Friday, November 12, 2010

2010 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

I only caught one film at the 2010 3rd I South Asian Film Festival.

Madhumati starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala; directed by Bimal Roy; Hindi with subtitles; (1958)

The presentation was disappointing. Long stretches of the film were not subtitled although a volunteer recapped the action twice. Even though the program said the screening would be of a 35 mm print, they projected a DVD copy of a beat up print. The projectionist had a hard time get the settings correct as computer images associated with the projection or color settings frequently appeared on the screen.

Madhumati was billed as the progenitor of "entire genre of ‘reincarnation’ films." I wasn't sure what to expect but Madhumati definitely surprised me.

Plot synopsis - two men take refuge at an old, creepy-looking mansion on a rainy night. Once inside, one of the men (Dilip Kumar) realizes he has been there before. I can't recall the plot device used but at that point, the film flashes back to the man's previous life as the manager of the estate. The man falls in love with Madhumati, a girl who lives near the estate (Vyjayanthimala). His kindness and her beauty evoke the wrath of the lord of the manor (Pram). He kills Madhumati and banishes Kumar. In a contrivance that only happens in film, Kumar meets Madhumati's doppelgänger (also played by Vyjayanthimala). They can be distinguished by the distinctive birthmark on Madhumati's chin. The two of them devise a plan to dupe/scare Pram into confessing his crime.

That sounds like a standard potboiler and in fact, 3rd I's program guide described it as a "gothic romance." So I was quite surprised the first time, the character break out in a song like a modern Bollywood film such as Om Shanti Om. The songs put the film in an untenable position as far as I was concerned. I have a hard time taking musicals seriously. I can enjoy them the heavy subject matter of Madhumati was incongruent with light-hearted and upbeat songs. Johnny Walker provided some buffoonish comedy as the sidekick. Walker (a stage name), who I saw last year in Full Moon (1960) must have specialized in playing cowardly sidekicks.

Between the technical difficulties, extended language barriers, misguided expectations and my rigid terms of acceptance of musicals, I was disappointed in Madhumati. Pram as the evil overseer was excellent. Johnny Walker, in small doses, was also tolerable. I thought Dilip Kumar in the lead role, was bland.

Vyjayanthimala, in the title role, had a tremendous screen presence. After marrying in the late 1960s, she retired from film to be a wife, mother and shrimp farmer. In the 1980s, she was elected to India's national parliament.

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