Tuesday, February 23, 2010

70s Week: East Meets West

"A British Brat Meets a Funjabi Boy"

Before I saw Purab aur Paschim a couple of years ago, my only exposure to the genius of Manoj Kumar was the little spoof of his trademarked Palm-Over-The-Face hand gesture in Om Shanti Om and the climatic dishoom-dishoom sequence in Bride and Prejudice. Now, older and wiser, I fully appreciate Manoj Kumar and his earnest yet melodramatic, idealistic yet fantastical look at social issues--and his empathetic touch is sorely missing in contemporary Bollywood.

My contribution to 70s week for today is a comparison of Manoj Kumar's Purab aur Paschim (1970) with Vipul Shah's Namesty London (2007).

Read my review of Purab aur Paschim here!

(And let me state up front that I did enjoy both films but with serious caveats in the case of Namastey London.)

The tagline to both films could very well read "A British Brat Meets a Funjabi Boy" - although how 'fun' Bharat (as played by Manoj Kumar) is is up for debate - but where Purab aur Paschim shows us a progressive and, dare I say feminist, view of (then) contemporary cross-cultural relations, Namastey London has a very regressive message hidden by the bubbly and joyful presence of British Brat Katrina Kaif.

Purab aur Paschim is a sprawling film encompassing a whole host of extended family members played by some reliable character actors. At the heart of the film is Bharat, a sensible and studious young man who loves his country so much that he is willing to go away and study in the UK in order to bring back some of the advanced Western thinking back home and improve the lots of his fellow citizens. In the UK, Bharat stays with his father's best friend, who has a son and daughter about Bharat's age, and falls in with their circle of NRI friends. They all eat at a fancy rotating restaurant and have no goals in life other than indulging their every carnal desire.

Enter Bharat, who acts as a wet blanket on all the fun. While in the hands of a less talented or more cynical creator, the character of Bharat could have been a figure of unintentional hilarity as his dour presence breaks up parties and harshes the mellows of the bell-bottomed extras (and I'm sure there are more than a few of you reading this who probably feel that way about my dear Manoj Kumar), but for me, and for the children of Bharat's father's old friend, Bharat is a breath of fresh air. He's like that feeling you get when you eat a real meal after snacking on candy all day long--nourishing.

Preeti and Orphan and a handful of the other characters renounce their selfish ways and find some sort of peace under his influence. Some of them return to India others do not.

Namastey London, on the other hand, is built up around Jazz (Katrina Kaif). Jazz is a fun-loving party girl whose very normal antics are the bane of her father's existance. He decides to trick her into marrying the son of his best friend. Yes. Jazz's father forces her into a marriage that she does not want and then is surprised when she is mad about it. The husband in question is Arjun (a dashingly handsome Akshay Kumar), who accompanies Jazz back to the UK and tries to win her over by pointing out that people in the UK are racist and inconstant in their affections. He succeeds and he and Jazz return to India.

The films share only one main story - the cross-cultural romance between the British-born Asian girl and the salt-of-the-Earth Indian boy - which I am going to focus on but I'll touch on the treatment of white people, too.

In Purab aur Paschim, Preeti is the main driver of the romance. She sees Bharat and wants him. He is mysterious and handsome and has purpose. At first, the main appeal seems to be that he adds a bit of intrigue to her aimless existence but slowly she comes to appreciate him as a person. On his part, Bharat comes to love her straightforwardness and desire to question to things. Preeti is a modern woman and remains one.

The final scenes of the film have Preeti and Bharat going back to India - she agrees to visit if he promises to return with her. Of course, she ends up falling in love with the place and decides to stay but I never doubted that Bharat would have held up his end of the agreement if she hadn't agreed.

The bottom line is: Both the film and Bharat respect Preeti. She is treated like a human being - granted, this particular human being looks super-fly in mini skirts, and the film does make the most of that. Preeti is never demonized. She smokes and drinks and wears her mini-skirts until the very end of the film but none of that means she doesn't know what she wants.

Contrast this meeting of East and West with Namastey London which came almost 40 years later.

While Jazz has a lot of Preeti-like qualities, the way the men in her life treat her is very different. Every man in the film seems to think that he knows better than she does, especially the two most important men: her father, who marries her off to his best friend's son WITHOUT HER PERMISSION and the husband, who thinks that all she really needs is him. And they are proven right.

