Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inspecting the Inspectors, Part 2

Oh, the fifties -- a time when any film occupation, from police inspector to gangster's moll, could be endowed with dignity through sheer force of accessorizing. In C.I.D., the men sported suave white suits, the women wore beautiful gowns and veils, and they all drove around in enormous, aesthetically pleasing automobiles, while people like Mohd. Rafi and Geeta Dutt sang their inner thoughts and feelings.

Just thirty years later, no such dignity was available to the stars of the 1980s, who were forced to wear hideous headbands and spangly spandex in films with "Music Direction by Bappi Lahiri" in the credits. Disco king Mithun Chakraborty was obviously used to this kind of thing, but watching his Main Bhalwan (1986) in a double feature with C.I.D. puts the devolution of style in sharp relief.

The movie's first twenty minutes contains more plot twists than many full-length features. First, there's a father proudly passing on the family legacy of jewel thievery to his son, but it all turns into an argument when the son wants to go straight and get married. (The thief is a conventional criminal, insisting that he'll choose his son's wife. He also seems to be trying to channel Amrish Puri, but the evil laugh is tellingly overdubbed -- trying too hard). Then there's a shootout with the cops. Then the son brings home the fiancee, just in time for Dad to come home and beat her with a cane. Much shouting about how one man's rock is another man's diamond ensues, climaxing with the son sindooring her on the spot.

(By the way, the son, who is destined to spawn baby Mithun, is played by Suresh Oberoi, Vivek's father).

The jewel thief throws them out in the street. They go to take refuge with her brother Dharmendra, who's entertaining some prospective in-laws for her. Awkward! He throws them out, too -- at gunpoint -- in a scene that gives Dharmendra the opportunity to channel his inner William Shatner.

Later, Dharmendra stumbles across his sister, who's pregnant and being thrown in the street by the landlord (that's her third eviction in about five minutes), and begs her forgiveness. Across town, her husband has gone groveling to his father, who throws money at him and forces his son to do one more job. Just as the sister is going into labor, her brother gets a call that the fabled jewel thief is striking at that very minute. They storm the building, he gives chase, and shoots the thief, not realizing it's his brother-in-law until the culprit runs bleeding to his own door. Poor Vivek's Dad arrives just in time to meet his newborn son, blame his father for everything, and die in his wife's lap.

Before long, she leaves the baby sleeping and goes to confront the villain, who kills her and has her body thrown in the river. (Or did he? After all, we've seen Dance Dance). Flash-forward twenty-five years, and the villain is stalking his grandson from afar, hoping to corrupt him into taking up the mantle of famous jewel thief that his father so foolishly abandoned.

Also abandoned is a plot point about how the gangsters were slipping young Mithun "poison" -- I can only imagine some kind of addictive drug -- so he'll turn to a life of crime to support his habit. But it's not really necessary: he's involved in petty scams (tipping off criminals to his uncle's upcoming raids) just for money to impress chicks. When he gets caught, it breaks his uncle's heart, but the return of the jewel thief makes the police decide to train Tony as a double agent (after all, one of them points out, "He is a top dancer. He dances flexibly like a deer.")

Of course, we know this is belly-of-the-beastville. When Grandpa finds out, he exclaims "Wow! Whatever I wanted to do, the police officers are doing that." Especially since they train him in prison, without ever telling Mithun their purpose, so he thinks it's part of the punishment, leaving him vulnerable to be recruiting by the REAL jewel thief. Good plan.

(By the way, this film consistently translates "vah!" as "wow," including in a "vah! vah! vah!" ghazal-reciting scene, which is so logical and sounds so right, it actually makes me wonder about the etymology of "wow.")

So there's a good father figure/bad father figure dichotomy going on, complicated by the fact that if Mithun embraces the good father's values, he'll also get to marry his rather Flashdance-esque dance partner, who happens to be the police superintendent's daughter.

Small world! While you ponder that, here's the sprightly love duet "No Entry." That's not meant to be ... suggestive or anything. Certainly not with a bevy of disapproving nuns...

P.S.: D'oh! That's what I get for blogging in mid-film. Sometimes I just can't contain myself, though. The plot point wasn't dropped; I just misunderstood. It didn't occur to me that when a criminal was talking about poisoning somebody, he might just be metaphorical. After all: he's a criminal! He could actually poison somebody. But no -- the "poison" was that he bribed some small-time criminals to offer Mithun money for information, thus corrupting him. A little circuitous, yes, but far from the worst I've ever seen in a film.

In the end, pretty much all the minor characters I'd forgotten about (the prison body builder, the weaselly prison administrator, all those gamblers and sellers of "country liquor") turned up and were part of the jewel thief's elaborate conspiracy. The movie is really a sort of parable on existential paranoia: the forces of good (Dharmendra) and the forces of evil (Not Amrish Puri) are both manipulating Mithun's life behind the scenes, and he has no idea. The former lies to him with good intentions, and the latter tells him the (partial) truth in order to manipulate him. Somehow Mithun is supposed to muddle through all the grey and figure out who he is and what side he's on.

No wonder a guy turns to disco! (Or, in this case: "Break dance! Break dance!")


memsaab said...

I kind of need to watch this for the subtitles if nothing else. "Dances flexibly like a deer"---a paralyzed gut-shot deer!

Anarchivist said...

Even as I was typing that description, I thought, "Ahh, this one's for you, Memsaab!"

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