July 6, 2012: Raincoat, Running and Rampal

Julie M:  It took many sessions on the exercise bike, but I finally finished Raincoat (2004). Such a pleasure to see Ajay out of action-hero mode, and amazing chemistry between him and Aishwarya Rai. Good performances all around and well-integrated music in the background. She managed to look lovely and sad and beaten all at once, and the performance seemed to foreshadow her role in Guzaarish.  A+, all around.

Plot summary:  Manu (Ajay Devgan) is an out-of-work millworker from a rural area who has come to the big city of Kolkata to try and drum up investments from friends to fund a new business venture.  On a whim he decides to visit Neeru (Aishwarya Rai), a former girlfriend who had dumped him six years previously to marry a wealthier man more acceptable to her family.  They spend a rainy afternoon together, discussing old times and their current lives (during which they shamelessly lie to each other without the other knowing), and a surprise ending recalls the famous O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.”

 

Jenny K:  I loved their reminiscences of their past.  And Ajay was very good playing against type. No toughguy here, until the end, maybe.

 

Julie M:  Funny, but the way it was performed I thought it was originally a stage play, because it’s basically a one-scene piece. The part at the beginning and end with Manu’s friends seemed tacked-on; I could have done with just the two characters, but I guess there had to be a way to explain his life otherwise we would not have known.

 

Jenny K:  You’re right, it’s very suitable for the theater.  This was close on the heels of Choker Bali, both directed by Rituparno Ghosh, and was at the height of Aish’s “I can prove that I’m not just a pretty face” campaign.  Raincoat works much better for me than Choker Bali, which was glacially slow, if earnestly played.

 

Julie M: Raincoat is available free on YouTube, in parts.  Here’s Part 1.

 

Jenny K:  I had a productive (for the blog) night, last night…I ran an Irrfan Double Header! Thank God for art films, because it made a twofer possible, not often feasible in Indianfilmland, without a mid-afternoon start and serious munchie fortification.

First up was Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2010) which I have been trying to see for quite some time, but it never made it to any of my local theaters. But now it’s on Netflix streaming!

As a film, you feel as if you’ve seen it before…familiar, yet with such odd mash-ups that the results are unique. At times it feels like Chariots of Fire, but set in the military…then there are bits of Sholay‘s Gabbar Singh in a rather Robin Hood kinda mood. Also strong Bimal Roy tinges of “what’s a poor self respecting farmer to do when life gives you a rotten roti?” And the answer seems to have been cribbed from the Bhagat Singh Handbook. Here’s the trailer.

The film is extremely watchable. Irrfan has such an expressive face, it’s a pleasure just to have him on screen. The story begins with a disclaimer that the plot is based on true people and incidents, but is a work of fiction and any similarities to real people are coincidental??? Is it just me, or doesn’t the first half of that statement preclude the second? Oh well…

The story is that of a peaceful, unremarkable young man from a village, who joins the military as his only escape. He was born under a wandering star, says his wife’s fortuneteller. But she knows that he’ll always come back to her, no matter how long the walkabout. While in the army, he signs up for the athletic program because he loves to run, and to get more food. He does have quite the appetite, does Paan Singh Tomar, and boy, can he run. All the way to being National Champion of the steeplechase,  and all over the world.

He seems completely happy with his military life, his racing and the occasional visits home to see his wife and kids…until…his cousin, Bahwar Singh (Jahangir Khan) steals his sugarcane crop. It seems Bahwar resents the local running celebrity just showing up infrequently and not doing any of the work around the village fields, so he takes what he wants from Paan Singh’s fields, too, which he regards as his due for not being the prodigal son.

