Sunday, November 27, 2005
Malleswari (2004) / Devdas (1955)
Two Indian films today, one, Malleswari, a Telugu-language musical starring Venkatesh and Katrina Kaif, the other, Devdas, a 1950s classic directed by Bimal Roy, who was the cameraman of P.C. Barua's 1935 version[s] of the tale (there were productions in two different languages that year, I believe Barua was behind both of them).
Malleswari is, as far as I can tell, a piece of mildly charming total hackwork, which is exactly what I wanted to see. I think it counts as the first nondescript, unspectacular, virtually reputation-free Indian film I've ever seen. It's not even listed in the IMDB. (Somebody correct me if this is an inaccurate characterization!) What I thought was interesting about the film was the dichotomy between its leads. Kaif is not so much a mystery: everyone seems to agree that the Indian film industry favors light-skinned women who tend to also look fairly European. From what I've read this bias has long had a place in South Asian cinema. Kaif is an Anglo-Indian who apparently can't speak Hindi (let alone, I presume, Telugu) well enough to voice her own lines (gleaned from Amardeep Singh): she's a beautiful woman and not necessarily much more. But Venkatesh! He's got no American equivalent that comes to mind, and novice that I am, I'm puzzled at what elements of his star status and image are generic and which ones are peculiar to him. Is he considered good-looking? (The film makes jokes about his ugliness. But clearly he's not that bad-looking, just something less striking than say Shahrukh Khan.) Are many male stars in Indian popular cinema required to break out Jackie Chan moves on demand?
(And what differences in star conventions are there between regional/language centers of commercial filmmaking, if any?)
No doubt as I see more I'll be able to answer some of my own questions.
Devdas is anything but a disposable work of popular cinema, though it too was made squarely within the confines of the commercial drama/song/dance film. I sort of wish that I had seen Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool, which strongly and deliberately echoes the Devdas tale, after this one. But Roy's film is a strong effort, cleanly directed, with its narrative trajectory coursing at a steady and irreversible pace towards its tragic end. In this film, too, I find the leads intriguing. Dilip Kumar, a major introductory force in naturalistic or somewhat "methodic" acting in Indian classical cinema, has a nice, intriguing face that feels to me like it can express a lot of emotion but not so much a clear and direct emotion. Perhaps it's only the role he's playing, as the film is about unrealized emotions, unattained satisfactions, and deferred love. The ending is a torrent of emotion that's been simmering underneath for the preceding two and a half hours; Kaagaz Ke Phool, by contrast, seems to let the energy of its own sad ending come in the difference between its dizzying dramatic heights and its quietist denouement.
(I've tried posting some images here to see if I know the first thing about how to use Blogger's "extra" features. Hope they work OK.)