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Gas Fired Turban

February 5, 2009


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.

  1. February 5, 2009 11:31 PM

    I saw a lot of these films in the mid 70’s and can’t remember much beyond the colour and music. The fact that they weren’t subtitled didn’t help. So well done for remembering the plot .

    Someone told me that because the lead actors acted in almost every film produced and the singers sang on most of them too these films took ages to film as the stars flitted from film to film shooting scenes as and when. Just as well the plots were subordinate to the singing and dancing.

    Globestyle records released a marvellous 3 album sset ” Voices of the Silver Screen” about 20 years ago. Some truly bonkers stuff there – the orchestra glides from vibes-heavy cocktail jazz to Bavarian Brass band to jungle drums in a matter of bars. They seem to do it because no-one has told them they can’t.

    One of the discs has that rock’n’roll song that features at the beginning of “Ghost World” sung by a portly middle aged guy who looks like he’s been banned from a suburban tennis club. Don’t we all though.

  2. February 5, 2009 11:34 PM

    Risepshunisverypoor – very good reminds me of the Greek taxi driver Absolotl Preposterus as coined by Clive James

  3. mishari permalink*
    February 5, 2009 11:41 PM

    Speak for yourself, Al. I’m as svelte as I was at 16, thanks to the patent Al-Adwani Diet of fags, coffee and alcohol.

    You’re absolutely right, though. Indian film music was a glorious throw–everything–in–the–pot mish–mash…

  4. mishari permalink*
    February 5, 2009 11:58 PM

    BTW, Al, I’ve posted a link to your website. I hope you don’t mind…

  5. February 6, 2009 10:48 AM

    That’s very kind – no problem just as long as people don’t come expecting to be able to debate the finer and un-finer things of life.

    I turned diabetic at 40 – I had no idea. I thought I’d discovered a new diet where you carry on eating and drinking as usual and you still manage to lose weight. Sadly it was diabetes but for a few months I wondered how this was possible given what I was eating.

  6. Captain Ned permalink
    February 6, 2009 1:26 PM

    The only Indian films I’ve seen are a few of the arthouse productions: one by Ray, two by Ghatak and one by Benegal. Great stuff all, though I’d love to see some proper Bollywood products as well.

    If you like crazy colour schemes, great music and general off-the-wall looniness, I wonder if you’ve seen any of Seijun Suzuki’s works? Highly recommended to anyone here who hasn’t, and there quite readily available on DVD. ‘Tokyo Drifter’ is probably the best one to start with; the theme tune is one of the catchiest I know.

  7. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 1:36 PM

    Thanks for the tip, Cap’n. Re: Bollywood, go for the hard stuff, 60’s and 70’s, rather than contemporary stuff, which has become too sophisticated and self-aware for its own good. Part of the delight of the old films is their naivete…

    Sorry to hear of your ailment, Al. My wisecrack must have sounded callous, entirely unintentionally. Still, properly treated, you should outlive Mowbray, who as a boy shook hands with Disraeli…

  8. February 6, 2009 1:51 PM

    No offense at all I’ve been diabetic for 12 years and now enjoy the espadrille salad diet enforced on me.

  9. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 2:26 PM

    BTW, Al…I put series 4 and 5 of The Wire, the Bukowski doc and Vicki Christina Barcelona in the post today. I added Bolt and some other things just because there was room.

  10. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 2:36 PM

    The Olympic swimming sensation Michael Phelps, who was photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe, has lost a major sponsorship deal and has been suspended from competition for three months.

    USA Swimming publicly reprimanded Phelps, who won eight medals at the Beijing Games, temporarily withdrawing its financial support to him and barring him from competition through early May. Phelps receives a monthly stipend of $1,750 from the organization. The national and world championships will be held in the summer.

    “We decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and hero,” the organization said in a statement.–from today’s NY Times

    Am I the only person to find this laughable? Yeah, God forbid anyone should think you can smoke cannabis and still be an outstanding athlete…erm, except, obviously, you can.


  11. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 6, 2009 2:49 PM

    I was a girl when I shook hands with Disraeli… but that’s another story.
    Was that Kama Sutra film Indian or what? It was bloody awful either way.

  12. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 3:50 PM

    Sex, sex, sex…is that all you ever think about, you degenerate?

  13. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 6, 2009 6:47 PM

    It’s a nostalgia thing.

  14. February 6, 2009 9:01 PM

    Mishari – will look forward to its arrival. We’ve had to make do with conversation and stuff to fill an evening the last few days so it can’t come soon enough.

