Tuesday 18 December 2007

Chor Sipahee (1977)

Before The Departed, before Infernal Affairs... there was Chor Sipahee. Warning: long review!

Happiness, the warm gun.

Remember how the PPCC enjoyed the moral ambiguities of the double agents in Infernal Affairs, most particularly the cop who's been undercover for so long he's becoming confused as to his moral core? And remember the absolute cuddly satisfaction of the gangster's ultimate conversion to goodness, as in Kasme Vaade? Well, in Chor Sipahee, the cop is played by a bearded Shashi Kapoor who starts to resemble more and more Naseeruddin Shah (especially in the first item number). And the gangster is played by Vinod Khanna with an awesome haircut, still wearing those high-heeled shoes from Parvarish. Naturally this is already proving to be wonderful.

Further particulars on Chor Sipahee (Thief-Cop): crime lairs without walls, a Saudi prince stereotype who also wears riding boots (?) and has a striking resemblance to Shah Rukh Khan, the fifteen minutes of fame of Macmohan - where we learn that he is very wiry and a fast runner and can do more than just dress up the background, and the altogether bizarre aesthetic experience of Shashi Kapoor's costume design (provided, of course, by his wife, Jennifer Kapoor).

We really need to get the costume design thing off our chest first, or else this will review will never make any sense. Bollywood Fugly, are you listening?

Shashi's sipahee (cop, soldier, trooper), Shankar, is introduced to us as a bearded ragamuffin chain-smoking undercover world-weary bad-ass. He even twists his wrist in weary resignation and smiles sadly - all very much a la Naseer in Naajayaz. It's delightful! The first item song is sublime, where Shankar sings, "Don't ask me my name. Even I don't know who I am," and then, when the melody becomes painfully, beautifully melancholy, tells the pickpocket on the train, "You were not what you turned out to be. You've become such a coward." (And the ultimate poignancy is how the lyrics seem directed to Shankar's father! See below.) Oh, the humanity!

Unfortunately, the Cruelty of the Internet has struck again and we at the PPCC cannot show you this truly lovely, evocative, masala perfection song because no one has had the forethought of uploading it to YouTube. Hmm.

Anyway, we were talking about aesthetics. First, Shashi Kapoor playing Naseeruddin Shah:

An unwashed, proletarian Shashi? Who knew he could pull it off so well!

Then, Shashi Kapoor playing his older brother Raj Kapoor, circa Awaara. That is, with a moustache, matinee idol soft focus close-ups, and cigarette smoke slowly curling from his lips. That's choice, right there.

Of all the gin joints in all the world...

Then, briefly, a little bit Sufi.

Kickin' it qawwali style!

A little bit Saudi.

Kickin' it OPEC style!

Then a quick and violent decline into muffin tops and bandanas and, Bollywood Fugly writers, if you need more pictures, just ask.

Not kicking any style anymore.

And then a spectacular ascent into sights unseen of aesthetic perfection. It's really the big tinted glasses and the pipe that does it in for the PPCC. Could he be any sexier? The answer is no.

Kickin' it bad-ass groovy suave style.

The plot of Chor Sipahee is a joy. First, there is the bestial, boyish Raja (Vinod Khanna), a petty crime boss, always in and out of jail. His mother (Durga Khote) and sister, Bharti (Parveen Babi), are getting desperate: they beg Raja to give up his life of crime. Bharti even goes so far as to throw Raja out of the house; she's a newspaper reporter of the blackmailing, muck-raking variety, and she can support the family if need be. Raja hence moves into his criminal lair: the floor of an unfinished building which interestingly has no walls. Enter Shankar (Shashi Kapoor), described above, who has just returned to Bombay after slumming it around India, trying to clean up the urban centers (so far, he's had success in Delhi and Calcutta). Shankar is a maverick in the police force; his father was a convicted criminal who was hanged, the grief of which led his mother to kill herself. This dark and disturbing past has given him sympathy for and identification with the criminal underworld, as well as a strong anti-capital punishment stance, obviously. Shankar is completely against punishment, and completely for rehabilitation via an appeal to the criminals' humanity. After all, that chor (thief) was probably someone's father (Vijay and Ravi certainly know about that!) or husband or brother or son.