Where Preeti is an active participant in her own romance, Jazz is merely the pursued. And where somber and serious Bharat tries to find the good in everyone - including whitey - Arjun goes out of his way to show up and ridicule people who make him feel small. While Katrina and Akshay the actors have great chemistry, which is what Namastey London hangs on, the characters themselves never really connect. Arjun woos Jazz by pointing out that everyone else is a racist jerk. It's the old "the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind" ploy and it works. You never feel that he likes her except for the fact that she looks like Katrina Kaif and is already married to him (in his mind, anyways).

Bharat actually comes to know Preeti and understand her and in a very telling plot move, he actively chooses modern mini-skirted Preeti over the sensible and dour and paragon of traditional Indian womanhood waiting for him at home.

Now, let's talk West.

One of the big surprises I got while watching Purab aur Paschim was the sensitive treatment of the West and Westerners. I had been expecting something more along the lines of the EVIL HIPPIES and DRUG DEALERS who populate classics like Hare Rama Hare Krishna but that was not the case.

The harshest treatment that Purab aur Paschim dealt out was reserved for the NRIs who had sold themselves out for a cushy life in London, leaving their own country behind in the brain drain. It's not the West that polluted their minds as much as greed and the desire for an easy life. The villains of the piece are all Indian - Pran, who sold out Bharat's father to the British, and his son, a delightful rapist played (sadly not by Ranjeet) by Prem Chopra, and an Indian guy who left his Indian wife behind to play in London. Prem Chopra is dealt the fists of justice, Pran undergoes a conversion, and the the last guy is given the what-for by his white girlfriend. See, in Purab aur Paschim she isn't the problem - HE IS.

The hippies and Western spiritual seekers also get very decent treatment in Purab aur Paschim - rather than mocking them, Bharat treats them with compassion and recognizes within them the desire to be a part of something bigger and better than oneself. He feels, and the film shows, that it's not the color of your skin that matters. Bharat is treated far, far worse by the NRIs than he is by the white folk who flit through the film.

Now, Namestey London erases all of that and paints all the white people with the same broad brush of racism. There are no gentle spiritual seekers or kindly hippies or even just normal office workers and white friends of the type that surely every NRI must have. Instead, Jazz herself is the bad one. Where Preeti was actively seeking out some sort of spiritual nourishment, Jazz was happy as a normal London girl. She didn't need anything else - it was her father who insisted that she accept his culture. His culture - not hers.

And the white people in the film are all evil racists - or misguided racists and every move Arjun makes is designed to show them off as such.

Where did things change? The evil villain is no longer the greedy Prem Chopra (or the Pran in a blond wig of Evening in Paris) but a blond white guy named Charlie Brown. And the materialism that Manoj Kumar spent the film warning against has become an accepted part of mainstream culture.

Jazz is not the intelligent and spiritual seeker that Preeti was and Arjun is not the kind and gentle Bharat. Rather than a meeting of the minds, Namastey London gives us The Taming of the Western Shrew.

And that, more than mini-skirts and blond beehives and saucy item numbers, is what I miss most about 1970s films - that underlying sense that no matter what - money can't buy happiness and we should be happy fulfilling our duty to our society - not just our family but to our society - contributing to make the world a better place.


bollywooddeewana said...

Vah vah you are a filmi philosopher INDEED. Purab aur Pashim is the better film by miles, gosh i feel like ordering moserbaers Manoj 6DVD special right now, some 60's films also had the same ideaology that money can't buy happiness a classic example was Manoj again in Himalay Ki God mein as Sunil where he turned his back on all the mod cons and pay of a city hospital to become a doctor in the Himalayas

Ami said...

Haven't seen the Manoj Kumar film, but I agree wholeheartedly on yr NL review. Which is why I zoomed into Kat's lovely casual self and completely abandoned the movie ..along with Akshay coz I thot Arjun is a really sucky chauvinistic character who hides behind a gentle patronizing smile. I hate male condescension on everything feminine & female in real life, why should I bear with it in the reel world?

veracious said...

Dude, fantastic comparison post. I am loving your take on 70's Week so far. :)

I haven't seen Purab aur Paschim yet but based on what little I have seen of it, I judged it to be very judgmental of westerners. I guess not!

