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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August 15, 2011: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Julie M:  Saw Being Cyrus tonight. Loved it, with qualifications: I am addicted to the genre (noir thrillers), I loved this particular story, and the cinematography and set were perfect. Standout acting by Dimple Kapadia in particular and also Boman Irani (a little histrionic); Saif was very good too but I felt he was a little reserved. You could really tell the difference in craft between the older and younger actors, and the difference between creating a character and saying lines emotively.

For all that it was in English, I felt that I missed a lot of the texture of the dialogue when they would break into Hindi (unsubtitled) and the subtitles, which I put on because there was a lot of mumbling and slurring of the English lines, were pretty badly rendered and also missed a lot.

And–carrying on from the Sholay discussion–I felt that this genre may not have been particularly native to India, but a particular obsession of the filmmaker and made to be palatable to Western audiences (the English, and the brevity of the film in general).

But overall–great film, very glad I saw it and it adds to my “art film” mental library. Here’s a scene:

Jenny K: I thought you’d like it. Very stylish, and great performances all around. I bought it because of Dimple and Naseeruddin Shah, of course. He has all these little details that seem like they are derailing the character, and actually, they create it. His character is so “out of it” with the drugs and his artistic eye (“I was trying to get the flowers, but they were too far down”) that he lives in a fog the whole movie. Dimple is so brave as an actor, being that unsympathetic and not worrying a fig if she’s not at full beauty. She can’t help being beautiful, even so, but is a very credible shrew.

Boman is in full-crotchety mode, and I completely believed it, except when I look at his hands. They are so sensitive and beautiful, physically, that you know they are the hands of an artist, not a low-life landlord. Saif’s character is low key, yes, but very layered. Quiet Crazy he does quite well. There’s this little bit he does in a rather meh film, Darna Mana Hai, with Boman again, that is quite quietly creepy. Actually that movie has a number of “short story” kind of scenes with great actors, Nana Patekar, Raghuvir Yadav, Rajpal Yadav and Viveik Oberoi doing a very unusual turn. The framing story is weak though:  kids alone in the woods, sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories…until they are picked off, one by one by invisible stalkers.

I’d much rather watch the old guard in movies like Being Cyrus, even if they are seen as “not Indian enough”. I wish they had told us a bit more about Saif’s past, at the end. You understood the basics, but I could have done with more details. And more Naseeruddin…he just disappeared as the Boman story line amped up.

Speaking of  “more Naseeruddin”, I can’t wait for Today’s Special to be out on DVD. They keep pushing it back. Naseerji is fabulous in it. I did a profile on him and TS on AW a few months back, and I want to be able to watch it whenever I want!  Aasif Mandvi, the writer and star of the film was just as wonderful, if not quite as much the apple of my eye as is Naseerji.  Who could be?

Julie M: I think we got plenty on the Cyrus/Xerxes character’s background. [Spoilers. Highlight to view.] Abused child, foster care system, looked to his older sister for love and protection and this pattern kept up to the point where she could enlist him in her scams, where he couldn’t say no. Plus he is just enough of a sociopath himself not to care what it involved, as long as it gained him the security he needed. Until this last job, when he seemed to come to his senses and at the end opt out. But you know what? He’s not done. He’ll go back to her, because he’s immature and the world can’t give him what he’s seeking. It would have been good, in the story, if something about the Sethna family relationship brought him to his senses, but I didn’t get an idea of what made him leave her. [end of spoilers]

And where where where can I see Today’s Special? The trailer was so engaging that I have to see the entire thing. Tried to find it online but no dice…it’s also not on Icefilms (strange, because they have mostly everything).

Jenny K: Today’s Special is a lovely, lovely film, and I’d love to tell you where to watch it, but aside from checking with it’s website to see if any local showings are scheduled (and I think those listed are all for last year), it’s pretty much unavailable until the DVD comes out, they are thinking in the fall, maybe September. I’ve pre-ordered it on Amazon, but it was originally scheduled for release in April and was postponed. I do not feel secure yet. After I watch it, if it’s not in the library collection, I may lend it to you, if you promise to be very, very careful…it’s Nasserji!

[later that week…]

Julie M:  Found Dostana on YouTube–English subs and good quality–watching. So silly but fun to see Abhishek putting on the gay act…he’s way too good at it. And Kirron Kher playing another mom. She always gets the “cool mom” parts. I don’t normally watch this kind of movie but I admit to having a good time with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this sort-of resembles. 

