Baazi

Note: Originally written for EvaGeeks on the 10th of September.

Outside of Satyajit Ray, the cinema of India seems like a relatively unexplored country. Some might 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 a few specialists and enthusiasts, India remains a distinctly foreign commodity. The truth is that India has a rich film tradition itself, much of which (like France) was modeled on the Golden Age of Hollywood. Bollywood—which has become a grossly misunderstood, appropriated, and re-applied term today—arose as a combination of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hollywood, which denoted Bombay as the center for popular Indian filmmaking. Within Bollywood, Guru Dutt was one of its pioneers, credited with igniting the Golden Age of Hindi Cinema. For those who know of 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, as Madan. Madan is a spirited but poor youth that 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), whom 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 his sister whom (as she reveals to Madan) 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. But tensions rise when Rajani’s father disapproves of Madan and Rajani’s relationship.

Perhaps more than any other element, 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 provide an easy crux of contention to the issue of whether or not they work. On the one hand, they feel rather divorced from the narrative, even though they are most frequently centered around an event within the narrative. But they are just as much about trivial aspects as anything 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, 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 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 fantasised 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 in Baazi are quite charming if taken in isolation. Perhaps the worst that can be said of them is that they don’t really detract from the film, but they don’t particularly add anything either (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 mediates that tricky distinction perfectly.

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 (upright, moral) woman, respectively. Bali’s Leena immediately wins our affections with her song that lures that 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 hit 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 to her that allows us to root for her (and for her and Madan’s relationship).

Considering Baazi was Dutt’s first film as a director, he seems wholly confident behind the camera. The film is a tome to 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 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, he is able to evoke 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 in its excessive length, though the songs likely account for at least 20 minutes of its 140-minute runtime. Bollywood was frequently influenced by classical Indian art and literature, which frequently contained numerous side-plots and back-stories. While Baazi isn’t particularly broad in its cast or its history, it does seem to move through 5-acts worth of story archs. In a sense, Baazi 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, only 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 a film with engrossing characters and performances can often compensate for a film where every other element is sub-par, but, thankfully, Baazi’s characters only have to pull us through some occasional slip-ups and dry spots. On the whole, Baazi is one of those fascinating films if for the lone fact that it finds one country paying tribute to another, and it’s always odd—but frequently rewarding—to see another country’s interpretation on 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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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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