Thursday 15 November 2007

Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)

Jab Jab Phool Khile (When the Roses Bloom, or JJPK) is much like Zhang Yimou's Hero. No, it doesn't have magical realism and martial arts, but, like Hero, it is a very well-made, very immoral film. When movies have a bad message but are beautifully put together, it creates conflict in the PPCC. We don't want to like it, but we do. Our emotions betray us, and sometimes we even cry in the end. But lo, this is an evil film, and, like Kool-Aid, while the actual consumption might be pleasurable it leaves a bad taste in your mouth afterwards.

It's very hard to dislike this song. Dude, the goat!

Maybe it's good to be sympathetic to those we disagree with.

Because there's certainly a lot to disagree with in JJPK. In fact, there's everything to disagree with. It's ironic that we should be reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique right now. In it, she talks about the sudden regression of female empowerment in 1950s and 1960s America, after the first wave of feminism but before the second wave, when women were encouraged to get college degrees and then go on to become... loyal housewives. JJPK is very much a product of these times. Just as Friedan writes, the pop culture of the Fifties and Sixties was full of pseudo-science telling women their "natural" place was in the home, and any desire to pursue a career was a sign of neurosis and Freudian penis envy. JJPK adds a double whammy: it packs some xenophobia with the misogynism, so that it's not so much penis envy as a pathetic appropriation of the vices of Western culture that makes women behave "un-feminine-ly". Because obviously women can't drink. They can't dance with men. They shouldn't even mingle with "city types". It's not natural. And Hindustani culture is clearly more in tune with the natural order of things, so why copy those Western whores, so out of touch with their true, "feminine" selves?

But wait, there's more! If regressive misogyny isn't your cup of tea, there's always some offensive classism to keep things interesting! Who said the noble savage was dead?

We'll let the film speak for itself. The plot centers around Rita (Nanda), a self-described "educated and progressive" girl from Mumbai. We meet Rita at the airport, fresh off the plane from America. She dresses in Western clothing. She likes Western music. Her parents are just as Westernized and bourgeoisie, and, when Rita complains of feeling a bit stressed, they cheerfully pack her off on an all-paid vacation to beautiful Kashmir. Once in Srinagar, she rents a houseboat from the boyish and eccentric Raja (Shashi Kapoor). While Raja is immediately smitten with his memsaab, Rita just laughs off his advances. He is a self-described "uneducated rustic" who makes charming mistakes when he shows Rita around the houseboat: "Here are some records by Mr. Lata Mangeshar. The bed's made of Dunlop tyres!"

Rita (and, we hate to admit it, the PPCC) becomes more and more taken in by this simple bumpkin - and, worst of all, it's his "savagery" that's so appealing. He blushes. He squeaks. He doesn't know Lata Mangeshkar is a woman. He sits at Rita's feet and learns the alphabet. Awww! Rita describes him as simple and decent, pure and unadulterated. Yes, clearly Raja was too stupid to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (important to note: he hasn't met any women before Rita!), and the film implies that this leaves him clean and free, still able to gallavant around in his Kashmiri Eden. (Indeed, before he renames it the Memsaab, his boat is called the Gullistan (AKA Garden).)

Already the PPCC was troubled. We didn't like this ennoblement of a "savage". We didn't like this glorification of ignorance. We didn't like it, but we still cooed, "Oh, he's so cute!" What? It is Shashi.


Ooooh. He can't even reeead.

Awwww. Why, he's just as cuddly as a baby goat.

Anyway, Rita returns the following summer with her parent-approved fiancee, Kishore, in tow. Raja is devastated that his memsaab is spoken for, but Rita laughingly assures him that it's not up to Kishore or her parents to decide that she gets married. It's her decision. Raja is visibly shocked by this, but also relieved. Rita's treatment of Raja becomes more and more patronizing as she falls for him. It becomes obvious to everyone (Kishore, the maid, the other houseboaters) that Rita likes Raja, and yet she seems to show it by treating him like her silly, idiotic servant. Yes, it was degrading to everyone involved, including us. Yet the PPCC was still in that haze of "Oh, Raja's so cute and dumb - why can't he call us memsaab and be our (love) slave?"

Things take a sinister turn when Kishore confronts Raja and Rita. When the Westernized city slicker dares touch the holy memsaab, Raja unleashes a hell of a violent streak. He pulls Rita into his boat and angrily paddles away, declaring that he loves Rita, wants to marry her and keep her in Kashmir forever, and will never let her see or be seen by those soiled city people.

Alert. Alert.

Yet Rita - poor, vacuous, victimized Rita - is pleasantly shocked by Raja's declarations. Sure, there's something comforting about being owned, protected by someone you love - but, but... Rita's father is, however, not so happy about Rita's decision to settle down with a mountain bumpkin. He drags Rita and Kishore back to Mumbai. Raja follows them and confronts Rita's father. In a further sinister twist, the father decides to let Raja and Rita court each other, assuming that their clash of cultures will be insurmountable. He doesn't foresee that his daughter would happily sacrifice her independence and empowerment to be with Raja.

