ESTHEPPAN (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1979, India)

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Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.

Mehboob’s AAN (1952) – Indian Cinema’s entry into Europe

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This latest piece on Aan is part of an on going series of tentative writings and research on the films of Mehboob Khan – earlier posts have focused on Roti and Aurat.

Directed and produced by Mehboob Khan, Aan is recognised as a classic of Hindi cinema. I have fond memories of Aan from my childhood, a family favourite I guess, mainly because of Dilip Kumar and the considerable, irresistible sway he had with the South Asian diaspora. Revisiting Aan after many years was a nostalgic trip down memory lane and all of those iconic, extravagant star gestures etched so fervently into my memory were resurrected in the form of Dilip Kumar’s cocky grin, Nadira’s vampish gaze (also one of the first Jewish heroines in Indian cinema), comedian Mehmood’s villainous turn and Nimmi’s vexing eyes as the enduring Mangala. The film was originally supposed to star Nargis in a leading role and a publicity ad for the film released in 1949 confirms this (see below). As I have discussed in my previous writings on Mehboob, much of his work appears to be firmly established in the canon of popular Hindi cinema, and unlike Mehboob’s lesser-known films, particularly the pre-Partition work, Aan has generated an intermittent discourse. Often under-discussed is Aan’s significance to the relationship between European and popular Hindi cinema, one that has its early commercial imperatives in the 1950s just as the South Asian diaspora in the UK and Europe was beginning to develop.

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Aan was ‘the first feature film made by an Indian company to be seen in Europe’ (The Manchester Guardian, Jul 11: 1952, pg. 5), a seminal moment in the outward reach of Indian cinema. It was also the first Indian film to reach an international audience and was particularly successful in the Middle East and Africa. The distribution of Aan in Europe predates the success of Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, the first Indian film to be released in the Soviet Union in 1954. Aan had its world gala premiere at the Rialto in London on July 18, 1952, a prestigious affair, and Mehboob worked with Alexander Korda’s London Films to secure distribution for the film in the UK. In the UK and US, the film was released under the title of The Savage Princess. The presence of popular Hindi cinema is a habitual feature of the UK distribution-exhibition landscape today but Aan’s importance cannot be overstated enough since it was ‘the first Indian picture to be screened abroad on a commercial basis’ (Times of India, Aug 3: 1952, pg. 3). The commercial significance of Aan was matched by its technical innovations. Aan was one of the first full-length films to be shot in colour in India and notable in Irani’s striking twilight vistas:

‘Aan was shot in 16mm Kodachrome that followed a reversal process: a positive print was obtained straight away when shooting with this stock. A negative was made out of the positive, which then was blown up to 35mm and passes through Technicolor’s three-colour separation (making three matrices) and dyer transfer process’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 20).

The film’s international success was a critical factor in persuading the Indian film industry to embrace colour.

Aan is a fantasy adventure and in terms of its overly exotic identity recalls the feverish escapist imagery of The Arabian Nights. It is not just The Arabian Nights that are decidedly visible in the production design of Aan but the mighty spectacle that is Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940), one of the most influential fantasy films of its time. I would go as far as to say the visual look of both Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) can be seen fleetingly in the eccentric yet spectacular art design of Aan. While the film could be viewed as a pastiche of popular Hollywood film genres, Mehboob’s authorial touch is discernable in the class conflict, a recurring political theme distinguishable in many of his major works, this time emphasised in the clash between the royal Indian family and the local villagers, symbolised in the swashbuckling peasant played by Dilip Kumar. In the early 1950s, Mehboob was working at his peak, having been part of the Indian film industry since the 1930s, and later forming his own production company. Aan was an ideal film to inaugurate Indian cinema’s entry into the European film market since much of the narrative draws on recognisable fantasy adventure tropes from literature and film that would have been familiar to audiences especially outside of India. The hegemonic image of India as the exotic other was duly noted at the time: ‘I recommend it [Aan], particularly to people whose notions of the great continent revolve around Benares ware and postcards of the Taj Mahal’ (July, 18, 97: 1952) wrote Virginia Graham.

