Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Karate (India, 1983) by Beth Watkins

As I struggle to type these words with my newly affixed hooks, the guest posts continue over here at 4DK. This time the awesome Beth Watkins, author of the universally beloved blog Beth Loves Bollywood, reports back from the trenches of dodgy Indian VCDs to fill our heads with Mithun Chakraborty and his disco-socky spectacle Karate.


Why this film is not on Youtube is one of the great mysteries of life. I understand why it does not exist on easily-findable DVD—the print is terrible, the plot and acting are absolutely standard, and none of the songs stands out as particularly hummable—but it seems like the kind of thing custom-made to exist in the medium most supportive of our ethos of pop culture instant gratification. Because when you hear that there is such a thing as a Mithun Chakraborty disco karate movie, you need to see it right now and then immediately share it with an appreciative world. The Mithun fanboy army has, perhaps, let us down. This post will humbly attempt to redress this sad oversight in our collective appreciation of early 80s Bollywood.

If you have seen Disco Dancer (which surely anyone reading this post has), especially within recent memory, it’s entirely possible that Karate will feel like a bit of a disappointment. In addition to the essential shared presence of Mithun, Bappi Lahiri, king of Indian movie disco music, does the scores of both, but Karate’s songs just aren’t as...well, magically exuberant, which is probably only fair, since a movie about a disco dancer should have unforgettable songs. Both films start out with a children working in the titular profession who then grow up to avenge wrongs done to their families. I would argue that what Karate lacks in international dance competitions and death by electric guitar it makes up for with long-lost siblings, gypsies, a more masala-y villain, product placement by Wrangler, laser technologies that somehow hinge on a particular diamond necklace, and songs set in a gym.

Basically what I’m saying is that if you like Disco Dancer, you should definitely watch Karate. And for the non-Hindi-speakers among you, I wouldn’t worry about not finding a version of this with subtitles. Any seasoned Bollywood-watcher has seen this movie a dozen times.

Earlier today I wondered aloud to a friend who has been a professional author and journalist since his early twenties why I was finding it so difficult to express my enthusiasm about Karate in writing. He proposed that the intensity of the experience does not translate well to text, and I think he may be on to something. I can tell you that Karate opens with slow-motion of two little boys doing karate on the beach at sunset [note from the editor: please hear finger quotes on all instances of the word “karate” in this piece] while an instructor shouts didactically and the background score includes a stumbling synthesizer, quavering organ chords, and another male voice yelling “Hya! Hyaaa!” and “Karate!” modulated by a heavy hand on the echo effect, but does that truly capture how engagingly loony the film’s first few minutes are?

A few seconds and some gentle parental observation later, the boys play on the shore with a little girl, Aarti (who is possibly mega-famous actress Kajol, who is credited in this film and whom I cannot place in any other role, though I can’t definitively place her as this character either), the daughter of their instructor, Jai. Then they sing a song to their mother and she embraces them both, which confirms that this family is closely bonded and thus will soon be torn apart and eventually reunited. Then evil-doer Kader Khan, who has been stealthily recording all this karate practice and emotional goop, narrates a film that demonstrates how the boys’ father (Dr. Shankar) has invented a very powerful laser weapon thingy that harnesses the sun’s power through a diamond. Shankar gives us more information about his blood, sweat, and diamond-hiding location, and Kader Khan sets their house on fire and kills Shankar. The boys and their mother are, of course, separated during all of this; one of them is raised by Jai and grows up to be karate expert Danny (Mithun), and the other runs off to a gypsy camp and grows up to be...frankly I don’t know what Desh is. Good friend Cinema Chaat says he’s a jewel thief as well as a performer of karate-themed stage shows with his friend Imran (Mazhar Khan, aka Mr. Zeenat Aman), but my Hindi and this VCD aren’t good enough for me to have picked up on that. Desh is performed by story/screenplay/director/producer Deb Mukherjee.

At this point, I need to pause for two asides. First, as a recent but fevered convert to Bengali cinema, I find it hilarious that the leads of a film called Karate are both Bengali. Admittedly, this amusement stems directly from regional stereotypes and has very little to do with the reality of Indian movie industries. Bengalis had been working in mainstream Bombay cinema in droves for decades by the time this film was made, Mithun was already a rising Bollywood star, and Deb Mukherjee comes from a massive and long-established film family.* But there’s still a fun cognitive dissonance going on here, because when you think tough fighter heroes you just don't tend to think "…from Calcutta." For readers who don't watch a lot of Indian films or aren't conversant in regional stereotypes, this is a bit like populating a kung fu movie with Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh, actors who at least in name come from a less bombastic and more literature-based cinema culture. We are well aware that there can be action stars from Manhattan and England, but that's not our first cinematic association.

