In this new weekly column, Connected, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connectionâ€”emotional, thematic, historical, or analyticalâ€”to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers at this uncertain moment.
These days, messages will pop up on my phone more frequently than usual asking if Iâ€™m in the position to video chat. â€śAre you decent?â€ť Chances are that Iâ€™m not, though Iâ€™ve developed a quick routine to feign composure from the shoulders up. As my computerâ€™s camera light turns green and I prepare myself to greet whoeverâ€™s on the other end with a smile and a casual remark about how Iâ€™m â€śhanging in there,â€ť I think of the ultimate on-screen entrance: Rita Hayworthâ€™s transcendent hair-flip in Gilda (1946). Gildaâ€™s husband has brought a visitor to her dressing room, and poses the same query to his bride: â€śGilda, are you decent?â€ť Hayworthâ€™s iconic curls burst into view as she tosses her head back like a slingshot before situating herself into the center of the frame: â€śMe?â€ť she responds, with her exaggerated air of naivetĂ©. Itâ€™s not an entrance into a room, but into the film itself, and an announcement that from this point on, while Gilda may be viewed as an object to be possessed, this movie belongs to her.
Having grown up with a more â€śdemureâ€ť genre of Hollywood starlet (Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, Julie Andrews), I had never seen a Rita Hayworth film until this month. But now, deep into my downright unglamorous isolation, I found myself longing for a particular kind of panache that only she could provide. It being my first time, the effect of Gildaâ€™s entrance on me was exponentially greaterâ€”I nearly jumped out of my seat. While director Charles Vidor amplified Hayworthâ€™s sensuality, dressing her in glamorous waist-hugging, shoulder-baring gowns, Gildaâ€™s on-screen â€śhandlersâ€ť do everything in their power to contain her raw sexual energy. At first, the story of Gilda belongs to Johnny Farrell, a gambling drifter played by an impishâ€”and rather charmlessâ€”Glenn Ford. Finding himself down on his luck in Buenos Aires, Farrell secures a job as a glorified security guard at an illegal casino owned by the sophisticated but sinister Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who is conducting even greater nefarious dealings behind his office doors (something to do with masterminding a tungsten monopoly, but no matter). The real meat of the story emerges 18 minutes in, when Gilda arrives. Her face suddenly drops as she seems to recognize Johnny. It turns out they were an item once upon a time, and that she betrayed himâ€”though we never find out exactly how. Now, through a series of coincidences some might classify as â€śfate,â€ť the two have ambled back into each otherâ€™s lives, both still harboring a profound sense of hatred for one another so deep that it borders on love.
Once Gilda arrives on the scene, Johnny takes it upon himself to hide her wildly flirtatious behavior from Mundsonâ€”ostensibly to protect his bossâ€™s reputation, but perhaps more because he canâ€™t stand to see her flirting with anyone but him. While Gilda effortlessly shrugs off Johnnyâ€™s attempts to pin her down, her confidence belies her captivity. Gilda is a â€śkept womanâ€ť in every sense of the term. Gilda may have knowingly handed herself over to Mundson in return for a lavish life, but she hints that she didnâ€™t have much of a choice. â€śI was down and out, he picked me up, put me back on my feet,â€ť Johnny says, defending his current position as one of Mundsonâ€™s hangers-on. â€śNow isnâ€™t that an amazing coincidence Johnny?â€ť Gilda replies. â€śThatâ€™s practically the story of my life.â€ť
Gildaâ€™s story is a familiar one, though her character is far more complicated, and far less calculating, than the traditional femmes fatales seen in noirs from the same period. She has become embroiled with a rich, ruthless husband more as a survival tactic than a get-rich-quick scheme. Like his signature cane, which, with the push of a button, becomes a deadly sword, Mundson can turn on a dimeâ€”one moment serving as a doting husband helping with a stubborn zipper, the next threatening her not to make any â€śmistakesâ€ťâ€”vaguely alluding to potential lapses in fidelity. This month alone Iâ€™ve watched a handful of films featuring similar charactersâ€”women who may be deemed â€śgold-diggersâ€ť but who have in fact been forced to align themselves with abusive men, faced with alternatives that are far worse. Gloria Grahameâ€™s Debby in The Big Heat (1953) comes to mind, as she dances around a terrifying Lee Marvin and his violent temperâ€”he ultimately explodes, with an infamous episode involving a pot of hot coffee. Grahame, at this point playing to type, also appears in Human Desire (1954) as a wife living in fear of her husbandâ€™s violent outbursts. She doesnâ€™t dare leave himâ€”heâ€™s threatened to frame her for a murder he committed if she does. In The Long Goodbye (1973) Mark Rydellâ€™s Marty Augustine wields a broken coke bottle to disfigure his girlfriend (Jo Ann Brody) as a show of strength.
