Not long before his death in his late 30s, Indian actor-director Guru Dutt wrote: "In the formula-ridden film world of ours, one who ventures to go out of the beaten track is condemned to the definition which Matthew Arnold used for Shelley, ' . . . an angel beating his wings in a void.' "
But venture Dutt did, for his last completed film, "Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam" (1962), which has been translated as "Master, Mistress and Servant," or "King, Queen, Jack," is in its leisurely way a masterpiece, illuminating the tragic plight of even the highest-ranking women in highly superstitious, custom-bound turn-of-the-century India. It screens Sunday at 8 p.m. in UCLA Melnitz as a part of the "Classic Films From India" retrospective. (For other Dutt films screening over the weekend, phone (213) 825-9261 or 825-2581.)
Meena Kumari stars as the wife of a powerful Bengali landlord (Rehman), as ravishing as she is naive. Raised to believe that her husband is her entire existence, she agrees to break Hindu tradition and drink wine in order to compete with his mistresses--only to become an alcoholic. Her story is told in flashback from the point of view of her devoted servant (Dutt) who years later returns as a successful contractor to demolish the ruins of her husband's family's palatial mansion--and thereby discovers a terrible secret. For all its bleakness, this is a strikingly beautiful work by a film maker with a truly transcendent vision. It has been suggested that the determination of Dutt--a handsome, popular star as well as a gifted actor and director--to make such films shortened his life.
"Scandal" (1950), the most rarely seen of all Kurosawa films, screens Thursday only at the Nuart as part of its Kurosawa Festival. A young painter (Toshiro Mifune) and a popular singer (Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who as Shirley Yamaguchi had the title role in King Vidor's 1952 "Japanese War Bride") are photographed sharing an innocent cup of tea on the balcony of her room at the inn where they're both staying--and their picture promptly lands in a scandal magazine.
What intrigues Kurosawa is not so much the question of the invasion of privacy but the character of the seedy, impoverished lawyer (Takashi Shimura) who offers his services to Mifune, who wants to sue. In a very real sense, this minor but involving melodrama proves to be a warm-up for the Kurosawa-Shimura masterpiece "Ikiru" (1952). In both instances, Shimura is a "little man" in danger of being overwhelmed by life in postwar Tokyo, but his plight here verges on the maudlin because it is not linked to the great themes of "Ikiru" ("To Live"). Playing with it is Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den" (1970), his compassionate, profoundly affirmative study of the dispossessed. Information: (213) 478-6379, (213) 479-5269.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "Black Narcissus" (1947), which screens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. along with Laurence Olivier's exquisite "Henry V" (1946) at UCLA Melnitz as part of the "Technicolor: The Glory Years" retrospective, is one of those films that simply could not be imagined without its lush color.
Based on a Rummer Godden novel, it verges on the outrageous in its evocation of incipient corruption and sexual hysteria as a group of nuns, headed by Deborah Kerr, attempt to turn an ancient Indian harem pitched on an incredibly high cliff into a convent. The atmosphere, heady as the "black narcissus" perfume on a scarf belonging to the bejeweled scion (Sabu) of the region's ruling family, threatens to undermine the good sisters' resolve. Not helping matters is the irreverent, virile presence of an Englishman (David Farrar) in the employ of Sabu's father. For their impressive efforts in creating so seductive a Shangri-La, production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff both won Oscars. Information: (213) 825-2581, (213) 825-2953.
Note: New Zealand directors Geoff Murphy and Merata Mita will appear at UCLA Melnitz with their films "Utu" and "Patu," both dealing with the plight of the Maori, Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Friday at 7:30 p.m., respectively. Information: (213) 208-4587, 879-0623, 825-3384.