Second, I recently watched Manoj Kumar's Purab Aur Pachhim in which he is the lead as well as writer, director, and producer, so I've been thinking about whether it's possible to say anything interesting in general about Bollywood actors who feature themselves in their own films. My favorite example of this behavior is Feroz Khan (direct/produce/star), who exudes some kind of confident nonchalance that makes me absolutely approve of basically anything he does, even when it is self-aggrandizing, sleazy, or excessive in countless other ways. There's also Raj Kapoor (direct/produce/star), who is generally held up as the most respectable and artistic example, the most capital-F Filmmaker-y. On the other end of the spectrum is a man I like to think of as Bollywood's Tommy Wisseau, Kamal R. Khan, who suffers from similarly grand delusions of talent, heroic potential, and general relevance, first embodied by his debut film Desh Drohi (write/produce/star) and more recently by his reviled presence on Twitter. Unlike the first three "actors+" I listed (and Deb Muhkerjee as well), KRK, as he likes to call himself, has not worked under other directors or learned anything about presenting oneself as a leading man, or even filmmaking in general, I assume because no one else would bother with him. I think it is safe to say that all of these men have a very strong sense of self and self-importance, as well as earnestness applied in very different ways; some of them know what to do with these compulsions most of the time, but others do not.

I’m not sure where to slot Mukherjee in the scale of success of self-driven, self-featuring Bollywood projects. Karate is his only work as director and producer, so there’s not much to go on. His best decision in this film was casting Mithun Chakraborty and then stepping back and letting him do his thing. (“Mithun’s thing” is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if that’s the case, no amount of me discussing this film’s pleasures will be convincing anyway.) I’d guess that Deb and Mithun have fairly equal screen time, and their story arcs are equitable in complexity and emotional heft—for example, as adults both lose people close to them, though I think Desh does in fact suffer and gain more than Danny does—but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the principal star is. I am sold on Mithun in this film almost as soon as he enters (which, by the way, he does in absurd fashion as Jai stands facing the camera holding a cat like he’s Blofeld, then throws the cat into the air, and somehow in flight it turns into Mithun tumbling across the screen). The choreographers (fight and otherwise) for this film have a field day with him, giving him tippy-toe prancing in combat and in dance. Mithun looks like he’s having a field day in these sequences too, and for me that’s enough to make up for some other moments when he...appears less invested, shall we say. His first song, “Tum Tum Tumba,” is full of skittering strings, laser pew-pew sounds, boogeying club-goers, and Mithun swiveling his hips and dance-fighting around a bar and swimming pool in silver boots. Frankly, this sequence falls under the category “If you are not entertained by this, you are made of stone.”

Another special—or “special,” take your pick—feature of Karate is its ridonkulous bromance between Desh and Imran. You can guess by their names that there is some delicious inter-communal bonding going on; without subtitles I can’t be sure if that is mentioned overtly, but it’s reinforced visually in at least one scene that I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. There is an exchange near the beginning of the film in which Desh and Imran embrace and affectionately touch one another for at least 75 seconds, all while beginning most of their sentences with each other’s names. This is a doozy of a bromance. See them in karate-dance action in this video.

After watching over 500 Hindi films, I had a pretty good idea of approximately what was likely to happen in Karate. What I did not expect was its portrayal of the female characters. There are three to speak of: Aarti (Yogeeta Bali as an adult), Desh’s love interest (played by Kaajal Kiran and whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, so let’s just call her KK), and Zora (Prema Narayan), another member of Desh’s gypsy community. Zora is also in love with Desh, and she and KK fight over him. I’m the first to roll my eyes at anything labeled “cat fight” on Youtube clips, but Karate takes this struggle as seriously as it does any of its many others between male characters. It’s not clear to me whether KK’s combat skills have any context (she’s possibly a thief also? I think this VCD is missing some scenes, or at least not playing all of them), but I really don’t care, especially when she fights in black flares and a silver blouse that frankly I would love to slip into before dousing myself in Charlie (or Hey You!) and heading out for a night on the town. These two women have an amazing dance-fight around a campfire that starts with each tied together at one leg by a long rope, then their wrists tied together and knives clenched between their teeth, then suspended from the air. This is probably the longest and most determined fight by women I’ve ever seen in Indian cinema, and I respect the film portraying a heroine and vamp as being as strong, athletic, and talented as the men. (I should also note that without subtitles I cannot be confident that the lyrics don’t undermine all this independence and ability, but at least the visuals are good.) Some of the camera angles are a little suspect, but given that the men thrust around in tight white satin pants as often as we see Prema’s miniskirted thighs, this at least falls into the Feroz Khan camp of equal opportunity gaze. See for yourself here, beginning with the ladies’ less dance-y brawl before the music kicks in. Keep an eye out for the totem pole in the background of the gypsy camp.

Look. I don’t want to make Karate into something it’s not. It’s not a convincing martial arts film, it’s not the best brotherly-slanted masala out there, and it’s not a kitschy lotus rising from the imperfect muck. It is silly. It probably could have benefitted from a more robust budget. It seems to have mostly disappeared from popular attention (if it ever had any in the first place). But it also succeeds at what it sets out to do—tell a fairly familiar masala story focused on vengeance and brotherly love within the framework of karate and disco accoutrements—and to me it is more than adequately successful in creating a solidly entertaining B-movie within those parameters. I also realize that “more than adequately successful” does not sound like an enthusiastic endorsement, but trust me, it is.

Many thanks to Cinema Chaat for sending the Karate VCD all the way from Australia! That’s love, people.

* For the uninitiated: his uncles include Ashok and Kishore Kumar; Tanuja, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee are more distant relatives; and he is the father of currently successful director Ayan Mukherjee of Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani).

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