October 26, 2011: The Classics and the Kapoors

Julie’s been going into the back catalogue lately and catching up with some old (OLD!) films, just to understand where the young-‘uns are coming from.  Here’s the conversation, condensed from about 2 weeks of back and forth.

Julie M:  So last night, had the house to myself and watched Awaara (The Tramp, 1951). GREAT movie, thank you so much for sending it!

For those who haven’t seen it: Raj Kapoor plays Raj (I know, right?), a poor kid in Bombay’s slums. He lives with his mum, doesn’t know who his father is, but mum makes sure he goes to school and has high ambitions for him. Unbeknownst to him he’s being watched by Jaaga, a well-known dacoit, and it is Jaaga who gets him kicked out of school so he has to make his way on the streets with Jaaga’s own “help.” Nevertheless, he is as honest and upright as he can be under the circumstances and still keep himself and his mom fed.

One day, as he is casing a bank prior to a planned heist for Jaaga, he meets Rita (Nargis), and is attracted to her, and through a series of interactions (and mixups) they become close. The rest of the film is the gradual uncovering of the truth of Raj’s parents, Rita’s identity, and a couple of interesting courtroom scenes, all of which are too spoiler-filled for me to relate in detail. The ending is a bit weird for a Bollywood film in that it’s neither happy nor melodramatically tragic. Have to point out, also, that the part of the young Raj is played by his real-life baby brother, Shashi Kapoor.

The story is told backwards: we find out a mind-blowing secret/spoiler in the first 5 or 10 minutes before we can really absorb its impact, and then it’s a giant flashback from there starting at Raj’s pre-birth and building up to the extremely high drama that the revelation of this secret requires. There is of course romance and song, and one dream-sequence number that is as mesmerizing as it is howl-inducing (check out the heavenly slide!).

This was my first viewing of a Nargis film and she is absolutely incandescent. Maybe it was the old-movie-ness of it but she totally RULED the screen when she was in frame. This was also my first full-length experience with the Rajster and he’s awesomely talented.  Raj did lots of films with Nargis and their chemistry is undeniable, but in this particular one he often paled in her presence.  But here is a number where they are equally matched, and SO cute together.

So, two thumbs WAY up for this one.

Jenny K:  You have to love Rita’s first entrance in the courtroom…she is just riveting.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  For some reason the whole film reminded me of Citizen Kane, maybe because of the flashback style and the lush black and white cinematography, though it was filmed ten years later. Nargis is just lovely…Sanjay has her eyes, doesn’t he?

Also, the man playing Raj’s dad, the judge, is his real dad, Prithviraj Kapoor, who is pretty darned handsome and charismatic. PK is the Emperor, nine years later, in Mughal-e-Azam, but isn’t as much of a looker in this one. Still a wonderful actor, though.  Here’s a number from the film…one of the first big (partly) color historical extravaganzas starring Prithviraj, Dilip Kumar (eternally mopey), and Madhubala as the dancing girl Dilip loves and can’t have. The big numbers were hand colored, that’s why the color is a bit jumpy in some places. Never been my favorite film, but had some nice moments.

Julie M:  I thought Prithviraj Kapoor looked like a 1920s star–he has the hair and the mouth that heroes of that era seemed to have. Nargis…is not strictly beautiful (not like Meena Kumari), but so very, very talented that she seems to glow. Her slightly crooked teeth, I think, make her so appealing.


Jenny K:  Part of it must be to do with the lighting.  Black and white has an eternal quality all its own, doesn’t it? Raj is unique, but to me, his appeal is equal parts Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman and even, occasionally, a bit of Clark Gable. Next I’ve got to try you out on Guru Dutt, another classic actor and see how you like him.


Julie M:  While you’re at it, I need a good Dilip Kumar starter movie…


Jenny K:  Can’t be a judge…I don’t get him at all…Mughal-e-Azam is one of his most famous and it is online with subtitles, but for $1.99. 

I don’t get Dev Anand, either, except in Guide, maybe.  


Julie M:  What about Shashi Kapoor? I’ve gotten to know Shammi, so I need to hit the Kapoor brothers trifecta!


Jenny K:  Shashi I liked in The Householder, in Shakespeare Wallah, in Bombay Talkie.

He also did a lot of films with BigB like Deewaar and Silsila which I haven’t seen yet, but probably should, as it’s with Jaya and Rekha, too and was really talked about because it was supposed to be rather art-imitating-life.


Julie M:  Oh, I guess that was Shashi as BigB’s policeman brother in Deewaar, so I HAVE seen him in something!


Jenny K:  Yeah, but I think he only comes into his own when he’s out from under BigB’s shadow;  he’s a bit muted in close quarters.


Julie M:  Silsila was on my list to try and see for BigB anyway, so I’ll get to that. I’ve also decided to work my way through the rest of the India Times “25 Best Bollywood Films” list that I haven’t seen…thanks to your advice I was pleased that I have seen quite a few of them already.


Jenny K:  I’ve seen all but four of the list. You’ll like Arth…Shabana and Smita Patil, both very good. Mr. India is a superhero thing with Anil blessed/cursed with invisibility, I think. I didn’t like Mother India as I said before. But, you may like it. Numbers 18 & 20 are Guru Dutt, both good, but I’m surprised they don’t put Kaagaz Ke Phool in it, too.   Waheeda Rehman, who you saw in Delhi 6, is so beautiful in that.  And you should skip Satya, it is Ram Gopal Varma and very gangstery, if I recall.  QSQT is Aamir, same era as JJWS and more emotional romantic stuff, but very famous, nonetheless. I’ll send it to you. Pakeezah is another Umrao Jaan kinda film.


Julie M:  I’m looking forward to Bobby, with Rishi Kapoor.


Jenny K:  I keep meaning to see that, too…Dimple at 16 years old and a budding sex symbol. Oh, wait a minute…you should see the Devdas from 1955 that is on that list…it’s Dilip Kumar! And you never did finish SRK’s version. Some people like the DK version much better, and not so overblown.  Padosan looks very slapsticky, but IMDB has it online for free through Hulu.


Julie M:  Yeah, I do have to finish Devdas one of these days. Maybe I should see the DK one first and then I can get through the SRK one. Or maybe now that I’ve seen more SRK I’ll have patience with Devdas.

