Tuesday 10 June 2008

Chori Chori (1956)

Preamble: Thanks to Sanket for alerting us to this amazing movie via his excellent post on its music. (The back cover of the album is our new desktop wallpaper!) Also, thanks to the excellent Parties, Sarees and Melodies, in their infinite generosity, for doing a post about its music as well.

Raj and Nargis burning up the screen.

As we mentioned on Memsaab's blog, recently we've been feeling like Your Friendly Raj Kapoor Apologist. Not only on the blog world, but even in real life, we find ourselves saying things like, "Sure, he objectified Zeenat, but Awaara is kinda feminist!" and "Yes, yes, I know, but he was really effective when restrained!" It seems that, as per our previous discussion of the Good Raj and the Over the Top Raj, most people's opinion is tipped over into the dislike side of things. However, we remain big big fans of Raj, and, lately, defenders of his awesomeness. Like any performer, he had his good and bad days - and we think his good moments far outweigh his bad moments (though his bad moments are, yes, pretty bad). At least, the artist of Awaara and Teesri Kasam will always be treasured by the PPCC!

Chori Chori is another example of Raj at his best - though, that said, the movie really belongs to Nargis. This was one of those movies that we enjoyed so much that, even though the ending is happy, we were left depressed. Sigh! If only life was like it is in Chori Chori! Alas.

There are a couple classical-ish numbers in the film.

A remake of It Happened One Night (and not the only Hindi remake, apparently), Chori Chori has exactly the same rakish, knowing, gentle-with-a-bite humor that characterized Hollywood romantic comedies during the 1930s and 40s. It could be the Hindi cousin of Sabrina or The Philadelphia Story, except it has an added bonus of incredible songs (and these are a big bonus in this movie!).

Nargis stars as Kammo, a spoiled, ultra-rich heiress who jumps off her father's yacht and swims to Madras in a stubborn effort to show him who's boss (he clearly concedes that she is, as we all do). Insert first amazing song. The source of Shakespearean disagreement between father and daughter is Kammo's choice of husband - she is madly in love with the smarmy Suman (PRAN!!!). Understandable. It is Pran. PRAN. But Kammo's father (an excellent Gope), like most people, believes Suman is just marrying into their money. Kammo refuses to believe this and, after numerous thrown dishes, thrown tantrums and bodies thrown into the sea, she arrives in Madras, jewelry pawned and in disguise.

Nargis is one classy lady in this. We loved her!

But how can she love the smarmy Suman? Maybe because under all that smarm, there shines the wonderfulness of PRAN!!!

There she meets Sagar (Raj Kapoor), the cliché hardbitten/softcore fedora-wearing writer-journalist of black and white cinema. (Lovin' it!) Channeling more Humphrey Bogart than Charlie Chaplin, thank God, Raj Kapoor is restrained, sarcastic, and great. When Sagar and Kammo catch the bus to Bangalore together, they fuss and argue with gusto. Clearly, they are on the road to the big L. Indeed, the wonderful chemistry between Raj and Nargis is at it again; they are so great together.

Enter the two comedy subplots. Since there are Kammo wanted ads all over the newspaper, a couple of your usual proletarian comedians, Bhagwan (Bhagwan) and his wife (Raja Sulochana), are desperate to find Kammo and collect the massive reward. They embark hence on a mini adventure to find her, and much hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, a lecherous poet (Johnny Walker) sits next to Kammo on the bus and proceeds to torture her with his awful poetry. After Sagar threatens him and implies he's a big shot dacoit, the terrified poet decides to bring the whole family around - that's one wife and ten kids - for an apology, and much more hilarity ensues.

From Panchhi Banu Udati Phiru, which was so perfect that we became tearful. And how interesting: the YouTube commenter says Nehru loved this song too.

A moment from the equally excellent and sweet Jahan Main Jaati Hoon. Clearly the inspiration for Phir Raat Kati, our favorite song from Paheli.

Film analytics-wise, what struck us most was the major theme of marriage, treated as a tragicomic ball-and-chain satire rather than domestic bliss (see Masoom, The Son's Room, Baseraa, or even just Vinod and Shabana's verse from Hamko Tumse Ho Gaya from Amar Akbar Antony if you want to see married life treated as a domestic Elysium). Marriage is everywhere in Chori Chori, and not always in a positive way. Kammo, above all, wants to marry the leery Pran, even when everyone is telling her not to. Sagar and Kammo often have to disguise themselves as a married couple in order to get into inns on their way from Madras to Bangalore. There are numerous on-screen arguments between married couples: between both sets of innkeepers, between both sets of comedy subplots, between Raj and Nargis when they must pretend to be married, and between Raj and Nargis again when they imagine themselves puppets in a puppet show. Much of the humor also comes from this gentle teasing of married life. In one scene, an innkeeper kicks Raj's butt, Marx Bros.-style, and then concludes, "Yes, this man is married. He didn't flinch when I hit him. He must be used to abuse."

