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September 20, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Outside of Satyajit Ray, the cinema of India seems relatively unexplored in the West. Some may cite Ritwik Ghatak and films of his like The Cloud-Capped Star or A River Called Titash, but it’s safe to say that, outside of a few specialists and enthusiasts, Indian cinema remains a distinctly foreign commodity. The truth is that India has a rich film tradition in its own right, much of it like France modeled on the Golden Age of Hollywood. Bollywood—which has become a grossly misunderstood and appropriated term today—arose as a combination of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood, which denoted Bombay as the center for popular Indian filmmaking. Guru Dutt was one of its pioneers, credited with igniting the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema. Dutt films such as Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool are much better known than Baazi which marked his directorial debut.

Baazi was modeled on the film noir of ’40s Hollywood and it stars Dutt’s life-long friend, Dev Anand. He plays Madan, a spirited but poor youth who takes to gambling for fun while trying to take care of his sick sister. One day he meets the new local doctor, a young, beautiful woman named Rajani (Kalpana Kartik), who initially dislikes him disrupting her hospital (a free dispensary), but finds herself attracted to him when she sees how well he takes care of his sister. Rajani begins watching over Madan’s sister who learns she has tuberculosis. When Madan needs money to pay for her medicine he tries to win it gambling but fails, only to be saved by the luck of another kind woman who wins on his behalf. This provokes him to go to work secretly for Rajani’s father (K.N. Singh), a wealthy businessman who hires Madan to go to the local racetracks and entice the rich into gambling their money away. Tensions arise when Rajani’s father disapproves of her relationship with Madan.

Perhaps more than any other genre, Bollywood has become famous for its musicals and it’s not surprising considering that Bollywood took its influence from the musicals that dominated Hollywood from the ’20s to the ’30s. The songs are quite frequent in Baazi and prove contentious to whether or not they work. On the one hand they feel rather divorced from the narrative even though they are most frequently centered around events within that narrative, but they are just as often trivial as substantial. A great example is when Madan is visiting the local club where the film’s “femme fatale,” Leena (Geeta Bali), works as a singer. He’s tempted to gamble, but decides against it, until Leena begins to sing that is, tempting him to take his chance and roll the dice.

But the biggest problem with the songs—and, really, this can be said of any musical—comes back to the insightful analogy that Paul Willemen once made between sex in pornography and the song-and-dance numbers in musicals: both offer the spectacle of a fantasized abundance in place of a real, material scarcity. In other words, they conflict with the realism of the narrative itself and they call attention to themselves by their lingering interruption. That said, the songs are quite charming if taken in isolation. Perhaps the worst that can be said of them is, while they don’t really detract from the film, they don’t particularly add anything (though if photographic theory holds true for film narratives, then anything that doesn’t add to the composition is, by necessity, detracting from it).

If Baazi is a success—and I feel it is a rather significant success given its relatively unknown status—it’s because of its characters. Dutt may have acknowledged the influence of Hollywood noirs with its ambiguous anti-heroes, but his Madan is a superb creation. I’ve rarely encountered a film character so dynamic, so frequent in his ability to change my sympathies for or against him, and then back again. Dutt largely achieves this—much like the best noir writers did—by borrowing from the classic tragic hero archetype, or, in other words, heroes with tragic flaws that lead to their downfall. But the mark of great tragic characters is their ability to challenge our sympathies while never pushing us into antipathy or dislike. In Madan, Dutt handles that tricky distinction consummately. We may despise Madan when he becomes wrapped up in pride after his success, but then pity him when we watch him play the victim to the anger of Rajani’s father or cheer for him when he gambles to save his sister.

It helps tremendously that Dev Anand is an actor with the charisma to pull off such a character. Looking like an Indian member of the Rat-Pack, Anand makes us believe in Madan’s journey at every step, from the poor, sympathetic, naïve youth to the sophisticated gambler who has made his way from rags to riches. Geeta Bali and Kalpana Kartik are equally accomplished in less demanding roles as the femme fatale and the straight-laced woman, respectively. Bali’s Leena immediately wins our affections with her song that lures Madan into the world of nightclubs and gambling, and I found myself rather amazed when Madan was able to resist her minx-like allure when she first hits on him in the club. The upright characters can often be the wet-blanket in such films, but Kartik’s Rajani has a natural kindness about her that allows us to root for her (and for her and Madan’s relationship).

Considering this was Dutt’s first film as a director, he seems surprisingly wholly confident behind the camera. The film is a tome of classic Hollywood techniques, though it also contains the famous “Guru Dutt shot” that consists of a close-up using a long, 100mm lens. Elsewhere, though, Dutt abides by the unspoken motto of the Hollywood Golden Age, that of “invisible economy”. There’s very little wasted movement or frame space and Dutt is quite effective in his modulation of long, medium and close shots in enhancing the drama. While rarely flashy, the film evokes the expressive noir-shadows when necessary, such as the murder scene that finds Madan alone with Leena in their room. There the low angles also call to mind the dynamic frames and editing of Orson Welles, which perhaps accounts for Dutt’s nickname as “The Orson Welles of Indian Cinema.”

The film’s achilles heel is its excessive length, though the songs likely account for at least 20 minutes of its 140-minute runtime. Bollywood was influenced by classical Indian art and literature which frequently contained numerous side-plots and back-stories and Baazi, while it isn’t particularly broad in its cast or its history, does seem to move through five acts worth of story arcs while most films work best in three. In a sense it feels too loose and occasionally lacking in focus with too many developments that lead to too many stories that either don’t get resolved or don’t get resolved satisfactorily. The sick sister is a good example where Dutt basically tosses her aside by having Madan send her to a sanitarium after becoming successful, to never be brought up again until close to the finale. The romance equally has its moments, but Rajani and Madan simply aren’t together enough to make it as believable as it could’ve been.

Even with its share of flaws, Baazi is still, on the whole, a quite superb success. I’ve often said that engrossing characters and performances can often compensate for a film where every other element is sub-par, but thankfully these characters only have to pull us through some occasional slip-ups and dry spots. On the whole, Baazi is one of those fascinating films for the lone fact that it finds one country paying tribute to another, and it’s always odd—but frequently rewarding—to see another cultures interpretation of American films. It’s rewarding because the differences in cultures frequently add a uniqueness to genres and styles that too easily become banal, and for those who feel that they’ve exhausted all the good and great noirs, Baazi may be just the right formula to make it feel like the first time all over again.

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