When Shankar meets Raja, he immediately sees a chance to belatedly and spiritually save his father, and so embarks on a quest to rehabilitate Raja. Raja, however, remains unenlightened and brutish: he slaps his sister, he drinks and steals, and, when Shankar makes the ultimate sacrifice of burning evidence in order to get Raja out of jail, Raja merely runs back to the Saudi crime boss whose business he covets. (Parenthetically, the crime boss, Jamal (Ranjeet), looks a lot like SRK circa Hey Ram.) Things become emotionally complicated, as per filmi usual. Raja misinterprets Shankar's help as the hand of friendship, and yet Shankar dismisses these appeals in the song, "Chor Sipahee mein hoti dosti nehi!" A thief and a policeman can never be friends. Raja is understandably hurt. And Raja is then bewildered when Shankar joins the criminal gang, rises to the top, and begins to out-evil the evil Jamal. (Wait, does this mean we can be friends now?) What he doesn't realize is that Shankar has decided to disgust Raja by showing him the logical extremes of being a villain: he proclaims that family means nothing anymore, he lets Bharti demean herself by dancing the booty-shake to a room full of lecherous goondas. As Shankar takes on more and more of Raja's sins, Raja is effectively wiped clean (like a Clean Slate - Kora Kagaz! see below), eventually rebelling against a life of crime altogether. Once Raja is purified, Shankar must pay for his criminality, even it is was faux, and he goes to prison. By this point, it has been revealed that Shankar's intentions were sacrificial - he was a "mirror" for Raja to see himself objectively in, he even sang in the initial song that if only criminals could see themselves from the outside, they would turn good - and hence Vinod Khanna is compelled, once again, to cry.

Vinod and Shabana. Shabinod? Vinabana?

Sometimes I too can rock. MAC THE ROCK.

Ranjeet? Or Shah Rukh Khan?

Thematically, it's all very Dostoyevsky, very crime and punishment. The savage subject under study is Raja. He's brutish, yet lovable in that it's not cruelty that drives him but childish greed. In the opening credits, he is immediately identified with children: he gets into a faux stand-off with a cheeky, fatherless kid named Kora Kagaz (Clean Slate) from the slum. Raja is, for all intents and purposes, a grown-up little boy. He pouts when his mother and sister refuse to accept his criminal activities, he throws tantrums, and he doesn't seem to understand what all the fuss is about. It's just stealing, who cares? In this respect, Shankar, the fallen angel character (and we shudder to type that because it's so cheesy-sounding but it is also accurate, so, well), is on the other end of the spectrum: the same age as Raja, and yet many years older. Indeed, Shankar is more often identified with father figures; whereas Raja is fatherless like little Kora Kagaz, Shankar has an uncle to report to (literally, his uncle's in the police force) and he lives eternally in the shadow of his father's mistakes and his father's death.

Raja, identified with children.

Shankar, identified with father figures.

Things become ironic in both text and aesthetics when, after Shankar sets Raja free, Raja joins the luxurious world of Jamal's gang, while Shankar rots away in jail, re-growing that beard of his. This juxtaposition between wealth and poverty, and this identification of wealth and poverty with immoral and moral, respectively, also gives the movie a Christian feel. And yeah, Shashi looks like a Tuscan-style Jesus, what with that beard and those curls and that look of sad, tired pity. Forgive Raja, society, for he knows not what he does! This "Godliness" is, naturally, intentional:

Raja's mother: Shankar!
Shankar: Shankar is the name of God. Only my name is Shankar. But I promise you, Mother. The line I have taken... I may burn in it, but I will bring back your Raja from that life of sin and crime.

Sacrificing himself for others' sins? Hmmm.

We can take the Jesus parallels even further: Shankar's "lost years" wandering India, his return to Bombay at circa 33 where he proclaims that he has come to preach (the first song's lyrics: "I have come to you people, to teach you a lesson!"), his initial prison stint as the forty days in the desert, the ending where he allows himself to be "crucified" (well, prosecuted) for Raja's sins, descending briefly into hell (prison) before rising to heaven (his release from prison and his marriage and acquisition of a long-sought for family and, one would assume, peace of mind). OMG the more we think of it, the more it makes sense. Shankar is turn-the-other-cheek embodied, champion of forgiveness and champion of the poor and second chances! Why, this might be the most Christian-themed film we've seen since Children of Men!

