We’ve been bad, bad bloggers. No excuses other than work, and looking for work, getting in the way. But we’re baaaaaaack! Jenny went to a film festival in Pittsburgh, and Julie staged her own Naseeruddin Shah Mini-Fest.
Jenny K: Well, not THAT bad…maybe only two aa’s worth. I myself have gone to great lengths, of time and gasoline to bring forth this report. Getting it written up, was, I must admit, much more prolonged than I’d have wished. If I had known we were embarking on a Naseeruddin Shah-lebration, well, there would have been much less procrastination!
Julie M: OK, so I saw Today’s Special (2009) tonight. I know it’s not technically an Indian film and it’s all in English, but it has three Indian actors (parallel and mainstream films) and an NRI actor/screenwriter, so I’ll count it as a win. Here’s the trailer.
Jenny K: Finally! I knew you’d like it…I talked about it quite a bit on my older blog when I first saw it in the theaters, but it’s great to get your perspective on it. Needless to say, Naseerji had me with the first sight of him peeping at Aasif in the rear view mirror with such a knowing twinkle in his eyes. Mmmm! The man is definitely worth his own film fest.
Julie M: To get the feeling of how great it is, here are the first scenes under the opening credits.
Plot summary: Samir (Aasif Mandvi, of the Daily Show) is a sous-chef in a fancy New York restaurant, with dreams of running one of his celebrity-chef boss’s several establishments in the very near future. When someone else is selected for the job he quits in frustration, intending to go to France to study with master chefs. A family situation interrupts his plans and he offers to temporarily run his father’s (Harish Patel) restaurant, a greasy-spoon curry joint in Jackson Heights. But he doesn’t speak any Indian languages well enough to communicate effectively with the kitchen staff, and he doesn’t know how to cook Indian food at all. Friendly and quirky cabbie Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) proves to be Samir’s simultaneous undoing and redemption, and his feisty mother (Madhur Jaffrey) keeps him grounded. Of course there is also a love interest (Jess Weixler). In the process of juggling relatives and restaurants, Samir learns the true meaning of commitment, family and food.
Jenny K: Just the thought of Naseerji running about in that t shirt with feathers flying is enough to cheer me up for the day!
Julie M: What a sweet (if semi-predictable) film! Naseerji was AMAZING–I could have kissed him all over, what an awesome character and played to perfection by the master–and of course, the food was a star its own self. Harish and Madhur can always be counted on for top work in whatever they do. But what I liked the best was the absolute realism of the Indian elements–down to the music, slang and attitudes. Not fake-India, REAL Indian people. OK, it was Hollywood-ed up slightly, but it felt very honest. Mandvi’s original play translated well to the screen and it felt natural and very warm. And this gem on the special features, featuring Aasif and Madhur cooking, was hokey but fun.
Jenny K: Well, she was a gem, and is, of course a rather famous cook in her own right…when I watched it, I wanted him to back off a bit with the yuk yuks, and let her go to town.
Julie M: Well done, great recommendation. Love it, love it, love it! The whole film is available for $2.99 on YouTube. [It's on Netflix streaming, too.] And if you decide you can’t live without more Aasif, here’s a good interview.
Jenny K: My film outing was to beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, PA where The Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival was winding down it’s seventh annual showcase of films. I was so sorry that I only had two days to dedicate to the festival, which runs for over a week…plus having numerous other events focusing on Asian-American culture during the year. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check the group out.
I’m afraid, as you probably could predict, that I leaned heavily Indian in my choices for viewing, with The Beetle Soldiers, an Indonesian offering, being my sole trip outside Mother India. That film, and two others, Dekh Indian Circus and Shala, all became an unintentionally themed set, focusing on the lives of children in different parts of South Asia.
Dekh Indian Circus (2011) was the first film I saw when I hit town, not even waiting to check in at my hotel before going to the Regent Square Theater, a cozy little art cinema just off exit 77 on 376. The film was directed by Mangesh Hadawale in a very polished first attempt. Aided by Laxman Utekar’s lush cinematography we take a very vivid look through the eyes of two village children as they see a traveling circus for the very first time. Or, rather, try to see one. What should have been a rather simple joy the parents (Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui) wanted to give their kids became a monumental challenge due to mingled issues of bad luck and the vagaries of the local political circus of Rajasthan’s (or any) election time. A gorgeous film, very well acted by all involved, but a bit sad in tone and a mite confusing, as the circus/political parallels weren’t clear enough to me.
To continue through the murk of childhood memories, the second film I saw, Shala (2011), by Sujay Dahake was supposed to be a coming of age film of a group of ninth grade boys during Indira Ghandi’s political emergency of the 1970’s. I hadn’t seen much on this era so far in my Indian film viewing, and I still don’t feel that I have. A murky print didn’t help, but, again, the info the writer and director gave the viewer about the era wasn’t spelled out enough to give the uninitiated much enlightenment. The children performed well, and I would have wished they had stuck more to that story and tied up some of the loose plot ends instead of spreading things too thin by covering (thinly) the historical context. It could have been a classic boy’s first love of the “Unattainable She” film, and for me, at least, it wasn’t.
