Howrah Bridge fiftyfiftyme category: Major
After a break from movie-watching to focus on reading a bit more, I got back into my fiftyfiftyme film challenge with this 1958 film starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. I really wanted to like it, as it had been described as a fun mystery film. I did not dislike it, but I was left underwhelmed. Here are the things that did not work for me.
The characters: Specifically Uncle Joe and Mr Chang. Uncle Joe looked like he was supposed to Chaplinesque and his role as one of the bad guys was also apparently intended to be partly comic. Instead, it was irritating and clumsy. Mr Chang was a cartoon villain, not just in the sense that his character was a shallow stereotype of a villain but also in the more literal sense that he looked cartoonish, with eyebrows that appear to have have been drawn on to heighten his villainous appearance. Neither was helpful in hooking me into the story, a real problem given how much they dominate the first forty minutes or so. Which leads me to the other problems
The pacing and the plot development: For the first, too slow; for the second, too jerky. A mystery/thriller needs to make the viewer care about the mystery straight away, to raise intriguing questions and ensure that the viewer wants to find out the answers. Howrah Bridge did not do that for me. It was sluggish and slow to get its story rolling and I had to make myself watch the first half hour or so. There was at least one mystery about the plot development, though. In one scene, Edna is telling the man she knows as Rakesh that she doesn't speak Hind properly, and demonstrates this by mangling it even worse than I do. Having seen Edna in the conference where the drug trafficking was being discussed, I figured she was dissembling for some reason. If so, I never saw the scene where the reason was given.All I know is that for the rest of the film, she's talking completely normal Hindi. Did I perhaps doze off and miss the explanation, or was this truly an unexplained mystery of the plot, like the fact that the woman who sat calmly and matter-of-factly listening to her uncle talk about buying her a Christmas present with drug money was later a crusader for justice? Flaws like that distracted from the story, making it difficult for me to engage with and feel like I really cared how it ended.
Helen: Try as I might, I cannot see the allegedly irresistible allure of this most famous of filmi vamps. In this film, I actually quite liked both mera naam chin chin chu and Helen's performance in it.Of course Geeta Dutt's voice was as lovely as always, and the song was a cheery little number, but that was all. I thought it an OK song, and Helen's performance satisfactory, and for me, that's high praise for a Helen piece. My reaction to Helen is as incomprehensible to most filmi buffs as my similarly meh reaction to Sholay but in this film, it nicely sums up my problem with the film as a whole - it was just OK. Now for the things that emphatically did work for me in this film:
Madhubala: Unlike my reaction to Helen, I've always admired Madhubala as an actor, and enjoyed her films. I've also long been very fond of the song aaiye meherbaan, one of my favourite Asha songs, and one that nicely shows up the difference between her and her didi, the difference that makes me prefer Asha. I had not, however, seen the song. When I did, my reaction was a string of exclamations of the "haai allah!", "arre vah!" variety. Y'all can keep your Helen, here is some va-va-voom! Scales fell from my eyes and I saw why many have waxed lyrical about Madhubala's great beauty. In this song, she positively drips seductive allure, a perfect match for the earthy, sultry tones of Asha's voice. Those descriptions are not my coinage, I've seen them used as pejoratives(!) when comparing Asha's voice to Lata's. After watching aaiye meherbaan I have no idea how anyone could consider those terms to be pejorative. This song, with its absolutely perfect pairing of a sultry voice and a come hither Madhubala (pun intended) is what scraped Howrah Bridge a passing grade for me. Here it is just because I want to, I mean, for art's sake:
Throughout the film from this song onward, Madhubala's beauty helped carry me through. She seldom looked better than she did in this film, and it's almost a pity that she was on the side of the angels, because she would have been a very credible femme fatale. The other thing that worked for me about this film is something else that marks my filmi tastes as idiosyncratic:
Shamshad Begum: When I tell people that my 2nd-favourite filmi playback singer from the golden era was Shamshad, another tick goes on the "bilkul paagal" checklist, alongside "doesn't find Helen hot" and "was kinda bored by Sholay". I can't explain why, but from my first introduction to her, in teri mehfil mein kismat (which she "won", of course), she's been a singer I really enjoy listening to. I was genuinely excited to see her name come up while watching the opening credits for this film, and I enjoyed her duets with Rafi very much. Hearing her distinctive voice opening main jaan gayee brought a smile to my face, which didn't happen often enough in this film.
In summary, this film was OK. For the crores of more normal filmi fans who get Helen, mera naam chin chin chu is obviously a classic. For me, this best thing about this film was the revelatory experience of seeing Madhubala smoking up the screen in tandem with saddi rani's voice. I will definitely be obeying her invitation again, that's for sure. For now, I leave the Calcutta of Howrah Bridge behind. Next up, the Kolkata of Kahaani.