Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sublime, meet surreal - thoughts on Chalti ka Naam Gaadi

A still from the classic comedy Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, wherein a signboard in the motor-repair shop asks the manic Kishore Kumar to “play safe”:


When I first saw that ad in the background of another shot, I thought it was for fuel, and this seemed inappropriate – surely this man, of all people, needs no external source of energy. But then I realised it was for brake fluid, which made sense – it’s as if the very set is beseeching him to slow down. Many a doughtier wall (not to mention writer, director or co-performer) must have made similar requests over Kishore Kumar’s career, to no avail.

In an essay about the “ugliness” of the male actor in Hindi cinema, and how this reflects life, Mukul Kesavan observed, “The first thing that strikes the eye gazing upon India is that the men can be nearly as ugly as sin […] Indian heroes look the way they do because desperate male audiences pay money to watch men like themselves succeed with beautiful women […] Hindi cinema is unfairly dismissed as escapism: it is, in fact, a great reality machine designed to remind Indian men of their good fortune and to reconcile Indian women to their fate.”


The piece is tongue in cheek, but even where it contains patches of real social observation, I don’t think you can apply it to one of the most unusual romantic pairings in Hindi-movie history: Madhubala and Kishore Kumar. Here’s the rub: in so many of the scenes these two did together, even with her ethereal presence on the screen, it is difficult to take your eyes off him. The clichéd way of describing them would be “the sublime and the ridiculous”, but it’s really more like “sublime and sublimer”.

To clarify, I don’t think Kishore Kumar was bad-looking at all, though there may be a psychological component to this (from early childhood, I have associated the man with so many wonderful things – initially as a singer, later as an actor – that my reptile brain would probably raise its drawbridge against the very suggestion that he was “ugly”). But one may safely concede he wasn’t anywhere near as beautiful as Madhubala. Someone who knew nothing about the two of them might, if they saw a still photo of them together, think of court jesters and fairy princesses, if not gargoyles and damsels.

It’s when that still photo resolves itself into the moving image that one discovers that the jester unbound is really the centre of the frame, while Madhubala is more often than not happy to be the gorgeous foil. And a good example of this is in the Chalti ka Naam Gaadi song “Main Sitaron ka Tarana” (a.k.a. “Paanch Rupaiya Baarah Aana”). The scene is built on a brilliant juxtaposition: the beautiful woman who poses like a classical statue worthy of adoration,
a Galatea waiting for her Pygmalion; and the crackpot who is concerned with the practical business of getting the money she owes him. First Renu (Madhubala) glides about the room singing the self-exalting lines “Main sitaaron ka taraana, main bahaaron ka fasaana / leke ik angdaai mujhpe daal nazar bann jaa deewaana” and then Manmohan (KK) struts into the frame like a cockerel, giggling dementedly like Mickey Rooney’s Puck in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just watch:




Within the context of the film, this fantasy sequence is one of the breeziest depictions in 1950s cinema of the rich-girl-poor-boy theme, with its contrast between the privileged heroine who can afford to forget her purse in a garage and the hard-working mechanic who must get his mazdoori no matter what. Also note that it is presented as Manmohan’s dream as he lies sleeping in the back of Renu’s car:
there is a subconscious recognition that she is an attractive woman, but at this early stage he is heavily conditioned by fear of his stern elder brother and the need to get his 92 annas. This will extend into their relationship later, where she is the desirous one taking the initiative, making romantic overtures, while he doesn’t quite articulate to himself what is going on between them.

I was surprised at how well Chalti ka Naam Gaadi held up after all these years, despite the fact that the film has an almost obligatory “serious track” about big brother Brij Mohan (Ashok Kumar) and his tragic thwarted romance – and such tracks can be the kiss of death for a lunatic comedy. But part of what makes that work is that the eldest of the Ganguly brothers plays his role dead straight right from the beginning. 

 
“Ashok Kumar was a charming man, but he had the physical presence of a cupboard wearing a dressing gown,” Kesavan writes elsewhere in that same essay. It’s a funny line, but not one I can agree with: AK was often miscast or made poor choices, especially from the late 1950s onward, but he was one of the giants of our cinema and I think he had wonderful presence in his better roles. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi may contain one of his most underappreciated performances (something that often happens when an actor associated with dramas or social-message films appears in an “inconsequential” comedy). He offsets the clowning about of his younger brothers, playing the straight man without ever becoming a foil (he is too canny and too much in control for that – that role falls to middle brother Anoop) and this adds layers to the chemistry between the siblings. 

I love little touches such as the one where Brij, apologising to Renu late in the film, says “Main boxer hoon, mera dimaag bhi boxer…” and then trails off. There are other “dramatic” moments like this that stop just short of becoming maudlin or dragging the film down, simply because the acting makes the characters believable irrespective of whether they are being funny or serious (or both). And of course, because Kishore Kumar is such a force of nature in nearly every scene he is in that some “brake fluid” is always welcome.

17 comments:

  1. its 5 rs 12 anna
    1 rs = 16 anna so its 102 anna and not 92 anna as you mention

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    1. Or perhaps you need to do a recount?

