While X2 and The Matrix Reloaded have been tearing up the box office on this side of the planet, I've been spending time immersed in something very different, and yet strangely similar, from halfway across the globe.
For the past few weeks, I've been soaking up hour after hour of Indian movies in preparation for a month-long 12-film festival being aired in June on Turner Classic Movies. The TCM festival is an unprecedented homage to Bollywood, the tag by which the booming Bombay-centered film industry is commonly referred, and will feature pristine prints of rarely seen classics from the 1950s all the way through Hindi blockbusters made just a year or two ago.
Despite the success of Bollywood-influenced domestic fare like Moulin Rouge, Hindi movies remain largely unknown in this country, even though, globally speaking, they're probably the most popular movies on the planet. India boasts the largest and most prolific film industry in the entire world, producing roughly 1,000 films per year — far surpassing the quantity (and, some would argue, quality) of Hollywood's annual product. There are quite a few well-respected directors of serious Indian art films in the tradition of Satyajit Ray, but most of what the country produces falls, pure and simple, into the category of entertainment extravaganzas. These are big films, both in the archetypal nature of their characters and stories, and in their sheer length (the average Hindi movie runs three hours). They're made either to get the audience's blood racing or strictly for fun. Sometimes both.
They're also almost always musicals. A half dozen or more song and dance numbers are featured in your average Hindi movie, a priority traced back to classical Indian theatrical and folk traditions, where drama, music and dance are all virtually synonymous (the same Sanskrit word is, in fact, used for each). Clearly defined genres are rare; Hindi films combine anything and everything, from romance to comedy to over-the-top tragedy, to action-adventure to thriller to something resembling sci-fi, all in the space of a single cinematic breath, usually accompanied by a rousing tune and an elaborately choreographed soft shoe.
Co-hosted by filmmaker and one-half of the Merchant-Ivory team, Ismail Merchant, the TCM festival will finally make some of the best of Bollywood available to American audiences. The movies will air every Thursday in June and will basically run all night — so start setting those VCRs now.
Of all the films in this festival, probably the best known and most beloved is Mehboob Khan's 1957 classic Mother India (June 26, 8 p.m.), sometimes referred to as "India's Gone With the Wind." This Oscar-nominated epic spans four decades and stars 1950s screen icon Nargis as a strong, saintly peasant overcoming natural disasters, bigotry and the follies of her own children. Everything in Mother India is larger than life, from the simple, almost mythic power of its story, to its hit-laden musical score, all of which established this movie as the model for Hindi films that followed.
The festival's selection of golden age masterpieces includes some of the best and most important films in the history of Indian cinema. Guru Dutt's Pyaasa, a.k.a. The Thirsty One (1957, June 26, 1:30 a.m.), stars the director himself as an idealistic young poet searching for perfect love even as he's buffeted by a corrupt, hypocritical world. The film is as tragic and romantic as they come, lightened by bizarrely inappropriate moments of slapstick, and raised to sublime heights by fluid, deep-focus black-and-white camerawork that calls to mind Citizen Kane.
While it has little to do with the glossy fantasy world typically associated with Bollywood, Do Bigha Zamien (1953, June 26, 11 p.m.) is a prime example of the homegrown style of Indian neo-realism developed by directors like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy. Roy modeled his work directly after the Italian neo-realism of films like The Bicycle Thief, employing a gritty, almost documentary-style approach to this politically driven and highly emotional drama about the plight of small landowners.
One of the undisputed touchstones of Hindi cinema, Awaara (1951, June 19, 1:00 a.m.) is a gloriously oedipal melodrama starring the great Raj Kapoor as a man obsessed with avenging the death of his mother. The black-and-white-camerawork is exquisite, the music is haunting and there's a nine-minute dream sequence that'll knock your eyes out. This is the movie that made stars of Kapoor and Nargis, not just in India, but in Russia, Africa and all over the Arab world, where Bollywood movies still enjoy enormous popularity.