 [after a while…] 

Julie M: Very cute and fun. Didn’t end the way I thought it might, but after all, it’s an Indian film. Great soundtrack. Loved LittleB’s performance most of all. Great bad fashions when they were dressing Bobby Deol up (striped pants? chee!)  I also loved the scene where they’re all dancing to the “Beedi” song from Omkara. I’m proud that I could identify that song: also the iPod Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham number and later, the background scene from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.  And when Sameer starts listing classic Bollywood characters who are “obviously” gay (Gabbar Singh from Sholay!), I laughed so hard because I had seen all those films.

This was the funniest scene. No subtitles, but the visuals are evocative enough that you don’t need them. Here’s the backstory: Neha (Priyanka Chopra) asks Sameer (LittleB ) and Kunal (John Abraham), whom she thinks are a gay couple, how they met, and LittleB makes up this romantic story of how they met in Venice and how their “love” grew. I adore the rainbow half-gloves.

Jenny K:  Never saw Dostana, thought it might be that John Abraham shirt off kinda comedy that I’d hate. But you make it sound rather good, especially free, online. May have to make a reassessment. I like LittleB’s comic timing, as well. He’s better with comedy than romance, I think.  Don’t think it’s a co-inky-dink that KKHH and K3G are conspicuously referenced…tells you right up front that it’s a “Karan Johar presents…” production.  Saves on royalties, after all.  Practicalities are king.

Julie M: Since you’ve not seen it, I have to warn you that the opening credits and the first 5-10 minutes are simply awful. Teeny-tiny bikinis on Miami Beach with a truly dumb background song, and a John Abraham butt shot. I nearly turned it off. Just power through them and know that it gets much, much better. JA does spend most of the movie with an exposed chest but it makes a weird kind of sense given his character, both the straight and “gay” version.

One other note. I can see where the scene I posted could offend gay people if taken out of context–but because it’s a very straight character’s telling of what he thinks a gay meet-cute might be like, it’s clear that the character is speaking from a point of ignorance and it can be excused. The movie overall is not insulting to gay people although it does play on a few stereotypes.

Jenny K: Well, we’ll just have to see what I think…I’m dubious…thoat clip looks pretty silly to me. I’ll try to reserve judgment, but to paraphrase a friend of mine, I don’t watch that kind of film much in the US, why should I give it a chance in another language? Does a need for translation push it into acceptability? We’ll see.  I’m going to try to watch Dostana, now…[straghtens shoulders]. Off I go…

Julie M: Just try it and don’t forget that the first 10 minutes are supremely bad. I thought it would be stupid too but I got hooked, and watching it in 10-minute segments online was easy–I could quit anytime, but for some reason I just didn’t. It all kind of combines into something very cute, especially LittleB’s role. And sometimes bad-stupid is fun.

Jenny K:  I’m going to remind you that you said that…

[later on]

Jenny K: Hey! I survived Dostana and didn’t even need to gouge my eyes out or anything!?! It was even cute at times. Go figure! Waaay too much ritualized ogling of John’s torso, though. He even seemed bored with the attention in some of the numbers. I know he can act. I’ve seen Water. But I guess they have to give the audience what they want!

It’s really odd…I can look at John Abraham and agree that he’s really handsome, but he just doesn’t register on my personality meter. Other than in Deepa Mehta’s Water, when I look back on what he’s done, I mostly go, “Oh yeah, he was in that film!” but I hadn’t remembered it until I read it on IMDb. Same with Bobby Deol. Played almost the same role, handsome, sympathetic richguy, in Humraaz, and I just didn’t care about whether he ended up with the girl or not. Might his middle name be “Meh”?

Abhishek’s timing was as usual, very good, as you said. Though I think I liked Boman’s gay parody a tad better. He’s such a hoot. And I thought Priaynka was beautiful and winsome, was sweet and always in character, danced well when she was required to…what else can you ask for? Why do people pick on her, I ask you? Yet, they do.

The script was predictable, I’d seen it all before, but that lack of brain-engagement with an actual plot left me time to ponder those burning questions, like: heiress or not, why would Neha ever buy an apartment large enough to shoot the Mumbai edition of Big Brother House? Was the lonely gay soldier the same actor as the INS agent, and if so, why didn’t he blow their cover? Why were there so many runway shows in this film? Neha worked for a magazine not a fashion house! But most crucially, why did no one on the production staff cringe when the writer suggested having “our boys” toy with the kid’s psyche like that? Chee?!? My vote for Most Disgusting Plot Device. I think I may just have to skip Dostana 2 when it comes out, but thanks for getting me past my trepigaytion about it .

Julie M: I admit to being a Priyanka-doubter. She’s just too skinny and plastic-looking to take seriously given all the not-perfect but still gorgeous and talented Indian women in films. But she does OK, and for this movie whatever she’s got goin’ on works. This movie was my first exposure ;0 to John Abraham and I wasn’t impressed either.  Dostana 2 will just have to live without either of us.

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