Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sholay, A Camp Classic ?

Some things just can never travel across cultures! This is a capsule review of Sholay from Chicago Reader:

Voted the most popular Indian film ever in a British Film Institute poll, this 1975 revenge epic by Ramesh Sippy has been called a "curry western" for its hysterical visual style and Sergio Leone frontier setting, though various scenes also recall Stagecoach, The Great Dictator, and High Noon. A police inspector hires two happy-go-lucky con men to capture a vicious bandit, and much of the action--there are stunts and chases galore--takes place in a remote village menaced by the bandit and his gang. The tone alternates between slapstick and melodrama, and Sippy occasionally sneaks in some populist messages. The plot is formulaic, the camerawork is slapdash, the male bonding borders on camp. The saving grace is the singing and dancing, especially the imaginatively staged festival of colors. With Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, and Amjad Khan. In Hindi with subtitles. 204 min.

Male bonding borders on camp? So much for Jai aur Veeru ki dosti! I was laughing like crazy reading this. Thank God they didn't say the film had a gay subtext!

Also another one of Anand (by Hrishikesh Mukherjee):This 1970 feature by Hrishikesh Mukherjee (a protege of Bimal Roy) was part of a trend toward greater realism and exploration of middle-class life in Indian cinema, though its disease-of-the-week plot and melodramatic flourishes (copious tears, horrified trumpet blasts) will seem comical to Western viewers.

Full thing here.

Disease-of-the-week plot? Hmmm. :)

On a more serious note, much as I loathe the style and assumptions of popular hindi films, I find judging these by completely objective aesthetic standards, which is invariably inspired by the western mode of thought, harsh and completely unreasonable. That's how a reasonably authentic portrayal of male friendship in one context becomes camp in another.

12 comments:

Jabberwock said...

"I find judging these by completely objective aesthetic standards, which is invariably inspired by the western mode of thought, harsh and completely unreasonable"

Very true.

km said...

Talking about copious tears and trumpet blasts, Alok, if you haven't already done so, rent a couple of Douglas Sirk classics and see how there are cheap melodramas and then there are Douglas Sirk melodramas.

But yes, how poorly some things travel across cultures (like the Jai/Veeru friendship)!

ventilatorblues said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ventilatorblues said...

Alok
Not surprising. And one area where even the most basic cultural colloquialisms dont carry through is subtitles. If you see a subtitled version of Ray's "Devi" and understand Bengali, for instance, you will find that there are lots of errors. Indeed, the Allmovie.com reviewer gets the entire plot totally wrong when he claims Sharmila is Chhobi Biswas's daughter when she is actually her daughter-in-law.

Alok said...

Yes I agree. Subtitles in foreign films are generally very carelessly done. I mean, if you compare with literature and the kind of attention they pay to translation accuracies it is pathetic in case of films. Perhaps that's the cost we have to pay for the sheer volume of films that travel across cultures these days.

Also there is another point do the debate, when people take cultural determinism too far and deny the existence of any objective criteria to judge a work of art. And if you do that you are called Orientalists, supporter of Western Hegemony and globalisation, destroyer of local culture, snob, traitor etc etc. which is not fair either.

Even highly culturally specific works, like those of Ray for example, are successful in transcending cultural boundaries precisely because they reach something universal and objective beneath the surface of cultural particulars. The same, sadly, can not be said of many bollywood films, including perhaps the films mentioned in the post (Sholay fans, don't send me hate mails ;)). And I think understanding this is very important.

Alok said...

km: I haven't seen any of Sirk's films yet :(

But I understand that melodrama as a genre, although disreputable, can be put to good use only if the director's intentions are honest and only if he is interested in exploring issues that lie deep beneath the surface (all that glossy design, copious tears, loud sentimental music).

Fassbinder or Almodovar (All About my Mother & Talk to Her specially) come to my mind immediately as directors who have successfully done this. I have heard that Sirk belongs to the same category too.

Alok said...

Jai: thanks for visiting and leaving the comment ;)

anurag said...

Melodramas as a genre is fine. But more than any other genre, melodramas was marked/marred by the regional undertones on whose basis the doses of music+drama( melodrama) are served. I have seen two versions of Sirk's 'All that Heaven allows', the other being Fassbinder's Ali. The thing that struck me is the way Fassbinder took a melodrama, quite devoid of any regular hollywood emotions with heightened music or lingering close ups. Culture (or cultural history) sometime seem to determine how much tears we can afford.

Here is one review of Mother India in Guardian (http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Observer_review/0,,710164,00.html)
I can't help laughing, the other one ( by Peter Bradshaw) compares Nagris' character with Arundhati Roy :)))

But many of these western critics are fine with Ghatak's masterpiece 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' which is also a tear-jerker and a commercial success too. This should give us some pointers where we went wrong in other movies, if at all.

Alok said...

Yes. As I said, it finally comes down to deciphering the intentions of the filmmaker behind the genre conventions. Is he interested in analysing complex inner lives of his characters, commenting on social, political issues or in just taking people through emotional highs and lows in order to "entertain" them?

Depending on this you can find if a melodrama is worth watching and grappling with or not!

Alok said...

Gosh! I haven't seen any Ghatak film too :(

ventilatorblues said...

As I was scrambling my brain to find examples from Indian cinema where melodrama works (for me, for me :)), I was drawing consistent blanks. But Anurag, you reminded me of Meghe Dhaka Tara. What a beautiful film! Ghatak was also the avant-garde counterpoint to Ray, I feel. Other examples - Guru Dutt's films, especially Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (latter not technically directed by Guru Dutt but his imprint is quite evident).

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