When PST  asks for recompense, his cousin ignores him. PST goes to the police. They ignore him. He tries to call in favors from his army bosses…heck, he’s a national sports hero, after all! Well, they send in a mediator to try the case, and find in Paan Singh’s favor, but aren’t willing to enforce anything. Seems his clippings and medals get him only so much, and no more. Bahwar Singh just laughs and burns the cane, sends PST’s wife and kids running for cover, beats up his mother who stays to defend the house, and then destroys said house. What’s a law abiding man to do when the authorities don’t care? Become a dacoit, of course!

The plot sort of goes where you expect it to after that, however, the trip is well worth the taking. Irrfan and his supporting cast are wonderful, the atmosphere evocative, and the mood is increasingly more oppressive as the film unfolds. You know why Paan Singh does what he does.  He’s a rebel, not a dacoit, as he says, repeatedly, to any who will listen. If the following interview with surviving relatives is anything to go by, he did have no choice.

This film is on YouTube, too. In parts, here.

 

Julie M:  I love anything Irrfan Khan does.  You had me interested by just saying his name!

 

Jenny K:  The second part of the twofer was The Warrior (2001). Directing his first feature film, Asif Kapadia hits one out of the park on this film. A short film (about 90 minutes) this film is long on impact. It’s shot with practically no conversation, all in vibrant visuals. Taken from a tiny mention of a story of samurai life, writers Kapadia and Tim Miller along with DP Roman Osin, weave a mesmerizing story of a warrior who gives up his life as an official kingdom assassin, tired of what his liege lord asks him to do. Unfortunately, that decision costs him his home and everything dear to him. Here’s the trailer.

Lacfadia, the warrior, flees from his fellow enforcers who are sent after him to stop his escape, and having taken a vow to never raise a weapon against defenseless people again, his flight is a desperate one. Irrfan, practically silent, is even more expressive than he normally is with words. He takes up a few wanderers he meets on his seemingly aimless quest for spiritual peace. One of which, a petty thief named Riaz, played by Noor Mani, does an equally impressive job. Noor posted excerpts from his own performance here on Youtube, but it gives a nice cross section of the film’s tone.

This young man had been living a life on the street before he found an acting school set up by Mira Nair’s people when Salaam, Bombay! needed non-professional actors. Actually, most of the actors in this film were non-professionals, and the director, Mr. Kapadia, got some amazing performances from them. Great behind the scenes pieces on the DVD…almost as much footage as the film itself!

This one is definitely worth the watch. It felt a lot like Tarsem Singh’s The Fall with its eloquent silences and beautiful scenery, and also a bit like Road, Movie in the collection of oddly assorted travellers, that we reviewed earlier in our Abhay Deol Fest. The intimate interaction between relative strangers is there in all three films. Get it if you can…probably is a library choice as it won the BAFTA in 2003 for best picture.

 

Julie M:  WOW. I’m speechless with the quality of both of these films and of course with Irrfan Khan as the lead performer. I’ve got to get hold of them!  Library has neither. Bummer!

 

Jenny K:  Well, it is on YouTube, but no subtitles…I’ve watched some like that, but it can be frustrating…

 

Julie M:  Whew, finally finished Tehzeeb (Etiquette, 2003). Major EFD (emotional family drama)!  I’m still recovering.

Brief plot summary: Tehzeeb (Urmila Matondkar) grew up as the lonely daughter of famous singer Rukhsana (Shabana Azmi). Her character has been shaped by the witnessing, at age 10 or so, the murder of her beloved father (excellent cameo appearance by Rishi Kapoor) by her mother, a crime for which Rukhsana was acquitted; however, despite years of suppressed horror and rage, she still admires her mother and she is still the emotional center of Tehzeeb’s life. Tehzeeb, once an aspiring singer but now a housewife, is married to romance novelist Salim (Arjun Rampal, sigh), and they live with and care for her developmentally disabled sister, Nazneen (Dia Mirza). Here’s their great meet-cute scene.

 

Jenny K:  Actually, this is the first movie where I found Arjun attractive.  He does grow on you.

