Gas Fired Turban
When I was growing up in Kuwait, there were 6 cinemas in the whole country. Mind you, the whole country is only about 100 miles long by about 100 mile wide and virtually the entire population is concentrated around Kuwait City and its outlying suburbs. The rest is desert.
3 cinemas showed Arabic films, mostly Egyptian; 1 showed English films (ie. Hollywood films), 1 showed a steady diet of Westerns, some US produced but predominantly so-called spaghetti westerns: Italian films shot in Spain, Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood trilogy being the best known.
(I’ll return to the Western and its special place in my heart at a later date).
The last cinema, the Firdaus (Paradise), showed Indian films.
My friends and I never missed them. We’d smoke a few joints of Lebanese hash, (almost all of Kuwait’s fruit and veg were supplied from Lebanon and delivered by lorry drivers who had a thriving side-line in hash, pornography and booze–only the last two were really frowned on. Hashish had been popular in the region since time out of mind) and hit the Paradise
Ah, the Indian films of the 60’s and 70’s… how to describe their glory? How to convey the eye-watering saturation of colour, their sheer garishness, the exuberant imbecility of their Busby Berkley–meets–Les Miserables narratives? The goofily over-the-top performances of their actors and actresses?
(It’s worth pointing out that the films I speak of were “popular” cinema and are not to be compared with the work of directors like Satyajit Ray or Aparna Sen. Comparison with the Great Depression-era films of Busby Berkley is useful. Indian commercial films of the period were aimed at a similiar audience and served the same purpose–to take people’s minds off the hardship and deprivation of their daily lives.)
The films had essentially one plot: the triumph of virtue over vice; poor but honest boy makes good against all odds coupled with the boy meets girl–loses girl–gets girl back again formula that has served cinema so ubiquitously since its inception. I suppose it says something for the robustness of these themes that the faux-Bollywood hit Slumdog Millionaire hardly departs from them.
But what really distinguishes Indian flicks of the period is their unparalleled, flat-out looniness. All laws of logic, physics and taste are reduced to their constituent atoms and scattered to the four winds. A composite movie of the period went something like this:
Rahda shares a house with her father, the village ne’er-do-well. He devotes all his energy and limited resources to dissipation–drinking and gambling away every penny Rahda earns weaving shawls on her hand-loom. In a quick series of vignettes, we learn that: Rahda and her father are in debt to their landlord, who has unsavoury designs on Rahda; father’s in debt to local gangsters; and a boy–next–door, Dilip, cherishes a secret beguine for Rahda.
The plot creaks into action when the landlord, (an obvious wrong ‘un, a fact clearly signalled by his facial topiary, his excess of jewellery and his tight bell-bottomed trousers), proposes that in exchange for Rahda’s hand, he is prepared to scrub the back-rent and even pay off father’s debt to the masala mafia.
Daddy is more than amenable and, his face wreathed in smiles, he informs Rahda that she is soon to be sacrificed on the altar of the landlord’s beastly lusts. Rahda, understandably unwilling to entertain a man in tight bell-bottomed trousers, decides to do a runner. Slipping out the back at night, she is spotted by her secret admirer, Dilip, the boy–next–door, who announces his intention to flee with her. Of course, this being popular Indian cinema, the absconding duo must make a song and dance of it: literally.
Just when you’d think silence would be worth around $50 a minute, our fugitives start singing and dancing, accompanied by an enthusiastic orchestra who are presumably concealed behind the peepul trees. The villagers, rendered catatonic by days spent weaving bell-bottomed trousers for local big-shots, never stir, however, and our decamping duo–The Iron Butterfly and The Singing Capon–head for the railway line while the orchestra melts back into the jungle until their next engagement.
Upon discovering his daughter’s flit the next morning, dad hurries to the landlord’s home to inform him of the spanner in his matrimonial works. The landlord does his nut in a Lear-ish, blow wind, crack your cheeks fashion, throws a teacup at a sweeper, generally chews on the scenery in a frenzy and promptly drops dead of over-acting or possibly a coronary.
Dear old dad, realizing that his gambling debts are back on the agenda, toddles off to plead with the local crime lord. Ushered into the presence of Mahatma Capone, who looks like Little Richard in a turban, dad explains his predicament. For reasons best known to Shiva and the screenwriter, Capone Sahib decides to dispatch a trio of his goons to bring Rahda back. Perhaps he has a yen for a home-woven shawl.
Meanwhile, our bolters have reached the nearest town, Risepshunisverypor. Asking a passer-by for directions to the railway station calls for another song and dance, although a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed. The orchestra, who have been shadowing our couple disguised as rickshaw-wallas, strikes up and our duo oscillate as Dilip, hitherto something of an unknown quantity sings:
You’re my little masala dosa
How I yearn to hold you closer,
But the censors won’t permit:
How I yearn to see your tit.
While Rahda replies:
Likewise, my little rogan jhosh,
You’re hot-blooded but gosh,
We”ll have to postpone our fun:
This film’s got two hours to run.
(lyrics recalled from memory and may not be precise)
But what of the pursuing goon-squad? In fact, they have been hard on our pair’s heels. Even as our absconders board a train, the three villains are pouring out of a scooter-rickshaw rather in the manner of circus clowns miraculously exiting an unfeasibly tiny car.
Quickly establishing that their prey are aboard the train that is vanishing into the distance, the goons, who have evidently learned nothing from experience, pile into another scooter-rickshaw and set off after the locomotive. The fact that their combined weight is easily greater than that of the rickshaw itself makes for a sluggish pursuit.
The frustrated goons, unfamiliar with the basic laws of physics, stick a gun in the rickshaw-walla’s ear in an attempt to make him go faster; to no avail. They reach the next railway stop only to see the train carrying the fleeing couple disappearing over the horizon. Were the goons to set off after them in yet another scooter-rickshaw, we might find ourselves in a kind of perpetual loop. Thankfully for us, if not for Rahda and Dilip, the trio jump into a taxi, by the look of it a relic of the 1926 London-Peking Rally, and the chase continues…
…To Be Continued.