For once, all these interesting themes and complexities are wonderfully mirrored in the female characters as well. Unlike Shankar, Raja's sister Bharti has reacted against familial thievery by becoming an ultimate punisher: she snaps photos of pickpockets at work and then exposes them in her newspaper. Meanwhile, the rich, bourgeoise Priya (Shabana Azmi) is the daughter of a legitimate yet immoral businessman, and she immediately joins up with Raja, seeing crime as the only way to achieve any real sense of social justice (this is all very Fakira, yes). Naturally, the four of them keep bumping into each other, and Raja falls for Priya (their courtship, by the by, is brief but very sweet), while Bharti falls for Shankar, as does her mom (what? it is Shashi!).

So we have four very interesting characters:
  • Raja, who turns to crime due to his moral vacuum.
  • Bharti, who turns to vigilante punishment due to her brother's crime.
  • Shankar, who turns to vigilante forgiveness due to his father's crime.
  • Priya, who turns to crime in the illegal sense due to her father's crimes in the immoral sense.
So just like Shankar says at one point, crime and punishment affect many people, directly and indirectly. Bharti obviously falls into a lot of danger due to her vigilante justice. Likewise Shankar bends and bends until he almost breaks during his quest to get Raja back to the good side; at one point, after he has lost his job as a policeman and is infiltrating the Saudi crime gang, he is asked to kill his lovable informer (Kader Khan, who by the by plays Jaggi in Suhaag). Honestly, the film would have been many times more interesting, but of course much darker, if Shankar actually did kill the informer and effectively "take on" Raja's sins; it would have brought up some serious peccadillos about morality and ends vs. means and undercover cops (a la Droh Kaal or, again, Infernal Affairs) and, well, Shashi's likability. Yet, this is mainstream Hindi cinema, and so thankfully Shankar has just enough time to fiddle around with poison pills and save his hapless sidekick. Close one, though! All this may make the film feel quite dark and heavy-handed, and, yes, there is a pervasive sense of alienation and existentialism (as the qawwali song subtitles read, "You don't give away your heart, then life is meaningless, only lovers live!" Considering that neither of the four leads seem very interested in romance, this is pretty sad!). It's masala with a pretty big helping of bitterness. Yet there are also several genuinely funny moments, such as the first fistfight-to-friendship between Raja and Shankar ("Go, All India!") and Mac always getting carried around by a gang of goons. The absurdist, ironic comedy bits work very well (e.g. Shankar smashing a chair over Raja's head, while the latter stands unperturbed), but the slapstick - mostly in the form of the corrupt Doctor - unfortunately fall very flat. The performances range from heartbreakingly good to, well, heartbreakingly bad. Shashi, whose character drives the film and also is one of the most complex, is so good, and we're not just saying that because we live in Shashi Pradesh, Shashiland. The Shashi Kapoor mystique was largely based on his appeal as a bourgeoise romantic hero, much as Amitabh's was the proletarian Angry Young Man. When Shashi did play slightly rougher or less educated characters (Chor Machaye Shor, Jab Jab Phool Khile), that particular appeal has been missing. So what's surprising is how effective and charismatic Shashi is as a beaten down, brooding bad-ass from the wrong side of the tracks. For once, the PPCC actually did believe that he was a tough guy, and there was poignancy to it. And we can definitely see how Naseer was influenced by Shashi - just watch this and then watch Naajayaz. Similarly, watch Junoon, with both of them. They both even do the croaky voice thing! It's like listening to toads converse! (Tangential remarks considering Naseer vis-a-vis Shashi: we at the PPCC must admit, we still think Naseer is the best actor in India. Meaning better than Shashi, even. Shashi may be beautiful, but in more than one film he's seemed uninterested. This may have been due to that whole whoring period when he worked in anything and prompted older brother Raj to call him a "taxi" who stops for any producer who sticks out his hand. Naseer, on the other hand, is consistent quality, less of a taxi and more of a German-made car. Also Naseer is a more effective weeper; consider Monsoon Wedding for some fat, juicy, hyperrealist tears, as compared to Shashi's tears in, for example, Mukti, which include a lot of Shakespearean flailing. End tangent.)
Vinod can't see what's the problem with thieving.
