Upkar
India 1967
Directed by Manoj Kumar.


Manoj Kumar wrote, directed, and starred in a series of films about a character named Bharat, a true Hindustani patriot. The movies don't feature the same character, mind you, just the same name and the same spirit, transplanted in space and time to wherever he is needed most. UPKAR was his first "Bharat" picture, and it was a huge hit. He came to embody Indian patriotism like no other actor. UPKAR lays it on mighty thick. Along with the cupping of the earth in the palm of the hand rhapsodizing about it, and image after image of the happy, proud farmer and his plow, which seemed simply imitative of Mother India, UPKAR adds another hero to India's pantheon: the soldier. Early in the film, a soldier visits Bharat on the farm, and leans his rifle against the plow. These become the symbol of Indian patriotism. The soldiers protect the motherland, the farmers love it, treat it tenderly, and grow grain to feed the people. I'm just surprised no one is quoting from Mao's little red book.

Bharat is, needless to say, takes his patriotism to extremes. Maybe its the bust of Jawaharlal Nehru standing in the middle of his field, so it can conveniently be sung to (next to a small shrine to Krishna) that is just a bit over the limit, I don't know. He loves the earth so much I was waiting for him to get caught in the middle of the night planting his own seed in it. His brother, Puran (Prem Chopra) meanwhile, is going to college and partying it up. Not a fan of the soil. Prefers drinking and dancing. He rather fancies a young doctor (Asha Pareka) he meets, but she goes to do some work in his village, where she is smitten by the frighteningly idealistic Bharat. Puran, conflicted, falls in with the rapacious grain broker who buys low from the farmers and sells high to the city, and soon breaks with his family to pursue a disreputable career in exchange for getting a car.

So it's the wealthy, corrupt city against the honest, impovershed country. Which is a relief -- whereas Mother India simply illustrated the unrelenting misery of provincial life, UPKAR takes time out from that to show the serious partying going on downtown. At one point, the go-go dancer featured in the delirious musical number "Jan Pahechan Ho" from GUMNAAM (later featured as the opening to Zwigoff's GHOST WORLD) pops into a party for a hip shaking, head shaking, freakout, while Puran drinks and eats with gusto with his rich friends. Outside, a starving beggar woman beats her child because he asks for more food for the day. Inside, they drop food on the floor and dance on it. Outside, people lie in the streets, starving. Inside, one of the girls just nibbles, and when asked why, says she "is on a diet" -- in the context of the film, a near unforgivable sin.

Eventually Bharat must also enter the military to protect India, and so he puts down his plowshare and picks up a rifle, and everyone celebrates him once again. At one point, one of the other characters refer to him as "god-like." Boy, next time I'm in a movie, I'm going to write myself a character like that!

UPKAR is a bit too didactic to be overly enjoyable. It seems targeted to an audience of primary school education or lower, like the characters the film depicts. When the doctor sets up a clinic in the village, she spends a lot of time (and we must dutifully watch and listen) explaining why having too many kids is a burden on ourselves and our society. "Look at how happy this couple is," she says, pointing to a picture of a family with two kids. "Now look at this," a picture of a bunch of screaming brats and tired out parents. "I've learned my lesson!" Her patient says. Other lessons include the importance of farming for society -- why, if everyone went to the city, we would all starve, or worse -- be dependent on foreign aid!, and the importance of being a soldier, and a few other things besides. I was waiting for a quick safe sex discussion, or perhaps how to do a breast cancer self-exam, but it never came.

Still, UPKAR is an entertaining picture nonetheless. Pran gives a career-changing performance as a one-legged wise man (he used to always be the villain). The most hauntingly beautiful song is picturized on him (that's the Bollywood film way of saying he lipsyncs the tune as if it's his character singing it). He sings about the ruin of war, and, after looking at a ruined Muslim mosque and a ruined Hindu temple, says, "any religion that does this is no religion at all," a sentiment still as timely today as it was then. All of the music is pretty catchy (especially the evil go-go dance), and about half the lyrics are usefully subtitled on the DVD. But for the ultimate Bharat film, there's no beating the bloody revolutionary mayhem of Kranti.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 06, 2005.


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