Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jalte Badan (India, 1973)


Jalte Badan is a cautionary tale about drugs and the youth of "today" (1973) that combines the tone of the most overwrought and clueless high school scare films of the 60s with everything that's great about 1970s masala cinema. What's more, it may be the only film in which the movie magic of Indian special effects pioneer Baubhai Mistry is put to the task of realizing a full blown psychedelic freak out. If that sounds wildly entertaining, well, it is. But, putting aside kitsch and unintentional comedy, the film also scores in a range of other unexpected areas, making it a surprisingly satisfying viewing experience for those, like myself, with a high tolerance for the more hysterically pitched aspects of Hindi popular cinema.

Our story concerns Kishore (Kiran Kumar), a young scion of a wealthy land owning family in a small Indian village.  Kishore,  to the chagrin of his elders, has fallen in love with Ganga (Kum Kum), a tribal girl from a community of snake charmers. Sadly, as the film opens, Kishore is heading off to Bombay to continue his studies, but has sworn to keep Ganga in his heart. Ganga, for her part, worries that life in the big city will change him and drive a wedge between them. On the train, Kishore runs into village bad girl Malti (Padma Khanna), also bound for Bombay, who expresses her own doubts about his being able to maintain his interest in the perpetually shoeless Ganga and her "family" of cobras once he's tasted a bit of Bombay night life.

However, what everyone but Kishore is underestimating is exactly how much of a tight ass Kishore is.  Once in Bombay, he finds himself deeply shocked by the rebellious attitudes of his classmates, in particular their public displays of affection, lack of respect of authority, and the very idea that a woman would expect him to ride on the back of her motor scooter. Because of this, Kishore is singled out by a gang of 30 and 40-something bad  kids lead by the wild eyed  Kuljit (Kuljeet), who make it their project to get him hooked on hard drugs.

Despite all their highfalutin talk about being the "new generation" and their desire to overturn oppressive social institutions like marriage, it turns out that Kuljit and his pals are merely pawns in a racket run by another one of those Bollywood villains who seems to only be referred to as "Boss" (Manmohan). The scam is to turn wealthy kids like Kishore into addicts so that Boss can then blackmail their parents with the threat of exposure. Malti, it turns out, is also part of the gang and, through her job as a dancer at Boss' nightclub, is used to lure the innocent into a life of debauchery and drug whoredom. Boss also has a Boss of his own to answer to, a mysterious, English speaking "European" (Sujit Kumar) whose motivations seem much more, er, philosophical than they are profit driven.


And Bollywood, ever eager to please, hears "youngsters drowning in a sea of drugs and sex" and replies, "Coming right up!" Honestly, I seriously considered making the scene that I am about to describe the entire subject of this review, rather than the movie that contained it, so great is its power to astonish and delight. First we get a view of Boss's nightclub, a cavernous, smoke saturated hell in which, among the usual blissed-out looking white hippie extras, the lost youth of India stagger into one another like loose strung puppets, a rock combo playing behind them on stage. (And BTW, as for the crazy music fueling this wild new generation's rebellion, all we get, aside from the very standard Laxmikant-Pyarelal original tunes penned for the film, are "Pipeline" by The Ventures, a galumphing bar band version of Tony Orlando's "Candida", and, during a particularly boisterous moment, an impromptu singalong by the bad kids of "Underneath the Mango Tree" from the James Bond film Dr. No.)

After we've been allowed a moment to let this whole shameful spectacle sink it, Padma Khanna descends from the ceiling in a cage, wearing a nude body stocking. She then proceeds through a lascivious song and dance number whose high point, arguably, is the moment at which she gets on top of a table and starts tossing bottles of Vat 69 to the crowd. This provides the musical backdrop for Kishore's seduction into vice, which involves pretty much every person in the club shoving a smoking opium pipe into his face. Needless to say, throughout this, the effects of being under the influence of narcotics are presented in an unflinchingly sober and gritty manner.



Just to make the message that much clearer -- for those, I suppose, who have never been exposed to any kind of fictional narrative ever -- these scenes are interspersed with scenes of Kum Kum's character Ganga, dressed, to the extent that she's dressed at all, in pure white, standing alone on a high hilltop giving voice in song to her fears for Kishore's well being. Even considering the possibility that Ganga is able to, like the Mothra twins, project her song to its object over a great distance, she is outmatched in the battle for Kishore's soul. As a result, the young man falls like a house of cards, not only smoking the dope, but also guzzling the whisky, and, finally, taking to bed with one of the gang's female members.

From here, Kishore's relationship to drugs follows the expected scare film trajectory, from opium and booze to mysterious "red pills" that cause hallucinations to a dependence on heroin, and from there to madness and rapid physical decline. Surprisingly, the closest thing he has to a savior throughout all of this is Malti, who, moved by Kishore's recounting of his love for Ganga, has started to see the error of her ways (and from which point on might as well be holding an "I am going to die" sign over her head). That is, until Ganga and her elderly father arrive in town, a situation that makes for a lot of amusing "fish out of water" hijinks, including a scene where Ganga's snakes get loose in Boss's nightclub and scare all the drugged out hippies.

As you might have gathered, Jalte Badan is a film that is indeed pretty conservative in its values. It's been said that the 70s were for India much like the 60s were throughout the West, with a marked increase in the type of student unrest that had been comparatively absent during the previous decade. As such, it's not surprising that some among the establishment might have viewed that unrest as being essentially "un-Indian" in character. Jalte Badan, following the classic "patriotic" Bollywood formula, goes so far as to imply that it is a willful and malignant import, and has the film's virtuous "straight" kids denounce the "bad" ones as being enemies of the country. Given that, I found those aspects of the film that were comparably progressive that much more startling.