The critical reception of Aan in the UK in 1952 tells a different story to the commercial success of the film, in several respects. Writing in August 17, 1952, The Times of India, refers to the review of the film by English film critic C. A. Lejeune, in the following terms:

‘It is impossible to convey its full effect on paper, but you may get a rough idea of it by imagining a composite of ‘Robin Hood’, the ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Il Trovatore’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, any Soviet picture, ‘Quo Vadis’, Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Bengal lights, the Lilian Harvey musicals, the acid colours of the latest bill posting and ‘The Perils of Pauline’.

Lejeune’s potpourri of cultural references maps an early attempt to frame popular Indian cinema as a fusion, hybrid and mix of incongruent ideas and elements. There is nothing wrong with this view. I noticed several potential film influences while watching the film. However, since Aan was the first Indian film to be released in the UK and Europe, whatever was said about the film was also in part a measure of Indian cinema as a whole. Many of the reviews I looked at fail to comprehend the film as a complete work. For instance, Lejeune’s cultural deconstruction detracts from the creative contribution of Mehboob and his highly proficient and adept cast and crew. Lejeune overlooks what is effectively a playful, creative interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Another determinant at play that certainly shaped the critical response in 1952 was to do with the running time. Aan’s UK release in 1952 was a truncated one, lasting 130 min. An hour was cut from the version that played in Europe, a substantial portion of the film. It is highly likely many of the songs would have been excised. Without songs you lose the essence of what makes popular Indian cinema so distinct. In this context, the missing hour would have certainly affected the response from critics, somewhat evident in the comments levied at the film’s supposedly erratic narrative structure.

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The decision to shorten the length of the film, perhaps one taken by the distributor, underlines early and on-going anxieties to do with the apparently excessive running time of Indian films. The form and structure of popular Hindi cinema is to do with the ways in which narrative is supported by the convention of song and dance, and since Aan’s soundtrack was made up of nine (or is it fourteen?) songs, integral to the film experience and diegesis of the world being presented, songs invariably lengthen the running time but also act as a supplementary, alternative and internal commentary. Songs are also one of the major pleasures for film audiences, functioning as escapist, allegorical and narrative totems. Unfortunately, the somewhat irrelevant and illogical criticism that Indian films are too long still remains a popular default reaction from critics and film audiences. Rather than accept songs and the longer running time of Indian films as a conventional, dominant aspect of their construction, Indian films are often even today deemed to be ridiculously and excessively over long in the purview of critics outside of India. Nonetheless, given the ways in which the film audiences’ habits and tastes have shifted dramatically over the past years, the length of Indian films has become shorter but perhaps only to suit commercial inclinations.

Respectively, there wasn’t much praise from The Times of India review of Aan: ‘It is a depressing and deplorable lapse from standards and a reputation long established by one of our most distinguished film creators’ (Aug, 17: 1952). The review goes on to criticise the film for ‘its gross lack of refinement’. The Spectator review for the film by Virginia Graham is comparably expressive about the cultural debasement of popular Indian cinema, comparing Aan to the cooking of food: ‘Cooked at high pressure for a prodigiously long time, with a wicked Prince and Princess and a handsome dashing peasant and his beloved as the main ingredients, it is a layer-cake of conflicting flavours’ (July, 18, 96: 1952). I mention the food analogy since the term Masala cinema would emerge as an ignorant and contrived method of categorising popular Hindi cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. This is just one way film criticism has systemically refused to take Indian cinema seriously. Although the theory of Masala cinema has enough substance behind it now to in fact consolidate this method of categorisation as both valid and relatively intrinsic to Bollywood film discourse. I’m quite schizophrenic of the term Masala and admittedly it can be useful in some specific contexts – say for example the films of Manmohan Desai. The review continues, faltering badly: ‘That Indians make exactly the same faces as we do when they fall in love astounds me beyond measure’ (July, 18, 97: 1952), says Graham, smacks of not only a racial superiority but underlines a cultural ignorance. Although Virginia Graham does recommend the film, her review is full of hyperbole that not only overlooks the technical achievements of the production but completely fails to acknowledge the authorial contribution of Mehboob Khan, the stardom of Dilip Kumar and the lucid cinematography of Faredoon Irani.

