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Die-For Duo

Die-For Duo

All pretenders kindly cease and desist. My favorite mystery couple will always be Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. Unlike other claimants like the baby-faced duo of Sadhana and Manoj Kumar, for example, who often exuded a slightly off-putting matched-set vibe, Ashok Kumar and Madhubala complemented each other.

He was rugged, gravelly voiced, tough, and alternated between a stern-faced authoritarian and a dashing man about town with a sense of humor. She was beautiful, full-figured, charming, and channeled  a mischievous sprite.  Together they were perfection.

Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my month of retina-scarring television, it’s that India loves its men strong and angry. Manly Men Be Aaaaangrryyyy! Rawr.

Much as I love to be contrary, that’s precisely why I love Ashok Kumar in this movie. Although he doesn’t star opposite Madhubala and younger brother Kishore walks around picking pieces of scenery from between his teeth when he’s not singing some of the most deliriously fun (and “inspired”) songs ever recorded for a Hindi film, Ashok is a big reason why I watch this movie over and over and over again.

The stern exterior hiding the battered heart, the marshmallow center of a hard candy – AIEEEEEE! If you’re lucky enough to find a clear(ish) print of this movie, you can gaze at his un-pretty but oh-so-charismatic visage and sigh that you’ll never find a man today who can bark out orders and forbid his brothers from associating with an entire gender the way he does.

What I seriously appreciate about his performance though is that he plays it straight. A lesser actor would have played the role for laughs and descended into caricature – something that happens distressingly often in a Hindi comedy where everyone is self consciously aware that they’re being !FuNnY! AK, on the other hand, let his brothers’ supreme hamming talents ricochet off his performance instead of trying to match them step for step. It’s a trick he would do in other movies, this metaphorical stepping back so that other more fiery stars could let the rockets fire out their bum while he quietly carried the scene in peace, but it’s never as perfect than in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi where all three of the Kumar brothers are so in tune.

In fact, given my druthers, I’d embed the whole movie here in lieu of a paltry clip or two. Although, I can’t imagine the madness that must have been the Ganguly household growing up.

Howrah Bridge (1958)

I have no idea why this movie gets so little love while Shakti Samanta’s other weepfests like Amanush and Amar Prem are still obsessed over. From the mid-60s on, Samanta was looking towards Europe but in his early days he had a bit of an Oriental fetish which you can see in movies like Howrah Bridge, Singapore and (the proto-Don) China Town.

Following the trajectory of Samanta’s less celebrated works, Howrah Bridge is a murder mystery featuring a stolen heirloom, shot in the noir style that (I assume) was then all the rage. It features Madhubala as a thoroughly believable femme-fatale-who-really-isn’t, Helen as the famous Ms. Chin Chin Choo, Madan Puri with slanted eye make-up, K.N. Singh as a sinister evildoer you can’t take your eyes off, and Ashok Kumar as the dashing out-of-towner with a game of his own to play.

This movie also brings up the question: was Ashok Kumar the last Indian actor who could wear a dinner jacket like he meant it? Some men can just wear it, you know? While most men look silly. And lordy, lordy, could AK wear it!

In conclusion: Look at them flirt! Well? What more do you need, cretin?

Mahal (1949)

I can’t remember the first time I saw Mahal, but I do remember that it scared the crap out of me. I was very young and the cable-wallah threw himself a little Scare Fest by showing us Bees Saal Baad (the one with Waheeda Rehman; he saved the Mithun Chakraborty one, which was scary for entirely different reasons, for a later date), the Rebecca-remake Kohraa, and Mahal.

I’ve never seen a quality print of this movie but, as you can imagine, any movie that saw the debut of Kamal Amrohi as director, gave Madhubala her first lead as an adult, and played a significant role in turning Lata Mangeshkar into a household name, is sufficiently awesome enough to battle crappy preservation and still shine through.

Although the camera faithfully follows AK’s extremely effective performance as a man faced with Very Weird Things that are totally destroying his mind, Madhubala left the greater impression on me. Not only because she was so amazingly lovely in this movie or because she managed to imbue a deep suspicion of all swings in me for a time, but because the big reveal was so incredible.

It was the first time I’d seen a true blue sociopath as a Hindi film heroine and they’re still pretty rare on the ground. And don’t tell me she wasn’t – girl be nuttier than a squirrel’s winter stash.

Ek Saal (1957)

The cutest ever. Seriously. This is a movie you watch curled up on your couch with the lights off, a big box of chocolates and a bottle of wine. The romance, the pretty, the Madhubala who is a light source on her own, the innocence of and the doomed struggle against true love, the heartbreak, the mocking AK who sings to the stricken AK as he realizes the value of what he’s lost, the penitence – I know it’s not technically a mystery but it’s all so satisfying!

Look at that poor sap on his flower-patterned couch. He actually thinks he has a chance! Ha! Ha, I say!

(And OMG, my mother totally has that necklace!)

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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