Didn't I raise her to have a little self-respect?! Apparently not.

We are evil and bourgeoisie and Westernized. Hiss.

Things become more perturbing. Rita tells Raja that in order to get married, he must adapt himself to the ways of the Westernized bourgeoisie of 1960s Bombay. She dresses Raja up in a suit, teaches him to shake hands and use a fork and knife, shows him how to shimmy to the Beatles. Raja goes along with it all yet, like Savage in Brave New World, it's clear he yearns for the freedoms of the wild. He just wants to strip off all this constrictive clothing. He needs to swing from the trees. You can take the Raja out of the mountain, but you can't take the mountain out of the Raja, after all. Things reach a climax when, at a Western party hosted by Rita's parents, Rita drinks some alcohol and dances with a few other men. Raja is so disturbed he sings his disapproval for all to hear. Rita and Raja then have an explosive argument, where Raja basically just lays the xenophobic, patriarchal smackdown. And then he leaves. Rita is left a crumpled pile of blubbery tears on the floor. Forgive the pun, but she has clearly been unsexed by Raja's "simple, decent truth".

Me Raja. Me no mix with fork and knife. Hmmf.

Here is the exchange, for your pleasure:

RITA: What have you done, Raja? You know they liked you! They were happy with you! There was no reason for you to do this!
RAJA: I had a reason, Rita. Because it involved not their happiness alone. But my own, too. And I didn't like all that.
RITA: What didn't you like?
RAJA: I didn't like any of it! What is this culture that makes a daughter drink before her parents? What makes these parents display their daughters like showpieces? Where one man's wife dances with another? As you did. Dance with others!
RITA: So? What difference or harm does it do to dance with others?
RAJA: You ask me that?! You once threw away a dress your maid had worn! That was but a lifeless garment that could have been washed again! But you're going to be my wife! You belong to me in body and soul! I can't bear to see you dance with others!
RITA: Why not? You had agreed to accept my society, our ways and culture!
RAJA: "Our ways and culture"? These are ways and traditions you have stolen from others! A culture of hypocrisy and promiscuity! You can call these ways your culture, Rita. Not I. Because, even after coming into your society, I have not forgotten my culture. A culture that is deep and vast and ancient in its roots. My culture is the one that saw the birth of women like Sita, Rani Padmini and Habba Khatoon! Not the Rita who leaves her husband to run into the arms of another man!
RITA: You must forget this cliche-ridden drivel and nonsense! Why don't you accept that Sita and I belong to different ages?
RAJA: I can't accept it! I can't concede that the land that gives birth to Sita can also... I'm sorry about this. I have nothing against you, Rita. I still love you as I always did. But I can't accept this new way of life and culture!
RITA: Then why did you agree to it earlier?
RAJA: How was I to know that they would try to rob me of my culture, my traditions and values?!
RITA: You are only dressed differently! But you are still a rustic!
RAJA: You're right. A man's dress does not change his soul.
RITA: Do you know what you're saying?
RAJA: I do.
RITA: You are refusing to marry me!
RAJA: I didn't say that. But if I'm going to be humiliated like this, this marriage will never take place.
RITA: All right! Go back to Kashmir! Go back to your people! Go to hell!

OK. May we make a comment? Yes, Raja, we agree that promiscuity and alcoholism are evils and it's not nice to see women or men engage in them. Yes, Raja, Hindustani culture unites Bombay and Kashmir, and, yes, there are many nice things about Hindustani culture. However, we really must protest the generalizations extended to liberal, progressive pro-feminine mentality. We must also protest the tired equation of What Is Ancient as being What Is Right. And we must also protest having the whole of the West roped in as well! Apart from your justifiable chagrin at being constantly humiliated for the pleasure of the bourgeoise, everything else you said was just a pile of poop. For the love of God, women's liberation is not a sign of the end of times!

Once the PPCC was in Morocco, and our tour guide, who loved to needle us, spoke of the "end of times". Apparently the apocolypse would be foreshadowed by confused gender roles and homosexuality. WTF?

Despite all this, the film is so painfully well put together. It's like salt in a wound that they should make something so bad look so good. But they always said the Devil would be like this. The shots are gorgeous, and it's refreshing to see a Hindi film that can use some homegrown mountains and beautiful vistas rather than constantly importing the same, tired Swiss ones. We loved the costumes: Raja and his little sister were adorable in their Kashmiri get-up. The scenes moved fluidly. Many of the songs were awesome. Unfortunately, our DVD didn't subtitle the songs - so maybe the whole complexity of the film's message was in the songs and we just missed it. But maybe that's wishful thinking.

