Saturday, February 7, 2009

Leeja Leeja

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Here is a cabaret number from the frankly amazing 1967 film "An Evening In Paris", which is probably my favorite Bollywood film ever. The pertinent memes in this movie have already been well explicated by Corey Creekmur here, but I have two particular topics I'd like to expand on:

Sharmila Tagore, the main actress in this clip, occupies an interesting role for Bollywood - she is the heroine of the movie, which in earlier films would have meant that there would be no way she could perform these sexy nightclub numbers. In the past, this kind of moral standard paved the way for actresses like Helen to carve out a decent niche playing only the "bad girl" roles that the heroine actresses couldn't do. But this movie finds a clever loophole around the problem - Sharmila plays two characters, twin sisters Deepa and Suzy - one's a virtuous, well-behaved Indian girl, and the other has ended up as a cabaret dancer with mob ties. Creekmur puts it in classically western terms: "this allows Sharmila Tagore to, again, play both a virgin and a whore, coded of course by their contrasted Indian and Western manners." I think the latter statement is somewhat of a simplification though, as even the well-bred Deepa character seems to evoke western influences by initially claiming to hate men and remaining reasonably independent for most of the film. But there is a running current of Indian vs. Western contrasts in the film, and oddly enough, as if to further distance her character, Suzy is introduced in this clip as "Suzy the Oriental Dancer" - to Bollywood audiences this would indicate a vaguely Chinese identity, which, as you can see from the costumes and sets in this number, evokes a peculiar set of stereotypes.

Certainly, the inventive plot structure allows Sharmila to assume responsibility for two roles that, in previous Bollywood films, would almost definitely have been played by different actresses so as to allow the main character to remain relatively pure and blameless. And of course, in a way this opens the door to more complex and conflicted female characters - as far as I've seen, Bollywood has not made a whole lot of progress on this front, but still, it's an important first step.

Blond is evil; red is eviler. Note the distinctive copper-gold shade of Pran's hair in this clip (he's the central fellow you keep seeing in the reaction shots). Also note that his gangster pals are semi-blond and bald. Bollywood has serious hair standards to uphold! Basically, redheads are pure evil, blonds are kind of evil, and bald dudes can swing either way depending on how western they look (fairly wide scale between evil gangster henchman and nationalist savior guru). Apparently, the western hippies that populate the audience and the ranks of slightly sluttier backup dancers are tolerated because they look so damn stoned.

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget, if you're in SF on Sunday, I'll be at the Argus Lounge playing Bollywood hits and much more. See you there!