My father told me years ago that he’s only ever seen 7 films in a theater. When asked to list them, he replied, Junglee (a film directed by Subodh Mukherjee in 1961). Confused, I asked him to carry on with the list before realizing that he had only seen Junglee, and he had seen it seven times.
The film is set in Kashmir, a space that busies the various administrations of India, Pakistan, and China. The native ambiguities of this highly politicized region at an early age intrigued my artistic sensibilities. Revisiting this intrigue now leads me to other films introduced to me by my father.
Jorge Negrete, Gran Casino, 1947
[The film is] …based on a story by Michel Weber and set in the midst of the oil fields. To write the screenplay, I went to the beautiful thermal spa at José Purua in Michoacán, a paradisiacal retreat in a semitropical canyon, where I was eventually to write twenty scenarios. Busloads of American tourists arrived regularly for twenty-four sublime hours of taking the same radioactive baths at the same hours, drinking the same mineral water, followed by the same daiquiris and the same elegant meals.
I hadn’t been behind a camera in fifteen years, and if the scenario’s not particularly gripping, the technique, on the other hand, isn’t half bad. In this musical melodrama, Libertad arrives from Argentina to search for her brother’s killer, and suspecting that Negrete is the culprit, she attacks him furiously. Soon enough, however, they manage to reconcile their differences and begin the conventional love scene. I was bored to tears, so I told Negrete to pick up the stick at his feet and to turn it round and round in the oily mud as he talked. It was a nice moment. Despite its box-office names, however, the film was only moderately successful, and it took me over two years of scratching my nose, watching flies, and living off my mother’s money before I made another movie (pp 198-99).
This film, despite its bland plot lines, holds a special place in my heart especially the scene above; I feel the active notions of breaking out of prison constitute a poetic gesture toward the life of an emerging artist. In Buñuel’s case, he was an artist that had not made work for a very long time, was broke, and needed to start again somewhere.
Gran Casino was released in 1947, the same year my father turned twelve, the year that Pakistan and India became two separate countries, and the same year that Kashmir’s ruler of its princely state, Hari Singh, was given a momentary right to choose governance between Pakistan or India. The moment after his hesitation, all parties went to battle for their stake to this region.
Momentary silences always precede the spontaneous bursts of song in my favorite musicals. The unabashed fantasies the numbers represent break the linear narratives with emotional battlefields. These two vastly different films are intrinsically linked in my personal histories. I came to learn of Junglee as a child growing up, and Luis Buñuel’s Gran Casino as a teen, trying to understand my father’s strange tastes in films all the while.
The streets of New York turned spring on me while I was asleep dreaming of the past and obscure. With every fully bloomed Magnolia tree I pass, these songs/films remind me that change comes quickly.