March 31, 2012: Days of Whine and Reasons…to Procrastinate

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!

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May 1, 2012: Why 2007 Was a Good Year, Yaar

Julie M:  Tonight’s feature was Dharm (Religion, 2007). A very beautiful film, very reminiscent of Deepa Mehta’s work (particularly Water, and not just because Dharm also takes place in Benares). More on that later. Here’s a very quick trailer.

Here’s a longer one but worse picture quality.
 

Jenny K:  Someone has to explain the various meanings of dharm/dharma to me sometime.  Here it means “religion,” but I had always heard it used as “duty,” which, though it has similar qualities, is not the same thing.  Enlightenment, anyone?

 
Julie M:  Plot summary: Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) is a Brahmin and the head of a temple, an extremely devout Hindu who is strict about ritual and “right thinking,” which often causes difficulties with his wife (Supriya Pathak) and daughter. He is the personal advisor to his patron, whose daughter is in love with a visiting gora journalist and whose son Shankar is drawn to a radical Hindu political organization.

 

Jenny K:  I love Pankaj Kapur…he’s always so real, if you know what I mean, never a false note in his performances. I also liked him in Raakh with Aamir and Sehar with Arshad Warsi. He is the best thing in Roja, a Mani Ratnam film that I’m sending you in this next package.

 

Julie M:  Oh, yeah, he was in Raakh.  I had forgotten. 

 

Jenny K:  That’s what’s so cool…he has a gift falling so deep into his characters that he even looks different.  Same quality Seema Biswas has.  I wonder if they’ve ever done a film together? Hmm….I’d buy tickets to that, in advance!

 

Julie M:  Anyway, Chaturvedi’s rigidness softens when his daughter brings home an abandoned baby boy, whom he and his family raise as their own. When the boy is about four his mother comes to claim him: surprisingly, she is Muslim. This conflict between traditional Brahmin and Hindu values, long-standing ethnopolitical prejudices and the desires of the heart forms the backdrop for the rest of the film.

I was absolutely fascinated all the way through, both for the amazing visuals, the human drama (without a drop of melodrama) and the pathos the director, Bhavna Talwar, drew from the storyline without falling into mush. I think that any Indian female director working in this vein can’t help but be influenced by Deepa’s work, and there were times that I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Deepa’s.

I had just seen Pankaj Kapoor as the crime boss in Maqbool and loved it, and this film sealed my opinion of him as one of India’s premier dramatic actors. He was also the old guy in The Blue Umbrella, another fave of mine.

 

Jenny K: Really? If I remember correctly, you weren’t so sold on The B.U. when you first saw it…had a few reservations.  At the end, here.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mellowing on a film.  I’ve done that more than once.

 

Julie M: If I had a criticism it was that Dharm was yet another film in the “Hindus and Muslims are enemies for no real reason” vein. You’d think that people would get the message by now, and this film brought no additional compelling arguments.

Dharm almost was India’s entry into the Academy Awards for 2007, but lost out to Eklavya: The Royal Guard. Having seen both I think Dharm got royally scr*wed–although I liked Eklavya a lot, Dharm was far better and more valid, and would have actually earned India the nomination that year.

 

Jenny K:  Dharm sounds interesting…but it may be hard getting used to seeing him without facial hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a beard!

 

Julie M:  You know, the penny JUST dropped for me that Pankaj is Shahid’s father.  Where have I been?  And that Mausam (which you saw and I’m waiting for it to appear on DVD) is somewhat autobiographically inspired (for writer/director Pankaj)? I still have to consult a scorecard (aka Wikipedia) to get all the relationships straight in Bollywood.

 [about two weeks later..film viewing seriously interrupted by life…]

Julie M:  Last night I watched Loins of Punjab Presents (2007), which to my surprise was an English language film although an Indian production. The premise was good and it had some very funny moments, but it sets itself up to a number of comparisons to which in my mind it did not measure up. Here’s the trailer.

 
Jenny K:  I would talk about how long it took you to watch this, but I remember being appalled at the trailer myself for it’s sheer Priyadawanism [my own term for a particularly high level of slapstick] and held off watching it for three years, until it came my way for free on Hulu one day. 

 

Julie M: Turn off your ad-blocker or you won’t get to see it.

Brief plot summary: Loins of Punjab is an Indian-owned pork processing company based in New Jersey, which needs some good PR among its countrymen. The owner decides to sponsor an “American Idol”-type, Bollywood-themed singing competition for NRIs, called Desi Idol, and give away a huge cash prize to the winner. A very motley crew turns up to audition, and over the course of the film’s running time we get to know a cross-section of them complete with motivations, quirks, joys and sorrows.

