Keaton Blogathon: Maryada Ramanna (2010) and Son of Sardaar (2012)

Following some unanticipated travel and my obligatory changing-of-the-seasons bout of illness, I am unfortunately reporting for the Buster Keaton Blogathon late. With concomitant apologies, I present the promised offering: a discussion of two Indian adaptations of Keaton’s 1923 feature Our Hospitality. When the Telugu film Maryada Ramanna appeared in 2010, it sparked off a series of subsequent remakes in other language industries: in Kannada as Maryade Ramanna (2011), in Bengali as Fande Poriya Boga Kaande Re (2011), in Hindi as Son of Sardaar (2012), in Tamil as Vallavanukku Pullum Aayudham (2014), and in Malayalam as Ivan Maryadaraman (2015).

What lies beyond the threshold in Son of Sardaar.

Alongside my predictable choice of Son of Sardaar, I intend to discuss Maryada Ramanna. It was the “flashpoint” for this strange little crop of desi Our Hospitality adaptations and served as a model for all the subsequent ones. Indeed—with the caveat that I had to watch a couple of them without subtitles, and don’t know up from down in Kannada or Malayalam—most of these films seem to be strict adaptations of Maryada Ramanna. I ought to admit upfront that I primarily watch Hindi and Punjabi movies. I am all but certain that I am missing not just cultural and linguistic context, but also cinematic context for understanding Maryada Ramanna.As you will hear, I think it is much the better film, but found Son of Sardaar the more interesting of the two, in part because it connects compellingly to other Hindi movies.

Both adaptations have essentially the same plot setup as Our Hospitality, in which Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) returns from New York City to take possession of some real estate he has inherited in an unspecified Southern locale. On the train ride down, he shares a car with Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge), who invites Willie in for dinner once they discover they have disembarked at the same town. Unfortunately, Virginia’s father (Joe Roberts) and brothers (Ralph Bushman and Craig Ward) have already learned that Willie’s McKays are the same McKays with whom their family has spent the past few generations feuding. Although they feel obligated to kill him, they cannot do so honorably while he is their guest. Rapidly wising up to this situation, Willy arranges to remain a guest as long as he can possibly manage. After that point, Maryada Ramanna and Son of Sardaar begin to digress both from Our Hospitality and from one another.

We have S. S. Rajamouli to thank for Maryada Ramanna and, hence, for the subsequent Indian versions. As far as I can reconstruct from the press of the time, it was intended as a deliberately small-scale project in between the release of his expansive action-fantasies Magadheera (2009) and Eega (2012). S. S. Kanchi adapted the story from Our Hospitality, while Rajamouli wrote the actual screenplay along with directing. The film stars Sunil as Ramu (= Willie), Nagineedu as Ramineedu (= Mr. Canfield, an excellent performance that he later reprised in the Tamil and Malayalam versions), Supreeth and Prabhakar as the sons Mallasuri and Baireddy, and Saloni as Aparna (= Virgnia). The screenplay adds a number of new characters to Aparna’s family and surrounding milieu, among whom the most substantial is Srikanth (played by Brahmaji) as her doctor cousin, whom the extended family clearly consider an obvious potential match for her. This is an excellent film that competently manages the balance between humor and threat. Unfortunately, the climax—which is essentially unrelated to that of Our Hospitality, for what it’s worth—weirdly sucks eggs. Until the last twenty minutes or so, however, it is great good fun, unusually nimble on its feet compared to most Telugu actioners I’ve seen. Even though it’s barely a decade old, Maryada Ramanna and its imitators now seem like pleasant throwbacks. If I correctly recall the buzz at the time, Eega was already something of a crossover; Rajamouli’s next project Baahubali introduced the ideal of the “pan-India”/interlingual hit, which all the industries are currently busy chasing. It was legitimately a delight to return to the days in which a particularly successful film would be outright remade in multiple regional styles over the following years, rather than released in a simultaneous dub.

The title drop in Maryada Ramanna.