The next day, the first film was The Beetle Soldiers (2011), by Ari Sihasale. It’s an Indonesian version of the same “boy comes of age” genre. I was delighted to find that I was going to see one kids film this weekend where the children seemed to feel privileged going to school, and though it was often strict, not all the memories of school were harsh ones. Our hero, Amek, played by Yudi Miftahudin with an open face and an honest expressiveness, has a talent for horses, and not as much for learning. His life is also plagued by a cleft lip, but nothing stops his optimistic outlook…until the second half. After that, not all the lovely cinematography in the world can stop the tsunami of bad luck that hits Amek and his family when his longed-for father finally comes home. So much for a feel-good favorite. Again, good performances, just not what I’d hoped for. Sheesh.
Julie M: The library finally yielded up The Dirty Picture (2011) and my schedule allowed me to see it in two short sessions.
I’m not going to rehash the plot because we’ve already talked about it here and our friend Carla on Filmi Geek did an extensive post on it, every word of which I agree with, except my tongue doesn’t hang out quite as much as hers does when I see Vidya.
Jenny K: Well, I don’t think anyone could match that much enthusiasm, even VB’s agent! Wow! And as good as some of Carla’s points are, some just missed me completely. I got the feminist side of things, but I hadn’t seen the angle she found most obvious…with so much blatant hetero-ness goings on, it must have masked it, or it’s in the eye of the beholder. Vidya has been a favorite of mine, acting-wise since the days of Lage Raho Munnabhai and Parineeta. Way to go girl!
Julie M: My opinion, outside of Vidya’s performance, which was of course jaw-droppingly fantastic, was that I didn’t think too much of it. I found it very dull in the few scenes she was not onscreen. I was amused by Naseerji’s role as a Rajnikath-type South Indian actor (even anachronistically playing a college student at his age! So funny!) but he was oddly low-key and I felt he was underutilized. The bad wig was just bad, not bad-hilarious. I think he could have hammed it up a bit more and not taken away from the film, and enhanced Vidya’s performance in the process. A rare off note from an otherwise godlike figure in film, who turns everything he touches into gold.
Jenny K: The last film of the festival for me, Trishna (2011), was an updating of Tess of the D’Urburvilles, the Thomas Hardy classic, by director Michael Winterbottom. This one was also primarily in English, but with the setting moved to India (Rajasthan and Mumbai) and primarily Indian stars, it felt like a full-out Indian offering. But one that will never see the light of day in the Motherland, I fear. As faithful as Winterbottom was to the source material, the portrayal of the troubled Tess, I mean Trishna, is way too graphic in its sex scenes to ever make it past the Indian sensor board. Heck, for a moment or two there I thought I was going to get up and leave, or grab Trishna’s knife and wield it myself, if she didn’t! Ooof! It’s not that I haven’t seen more blatant scenes in western films, but somehow the brutality of the scenes (while being a great indicator of Trishna’s motivation) were just this side of merciless to the audience, especially to me as a female. Once again, good performances, especially by Frida Pinto of Slumdog fame, and great scenery, but definitely the depressing cap to a rather opressive film weekend. Well, I chose my own schedule!
Julie M: It took me three sessions, but I finished Sparsh (Touch, 1980) tonight. My faith in The Man is back: I was completely blown away by NS’s performance!!
Plot: Anirudh Parmar (Naseeruddin Shah) is the principal of a school for blind children, and is himself blind. While looking for an address one day he meets Kavita (Shabana Azmi), a young widow still overcome by grief after three years. They become friends, and he invites her to the school to help by teaching the children stories and songs. The distraction is just what she needs and she begins to come out of her self-imposed solitude. Friendship turns to love and then an engagement, but after hearing the story of a fellow teacher’s (Om Puri, looking quite slim and dashing) similar marriage Anirudh becomes fearful that he will end up too dependent on her sightedness, and that she is somehow punishing herself by marrying him out of pity. Is their romance doomed by the cultural dissonance between the worlds of the blind and the sighted? Must each of them sacrifice something of themselves in order to be together?
Here’s a quick, unsubtitled compilation of some key scenes.
It is always a joy to watch each of the lead actors, and watching them together just put me over the top. Naseerji’s turn as the fiercely independent and crusading principal was astonishing, and it was a treat seeing him so young and handsome (not that he’s a troll now, by any means!). Example.
Shabani Azmi’s performance, while excellent all along, really hit the heights in the last 30 minutes or so as she tries to understand Anirudh’s abrupt change of feelings and his rejection of her and her world. The students at the school were all played very naturally by blind children—I doubt any of them were professional actors but they sure seemed like it.
My main criticism is that it started abruptly and ended abruptly (although not confusingly so), which really destroyed the flow of the story. The songs were incorporated so naturally into the storyline I hardly noticed them–still trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing. I felt it was a little heavy-handed on the “blind people aren’t helpless” theme, but I put that down to being filmed in 1980 when India probably still harbored serious cultural prejudices against handicapped people of any kind and needed to hear this socially progressive message. And it has a kind of “deus ex machina” aspect near the end when Kavita’s best friend (Sudha Chopra) explains Kavita’s personality to Anirudh.
Sparsh is available for $0.99 on YouTube here. Don’t know if it’s subtitled or not—seems not to be. It’s free, in multiple parts starting here, albeit not subtitled and in a very bad print.
Jenny K: We’ll try not to be so behindhand next month!