Indeed, the whole treatment of love and marriage is very similar to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The couple in each story - Sagar and Kammo, Benedick and Beatrice - didn't fall in love via the usual lightning-bolt, puppy-dog-eyes cliché. Rather, both only came to love each other after a lot of bitching and arguing and misunderstanding. And, if we remember correctly, it was literary critic Harold Bloom in Invention of the Human who noted that, at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, we get no guarantee that Benedick and Beatrice will live, married, happily ever after. Quite the opposite, it seems! Similarly, given Chori Chori's humorous pessimism regarding married life and Sagar and Kammo's already prickly interactions, we get the vibe that they too will be having their arguments down the road. Overall, Chori Chori exhibits that same sort of "benign nihilism" (Bloom's term) that characterizes several of Shakespeare's romantic comedies - an attitude that is both cynical and forgiving towards love.

Sagar: kinda loving her, kinda hating her.

Another similarity that the Kammo/Sagar-Benedick/Beatrice couples share (and we love) is cryptic allusions to their pasts. One thing that always struck us - especially after Kenneth Branagh's sun-soaked Tuscan Much Ado... - is the vague allusions to a past relationship between Benedick and Beatrice. In particular, these lines of dialogue stick out:
DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.

BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

Winning each other's hearts with false dice? A double heart for his single? Hmm, sounds like someone's been dumped.

Sagar seems similarly scorched by some past wrong (or maybe that's just the standard jaded attitude characters like him are supposed to have). The line of dialogue that jumped out for us - with the caveat that this was subtitled and we're paraphrasing - is when, after having his busride nap disrupted, he says, "No problem. I've had so many sleepless nights, what's one more?" Hmm.

In terms of performances, Nargis really makes the movie. Upperstall's review of the movie calls her the "dizzy heiress" - that's an apt description. A character like Kammo could have easily become someone the audience hates - a petulant, spoiled snob stereotype. Instead, Nargis manages to make Kammo obviously spoiled, yet sympathetic. It's like we're seeing her through Sagar's eyes: her sense of entitlement, her brash and confrontational behaviors seem sweetly disconnected with reality. It's obvious she's been sheltered in a gilded cage for very long, and it's likewise plain that her personality is a force to be reckoned with. Nargis also displays great range: playing both extremes of comedy (the puppet show!) and drama (the misunderstood betrayal!) with talent.

Raj, not a performer who usually took the backseat, shares the stage well and often lets Nargis outshine him, so that Sagar remains almost a secondary character. We've always said Raj was at his best when he was restrained, and here he is, and how! In fact, it's wonderful to juxtapose his relatively toned down scenes as Sagar to his brief spell as a puppet in Jahan Main Jaati Hoo, where he is free to be as over-the-top as he wants - and it's a great sort of OTT!

We would be remiss not to mention the obviously fascinating meta aspect of Raj and Nargis' reported real-life affair. Somewhat ironically, this was their final film together and Nargis went on to marry Sunil Dutt (Suman/Pran?) in 1959. Even though the popular rumor might be false, thinking about it during the film lends everything a sad touch. Sigh.

And finally: the music! What a great soundtrack - all swaying Shankar-Jaikishen melodies! And what great picturizations! The visuals resembled the stark, stylized songs of Awaara, with numerous dramatic shots of the clouds, with geometric patterns made of light, shade and people. Pancchi Banu Udati Phiru and Us Paar Sajan stand out for us as excellent examples of Hindi Music Perfection. We also noted that the songs are primarily from a female POV. Nargis gets two item numbers (the sublime Rasik Balma and the springtime frollicking of Pancchi...) and there are three additional female dance numbers. Indeed, Raj has no songs to himself, and only comes in on the three love duets (Aaja Sanam, Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi, Jahan Main Jaati Hoo) - and, in two of them, he comes in second! This is all very notable to us, as all the gender conventions are reversed.

Overall, an excellent film and one of our favorite Hindi films so far.


Anonymous said...

This was one of the first "old" Hindi films I saw (before I had any real idea about Raj or Nargis) and I really did like it too :-) No need to apologize for this one! (Or ever, in fact.) This is a lovely review, I may have to take this film out again---you make me want to see it!

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

Wow! Sounds fantastic! Is it fair of my Hollywood-raised brain to say that it sounds like maybe Nargis's character has a Katharine Hepburn sort of vibe to her? The bold heiress that you can't help but like?

Filmi Girl said...

I certainly fall on the dislike end of things when it comes to Raj Kapoor - can anyone really forgive Mera Naam Joker? - but this looks wonderful.

(Really, I was sold on the first smarmy screencap of PRAN. I think in his bio the author mentions that Raj was one of the first in Bollywood to cast Pran in a positive role, although it was really Manoj who gave him the big push from Villain to Charactor Actor.)

ajnabi said...

It Happened One Night is one of my all-time faves, so a Hindi version with standout music is a must-see. What a cool movie! And lovin' the Nargis, as always.

Temple said...

I just finished watching this and what a delight it was! The songs were beautiful, especially the first pastoral idyll number, and I LOVED the puppet song - not just for the puppet shtick but for the way it lead into the deepening relationship.
One question - How many pairs of stripy pj's does one man need to carry in what is a rather small valise? Really?