Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The three Dougs… Gallant Hearts (1931) with Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, BFI

After Shiraz another gem from Indian cinema, perhaps not as polished but sparkling all the same. Gallant Hearts (Diler Jagar) is one of so very few silent films to survive from this time and has recently been restored by the National Film Archive of India was being shown here for the first time overseas. It’s a sprawling adventure influenced heavily by the work of Mr D Fairbanks and features a trio of adventurers who enjoy free-running swordplay so much, they often stop and wait for the baddies to catch up.

The screening was part of the BFI’s ongoing silent film strand as well as the India on Film series with the NFAI and featured mind-boggling improvised accompaniment from pianist/multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, another multi-instrumentalist on Dholak, Dhol and Tabla. They played as one, without any rehearsal, four hands playing sometimes four instruments at a time, as they reacted to events on screen. It takes generosity as well as skill to make a film score in this way and the two supported each other and the film exceptionally well, especially during those extended fight scenes, hitting a playful and purposeful groove as our heroes danced with death.

Whilst Gallant Hearts has its heroic Prince Hameer (an actor named Hamir… it was indeed Hameer Time…) it also features a woman who is his every inch his match. Lalita Pawar plays Hameer’s love, Saranga, an acrobatic daredevil who can outfight the men just as easily and also becomes a masked avenger, righting the wrongs of the evil King Kalsen and saving her true love’s life on a number of occasions. So interesting to see such a liberated female presence as a natural part of the story… for without qualification, Hameer is lucky to win her respect and to earn her love.

Bad King Kalsen
G.P. Pawar directs and there are many interesting fades and camera movements, with a montage of tempting luxuries focused on Saranga’s face as the King charms her with promises of endless royal favour and later a tracking shot as she walks in torment after letting down Hameer. Some of the action looks a little slack but it must have been largely improvised on location (and there are very few studio shots).

Like all good fantasies, the film is about the battle between good and evil and the long-game. In Magadh a good and generous king is poisoned by his scheming brother Kalsen. The faithful sardar Satyapal smuggles the dead king’s infant son out but the child is seemingly lost after the horse and escort take a tumble.

There follows twenty years of misrule, the titles superimposed on Satyapal’s increasingly grey visage, during which evil reigns and the bad king begats a bad Prince Ramanaraj who, like his father, has broad tastes in abuses of all kinds and more than a little fondness for the ladies. In one horrible  scene we see the King whipping a man because he has tried to stop his wife joining the royal harem.

Prince Ramanaraj and friend
Into this “Kingdom of Horror” arrive three fearless visitors, Hameer, Saranga and her brother Balbheem, a troupe of acrobats who, naturally enough cannot escape the attention of royal spies on the look out for “pretty birds” to trap for Prince or King. The Commander of Maghadh, large of moustache and with a very helpful boil on his face perhaps representing the simmering sin in his heart, tries to take Saranga away but is quickly humiliated by Hameer who is part Fairbanks, part Adam Ant and early Spandau Ballet… ridicule is nothing to be scared of certainly not with his lithe athleticism and way with a sword!

In evading the chasing pack of royal guards they bump onto the canoodling Prince who, instantly clocking Saranga’s charms, invites these “brave lads” (love the English title cards!) to perform at the palace…

Clever though they are the trio are taken by surprise when Saranga’s bed is lowered in the middle of the night and she is taken by royal guards with the King just beating his son to her capture.

“Silly girl! You were born to live in palaces not beg in the streets!”

Hamir and Lalita Pawar
The King lays it on with a shovel and persuades Saranga into lowering her guard for just an instance at which point Hameer arrives and jumps to the right wrong conclusion. Seemingly betrayed and with “nothing to live for…” he is captured and thrown in the dungeon with Balbheem. But, as Saranga works to deceive the King, Balbheem stirs his friend up for some vengeance and the adventure takes off all over again.

It seems like a wedge has been driven between the two lovers though but shortly after the ongoing battle against the King is joined by a masked avenger, part Zorro and with a hint of Musidora’s Irma Vep (only good). Who is this Robyn Hood? And is there one more revelation that will restore good order to the Kingdom…?

Another cracking Sunday silent at the BFI and here’s hoping that the spirit of adventure continues!

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