A few months ago while I was enjoying some old Marlene Dietrich clips, I thought that surely someone must have done a good remake of a Marlene Dietrich movie in Bollywood. After all, Marlene was a legendary cabaret star in both German and American cinema, and who knows cabaret better than the filmmakers in Bollywood? In the remake that I pictured, the Marlene role could be played by, say, Helen or Cuckoo, and the movie would be full of risque cabaret acts with the star doing lots of dances in those famous Marlene Dietrich stockings and other such kinky attire.
But when I finally discovered a remake of a Marlene Dietrich movie, it turned out to be something a bit different. In this remake of The Blue Angel, Marlene’s role is played by a full-figured 40-something Sandhya, and instead of doing cabaret acts, she does folk dances in a traveling Marathi dance troupe.
Admittedly, Pinjra isn’t an exact remake of The Blue Angel, as it strays near the middle into melodramatic twists that are very different from anything that would have come out of old Hollywood. And I wish I could pinpoint all the points of departure, but I admit that it’s been ages since I saw The Blue Angel, plus I’m not really sure I ever even saw the whole film. However, from what I know (and from the plot summaries that I peaked at) both films share this basic core of plot:
An esteemed teacher who is concerned about the moral threat to his students presented by a famously alluring dancer tries to take steps to eliminate this problem, such as going to the dancer’s show himself to make sure that his students aren’t frequenting it. Much to his own surprise, though, he ends up becoming more attracted to this dancer than anyone, and he enters into a romance with her that will lead to his own downfall.
In Pinjra, though, the teacher is a moral leader for an entire village, who must also interact with an official village leader and the official leader’s evil son. The official leader’s evil son becomes increasingly involved in conflict with the teacher (perhaps because the teacher tried to set him straight too many times) and repeatedly vows revenge. Meanwhile this same son is harassing a woman whom the teacher has been trying to protect from him, tries at one point to rape her, and ends up being killed in revenge by the woman’s husband right outside the teacher’s house. Coincidentally, just before this villain is killed, he has been trying to gain entry into the teacher’s house to expose the situation inside, i.e., a hotly brewing love affair between the teacher and the dancer (and a lot of anguishing along with it about the possible consequences of this forbidden romance).
When the teacher opens his door and finds his adversary lying outside, murdered, he and the dancer both realize that the young man’s face has been so smashed up (with a rock), it’s now unrecognizable. The dancer then comes up with the idea that they should mislead the people in the village into thinking that the unrecognizable victim is the teacher himself.
Since he is plauged by anguished thoughts that he needs to escape from the village (to avoid impending moral penalties for his forbidden romance, etc.), the teacher decides to accept this plan. Unfortunately, unlike probably any viewer of this movie, the wise teacher seems unable to guess the biggest risk involved in this trickery, that he might one day be arrested for the murder of himself. (And this might become a bigger risk if he ends up getting “caught” at a time when, for some reason, his own face has been somewhat disfigured, though that of course would be an awfully big and terrible coincidence…)
Now, readers here might correct me if they know differently, but once again, given what I know, The Blue Angel has none of this terrible and weird irony; the teacher just sort of experiences a moral downfall, becomes humiliated, and goes crazy.
The tragedies unfold in Pinjra in ways that are very typical of a Hindi movie (or in this case, a movie that was made in both Hindi and Marathi). Nonetheless, it is still all very involving and well paced, and the songs remain excellent throughout . ( I would like to hear more from this Marathi music director, Ram Kadam!)
I admit that I prefer the lighter, semi-comic half before the increasingly tragic half, and I think that this part of the movie was superbly done. Sandhya plays the seduction just perfectly, and Shreeram Lagoo – the Marathi actor who plays the teacher – does a fine job of portraying someone who is both highly educated and extremely innocent. Also during this part of the movie, it is fun to watch how the dancer, while seducing the teacher, actually falls for him because she is so charmed by his naivete.
During this part, I couldn’t help thinking of the relationship between the characters played by Waheeda Rehman and Raj Kapoor in the 1966 film Teesri Kasam. And since Waheeda’s character in that film is also the star of a traveling folk dance troupe that puts her into morally questionable situations, the parallels with this part of Pinjra get very close. (That’s right, as much as it is a remake of The Blue Angel, it could also be a remake of Teesri Kasam – well, during a small portion, anyway.)
But there is a nice added touch in this relationship in Pinjra, exactly because the naive guy is not some country bumpkin but, supposedly, very wise and educated. Conversely, the dancer surprises the teacher with her own intelligence, especially since his class prejudices cause him to expect less from a woman in her place. This, of course, adds to the love that he feels for her.
But on the negative side, Pinjra is far less quiet/subtle in its exposition, and it even sometimes lapses into cheezy melodramatic effects, such as blurred freeze frames at momentous moments in the teacher’s moral downfall - like when he starts succumbing to the temptation of tobacco…
For me, the film started to lose its appeal a little as the characters’ fates started spiiraling donward, but V. Shantaram’s direction remains pretty high-quality in most ways, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt myself getting bored or impatient. Moreover, Sandhya and Shreeram Lagoo continue to give truly excellent performances throughout. I was especially impressed by Sandhya’s acting in this movie, and I am sure now that in many corners (though not all) she has simply been very underrated.
Overall, it was a nice surprise to me that such a well done film with the V. Shantaram/Sandhya combination had come out in the early ’70s. As I recall reading, some thirteen years earlier, the critics were slamming Shantaram, and one even declared that he was “senile.” But despite those premature assessments, in this ’72 movie, Shantaram obviously still “had it,” while Sandhya was probably better than ever in some ways.
I must admit, though, that I don’t know how Pinjra would hold up in a comparison with its classic inspiration The Blue Angel (which I really have to see again, and in full, sometime). Despite the similarities in plot, they seem to be so different stylistically, I wonder if such a comparison is even truly possible.
P.S. Although Pinjra came out in both Hindi and Marathi, it seems the only clips available for posting are in Marathi. But that’s OK, because it’s interesting – you won’t see Marathi songs very often here or in any Bollywood blog. Also, I wanted to mention that while it might be a little annoying to keep seeing references to the “dancer” and “teacher” rather than to actual names, that is often how they are referred to in the film. (And even in cast lists at IMDb, etc., they are referred to as “dancer” and “teacher” rather than by name.)