I hate the "all white people are racist" stereotype and Rishi Kapoor's character in NL but other than that, I actually really like the movie and its love story so we part ways there. I've seen it several times, and while as a film it's merely okay, as fluffy romance goes I just dig it a lot.

Filmi Girl said...

@bollywooddewana Thanks! I really, really like Manoj Kumar films - not just the ideology but also the visuals...

@Ami You know, the sick part is that I actually like the Akki-Katrina chemistry in the film even though his character is a total jerk.

@veracious Thanks, yaar! You should see Purab aur Paschim - I think a lot of people have the idea that it's very anti-West and it's not. Or at least, it didn't read that way to me. And re: NL, I actually enjoyed the film as a rom-com, too. (I think I even said as much at the beginning.) I've seen it multiple times, too, and Akki-Kat are just <3. But if it hadn't been them cast as the main couple I don't know if I would like it as much.

Rum said...

YAAAAAAY some love for Purab Aur Pachhim which started my whole Manoj phase at my blog! And i definitely loved how the film treated Westerners in a sympathetic light, and even if Preeti boozes and smokes she still earns the love of Bharat who makes her give all that up!
I did like Namastey London, though at times I did feel Akki was playing up the village boy act to annoying level, but you still sided with him rather than the silly named Charlie Brown!

Anita said...

I think I must be in a rage-y mood, because this write-up has made me realize that I HATE how NRIs/NRI kids are portrayed in most Bollywood films, past or present.

I know tons of 'em and being one myself, it's sad that the stereotype is that we throw away our culture and laze through life. I'd say the hardest working people I know are immigrant children and the amount of respect and love they have for their families and their traditions is very respectable.

Very few films get it right. Obviously it would be stupid to idealize NRI kids, but the stereotype shouldn't be emphasized at either side of the spectrum. NRI kids are like any other human beings in the world: some are bad, lazy and disrespectful while others are hard-working, compassionate and culturally conscience.

Though I do think a film like The Namesake got it right. Kal Penn's character was so similar to many people I know in real life, it was amazing.

Sorry for the rant, as I said, I'm in a weird rage-y mood right now. :P

Filmi Girl said...

@rum I'm sooooo glad I'm not the only one who loves Purab aur Paschim!!

@Anita I hear you - I really do! I didn't like the white people at all in The Namesake but I thought Harold and Kumar did a great job of subverting the stereotypes.

Going back to NL, one of the things I really disliked was how Jazz was portrayed as a normal happy British girl who happened to be a second-generation immigrant and then the desi guy shows up and shows her that The West is horrible and All White People Are Racist. I know you don't like Kat but did you like the character of Jazz at all?

Bombay Talkies said...

I have NL and every once in a while I think about rewatching it, but it's so sanctimonious I can never get more than halfway through it, which is a shame b/c I LOVE Akki.

Other cons? Horrible acting, namely by Katrina, but also by Upen Patel. And the people who played Charlie's parents? Ugh. The whole 'white and brown' relationship theme was really irritating; heaven forbid a Bollyfilm depict realistic white characters. Charlie's parents didn't even sound British, there was almost an Australian feel to their accents (another thing that bugs me...the foreign actors never seem to have location-appropriate accents--sort of like the NASA director in Swades, who was clearly Australian and who in real life would NEVER have ended up as head of an American government agency, but I digress.)

Basically the feel I get from NL (and a lot of NRI films, to be honest) is that they only exist to work for a desi audience. Seeing how shallowly depicted the firangi characters are in these films makes it harder to accept the Indian characters at face value. Just my two cents. (Or maybe more like ten cents...this ended up being longer than I intended!) Off to track down Purab aur Paschim now. :)


Pitu said...

Fab post! I haven't seen 'Purab Aur Paschim' - saw a few songs on tv once and Manoj Kumar totally turned me off. I don't think I have ever seen a film where I liked him :D I have seen 'Namastey London' and being that it is a Vipul Shah film (ugh) was so not suprised by how regressive it was. I am surprised to hear all these positive points about P&P. Perhaps I'll actually watch it ;)

classicgirl said...

i hope after few years his contribution to cinema will be really really appreciated. may i know how many movies of Mr. Manoj kumar you have watched ??

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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