 

Julie M: One day Rukhsana announces that she is coming for a visit for the first time since Tehzeeb and Salim married five years ago; the prospect of this throws Tehzeeb for a loop. The next few weeks expose buried feelings and contradictions, rub raw nerve endings and lead to confrontations, disclosures and more.

It’s rare that I get to see an Indian movie that centers so strongly on complex female relationships. You’d think, with Bollywood’s preference to avoid niche marketing, that such a project would never be greenlighted unless it was liberally sprinkled with dishoom, or at least some scantily clad gori dancers. But all this female bonding, to me, was treated too superficially.

The schmaltzy background music was more suited to TV soap operas than a mainstream movie, and the requisite hospital scene near the end had me rolling my eyes.  Nevertheless, I appreciated the character conflicts even if they were handled in a daytime-drama way (from sets, costumes and staging through action and significant glances…is this Mumbai or Pine Valley?). “Tehzeeb,” in addition to being the name of the lead character, also means “etiquette,” and ultimately it is etiquette that kept Tehzeeb all these years from confronting her mother with her feelings, which could have avoided all this intense drama.

Yes, there were dance numbers, but they felt tacked on and gratuitous, particularly Arjun’s, seen here. It was completely wrong for the character, as he played kind of a combination of narrator, comic relief and token useless male (but he was gorgeous, especially in that black turtleneck sweater, and if I were to have a slightly cowed but very romantic husband I’d like him to be Salim).

Urmila, a decent enough actress, should never be allowed to dance. Everything I see her in she is clunky and robotic and looks like she is slightly in pain.

 

Jenny K:  Now, to give Urmila her due, I ought to put up one of her more acclaimed dance performances from China Gate.  Now, I’m not saying she’s going to threaten Madhuri’s queen-of-the-gypsy-numbers status or anything, but she does hold her own, here.

 

Julie M: And WHAT was up with the “creative” dance number for Dia Mirza??!!  The “move the action along” music was much better, except when it was intrusive, which was, oh, about half the time. The slow songs were lovely. And my favorite part was when Tehzeeb, entertaining her mother and sister, parodied famous movie numbers. Can’t find the scene online, though.

 

Jenny K:  That was always the scene that stuck in my mind, too.  She was really funny, and on-the-nose in her imitations.  Hidden talents!

 

Julie M: Overall…a solid B film, worth seeing if you come across it but nothing to go out of your way to find.

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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. 

Nov. 3, 2011: Action Movies ~ Thugs, Jugs & Bad Rugs

Julie M:  Saw Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006) last night. I was pretty dubious about how good it would be considering Indian action films are hit-and-miss for me and I’d never seen SRK do extended action, but if I’m going to see Ra.One and Don 2, I thought I’d plow through it.

I’ll try to do a plot summary without spoilers, although this film was so huge that I’m sure everyone’s already seen it. Don (Shahrukh Khan) is a high-ranking lieutenant in the drug-and-theft syndicate run by a shadowy kingpin named Singhania, and Don is in charge of the entire Malaysian end of things. He is handsome, smart, ruthless and a pretty decent dresser if you discount his habit of wearing, as necklaces, printed ties that match his open-collar, printed shirts [proof in our earlier article.]. DCP DeSilva (Boman Irani) is a police officer bent on hunting him down and extracting information crucial to bringing Singhania’s organization down.

At one point in the recent past Don had forced mild-mannered (but exceedingly handsome and fit) computer tech Jasjit (Arjun Rampal, looking very fine indeed) to steal some diamonds, but Jasjit was caught by DeSilva and put in prison. He has just been released and is out to get revenge, not on Don, but on DeSilva who wouldn’t believe he was doing the crime under threat of the murder of his wife and kid. Another element is Roma (Priyanka Chopra), the sister of one of Don’s employees whom Don killed for trying to get out of the business. Roma anonymously infiltrates Don’s organization and makes herself useful as she waits for the chance to get her revenge on Don.  Don’s two molls (Roma and Anita) get their own random disco item number.