Johnny uses every trick in the book to keep tabs on Gilda, refusing to see her himself but enlisting his men to watch her at all times. â€śEvery night she got all dressed up . . . and waited,â€ť Johnny narrates in voiceover as Gilda paces around an empty apartment (a relatable situation, to say the least). But any attempt to keep Gilda contained is bound to fail, and itâ€™s not long before sheâ€™s back at the casino, this time on stage. Itâ€™s another iconic moment: she performs â€śPut the Blame on Mameâ€ť to adoring onlookers, stripping off a glove and tossing it into the crowd (not advisable at this time). Even as Johnny reels her back in, violently chiding her for her exhibitionism, itâ€™s inspiring to see that when Gilda breaks out of isolation, she does so in a big way. â€”Susannah Gruder
Sue, I am delighted by your description of your isolation as â€śdownright unglamorousâ€ť and your quick and casual approach to readying yourself for video calls. A phenomenon I believe weâ€™re all still comprehendingâ€”and whose cultural effects will only become clear in the aftermath of all thisâ€”is the fact that most of our social interaction is now flattened to the rectangle of a screen and the contours of our faces, the revealing language of bodies, presence, and touch removed from the equation. My face suddenly feels overly important as an alibi of my presence and attentiveness in virtual meetings, each casual look or expression invested with meaning. But as someone who occasionally feels uncomfortable within her body, Iâ€™ve also found homebound isolation a little, dare I say it, freeing. To have how I dress or look have little bearing on my daily professional or personal interactions; to be able to control, to a great extent, when Iâ€™d like to be seen or not seenâ€”itâ€™s all been perversely liberating, which of course says less about our present circumstances than it does about our general way of things. What use is glamor, beauty, vanity during a pandemic?
Strangely though, in my home-viewing, Iâ€™ve hungrily sought out these very qualities. A couple weeks ago, I rewatched Satyajit Rayâ€™s The Music Room, yearning to melt into the filmâ€™s tragic, feudal opulence. One sequence stayed with me long after: the Kathak performance halfway through the film, whose crescendoâ€”a frenzied montage between the beats of the tabla and the dancerâ€™s anklet-clad feet striking the floorâ€”coincides with the news of the death of the protagonistâ€™s wife and child. I was so enraptured by the sceneâ€™s perfect storm of music, emotion, and narrative that it sent me down a rabbit hole of Hindi melodramas centered on tawaifs: sophisticated courtesans trained in music, dance, theater, and literature who catered to Indian nobles, especially during the Mughal period. In history, tawaifs were highly educated and esteemed as custodians of the arts and the rules of etiquette; in most Indian movies, however, theyâ€™re portrayed as naive, fallen women craving respectability and marriage. Their most famous performances, which form the centerpieces of these films, are often abject cries for acceptance or love. These song-and-dance numbers have become catnip for me; Iâ€™m spellbound by their innuendo-laden lyrics, the lustrous costumes, the lavish mise-en-scĂ¨ne, and most of all, the heroines who essay the tawaifs: Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981), Vyjayanthimala in Devdas (1955), Madhuri Dixit in the latterâ€™s 2002 remake. I can lose myself in the delicate faces of these actresses and the stories they tell with just a flash of their eyes or the coquettish raise of a brow, withholding yet wielding desire. Theyâ€™re pure examples of star textsâ€”of figures that feel larger-than-life even on the small screen.
Inspired by your late discovery of Gilda, I decided to watch a classic tawaif film Iâ€™d never seen before, but whose songs are inscribed in my memory: Pakeezah (1972), a kind of apotheosis of the genre, known for the grandeur of its set design, the tortured story of its production, and the peerless beauty and graceâ€”or ada, in Urduâ€”of its star, Meena Kumari. Known as the â€śTragedy Queen,â€ť Kumari was born to a Muslim family as Mahjabeen Bano, butâ€”like her contemporaries Madhubala (Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi) and Dilip Kumar (Muhammad Yusuf Khan)â€”rose to fame under a Hinduized stage name, becoming one of Hindi cinemaâ€™s first superstar heroines. She was a Renaissance woman, accomplished as an actor, dancer, singer, and Urdu poet, writing under the pseudonym Naaz. Kumari was the third wife of the director Kamal Amrohi, who began Pakeezah as a monumentâ€”a cinematic Taj Mahal, as he described itâ€”to his love. A film of megalomaniacal technical ambition, Pakeezah began shooting in the late 1950s, and involved many locations, exorbitant studio sets, and one of the first uses of Cinemascope in India. Four years into production, Amrohi and Kumari broke up, following which Kumari developed health issues and succumbed to alcoholism. A few years later, at Amrohiâ€™s urging, the couple reunited to complete the film, which took three more years. In the interim, the original composer and cinematographer of the film had died and Kumari had become too unwell to finish some of the dance scenes, necessitating a body double and some strategic uses of the veil. Nevertheless, the film premiered to great pomp in Mumbai in February 1972. Then, a few weeks later, Kumari passed away.
