October 25, 2014: A Commotion and a Verdict

Finally, in our Akshaye Khanna mini-film-fest, we come to Hulchul (Commotion, 2004), where Akshaye’s romantic heroism is blunted by slapstick comedy to the point where he becomes a caricature of the handsome leading man.  Akshaye plays Jai, the youngest son of virulently misogynist patriarch Angarchand (Amrish Puri at his eye-poppingly gruffest) at war with the family of Laxmidevi, a strong-minded matriarch (Laxmi).  The two wealthy families would do just about anything to ruin each other, and when Jai’s family disrupts the brilliant marriage scheduled for Laxmidevi’s granddaughter Anjali (Kareena Kapoor), her family vows to get even.

Jai and Anjali, college-mates and bitter enemies, are each instructed to pretend to love the other in order to cause rifts within the other family. Cue hilarious faux-romantic love ballad, which is pretty cute:

When they eventually realize that they are being used as pawns for everyone else’s revenge, they fall in love for real and want to marry.  Their only hope for happiness, it seems, lies in convincing at least one of Jai’s bachelor brothers to defy Angarchand’s strict “no women” dictum and get married first.  Will it be Shakti (Arbaaz Khan), ever loyal to his father?  Or Kishan (Paresh Rawal), a sworn celibate?  Or will it be Balram (Jackie Shroff), whose one attempt at marriage years ago started the whole feud to begin with?  Supporting performances by Arshad Warsi as Lucky, Jai’s hapless best friend, and Suniel Shetty as Anjali’s hotheaded but ultimately sympathetic uncle Veeru round out the all-star cast.

There are so many things to hate about this movie, starting with the fact that Anjali is introduced as the best law student at the college and then, after her engagement falls apart, she is turned into a bubblehead.  In typical Bollywood fashion, we are asked to believe that the 30-year-old, balding, heavy-faced Akshaye is an innocent college student.  (Kareena gets a pass—she was only 25 at the time)  Most of the slapstick is reserved for poor Lucky, who falls out of trees, gets dumped into a pot of boiling glue and is tossed around by tall, strong men as if he were a beach ball.  And—worst of all—the romance between Jai and Anjali comes flying out of nowhere, and their chemistry is so bad that Jai’s frequent uncomfortable looks seem perfectly justified.

Still, the story is cute enough not to stop watching, there is enough winking at comedy-drama tropes (can you say Weekend at Bernie’s?)

to cause smiles of recognition, and I can never get enough of Jackie Shroff.

Akshaye, sorry to say, is the unfunniest thing ever in this film; fortunately, he’s more often called upon to be the straight man than to provide the yuks.  Here’s an example of what passes for a funny scene:  Jai and Kishan infiltrating Anjali’s family compound in the guise of a cow.

If you insist on seeing it, at least it’s free and subtitled on YouTube:

Verdict on Akshaye:  C to C-.  Play your own age, buddy.

 

So what have I learned?  I admit to an adoration of Akshaye’s father Vinod Khanna, a frequent bromantic pairing with Amitabh Bachchan. But my opinion of Akshaye still stands:  his work is uneven (good = Border, Dil Chahta Hai and Tees Maar Khan; OK = Aa Ab Laut Chalen; not-so-good = everything else, including the otherwise excellent Taal, where he reminded me of a limp dishrag), his hair is mostly terrible, and for some reason he strikes me as an actor who doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands, or with himself when he doesn’t have a line—there’s that unsure awkwardness about him that a better actor can turn to advantage and which he does not seem to be able to accomplish often enough.

I also find it funny that just as we were starting this challenge, one of our mutually favorite bloggers, Filmi Girl, wrote a post about Akshaye wherein she calls him a “terrible hero” and praises his TMK performance.  I love it when people agree with me.

October 22, 2014: More Chin, More Hair

We continue with our Akshaye Khanna mini-film-fest with another early one, thankfully this time with a FilmiGori’s favorite leading lady.

Aa Ab Laut Chalen (“Come, Let’s Go Back”, 1999) has Akshaye as Rohan, a good-looking, educated, upstanding young man who leaves behind his widowed mother in India as he searches for gainful employment and riches in America. Dazzled by a cousin’s success, and then betrayed by the same cousin upon arrival, Rohan reluctantly takes a taxi-driving job, where he meets the shy, beautiful Pooja (Aishwarya Rai). Pooja has her own problems: arriving in the U.S. at the invitation of her brother, she finds out that his ulterior motive is to marry her off to his boss so he can get a promotion. Rohan gallantly swoops in to rescue her, takes her back to his rooming house, and finds her a job so she can earn a plane ticket back to India.

