Thursday, March 13, 2014

Good girls, recast – what Juhi and Supriya did next

If you grew up watching 1980s films, you may remember a time when Juhi Chawla and Supriya Pathak – one working in mainstream cinema, the other largely in the “parallel” circuit – were different versions of the fresh-faced girl next door. They didn’t always play virginal stereotypes (Pathak has a few casually sexy moments as a modern-day Subhadra on honeymoon with her Arjuna in Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug) but generally speaking they were comforting presences; one felt that nothing too bad would happen if they were around. It has come as a jolt to the senses then – in a pleasing way – to see these actors tear up those images with relish in recent films.

In the past two years, Pathak has played a self-serving chief minister in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai and then a domineering matriarch in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram Leela. The form of those two films is very different – Shanghai has an austerely gloomy tone and many handheld camera shots, while Ram Leela is baroque and over the top – but in both there are scenes where lighting and shot composition make her look like a black widow spider feeding on everyone around her (or a black hole sucking in whatever light there is in the rest of the frame). The performances are terrifying too: whether she is assessing a potential son-in-law, or emerging from the shadows to quietly menace a conscientious bureaucrat, she is a revelation.

The thing with Pathak though is that one knows she came from a theatre background – her mother was the veteran actor and director Dina Pathak – and worked with directors such as Benegal and Nihalani, whose films were more character-oriented than personality-driven; so once you’ve got over the initial surprise, it isn’t so unusual to see her experimenting at this stage of her career. Juhi Chawla, on the other hand, was very much from the commercial-cinema star system, which is founded on the comfort of watching people play similar roles over and over again, and the bubbly-sweetheart image is one that is particularly hard to break away from. I wasn’t a Qayamat se Qayamat Tak fan – I was 11 when the film came out in 1988, and had better things to do with my time (or so I thought) than watch a teen romance – but I did register Chawla’s chocolatey presence and may have vaguely felt that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have an elder sister of such pedigree to play Scrabble with on a lazy afternoon. I wonder how I would have reacted to a time traveler’s revelation that 25 years hence this Rashmi (the cutie, so to speak, in QSQT) would play a politician who sets a “generous” pay-off to cover up a rape and then says – in a room filled with male lackeys – that the victim should consider herself lucky this happened just before an election.


That is just one of many wicked things Chawla – as the predatory Sumitra Devi – does in Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang. It isn’t exactly a multi-dimensional performance, but it has many well-conceived, well-timed moments where the eyes suddenly flash, a lip curls and one sees psychotic currents moving below a calm surface. And there is no sentimentalising. In a tale about women’s empowerment, it would have been easy to give Sumitra a weepy back-story, where she is seen as a victim of patriarchal expectations herself, someone who is “bad” mainly because she has entered a male domain and is doing things that are traditionally done by men. But Gulaab Gang isn’t that sort of film – it is from the old Bollywood commercial school, built on archetypes, where villains could be just villains – and you don’t get the impression that Sumitra has been corrupted by power; it is more as if she sought power because it would allow her to play out her innate dark impulses.

The casting of actors like Pathak and Chawla in these roles (and other names can be added to the list – Rishi Kapoor, for instance, is enjoying a fine second innings as an actor that is worlds away from his cheerful romantic-hero parts of yore) suggests that today’s filmmakers are creating fresh opportunities for middle-aged performers, and having some fun in the process. But it is also a reminder of the self-reflexivity (or as the academics might say, the post-modernist deconstruction) of mainstream cinema: writers and directors who were once passionate movie-buffs are tempted to overturn elements from the films they grew up watching. When I interviewed Banerjee, it was clear that the very thought of casting Pathak and the equally genial Farooque Shaikh in negative roles in Shanghai had been invigorating for him. Similarly, Gulaab Gang’s writer-director Sen (who, in full disclosure, is a former colleague) must have had strong ideas about how to use Chawla in a contemporary masala film that is in some ways a homage to the less self-conscious Bollywood that she began her career in.

Of course, an added benefit is that this sort of self-referencing allows the dedicated viewer to form his own associations. Given that Chawla’s Qayamat se Qayamat Tak co-star Aamir Khan played a scowling bank robber in Dhoom 3 just a few months ago, what fun it would be to have a postmod QSQT sequel in which it turns out that Rashmi and Raj survived to discover that love was not a bed of roses after all, then eventually went their separate ways and set about wreaking vengeance on the world. I know I’d queue up early to watch that film.