[a few days later]

I watched the 1955 Bimal Roy version of Devdas last night. I didn’t like the story any better, although this time I hung on until the end.

Here’s a clip of the beginning.

The most obvious difference is that the 1955 version spends significant time on the childhood relationship between Devdas and Parvati (Paro), and shows older backstory between the families. I think it makes the story a little richer. But the 2002 version is visually more lush, which I liked more (I found the 1955 version dull to look at). And has better music. I really liked Dilip Kumar as an actor (I want to see more!) and his portrayal of Devdas seemed more tortured but with less obvious effort doing so than SRK’s portrayal 47 years later. I guess that makes him better. Again, I need to finish the 2002 version to make sure.


Jenny K:  Ismail Darbar’s music from the 2002 Devdas is some of the best of his work that I’ve heard.  Doesn’t quite do as much for me as Rahman or Vishal Bhardwaj, but he still does some nice soundtracks.


Julie M: But in neither version (even less in the 1955 version) can I understand the attraction Parvati has for Devdas, as he is shown from minute one to be weak and selfish and downright abusive to her. Even after reading this scholarly analysis [by Corey K. Creekmur] and comparison of the 3 main versions I still don’t understand the fascination with the story.

Although did learn a lot from the article about the different filmmakers’ visions of the tale, particularly the 1955 version, which I felt upon my viewing to be the more artistic one despite the oodles of cash spent on the latest version.

So even though now I will go back and finish the 2002 version, I guess I am just never going to “get” Devdas. And if Devdas-the-story is an important part of the Indian psyche, I am probably never going to get that either.


Jenny K:  Okay, you liked Devdas, sorta-kinda, or maybe just Dilip. Not to my taste, but I grant, I haven’t seen him in that many films, so maybe I should look deeper. He was just too weak a character in Mughal-e-Azam for me to get his appeal. I like Bimal Roy as a director…did you end up seeing Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953), online?


Julie M:  I did indeed… and I’m thoroughly bummed out now. At least Disha had something of a happy ending.

Brief plot summary: Shambu (Balraj Sahni) is a poor farmer with a beautiful, pregnant wife Paro (Nirupa Roy) and only two bighas of land to his name (about 2/3 of an acre). The local landlord has convinced the neighboring farmers to sell their land to him so he can build a mill, but Shambu won’t sell, and the landlord concocts a scam with his accountant to inflate Shambu’s debts to the staggering sum of 235 rupees.

With no way to pay the money, Shambu temporarily shifts to the big city of Calcutta where he has heard the money is just floating in the air ready to scoop up. His son tags along.  Of course reality is nothing like that and Shambu has to live in a slum and work as a rickshaw driver for pennies a ride. The boy also works, as a shoe shiner. The rest of the film shows the ups and downs suffered by the family both in the city and the village, although everyone survives ultimately (spoiler alert) they lose their money, their land and their home.

But I have to say, I was completely glued to the screen for the entire two hours. It was like a soap opera of the poor. I was a bit dubious in the beginning as it seemed to me like it was the type of highly moralizing and deadly boring “noble peasant” film that pretty much every country has to produce at least once between 1945 and 1965. And it sort of was, but I was pleasantly surprised at its watchability. Balraj Sahni, under the rags and grime, was very handsome and I really became attached to the good-guy character of Shambu. And there is a cute scene where the shoeshine boys talk about seeing the film Awaara and sing the title song.


Jenny K:  Do you get the feeling that all the best depressing films are Bengali???  They do seem to know how to nuance the pathos, don’t they?


Julie M: Compared to Disha it’s clear that this was the grandaddy of the genre and a landmark in Indian film. And I couldn’t help but notice the physical resemblance of Nana Patekar in Disha to the character in DBZ that opens the film, and the inspiration of this number to a similar moment in Disha, where the poor people are trying to lighten their lives in song.

Although similarly melodramatic [Spoiler: Paro comes to the city and is almost instantly kidnapped, nearly raped and run down by a motorcar as she makes her escape–and the only rickshaw driver around to take her to the hospital is none other than Shambu!] DBZ is far from the escapist fantasy of Awaara, which has another poor but honest man as the lead character.

Even though you had already put the idea in my head that Aamir Khan had gotten inspiration from DBZ for the look of the countryside in Lagaan, I was even more tickled by the very closely related picturization and music of the “it’s finally raining” songs in the two movies. Here’s the one from DBZ, which occurs moments after the film starts:

And here’s the one from Lagaan.

Anyway, I thought DBZ was a great film, definitely worthy of the “25 Must-See” list and best of all, it’s online free with subtitles on YouTube. Here’s Part I.   


Jenny K: Though DBZ isn’t a film that I watch over and over again, it has been one whose memory sticks in my mind and lingers there.  Bimal Roy was certainly a master of his craft.


Julie M:  And finally, I got a good dose of Shashi Kapoor by watching Shakespeare Wallah (1965), not technically a Bollywood film since it’s British-made and in English.

Like most Merchant-Ivory films it developed too slowly for my impatient tastes, and I hated the Shakespeare bits for being bad and overblown, but I guess the troupe was not supposed to be a very good one. Shashi was excellent and GORGEOUS, but his character was not manly in the grand tradition of Bollywood manliness. I guess since it was an English film he didn’t need to be, but instead of the tragic hero (yes, Devdas was weak but he had a certain consistent sense of misguided but manly self-sacrifice) we got to see a pseudo-manly but ultimately scared and weak person too afraid to figure out what he wants.  So, good actor, bad character.


Jenny K:  Actually, I found myself being impressed by Shashi’s lack of vanity in doing this role.  His character is, as you say, not a likeable one, if lovely to look at.  He had to know that he wasn’t playing the hero when he chose it.

On the superficial side…the only thing I remember fixating on was that he was romancing his sister-in-law, Felicity Kendal, in that misty walk they took together. His real wife, Jennifer, Felicity’s sister, played someone else in the film altogether. Odd…perhaps they wanted someone younger against him, or someone more of a known quantity in England, which Felicity is. I really enjoyed Felicity’s autobiography White Cargo which told about the times in India with her family. 


Julie M:  She was REALLY young in SW.  I think she was supposed to be around 17 or 18 at the most.  A real ingénue, both on stage in the troupe and in moviemaking since this was her debut film.