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Denis Myers damning review of the film for Picturegoer goes one step further, calling Aan ‘soul-destroying’ and mocking the director’s versatility as a desperate, superficial juxtaposition of stock narrative situations. At the time Myers opined Aan should not be released in UK cinemas because it does not meet the criteria of the quota system. However, belying the rhetoric to do with protecting indigenous British cinema from the harmful cultural effects of Indian cinema is also a belated xenophobia, which I suspect was shared by many UK film critics of the time. The overall tone struck by Myers response to Aan is a patronising one, full of mockery and contempt. Nowhere is there any attempt to comprehend the form and style of popular Hindi cinema – a good and useful starting point is to compare the internal logic of films such as Aan to the eclecticism of Parsi Theatre, a major influence on the narratological mysteries of Indian cinema. Instead, Myers works his through the film, taking the piss out of the film’s supposedly haphazard and illogical aesthetic, thematic and structural design. Mehboob directed far better films than Aan but one needs to contextualise, position and read the film in his oeuvre as a work that was a creative, stylistic experiment with colour – an attempt to evolve the technical possibilities of Indian cinema. Central here is the contribution of cinematographer Faredoon Irani to the technical advances of Hindi cinema. And since the use of colour in popular Hindi cinema has become such a vital part of the overall aesthetic and visual practice, seeing the sumptuous colours of the cinematic imaginings of popular cinema for the first time would have been a completely new and rewarding experience for film audiences. Aan was also a major leap in the career of Mehboob, whereby spectacle came to the fore, reaching its zenith in Mother India (1957). When UK film critics saw Aan in 1952, they placed a far greater emphasis on the exotic spectacle of the film as it chimed with their own orientalist assumptions of India.

While the orientalist readings have their own contestable place, Aan like so many of Mehboob’s films demands to be revisited and viewed in alternate, wider contexts of reception. It would take Ray’s Pather Panchali, released a few years later, to completely overhaul cultural perceptions harboured by critics abroad towards Indian cinema. But this only applied to Indian art cinema. What would be useful is to try and find out what UK film audiences made of Aan; this might offer further insight and potentially challenge the critical response, one that reeked of cultural and racial snobbery. The critical response to Aan in the rest of Europe was different to that of the UK, perhaps in some respects it was more favourable, particularly in France, where the film was titled Mangala, Fille Des Indes (Mangala, the daughter of India). In France, it was the character of Mangala, played by Nimmi, which struck a chord with film audiences, as evident in the artwork to the Carlotta DVD release of the film. And it was also the French version of the film that was distributed in Europe. What remains inconclusive is the way the film was received comparatively in the rest of Europe and how widely it was distributed. Additionally, Aan is a work worth examining in relation to other films that used The Arabian Nights as a narrative source particularly the ones made by The Wadia Brothers in the 1930s and beyond. In doing so, a comparative approach would more than likely extrapolate and magnify the popularity of the fantasy adventure film, a sub genre in Indian cinema. From the perspective of Indian film history Aan is best viewed as a gateway film, the first experience of Indian cinema for an international audience. Further research is needed though to try and fully comprehend the ways in which the cinematic imaginings of Mehboob Khan shaped international perceptions about popular Hindi cinema in Europe and beyond. Perhaps a useful way forward here is to consider the ideological worth of ephemera including posters, ads, trailers, the music album, to name a few, that could offer an alternate insight into the ways in which Aan was marketed to a wider international audience.

Bibliography

AAN. 1952. Monthly Film Bulletin, 19 (216), pp. 121.

Anonymous 1952, Jun 29. World Premiere For Mehboob’s “Aan” At London On July 18. The Times of India (1861-current), 3.

OUR LONDON, F.C., 1952, Jul 11. INDIAN FEATURE FILM. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 5.

GRAHAM, V., 1952. Aan. (Rialto.)-Penny Princess. (Leicester Square) (Book Review). The Spectator, 189 (6473), pp. 96.

MYERS, D., 1952. INDIA GOES HOLLYWOOD-ALMOST. Picturegoer (Archive: 1932-1960), 24 (902), pp. 8.

Anonymous 1954, Oct 16. THE EYE AND THE EAR OF MEHBOOB PRODUCTIONS. The Times of India (1861-current), 1.