A great and troubled beauty, and a grand and troubled productionâ€”a perfect maelstrom of Bombay glamor and decay, soaked through and through with pathos. The story is convoluted yet, at its core, exceedingly simple: a gifted courtesan claims her right to love beyond her station. In the fable-like prologue, set in a dimly lit court, a tawaif named Nargis (Kumari) performs while a magisterial narrator tells us that â€ścountless admirers spurned by her sit at her feet as she dances.â€ť Soon, Nargis is â€śrescuedâ€ť and wed by a nobleman but turned away in disgust by his father. Devastated, she runs away to a cemetery, where, nine months later, she dies giving birth to a girl. The daughter, Sahibjaan (Kumari again), is raised by Nargisâ€™s sister who vows to protect her from her motherâ€™s fate and sends her to live and work at a palace in Delhi, where sheâ€™s renowned for her singing and dancing and coveted by local aristocrats. But a chance encounter on a train with a strange man, Salim (a tall, dark, and handsome Raaj Kapoor), changes things forever. Enamored of her henna-stained feetâ€”i.e. her instruments of choiceâ€”he leaves her a note as she sleeps, asking her to never let her beautiful feet touch the ground and be soiled. Sahibjaan clings to this message and its promise of a transcendent love.
The plot goes on, twisting and turning with coincidences and divine interventions for a full two hours and 34 minutes: a lecherous nobleman buys Sahibjaan for a night of pleasure on a boat, during which an accident occurs (involving elephants), leaving her stranded on a shore, where sheâ€™s reunited with Salim by chance. She elopes with him, then leaves him when sheâ€™s ridiculed by the townspeople, and then, finally invited to dance at Salimâ€™s wedding, sheâ€™s recognized by his uncle, who turns out to be her father. (Read all that over a couple times, if you need).
An alternateâ€”and in some ways, more faithfulâ€”account of Pakeezah could consist of just descriptions of its many moments and scenes of transfixing beauty, which seem to exist for their own sake, stilling and splintering the narrative into perfect synergies of light, color, and movement: a tawaifâ€™s twinned reflection in the sunglasses of a nobleman; Kumari (as Nargis) dancing around a flame in the filmâ€™s prologue, glittering like a moth in her bejeweled white outfit; Chowk, the street in Lucknow city where the courtesans all live and perform, a fantasia of vibrant colors, twirling women, and raucous conversation; and Kumariâ€™s silhouette, seen through a curtain, her breast meeting the sun as she rises from sleep.
And speaking of grand entrancesâ€”when Kumari walks towards her audience in the palace in Delhi, framed by its ornate, lamp-lit facade, my heart stopped. Dressed in gorgeous green silk and golden jewelry, she moves in with a sway in her hips, just late enough that her arrival feels anticipated, then seats herself and surveys the gathered men with one single rove of her eyes, both arrogant and impish. Beauty is both power and prison in Pakeezah, a duality Kumari embodies with great feeling. The film operates within a pointedly patriarchal framework of possession and redemption (the title refers to the name Salim confers to Sahibjaan, meaning â€śpurityâ€ť), but in submitting to Kumariâ€™s glamor in her song-and-dance sequences, the camera seems to free the demure and sentimental Sahibjaan, bringing her to irrepressible life. Kumari was blessed with an ethereal face, angel-like yet roiled by real human emotion, but itâ€™s what she does with it that makes her such an arresting figure on screen. Drawing on the restrained expressiveness of Kathak, her dances are a battalion of gazesâ€”fired here, there, and backâ€”while she ventriloquizes lines like â€śThese are the men who lifted my veilâ€ť and â€śI shall see the arrows of your glances.â€ť She oozes sensuality and demands desire, toying with the veil and its permutations of seeing and being seen, while the camera cuts frequently to close-ups of her perfectly lined, painted eyes.
But in a stirring speech towards the end of the film, Sahibjaan seems to deliver a cutting rebuke to the filmâ€™s aesthetic obsessionsâ€”including with herself. Kumariâ€™s own troubles at the time of shooting, and her impending death, add poignancy to these lines. â€śWe women are living corpses,â€ť Sahibjaan says, â€śadorned and embalmed. Our graves are not covered, they are gaping open.â€ť
Is she dead or alive? â€”Devika Girish