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P.S. On the somewhat related subject of casting an actor in a particular role with one eye on his screen history: I felt a little chill recently while watching the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and seeing F Murray Abraham in a small part as a talent manager. Abraham’s most famous role was as the composer Salieri, forever envious of Mozart’s “God-dictated” talent, in Amadeus. And Inside Llewyn Davis is about a musician – a young folk singer in the early 1960s – who may not be good enough or driven enough, and who, in one of the film’s last scenes, walks out of a club gloomily as another young, clearly more talented musician named Robert Zimmerman takes the stage. I'm fairly sure the casting of Abraham was a deliberate nod to Salieris past and present.

[Did a version of this for Business Standard Weekend]

13 comments:

  1. Surprisingly, I find it easier to imagine Juhi in the negative role. Supriya Pathak's good girl image is too deeply etched

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    1. Anon: interesting - and a bit of a relief too, because after writing the post it occurred to me that I haven't seen some of Pathak's earlier films, so I may have jumped the gun in "typecasting" her based on memories of a few films like Arjun, Vijeta and Bazaar.

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  2. Off the topic, but did you get the chance to read 'Overrated Outcast''s latest blog entry?
    Even though he he couldnt emulate you completly.. I was laughing...

    -- The Alco...... Guy

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    1. Yes, someone sent me the link. But why do you assume that he wrote the bit that was in my voice? *raises eyebrow wickedly, like Juhi in GG*

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  3. Very interesting write-up, Jai Arjun. I saw Gulaab Gang on Tuesday and was quite shaken up by Juhi Chawla's performance. It delighted me that Sumitra was bad because she wanted to be bad. She didn't have any weepy back story. Sumitra was, in my opinion, a stronger character than Rajjo.

    Also, as you write in the end: "what fun it would be to have a postmod QSQT sequel in which it turns out that Rashmi and Raj survived to discover that love was not a bed of roses after all, then eventually went their separate ways and set about wreaking vengeance on the world. I know I’d queue up early to watch that film," I hope someone in Bollywood thinks of creating this QSQT sequel. But I wonder if Aamir Khan would want to work in this film.

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  4. how come you always mention your age..you may be a teenager but you always look middle aged even when you were in 20

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    1. I agree I have always looked old (and we have had this conversation on comments before, I think), but this sentence "you may be a teenager but you always look middle aged even when you were in 20" makes zero sense. Do think a bit about what you were trying to say.

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  5. This got me thinking about about old-time stars, especially Waheeda Rahman and Nutan. Everybody will agree they were great actresses.

    But their roles/performances were such that they had the audience on their side in whatever they did. I can't remember them playing any unlikable or ambiguous characters.

    Were they never offered those roles or were they unadventurous?

    This is not true of some others, including Meena Kumari (in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Chitralekha), Mala Sinha (in Gumraah and Pyaasa) and Nalini Jaiwant (in Shikast and Kala Pani)

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    1. Why is it "adventurous" to play unlikeable/"ambiguous" characters? And by implication, unadventurous to play "likeable" roles?

      Kirk Douglas probably played more "ambiguous" characters than Cary Grant. Yet, Grant is probably the greater, more influential artist. What you regard as "likeable" or "conventional" is actually a very very wide spectrum comprising of several shades.

      Meena Kumari is anything but a Sati Savitri in films like Miss Mary, Dil Apni Aur Preet Parai and Bandish. Nutan in Paying Guest is decidedly unconventional. So is Waheeda in Guide and Vyjayanthimala in Sadhna, Zindagi.

      Being unconventional doesn't mean one has to sleep around or do 'cool' things on the screen. One can appear perfectly traditional on the screen and yet play strong characters who make hard choices.

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  6. @ Jai: Interesting write-up and funny thing there on Aamir and Juhi. I didnt know Murray Abraham is in Inside Llewyn Davis. Gonna watch that film too.

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  7. The character of Rajjo and Sumitra both were strong, equally strong, Rajjo has the messiah, confident yet calm personality, while Sumitra is menacing and evil.Sumitra had to be very strong because Rajjo had to overcome a strong force and prove that whatever the obstacle is good always win.

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  8. I thought Supriya Pathak was amazing in Ram Leela, which was definitely over the top but brought back fond memories of Gujarat. I haven't seen Gulaab Gang. I have a lot of catching up to do! And I absolutely need to watch Dibakar Banerjee's films- he was my senior at NID! What a truly tiny world.

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    1. Deepa: that link I've provided is a 12,000-word piece I did about Dibakar. I won't assume you'll read the whole thing properly, but you might want to flip through some bits...

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