    My partner puts on a brave face but I know and she knows that I’ve told that story about the break-in at the workshop at least 36 times. Charles Bukowski will be a welcom break

  15. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 9:05 PM

    I trust the snow won’t delay the postman on his appointed rounds…

  16. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 6, 2009 10:58 PM

    … or that he won’t be as light-fingered as mine. Catching the shifty little swine at the door the other day I questioned him closely on the novels of Furst. As he backed away there was a nervous cast to his countenance which surely betokened guilt. An application of Vaseline to the steps of Mowbray Towers is called for, I think, though I must remember to remove it before Mrs Mowbray goes out to feed the ostrich.

  17. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 11:09 PM

    Perhaps you should take him down the cellar (dig one if neccesary) and subject him to what our degraded political masters call “enhanced interrogation techniques”…you know, pull his fingernails out, that sort of thing…if anyone asks, dummy up and say you can’t discuss matters of national security.

    It works for David Millivanilliband…

  18. Captain Ned permalink
    February 6, 2009 11:41 PM

    Oh Christ, yes, ‘Kama Sutra’. That was fucking awful. Ferdy from ‘This Life’ gets stamped on by an elephant, to my inexpressible delight. So that’s another Indian film I’ve seen… plus another Mira Nair movie, ‘Monsoon Wedding’, which is a lot better.

  19. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 6, 2009 11:41 PM

    No space in the cellar I’m afraid, I leased it to the CIA a few years ago. I put on my Deep Purple albums when the screams get too loud.
    I can’t seem to post on GU at the moment-I keep getting the Sorry message. I was hoping to get in a slap at Dr Rosen but it’s taking a bit of logic-twisting since I more-or-less agree with him. I loved that line of BMs the other day: ‘As far as is humanly possible I agree with Michael Rosen…’ Beautifully judged.

  20. mishari permalink*
    February 6, 2009 11:47 PM

    Yeah, that is good. I missed that, but a beautifully executed knife between the ribs–blink and you miss it.

    Never saw Kama Sutra but the title alone would warn me off…

    Still impossible to post on obooki’s blog. I wonder if he realizes?

  21. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 7, 2009 1:45 PM

    KS has been on TV several times. It’s an Indian production. Don’t waste your time, anyway.
    I don’t know of a way to contact obooki to find out. It’s a pity.

  22. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 7, 2009 1:48 PM

    Nice oldster poem, btw. A cutting-edge contemporary type such as myself finds it difficult to think old, but I suppose I’ll have to try.

  23. mishari permalink*
    February 7, 2009 4:32 PM

    Perhaps if you laid off the gorilla testicle extract and polar bear semen…?

  24. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 7, 2009 7:12 PM

    God, outed on the Rosen thread by lurker BobbyWashable. Is nothing sacred? Anyone would think this is a publicly accessible site.

  25. February 7, 2009 8:42 PM

    MM Deny it’s you that wrote that – try and claim it’s an imposter or that you are insane/ have a multiple personality pile-up disorder. You could become a blog hero by doing so. Seems to work for others.

  26. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 7, 2009 11:40 PM

    An excellent idea, Alarming. I’ll just revise my Celtic history, down a few pints, add a shot of self-pity and off I go.
    It’s Rosen’s egotism which always annoys me (funny that the other big name in Respect, George Galloway, is also not deficient). ‘It’s not all about me’. Ha!

  27. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 10:14 AM

    I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, MM. That’s my MP you’re dissing. I actually voted for the bastard. I have no illusions about Galloway, who went from being ubiquitous pre-election to a state of permanent invisibility, but the alternatives were even more odious.

  28. February 8, 2009 11:14 AM

    I thought Oona King was very good til she got mixed up with supporting the Iraq war and then lost the mind-games with Galloway.

    Galloway seems one of those people who would join the club who’d have him as a member but then would quickly find a reason for leaving it soon after.

  29. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 11:22 AM

    Well, that’s the thing, Al. King was an adequate MP, no more. We, (her constituents) told her in no uncertain terms how we wanted her (our employee) to represent our wishes in the House, ie. by voting against the criminal folly of Iraq.

    Being a careerist Blairite toady, she chose to disregard her employer’s wishes. So we sacked her and good riddance.

    Afterwards, we were treated to the risible spectacle of the buffoon Hattersly, taking a brief break from stuffing his fat face with goose-cracklings at the Gay Hussar, informing us that King had lost because she was a black woman.

