|That's right. Amitabh Bachchan can light a cigarette with nothing but manliness.|
Sunday evening, the Wall Street Journal's Beth Watkins and I watched The Great Gambler on Youtube (legally, natch) while trying to figure out what the fuck was going on on Gchat. The next day we were still trying to figure out what was going on. (Note: this conversation can be found on both my blog and hers, so read it twice.)
Beth: So, as relative newbie to 70s masala, did this blow your mind at all?
Danny: A bit, though not as badly as it would have if I didn't have a cursory background
Beth: And what's in that cursory background? I know you've seen Sholay but I can't imagine that would help too much other than for general Amitabh awesomeness?
Danny: Yeah, I have a solid introductory grounding in Amitabh being awesome, and with little details like the plot never making any logical sense and the clothes and tunes
All of which are relevant here.
Beth: And it was your first film for Zeenat Aman, right? Wait, why am I talking like this is an actual interview?
Danny: Yeah, why so formal? But yes, it is my intro to Zeenat Aman, a real nice first impression too.
Beth: I am not convinced she's the greatest actress ever. I often debate with myself whether I find her or Parveen Babi more fantastic overall (among the shiny-haired 70s bombshell ladies) and lately I keep coming down in favor of Parveen. But as you said yesterday, one can have both, so why worry.
Danny: Yes, in slightly different context, but that is a fairly universal philosophy, and not even as "seriously, dude, grow up" as it sounds. Either/or choices are rarely actually that thing, especially in the arts.
Beth: I think about it with these two because to me the places they appear seem almost interchangeable, so I enjoy thinking about how they are in fact different.
Danny: I know nothing about Parveen Babi, alas. Though the idea of there being two Zeenats is not ungood.
Beth: All in good time.
Danny: So one thing I'm curious about, structure-wise and sort of big picture-y, is: how common is The Great Gambler's globe-trotting intrigue with gangsters and undercover cops type stuff in 70s B'wood? After a certain point it reminded me a ton of Western 60s Mod spy things.
Beth: There are a handful of Bolly spins on Euro spy films, though not a ton, to my understanding. And off the top of my head I would say that the globetrotting in this one is trotty-er - more extensive in terms of number of places/countries - than usual. I really do think they blew the budget on the airfare and...well I was about to say shooting permits, but HAHAHA to that.There's a fantastic Dharmendra one called Charas in which he does stuff like this and a lot of the action is centered in...Malta, of all places. (And "charas" apparently means "drugs," so you can already tell how awesome this is.) Mithun has some spy films (his character is called Gunmaster G9) and they only PRETEND to go to Egypt.
Danny: Ha nice. But the reason I asked about how prevalent that kind of thing is in 70s Bolly is because I've noticed a lot more of that thing in the 90s and post-90s Bolly I've seen.
Beth: They are fantastic. What do you mean, a lot more?
Danny: Well keep in mind my frame of reference is more limited than yours, by several orders of magnitude, but I always got the impression that jetting around all over creation to "exotic" locales was a thing SRK brought into fashion
Beth: Ah I see. No, it's longer ago than that. Raj Kapoor was the first to go to Switzerland, for example - in the 60s. Aad while I have not seen that film, what I've seen suggests that the foreign locales are for song teleports or to show a hero coming back to India from somewhere, not for actual stretches of plot.
Danny: I just realized also that could be a function of SRK's unparalleled ability to pull focus and make everything seem like it's about him hahaha
Beth: Yes that too, and the NRI audience of course gets bigger and bigger and bigger so it was discussed more and more as the years go by.
Danny: So enough about him, back to the 70s :D
Beth: To me, The Great Gambler has a lot of great hallmarks of the 70s stuff I enjoy most: fun costumes, fun interiors, running around, the big huge all-in brawl at the end, some fun dances, disguises, someone who is "bad" becoming much less bad by the end, a smidge of patriotism…. But this film is not really over the top, in retrospect.
Danny: AND TWINS. No, it's pretty restrained.
Beth: It's kind of complicated, but it's, yeah, restrained, which is an interesting combination.