A sting operation ends up with Don falling, wounded, into DeSilva’s hands. DeSilva sets up a plan of his own to infiltrate Don’s group by substituting a Don look-alike (also Shahrukh Khan), the lighthearted Vijay, a festival singer, in this number.

The rest of the film is a high-powered and near-random collection of chase scenes, gunfights, explosions, confrontations and coincidences with one or two pretty important plot twists that, although not super-surprising, were shocking enough to upend assumptions of individual characters’ motives. The final scene very nicely sets up the upcoming sequel. There were a couple of good musical numbers. The attempted stylishness of the film is demonstrated in the title song, “Main Hoon Don.”

I admit that I was highly entertained by Don. I like action-thrillers that focus more on thriller than action, and Don’s plot twists came at just the right moments to keep me from concluding that the action was pointless and silly. There was a significant amount of film-making awkwardness–SRK cannot, CANNOT pull off fight scenes so don’t make him try anymore, OK?–and one or two “oh, come ON!” moments, such as Roma’s inexplicable martial-arts prowess, and SRK and another guy being suddenly sucked out of an airplane and somehow one of them has the presence of mind to grab a parachute, which they of course fight over in free fall. But it was high-energy, somewhat stylishly done and did not focus too much on the details of Don’s gangster business. SRK was pretty good in a negative role–I like him better doing these than the gushy romantic roles.

 

Jenny K:  Here’s my own, Oh, come on moment…you can’t say SRK’s fighting wasn’t believable in Dil Se… and you haven’t seen Asoka yet, have you?  The fighting with swords and various other pointy objects is quite effective.  Maybe it’s just the director that makes the difference?  Sorry, Farhan.  You know I love you.

 

Julie M:  My favorite number was this one from later in the film showing Vijay-as-Don, on the run and drunk/high on bhang, dancing an ode to paan (filled betel leaf):

Not so fortunately, Kareena Kapoor’s item number in the beginning was cringe-worthy.  Although the song was pretty good, she is far too muscular and the steps too jerky to effectively pull off a seduction:

Overall, a fun way to spend a Friday night and B didn’t mind it too much either.

 

Jenny K:  Kareena’s seduction number in the glittery dress, “Yeh Mera Dil,” is a tribute to Helen’s version of it in the earlier Don with Amitabh in the lead of that one. It’s almost a move for move copy…a camp classic, it’s said. And the other one that you liked, the paan number, is another BigB classic.  SRK’s designers paid tribute to it with the design of the shirt fabric he wore.   I will say, that as much as I love Amitabh, his dancing makes Shahrukh look like Fred Astaire in comparison.

 

Julie M:  I like the original version of “Kaike Paan” better.  And even in the earlier version of “Yeh Mera Dil,” it’s a throwback to about 1966. Still campy, still not seductive. No wonder it doesn’t work on Don 1978. But Don 2006 seems to succumb to it, at least until the end. Maybe that’s the difference between SRK and The BigB.

Here’s the other song remake from the 1978 version, Main Hoon Don.

 

Jenny K: Wow…I hadn’t realized how much they’ve changed this one, though keeping the same title and setting.  Only a few words in the chorus are similar, but SRK’s version is much more dangerous and James-Bondy.  Completely different music. And boy, does he make a better evil entrance!  Not sure I’m digging the lion mask on Amitabh.

 

Julie M:  And for those interested in plot differences: not many, mostly in the spoilers that I’ve left out.

The 2006 version is clearly both an homage and a reboot for the 21st century. Did the film need it? Probably not, but then again, neither did Footloose (1984 and 2011).

 

Jenny K:  Don’t get me started on Footloose 2011…talk about your slavish, pointless xeroxing.  No matter how much the artists involved said they loved the original, why bother if it’s that close a copy?