Vinod Khanna, who the PPCC sometimes likes (Muqaddar ka Sikandar) and sometimes dislikes (Parvarish), was likable in this and was particularly good at acting like, well, a handsome beefhead. Just as he did in Muqaddar ka Sikandar, he was also very effective at registering grief, especially in the end. Shabana Azmi has barely anything to do (sorry, Filmi Geek!), though what she does do is interesting. Her character is very sympathetic and fun - the whole stuck-in-a-gilded-cage thing coupled with rebellion based on ethics. Parveen Babi was generally much more enjoyable in Suhaag, though we must say we at the PPCC loved (!) her journalist outfit. If only our hair curled like that! Ranjeet-the-SRK-lookalike was pretty terrible and no doubt offensive to anyone from Saudi Arabia, and Asrani, who appears in so many of these Shashi 70s vehicles, was absolutely awful as the corrupt doctor. Partly this was a mistake in casting (why put a slapstick comedian in the role of the evil doctor?) but this was also Asrani's ineptness when push came to shove. He was the one clanging note that never meshed with the rest of the film's vibe. (Fab segue into...) The music! The music was enjoyable, with Shankar's intro item, Mujhse Mera Naam Na Puccho (Don't Ask Me My Name), standing out. The lyrics and melody were both beautiful and they captured Shankar's character perfectly; the PPCC just loves when the songs are such efficient, evocative storytelling devices. Also, we enjoyed the numerous references within the song. At one point, Shankar jumps onto a zooming truck filled with women, much as his brother Raj did in Awaara's Awaara Huun (I'm a Tramp). In both songs, there's a feeling of conspiratorial joy, of sharing an instant comraderie with the poor, except Shankar is a sad force of good in the slums and Raj was, for better or worse, a happy force of evil (well, he was a tramp). Another fun reference is when Shankar goes down to the cinema to nab the ticket scouts; what movie should be playing but Bobby, directed by older brother Raj, and starring Shashi's nephew, Rishi, with music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal (who, incidentally, composed the music you are currently hearing). Similarly, later on in the film, Bharti buys a rakhi for Raja, and the rakhi wallah informs her that "this one's called Satyam Shivam Sundaram!" Is your head spinning yet?
Duniya Hai Aati Jaati.
Anyway, back to the music: the second item, Duniya Hai Aati Jaati (The World Goes On) is wonderful too, but we always enjoy qawwali showdowns or, well, any qawwali. The lyrics capture the characteristically Sufi questioning of reality and perception ("What is good? What, evil?/What is sorrow, what is joy?"; see Rumi and Mirza Ghalib for lots more on this) coupled with a devotional, transcendental love of Allah that drives everything (as the lyrics say, this love is "an excuse to live" an otherwise bleak life in this "world that just keeps going on"!). Coupled with the earlier Christian parallels of Shashi's character, the PPCC muses that this film might be the cinematic equivalent of Yann Martel's Life of Pi: both feature a love of humanity, genuine pain for our human weaknesses, and an argument for pluralistic theism as an antidote to and coping mechanism for an otherwise difficult reality. We say pluralistic because Pi was a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim; and it seems Shankar is Christ-centric, while Raja is a Hindu with Muslim ties. Also, incidentally, the bridge in this song is transcendetal enough that the PPCC once again reaffirmed its love of Sufism. It almost sounded, oddly, like something out of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, or even a little Explosions in the Sky-esque. Sad and beautiful and immense. (And it was hilarious to watch Shashi pull off one fake moustache to reveal a second one underneath.) Overall, as you can tell by the length of this review and the depth with which we dug in our viewing of it, this is a fascinating and addictive blend hiding in a standard masala packet. We've watched the first two songs already more than a dozen times each. We've evaluated the dialogue in some scenes to a silly degree. To paraphrase Shakespeare, for once, there is past but no prologue. For once, we can see no place where Amitabh would fit in. The tragicomedy of the four leads is pitch perfect, as are the songs, as are Shashi and Vinod's costumes, as are the fascinating undercurrents of existentialism and despair and pluralism, as are the fun details (e.g. Mac! Kora Kagaz!). DVD Warning: the subtitles on the Sky DVD of this (produced in the States, we think) go mental towards the end, appearing about 30 seconds before the actual dialogue is spoken. Some scenes also have tiny snippets missing, which cause the subtitles to experience even more grief. It's watchable and comprehensible, but it's annoying. Good for those Main Pratap Hoons out there who need listening comprehension exercises.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Pictures first - yes please, Bollywood Fugly would like more pictures. Thank you!

TheDanceLover said...

Please also post some snaps of Aruna Irani's too, as she was probably too there in this film as an guest appearance for a song (i guess,not sure).
Kindly please inform something about Aruna Irani's presence in this film.

Must say that great snaps you've taken! 70s style simply rocks and the best! isn't it?