Son of Sardaar is the most distinctive of those remakes and the only one that I can confidently state was made with direct reference both to Our Hospitality and Maryada Ramanna. It redirects the action from rural Andhra Pradesh to the small city of Phagwara in Kapurthala district, Punjab. Ajay Devgn appears as Jassi Randhava (= Willie) and Sonakshi Sinha as Sukh Sandhu (= Virginia). Rather than the main antagonist being Sukh’s father, the Mr. Canfield-type character Billu (played by Sanjay Dutt) is her cousin; Sukh’s long-dead father is meant to have been Billu’s paternal uncle, compressing the generational spread among the main characters. She still gets two brothers, even if they are more ridiculous than menacing in this interpretation: Tony and Titu, played by Mukul Dev and Vindu Dara Singh, whose enormous teeth I am always pleased to see. Sukh also comes pre-equipped with an eligible bachelor (Arjan Bajwa as Bobby), although, given the North Indian setting, he is no longer her cousin. Finally, the Hindi adaptation both expands Sukh’s role beyond that of Aparna’s in Maryada Ramanna and adds two other major female characters. Tanuja turns in a strange but compelling performance as Sukh’s maternal grandmother Bebe, who is pathetically decrepit in the main timeline but whom we first encounter as a bandu-hefting avatar of vengeance in the prologue. Juhi Chawla plays Pammi, whose wedding to Billu was interrupted during that prologue and whose marriage is now on hold until the rest of the Randhavas have been wiped out. As this description indicates, Son of Sardaar rejiggers the relationships between the Our Hospitality characters much more thoroughly than Maryada Ramanna. Although it is broader, louder, and significantly less funny, I also found it the more thematically compelling—in large part because it feels like less of a direct adaptation.

Tanuja as Bebe, passing out rifles in the prologue of Son of Sardaar.

That statement should not be taken to imply that Maryada Ramanna is a particularly literal adaptation of Our Hospitality—at least, not of the aspects of Our Hospitality that are most remarked upon. Sometimes I think I’ve gotten acclimated to desi filmmaking, and then something like this will happen: Rajamouli et al. identifying a fundamentally different value proposition in their source material than any Anglo take on Our Hospitality that I’ve ever encountered. Even though Telugu actioners are, like silent comedies, driven by a highly mannered visual style that usually encompasses humor as well as thrilling stuntwork, the comedy of Maryada Ramanna primarily lives in its dialogue and delivery. It recycles only a scant handful of the gags found in Our Hospitality; in the case of those few, it is both jarring and delightful to see them reinterpreted in such a different visual language. Instead of peeking through their fingers during a pre-dinner grace, the characters do so during a prayer service commemorating Ramineedu’s brother’s death. Since Raju does not have a faithful dog like Willie’s, his attempt to delay his departure from the house by “misplacing” his wallet is foiled by an overly solicitous servant instead. I spotted one lift from an unrelated Keaton film: the tall-ladder-against-a-short-wall bit from Cops. Son of Sardaar omits many of the gags found in Maryada Ramanna, but also picks up a few more directly from Our Hospitality, as when Jassi tosses a pillow over the threshold to check if someone is waiting outside to shoot him. (The pillow winds up getting stabbed instead.)

Here and there, the Indian films pick up an image or thematic line for development that, while drawn from Our Hospitality, does not have to do with the feud plotline. Particularly delightful is Raju’s bicycle in Maryada Ramanna, which I presume is an expansion of the wonderful pedal-less hobbyhorse via which Willie gets about while still in New York. At the opening of the film, Raju is working as a deliveryman but faced with stiff competition from other workers who can afford motorbikes or autorickshaws. On top of that, the rickety bicycle has a mind of its own (voiced sporadically by Ravi Teja) and resents having to work—although it does at least do its part to save Raju’s life later on. The bicycle contrasts with the car-clogged streets of Hyderabad in “Udyogam Oodipoyindi,” an excellent, surreal song that expresses Raju’s frustration after being fired from his courier gig. (Again, I don’t watch much in the way of Telugu films, but the choreography in this song and in “Raaye Raaye Saloni” definitely seems like a take-off on Chiranjeevi.) The self-cognizant, slightly malicious behavior of the machines in this song certainly has a Keatonian flavor. One noticeable omission from Maryada Ramanna is any adaptation of the famous prologue of Our Hospitality, a surprisingly horrific passage in which Willie’s father and Mr. Canfield’s brother both die in a duel illuminated only by sporadic flashes of lightning. That idea does surface in Son of Sardaar, but to somewhat different effect. In Our Hospitality, the prologue provides a streak of real horror in a film that otherwise makes merry with its violence. The balance is reversed in Son of Sardaar: the equivalent scene plays mostly for laughs, but then is interrupted by a few whiplash strokes of woozy pathos.  