 

Julie M: My personal feeling is that remakes have to happen for a reason, not just to make the original more palatable to the younger generation (e.g., better clothes, music, technology and if necessary special effects) and earn more money for the studio holding the rights to it.

[a couple of weeks later]

Jenny K:   Went to see Ra.One on opening night and thought I should warn you, as you have definite opinions on kitsch in your films…

 

[Sorry about the video quality (you can up it to HD on the menu bar) and no subtitles, but this one seemed more indicative of the feel of the film.]

Pat and Kathy loved it. Pat had been really worried she’d hate it, as she likes superhero films no more than I do. Reena (our friend from Mumbai) seemed to like it too. I didn’t hate it, but was pretty bored for most of the first half anyway.  Problem for me was that I kept seeing all the influences that SRK’s people were drawing from.  Virtuosity, in particular, which I loved, was a big influence, as well as Tron and Terminator 2 (Good Arnold) with tiny bits of Matrix and Starman thrown in with the kitchen sink. And, of course, though the tech on it was much better than Virtuosity, I didn’t like it nearly as much.  That could just be the Russell Crowe factor…I am aware of my own prejudices.

SRK brought his own sense of humor and self-mocking to it, especially in the first half…but all the exposition had me sorta bored…the kid, Armaan Verma, kept reminding me of Elijah Wood back in his whippersnapper days.  Kareena was not very annoying.  Arjun Rampal continues his sexy villain trajectory…best one yet.  He’s mostly in the second half…which is much the better part in almost every way.  Beware, for you, of a rather alarming cameo at the very beginning of the second half.  I thought it was sort of funny.

I decided, after I left, that maybe I was being too hard on the filmmakers.  This is really only one of the first few tries at the Indian Super Hero genre, and what else are they supposed to do but draw from things that they liked from international examples?  It isn’t a direct copy of anything…and with the song and dance numbers (two, I think, plus a montage song and another dance over the credits) and after they get used to the CGI and the other bells and whistles, then, maybe they will start coming up with their own original themes and plots. I think I may go back with a few of my other friends who missed Wednesday’s show and give it another chance…if just for the experience (hopefully the last) of seeing SRK try to play South Indian.  And to watch the crazy Manga section at the beginning, over again.  Everyone liked this bit. But someone should feed the man intravenous milkshakes for a while…SOOOOO skinny!

 

Julie M:  And my friend Marcia and I went to see it on Saturday afternoon, 2:30 p.m. show.  I’m so mad at the theater—well, not the theater, but the promoter who organizes Indian films at the theater, but the theater bears some blame as well. After our Bodyguard debacle with no subtitles, I called the theater a couple of days before to make sure the showing was subtitled. The guy said yes. To make double-sure I emailed the promoter who arranges the films at this theater and never heard back. So of course, we get there and it’s not subtitled. The guy at the ticket desk said that they really don’t control which showings are subtitled. So, that’s TWO films non-subbed that I’ve seen there, and only one (ZNMD) that was. I’m going to email the promoter again and electronically yell at him/her. Or maybe I’ll just spread his name all over the Internet and shame him. He’s got one more chance.

Nevertheless, we stayed. The first part, where the son is dreaming in a video game, was fun because of the obvious allusions to Asoka (the look of the hero-character) and calling the damsel (Priyanka Chopra from Dostana) “Desi Girl.” And Sanjay Dutt as Khalnayak. Definite in-jokes that I had to explain to Marcia.

 

Jenny K: I could have done without that tight, fisheye lens on Sanjay.  Scariest thing in the movie, but a fun segment.  Shahrukh as the new Manga Superhero?  Now his hair was great in that scene, not like the crazy, curly one in his mundane life.

 

Julie M: The rest, to me, varied from merely interesting (the whole thing about video games transitioning to reality) to very funny (the scene with the piercings at the airport) to gratuitous (all the booty-shaking dancing goris) to random (fight scene at the airport) to just plain confusing (why did the game villain fixate so much on the kid?).