CHATTERJEE, G. 2002. Mother India. BFI

THE KEEP (Dir. Michael Mann, 1983, US) – Atmospheric Exegesis

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Given Mann’s consolidation as perhaps American cinema’s greatest film auteur does a film like The Keep hold any bearing on his reputation today? What can the film tell us about Mann that we don’t already know? The Keep is the film that Mann has rarely acknowledged. It had a troubled production history and Mann’s original 3 hour plus rough-cut was eventually submitted as a 2-hour version. As a result of negative test screenings, Paramount took to cutting the film down to 96 minutes, all without Mann’s consent. One can certainly reason why Mann has sort of disowned the film. Apparent from the studio cut is the incoherence of the narrative structure and although I would argue logic is not a necessity for a narrative to function and communicate, here one can readily notice sequences have been excised purely for a cruel commercial necessity. This is no way makes the film’s narrative difficult to follow but one wonders at the logic of Mann’s greater narrative design. Nonetheless, The Keep is still an inexplicably mesmeric work as Mann’s cinema has always relied on a taut visual literacy embedded in the bold architectural aesthetics.

Primarily, what makes The Keep a point of fascinating authorial enquiry is the film’s status as a supernatural horror, the only occasion when Mann has ventured into this genre territory (although this complicates Manhunter’s genre status). But horror is only one vagary in a hybrid genre address that also draws on tropes from the war film, the holocaust sub-genre, and the thriller. However, it is the supernatural horror aspects that are resolutely vivid, tapping into a corpus of ancient European mythological folklore manifested in the archetypal signifiers such as the priest, the protector-warrior figure or talisman, the princess, the scientist or boffin and of course the demonic entity and monster. Horror archetypes of this nature offer the film a certain genre logic augmented by an expressionist design. Much more significant in terms of real world ideology is the politics of World War II and the Holocaust which forms the backdrop to the film. However, suspicion abounds if the studio did away with the so-called extraneous narrative material that probably would have helped to draw out a clearer ideological schematic between Jewish historian Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and the Nazis. Instead what we are left with is a sort of crude symbolic tryst that is merely decorative and fails to serve a deeper ideological ferment.

In many ways it is instructive to treat The Keep as resolutely atmospheric work and this is where the film is at most communicative in terms of stylistic explication; Tangerine Dream’s discombobulated score, the tenebrous cinematography by Alex Thomson and the categorically ingenious production design by the altogether legendary John Box (who had also worked on The Sorcerer – Mann’s film feels like the ideal cinematic brethren to Friedkin’s now reclaimed masterpiece), synchronically create an aura of cabalistic dimensions that are played out in the appositely augural ending. I really hoped we would have seen a director’s cut by now but that may never come to fruition given Mann’s more than solid reputation. However, given the cult following The Keep has attracted over the years certainly raises hopes that one day it will be reconstituted but for now we have to be satisfied with reimagining what could have been rather than what is.

THE JERICHO MILE (Dir. Michael Mann, 1979, US) – Out of Time

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Mann’s exceptional staging of action sequences often amount to an orgasmic visual and sensory poetry. Mann’s action is not dirty but graceful. It has a kind of scholarly attention to detail made implicit in the micro gestures of his characters that amplify a grand psychological schemata. In 1979 Michael Mann was 36 when he co-wrote and directed The Jericho Mile. This was a TV movie for ABC that Mann was inspired to make when he was in Folsom State Penitentiary researching to re-write Straight Time (1978) for Dustin Hoffman. Mann would spend much of the 1980s producing popular TV crimes series such as Miami Vice and Crime Story, using television as a basis to develop and test out ideas which he would in some cases return on a larger cinematic canvas. Perhaps the most notable example is L.A. Takedown (1989), a TV movie which would re-emerge as the epic crime saga Heat in 1995.