Keeping with its trend of making the feud less secretive, Son of Sardaar makes Jassi old enough to actually witness the events of the prologue.

The introduction of an alternative, pre-approved suitor for Aparna/Sukh in both of the Indian adaptations pleasantly complicates the interpersonal dynamics. In Maryada Ramanna, Aparna and Srikanth have a cute, well-developed relationship. They are confidantes, helping each other out with various schemes, if not necessarily the romantic pair their elders might like them to be. I was disappointed with how their arc ended, as it relied on a plot development that seemed to contradict Sukh’s previously stated opinions. Regardless, I enjoyed the complication their relationship added to the obligatory pairing of Sukh and Raju—especially since it is long left ambiguous whether Raju is genuinely interested in her romantically, or whether he’s just incorporating her into his schemes at escaping from the household. The parallel track in Son of Sardaar is not as deeply explored, but the older-generation romance track between Pammi and Billu more than makes up for it. Although many of its individual moments are played for laughs, their story is also moving and, at times, surprisingly sweet. Pammi is my favorite out of any of the “new” characters introduced in Maryada Ramanna or Son of Sardaar. She is as fully entrenched in the feud as any of them, but the first to question why they are perpetuating it. At least at first, those questions do not stem from an altruistic place. She wouldn’t mind seeing Jassi dead because the extinction of the Randhavas would get her married faster; at the same time, she is self-aware enough to realize that, without the feud, her wedding would never have been delayed at all. It is her compassion for Sukh that finally marks a turning point in the drama.

Few actresses presently working in Hindi can play a tragicomic role with as light a touch as Juhi Chawla gives to Pammi.

It’s a delight to observe how the same plot has been “localized” in two different films. Some of the touches are common tropes across multiple Indian cinemas. For example, Ramu uses a song (“Telugammayi”) to distract people during one of his escape attempts, pulling some remarkable faces in the course of so doing. In another scene, however, he flips through channels on the television and catches only programs that remind him of the threat of death. One is the broadcast of what I assume must be a classic filmi song, perhaps from the 1960s, the identification of which I must leave to someone better acquainted with Telugu music. Regionalism contributes to the spectacle of both films, with the beautiful landscapes of southern Andha Pradesh featuring in Maryada Ramanna and the midwinter Lohri festival in Son of Sardaar. Other distinctions are more thoroughly integrated, especially the perceptible difference in what is considered polite behavior. Both Raju and Jassi rely on their status as guests to provide protection from the feud, but it also binds them by standards of comportment against which they frequently struggle. In Maryada Ramanna, self-composure and demonstrations of respect are extremely serious matters. In Son of Sardaar, being in someone’s household requires withstanding plenty of teasing and joshing—a stereotype both in Punjabi cinema and in Bollywood depictions of Punjabi families. Lest it be misconstrued that the Ramineedu clan are paragons of subtlety, however, consider the “Jai Sri Ram” decal on Mallasuri and Baireddy’s car. This is the equivalent of the Canfields’ “Love Thy Neighbor” needlepoint sampler in Our Hospitality: a statement of religiously rooted morality on the part of a family that seems ironically unhinged.

Not for the first time, Raju wishes he could afford to buy a motorbike.

Although I enjoy some of the Punjabi flavor in Son of Sardaar, I also think it is the source of the film’s most serious problems. The setting naturally has the propensity to come off as either pandering or mocking, given that the film is not actually in Punjabi. What bothers me much more is the fundamental reorientation of the protagonist that has to occur for him to fit into this stereotype. In Our Hospitality, Willie is a cowardly hero who avoids being murdered by the Canfields through strategic running, hiding, and distracting—as well, of course, as turning their own customs against them. Ramu is a very similar protagonist. Many of the joys of Maryada Ramanna stem from him trying to weasel his way out of extremely disadvantageous situations. By framing Jassi as an archetypical “sardaar,” who cannot conscionably show fear, Son of Sardaar stifles a rich fount of comedy from which Maryada Ramanna and its other adaptations freely drank. (Salman Khan has a brief friendly appearance as a Pathaani character whose name, to all evidence, is simply “Pathaan”—another ethnic/regional stereotype affiliated with tough guys.) The film sporadically interrogates its sardaari stereotypes, such as when Tony initially realizes that Jassi is a Randhava and runs around the neighborhood trying to source a weapon with which to kill him. All of the Phagwaris seem constantly to carry guns—Tony himself was already carrying one—but nobody can seem to scrape up a bullet. For the most part, though, the machismo is played straight. It is this reorientation that allows Jassi to do what neither Willie nor Raju would: to step knowingly out of the haveli, in broad daylight and in Billu’s line of sight. That passage is scored against a particularly lovely song, “Tu Bichdaan”; sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, it is something of a play on the typical bittersweet doli song. Sadly, I do not think one excellent sequence makes up for the deflation of tension in the middle of the film.

