Sunday, August 03, 2014

How I was phooled by Dev Anand’s Censor

Dev Anand’s 2001 film Censor – about a movie director’s skirmishes with a censor board made up of hypocrites – has too many wondrous things in it to discuss (or even recall) here: among them, a Kamasutra ad within a film within a film, Jackie Shroff reciting Urdu shayari, and an admirably inert scene where a policeman’s son and an underworld don’s son murder each other clumsily and then die in each other’s arms like lovers. But forget all that. Take the scene in which we first see the legendary Dev-saab. He is standing on a stage contemplating a large, motley audience of gawkers as they contemplate him. (Which is – SUBTEXTUAL ANALYSIS ALERT! – a fitting image when you consider this film’s “Who watches the watchmen?” theme.) The gawkers whisper to each other and we catch stray sentences, from the confused “Inhein kahin dekha hai” to the flickering-lightbulb “Shaayad innki tasveer akhbaar mein aayi thi” and finally the epiphanic “Arre, yeh voh film director Vikramjeet toh nahin, jo Vicky ke naam se mashhoor hain?”

Vikramjeet, of course, can hear every word, so he smiles and nods (and nods, and nods) at the last remark and announces “Jee haan, aapne theek guess kiya!” So far, so good. But then we learn that all these people were invited by him to this auditorium specifically for a preview screening of his new film “Aane Waala Kal”. Which begs the question: why did they have to “guess” his identity? Why are they so clueless about their own purpose for being here, all dressed up? Why do they behave like the doomed guests on the mysterious island at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or like the hundreds of attendees at cocktail-party book launches back in the good old days before publishers began tightening purse-strings and making authors pay for their own little chai-and-pakora shindigs)? Through the length of this film, the engaged viewer will find himself muttering these and other sentences that begin with “Why” and “How”.

It says something about my unfamiliarity with the logical arcs of Dev-saab’s last few films that I not only asked these questions honestly but was also completely misled by scenes involving the actress Archana Puran Singh. Ms Singh, who is in the audience in that preview scene (with what one can later surmise was a sceptical “show me what you’ve got, cowboy” expression on her face), arrives a few minutes later to meet Vicky. Grabbing his hands, extolling the brilliance of his film, she introduces herself as an American named Margaret Trueman, a member of the Motion Picture Academy. (“Vaise Haalivood se hoon, ek time pe actress thi vahaan par!”) She strongly recommends that Vicky nominate his movie for the foreign-language film Oscar.

And I, of course, took none of this at face value. Ms Singh’s accent here is so similar to the ludicrous voices used by Naseeruddin Shah and Bhakti Barve in Jaane bhi do Yaaro when they pretend to be “Time and Newsweek magazine ke reporter”, I simply assumed that here was a desi naari masquerading as an American and taking the piss out of this poor gullible old man for nefarious, yet-to-be-revealed reasons. (Besides, her very name points to subterfuge. True. Man. Get it?)


A further important point: there is a gargantuan, menacing, unexplained sunflower in this scene. It is at least two feet in diameter and sits on the table near where Vicky and Maggie talk. Having watched Censor twice by now, the flower remains a mystery to me, one I expect never to resolve. But during that first virginal viewing I spent most of the scene looking at it, wondering why and how it came to be there and what it would do next: would it leap out of its vase and swallow the waiter whole, or at least sing a few lines from “Build me up Buttercup”? Thinking harder and more seriously about it with my Critic’s hat on (and convinced by now that Margaret "Trueman" - huh! - was an imposter), it struck me that flowers have reproductive functions and perhaps this one was a clever visual code, telling us that “Maggie” was an illegitimate, unacknowledged daughter of Vikram, back for revenge. In such a reading, the sunflower could be a symbol: people have babies, and then those babies grow up and become monstrous, uncontrollable things and devour their parents.

Anyway, for this reason and others, I continued to be misled about Maggie. Later in the film, she is supposedly back in Los Angeles and speaks with Vikram on the phone (still gushing about how he absolutely must go to the Oscars), and we see her sitting alone in a generic room with a large wall-hanger: a huge photo -
a little faded, with visible creases - of a nighttime American skyline. That clinches it, I said to myself. This woman is not just a fake but a loon who is obsessed with America. Who else would cover almost their entire wall with an ugly blown-up photograph of featureless skyscrapers when so many far more aesthetically pleasing US-themed options are available, such as this poster of Love at Times Square?

And so it went, with me second-guessing everything Maggie said, and wondering when the big twist would come. More than three-fourths of Censor had passed when I realised with a shock that Margaret Trueman really was a full-blooded American and a member of the Motion Picture Academy who really had seen Oscar-worthiness in Vikram’s film. And that the wall-hanger was intended to be a real, honest-to-goodness depiction of the very American view outside her very American room. And the sunflower was probably just a flower.