For instance, I like that those aforementioned "good" kids are shown participating, along with the "bad" ones, in the student strike that's called early in the film. The only difference is in how each group spends their new found free time. While the bad kids' rebellion against authority is depicted as being essentially nihilistic and absent of any real political character ("long live youth, down with love", they chant at one point), the goodies dedicate their free time to activism in earnest, and launch a campaign to feed, clothe and house the poor of Bombay. Granted, it's an appropriately wholesome, socially approved form of activism, but the depiction shows that at least an effort was made on the part of the filmmakers to not present youth's passion for social change as a necessarily destructive force.

Even more surprising was a scene during the film's final act involving the character Girija, one of the straight kids, who is played by the actress Alka. Boss tries to entrap the unemployed Girija into a life of prostitution by luring her to his lair with the promise of a legitimate job, then having one of his thugs rape her. Girija, however, manages to fight the goon off and get the drop on both him and Boss. Boss then reveals to her that he's taken suggestive looking photographs of her grappling on the bed with his man, and threatens to release them publicly if she doesn't submit to his demands. At this point, I was fully expecting Girija to follow the old Bollywood route of offing herself in order to preserve her honor -- an expectation born of watching many Bollywood films in which just that happened, a majority of them being of more recent vintage than Jalte Badan. However, what we got instead was this:



Girija goes on to say: "Times have changed. You can go and print those photos everywhere. You can make posters of it. But remember, a decent girl's honor cannot be removed with her clothes." Pretty bad ass. (Of course, it helps a lot that she's holding a gun while saying all of this.)

Though Kiran Kumar does an impressive job of looking completely off his head on a variety of controlled substances, Jalte Badan is a film that truly belongs to its women. Alka's above described scene was, for me, the film's dramatic high point, even though the character of Girija disappears completely from the narrative from that point on. And Padma Khanna, by virtue of that one musical number alone, deserves to walk away with it all. As for Kum Kum, this film -- along with Lalkar -- proves that, in the early 70s, some ten plus years after we saw her starring opposite Dara Singh in King Kong, she was at her absolute peak of hotness. There's just something about Kum Kum's earthy sexuality that makes it seem like even the sight of her standing there fully clothed wouldn't have made it past India's strident censors, much less that of her doing a skimpily attired native fire dance, as she does here. Alongside that, she once again exhibits the flair for easy comedy that always makes her such an agreeable screen presence.

Overall, Jalte Badan is an effective, if florid, melodrama, the kind that, when there's no one else in the room, we can happily let ourselves be swept away by. And if its image of the threat posed by drugs is comically misjudged (which it is), we can perhaps, at least, luxuriate in the extravagant scorn it heaps upon those too quick to hand over control to lesser powers. ("You will lick the feet of the one who will kick you", spits one character at a strung-out Kishore.) Yet, for those of us who have lost people we care about to drugs, all of that tearing of hair and rending of garments might seem, in hindsight, like a more appropriate response -- in many cases preferable to the measured words and solicitous silences that, in the real world, so often enable the damage in the first place.

17 comments:

Iguig said...

Nice review, and nice movie. Did it break ground upon its original release? Just asking.

Todd said...

I have to say I don't know. But I would be interested to find out myself. Anybody?

mem said...

HOW HAVE I NOT SEEN THIS? Sujit! Kuljeet! Kiran Kumaaaaaaar....

*begins crying out of self-pity*

memsaab said...

^me^ for some reason (tears) I didn't type my whole name :(

Todd said...

Memsaab, I don't want to rub it in, but I have to admit that I'm shocked, SHOCKED, that you haven't seen this one. By all means, dry your tears and remedy the situation ASAP.

Todd said...

Oh, duh! And, BTW, Memsaab, I would have been able to identify neither Kuljeet nor Alka if not for your endlessly helpful Artist Gallery. It's truly one of the greatest resources for ferengi fans of vintage Indian films on the internets. Forever in your debt.

memsaab said...

I'm glad somebody uses it :D

harvey said...

Wonderful review!
Admire your patience to sit this through and sift the gems out for us!

Todd said...

Thanks, Harvey. It was really my pleasure (in this case, at least).

jennyketcham said...

What a fun review to read, Todd! Especially, "the effects of being under the influence of narcotics are presented in an unflinchingly sober and gritty manner." A picture is worth a thousand words, LOL!
Jenny K
Filmigoris.net

Todd said...

Thanks, Jenny. Hopefully my review will teach others to avoid drugs and the spinny spiral things they produce.

Anonymous said...

being an indian brought up on this film genre i laughed until i cried and all my wobbly bits hurt on reading this review

Todd said...

Thanks! I will take that as a high compliment. Though I hope your wobbly bits recover.

avdi said...

I had to take permission (and ticket money) from my uncle before I could see a film when I was young. Watching a movie with a name like 'Saat Hindustani' (7 Indians) or Aradhna (Prayer) was allowed. But I wouldn't dare ask permission for film with a name like 'Jalte Badan' (burning (with passion, obviously) bodies).

I am sure this movie had an A Certificate (Adults only) and I was too young to watch it when it came out.

I think your review is much more enjoyable than the movie.

Todd said...

Thanks, Avdi. If it was an A Certificate film, that's too bad. How else would the youth of India know not to take drugs?

genie said...

Wow i thought Hare Rama Hare Krishna was the only bollywood movie dealing with 60's teenage drug culture. I've seen this reviewed on other blogs, all with the same screen caps. I'm wondering if anyone knows a spot online sharing this? This looks like such a clean copy. My local shops dont have it . . . Even Indinacinemafans does have it . . thanks again

Todd said...

Genie: This film is available from Induna.com.