Today, November 11, is the birthday of Mala Sinha, so I decided to finally watch this film—not because it’s one of her best, but because it has three elements I’m partial to: it has music by C Ramachandra, it’s a historical, and it stars Mala Sinha.
I have to admit my love for Mala Sinha sees ups and downs, based on which film I’m watching. In a film like Pyaasa or Gumraah, where she has good roles (and good directors), she shows just how good an actress she is. And in an all-out entertainer like Aankhen, she’s equally unforgettable as the feisty, glamorous spy. These are the films I prefer to stuff like Anpadh, Hariyali aur Raasta, or even Baharein Phir Bhi Aayengi—because the melodrama is kept in check.
But one thing I’ll happily admit: I think Mala Sinha is lovely, and I’ll watch most films just to see her.
While this blog is all about old films—and the bulk of my film-watching is old films—that doesn’t mean I don’t watch new films. I do; lots of them. But the odd thing is that invariably, new films that I watch end up having some connection (even if in a roundabout way) to an old film.
Last weekend, I watched two new films. One, of course, was the latest big release: The Dark Knight Rises. The other was the 2011 Michael Fassbender-starrer, Centurion. Both films reminded me of one old film, Zulu. Like The Dark Knight Rises, Zulu has Michael Caine in its cast (it was one of his first major film roles). And, like Centurion, Zulu too is about conquered versus conquerors.
Another tribute, to yet another great who’s passed on. Dara Singh, the wrestler-turned-actor who made such a big niche for himself in a slew of films, especially in the 1960s, passed away on July 12, 2012.
As a child, nearly all my movie-watching was restricted to what was aired on Indian TV—Doordarshan—(and later, the few TV channels that showed Hindi movies). Somehow, I never ended up watching any Dara Singh movies. Despite that, Dara Singh was a very familiar figure and name. A synonym for formidable strength, for something like the Rock of Gibraltar: utterly immovable, impossible to defeat.
Mumtaz, as I mentioned in my last post, was one of the best things that happened to Mere Sanam. She may not have had much screen time in the film, but she certainly left her mark – more than she’d been doing in the B-grade films she’d mostly appeared in till then. Rustom-e-Hind, made in the same year as Mere Sanam, is an example of that type of film. It’s basically a Dara Singh showcase – so there’s lots of showing off of wrestling – but Mumtaz gets to smile prettily and flutter her eyelashes, if nothing else.
One of the main characters in Prince of Foxes was a man who actually existed in history: Cesare Borgia (1475 (?) – 1507 AD). This post is about a film that features one of Cesare Borgia’s contemporaries, a man born halfway across the world, seven or eight years after Cesare Borgia was born. A man as ambitious as Borgia, and a man who had as marked an impact on the history of India as Cesare Borgia did on Italy. This was Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty – without which we wouldn’t have had the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, murgh musallam, and who knows howmany Hindi films.
Humayun is (as the name suggests) more about Babur’s son and successor Humayun (who, coincidentally, was born almost exactly a year after Cesare Borgia died – Borgia died on March 12, 1507; Humayun was born on March 7, 1508). But the film begins with Babur (Shah Nawaz) invading India, so Babur does play quite an important role in the scheme of things.
The last film I reviewed, Kohinoor, was part swashbuckler, part romance and part political intrigue. So is Prince of Foxes (though this has none of the comedy that makes Kohinoor such an endearing film). Interestingly, though, that isn’t the only thing common between these two films. They also have one scene in common. It’s a fairly critical scene in the film, where the hero has been imprisoned and is dragged forward, chained and beaten, in an assembly presided over by the villain – who sentences the hero to death. A bystander, one with ample reason to resent the hero, steps forward and disputes the death sentence – simply because it’ll bring the hero’s life to a blessed, quick end. Why not prolong his agony instead? This bystander proposes a gruesome way to do it (the same way in both Kohinoor and Prince of Foxes), and offers to do it. With the exact same results in both films.
I did not supply the details in Kohinoor, and I won’t let the cat out of the bag here. Suffice to say: if you like swashbuckling historicals, this is one Hollywood film you should put on your list.
Of the many things that fascinate me about old Hindi cinema, this is one: the making of films set in a time and space wholly alien to India of the mid-1900’s. The 1950’s, especially, seem to favour these sort of films, set in exotic locales and needing costumes, makeup, and sets that were vastly different from what one saw in the more usual Bollywood drama, thriller or even mythological. There was Yahudi (with Dilip Kumar looking far from Roman in a light-haired wig and ankle-length gown); Aurat(based on the story of Samson and Delilah)—and this one, about the Mongol warrior king, Changez (better known to the West as Genghis) Khan.
At home, our tastes (when it comes to cinema) are very varied. My husband likes science fiction or fantasy, kung fu, conspiracy, superheroes, and (occasionally) comedy. And very little of it pre-90’s. I watch just about anything that’s pre-70’s. So, when we were deciding which DVDs we wanted to order next from our DVD rental service, I was taken aback when my husband said, “Baiju Bawra.”
“That’s black and white,” I said, wondering if the recent bout of long and stressful work hours had taken its toll. “Early 50’s. Hindi.”
“I know,” he said. “Good music.”
And yes, good music is the outstanding feature of this film. It had to be, since it’s about the legendary 16th century singer and musician Baijnath (‘Baiju’) Bawra.
This Jean Simmons-Marlon Brando starrer should ideally have been reviewed last fortnight, as a tribute to the beautiful Jean, who passed away on January 22, 2010. But I was in Pondicherry, and the DVD was in Delhi. I’m back home now, and having watched Desirée all over again, am ready to say a final goodbye to Jean (can one ever do that for favourite stars one will continue to watch over and over again, long after they’re gone?)