In The Jericho Mile, Larry ‘Rain’ Murphy (Peter Strauss) is the forerunner to the archetypal Mann protagonist: a male loner, habitually a professional criminal and proletariat, unyielding to the powers that be. In fact, there is something inherently spiritual and ancient in the Mann protagonist; articulating a contempt for normal life while adhering to an unbreakable, punishing moral code. Serving a life sentence in Folsom State Penitentiary Murphy has resorted to distance running in the prison yard, an act he has perfected so precisely and rigorously, the administration at the prison notify the Olympics distance running team of Murphy’s exceptionalism. Mann portrays running as a kind of expiation ritual for Murphy, explicated through a corporeal figuration in which the body, notably through slow motion and rhythmic editing, becomes magnified as both defiantly spiritual and political. If running is one of the few actions the state cannot regulate, Murphy’s refusal to stop running is a conventional manifestation of the rebellious anti-authoritarian prisoner often witnessed in the genre of the prison film.

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The Jericho Mile is a work cloaked in the repertoire of the American prison film, professing Mann’s preliminary and assiduously subversive capacity to navigate genre cinema. If the auteur theory is dead and no longer holds the validity it once had, engendering a sickening proselytisation of mostly white dead directors, then it becomes almost sacrilege in these overly testing times of film criticism to put up a reasoned defence of Mann’s authorship without being razed to the ground by a profanely persecutory tide of reactionary debate typically instigated by hack culture. The mere mention of the word auteur is certain to raise enough dread to vanquish those directors who may have been immortalised in the past. But Mann’s work does owe a substantial debt to the legacy of American genre cinema and he may in truth remain one of the handful of directors including Martin Scorsese who have continually sought to refine thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in the hope of inadvertently living up to the auteur myth.

The Jericho Mile lacks an aesthetic finesse and technical proficiency, which can be partially attributed to the relatively low budget of the production compared to Mann’s later films. Nonetheless, a considered glance points to cursory stylistic signifiers such as the classic use of an exacting asymmetrical/planimetric framing Mann would nurture exponentially into an abiding theme of transience; characters floating through the non-spaces of super-modernity and habitually sutured into urban architectural landscapes – an expressionistic totem of his crime films. But like so many of Mann’s later protagonists, Murphy is out of synch with society; he is literally moving against the grain. And it is the equation of time, usually not having enough of it, and in this case, time as a source of oppression which rings true in the final act of The Jericho Mile. When Murphy throws the stopwatch, a series of slow motion edits amplify the act of ideological resistance, thereby articulating a refusal to not only stick it to the man, the powers that be, but stressing the rule of no attachments, later emerging as a defining trait of the Mann protagonist.

One can read further into the merits of this ideological sentiment, establishing a proletariat exhortation of the outsider and the repudiation of assimilation and the surrendering of a specifically ancient notion of moral integrity. The prison board does not let Murphy run, and they were never going to, because he refuses to repudiate the social circumstances in which his crime took place. Doubly, Murphy cannot do this as it would mean having to compromise his view of the world. The sense of self worth and integrity the Mann protagonist guards against is also demonstrated in the sequence that sees Murphy burn Dr. D’s (Brian Dennehy) stash of money. The burning of the stash is in retaliation for the murder of Stiles (Richard Lawson), a black inmate, and Murphy’s sole friend. Since Mann’s next film Thief (1981) is manifestly connected to The Jericho Mile, the eponymous Frank (James Caan) is very much how Murphy would have behaved had he made it back on the street, and when Murphy burns the stash, it is another act of defiance that is played out again at the end of Thief when Frank destroys what he has built over the years. In both cases, there is a patent notion the Mann protagonist cannot be at peace until a kind of requisite equilibrium is restored and this can at times mean the neutering of materialism.

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Folsom, an intense microcosm of racial and ethnic fidelities, is the the connective glue, bringing together Mann’s crime universe, and in The Jericho Mile. In Folsom, Mann depicts an intense gang rivalry, often a key feature of the American prison genre, contested by the inter-racial friendship between Murphy and Stiles who is killed by the white gang for his refusal to become a drug mule. In some respects, and though Murphy resolutely remains a loner, he later emerges as a communal force, creating a united front amongst the varying gangs, the hispanic and black gangs eventually coming together to oppose the ruling hegemonic white prison gang. Murphy’s act of running is far more political than emotional, personal than mutual, enunciating an extraordinary catharsis which soars as Murphy races round the prison yard to the blinding guitar riffs of Sympathy for a Devil. It is a Mann refrain, one filled with a melodious, organic and beguiling cinematic sleight of hand.