Jenny K:  Very true.  I’d forgotten that.  However, you should see Jennifer Kendal (Kapoor) in her prime in Bombay Talkie with her hubby, or in an award-winning turn in 36 Chowringee Lane….an Aparna Sen-directed mood piece.  So, lots of worthwhile treasures to find in Classic Bollywood, if you are willing to dig back a bit in time!

Oct. 20, 2011: On The Table ~ The Middle Age Spread

Jenny K:  Since we had been talking literature adaptations recently, I ran across and decided to watch Such a Long Journey (1998) on Netflix the other day, an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s (author of A Delicate Balance) 1991 novel. Frankly, I picked it out for the cast; Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Roshan Seth. Even a young Ranjeet Chawdhry (The Last Holiday, Bollywood/Hollywood) has a great cameo as a talented street artist. Yet with all that talent, the actors seemed to have been encouraged not to shine, to be as ordinary as possible.  Here’s a typical scene, with Roshan Seth and his family not really relating.   

If they wanted to show the dark and dismal everyday side of contemporary Indian life…this movie has it in spades. Poor Gustad (Roshan Seth). His life is one long frustration. He works at a drab bank, with drab people, they have ordinary drab conversations. He and most of his friends have everyday hopes and dreams for their families and lives, but none of them seem to come true. His wife, Dilnavaz (yes, the Ice Candy Man’s name in Earth…which kept throwing me off… I thought it was a man’s name), played by Soni Razdan is faded and almost drab, too.  She’s worn out by how hard they have to work for so little…and her husband’s optimism just irks her when it shows up, as in the episode where he brings home a live chicken, so she can cook it “fresh” like his grandmother used to do. His son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee) hates his life and how his family is pushing him to be an engineer…and that’s the upbeat part of the film. Really, here’s another typical clip…at least he’s getting out a bit with a co-worker.

Julie M:  From what I know about Mistry as a writer, he idles at dark and dismal.  There are particular political backdrops in his books that are important to know about, and the whole point of his books seems to be the extra chaos politics causes on regular people who are just trying to live their lives amid all the other non-politics-related stuff that happens.  Such a Long Journey is from the time period of the big India-Pakistan war—same war as in Border—and although I’ve not read it (I’m going to have to now, though) I can bet it’s a similar “you are there” total-immersion experience like A Fine Balance was for the Emergency period.  The clips at least show it to be highly realistic.

Jenny K:  Yeah, he’s a one-man antidote to the Bollywood feel-good film glut.  But the way films are going these days, there’s a shortage of those films now.  Pessimism is the new Peppy in film USPs. 

But back to the film, to put a cherry on the top of my disappointment, Naseerji’s character (my main reason for watching) is just there peripherally.  He’s an almost mythical character who rescued Gustad from a car accident (that we see in flashbacks) and involves him with Om and some probably fictional espionage dealing with the Bengali Resistance, Indira Ghandi and the Pakistani problems of the 1970’s.  So, the big guns are there for so few scenes (except Mr. Seth, of course) that it scarcely merits their being in the credits. The plot twists about this resistance movement are really convoluted, too and neither Pat (my co-pilot in tedium) nor I really understood all the nuances of it in the first place. So, in spite of the cast, and the atmospheric cinematography, I can’t really recommend it…even if Roger Ebert really liked it.

Julie M:  Actually, from your description and the clips this seems like something I might like.  It’s a Canadian production, so it seems designed for Western audiences.  The big question is:  book or movie first? I probably shouldn’t have looked at the clips…now I’ll imagine Roshan Seth instead of whoever my brain chooses to put there…

Weird that while you were watching Such a Long Journey, I also watched a film about a drab man, but mine was much more uplifting than yours seems to have been.  Khosla ka Ghosla (“Khosla’s Nest”, 2006) is a low-key, low-budget dramedy about working together as a family to achieve your dreams.

K.K. Khosla (Anupam Kher) is a fairly milquetoast, middle-classDelhi salaryman, close to retirement, who has just spent his life savings to buy a plot of land on which to build a dream house for his family. His family is a tad dysfunctional—I would say more disconnected than an actively bad family—the film opens with K.K.’s dream sequence that he has died and his family barely notices, being tied up in their own concerns literally over his white-wrapped and flower-bedecked corpse.  But they grudgingly humor him in his obsession with the plot and the dream house.  His family is his wife, older son Bunty (Ranvir Shorey), younger son Cherry (Parvin Dabas), and an unmarried adult daughter. Bunty is of an entrepreneurial temperament but hasn’t seemed to actually start a business yet, while Cherry is a gainfully employed software engineer who, unbeknownst to his family, has arranged a new job in New York and is about to emigrate.

Jenny K:  This is a complete non-sequitur, and I don’t expect an answer, but…was Anupam Kher ever young?  I’ve been watching for almost ten years now, and have gone a ‘fer piece back in my viewing, and he’s always looked the same.  Villain or nice guy, lawyer or teacher…always with the balding head and the lovely warm, weary eyes.  The portrait of perennial middle-age.  I wonder if he regrets never being thought of as a bankable romantic lead in a film?  I mean, without it being a comedy riff, like in KKHH.  He’s such a good actor; he could probably pull it off creditably.

Julie M:  On the day the plot is to be consecrated, the family discovers that a squatter has walled it off and claimed it as his own. Here is that scene, which beautifully shows the characters of K.K. and his sons (no subtitles, sorry):

[The writing on the wall means “Don’t pee on the wall!”]

The squatter is Kishan Khurana (Boman Irani), a wealthy and powerful developer. K.K. returns to the property agent, who encourages them to visit Khurana to clear up the “misunderstanding.” Khurana offers to vacate the land upon payment of half the Khoslas’ purchase price, which the Khoslas cannot afford. They complain to the police, who are in Khurana’s pocket and merely laugh off the complaint. Trying to resolve the situation through the legal system only leads to more frustration. 