Like Keaton, Sunil has the comedic advantage of being an unimposing little guy–particularly next to these notably monumental actors embodying Mallasuri and Baireddy.

The finale, on the other hand, might. Maryada Ramanna comes to an almost arbitrary conclusion. Although a weaker ending than Our Hospitality, it conveys a similar feeling: that its characters continue to live in a bloodthirsty world. Although Raju and Aparna escaped disaster on a technicality, the peace with which the film ends is demonstrably fragile. Son of Sardaar comes to a conclusion that is not only dramatically satisfying, but which feels final. This sensibility feels different from that of Our Hospitality; I suspect it owes much more to the tradition of Hindi feud movies. Despite its cheerful ridiculousness, there is also a sense throughout of the terrible attrition owed to this conflict, including among the Sandhus. Grotesque though they are, Tony and Tito are already exhausted by the feud by the time the film opens and are trying unsuccessfully to rules-lawyer it out of existence. The fact that most characters (other than Sukh) are aware of one another’s real identities almost immediately also contributes to an explicit exploration of why the feud has been sustained. Shortly after landing in the house, Jassi attempts to convince the Sandhus that he was only in Phagwara to sell the family land and had no intention of enmity towards them; Billu grimly asserts that, if Jassi wants to take responsibility for his father’s land, he should also take responsibility for his murder of Billu’s uncle. The reverse eventually happens, as one character after another decides that this thing isn’t worth doing anymore and starts making some adjustments in the direction of peace. Last to give it up is Bebe, who says simply and lucidly: “It is better to forget the things that sadden us.” And that is all.  

For that matter, many of the same actors have appeared in precisely this type of morally fraught feud movie, like Sanjay Dutt here in Jeeva (1986).

Apart from its clear affiliation with feud movies, Son of Sardaar aligns with a number of other tropes common in Bollywood films. Its NRI hero returns to the Indian countryside without fully understanding its unwritten rules—not merely when it comes to human interaction, but also to the realization that a stolen horse will still be loyal to its owner’s whistle. It also has many characteristics of “purani haveli” movies, in which the history of bloodshed in a given place makes the place itself unduly sinister. None of those characteristics are original to the Hindi adaptation; they come straight from Our Hospitality. I don’t feel equally equipped to gauge what initially have attracted S. S. Rajamouli to the story, but Maryada Ramanna certainly calls attention to its desi-feeling elements: separated families, searching for one’s origins, living within one’s dharma. As soon as the topic of the feud is first introduced, lyrics heard in the background score compare it to the fratricidal war of the Kauravas and Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Sadly, that portion of the score does not seem to have been excerpted on YouTube, but you can listen to “Dhada Dhadalade,” which equates Raju with Bhargava Markandeya, who outwitted death with the help of Shiva. In Raju’s case, the household lingam yeets a cat at him to prevent him from walking over the threshold—or something like that. Perhaps the root of Our Hospitality’s appeal to desi filmmakers is that hospitality and the protection of guests are taken seriously in Indian culture. Son of Sardaar is stuffed with aphorisms and rhyming dialogues. Most of them are newly invented and deliberately silly, but they also include “Mehmaan bhagwaan ka roop hota hai”—the classic saying that a guest is like a form of god.

Please do check out the many other blogathon posts from authors who actually turned theirs in on time. And, if you haven’t seen it, give Our Hospitality a chance. It’s one of the easiest silent features to appreciate and, having slipped the noose of copyright a few years ago, is readily available online.