Once this penny dropped, all my assumptions and expectations had to be reshuffled. I had been watching this film as a suspense thriller, but now I saw with blinding clarity that it was a profound meditation on the relationship between an artist who is ahead of his times and the uncomprehending world that seeks to keep him in chains. As Maggie puts it in her first scene, “So inspiring, awwwsome, so great!”

P.S. In the hope of conveying how much hard work and artistic vigour can go into the creation of something like Censor, here is a relevant extract from Dev-saab’s magnificent autobiography Romancing with Life (a book I also wrote about here and here):

Another film was in the making in my mind; I would call it Censor. The rough storyline and a hazy sketch of the characters started being drawn on the canvas of my mind. I needed absolute isolation to help my thinking process. I drove to Mahabaleshwar, which I always do when I want to be completely by myself […] I started writing furiously. Ideas flow as my pen feels the touch of paper on its tip. When I’m writing, time ceases to be. I forget all about thirst or hunger. My excitement is what sustains me.
Watch Censor. You will never be thirsty or hungry again.

17 comments:

  1. Much salute to you for even watching this film. Oh, wait! Did you say T-W-I-C-E?

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    1. (In fairness, I fast-forwarded parts of the Govinda item number the second time around.)

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  2. Can't believe you watched it twice. I mean, why watch even once?

    (Just had to ask! Apologies for repeating Nimish Dalal's point.)

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    1. why watch even once?

      Anon: if that's a serious question, then I have no idea how to answer it. I don't really understand such questions. (Apart from anything else, if a film gives me material for writing a post that I really enjoyed writing, that should be reason enough.)

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    2. Was a mix of serious and rhetorical. Not being a blogger or columnist , the thought didn't occur that somebody may decide to watch a bad film to get material for a post.

      Back to Dev Anand: he was wonderful on twitter - generous, honest, not narcissistic. He seemed too sensible and intelligent to make all those awful films and not even realise they are awful.
      https://twitter.com/itsmedevanand


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    3. That wasn't the reason for watching the film in the first place - I'm not one of those who believes you can know for certain that a film is going to be "bad", before you actually watch it. And even bad/mediocre films can provide fodder for thought anyway. For a professional writer, all sorts of experiences - good, bad, terrible - can be valuable in some way or the other.

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  3. the snark/"satire" is all well, but doesn't it behoove a reviewer to write a post on why and under what circumstances did Dev Anand, a capital A actor, chose to do such a piece of junk?

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    1. No. No one is required to write anything that they don't care to write about at a particular point in time. And that sort of analysis would be out of place in a jokey post like this one. I will, of course, retain the option of writing laudatory things about Dev Anand's other work as and when I feel like it.

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  4. This sounds so utterly amazingly awful. I almost want to watch it myself.

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    1. I almost want to watch it myself.

      Carla: that "almost" is the life-raft in the ocean of that sentence. Heed its wisdom and float to safety.

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  5. @Carla:
    Please, do watch it. Especially the Govinda number. F. Y. I. For the purpose of this movie, let's just accept that the Academy Awards feature live performances of item numbers from movies just like the Filmfares. Happy viewing!

    @Jai,
    Thank you so much for recalling this gem of a movie after such a long time. I don't think it takes anything away from Dev Anand's better works to acknowledge the utter cheesiness of his later life's work. How an actor who has been part of some of the finest filmmaking teams of all times could remain so clueless of any of the creative and technical aspects that go into making a half decent movie is subject for an entire thesis.

    Still and with not a trace of sarcasm I can say that I do adore Dev Anand the director for he had his heart in the right place. A lot of things he tried to say in his films hold a lot more common sense and wisdom than the lambastic crap mainstream Bollywood feeds us.

    If only he knew how to use the medium to convey these ideas...

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  6. Deepti: agreed. And well put. I keep returning to his book - diving into it randomly for a few pages - and I have to say: for all the mind-boggling things in it at the level of narcissism, exaggeration, florid language or general inappropriateness, it is one of the most direct and honest memoirs I have ever read. ("Honest" not necessarily in the limited sense of complete truthfulness, but in the sense of using a voice that conveys all the essential things about the personality, for good and for bad.)

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  7. The 5th paragraph is priceless! I have printed out a pdf of this page to make sure I can return to it whenever I feel the urge to roll around on the floor clutching my stomach! :p

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    1. unjustly: thanks. Have to write stuff like this once in a while to keep sanity intact (sort of) - life is just too unfunny in most other ways...

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  8. (I put up this comment yesterday, but have a feeling it didn't go through. Therefore, re-posting.)

    Somehow, the later-years Dev Anand reminds me of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard.

    On almost every wall in Madras, you tend to find "P. James Magic Show - 98410 72571" written in black paint. A friend thought the whole thing was an elaborate urban joke until he saw an article about P. James in the newspaper!

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    1. I think he was a lot more cheery and optimistic than Norma could ever be though - even if the whole film industry ganged up and sent him a notice saying he was completely irrelevant and had been making rubbish for years, he would think of it as a sign of their undying affection and respect for him...

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