ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) – Star Crossed Lovers

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Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film.

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn’t suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late – this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist – usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma’s successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya’s secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today’s India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya’s secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya’s union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya’s marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism.

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural ‘lawless’ geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance – any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother’s dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards.

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare’s classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

MASHAAL / THE TORCH (Dir. Yash Chopra, 1984, India) – Ashes to Ashes

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The death of Yash Chopra led to a surge of online film canonizing that seemingly celebrated his populist work at the expense of creative flourishes such as Mashaal and it is a film that is often overlooked in his oeuvre. I’m not entirely sure or convinced if Mashaal has been completely reclaimed from the past. However, I want to argue for its importance as one of Yash Chopra and screenwriter Javed Akhtar’s most ideologically complicated and realist works since the film’s prescient socio-political content hinted at the potential of Chopra’s wish to transcend the directorial persona and romantic style of cinema with which he had become synonymous after the commercial success of films such as Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie. In an attempt to demonstrate both range as a filmmaker and also depart from the romanticism of his past films, Mashaal was in fact a return to the angry young man films of the 1970s with which Chopra had made his name. Shakti (1982) is generally regarded as the final film in the first cycle of angry young man films, lasting from 1973 to 1982, since it saw an end to a sustained creative script-writing partnership of Salim-Javed.

Although Mashaal was released in 1984, Amitabh Bachchan had almost completely reinvented himself with the cinema of Manmohan Desai and this meant the angry young man persona had faded from the screens and resonated less with cinema audiences. Perhaps this explains why Mashaal is never really discussed in such terms since its release in 1984 meant it was more of an anomaly and stand alone work rather than constituting part of a cycle of films. I’m hesitant to argue that Mashaal should be repositioned under such a category since it may interfere with the achievements of the film, unfairly attributing them to familiar criteria that have become strongly associated with the angry young man films. Nonetheless, the ideologies of Mashaal extend from the angry young man films since the involvement of scriptwriter Javed Akhtar is evident throughout the narrative of a crusading newspaper editor up against a powerful underworld don and politician. Mashaal was one of Javed Akhtar’s first solo projects after the break up with Salim Khan for which he wrote the story, dialogue and lyrics.

The film is based on a well known Marathi play titled ‘Ashroonchi Zhali Phule’ (Tears That Turned into Flowers), which had previously been made into a film, Aanso Ban Gaye Phool (1969), with Ashok Kumar. It came of little surprise to me that the role of Raja (eventually played by Anil Kapoor in one his first roles) was originally written for Amitabh Bachchan. It was in fact first offered to Kamal Hassan who turned it down, claiming the role was secondary in comparison to that Vinod Kumar played by Dilip Kumar. While song and dance had become integral to the films of Yash Chopra, such spectacular elements were subordinate to Mashaal’s more realist tendencies. The role of a man who refuses to compromise his political integrity echoed a similar role Dilip Kumar had played in Shakti. However, unlike Shakti in which Dilip Kumar’s character of the honest incorruptible police officer never compromises his beliefs, Mashaal shows us a much darker and pessimistic representation of the middle class individual.

Rather than simply posing the question about the loss of political integrity, we are shown at first hand the transformation that Vinod Kumar undergoes, leaving behind his past and becoming an underworld don. A key thematic is the role of the media especially the press industry in questioning the abuse of power. As part of a newspaper company Vinod Kumar is fired when he attempts to implicate S. K. Vardhan (Amrish Puri), a prominent politician with ties to the underworld. This construction of the middle class professional acting as a conduit for socio-political corruption echoes the anger of Vijay and similarly comes from a sub proletariat urban space of the bustee/slum. It is only when Vinod adopts an independent editorial policy and is free from institutional constraints is he finally able to speak freely and tell the truth about Vardhan’s corrupt dealings. However, such independence makes Vinod much more susceptible to attacks from Vardhan who acts with total impunity in his retributive actions, persecuting Vinod and eventually burning down his tiny print operation.