Having exhausted standard methods to resolve the situation, the family turns to more creative ideas. Bunty’s brute-force plan ultimately lands K.K. in jail, so Cherry (on very short time due to the impending emigration) reluctantly gets involved. He comes up with an idea featuring his friend Meghna (Tara Sharma) and her theater troupe: con Khurana with a fake land deal and use the mobster’s own money to pay him off. There are of course complications, mainly resulting from the nervousness of the con’s star character who must play a wealthy and sophisticated NRI. Here’s a clip of one of many moments where the con almost falls apart:

I’m not going to spoil the ending but, since it’s billed as a comedy, you can generally assume that things don’t end up worse than they started out.

The acting in Khosla Ka Ghosla is wonderfully underplayed. The comedy aspect is gentle and subtle where it could have been played for huge laughs, and is the result of the viewer’s knowing people in their own lives exactly like the characters in the film. Relationships are developed in such a way that the viewer ends up loving all the characters equally, making it a true ensemble piece although the Cherry character is pretty much the focus. The family drama aspect derives from typical intergenerational conflicts: Cherry is embarrassed of his given name and his father’s traditional values, hence his desire to emigrate to a more “modern” culture (it is telling that he cuts his face out of a family portrait to use it for his US visa application), and K.K. is reluctant to rock the boat or do anything shady despite the insistence of his family that he shouldn’t stand by and be taken advantage of. Watching this family eventually pull together in the face of corruption on every level to make the patriarch’s dream come true is exceedingly charming.

Jenny K:  That last bit with Cherry’s situation reminds me a bit of the father/son dynamic in The Namesake, down to the name issue.  A universal theme, I guess.

Julie M: If I had any complaint, it is a typical one: the female characters are heartbreakingly undeveloped. We never even learn the names of K.K.’s wife and daughter, they are used so little. Meghna fares better as a character, probably due to the need for a love interest (it IS an Indian film, after all!) but given that she is supposedly an accomplished actress, it is strange that they do not think to use her at all in the con, falling back on her nervous director-boss as the ruse’s central figure.

Jenny K:  It was the same with the female characters in Such a Long Journey!  Dilnavaz was a one-emotion portrait, almost, and the only other female characters, the sweet little daughter, the sexy co-worker, the cranky upstairs neighbor, all were drawn with a very hasty brush, there only to convey their points through visual shorthand.  And don’t get me started on the little girl’s missing doll…there’s a symbol that I can’t even begin to translate, or even think about. Shudder.

Julie M:  Anupam Kher and Boman Irani turn in typically excellent performances, with Irani’s tendency to go overboard nicely held in check by the director. Parvin Dabas’ performance as Cherry was beautifully nuanced–you could tell the moment when he decided to throw his lot in with the family he thought he hated. It took me a while to place him, but eventually I recalled that loved him as the handsome NRI groom in Monsoon Wedding.

Verdict: if you love small indie American and British movies you will love this.  I sure did.

Khosla Ka Ghosla is available on YouTube with English subtitles:

Jenny K:  And Such a Long Journey will be much harder to find, unless you have Netflix, it’s only on VHS, I think…but, now that I think about it, maybe some Journeys are better left untraveled.

October 12, 2011: Books for Bollywood Lovers

As you may have realized by now, I am a geek and therefore a reader.  In fact, following Indian films for the past six or seven months has seriously cut into my reading time.  But as a literary fiction addict and a new inductee into the world of Indian film, I was particularly thrilled to notice that three Man Booker Prize*-associated novels are perfectly compatible with film enjoyment and over the past couple of months I have eagerly devoured them.

If you are in love with the beautiful Himalayan setting of films we’ve discussed in this blog like Professor, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, The Blue Umbrella, Jab We Met and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, as well as in the hundreds of other Bollywood productions and item numbers filmed there, try reading The Inheritance of Loss by Indian-born, US-based novelist Kiran Desai (Man Booker Prize winner, 2006).  Set on the India/Nepal/Sikkim border during a Ghurka uprising in the mid-1980s, Loss is simultaneously a girl’s coming-of-age story, a meditation on the changes time has wrought to a particular Anglicized lifestyle, the plight of the not-well-educated NRI in America and the horrors of political turmoil, all with loving descriptions of the gorgeous local landscape and buildings.

Sai Mistry is 16, a British-educated Indian girl living with her retired grandfather in a crumbling yet still elegant house outside of Kalimpong. She is in the flush of first love with her tutor, a local Nepalese youth sympathetic to the Ghurka cause. Her grandfather is very bitter, raised to expect certain things as a Cambridge-educated man in pre-Partition Delhi but having had to settle for the life of a rural judge in the Himalayas. Lack of funds has led them to dismiss all but one servant, their cook, whose life savings has just been given to his son Biju so he can emigrate to a better life in New York.  Unfortunately Biju, with little education and virtually no English, can only find hard labor in the city’s ethnic kitchens for minimal wages as he moves about evading the INS and learning that America is not the land of opportunity it’s cracked up to be. As the novel progresses, its chapters alternating in perspective between Sai and Biju, we learn about the grandfather’s upbringing and early adult life, the circumstances under which Sai came to live with him, and the lives of other village denizens, all of whom have in common a reduced quality of life, shattered dreams and uncomfortable reactions to the swift changes Indian culture is undergoing.

I found Loss beautiful and touching, not a little sad, the language at times a thicket of imagery requiring some time to penetrate, but ultimately a testament to the human spirit.  To my (admittedly little) knowledge there are no plans to turn the novel into a film, but if there were, I can easily see Sanjay Leela Bhansali, with his love of rich fantasy-like detail as is evident in films like Devdas, as the perfect director.

If you enjoy the reality-based, epic-feeling films of Deepa Mehta or the intimate characterizations directed by Aparna Sen, you might enjoy Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (Man Booker Prize shortlist, 1996).  Between the main characters’ detailed backstories (often including those of their parents as well!) and the epilogue, the novel encompasses episodes, often horrific, of both village and city life from the 1920s to the 1980s.  However, the main action takes place in the course of about a year starting in 1975, at the beginning of the Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that had the unintended consequences of terrible human rights atrocities.  Mistry himself was born and raised in Bombay, and emigrated to Canada as a young man in 1975 during the Emergency.

