Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bollywood on Tativille: Guide (1965)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Writer-director Vijay Anand's Guide (1965), one of the year's most significant, however clandestine DVD releases (available region-free through Shemaroo), exemplifies the character and tendencies of the popular Indian cinema when operating very near to its fullest potential: Guide expertly manifests the national cinema's default musical and epic forms, its fluid interlacing of genre, and the star system upon which the industry's success relied, while depicting a subject very much grounded in the lived reality of South Asia, circa 1965. Guide likewise exudes the aesthetic possibilities of its particular moment, and in particular the luxuriant color palette then open to filmmakers, which nevertheless no director used any better than Anand in Guide and in the equally outstanding Jewel Thief (1967). Indeed, with two such notable achievements, Anand stood for a time in the mid to late 1960s - admittedly a rather short moment - among the best commercial directors working anywhere.

Narrated principally in less than a half-dozen very long flashbacks - Guide's running time exceeds 165 minutes - Anand's film centers around namesake Dev Anand's Raju as he meets and later romances the initially married Rosie/Nalini (one of not only the cinema's greatest beauties, but also one of its finest actresses, Waheeda Rehman) while the latter is on an archeological expedition with her much older husband, Marco (Kishore Sahu). Raju incites Rosie, herself the daughter of a courtesan, to pursue the morally suspect career of a dancer, radically against her husbands suggestions, which he subsequently manages to great success. In so doing, Raju thereafter repeats the sins of her now ex-husband, who in the aforementioned trip ignored his wife (even lamenting a visit after she attempted suicide).

Marco neglected his wife for his study of centuries-old Hindu statuary - many of which depict partially nude, supple female figures in contorted poses - that he found in an undiscovered cave. Anand's presentation of the sculpted figures, often cross-cut with passages featuring Rehman's Rosie, provides an historical antecedent for the picture's female subject; to put it another way, Guide does its own historical poetics, isolating the glamorous, romantic Hindi star as the modern-day inheritor to the sub-continent's stone consorts. She is as much an object of male romantic longing as the sacred-erotic objects of the Hindu religion, even though Marco, with whom she significantly is not able to have a child, greets her wearing of an ankle bracelet with scorn. Marco does this even after he caresses one of his figures, while flush with spirits, whom he has mistaken for the originator of the chiming.

Guide pairs its cognizance of traditional Hindustani culture with a more cynical engagement to the present: Raju wears a Nehru jacket (a point noted by my mother; the long-time Prime Minister concluded his term a year prior to the film's 1965 release) when seeking support for "Nalini's" (her name has been changed from the western Rosie) act; he positions her dancing as the patriotically Indian alternative to rock-and-roll; he pretends to be a swami when the villagers mistake the recently incarcerated Raju for a holy man; and is interviewed by an American woman (thus underlining the current vogue for eastern spirituality most closely identified with the Beatles) on the occasion of his very genuine hunger strike.

Nonetheless, though he initially cons the rural folk, which Anand expertly sets up with the pre-credit passage emphasizing Raju's fast-talking charisma as a tour guide, along with his adept work as Nalini's manager, he does come to practice what he previously inauthentically preached. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself for the starving people of his adopted home village in submitting to a twelve day fast, which originated from a tale his mother told him in childhood, and which brings about a miraculous, drought-ending downpour. There is substantial interest here for the theologically-inclined and curious viewer in the film's motival cleaving of the Hindu and Christian religions, among others.

The pursuant physical and emotional stress leads to hallucinatory passages where Raju's body and soul literally separate (prefiguring a motif that is narrativized in Kamal Amrohi's Pakeezah, 1972, as I have argued elsewhere), and where Anand showcases his strong Soviet influence through rhythmically edited micro-montage. Otherwise, Guide tends to favor longer takes facilitated by the director's multi-figure compositions. Anand uses these both functionally and mimetically, as in a dazzling overhead long-take of the dancing Rehman during a showstopping trans-spatial - another Bollywood signature - musical number. Yet, despite the physical disjunctures of the films' musical numbers, Anand uniformly presupposes a spectator for each of his songs, whether it is the other lover during the duets, the stage audience (and Raju) when Nalini performs and lastly an interventionist god when the villagers and Raju join together in supplication.

Moreover, it is also on stage that the film's most pronounced aesthetic virtue becomes clear: its palette. Here, whether it is through the use of luminous scrums, which Raju himself operates during an earlier solicitation of financial support, or in its depiction of brightly colored powered, as in a holi festival-like segment, Anand shows his keen sense of Pathé color's multi-chromatic potential.


Shubhajit said...

Wonderful review of one of the most loved movies to have come out of the Hindi film industry of India.

As you rightly noted, Vijay Anand was among the most respected among commercial filmmakers then, and his brother (the movie's male lead) Dev Anand one of the most popular stars of the industry.

Its been a long time since I watched the movie, and your review has made it amply clear for me that its time I watched it again. But what I distinctly remember about the movie is its extraordinarily beautiful music and soulful folk & classical-based songs, composed by Sachin Dev Burman, who is often considered, along with his equally talented son Rahul Dev Burman, one of the greatest composers not just of the Hindi film industry or Bollywood, but also India in general.

And speaking of musicals, irrespective of drama, comedy or thriller, popular Indian movies usually always have song-and-dance sequences, or at least songs. I don't think the intent is to create Hollywood style musicals; rather, they have become a sort of part of the popular culture, and hence film music is almost as big & popular as popular cinema.

However, where non-mainstream movies or parallel cinema goes, you'll be surprised to note that they do not have song-and-dance numbers like popular studio-backed movies. Non-mainstream movies thus are more akin to European & American cinema as compared to their popular counterparts from India.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thanks Shubhajit.

I eliminated the clause about the film being closer to the Hollywood musical than most as I agree that I was being unclear. It was a colleague's point rather than mine, as I note, and wasn't sufficiently developed to include in the piece.

Either way, great added insights into the film, which does contain wonderful music. My omission in discussing it further was due to the fact that SHEMAROO did not subtitle the songs, making me uneasy in discussing it. Clearly, the music is one of its more important achievements.

Term Papers said...

The films of director Manmohan Desai represent a particularly compelling site for the examination of the term’s portability to the South Asian context.

Hans Meier said...

I feel this is mostly a re-narration, not a review.