and for his pains is "forced" to marry one of the Shah's servants. To the delight of both parties, it turns out to be Para.

The Shah may be whimsical, but he's not all-powerful. One of his advisors reminds him that he's facing his own forced marriage to a princess from a neighboring kingdom—the match has been arranged by their fathers—and tells him that the news has just arrived that she's on her way to Noorabad. The Shah decides to see what his father has gotten him into: he disguises himself as a musician and, taking Hassan with him, goes out to join her caravan.

We're already 40 minutes into the movie, and we have only just reached the point at which Moore's story begins (neither Hassan nor Para are characters in either the book or the opera). And almost immediately, we depart from it again: Para, angry at being left behind by Hassan, rides to join them—disguised as her "brother":

Somehow the Shah immediately sees through this convincing disguise, but Para silently pleads with him not to reveal her secret, and the Shah—always willing to play along with a joke—silently agrees.

The princess's caravan has halted so that the princess and her wazir can be entertained. The Shah finds a vantage from which he can spy on the music and dancing—and on the princess:

He also notices, though, a band of menacing dacoits sneaking up on the princess's unsuspecting wazir:

In the ensuing melee, the Shah fights off a dozen men to rescue the princess; Hassan (with the greatest reluctance) and Para (with blows that are enthusiastic, but not especially well-aimed) also join in. The Shah is bruised and wounded in the fight, but the wazir remains suspicious of the interlopers. The grateful Princess Lala Rookh (Shyama at her loveliest), though, orders the wazir to allow her brave defenders to join the caravan. She goes to thank the stranger, whom she calls Ajnabi (Stranger), and tend his wounds. When their eyes meet it's love at first sight:

When Ajnabi tells her that he's one of the Shah's servants, the princess is eager to hear what her future husband is like. Oh, he's very nice, Ajnabi assures her. He's not really very old—he only has a small harem—he's only a little lame—and he doesn't stutter very often. Oh—and he's only lost one eye…

Somehow the princess doesn't find this news reassuring:

She is so dejected after this interview that the wazir asks Ajnabi to sing to her to lift her spirits. And now, finally, an unconscionable 50 minutes into the film, Talat Mahmood (a fine singer as well as an actor) picks up his mandolin, flashes an irresistible smile, and regales her (and us) with song. But "Thi Ek Shahzaadi" is worth the wait:

My Hindi and Urdu are next to non-existent, but I believe the song describes the love the Shah feels for his betrothed; at the end, the princess, visibly distressed, cries out "Lies! All lies!" It's not the Shah she wants to love her, but Ajnabi. And soon their united hearts are signaled by their united voices in "Pyaas Kuch aur Bhi":

The playback singer for Shyama is the great Asha Bhosle (credited here as Asha Bhonsle), and the music is by Khayyam with lyrics by Kaifi Azmi.

The strangers have touched more than one heart in the caravan. Para overhears the princess's maidservant declaring her own passion for Hassan:

Para sets Hassan on the straight and narrow. But soon another lady in the princess's retinue is overcome by Para's charms:

And Ajnabi is serenading the princess by moonlight and giving her private "mandolin lessons":

After a brief but intense struggle between her love for Ajnabi and her duty toward the Shah, the princess (chastely) spends a night under the stars with Ajnabi.

An enraged wazir decides that he must intervene: the arrival of this impudent stranger is upsetting an alliance between royal houses, and he's determined to get him out of the way. He orders his men to kill Ajnabi for his presumption, and as soon as the princess has parted from him at dawn, Ajnabi is stabbed in the back and left for dead:

Amazingly, we have just arrived at the interval. There are a miraculous recovery, more clandestine meetings, more threats of death, more disguises, more eavesdropping, more practical jokes, and more misunderstandings (perhaps too many?) to come on Lala Rookh's journey to true love with Shah Murad. And there will be an odd little comic coda featuring Hassan and Para, which (as Dustedoff points out) adds nothing to the story, and isn't even particularly comic.

But even if the film, like Shah Murad himself, doesn't quite know when to quit, it is very much worth seeing for the wonderfully elaborated story, the delightful chemistry between Shyama and Talat Mahmood, and Khayyam's excellent songs. And as the curious and very entertaining final (?) stage on the strange journey of Lalla Rookh.

Last time: Félicien David's opera Lalla Roukh.


1. Sadik Jalal al-'Azm, Orientalism and orientalism in reverse. Khamsin 8,'azm

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