Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Don't Disturb the Dead [Shamya Dasgupta]

While there are flaws in Shamya Dasgupta's Don't Disturb the Dead (DDtD), a book on the Ramsay Brothers and their films, I am on the whole pleased because it was a volume that needed to be written. Most times, in the name of books related to the history of Indian cinema, we only get biographies, or rather hagiographies, of famous film stars. Also audiences, especially those born after the 80's, are unaware of the significant contribution, warts and all, made by the Ramsays towards acceptance of horror in the Indian context (Some young 'uns even think Indian horror initiated with Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot).

DDtD is thorough in its portrayal of the Ramsay heritage, starting with patriarch FU Ramsay (the family was originally called Ramsinghani and came from pre-partition Lahore. The surname was shortened to Ramsay for the convenience of the British clients at FU's radio store, and has stuck ever since). It chronicles how FU and later his children (Kumar, Tulsi, Shyam, Keshu, Gangu , Arjun and Kiran) got into film-making and how they hit upon their patented horror film formula. The making of a Ramsay film was literally a family affair, with the sons working together in various aspects and even the women of the house pitching in with the hospitality arrangements (Keshu's wife Kavita later did costume design for some films). Tulsi and Shyam were joint directors on most Ramsay flicks; from what we read here, Shyam was the more horror-focused, while Tulsi concerned himself with ensuring the right mix of other ingredients - song & dance, comedy, sexual frisson - that would make their films commercially viable. Keshu Ramsay after a point left the family and started his own production, dropping the Ramsay surname for the films he made, including several Khiladi ventures with Akshay Kumar and then the blockbuster Khakee (which he produced).

DDtD covers the making of several Ramsay features with special attention going to their landmark presentations including Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Purana Mandir (PM) and Veerana, and later their hugely popular tele-serial Zee Horror Show. There are enlightening interviews with Ramsay stars like Mohnish Bahl, Aarti Gupta-Surendranath and of course Aniruddha (Ajay) Agarwal, the iconic monster-man of several Ramsay features like PM, Saamri and Bandh Darwaza. All of them are very complimentary towards the Ramsay family, about the atmosphere in which those films were shot, how even under the conditions of low budget and short shooting schedules, they did the best they could. It was especially heartening to see input from Aarti Gupta. With Ramsay films like PM, Saamri and Tahkhana she was, for a short spell, the Scream Queen of Indian horror, but soon after, she quit acting, married ad-man Kailash Surendranath, and became a producer and well-known Mumbai socialite. One feared she would be dismissive of these links to her low-brow horror past, but she fondly recalls the warm convival spirit of the shoots, and even though she regrets the negative impact of doing low-budget horror on her acting career, she never has anything bad to say about her experience (unlike beefcake Hemant Tarzan Birje, who blames the Ramsays for his career decline - he did Tahkhana and Veerana with them - and refused to provide any input for the book).

The interviews with the Ramsay family members and their collaborators form the highlight of the book, for which the author must be commended. There is a good amount of anecdotal information presented with a refreshing absence of condescension towards the subject. It is also worthwhile to pick up the paperback for the several memorable stills collated from the shooting and publicity events, which will surely thrill Ramsay fans. However, repetitiveness and padding are an issue. Too many times we are made to hear that the Ramsay policy was to "make them cheap and fast", how their audience was restricted to adult males or young couples, their essential criteria for selecting lead actors being solely "how smart or sexy they looked". The other caveat is the stupendously boring extended exploration of the life and career of all the current generation Ramsay kids (of whom only Shyam's daughter Saasha is currently into horror).

A few things I would have liked to see here: a better critical appraisal of the films themselves. Some of the Ramsay films (like Dahshat and PM) are arguably superior to the others in terms of their construction and impact, and needed to be discussed in that context. Interviews with regular Ramsay stable actors like Deepak Parashar and Anil Dhawan would have been nice. While there is chapter devoted to how the Ramsays got their masks and latex props fabricated by a Mr. Chris Tucker (no relation to the Rush Hour actor, I presume) I wish more had been explored about the make-up work in their films (for instance, what was the semen-like goo covering evil guy Nevla when he emerges from his coffin in Bandh Darwaza?). It's great that Shamya could get quotes about the influence of Ramsay movies from famous film buffs like Sriram Raghavan, Ram Gopal Varma and Sajid Khan, but his repeated reliance on the opinion of blogger Beth Watkins is puzzling, considering she has no specific interest in Indian horror. It would have been more relevant to talk to Omar Ali Khan, who has reviewed a lot of Indian horror on his website, or to the people at Mondo Macabro who licensed several Ramsay films for their Bollywood Horror DVD sets.

Mr. Dasgupta also sometimes displays a degree of naive extrapolation that borders on ludicrous. While Aarti Gupta was apt for her parts in the Ramsay films, suggesting that she could otherwise have fitted into a pantheon of female Indian megastars including Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit is outright laughable. His speculations on the fate of the Ramsay family heritage and the future of their offspring should have also been left on the editing table.

Its misses notwithstanding, DDtD serves as a frequently entertaining and informative look at India's pioneers of the horror film and should definitely picked up by people interested in the topic.

