Friday, October 31, 2008

Boxer (India, 1965)

The credits of the Dara Singh B feature Boxer, apropos of the title, roll over a montage of boxers in the ring. At their conclusion, we're treated to a scene of a match in which Dara, playing an up-and-coming young fighter, goes at and ultimately defeats an opponent. At this point, one could reasonably assume that he or she has been delivered into a standard issue sports melodrama, and can safely look forward to a comfortably lived-in feeling narrative in which Dara's character, through sheer grit and determination, fights his way up from the bottom to the very top of the fight game, perhaps encountering along the way such familiar pitfalls as racketeers pressuring him to take a fall or disapproving loved ones who'd rather he became a doctor or violinist.

However, the fact that Dara's character is a boxer ends up being so incidental to Boxer's story that the film's title could rightly be seen as a canny exercise in misdirection. Soon after we're introduced to him, Dara boards a plane bound for Australia, the site of an upcoming, much ballyhooed match with the reigning champ. In flight, he makes the acquaintance of a beautiful stewardess (I think you'll agree, after seeing how these female "flight attendants" are presented, that the sixties parlance is more appropriate here) played by his frequent co-star, Mumtaz. No sooner have they gotten cozy than the plane goes down in a dizzying collage of mismatched stock footage. Dara and Mumtaz, apparently the only survivors of the crash, find themselves stranded in the jungle and are soon captured by a band of grunting movie savages. Dara is forced to wrestle the leader of the savages to protect Mumtaz's honor (there may not be a lot of boxing in Boxer, but, being a Dara Singh movie, you can rest assured that there's an awful lot of wrestling) and wins, and is made king of the savages as a result.

Meanwhile, back at home, things are really going to shit. Dara's blind sister, thanks to a sight-restoring operation that Dara has devoted all of his winnings toward paying for, regains her sight only to see their mother drop dead from shock at the news of Dara's crash. A kindly friend of the family then takes her in, but when that friend's wife voices objection to the girl's presence, a fight ensues and the friend accidentally kills his wife. With her mother dead and her brother presumed so, and her other source of support now thrown in the slammer for the foreseeable future, the abject young girl hits the road, ultimately ending up in a brothel where she is forced to take up the debased profession of nautch girl to make a living. At the same time, the two small-time hustlers turned promoters who have been steering Dara's career are run out of town by their creditors after Dara's failure to appear at the Australian bout. As fate would have it, they also end up in the same town as Dara's sister and, after seeing the girl dance, hire her to be the main attraction in the carnival they are creating, completely unaware of her relation to the fighter they had hitched their fortunes to.

Meanwhile, Dara and Mumtaz escape from the jungle by boat and end up on a desert island where they must flee on horseback from a murderous band of Arab bandits. Once they have reached safety, they collapse by a river bank, where they are found by an expatriate Indian professor who nurses them back to health. Dara then asks the professor to stage a wrestling match so that he and Mumtaz can use the prize money to pay for their return trip to India. One very long wrestling sequence later, the pair are back in India, and Dara has before him the task of figuring out what the hell happened to his family. Somehow they end up making their way to the carnival, and during the course the show, not only does Dara recognize his sister, but Mumtaz recognizes her long-lost sister among the dancers as well. Finally, all that is left is for Dara to settle the hash of the two promoters, who, though I thought they were just meant to be comic ne'er-do-wells, turn out to actually be evil, murderous rogues. A protracted brawl ensues, which makes ample use of all the hostile potentialities presented by rickety carnival rides.

Boxer's plot is so sprawling and convoluted that I imagine, if director Radhakant had left the production for some reason midway through filming and had been replaced by Manmohan Desai, that master of masala excess would have been all like, "Woah, we need to reign this thing in here!" This is especially surprising given the movie's poverty row pedigree, as Bollywood's B movies, in my experience, are generally a lot more simplistic and straightforward in their plotting than are its A features. On top of this--and in addition to all the wrestling--the movie, which features a score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, contains a whole lot of musical numbers, including one in which Mumtaz shimmies to the modern sounds of Ted Lyons and His Cubs and another orientalist novelty featuring my new favorite item girl, Bela Bose. (Thanks, by the way, to reader Michael Barnum for identifying that actress in his comments to my Wahan Ke Log review.) The result of all of this is that Boxer is a thoroughly compelling, if somewhat vexing, viewing experience. There's a careening, off-the-rails randomness to its machinations that simply renders you unable to tear your eyes away from it.

I expected that Dara would eventually make his way back into the ring for a climactic fight, but closing the narrative circle in such a manner seems to have been something those behind Boxer deemed not worth bothering with. This is no doubt for the best, because, by this point, Dara's pugilistic exploits would have been rendered somewhat pedestrian by the death-defying, globe-trotting adventures we've been watching him undertake over the course of most of the film. Still, the result is that Boxer ends up being a boxing film whose relationship to its putative subject matter is so absurdly tangential that you have to wonder why the connection was even attempted. Was it just a matter of boxing films being popular in India in 1965? Whatever the case, it's of little importance, because, whatever Boxer is--and I'm not even going to hazard a guess in that direction--it can't be denied that the experience of watching it is, if not a knock-out, than, at least, a real kick in the head.

7 comments:

memsaabstory said...

Ted Lyons???? Ted Lyons????????? Do you realize this is only the 4th sighting of Ted Lyons? Does he have his Cubs with him? Can you send me a screen shot of the song and the band, PLEASE pretty PLEASE?

Must.see.for.Ted. *dies*

memsaabstory said...

forgive me I have just regained consciousness and I see that you said Ted has his Cubs with him...I am trying to document every film they made an appearance in....

*dies again*

Todd said...

Actually, I may have just assumed the "and His Cubs" part, because only the Ted Lyons part was visible on the drum kit as far as I could see. I didn't realize he made appearances sans his cubs. Anyway, I will be happy to provide you with documentary evidence.

So, what films, other than this and Gumnaam did they appear in?

memsaabstory said...

I've never seen him without his cubs either so they were probably there.

They also were the band for the Beatles rip-off song in Shammi's Janwar, and I spotted them in Raj Khosla's film Anita with Sadhana as well (I have screen caps from both appearances on my blog). I almost had a heart attack when I saw them in Anita because I'd only ever found info about them being in Janwar and Gumnaam.

I adore their little mop tops. Would you send me screen caps? you can email them to me:
memsaabstory at gmail dot com :-) I think I may need to own Boxer too...

Rum said...

ohhh i love this movie! dara and mumtaz always made a kinda cute,yet very odd couple. And i can't resist a movie without Ted Lyons & his Cubs, and Bela Bose, she's such a great item girl, and shakes her head about just like Laxmi Chhaya! I think maybe this movie should be called "Wrestler" instead,as he makes any other excuse than to box!

Todd said...

Thanks, Rum! Other possible alternate titles include "Air Traveler", "I Dated a Teenage Stewardess" and "Burly Guy Battles the Uncivilized World".

陳珊妮sammi said...
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