Cinematic Summer at the San Diego Museum of Art
July 13, 2018
The season is summer, the place, Cinematic India in all its, colorful, moving, and sometimes lengthy glory.
The San Diego Museum of Art has mounted a gorgeous detailed show of some of its priceless Indian Illustrated pages in a well-curated presentation called “Epic Tales from Ancient India,” which runs from June to September 2018. Accompanying the exhibit is a well-curated film selection put together by Bailey Cain, Assistant Manager of Public Programs, a relative newcomer to the San Diego Museum of Art. Cain, recently of the Northwest Film Center, has an extensive background in film and a deep love of Indian Cinema.
Cain’s choices run from the lovely and exuberant “Monsoon Wedding” to “Paheli,” based on a folktale from Rajasthan, one of the areas represented in the illustrated manuscripts from the collection currently on view.
According to Cain, the idea is to show the breadth of Indian Cinema that runs from the popular Bollywood style to the more modern look at love in “The Lunchbox,” the story of an older couple who meet when a lunch served in metal tiffins or containers, is delivered to the wrong person.
“I’m interested in different perspectives and unexpected slices of life,” said Cain, who is excited to bring such a diverse screening experience to Balboa Park.
“Monsoon Wedding” (see capsule reviews)- a film of great joy- as Cain observes, screened in late June while “Mughal-e-Azam,” an epic tale of a Mughal Prince screens on July 27.
In addition, Cain is curating the popular Screen On the Green during August, screening five very diverse Indian films. The films are all free and filmgoers are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner while they wait for the film to start. All the films are suitable for all ages,
Monsoon Wedding: The Rains of Joy
Weddings are frequently fraught with all kinds of missteps from bouquets to brother-in-laws. Add an impending monsoon and a hesitant bride and get you Mira Nair’s exuberant, visually gorgeous hit, “Monsoon Wedding.” Released in 2001, “Monsoon Wedding” opened the door to more realistic films about modern Indian families, complete with a hesitant bride, uncertain of how modern an arranged marriage is, and an unexpected family secret that threatens to rip more than one family apart.
Set in Mumbai (Bombay), Lalit (the delightful Naseeruddin Shah) and Pimmi (a dynamic Lillete Dubey) Verma want to arrange a marriage for their doe-eyed daughter, Aditi (Vasundhara Das) to the son of a family friend living in Texas, Hemant (a nice turn by Parvin Dabas). But Aditi is having second thoughts- if only her married TV personality lover would leave his wife…Meanwhile, the festivities proceed apace with Lalit paying marigold-eating P.K. Dube (the comedic but complex Vijay Raaz), the wedding manager organizing Aditi’s wedding (“like my own daughter”). Parallel to Aditi’s working through her arranged marriage concerns is the charming developing love match between Dube and the Verma’s shy and charming maid, Alice (Tillotama Shome )
With the hint of the approaching monsoon, also comes the hint of a family secret. Nair makes the unusual move of tucking a usually taboo subject into the swirl of developing love stories. Older cousin Ria (Shefali Shah in her stunning break out performance) lives with the Vermas, considered a daughter after the death of her father, Lalit’s brother. Unmarried and studious, Ria is the responsible older cousin. She seems shocked when Rej (infused with elegant, vaguely dissipated menace by Rajat Kapoor), Lalit’s wealthy brother-in-law living in the US, shows up. It is not until Ria discovers Rej in the kitchen flirting with her younger cousin, 10 year-old Aliya that we start to suspect the secret that has circumscribed Ria’s life. When Tej tries to take Aliya off for a “drive, “ Ria’s secret, being molested by Tej as a child, tumbles out and Ria begs Lalit to do something.
Torn between love and loyalty to Tej whose family helped his when they fled to India after the country was partitioned into India and Pakistan, Lalit finally chooses love and to the shock of everyone, asks Tej to leave before the wedding can take place.
The film ends with a joyous all stops pulled out celebration for Aditi and Hemant and a simpler affair for Dube and Alice as the monsoon drenches Mumbai.