Another Kapoor — Shammi Kapoor, also known as the Indian Elvis — had his finest moment in Junglee (1961, June 19, 10:30 p.m.). Shammi shakes it up as a rich bachelor who defies the caste system, all for the love of a pretty girl. The movie includes plenty of wacky, yodeling songs, some of the first tinges of rock 'n' roll to make it onto a Hindi soundtrack, and a crazy color palette that opened the door for a bolder new wave of Indian movies.
Almost 10 years in the making, Pakeezah, a.k.a. A Pure Heart (1971, June 19, 8 p.m.), is the deliriously romantic tale of a free-spirited dancer-courtesan who dreams of becoming more than what she is. The movie rises above a somewhat tamely told narrative through the use of lush color cinematography and an array of memorable ghazal ballads.
You probably don't even know his name, but Amitabh Bachchan is the biggest star in the world, bar none. Two of the most famous films featuring the Big B (as he's known to the faithful) will be included in TCM's festival. From 1975, we get the hugely popular and influential Sholay (June 12, 2:00 a.m.), a "curry western" that blithely mixes spaghetti western, buddy film, romantic-comedy, musical, and everything else that makes Bollywood Bollywood.
The other Bachchan classic on TCM's schedule is Amar Akbar Anthony (1977, June 5, 2:00 a.m.) an irresistible lark about three brothers separated at birth (one grows up to be a Hindi, one Muslim and one Roman Catholic!). It's the sort of movie where cases of mistaken identity occur routinely, and where people go blind only to have their sight miraculously restored, all to the sound of music. At one point, Bachchan performs one of the most unforgettably bizarre musical numbers ever captured on screen, popping up out of a giant Easter egg to sing "My Name is Anthony Gonzales."
If you're curious about more contemporary Bollywood fare, a good place to start is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995, June 5, 8 p.m.), an exuberantly goofy, boy-meets-girl romp with superstar Shahrukh Khan as a playboy pestering the hell out of the pretty girl he's not-so-secretly in love with. An even more up-to-date take on how India sees itself is Dil Chatha Hai (2001, June 12, 10:30 p.m.), the stylishly directed tale of a trio of trendy buddies looking for (and sometimes running from) perfect love. And for something different, check out Bombay (1995, June 5, 11:30 p.m.) an atypically somber (but not un-musical) Romeo and Juliet tale of a Hindi boy and a Muslim girl who become embroiled in Bombay's 1993 religious riots.
My biggest guilty pleasure of the whole lot? That would have to be Rangeela (1997, June 12, 8 p.m.), a bright 'n' cheesy romantic-fantasy about a perky young dancer who dreams of making it big in Bollywood. The movie's production values are top notch, its dance routines are lavishly choreographed and its insidiously catchy music is by A. R. Rahman, who has sold more albums than Madonna and Britney Spears combined.
The real reason the movie's a personal fave has almost nothing to do with any of that, though, and everything to do with simple nostalgia. I saw Rangeela in a Madras movie theater during my first (and only) trip to India several years back, and the movie will be forever inseparable from the experience. India is a land consumed by the movies, and I can still remember the thrill of being crammed into a gigantic old theater filled with people who were just as crazy about this stuff as I was. TCM's Bollywood Festival isn't exactly a substitute for a plane ticket to India, but it's a step in the right direction.
Vice and Virtue The third annual edition of the popular Saints and Sinners film festival comes to town on Sat., May 31, screening dozens of feature-length and short films including some national and international premieres at St Petersburg's State Theatre. The event has gained a considerable rep for itself as an advocate of unusual cinema and as a booster of local independent filmmaking, showcasing homegrown fare as well as films that have links to Florida talent or subject matter.
This year's festival features independent films in the categories of Comedy and Drama (Saints) and Horror (Sinners), with awards going to the winning film in each category, as well as in many supporting categories. One of the potential highlights is a screening of the locally shot work-in-progress Web of Darkness, which will allow audience members an opportunity to provide feedback on the project's final cut. The entire Saints and Sinners lineup is available at the festival's website at www.renegadefilms.net. For more information call Renegade Films at 727-821-9789 or Peter D'Alessio at 813-719-2019.
Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 157.