Monday 10 September 2007

Kaala Patthar (1979)

Yash Chopra films tends towards Old Fashioned in the spectrum of romance. This often leads sweeping shots of Swiss mountains while someone, usually Amitabh Bachchan, reads poetry. This also often leads Chopra to favor men in uniform and damsels in distress. And while this is all fine and well for his romantic dramas, which are Bollywood legendary, it also leads to his style being a bit of a one-trick pony. There's no room for cynicism or irony or, well, too much external realism when watching his films.

The world's wide open for Ravi the engineer.

What makes Kaala Patthar (Black Stone, or, well, coal) delightful and satisfying is how Chopra gears his sights and old-fashioned-ness onto social, rather than domestic, problems. Rather than focusing on the adulterous lives of the bourgeoisie or the multi-generational romantic melodramas a family faces, Chopra decides to tackle the problem of workers' rights and moral ambiguity. He does so with surprising effect, which leads to a heartwarming, socially-minded film in the vein of Swades or Iqbal or even the M*A*S*H series. He also surprises us with his crafty manipulation of the usual cinematic stereotypes: the Fallen Good Guy, the Bad Guy, the Card Shark. The only stereotype which remains, glaringly and painfully, is the Evil Profit-Seeking Boss who cares not an inch for the coal miners nobly suffering beneath him.

As the title implies, Kaala Patthar is about coal-mining. We are quickly introduced to a wide array of characters: Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), the brooding miner who has nightmares of being called a coward even though he seems to be demonstrably and movie-style brave, Ravi (Shashi Kapoor), the young engineer who soon reveals his chutzpah under all that pampered bounce, Dr. Sudha Sen (Rakhee Gulzar), the serious-minded doctor who soon falls for Amitabh (well, she had it coming), Channo (Neetu Singh), the fun and light-hearded swindler who sells magic rings of power to the gullible miners, Mangal (Shatrughen Singh), the escaped convict and murderer who soon comes tet-a-tet with noble Vijay, Anita (Parveen Babi), the journalist and ol' college pal of Ravi's, and, our favorite, Rana (Mac Mohan), the card shark who swindles everyone.

The ensemble dance away their fears in our favorite song.

All is not well in the mine, since the coal-hearted boss, Dhanraj (Prem Chopra), doesn't care if they're digging dangerously close to a lake. Even as Ravi insists they abandon most dangerous mine, Dhanraj is stubborn: all those profits gone to waste just to save a few coal miner lives? Shudder at the thought! So life goes on, and they keep digging. Ravi falls for Anita and gains respect amongst the other engineers and miners. Vijay and Mangal have numerous stand-offs which usually involve playing childish pranks on each other. Vijay meanwhile falls for Dr. Sen, who finally gets out of Vijay the source of his fear of cowardice: (cue flashback) back in the day, Vijay was actually a Naval officer (cue Yash Chopra trademark Man in Uniform) who abandoned ship and 300 of his passengers when the winds got heavy. Back to the present day, Mangal saves Chonnu the Swindler from a gang of rapists and hence gains her affections. And eventually the waters break and everyone is put in mortal danger.

What's so enjoyable about Kaala Patthar, and what makes it resemble M*A*S*H, is the wide variety of well-developed characters who mingle around in this precarious and dangerous environment. The interactions between these characters are believable and, with the exception of the Big Bad Boss, everyone has more than a touch of humanity. The music is enjoyable, in that there's a tragic, minor-keyed air to it. Everyone is lovely in their roles, and this is a treat for anyone who's familiar with 1970s Bollywood: everyone shows up sooner or later. Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor play their strengths as the brooding loner and lovable dandy. Neetu Singh is basically reprises her role as an empowered sister from Parvarish. Shatrughan Singh gains our affections when, despite Bollywood conventions and our own expectations, he turns out to be not just good but a total bad-ass as well.

Jerk your head to the beat! The lovely romance song, unusually explicit.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

It's all the best people from Kabhi Kabhie - now with more fossil fuels! I can't wait to see this.

Filmi Geek said...

Hello, superbly delightful reviews.

I wanted to leave a comment on your *Parvarish* review but there seems to be no comments link there. So I'll leave it here, with apologies.

I know how you feel when it comes to seeing Shabana Azmi in masala films. It gives me a kind of parallel universe feeling. It's not entirely unpleasant, just ... odd. She was in plenty of them, and did her fair share of dancing around trees, and yet it's still just plain peculiar.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I'm over halfway through this nos and
1) "pampered bounce" - tee-hee, perfect
2) I think I'm having the same Shashireaction that you had in Roti Kapada aur Makaan - for the love of god he's lookin' fine.

yves said...

Hey PCCC, How come we agree about Kaala Patthar, but not about Mirch Masala?
Still, while we do agree, I think what you say about KP is possibly as far away from what I think about it, as our two opinions about MM are...
So all in all, you know.
cheers anyway!

shaggy said...

movie's total masala but being made after the chasnala coal mine disaster probably helped draw attention to the plight of the miners.. one piece of weirdness that struck me was the merchant/military navy confusion.. a warship would never haul tourists and organise titanic-style dances..guess the court-martial should have sentenced the filmmakers instead - hard labour on script row