And the music is great.
This time around, ye olde turn-o'-the-century Bengal has turned into the swinging 70s, and our narcissistic tragedian, Devdas, is called Sikandar (that's Alexander in Arabic) and played by our lanky hero, Amitabh Bachchan. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (Alexander the Conquerer) is generally a very good film. It's intelligently executed: for example, the transition scene, when a young Sikander is taught by the Muslim hermit to laugh in the face of death, and we flash forward from the graveyard to Amitabh's rousing motorcycle song, is pretty awesome. When Sikandar stops in front of a funeral and sings, almost absent-mindedly, Zindagi to bevafa hai... Ek din thukaraaegi...[Life is unfaithful, one day it'll leave you] and Vinod Khanna looks up from his newspaper, while Rakhee Gulzar watches from the bus stop... Well, damn. The bittersweet combination of loving life and fatalism, riding your motorcycle without a helmet on, the easy introduction of Vinod and Rakhee's characters... If that isn't just genius. FRICKIN' GENIUS.
Oh, just watch it for yourself.
As is all the subsequent (now so common as to not merit any comment) Characteristic Bollywood Irony that leads Sikandar and Vishal (Vinod Khanna) to fall in love with the same woman, Kaamna (Rakhee), unbeknownst to each other but certainly beknownst to us. And meanwhile, a sullen courtesan, Zohrabai (Rekha), falls for Sikandar, while the jealous thug Dilawar (Amjad Khan) loves her and swears he'll kill anyone who gets in his way. Uh oh, we foresee disaster.
Do you want to know how it ends? No, do you really want to know? Well, it should be pretty obvious. This is a sad film about sad people who eventually die. Rarely does anyone crack a smile, and if they do, it's rueful, or self-pitying, or cynical, but certainly never cheerful. The songs are perpetually in a minor key. Life drags on, and by the end - curse you, Devdas! And you too, Vinod Khanna! - the PPCC was reduced to a blubbery pile of Kleenexes. Because it's that effective. Even as you're sitting there, swearing it off as disgustingly indulgent and asking why, oh why, does this Devdas thing have to go on?, Vinod Khanna will suddenly cradle Amitabh Bachchan in his arms and, as the terrible irony dawns on him and seals this movie's tragic fate, cry, "No, no, why didn't you tell me?"
And we cried.
Oh, how we cried.
Damn it, Sikandar, why didn't you tell him?!
Briefly, the plot centers around Sikandar, a most pitiable wretch. His life sucks. He's an orphan. He's poor. People beat him. No one likes him. He gets a job slaving away in Kaamna's home. As children, a bit of a romance develops, until Kaamna's father beats Sikandar, kicks him out, and tells Kaamna that her little boyfriend was a damn filthy liar and thief. Kaamna believes him. Sikandar cries. We, the audience, groan. But things look up for a bit when Sikandar is impulsively adopted by a woman (Nirupa Roy... of course) who has a daughter around his age. Until, of course, that woman dies. Uuuugh.
This is not Umrao Jaan, though it seems so.
So Sikandar grows up into Amitabh (see awesome transition song), a hardened bad-ass who looks after his step sister and still cries about his childhood love for Kaamna. Meanwhile, he befriends a fun toothy guy named Pyarelal (Ram P. Sethi) who introduces him to wonderful Urdu ghazals and wonderful liquor. At the courtesan parlor, a drunken Sikandar casts his sexy vibes at one of the courtesans, Zohrabai, who instantly falls in love with him. He also befriends a lawyer-by-training, Vishal, who'se currently slumming it as a bouncer in the bar. Yet alas, Sikandar's still nursing the childhood obsession with Kaamna, so he pays no attention to Zohrabai's affections (well, sort of). The train crash begins to happen when Vishal unknowingly falls for Kaamna, never realizing that this is his best friend Sikandar's beloved "memsaab".
By this point, the PPCC was wishing Amjad Khan would just show up with a gun and put the poor wretch out of his misery. For the love of God.
Devdas, for those that don't know, is an old turn-of-the-century Bengali novel that focuses on the doomed love between hard-drinking, despairing Devdas, and lower-caste Paro. We at the PPCC were already subjected to a movie-zation of this epic via Bhansali's 2002 version with Shah Rukh Khan And Aishwarya Rai. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar retains much of the original's themes of drinking and self-pity (OK, so we've never cared for Devdas, as should be clear by now), though it flips the caste problem around just to make things that much harder on Sikandar. In terms of acting, it was bizarre to see Amitabh, who is like our rock, our pillar of strength, our tall monolithic Ubermensch, reduced to a vulnerable pile of blubbery blub. Usually Shashi's the runty one, never Amitabh! It was disconcerting, to say the least. Further disconcertingly, our opinion of Vinod Khanna changed dramatically in the watching of MKS. We've never liked Vinod, especially after Parvarish and that ugly sneer of his, but he was the heart and soul of MKS. In fact, it was only when Vinod would register the pain that we at the PPCC started to cry. And damn, we cried.
We're not big fans of Rakhee. She always seems to gravitate between icy and then a bit demented; for example, Kasme Vaade. But Kaamna is a difficult role to play. Given that Sikandar is our hero, and given the way Kaamna treats him, the audience really is out to hate her. Rekha, on the other hand, was ethereal and lovely as usual. True, she's always playing the same role (Umrao Jaan, again and again...) but, well, we loved Umrao Jaan! Amjad Khan is not much used in the film, but he's fine as usual. We at the PPCC should note that we like his voice. And finally, the surprise of the film is the smiley Ram P. Sethi. We didn't realize how much we liked him until we went all happy to see him in Namak Halaal.
So there you have it. If you're feeling up and want to feel down, watch Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. The music is gorgeous, and really should be required listening. Also, BollyBob has helpfully compiled a gallery of despair for the truly hard-core.