Dina Shroff Dalal is a middle-aged, middle-class Parsi woman, tragically widowed in her youth, who takes in a college-student boarder and runs a small (two-worker) garment factory in her house in order to make ends meet and stay independent of her controlling older brother.  Her boarder, Maneck, is the son of a fellow Parsi school friend, the friend having moved to the mountains upon her marriage and reluctantly sent her son to the “city by the sea” (never named, assumed to be Bombay) to get a certificate in the up-and-coming field of refrigeration and air conditioning. (remember: 1975!)  Her workers are Ishvar and Om, a Hindu uncle-and-nephew pair, who have been ostracized from their village for having dared to independently upgrade their caste from cobbler to tailor.  They are also suspect among their fellow Hindus for their utter lack of hatred towards Muslims.  All of the main characters are emotionally damaged but they have inner strength; the tale of how they live (the Ishvar-Om sections are heartbreaking), learn to trust and even love each other, and rely on each other to survive a politically, economically and socially difficult historical time, is ultimately uplifting and the stuff of the serious end of Indian films.

AFB is very easy to read, with clear language that is nevertheless evocative, a tight plot and familiar dialogue.  Since this is literature, astute readers will notice certain minor characters and devices that form circles and arcs, teach lessons and support the main story in exceedingly artistic ways.  A warning:  if upon reading this book you internalized the characters and the time period, and understood (if maybe not liked—I guarantee that you will experience some anger) the incidents which came upon them at the close of the main action, you might want to skip the epilogue, which looks in on the characters in the year 1984.  It is very difficult to read.  I admit that I cried a little.  The novel has been adapted into a play, but I think it would work extremely well as a film.  If I were casting it, I would tap Shabana Azmi to play Dina, Imraan Khan as Maneck, Naseeruddin Shah as Ishvar and for Om…well, find me a scowly teenager, nothing remotely chocolate about him, with a flaring anger and resentment of the world.

If you like smart-mouthed and cynical modern heroes (and anti-heroes) such as those played by Shah Rukh Khan, check out The White Tiger by Anglo-Indian novelist Aravind Adiga (Man Booker Prize winner, 2008).  A present-day, first-person narrative written as a series of letters to the Chinese president by a snarky youth, Tiger details the pervasive corruption, casteism, and just plain lack of funds that combine to block a young man’s entrepreneurial dreams.  The ways he uses his wits and a willingness to break longstanding cultural taboos in order to get ahead are as entertaining as they are shocking.

Balram Halwai, who we learn on the first page is an admitted murderer, begins his autobiography as a clever boy living in a village in rural Bihar, nicknamed “White Tiger” by his schoolmaster for the way he stands out from the other children yet unable to camouflage himself and his gifts within the prevailing culture.  Poverty forces him to quit school, and he uses his imagination (and not a little fakery) to upgrade himself to the job of driver in the household of a wealthy landlord.  The landlord soon asks him to drive for his son, who is moving to New Delhi, and this wider view of the world both intrigues and disgusts Balram.  The resourceful Balram becomes even more aware than he was of the extremes of Indian society and the causal relationship of corruption to wealth and power.  Ultimately, he realizes that the only person looking out for him is himself and if he wants a piece of the “new India,” he has to let go all of his previous assumptions about morals and do whatever is necessary to achieve his desires.

Those whose tastes run to the appreciation of traditional Indian family values as promoted in Bollywood films might find Tiger’s narrative arc and irreverent tone fundamentally distasteful.  However, I found Balram’s voice funny, satirical and refreshingly real in a world that still has illusions about what modern India is like.  Smuggler Films’ John Hart (The Revolutionary Road) has acquired the film rights to The White Tiger, Mukul Deora (Bheja Fry 2) is one of the producers, and Haneif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) is set as the screenwriter.  The Chennai-born Adiga has jokingly said that he has in mind the perfect actor to play Balram…Rajinikanth.  (he goes on to say that there is “only one” actor in Hindi cinema who could play Balram, and we can probably guess who he’s thinking about.  Another “dream cast” can be found here)

And there you are.  Three literary novels that may deepen your appreciation of Indian films–or that your love of Indian films might excite you more about.  In a way I hope none of them make it to the screen—I much prefer the scenery in my head as I read than to subject my vision to that of someone else, no matter how excellent it might be.  I have several other works in a similar vein scheduled to read and comment on, so consider this the first of a (mercifully short) series.  Jenny and I have also vowed to read (or in my case re-read) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and comment on it before it comes out as a film towards the end of 2012.

*The Man Booker Prize is a 43-year-old, annual and very prestigious award for contemporary fiction written by citizens of British Commonwealth countries plus Ireland.  The selections are known for their high literary quality as well as their accessibility to general audiences.  The 2011 award should be announced soon.

Oct. 4 2011:Ranbir, Ajay & More Bhagat Singh…Deol With It!

Julie M: Finished Shaheed: 23rd March 1931, the Bobby Deol version of the Bhagat Singh story.   I saw it mostly for the story, which I fell in love with in The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and I hate to leave similar films uncompared, so here goes.

It was way bloodier and more violent than the Ajay Devgan version, but Bobby did not play Bhagat as intensely as Ajay did. The production value was significantly lower and cheesier, and the early part of the story seemed rushed. The Ajay version spent a lot of time on the early years, while the Bobby version spent more time stressing the family-drama aspect of the story. Aishwarya had a cameo as the girl Bhagat refused to marry, which seemed jarring. The songs weren’t translated, and the subtitles generally were pretty bad (sometimes no subtitles at all!). The English were portrayed as complete idiots as well as evil in this version, whereas in the Ajay version they were just clueless and a bit scared. I was actually more impressed with Sunny Deol’s performance as Azad than I was with Bobby’s as Bhagat.

Comparison: here is the “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamaana” song as sung in the Bobby Deol version:

And in the Ajay version
Here is the “Mere Rang de Basanti Chola” number in the Bobby version:

And in the Ajay version.

So, Bobby Deol may have looked more like the real Bhagat Singh, but I liked the Ajay version better. In a nutshell: the Bobby-version of the story was hit-you-over-the-head whereas the Ajay-version was more subtle and actually more stirring for it.


Jenny K:  It may all come down to AR Rahman vs. Anand Raj Anand/ Surendra Singh Sodhi. Nobody beats the Rahm! And though I liked the Bhagat Singh version, I still think I like the Rang De Basanti version, just a tad better, as I said before… Aamir’s voice-over just gets me all shivery…what a guy!

