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.

Khud-Daar (1982)

I can’t decide which of two scenarios is more likely. Did Khud-Daar spring from an excellent script that the exigencies of execution happened to garble? Or was the whole project an inherently shaggy mess that, though some sort of gambler’s fallacy, happened more often than not to strike gold? One scene might be taut, emotionally and socially intelligent, well-acted; in the next, characters are referring with unshakeable confidence to events never intimated to have happened or, what’s worse, Mehmood is running around comedically selling bananas. One’s mileage is going to vary widely with this one. In my case, although I do not feel called upon to watch it twice, I am glad I saw it the once. The family drama at the very center point of the narrative is what lands most effectively. The unpolished detritus at the outer edges, while weird, is not infrequently delightful. There are also beautiful views of period Bombay and some well-executed car stunts. Directed by Ravi Tandon from a screenplay by Kader Khan, Khud-Daar was produced by Anwar Ali and F. K. Rattonsey for the intriguingly named Yokohama Productions.

Law student Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) believes his foremost responsibility is caring for his much-younger stepsiblings Govind and Rajesh. Indeed, Hari pays the children such preferential attention that it inflames the jealousy of his new bride Seema (Tanuja). While Hari is busy sitting the bar exam, Seema loads the kiddoes onto the next train for Bombay Central; she will later claim that they themselves took the initiative to run away. After a rapid overview of the possible fates that await filmi children set loose in the city, Govind and Rajesh fall under the good-natured guardianship of Rahim Chacha (A. K. Hangal), growing up alongside his own endearingly cute children Farida and Anwar. In adulthood, Govind (having now become Amitabh Bachchan) puts Rajesh (ditto Vinod Mehra) through school by driving a literally marvelous taxi. This car—a 1963 Fiat 1100 Super Select, as the internet informs me—is named “Basanti,” has a moral center occasionally at odds from Govind’s sanctimonious own, and can detect both smuggled goods and ill intentions. Insecure Rajesh fibs to his classmates that, if they’ve never run into his brother at a college function, that’s just because he’s constantly off abroad doing fancy businessman things. Although this deception will unravel before he manages to graduate, classmate Manju (Bindiya Goswami) is sufficiently sweet on Rajesh to stick with him—white lies and poor background notwithstanding. She can afford to overlook their differences, says Raju, only because she enjoys the security of a well-to-do family; “let me become wealthy, too, and then I’ll see what’s more important.” So he marries her, and does.

Oh, and also: Anwar is working for Manju’s father’s trucking company, and Hari has become a respected public prosecutor, and Parveen Babi wanders spasmodically in and out of the movie, and Manju’s uncle is played by Prem Chopra so you just know he’s going to be trouble. These are among the shaggy bits.

Despite the spindly disjunction of this film’s plot mechanics, its themes remain closely defined. As soon as Govind and Rajesh are on their own, the elder brother’s idiosyncratic understanding of personal and communal pride is what guides their forward course. Govind is more self-respecting than he is sensible. He insists on working for his keep while Rahim Chacha thinks he’s much too young. Anyone who doesn’t earns his categorical disgust, whether it’s the kingpin of a cocaine smuggling operation or poor little Mary (Parveen Babi’s character), who squeaks by cooking bathtub moonshine. The early scenes in which Govind and Rajesh are still under Hari’s care suggest some part of the problem is the transplantation of a middle-class ethos to a lower-class existence. (In the family song—yes, this is a film with a family song in it—Hari sings a verse deriding laziness while bicycling past a napping beggar.) Having such a tetchy sense of honor leaves Govind open to manipulation; all anyone needs to do to get rid of him is insinuate he might be after a free lunch. While Rajesh and Manju’s wedding is being negotiated, her family come to Rahim Chacha’s house, drink the tea Govind serves them, and then suggest that the couple might be more comfortable settling at the maternal home instead of here. Having moments ago been proud to offer them hospitality as equals, Govind snaps bitterly back; the prospect of Rajesh being a “live-in” son-in-law, no matter how convenient for all parties, could be nothing else but a choking shame.