A word of warning: Please skip the introduction written by a dolt called Jai Arjun Singh - it's rambling and pretentious, and more interested in flaunting the writer's knowledge of films than having anything relevant to say about the book that follows.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Marriage of Maria Braun [dir. Reiner Werner Fassbinder]

I am ashamed to say I only recently cracked open my Reiner Werner Fassbinder blu-ray boxset released in Mar 2016 (In my defence I received it only around a year late, since I'd originally had it shipped to a friend living overseas to avoid it getting nicked or exorbitantly taxed at customs). This too was after a fellow member on a forum put me a query about the framing/AR of Marriage of Maria Braun. Anyhoo, I ended up watching the film and oh wow, it was terrific.

At the beginning of the film Maria (the amazing Hanna Schygulla), a gutsy and self-reliant gal, is getting married to Hermann Braun in the midst of an Allied bombing raid. Immediately after, Hermann goes off to fight and is reported killed. Maria, who is very clear about doing whatever is needed to survive and maintain her family, takes up with an American soldier who is good to her. But Hermann returns, and in the altercation that follows, the American is killed by Maria. Hermann takes the rap and goes to jail. Maria then takes up with a businessman Oswald, becoming both his hard-headed business adviser and sensual mistress, and doing a sterling job of both. But her heart remains with Hermann and she plans to be with him when he is released. A pivotal moment between Oswald and Hermann leads to Hermann scooting off to Canada after his release, and it is only later that he returns to Maria. When Maria learns the circumstances of his going away and return, it leads to a veritable explosive climax.

FB has said that in the later phase of his prolific film-making career (40 features and 2 TV series in 15 years, his shorts and theater work aside) he was less interested in promoting ideologies and more interested in the story-telling, and MoMB is a fine example of story-telling. Maria is a fascinating character, cold and iron-willed from one perspective, passionate and faithful from another, and on both fronts utterly honest. She never lies about her actions or intentions, but her personal magnetism is so strong, men are attracted like moths to her flame. It's a fantastically written and portrayed role, the sort I would love to see in an Indian movie. Technically MoMB is well done, with some arresting lengthy takes and the look of a ravaged Germany, but the story and performances are what grab the most.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dopehri - A Dramatic Reading [Pankaj Kapur]

So last evening I headed to the Tata Theater at Nariman Point for an event billed as "a dramatic reading" headlined by Pankaj Kapur. Most of us 80's kids first knew of Mr. Kapur through the Doordarshan TV series Karamchand, in which he played the eponymous carrot-munching (and on occasion cigarette-smoking) detective, tailed by goofy secretary Kitty (Sushmita Mukherjee). Directed by Punkuj Parasher (oh, how the mighty have fallen) the series thrashed everything around it for pace and slickness, and was an instant hit. So of course one looked around for other things the actor had done. By happy coincidence this led to an exploration of non-mainstream cinema, for Mr. Kapur, like his National School of Drama predecessors Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, was a rising star of this scene. I have a faded memory trying to sit through Sudhir Mishra's 1987 political drama Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin, simply because the cast had both Karamchand and Kitty. The 80's were Pankaj Kapur's golden era, with a string of memorable appearances in Mandi, Jalwa, Khamosh, Chameli ki Shaadi, Raakh, the 12 Angry Men ripoff Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, culminating in his justly celebrated portrayal of the frustrated researcher Dipankar De in Ek Doctor ki Maut. The decline of the parallel film scene post that era meant that Pankaj Kapur had fewer opportunities to display his histrionics at the cinema. Being better known then on for television work in Zabaan Sambhal Ke and Office Office, he nevertheless registered his presence in such parts as the terrorist Liaqat from Roja, the Don Corelone-sque Duncan character in Maqbool...even in that ghastly misfire called Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola he was one of the saving graces. With his hypnotic gaze and gravelly voice, a wonderful capacity for brooding silence, explosive drama or pie-eyed comedy, Mr. Kapur has a staggering repertoire; and there may have been bad roles (Mohandas BALLB anyone?), but I do not recall any bad performances.

Dopehri, the theater listing informs, is a novella written by Mr. Kapur himself. The plot is a simple one, the sort that would feature in Readers' Digest or fill an episode of Katha Sagar. Elderly widow Amma Bi lives alone in her haveli, save for the servant Jumman. But even Jumman is not around all the time, and her loneliness grows ever more frightening. After some escapades, including a visit to an old age home, Amma Bi is persuaded by her well-wisher Dr. Saxena to take in a paying guest. How the guest's arrival changes Amma Bi's life, in the process giving her an identity and purpose in life, forms the crux of the story. It's a standard human interest story, but two things make the narrative come alive. The first is the language: Mr. Kapur's prose doesn't just read, it flows. On several occasions, you could hear the audience go "wah, wah" (respectfully) when they heard a particularly artful turn of phrase. Hindi has a uniquely apt flavor especially when used for satiric humor and Kapur fluidly molds the language to his bidding. The second is the performance: As a narrator and actor he is tremendous, able to convey much by glance, by inflection, by the rhythm of speech. And he has a love for his written world and characters that is contagious. Simply by modulating his voice and speech mannerisms, he "plays" all the characters: we see and hear them clearly, their amusing quirks and foibles brought to life in our heads. At numerous times, he has the theater rollicking with laughter, without ever cheapening the material or being untrue to his creations. By the end, we have been moved by these characters.

The production is also simple but effective: The sets are suggestive rather than elaborate, a tree with a broken kite, an armchair with a table holding a "paan" box, a writing desk. With the help of lighting changes to suggest time and mood, they are sufficient to convey the setting, and the actor expresses an ease that gives a wonderfully homely feeling, like a favorite uncle narrating a cherished family story. In all, a heart-warming experience in a time where we can always do with one.