Thursday, January 1, 2009

Humsaya (India, 1968)

Where would Bollywood be if not for the all-too-frequent occurrence of completely unrelated people looking exactly alike? It's certainly a situation we can all relate to. After all, who hasn't come face to face with their doppelganger on at least one occasion, and more likely two or three? Wait. What's that you say? It's not frequent at all? In fact, it pretty much never happens? Ha! Next you'll be telling me that women don't like being stalked, when in reality they take to it like catnip (if they were cats, I mean).

Humsaya begins with one of those disclaimers that assures us that any resemblance to any "living personalities or existing parties" is purely coincidental. From watching Tahalka and countless other Bollywood patriotic films, I've learned that what that really means is that the shit is on, and that, as soon as that disclaimer fades from the screen, we're going to be seeing some real life person, group, or country -- most likely Pakistan or China -- having their name thoroughly dragged through the mud.

And, sure enough, no sooner have those words receded from view than we are whisked via relief map to Peking, China, where Madan Puri, sporting offensive -if-it-weren't -so-ridiculous yellow face, is playing some kind of devilish top level Chinese government functionary. In furtherance of some dastardly plan to undermine India, Madan -- who's character, I believe, is named Professor Tao Kai Sheng -- puts out a call to Lin, a young Chinese military officer who, in response, is forced to cut short his leave. Bidding a reluctant farewell to his young sweetheart (played by Mala Sinha, doing her best impression of a gift shop China doll), Lin reports for duty, only to learn that he is to undergo plastic surgery in order to impersonate a young Indian Air Force officer by the name of Shyam. This surgery, however, will ultimately be less traumatic than one might expect, because Shyam and Lin are both played by Joy Mukherjee (who also produced and directed), and so will only involve Lin having the putty removed from his eyelids.

For reasons that are mostly too complex and unsubtitled to go into, Shyam, having somehow been duped into placing his fate within Prof Sheng's hands, is holed up in an isolated cabin somewhere in the Himalayas. It seems that back in India, Sheng, working behind the scenes, was able to frame Shyam for a murder he didn't commit, and as a result the lad was not only court martialed and stripped of his rank, but also alienated from the affections of his sweetheart, Rena (Sharmila Tagore). In this lowly and dispirited state, Shyam, now freed from prison, is putty in the Professor's hands.

That is, until Sheng and Lin show up at Shyam's cabin and Shyam inadvertently overhears the details of their dastardly Chinese plan, after which he manages to, without Sheng's knowledge, bring about Lin's death and switch places with him. Thus Shyam is now impersonating Lin impersonating him. Under this guise, he returns to India and tells all to his military superiors, after which his rank is reinstated, his conviction overturned, and his warm place in Rena's heart restored. Nonetheless, his superiors order him to continue his ruse in order to uncover the full extent of the dastardly Chinese's dastardly Chinese plot.

All goes more or less swimmingly until Professor Sheng shows up in India as part of a "Dancing Delegation" with Lin's sweetie, the delegation's star dancer, in tow. Of course, like Sheng, she also thinks that Shyam is Lin impersonating Shyam, and so comes to him on the sly expecting all of the benefits. Thus does Shyam's charade, not to mention his love life, become even more complicated, as Rena, like Lin's sweetheart, is unaware of the double role he's playing, which means that he must keep up appearances with the both of them while leaving neither of them the wiser about his relationship with the other. Spicy!

Of course, while Professor Sheng's Dancing Delegation is disguised under a cloak of peaceful diplomacy, it is in reality a festering web of virulent Chinese lies, intended only to facilitate his and his minions' trespass into India's brave but vulnerable heart. In hope of getting to and exposing the operation's real Mr. Big -- an especially circumspect soul who appears to his underlings both in a hood and silhouetted behind a screen -- Shyam must hit the road with the delegation, acting as their personal pilot, and race against the clock to complete his mission before the spies are able to do any irreparable Chinese damage.

As you have probably already gathered, Humsaya leaves no Orientalist cliché unturned. Boiled down to its essence, it would consist of nothing more than the serial sounding of gongs, the deferential shuffling of petal-like Chinese maidens, and sleeves creeping up to surreptitiously reveal previously unseen dragon tattoos as Madan Puri arches one brow and narrows his eyes in an attempt to convey inscrutability. Thankfully, all of this nonsense imbues the film with a level of entertainment that is far out of proportion to what the meat and potatoes of its story might otherwise provide, as, by all appearances, its a fairly rote Hitchcock-aspirant espionage thriller.

