Sunday, May 03, 2009

REFLECTION/FILM: What’s that idiot doing?

I have a terrible habit of watching the same movie many times. If it’s a silly comedy, and if I take a liking to it, don’t be surprised if I would have already seen it at least 5 times within the first 12 months of having watched it. And don’t be surprised if I’ve memorised some of its more memorable gags.

It’s a habit I developed from childhood when video cassette recorders first came onto the market. It was around this time that we learned it was possible to record shows and movies shown on the TV. The vast majority of our video cassettes were of Indian movies. Fittingly, the first movie we had recorded from the TV also was an Indian movie. Well, kind of.

Peter Sellers’ The Party was played over and over again in our house. Sellers starred as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a bumbling Indian actor imported to Hollywood to play a soldier of the British Raj fighting (as luck would have it) in Afghanistan. At least the area on the set looked like Afghanistan, until Bakhshi accidentally blew it up while strapping up his sandals.

After being sacked from the movie, Bakshi somehow manages to score an invitation to a party hosted at the home of the magnate who owns the studio where the explosions took place. Sellers’ Indian accent sounds to me like a stereotypical American attempt to mimic the Indian accent.

His behaviour, dress and mannerisms (he’s even shown playing sitar at home) is such that you’d expect Indo-Pakistanis to be most peeved. But my memory is of my father and Indo-Pak uncles laughing heartily at Sellers’ accent, not to mention his awkward antics at the party. One of their favourite scenes was when he spoiled a gorgeous song whilst searching for a toilet. Perhaps my uncles appreciated that this party was Bakshi’s first such gathering, and they could relate to an Indian being marginalised by people because of his accent, his smiling clumsiness and his attempts to fit into any conversation he can find, all the while strictly avoiding a glass of wine. And they would have enjoyed the fact that, by the end of the party, it was Bakshi who was the only person (apart from the French actress he befriended at the party) that remained in one piece.

Perhaps they also realised that, in reality, The Party is less a spoof of Indians than of the American high society of the time. On the one hand, there is the hostess of the party who is happy to have an exotic Indian man along to the same dinner where she will also have Russian musicians and dancers performing - remember that this was during the heart of the Cold War! On the other hand, the majority of the guests as well as the host treat Bakshi with disdain. Even the daughter of the hosts, who appears with her friends later in the movie along with an elephant painted with hippy slogans that offend Bakshi sensibilities, soon bends over backwards to placate him buy having her friends scrub the poor beast.

A fair few of the scenes from The Party have been mimicked in other movies in both India and the United States. The Naked Gun 2½ featured a scene involving Frank Drebin (played by Leslie Nielsen) flipping a piece of food into Winnie Mandela’s headscarf. Meanwhile Arjun Singh (played by Amitabh Bachchan) manages to lose his shoe in some water in the Bollywood classic Namak Halal.

There are many classic gags and scenes I grew up with and whose broader significance (presuming they had any) I couldn’t appreciate until now. You can watch some of them below while I get ready to hit the sack. It’s 3:15am.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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