Although calculated along different metrics, Rajesh has his own tender sense of pride; otherwise, he would have no reason to obscure his background from his classmates. It’s not the poverty that seems to make him self-conscious, but some less material sense of class intimated through knowledge and behavior. Rahim Chacha and Rajesh get along like hand in glove; despite having spent his life as a construction worker, the former bears himself confidently around genteel people. Yet having lowbrow Govind turn up at a Western-style college play, booing and vah-ing like it’s the neighborhood Ramlila, projects Rajesh into nearly paralytic humiliation. There is a massive gulf of sensibility between them, of a character that is believable despite them having grown up alongside one another. One particularly astute moment is when Rajesh announces a “surprise” to Govind. Govind’s line of work has understandably taught him the English words “sir” and “price”; learning that “surprise” means something unrelated to either leaves him feeling almost cheated.

When viewed next to this thoughtful thematic exploration, many other elements of Khud-Daar look oddly half-executed. It seems like the film was probably intended to say something about interreligious relationships. Rahim Chacha lets the Hindu foster children install a murti in his house; after Mary turns up in Govind’s neighborhood during Krishna Janmashtami, she invites him to a Christian festival in turn.1 Developed sporadically and without a consistent sense of trajectory, these details blur into undemanding background noise. The dropped stitches are usually agreeable enough for whatever brief while they are in play. Little Rajesh has some sort of leg ailment for no more compelling reason than that Tiny Tim Syndrome is endemic to the masala populace; this affliction is introduced in one scene, cured in the next, and only alluded to one further time. Fleeting as it is, this detail facilitates one glorious visual transition: as child Rajesh spins and spins around Rahim Chacha’s courtyard, funky music starts to play and we meet the grown-up Rajesh legs-first, jiving for all he’s worth.

At least by my lights, Vinod Mehra was the standout performer of this ensemble. He so often plays goody-goody-two-shoes parts; it was interesting to watch what he could do with Rajesh, who, while sympathetic enough, is also a moral lightweight. The character is led in interesting directions and his tendency toward being dumbstruck offers Mehra the opportunity for some impressive face-acting. On the other hand, my beloved Tanuja is nearly completely wasted. While Seema might reasonably resent her baby brothers-in-law and Hari’s preoccupation with them—particularly in the context during which they first encounter one another—the severity of her response does not feel earned. The influence of catty girlfriends and her own villainous voiceovers did nothing to convince me. Less forgivably: her character isn’t even fun. I will also nod to Hungama, that cute fat character actor who, poor fellow, is so charismatic despite only ever being the butt of a joke.  

Although much of the background score and diegetic music are fetching, the songs themselves do no great credit to Rajesh Roshan. By far the best—and, I am informed, the most popular—is the Janmashtami song “Mach Gaya Shor.” Besides having a lovely melody, there is a thrilling dynamism to the picturization. At one point, we watch the action from through a shop window, as though the energy of the festival crowd has stretched the seams of this narrow street to bursting, leaving no place for an onlooker to stand. Despite myself, I found the goodnatured tour of regional stereotypes in “Angrezi Main Kehte Hain Ke ‘I Love You’” cute—even if the instrumental break is nicked from, of all things, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” By far, though, the song that provoked the most contemplation from me was “Disco ’82” (to which Rajesh dances in the appropriately named Club-N-Disco ’82). I am eternally fascinated by disco-style songs in Bollywood movies, which not only look and sound different than their U.S. equivalents but which seem to embody a radically different network of meanings. Besides learning that the genre had been semi-officially demolished by Steve Dahl all the way back in 1979, the pop music history survey I was obligated to take during undergrad taught me three defining characteristics of disco:

  1. Disco contrasts a four-on-the-floor drumbeat with a syncopated bassline.
  2. The instrumental accompaniments are lush and timbrally varied, often highlighting bowed strings in contrast to the brassier orchestration of contemporaneous funk.
  3. Finally, disco songs tend to have what my textbook referred to as “insipid, repetitive lyrics.”

In all of these categories–but especially the last–“Disco ’82” is the nearest kin to an American-style disco song that I have ever encountered in a Hindi film. “Main ek disco; tu ek disco; duniya hai ek disco. Disco ’82!”

1 For love or money I could not tell you the religious significance of whatever is happening at her house—but they’ve put fairy lights on the church, so filmi logic dictates it must be Christian. Elsewhere she says, “Mera naam ‘Mary’ hai. Aur Mother Mary ki qasam, main tera khoon piungi!”