While the young Shashi of Pyar Ka Mausam left us generally unstimulated, Shashi's Raja is truly a soft and cuddly creature. As we mentioned, this is somewhat troublesome, in that we found his shyness and his rough edges the best part of the package. Witness Shashi's adorableness with his hesitant, "S-Salaam, memsaab..." or his dazed, "Aa... aaaaa..." (when he learns the alphabet, you perverts). Hence our pain at the whole above-transcribed Dialogue of Climax. Why must our cuddly idiot turn against us like that?!

Raja's initial attempts at monkeying the Western man fail most comically.

Remember, the Western woman mistreats the staff.

Nanda as Rita was fine, until of course her personality started wasting away in the aura of Raja's Man Talk. In an early song, we found her really quite cute, though there were troublesome aspects to her character: the whole bossiness with the maid, for example, and the other moments of spoiled bratness. No doubt this was intentional, just to really hit home how corrupted by the West the poor woman was. All that said, it was Nanda's skillz which made us start crying in the end. During the usual train chasing scene, it was when Nanda apologized, with such sincerity and desperation, that we sympathized to the max and forgot all about the troublesome gender politics. Instead we just joined her in crying and begging Shashi to stop the train. "No, don't go Raja! We looooove yooooou!" That is, until the scene ended and the credits rolled. Then we woke up from the dream and went, "W...TF."


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

This is the piece I wish I had written. I'm completely impressed with how simply and accurately you've put your finger on everything that troubled me about JJPK. Superwow (a term not bandied about lightly).

And now that you point it out, yes, this film might very well be the devil. And now that you've planted that idea, I think older Shashi, say 1978 or so, playing the devil would be really awesome - he'd be smooth as silk, so urbane, so smart, so pretty, and then stab you in the heart.

a ppcc representative said...

The ultra-perfect 1970s Shashi as the devil? Oh my goodness, wait til I post my review of Chor Machaye Shor!

Also, thanks for the compliment! Tearing something apart can really focus one's writing, I've noticed.

me said...

I hesitate to comment here on this film. I've now read 3 reviews of it, and I know for a fact that at least two of them were written by authors who do not have a Y chromosome. My possession of that apparently evil addition makes me feel like a stranger in a strange land when discussing a film like this one. I will say that I cringed through the climactic "lecture" and was almost wishing Rita would tell him to beggar off back to his troglodyte world. Almost, but not quite. I would not want to own this film, but any film with 3 equally gorgeous versions of a great song (pardesiyon se na) can not be ALL evil. I think one of the reasons I can say that is because one thing Shashi does well is convey the simple sincerity of Raja's conduct. It may be indefensibly chauvinist and regressive to 21st-century eyes and ears, but Shashi manageds to make it plausible that Raja felt that way withut any notion of superiority, aggression or intent to dominate. Not that sincerity makes the attitude itself defensible, but it can soften the verdict on the one displaying it. Maybe having been raised by the least chauvinist man I've ever met has enabled me to see both sides of this - the modern outrage at neanderthal attitudes to women, and the simple "clash of cultures" love story.
Anyway, thanks for an excellent review. I have an almost pathological fondness for old Hindi films, and finding places to read and comment about them is very hard in this hidesous world where Dhoom@ and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom are fêted, and mention of RK's "Aag" just elicits a "what?" So I look forward to reading more of your reviews of my old favourites, and hope that if I feel moved to comment, I'll have something worthwhile to say.

Bollyviewer said...

If you'd like to see Jab Jab Phool Khile remade with most of the annoying gender politics cast aside, try this: Raja Saab. Thought JJPK couldnt get worse - Raja Saab will prove you wrong!

ajnabi said...

"Witness Shashi's adorableness with his hesitant, 'S-Salaam, memsaab...' or his dazed, 'Aa... aaaaa...' (when he learns the alphabet, you perverts)." LOLOL I feel like I should have paid money to read this post. Especially that sentence.

Desultoryreij said...

I think you are way too harsh on this film.

Raja's world is not feminist and while he does condemn western culture, he doesn't blame or insults Rita nor does he force her to come with him. Rita remains independent and headstrong from beginning to end and her decision in the end is entirely her own, no one forces her, even Raja.

Also, Raja may be ignorant and not able to read, but that does not make him a savage. The characters are stereotypical in some aspects, but Rita and Raja also have heart and depth as well, ex: Rita takes the time to teach Raja to read, compliments him in his progress, etc.

In the scene where Raja beats Kishore, it is not because Kishore touches Rita, but because he is bring forceful with her when she is trying to resist him. Even in civilization, it would be considered self-defense under these conditions. If Raja were really a savage, he would've thrashed the men dancing with Rita rather than singing a melanholy song about it and voicing his concerns to her in private.

I hate sounding preachy, but I am in love with this film and it is much more humane and beautiful than it is accredited for.