After a while Pooja falls in love with him, but to Rohan Pooja is just a friend. In fact, Rohan has made a number of friends of good character who love him, but he is blinded by his primary goal: to get a green card and get rich.

He figures he can do both by marrying Loveleen, a sexy, wealthy NRI of decidedly non-traditional outlook, and sets to courting her while Pooja does everything she can to quash the romance.

When his friends point out that he is neglecting both Pooja and his Indian values, Rohan angrily leaves to move in with Loveleen. The broken-hearted Pooja takes a job as companion to a sick, older and supremely wealthy man, Balraj (Rajesh Khanna), who comes to see her as a daughter. Will Rohan come to his senses, or is he forever ruined by the glitz and glamour of America? Can Pooja forget Rohan and honor her new “father” by marrying his son, as he wishes? And ultimately, what is the definition of “home” and “family” and is it possible to get everything you want without losing yourself?

Akshaye does very well as the innocent, well-bred young man and even as you roll your eyes at the message that comes crashing down on your head at every opportunity, he is quite mesmerizing whenever he is onscreen—and, again, he dances!

Rai, unfortunately, has very little to do except bat her eyes and serve as a pawn in the game of others; Pooja is so unworldly that she doesn’t claim her own desires until it is too late. However, her endearingly awkward (fake-awkward, of course—we know that she dances like a dream) moves as she tries to break up a beachside date between Rohan and Loveleen makes for such a classic scene that it can be lifted from its context and still work perfectly.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film borders on the predictable and obvious despite the attempted comic relief of the Sardar and Iqbal characters, Rohan’s landlords/roommates, who are nicknamed “Hindustan” and “Pakistan” because they are always at each others’ throats. Another 1999 pairing of Ash and Akshaye, Taal, is much more subtle in its messages and with real human drama in all its complexities—and therefore more successful as a film despite Akshaye’s reduced screen time and, as I noted before, blah performance.

Aa Ab Laut Chalen is available free on YouTube.

Verdict on Akshaye:  B.  Good job with mediocre material, and an almost-negative character somewhere in the middle.

Next time we will leap to the relative present with 2004’s Hulchul.

October 18, 2014: Akshaye Khanna Film Fest, part I: Introducing Chin and Hair

The FilmiGoris differ on their opinion of Akshaye Khanna, with Jenny continually trying to convince Julie of his swoonworthiness and Julie refusing to see him as someone other than an awkward, dimple-chinned hairpiece (although they both loved him in 1997’s Border and Julie loved his over-the-top performance as an Oscar-hungry actor in 2010’s Tees Maar Khan, which Jenny has not seen because it stars her “allergy” Akshay Kumar—another divisive actor in the FilmiGoris’ world).  So Jenny has challenged Julie to watch three previously unviewed Akshaye movies of her choice and cultivate an appreciation.

Julie:  Mohabbat (“Love,” 1997) starts a run of early films with Akshaye as the handsome hero—and I grudgingly admit that he really is handsome here, with his chiseled jaw, cleft chin and (in contrast to later years) well-behaved hair.  Actually, the pool scene kinda grossed me out with all the hair…

In the story, Rohit (Akshaye Khanna) rescues the young, wealthy industrialist Gaurav (Sanjay Kapoor) from a gang attack by beating up the gang leader.  The two strike up a bromance, with Gaurav offering Rohit a job in his company and the merry Rohit serving to unclench Gaurav’s somewhat stodgy nature.  Unbeknownst to each other, both are in love with Gaurav’s sister’s best friend Shweta (Madhuri Dixit), an aspiring young singer/dancer.

 

Gaurav’s move is to secretly support her career (yeah, that will get her to notice him), while Rohit sweeps her off her feet with drama, fun and romance.   For her part, Shweta treats Gaurav like an acquaintance (gee, wonder why?) but is completely infatuated with Rohit (duh), whom she agrees to marry.   Her inattention to Gaurav doesn’t keep him from fantasizing, though.

 

It’s only a matter of time before Gaurav learns (coincidentally, moments before he plans to reveal to her that he is her secret benefactor) that Shweta the one to whom his best friend is engaged.  Recognizing the depth of their feelings and wanting them both to be happy, Gaurav simply walks away rather than confront them.