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    2. How does one post a pedantic comment based on numbers on a piece about a great performer...and then get the numbers wrong?

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    3. ha ha yes, my trolls are so enthusiastic that they often dive without realising the swamp has dried up.

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  2. Bravo Jai! I must say that i love your reviews of songs immensely! You uncover new meanings into beloved songs,that I never thought of before.

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    1. Thanks. Should actually have added this to the earlier posts about song sequences, with a link to some of the others. Didn't really think of it that way when I started writing it.

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  3. To me the amazing thing about Kishore Kumar is that not only does he command your attention when you are looking at his movies but so does his voice when he is singing. I discovered his songs in reverse chronological order, which made me appreciate his abilities even more.

    As another data point about Kishore Kumar's vocal reach is that my 5 year old son just adores his songs (of course some gentle nudging from his father helped). He will get into dhinka-chikas once in a while but he always is into a Kishore Kumar song: from Chhota sa ghar hoga to Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si (had never thought about the play safe angle-- so thanks!) to currently Nakhrewaali.

    He is not old enough to sit through a hindi movie yet (not knowing the language does not help) but can't wait to expose Kishore Kumar the actor to him.

    --atri

    ps: Thanks for the link to Kishore Kumar's interview. I had never read it before: it was fascinating!

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    1. Atri: yes, that interview is quite something, isn't it? Think it went viral on the net a few months ago, but I first read it in the film-writing anthology The Greatest Show on Earth.

      My first sense of KK the singer was through a treasured audio cassette of my childhood, a "songs from Prakash Mehra-Amitabh Bachchan films" collection. My favourite song in that - still a favourite - was "O Saathi Re" from Muqaddar ka Sikandar. At the time I probably didn't think much about who had really sung the song though...

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    2. Read this remarkable interview for the first time. The playful chemistry between Pritish Nandy and Kishore Kumar adds to the fun. Of course, the madness and mayhem are Kishore Kumar all the way, but Nandy's involvement shines though (the delicious extended conversation about rat-eaten income tax files a case in point). Also, if the original answers were in Hindi, Nandy has done a great job of translation.

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  4. The thing that never fails to amuse me about that song is the incongruity of the modern handbag and Madhubala's Mughal-princess dress.

    That, and 'hoii lalla dhinga lalla'.

    PS. I wouldn't call KK handsome or ugly - surely he was just average looking? But what personality.

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    1. Oh yes, the handbag! Going through the post again, I realise I have undermined the worth of Madhubala's own subtler comic talents - have sort of covered it by calling her a willing foil to KK, but could have elaborated on it...

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  5. Think of Kishore Kumar as ugly? I'm sorry, I never ever can do that, even if I tried. Not even when I see him next to Madhubala. Yes, Madhubala is divinely beautiful. But Kishore Kumar is enchanting in his own way! I'm too much in love with his movies and songs. So many of my favourite songs are in his voice. And it doesn't matter whether they are funny or serious, his voice makes them magical.
    Thanks for the video, always a pleasure to watch these songs.

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    1. Jyoti: oh yes. The songs were such a treasure chest in themselves while one was growing up, but then to discover the inspired lunacy of the man himself - that's just a brilliant bonus.

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  7. At an overall level, Kesavan's point about ugly male actor paired with a beautiful female actor is fine. However, he maintained throughout that piece that how Hindi movie male actors have always been ugly. This, I think, is an incorrect assertion. From Dev Anand, early Raj Kapur, Shashi Kapur, Vinod Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan (post Zanjeer phase till today), Jackie Shroff and then Hrithik Roshan and several others in modern day banked so much on their good looks. Beauty is subjective, though, but I guess it is tough to find people who will name Hrithik Roshan in a list of ugly actors which contains names like Rajendra Kumar. I am not a Roshan fan though. Kesavan did not even touch upon the fact that post 90s, Saif Ali Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Shahid Kapur have started a trend wherein the male lead is supposed to be groomed really well. This is to attract female audience who are increasingly becoming more important to film business. This is just an observation on Kesavan's note not about your post.

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  8. Jai, I neglected to thank you for this delightful analysis of what might actually be my single favorite Hindi movie. One of the things I love about Kishore Kumar's romantic comedies - and it happens not just with Madhubala, but with Nutan too in Dilli ka Thug - is that these gorgeous, competent, professional women are delighted and charmed by him, and the way they smile while watching him do his thing is the same way we, the audience smile at him. They don't exactly get out of his way - they remain present and beautiful - but they somehow ground and focus his looniness and just make it okay to relax and let him be insane. The moment in "Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si" where Madhubala's ire finally melts to his adorable attempts to cheer her up, where she finally gives in and lets herself smile at him, is one of my all-time favorite moments in cinema.

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    1. thanks Carla, and yes, that's a very nice observation about the women. (I gave Madhubala short shrift in this post, could have said more about her comic skills too.) It makes me wonder: would someone like Waheeda Rehman have been able to fit into the KK world? I can't imagine it, but who knows...

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