Sunny Deol will always, sorry to say, beat out Bobby on acting talent whether or not he tries. He actually is very supportive of baby brother, but has, at least until recently, been the most visible star. His movie Gadar, holds the record for highest gross made for 2000-2009. He can really pull them in. Is that the first one you’ve seen him in? Have you watched Border yet?  Here’s one scene, the odds are against Sunny’s boys, 150 Hindustanis to 2000 Pakistanis but he’s going to give it all he’s got, attitude-wise.

And here’s a backround piece on the filming.

Border gives you the emotional side of “the women left behind” and also tells a real story about the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War where the Pakistani Air Force came in and surprise bombed 11 Indian air bases with no warning. Indira Ghandi sent her troops on all fronts, and beat them back so badly that the whole thing was over in 11 days with Pakistan ceding Bangladesh to independency. It’s the best of its kind in all ways, except, perhaps, for the “happy to go to war, dancing with my tank” song, which is catchy, if incongruous.

[next day]

Julie M:  Saw the first half of Border. I get that there’s some personal stuff there, but it’s still a war movie and I’m not a fan of war movies. Still, I’m enjoying Sunny Deol’s performance and Akshaye Khanna had one great scene where he blew the cr*p out of one guy, after having failed to do so at his first opportunity.  Tell me if it gets significantly better in the 2nd half, because I’m just about ready to quit.


Jenny K:  All I can say is that I liked Border…I found the performances good and I liked the personal back-stories. I think Sunny’s best scenes are in the second half, when things get toughest, but if you’re not liking it, you shouldn’t watch it.

Sonny doesn’t tend to do many comedies, so if you like him, you’d have to take him in some earnest, heroic drama, and this is one of the easiest to take, military-wise. Maybe you should see Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Not my taste, but it was a Really Big Hit. Set during partition, about a Sikh guy falling for the Muslim girl he rescues and how they fight to stay together, despite religious differences. Sunny has played a lot of soldiers and sardars in his time.

He did one comedy recently, Yamla Pagla Deewana, with Bobby and their dad, Dharmendra, but it looked so PriyaDhawanish (my new term for unrelentingly slapstick) that I just couldn’t do it. Here’s the trailer, see what you think.

Julie M:  I’ll finish Border, then. So far the war aspect is overshadowing everything else, in my mind. B was very surprised when he saw me watching it, because he knows I don’t watch war movies.

 [the next day] 

 So I finished Border, finally, and you were right, it did get better. (I should always, always finish Indian films before I pass judgment on them!!)  The dyad of the characters played by Sunny and Akshaye was brilliantly done, and although a minor role, I enjoyed Jackie Shroff’s air force commander, as well. It was a treat to see Suniel Shetty portraying a young, idealistic soldier, given that previously I’ve only seen him in villain or criminal roles with a hard-etched face. Each of the characters who died (no spoilers here — given that it’s a war movie) performed acts of supreme heroism in defense of Mother India, and the scene where the Sunny Deol character got misty over the death of an enemy soldier was heart-wrenching.

However, I was unprepared for the absolute bloodiness and sheer length (probably close to 45 very intense minutes) of the final battle scene. War sure is hell, and the realism of it in Full Technicolor was probably quite shocking to audiences because it completely unhinged me–yet I had to keep watching. Here’s one of those scenes.

I have to credit the filmmakers for resisting the temptation to do the battle in slow motion, and if I have one criticism it is the maudlin nature of the very final scenes where they intercut images of the battle aftermath with tear-jerking impressions of the families at home — including one character’s cancer-stricken wife, who was previously only alluded to but never seen in flashback. Oh, and the truly annoying cry/chant of “Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan” at the peak of the action disturbed the mood — obvious pandering patriotism is never my thing.

Here is the stirring scene at daybreak where the Air Force can finally come to rescue our boys.

[Bringing the political theme to the present day, we both watched Raajneeti (Politics, 2010).]

Julie M:  Raajneeti is one of those films where a plot summary reveals too many spoilers, so I’ll make it brief:  This is the story of the ins and outs of one Indian election as we follow a political family and their associates.  After a bit of backstory on the mother of the political family and how she married into it, we are introduced to the younger-generation Pratap brothers and their families as well as to Indu, a young woman from outside the family with some political ambitions.  One brother, Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) is handsome and politically ambitious, while his younger brother, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) has just come back from his PhD studies in the U.S.  A family tragedy catapults Prithvi into electoral (and familial) competition with his cousin Veeru (Manoj Bajpai), and Samar reluctantly takes a role after a second tragedy.  Here’s the trailer:

Jenny K:  Raajneeti doles out its own style of gunfighter justice which seems to be the predominant way to run a government in India, if Bollywood filmmakers are to be believed. Yuva, RDB, and other similar films of the past decade paint the picture of ultimate corruption by a group of morally bankrupt would-be contenders for office who are willing to do anything and everything to get their man (or woman) in power.  If that’s true, all I can say, is run out of the polling places, and straight for the airport… Just don’t stop and roll down your taxi window on the way there. You may get blown away. I certainly was. 

Julie M:  Although I felt the film had crazy, over-the-top dramatic tension–I kept thinking the level and volume was more appropriate to a TV miniseries rather than a feature film–I really enjoyed Ranbir ‘s performance as the reluctant-cum-ruthless political strategist. Ajay Devgan–love him–was a little disappointing as the outsider behind the opposing campaign, as it seemed to be a role he could do with his eyes closed rather than a creative challenge. Katrina Kaif was OK as Indu, Nana Patekar was perfect as the older political mentor, and what is it about Indian movies, where they choose American actors to be the least convincing possible to avoid upstaging the Indian actors?  The Ranbir character’s girlfriend was horrible, just horrible.

Jenny K: While you’re right about the lack of effective white actors in Indian films, this girl isn’t at all the weakest…trust me.  Her character was meant to be a quiet reproach to Samar, and not someone to steal focus…and she did that reasonably well.  She reminded me of Jennifer Garner, favorably, more than once.

Otherwise, the performances were uniformly pretty darned good. Nana Patekar was, as usual, a true artist, layering his portrayal with so many degrees of gray that he could have hidden among the newspaper clippings of his great reviews.