The very same evening that Gaurav decides to back off, the gang finds Rohit and attacks him, stabbing him in the stomach and throwing him off a precipice right in front of Shweta.  Gaurav feels guilty, Shweta loses her voice with the shock, and Gaurav’s sister, learning of Gaurav’s feelings for Shweta, suggests their engagement to cheer up Shweta and make her brother happy. Shweta agrees to marry Gaurav and there is hope that she is finally getting over Rohit, although she still hasn’t spoken.  Trouble soon comes in the form of a handsome car mechanic named Tony Braganza (Akshaye Khanna), a Rohit lookalike whom Gaurav hires to try and shock Shweta back into speaking…but will the ruse actually work?  and why is Gaurav suddenly getting dizzy spells?

Madhuri and Akshaye are rarely paired on film and it is easy to see why.  There’s just no chemistry between them despite her fancy dancing and his good hair and smoldering glances.  And his supposedly “melting” glance left me cold—reminded me of a hurt puppy, and not in a good way.

However, the film is still fun to watch with its more or less even balance between comedy, romance and drama, and between Madhuri’s talent and Akshaye’s rather manic youth, the songs are energetically performed (if slightly generic).

 

The last third of the film is, unfortunately, so dramatic that it’s hilarious…and one of Shweta’s costumes in Gaurav’s dream-sequence song will make you giggle uncontrollably. Still, if you come across it, give it a try.  It’s available free on YouTube, with subtitles.

 

Verdict on Akshaye:  So-so.  Not as good a performance as in Border.  Fun to watch him dance, though.

Tune in later in the week for the next film in the mini-festival, Aa Ab Laut Chalen (“Come, Let’s Go Back,” 1999).

October 6, 2014: Burma and beyond

What is an “epic?”  A book that is long and big?  A film that is intense and all-encompassing (and also long)?  A story that teases out anything and everything about the human condition?  Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace (2000) is an epic, but it is not long (less than 500 pages in the paperback edition) and it is not all-encompassing.  It is the very intimate story of three intertwined families representing three Asian cultures, Indian, Burmese and Malayan (Malaysian), and their individual and collective fates from 1885 to 1996.

glasspalacebook

 

The story begins in Mandalay, when Rajkumar, an orphaned Indian street kid, glimpses Dolly, a young servant in the household of the Burmese royal family, as the latter is being escorted out of Burma by the British.  Their brief interaction burns in his mind and he structures his entire life from that point on assuming that they will meet again and join their fates together.  He becomes a teak baron and boldly sets off to India to find her and bring her back to Burma.

Photographer:  Felice Beato, c. 1885

Photographer: Felice Beato, c. 1885

 

This romantic tale is the foil to the story of Uma, a Bengali woman joined in a proper, practical marriage to an Anglo-Indian civil servant sent to watch the Burmese royal family in their exile; her life and that of her birth family makes the Indian side of the story.  The third side of the triangle is the tale of Matthew:  he is the son of Rajkumar’s Sino-Burmese business partner and mentor, who returns from his American education with a Scandinavian wife and sets himself up as the owner of a rubber plantation in Malaya.

 

A Malayan rubber plantation, c. 1930s

Teak harvest using elephants, 1925

The second generation of these absorbing families is where the real meat of the story comes:  their friendships, romances, business alliances and decisions set against the backdrop of two world wars tell you everything you need to know about the human condition.

It is epic because it is the story of ordinary people caught between cultures and nationalities, defining themselves by their economic pursuits and their relationships with each other, being buffeted by decisions made endless rungs above them, and never losing hope or confidence in their own lives and futures (well, one does, but even that makes some weird sense). But The Glass Palace is no potboiler:  what in lesser hands could be just another tale of love and loss set in an exotic location (one from column A, one from column B) becomes truly glorious in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

 

Indian army troops in Burma, 1944

 

In trademark Ghosh style, each detail is meticulously researched and all historical facts are unerringly accurate.  If you want to learn about how teak is harvested or how rubber is grown and tapped, this is the place to find out.  If you want to understand the precise workings of a small Malayan village, you’ve got it here.  If you rub your hands thinking about precisely what sparked the revolt of elite Indian army units against their British masters, go no further.  It is the delicate balance struck when the realistic detail of everyday life meets sweeping historical saga, when the view from a hospital window is described more precisely than the fall of an empire, that creates the drama and pathos of a true epic.

The Glass Palace, Mandalay, Burma, c. 1885

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