Of course, "by all appearances" is an important qualifier in this case, because, armed only with a typically breathless and garbled song booklet plot synopsis and exactly zero understanding of Hindi, appearances were all I had to go by. Thus any judgment of Humsaya I might make would be based on an incomplete understanding. Still, the degree to which it seems to conform to countless other nationalistic Bollywood potboilers that I've seen gives me the sneaking suspicion that, were I to have a complete understanding of its dialogue, it probably wouldn't have added that many additional layers of meaning to the movie as I experienced it.

On the other hand, there are certainly aspects of Humsaya that would prompt me to give it a re-viewing were it to come out in an English subtitled version (especially if it were released on a DVD free of the sound distortion that plagues the Priya VCD release, which sadly renders O.P. Nayyar's song score impossible to assess). Primary among those is the performance of Mala Sinha, who, over the course of the film, goes from China doll to full-blown tragic figure. It's a performance that threatens to crumple under its own bigness, but you sure can't accuse the woman of holding back. The fact that her agonized and quite lengthy third act monologue nearly brought me to tears myself, despite the fact that I didn't have the least clue what she was saying, is a real testament to the emotional power she brings to the role.

Humsaya wraps up with a sequence that would make Sunny Deol proud, in which Joy Mukherjee flies a helicopter over the Himalayas and, armed only with a machinegun and some hand grenades, single-handedly defeats an invading Chinese horde. Such a display of patriotism should serve as a humbling lesson to those us who gave ourselves a big pat on the back for merely dragging our sorry asses off the couch to go and vote back in November. This is true love of country, people! And Joy didn't even need Paris Hilton to tell him it was cool.

You call that a knife?


Rum said...

wow Joy directed this?!! I hate priya-vcds I bought a ton of Feroz Khan westerners and although I understand Hindi, i do need some reassurance! This looks fantastic, and Mala Sinha seemed to play a lot Chinese and Japanese characters back in the day! and i can't picture you crying todd!

TheDoug said...

There's nothing like beginning either a film or a New Year with a disclaimer!!! After surviving 2008 I needed your blog to make me laugh!!!(with or without subtitles)

Todd said...

Rum, it's been known to happen, and when it does, believe me, it's not pretty.

Doug, I bet you were glad to learn that not only the characters, but also the costumes in Humsaya were fictitious.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

So, if the costumes are fictitious, people are running around naked? How un-Hindi of them!

I've somehow been able to avoid films with Evil Chinese Stereotypes from India up to now and am only informed about the evils of That Neighboring Country. I should probably fill that hole in my knowledge of evilness. It's a little bit disappointing for me as a German that there aren't many nazi evildoers to find in Bollywood. Always a good target.

Anonymous said...

I love Bollywood's anti-China films. This sounds a bit like Aankhen (or maybe it's just the Mala Sinha thing)...but I will wait for a better quality (subtitled) version :-)

Anonymous said...

ps Mard also had that disclaimer, which I found completely hilarious (and unnecessary).

Keith said...

It's a little bit disappointing for me as a German that there aren't many nazi evildoers to find in Bollywood.

Allow me to introduce you to a little film called Hitler, starring Mithun Chakraborty.

And Todd, that last screencap -- for some reason, all I can imagine it saying is, "I don't need the gun, John! I don't need the gun!"

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Mithun always comes through, doesn't he?

Todd said...

Yeah, I'll say it. Racist Bollywood movies are awesome. Damn those Chinese, with their intelligence, sophistication and discipline! Really, could there be any more loathsome a combination of qualities? (Not that India was alone in this, of course -- see, for instance, Battle Beneath the Earth.)

And, Memsaab, regarding Mard, those costumes were indeed about as fictitious as they come.

I haven't yet seen Hitler. I'm counting on Keith to fill me in. I'm hoping that it's basically the same story as Valkyrie but with Mithun and lots of crappy miniatures.

House, it is indeed shocking that they never got around to putting Bob Christo in an SS uniform. Such a missed opportunity.