The film was billed as a satire, and I definitely got everything they were satirizing: dreams of fame, various NRI types found in the U.S., the nature of being Indian. Highlights include the large and voluble Patel clan, Shabana Azmi playing an evil socialite, and Ajay Naidu (whom audiences might remember as “the Indian guy” in Office Space, one of my all-time favorite comedies) as a tough, gay bhangra-rapper.

Jenny K:  He was also that silent but loathesome cook in the first part of Today’s Special…look for Ajay when you see it.  I thought LoPP was sweet. And it was obvious that Manish, the director put his whole being into it.

 

Julie M:  Sweet?  I wouldn’t go that far.  Some moments were sweet, mainly about the Vikram-Sania jodi, but I thought they were mostly going for hilarity.  For a film about a singing competition I thought there were frighteningly few musical numbers (I thought the “Bole Chudiyan” segment was the sweet part, but that may only be because K3G was the 2nd Hindi film I ever saw and the nostalgia factor was working), but that may have been the point. However, this scene really made me crack up.

Jenny K:  Okay, okay…sweet at its center, and funny, as opposed to slapstick/vulgar through-and-through.

 
Julie M: Yes, it was funny and I enjoyed myself while watching it; however, my mind kept comparing it to the great Christopher Guest mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, and others (except For Your Consideration, ick), which I felt LoPP was trying to emulate and fell a bit short.

 
The short running time (less than 1 1/2 hours) made the film feel rushed.  I would have adored to have it last 30 minutes longer and be filled with more background and depth on the main characters.

 

Jenny K:  I agree that he could have lengthened it a bit and not lost his US audience, if that was what he was worried about.  BTW, I really like Shabana as a villain. She should do it more often. And she looked wonderful!

 

Julie M:  I liked her too, even though she was playing against type.  I feel very bad expressing any criticism, since one of my favorite characters in it, the poor outsourced Vikram, was played by the film’s director (Manish Acharya), and he died in a riding accident a couple of years ago.  

 

Jenny K:  Vikram(Manish) was probably my favorite character, too. I think the Chris Guest similarities must be expected as Manish studied film at Tisch in NYC.  He was probably steeped in that sort genre of film.

When I first saw LoPP, I wrote Manish on FB to tell him how much I liked it. He wrote back and we spoke on FB occasionally, and it was just too sad when he died a few months later. He had such a promising future.

On one post on his page he said he liked the funny parodies people made up for fake “Criterion Editions” of their favorite films, so I made him one for the fictional LoPP Criterion Edition.  For the first time posted online.  With thanks to Manish for the laughs he gave us (and with respectful parody, to Criterion).

 

Julie M:  Overall, a fun watch, could have been more effective comedically but if you’re not familiar with the genre you’ll like it just fine. 

 [the next day]

Julie M:  Saw Rock On! (2008) tonight. Wow–this is definitely one of my faves. It had me from the very first moment: I love that style of music (yes, I am a rock chick) and both Farhan and Arjun nailed their performances perfectly. Cannot believe that it was Farhan’s debut as an actor.  And Arjun in super-long hair…it was all I could to do keep from swooning.

 

Jenny K:  And I loved that Farhan did his own singing.  He’s become quite the young recording/concert artist when he’s got the time…love that raspy quality, very sexy.

 

Julie M:  I loved the setup—a rock band that broke up on the verge of making it reunites ten years later, told mostly in flashback—and of course the awesome musical numbers, particularly this opening one which had me up and dancing. 

And clearly the director knew musicians, or consulted with musicians, or hung out with musicians, because this part illustrating their camaraderie and tendency to goof off felt completely unforced and totally real. A musical bromance, pitch-perfect and perfectly pitched.  Three snaps up with a twist! 

 
And what’s this I hear about a sequel?  The film and story were perfect just the way it was. Don’t ruin it!! Shooting is supposed to start in June; let’s hope something falls through to stop it.

 

Jenny K: Thought you would like Rock On!!  I saw it four times in the theaters, I think. I kept taking people to see it, and then the last time, as part of a local Indian film festival with the director visiting for commentary, so, of course, I had to go again. Abhishek Kapoor is a well spoken, talented fellow, and nice to talk to. I told him that his was one of the two rock and roll films that got me engrossed and made me feel like I was actually at the concert. The other was Stop Making Sense (1984) with the Talking Heads, directed by Jonathan Demme. He said he hadn’t seen it…so I sent him a copy. Don’t know if he ever got it, but, maybe it will put him in the mood for this sequel.

Julie M:  The entire film is available free on YouTube in superior quality. 

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