Mashaal was made with Indira Gandhi still in power and Vardhan’s immunity could be seen as an extension of the state. In many ways, Vinod Kumar recalls most clearly the character of trade unionist Anand Verma from Deewaar, another man of political integrity, who is also coerced to compromise his beliefs. The story of Vinod Kumar is intertwined with that of Raja (Anil Kapoor) who comes to symbolise the slum and most politically the sub proletariat. The departure with Mashaal when compared to the first cycle of angry young man films starring Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay is the film’s concrete attempts to situate the representation of the sub proletariat in an authentic topographical depiction of the slums. Such an explicit connection between the sub proletariat and an appropriate space may in part have been influenced by the impact of Indian parallel cinema on mainstream films. Ideologically, it is within the slums that Vinod finds a new place in society since his rejection by the middle class seems to suggest that it is the underclass who refuse to judge him. Initially, Vinod is antagonised by a gang of youth led by Raja who are unemployed, impoverished and marginalised from mainstream society. Vinod’s intervention and subsequent rehabilitation of Raja does seem preposterous but the point being made here is certainly valid since Raja’s transformation from delinquent to reporter underlines the paramount role of education in helping to liberate an oppressed underclass. Whereas such an articulation of education as liberator is evident in the character of Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) in Deewaar, Raja’s elevation from the slums makes him more sympathetic unlike Ravi who as a police officer becomes an inadvertent extension of the state.

The sequence that is often discussed occurs midway through the film, taking place on the desolate streets of Bombay and witnessing Vinod trying desperately to flag down passing vehicles and screaming for help as his wife slowly dies on the footpath. Dilip Kumar is powerfully emotive in this sequence yet its immediacy comes not from Vinod’s cry for help but the reactionary silence from a heartless city, which is indifferent to such pain. Silence in the context of Indira Gandhi’s reign becomes politically demonstrative of a much wider malaise prevalent at the time. The most extreme transformation and one that can only happen within the realms of the Hindi melodrama is Vinod’s radical descent into the underworld. Like Vijay in Deewaar, it is only by transgressing certain norms and adopting the rules of a system based on individualism, destruction and capitalism does Vinod eventually reach his ultimate goal of confronting Vardhan. However, it is a transformation fraught with an incriminating bind from which Vinod cannot escape, complicating his status within the eyes of the audience. In my write-up to the film I have hopefully brought to light the ideological complexity of Mashaal and why in many ways it needs to be reclaimed as one of Yash Chopra’s most ambitious and best films.

AURANGZEB (Dir. Atul Sabharwal, 13, India) – Iconographic Assemblages

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Aurangzeb defines its very cinematic existence on the platitudes of old Hindi cinema, refabricating familiar and outlandish tropes with a sensitivity that touches you emotionally. Invoking the double role, the fragile mother figure, the dirty cop(s), a murky political context and a tale of brotherly disharmony finally aspires to 1970s populist Hindi cinema which other Yash Raj productions have failed to reclaim. The failure of Tashaan springs to mind. What appeared to be a fad for the 1970s and 1980s action cinema has given birth to a cycle of retro po-mo masala films fetishizing the hard body. Aurangzeb succeeds since its homage to such tropes is underlined by a modulated sincerity which doesn’t sit well with critics and audiences expecting a film of this nature to be simply in awe of its referents. The failure of Aurangzeb at the box office is not surprising given the absence of a major star other than the Yash Raj banner under which it was produced. I couldn’t help but be reminded of films such as Trishul, Deewaar and even the elaborate Desai narratives of coincidence. In a way, this is a film that understands masala melodrama and gives it to us unfiltered in a contemporary context. Like many of the great Hindi melodramas of the 1970s such as Deewaar, Aurangzeb rejects conventionality in terms of content by distancing song and dance for more thematic avenues. Given the comparison to Deewaar, I’m wary of placing it in such exalted company but it’s a film that isn’t ashamed of its masala roots and gives it to you very obviously and genuinely. It is also a film populated by the likes of Anupam Kher, Amrita Singh and Rishi Kapoor, redeployed, as is Jackie Shroff, in customary iconographic assemblages that evoke the infectious hyperbole of a bygone era. Films like Aurangzeb could be re-theorised under a new auspice, that of neo-masala cinema.