Danny: i.e. no Rishi Kapoor rollerskating around on top of a giant record player in a spangly jumpsuit
Beth: HAHAH right. No robots, nothing under water.
Danny: No supernatural stuff.
Beth: No religion either. I notice it came from a novel, which I do not recall encountering before in something so masala-y.
Danny: Yeah, that does seem a bit less prevalent.
Beth: I've seen at least one other 70s action-y film from a novel (Inkaar, which was based on King's Ransom by way of Kurosawa's High and Low) but it's more serious in tone than this and is all set in Bombay, as I recall. And Vinod Khanna does not get any truly ridiculous costumes like Amitabh's blonde afro "hippie," though someone does put a radio transmitter in a watermelon.
Danny: Let's talk about Amitabh as the hippie for a second because holy shit that was hilarious.
Beth: It really was.
Danny: He looked like he'd been dipped in gold paint after putting on Samuel L.'s wig from Pulp Fiction and then did a really hilarious Peter Fonda impression.
Beth: THAT is exactly why I like this era of films - you know there will be disguises with bad wigs but you never know exactly what. Plus the patchwork pants on him are just insane - that strip of patchwork running all the way up both legs.
Danny: Oh the costumes were amazing, all the more so for being comparatively restrained. Well, except those ladies with the three-foot diamonds on their heads and the twelve-layer skirts in the opening credit scene.
Beth: All those dancing girls in the title sequence, the ones with the sort of colorful circus tent/lantern/onion hats? Why didn't we get more of them? I feel misled.
Danny: Some lumpen exec at Warner Bros told George Lucas, when he was editing THX 1138, to "put the freaks up front", i.e. hook the audience early, et voilà. But yeah, the whole rest of the movie most of the craziness was in the sets and props.
Beth: Let us pause to remember the awesome bleep bloop computers.
Danny: YES. OLD SCHOOL COMPUTERS FTW.
Beth: And the animation of the top sikrit weapons. On the technology front, this film is in good form. Though it was missing the shoe phone.
Beth: Here is a place where the film could maybe have used MORE: the bad guys.
Danny: Yeah, the baddies were a little drab
Beth: They were just...I dunno, kind of bad. But not DEBAUCHED in that way that leads to excellent lairs and dancing girls and stuff.
Danny: In other words, the good stuff. Yeah they really were just a bunch of dudes in suits with mustaches. And they were totally down to murk a cop, but while that's certainly bad that's not "fun" bad.
Beth: Though that one pair did have the coordinating outfits with medallions.
Danny: Ha yeah in the disco sequence.
Beth: And any time we get to say "disco sequence" we know we're happy.
Danny: What the fuck was that, in like five minutes we had KC & The Sunshine Band and then that bizarro disco cover of "No Woman No Cry."
Beth: In…Venice? Or were we in Lisbon by then?
Danny: No we were still in Rome, I'm pretty sure, because they framed Amitabh for that murder in the Colosseum like two minutes prior, I think.
Beth: It's the kind of film where those details don't really matter and certainly aren't memorable. What's memorable is the disco cover of "No Woman No Cry."
Danny: Sure, moments are more important than narrative arcs and stuff. And that cover of "No Woman No Cry" sure was....memorable.... Probably made Bob Marley roll over in his grave and he wasn't even dead yet.
Beth: So the director of this, Shakti Samanta, has done some big films [Aradhana, Kati Patang, An Evening in Paris, Kashmir Ki Kali, China Town] and I'm kind of surprised he didn't go for MORE in this.
Danny: He did a pretty good job holding all that insanity together
Beth: But maybe the full-tilt masala version of MORE isn't his thing.
Danny: Because as convoluted as it was it totally moved.
Beth: Definitely did a perfectly respectable job. And he had fun with the foreign locales, which is always a plus. I think my favorite was Amitabh waking up in the desert outside Cairo in his tux going "WTF?!?" with the pyramids in the background. That looked painful. And stylish.
Danny: Ha, well the Pyramids ARE right there. Some of 'em anyway.
Beth: Can we discuss the characters a bit? Like, Neetu Singh's character was fairly pointless, as were her dad (IFTEKHAR!) and Amitabh's sister.