    Yeah, right, Woy. So how did Woy explain her previous two large majorities? He was strangely silent on the subject. Wow…what a surprise. Fucking idiot…

  30. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 8, 2009 11:56 AM

    No disRespect involved: it’s just diverting to reflect that a basically communitarian party is led by raging individualists. Hardly an original thought, but there you go. I’ve always liked GG: in terms of oratory, speed of thought, repartee etc he pisses on anyone else in the HoC. His appearance at the Senate showed he could make mincemeat out of all-comers. Unfortunately he seems to have the attention span of a gnat, otherwise who knows what he might have achieved? We won’t.

  31. February 8, 2009 12:03 PM

    didn’t Big Brother cook his goose as regards political credibility and give us evidence of a self-love that dares to speak its name?

  32. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 8, 2009 12:31 PM

    I think his various lurve tangles and the War On Want stuff had already made him fairly toxic as far as the Labour Party were concerned. Many of the, er, less talented comrades found his eloquence and obvious intelligence deeply suspicious.

  33. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 12:46 PM

    Yeah…the sight of my MP in a body-stocking pretending to be Rula Lenska’s pussycat is one that still makes me wonder if taking all those hallucinogenic drugs in my youth was such a good idea…

    I’ve always had a soft spot for GG. At least he actually appears to have a personality that’s not dictated by the party whips or Party HQ. And as you say, MM, as a speaker he puts the great majority of them in the shade…

  34. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 12:53 PM

    You probably remember that GG’s chief persecutor at those Senate hearings was one Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota).

    Gormless Norm recently lost his seat to comedian Al Franken.

    I suppose the voters thought, “…fuck it… If we’re going to keep electing comedians, let’s elect one who A.) is actually funny and B.) isn’t a goddamn crook.”

  35. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 8, 2009 1:01 PM

    A principle we could follow with advantage. Frank Skinner might do a reasonable job, though RC I believe, and might make anal intercourse compulsory. Not Mark Steel, another Socialist Worker I think.
    Just checked and GG is a 1954 man. Obvious when you think about it.

  36. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 1:09 PM

    I would have voted for the late and much missed Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy is funny and is scathing about all parties, so might be worth a punt (though I suspect him of Labour tendencies).

    Steel isn’t funny enough and is or was a Socialist Worker, something he writes very entertainingly about in his autobiography, Reasons To Be Cheerful, which is much funnier than his columns in the Indy…

  37. February 8, 2009 1:49 PM

    Mark Steel gives pedantry a bad name. It would be interesting to see a comedian as a politician given that much humour comes from a position of irresponsibility. I bet most of them would turn into the party-line toting brigade they mock. Jeremy Hardy is very funny but is a paid up SWP-er.

    I once did a gig with Frank Skinner about 20 years ago before he became famous. No-one knew him from Adam and he was quite a loathsome individual, his humour was even more clammy back then. I think he owes a lot of his initial success to Henry Normal who used to be a performance poet before he wrote with Steve Coogan and became a high powered comedy producer. Henry was a nice guy and may still be

  38. mishari permalink*
    February 8, 2009 2:09 PM

    My admittedly limited exposure to Frank Skinner gave me the impression that he was less funny than a tooth-ache and just as much of a relief to be rid of.

    So Hardy is a SWP doofus? I’ve known quite a few over the years. Charming, funny and good company until they got onto the subject of politics, whereupon they spouted the Party line in a fashion nicely guyed by the Eye’s Dave Spart…

  39. February 8, 2009 3:06 PM

    When I was at art college I ran the alternative film society for a year. I used to get harangued by the student SWP squad to show “Battle for Chile parts 1 and 2”. Every bloody week they’d have a go at me saying “if you don’t show it you support the fascist junta etc. etc” Not wanting to be an apologist for the death camps and in a rare attack of democracy I put them on.

    If you can get past the patronising commentary there is some powerful stuff in both films but none of the SWP members who had given me a rough ride week in week out turned up to see either of them. “We didn’t knw they were on” was the excuse – my poster campaign wasn’t exactly high-powered but only a fool could have missed seeing them.

  40. MeltonMowbray permalink
    February 8, 2009 3:52 PM

    I didn’t know Hardy was SWP either. His rightonness can be a little irritating at times. There was an amusing interlude in the News Quiz a while back when that Scottish chap admitted to sending his kid to boarding school. JH was immediately in full froth, why do you send your child there etc, what is it don’t you like him? To which the Scots chap responds ‘Not much’, leaving JH floundering.
    I didn’t have much time for Skinner until a couple of years ago when I accidentally read his autobiog. Gruesomely sentimental, but it explained a lot. It’s his capacity for ad libbing which I like. Now I’m thinking Harry Hill or Al Murray for PM. I hope they aren’t SWP as well.

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