Ajay Devgan looked fetching with his dark, simple wardrobe, gold earrings and now patented scowl, but on the whole I wish he had more to do. He had only two really good scenes, the one at the very end with his mentor Veeru on the roadside, where he showed some grace even when losing, and then the scene on the hillside with his mother. Wonderful expressive looks flew across his face as he reacted to her admissions. Frankly, as much as I love Ajay, I didn’t know he had that much subtlety in him. Bravo!  Here’s the director Prakash Jha and Ajay talking about their history together. 

This Making of Raajneeti video is interesting, too.

Arjun Rampal is shaping up as a rather tasty villain/psychopath these days. Always elegant, a killer with style. Much more interesting than his sweet, sensitive victim roles like his banker-turned-robber in Don or his edge-of-slacker musician in Rock On! And Manoj Bajpai turns in another slick moustache twirling version of the ultimate single-focus campaigner, Veeru. He showed us all the layers of Veeru’s insecurities, that drove him and tripped him, simultaneously…very nice. And Ranbir Kapoor, did his turn as the youngest Corleone brother…oh, I meant Pratap brother…easy mistake with all that ruthless mayhem and the schmaltzy pseudo-Sicilian soundtrack going on…with a degree of underplaying that I wasn’t expecting from the Saawariya Song and Dance Man.

 Only the women in the film seemed a bit muted in Raajneeti…Mom, Indu and Sarah, the gori girlfriend were scarcely there.  I wondered whether some of the girls scenes got left on the cutting room floor, but if this example is anything to go by, probably not…window-dressing.

Here’s the full movie with subtitles on YouTube.  But it’s in pieces.

Julie M:   Not only was it a political thriller, it was the tense story of a political family where there are secrets, jealousies, alliances and emotions equal to the best soap opera. This was a film that could have gone either way for me, but I actually liked it. Critics seemed to hate it, it was highly popular, but I thought it was a pretty good catharsis. I found myself cheering people and then in the next breath booing them, rolling my eyes at one thing and holding my breath at the next. A bit bloody for my taste but it fit the action. The only problem was that I ended up not really liking any of the characters, and waiting for each of them to get what they deserved. And each one of them did, except for Nana Patekar, who got off scot-free.

Jenny K:  Cheering and booing…becoming a real typical filmi-girl audience member, aren’t you? 
But while Nana got off without having to get his come-uppance, but the real crime to me was [spoilers] letting Samar off on his flight back to the US with only a weak token of a mea culpa “Gosh, Indu, I never wanted to be a politician…I knew I wouldn’t like who I’d become”…Understatement of the Year! What about a scene where he tried to take his mother back to NYC, and she turns her back on him and leaves? Or Indu finally donning a backbone with her robes of office and arresting him as her first official act? [end of spoilers] Would have been appropriate…What was his doctoral thesis again? “Sublimated Violence in Victorian Literature”? A natural!


Julie M:  Nice analysis. The only thing I’ll take issue with is your characterization of Prithvi as a villain. I’d call him obsessed and ruthless — and pretty dumb — but I think he genuinely wanted (!) to get into politics for more than just personal power or family pressure, and eventually he came to realize that the cost was starting to mount up but by then it was too late, he had to push on.

I agree that Veeru was the most interesting character to watch, outside of Samar, who actually got a bit boring towards the end with his sheer villainy. You could almost see Veeru’s head splitting with all the conflicting emotions.  And Indu was just a cipher from the start.


Jenny K:  Manoj Bajpai is always a great character actor…you love to hate him. Though, in this film, that’s so full of questionable ethics and downright villainy…you can’t throw a stone without hitting a baddie. It’s harder to decide who you should identify with…even mom is a liar.


Julie M:  That’s why I said earlier that I came away not liking anyone. But I think Prithvi was the closest to sympathetic, except Indu, who ended up being used by everyone. Even though Prithvi was not clean, he did realize that it had all gotten out of control. And then [spoiler alert] he was blown up, so… Veeru was more psychotic than Prithvi—he had the crazy eyes from minute one!


Jenny K: I was looking for a clip of Manoj Bajpai with subtitles and found one that looks as if it belongs in this article…another historical uprising film called Chittagong.  Not out yet, though it was made last year.  There’s always a new one coming out…hope it’s as good as it looks!

October 2, 2011: Always a Bridesmaid, Never the “Bride”

Love stories come and go;  some become classics and sometimes they just get an E for Effort… Who knows what makes one stick in your mind and heart? As an example, let’s compare the new romance, Mausam with the classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and see how it stacks up.

Jenny K:  I went out last weekend to see the latest Shahid Kapoor film, Mausam (Seasons) with my friend Sultana.   Well…though it is by no means awful, I’m not sure it merits the bother of a full review. Pankaj Kapur, the freshman director and Shahid’s father, attempts a large, lush, multi-year love saga in the recent past that seems to be aiming for an old time “missed connections” romance with many things reminiscent of Gone With the Wind. It boasts military attacks, burning cities, a rioting populace, the birthing of babies, toddlers in peril, scores of the dead and injured, helpless females who wait endlessly for their men and/or get threatened with rape…Why Mr. Butler…eh, I mean Mr. Kapur…all I can say is Fiddle-dee-dee! You can’t do Gone With the Wind without a Scarlett and Rhett to keep you interested!

As cute as they are…and Shahid has proven more than once that he can do that, especially in his dance numbers…Shahid and Sonam are just not seasoned enough, or gifted enough or their characters aren’t well written enough to sustain the audience’s attention throughout an almost three hour film. Aayat (Sonam), who has lost way too much weight since Saawariya, IMO, ambles about the place like a pretty, young giraffe giggling and retreating throughout the film. She does it so often that she could easily assay the part of a cuckoo in any cinematic clock big enough to hold her. Lovely, but gawky and too tentative, I was left wondering why Hari (Shahid) was so struck by Aayat’s charms. Especially when her rival is the live-wire, Aditi Sharma, the sweet, friendly daughter of the local baker, who steals focus in every scene she’s in. 

And the same goes for Shahid’s Hari. While he’s portrayed as a callow youth, he’s charming and funny, especially when covered with flour, mud, leaves or whatever gets dumped on him in his pursuit of Aayat.