Danny: Yeah, she really was, sadly
Beth: I hate perfunctory love interest women.
Danny: I do too. Like, come on.
Beth: I know both heroes have to have one, but why not give her something to do?
Beth: And it's not like it's hard to toss in another small plot line in a movie like this. Make her the sister of a baddie or something. Or she can at least drive the getaway car. Man.
Danny: Yeah, you have no excuse for not tossing in an extra subplot in Bolly
Danny: More subplots, more songs - two things there are never too many of.
Beth: Unless one of them is the odious comic relief plot, in which case BUHBYE.
Danny: "I am so vi-ir-irginal.....I am the go-oo-ood girl" ching-a ching-a ching-a
Beth: You know, they didn't even do THAT with her much. There was no good girl/bad girl comparison, let alone tension or interaction.
Danny: That's what I'm saying. Give her more purpose. Sure, that's an easy contrast, against Hottie McBadgirl, but I mean do SOMETHING.
Beth: ANYthing, really. What a waste of Neetu. This film also committed the heinous crime of under-using Helen quite significantly. MORE HELEN. Give her a WHOLE song.
Danny: Yeah, Helen was there and gone so quick I was like "was that Helen?"
Beth: Though including her in what I understood to be some kind of spy or military equipment was awesome.
Danny: No one should ever have to ask "was that Helen?"
Beth: Haha no, unless it is for wig-related reasons.
Danny: yeah, then it's Helen-cognito, which is fun.
Beth: What else? There's not really a ton to say about this film, in some ways. It is fun but not amazing, and it's kind of confusing without being absurd. I think the joy of this film is the details, really. The barrels of Steve. Utpal Dutt with a welding torch.
Danny: I think this is why neither of us wanted to write a proper review
Beth: Heehee yessss.
Danny: It's fun, but it's not like "Well this film is illustrative of blah blah blah tendency within nya nya nya paradigm."
Beth: Timepass, as they say.
Danny: But oh man, those barrels of Steve. Yeah, good breezy entertainer, for sure
Beth: I sent a screen grab to my friend Steve and demanded to know what was in them. He said the international regulations on selling that had been utterly ridiculous.
Danny: I should send them to MY friend Steve and see what he has to say.
Beth: All Steves should weigh in.
Danny: HERE's a conspiracy theory for you. Amitabh was, by most conventional measures, the alpha badass of 70s B'wood, yeah?
Danny: And Steve McQueen was, roughly, his American counterpart in roughly the same era, yeah? OK. CHECK THIS OUT. The barrels of Steve are Amitabh being like, "Pssh, yeah, that's what I think of HIM." /end
Danny: Heh I won't be able to top that hahahaha
Beth: Though - and not to be a traitor to my adopted people - there is no way Steve McQueen would not win that fight.
Beth: If there are two Amitabhs, as in this film, then it's much more interesting.
Danny: And that's the thing: there could never be two Steve McQueens. Well, unless you count the director of Hunger and Shame, but he ain't gonna be much use in a fight.
Beth: I do love that about mainstream Hindi cinema: MORE IS MORE. I enjoyed watching you try to come to terms with the dual role. I have made peace with the idea that OF COURSE there are two of them.
Danny: Might be nearly done.
Beth: True story. To close, pick one outfit from The Great Gambler for your next big date.
Danny: Oof, damn. Umm. All of them....?
Beth: How about the gondola one with the pink print shirt open down to there? And yes we're talking about men's clothes, people.
Danny: No no no. Dude in the disco with the gold medallion, boosh. My next date will be selected by sense of humor, clearly.Okay, you, Again, not drag.
Beth: I will go with that theme as well and take Zeenat's gold jumpsuit with the cinched ankles.
Beth: I also liked Neetu's red...I don't know if it was trousers and blouse or what, but it had a huge bow.
Danny: Oh yeah, I remember that one. Barely. BECAUSE NEETU WAS BARELY IN THE MOVIE.
Beth: * sob * Is that it? That is probably it. There's not much to say.
Danny: Yeah, I think we're good. But the gambler was great.