Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Faqeeria (Pakistan, 1987)

The Punjabi film Faqeeria is one of around five hundred films that Pakistani superstar Sultan Muhammad -- popularly known as Sultan Rahi -- starred in before his untimely death as a victim of violent crime in 1996. His prolific output prompts me to again reflect upon what it once meant to be a movie star in many parts of Asia, and, in comparison to the Western model, the very different work ethic that it entailed. In Hollywood, a star of Sultan Rahi's stature would have been afforded by his or her bigger payday the leisure to cherry pick projects while making only one or two films a year, while many Asian stars on the same relative scale would be driven by the economics of their indigenous film industries to labor toward being near constant presences on their nations' cinema screens. It's for this reason that beloved stars like Thailand's Mitr Chaibancha, Hong Kong's Connie Chan and India's Amitabh Bachchan each churned out literally dozens of films a year during the peak of their popularity. Still, despite the impressive density of those aforementioned icons' respective filmographies, I've got to say that Sultan Rahi takes the cake.

For me to attempt a formal "review" of Faqeeria would be something of a joke. It's a complexly plotted masala film with multiple characters, whose telling is aided by multiple flashbacks, a significant chunk of opening narration, and the occasional echo-laden inner monologue. Without English subtitles I was lost before it even began. My sorting out of the relationships between the characters was also complicated by the fact that most of the actors were middle-aged, despite the fact that they were playing characters who were generations apart. (Mirroring the grand Bollywood tradition, Sultan Rahi's mother is played by an actress who is, at most, his age, if not considerably younger.)

Despite my lack of comprehension, however, it was hard not to get sucked in by the delirious intensity of Faqeeria's melodrama, marked as it was by so much throaty yelling and a near-constant use of those thunderclap sound effects that Punjabi cinema of that era seemed to have been so fond of. Then there are the fight scenes. You haven't lived until you've seen two paunchy and hirsute fifty year olds engaging in a kung fu fight complete with wild, wire-assisted flips and jumps, not to mention some of the loudest sound effects you could possibly imagine -- all captured by an erratically tilting camera that makes you feel as if you yourself are dodging the blows. All I needed was the addition of Cuneyt Arkin running around with boulders strapped to his feet and I would have had something close to perfection.

Also on hand in Faqeeria is Mustafa Qureshi, an iconic screen adversary of Rahi's ever since their appearance together in the landmark Maula Jat. In this case, Rahi and Qureshi play (I think) estranged brothers who team up at the end to rescue their (I think) younger sister from the band of Bedouins who are holding her captive. Before their reconciliation, however, there is plenty of time for them to engage in lots of spirited -- well, I can't really call it "dishoom dishoom", because what Punjabi cinema delivers is more like "dish-BOOM".

As I mentioned in my review of Hunterwali, Sultan Rahi, Mustafa Qureshi and female star Anjuman were something of a holy triumvirate in Punjabi cinema during the late 70s and 80s, with one seldom appearing in a film without the others. And, in keeping with this, Anjuman also stars in Faqeeria, though in a decidedly less proactive role than the titular one she had in Hunterwali. In fact, she's more of a supporting player here, though she is the subject of a number of song picurizations, many of which, thanks to Wajahat Attre's music and her enthusiastic hoof-work, are quite good. On a side note about the soundtrack, I should also mention that Faqeeria's instrumental score features some nice Spaghetti Western style interludes, as well as a recurring synth theme that seems to be an homage to Europe's "The Final Countdown".

I've come to recognize that the films I'm drawn to tend to veer toward either one of two extremes. They're either stylized to within an inch of their lives, or so rough-hewn that their very roughness becomes a kind of style in itself. (This, as you might imagine, leaves a lot of room between Mario Bava and Harinam Singh for films that I don't have much time for at all.) Punjabi films like Faqeeria fall very close to that latter extreme, making them something that I look forward to exploring further. Though, of course, as always, subtitles would be a nice little bonus.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I agree, these films with subtitles would be paradise.

Keith said...

Have you watched any of those Russian fantasy films that were released on DVD a few years ago? They have an option for English dubbing, but when you select it, it's basically nothing but some Russian guy explaining what's happening. Surely we can pool our resources and do that.

Like your point about the work ethic of popular Asian stars versus American. I think in part the fascination with "the new" in many parts of Asia means that stars have to keep themselves out there or be forgotten (ever tried to get a middle aged Chinese person to watch a HK movie more than a few years old?).

Chow Yun-fat joked that, at the height of his popularity, he was making three movies at once. One crew would be filming his face, another his hands, and another his feet.

Todd said...

Which explains why the clerks at Chinatown DVD shops laugh in my face when I ask about Connie Chan movies -- as well as why my twenty and thirty-something Chinese friends think I'm absolutely insane for watching them.

At the very least we could have a track on the DVD of me explaining what I think is happening. "Um, here we have Sultan's sister, or cousin, I think... and, uh, I don't know who that guy is..." It would also be good if I was noticeably drunk.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I would totally watch the sub-Todd-led DVD of things like this.

Also, I felt a wee speck of pride when I had an instant and exact picture of Cuneyt Arkin's ankle-boulders.

Todd said...

As you should. ;) We're all better for having seen Cuneyt's ankle boulders.

Sub-Todd-les. Nice coinage! I'll trademark it and get to work right away. Maybe siphon off a fraction of that income that's been heading Mike Nelson's way.