But when he misses his first chance to secure her love (her father spirits her away to Mumbai) he just metaphorically shrugs his shoulders and consoles himself with his love of jet airplanes, and joins the air force. Now, would Rhett do that? For that matter would SRK’s Raj let things stand like that in DDLJ? nahi…Nahi!!…NAHI!!!  I think NOT! Hari is too ready to let things go with the status quo for my taste, not even using his more modern resources effectively to find her during the next SEVEN YEARS! Phones, phone books, relatives, and to some extent, computers (it is only the early 1990s, I realize) could have cleared up this star-crossed mess, with at least one or two reels to spare.

And I will just touch briefly on his Top Gun wardrobe of flight suits and ubiquitous aviator sunglasses! Yes, he looks fetching in this ensemble, but, really, if they’re laying the fly-boy stuff on us, couldn’t they afford to have him do more than one flight sequence instead of just endlessly striding to or from the jets on the tarmac with flight helmet tucked neatly under his arm to allow his locks to waft photogenically in the breeze! And I coulda done without the pencil-thin moustache in this middle section, but I kinda liked the stubble into beard that he sported toward the end. It aged his baby-facedness a bit.

And again, Shahid had an almost inconvenient bit of standby eye-candy to distract me, I mean Aayat, in the form of one Vaibhav Talwar…Note to self: I must go back and watch Teen Patti again. Yowza!   Sorry for the lapse, but with “costars” like these, any reviewer would be tempted to bury the leads!

Summing up, I thought Mausam was a noble effort that fell sort of flat, and definately LONG. Worth seeing only for the great shots of Edinburgh, Scotland (I want to go back!!! Calton Hill!!! Sigh) and Shahid’s wonderful dancing.   2.5 out of 5 stars.   Here’s my favorite example from Mausam, “Saj Dhaj Ke”

And somebody please tell me what happened to Anupam Kher’s character…he just disappeared! 


Julie M:  Oh, well.  Sorry for your waste of time.  I had already made up my mind not to see it, and to catch Shahid’s dance numbers via clips. Too bad this was disappointing—I actually liked him in Jab We Met although I know you are not overly a fan of his. 

But to cheer you up, I have good news for you.  I had a half-day today and it was cold and windy out, so I decided to spend the afternoon warm and cozy on the couch watching a DVD, and it had to be something feel-good and not too thinky. In short–the perfect day for DDLJ. Yes, I took the plunge, and totally fell in love with it. 

For the twelve people on the planet who have not seen it, since it’s been constantly running [in Mumbai] since its release 15+ years ago, the full title is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take The Bride, 1995).  Here’s the trailer (English subs): 

And here’s a quick plot summary.  Simran (Kajol) is the London-born daughter of a Punjabi convenience-store owner (Amrish Puri), and is reluctantly engaged since infancy to Kuljit, the son of her father’s friend, back in India.  As a last fling before marriage she begs her father to let her travel with her girlfriends for a month in Europe.  As it happens, wealthy, fun-loving and insouciant London-born Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) is also on the same European rail tour with his buddies. They meet incredibly cute, she hates him, they end up missing their tour train in Switzerland and then travel together for a while with adorable consequences. 

After they part they realize they are each in love with the other (not knowing that the other feels the same way).  Here’s that scene, shown with him flashing back to their Switzerland time and scenes where she imagines seeing him everywhere: 

Simi’s dad learns that she met a boy in Europe and instantly whisks her off to India for the wedding.  Raj tries to reconnect with Simi, learns that she has left, and trots off to try and intercept her.  The rest of the film is the unfolding of Raj’s very original plan, and its unintended consequences, to stop the wedding and convince Simi’s dad (who already hates him due to an incident in the first half) that only he can make Simi as happy as she deserves to be.

This all sounds very rom-com formulaic, but really, it comes across as very fresh and engaging.  Maybe I’m just used to how it all works now (the goofy first half and melodramatic second half), but I suspect it’s because the SRK/Kajol pairing is absolutely impossible to beat. Sure, there are massive plot holes (if all her luggage was taken away on the train, how could she make all those costume changes when she and SRK were on the road? How the heck did he find her knowing just that she was “Somewhere in the Punjab”?), but who doesn’t love love when it’s presented so charmingly?

This is my new favorite love song, when he just shows up in her field inIndia: 

And who could fail to adore this classic Amrish Puri look?

So, I get it now, I really do. I promise not to rag on SRK too much from now on. And I know I will watch DDLJ every time I need to be assured that even though life really s*cks sometimes, it all works out in the end (and if it’s not working out, it’s not the end).  And I know you like “girls vs boys” dance numbers, so here’s  the one in this film: 


Jenny K:  It took me a while to “get” SRK, too, unlike my buddies Pat and Kathy who fell into Kamp Khan almost from the start. And weirdly enough, the reason I didn’t like him at first (beside the goofy slapstick) was that I kept seeing stills from Devdas and thought he was just “too pretty” for my taste with the big doe-like eyes and long eyelashes, etc. I told that to one of the store managers (the pretty part, not the eyelash details) and he looked at me like I was crazy. Well, after a few of Shah Rukh’s offerings, over the course of time, he began to sneak in to my psyche and, as you know, I quite like him, on most occasions, and always find him charming. I like to think I have a more evenly dispersed love of Bollywood Male Amazing-ness, but it may be that I can’t choose just one!

As to the charming…this is one of my favorite interviews with SRK on CNN. In three parts, here’s a link to the first one.  


Julie M:  Great interview!  Mostly I like him, too, but there are a few facial expressions that really turn me off (that “lip trembling about to cry” one, for example).   But I never really got the absolute adoration of an entire country and the diaspora for him, until DDLJ.  Raj’s speech at the end about loving her so much that he was willing to give her up to another man if it’s truly what her father thinks is best for her…yeah, that was kind of a ruse on his part but he said it so convincingly, and it rang all the cultural chimes so loudly, that no wonder the actor and character became conflated in the public imagination.

DDLJ is available for rent through YouTube.   As usual with YRF rentals the aspect ratio is likely going to be goofy, and I don’t know if the rental comes with English subtitles. [the page says you can turn them on]


Jenny K: I guess it’s safe to say that though you can put the boy in the village and the girl in the field of yellow flowers, it may not be enough to call up the same responses that Aditya Chopra gave us with his Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.  Lightning doesn’t often strike twice…but please, directors, don’t stop trying to find it, because when the jodi has jadoo, it’s unforgettable!

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