“Monsoon Wedding” is one of the most beautiful and multi-layered of Nair’s films. Visually, it’s a luminous palette of color made more vibrant by the well-written dialogue. But one of the greatest pleasures of the film is the range of emotion, from pain to confusion to deeply felt joy. It’s a perfect summer film, and yet stands up to viewing year round.
The pomp and pageantry of “Mughal-e-Azam,” (“The Great Mughal”) blazes on to the Copley Auditorium screen, July 27, as part of the exhibit’s screening series. A story of romantic love versus social class during the time of the great Mughal emperors, “Mughal-e-Azam” is considered the pinnacle of Bollywood production with its poetic script, stunning dance numbers, and gorgeous cinematography.
Viewers will get to see a relatively new, re-mastered version of the original film that captivated hundreds of thousands of viewers and broke the box office for Bollywood films for months when it came out in 1960. The director, K. Asif, originally wanted to shoot the entire film in color, but because of time and budget constraints, only about 30 minutes of the 197-minute long film were in color.
This version, however, completes Asif’s vision, with the entire film restored and colorized with a sparkling restored audio track. The color itself is an interesting element of the film- in places it feels like watching old colorized postcards come to life.
Set in the 16th century and based on legends surrounding real people, “Mughal-e-Azam” follows the forbidden love story of beautiful court dancer, Anarkali, and the heir to the Mughal throne, Salim. A selfish, self-centered child, Salim is sent off to the military by his father, the Emperor Akbar, to teach him to be a man, and, hopefully, a better person. Salim returns, the son Akbar had hoped for, but soon falls in love with the beautiful court dancer. Akbar responds by imprisoning Anarkali, and Salim counters by leading an army against his father, threatening to bring the kingdom to collapse. In the end, Salim escapes execution for his unsuccessful sedition when Anarkali gives herself up in his place. How Anarkali escapes her own execution is the stuff of fabulously choreographed dance numbers and duets.
Like most films based on the romantic exploits of royals, “Mughal-e-Azam” is not a particularly historically accurate film. Salim, who became Emperor Jahangir, was known for his interest in the arts and also for his ruthlessness in putting down opposition to his reign. You can see illustrated manuscripts of both courts in the “Epic Tales From Ancient India” exhibit, with Jahangir, in particular, looking quite fierce among his nobles. Nonetheless, it is the idea of forbidden individual love versus the will of the State that seizes the romantic imagination here.
According to Bains, this makes for an extraordinary epic, noted for its superior costuming, sumptuous sets, and music. The sound track is pure Bollywood, using the traditional practice of playback singers and features well-known folksongs, ragas, and classic Bollywood compositions. The film itself is known for its stellar cast and is considered one of the top Hindi-language Bollywood films of all time.
Not surprisingly, “Mughal-e-Azam” features some of the most iconic actors of classic Bollywood. Dilip Kumar, considered one of the top classic Bollywood actors, plays Prince Salim. At one point, the director David Lean even considered him for the role of Sheriff Ali for “Lawrence of Arabia.” The role eventually went to Omar Sharif. Madhubala, one of classic Bollywood’s most beautiful leading women, plays Anarkali. “Mughal-e-Azam” is one of Madhubala’s last films, since a heart defect made long shooting days almost impossible.
When “Mughal-e-Azam” premiered in Mumbai, the film reels came in, like a bridegroom, on an elephant. This year’s screening won’t be as dramatic, but may well be equally exciting, said Bains. Filmgoers are advised to come early to take advantage of the On the Steps at SDMA program that features a Bollywood-inspired dance performance, art making, henna artists and rangoli, temporary designs made from rice and other materials, all performed by local artists.
The On The Steps program takes place on July27th at 5 pm and is an outdoor community event. The film itself is $5 for students and members/$10 for nonmembers.
Please see the San Diego Art Museum website for more information about times and ticket sales.
IMAGE: Madhubala as Anarkala and Dilip Kumar as Salim in Mughal-e-Azam