 

Jenny K:  That one was in the text…Ra.One hates losing to anyone, and as Prateik left the game in the lead, our villain needed to find “Lucifer” (his game name) to save face…as if he had one, in the first place!

 

Julie M:  I’m sure I missed some key explanations due to the lack of subtitles, but in general it was easy to follow. Nerdy dad designs killer video game villain Ra.One to impress son, then due to its particularly advanced technology the game invades the real world. Dad is killed by villain, who is actually looking for the son, but comes back as G.One, the avatar of the hero (which he had modeled on himself). G.One follows family around to protect them, and eventually has to battle the shape-shifting villain. Of course Mom half-falls in love with G.One, and son bonds to him. Add in item numbers (gratuitous, as mentioned earlier, but darn if that “Chamak Challo” song isn’t catchy!) and a cameo by Rajinikanth Sir (our theater went WILD when he showed up, more so than for SRK), and there isn’t a trick that was missed. I would call it a glorious hot mess, and a sequel seems likely.

 

Jenny K:  Ah, a South Indian audience in your area…probably why they usually don’t bother with subtitles there.  From my experience, South Indian promoters think there is no one non-desi that will want to see their films.

Here’s that catchy Akon song, and a link to an interesting video on the recording of it.  BTW, get rid of that line through the video by hitting the red rectangle on the menu bar below it.  Annoying.

 

Julie M: There were too many crotch and snot jokes for my ultimate comfort, and allusions to Terminator 2 and The Matrix were frequent. Like you, I also saw a bit of Starman in it. Marcia was slightly miffed because the main game designer’s name was Akashi, a good Japanese name, but the character was supposed to be Chinese. She thought it showed a cultural insensitivity on the part of South Asians for East Asians. SRK looked gaunt (guess he was supposed to be buff? He sure was in the opening sequence, but who knows how CGI’d that was), and in the final over-the-credits number he looked much older than he is.

 

Jenny K:  Tell Marcia that I didn’t get the impressions in the dialogue that Akashi was supposed to be Chinese…everytime someone joked with him, calling him Jackie Chan (because of all the martial arts) he’d get really p’ed off at them.  His mother would hit anyone who said it.  They seem to agree with Marcia.

 

Julie M: Plot–ordinary to us, but probably unusual and interesting in context. Genre–sort-of a superhero movie, kind-of science-fictiony but more like a traditional (to us) video-game movie of the type that attracts 14-y-o boys and that I don’t typically watch. Special effects…definitely high-level. My favorite effects were not the animations that defined the game characters, cool as they were, or the high-flying fight scenes, silly as THEY were, but the ones where the train station was destroyed. Awesome.

 

Jenny K:  That scene where the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (calling it the VT was much easier) was demolished, was, I think the best CGI segment in the film.  Very state-of-the-art.  Here’s a short promo with BigB talking about CGI use in Indian Cinema today.

Sorry about the subtitle problems…But I am impressed with both of you sticking in there. Fabulous! I think you did get most of the jokes, too…though you’d really see even more parallels if you’d seen Virtuosity. The girls here were pleased with everything except SRK’s horrible curly wig as the game designer, and there being too many “butt dance numbers.”

I kept having problems with plot logic, like, why a game company would have so much equipment to create the real life game characters in the first place. Also, why would you invent a game that requires you to know various forms of technically complicated martial arts to actually play it? Isn’t the popularity of these games due to the fact that they make normally skilled boys major warrior he-men? Oh, well. When I got too frustrated, I could just stare at Arjun some more.

 

Julie M:  Arjun definitely did not disappoint. Without the hair, though, he was hardly recognizable. I likes my hunky men with long hair…but there was not enough Arjun to suit me.  I didn’t at all mind nerdy SRK–kind of a throwback to Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi–but the hair was hideous. I agree with the NYT review that Kareena looks better with a few extra pounds. And her eyes did not bug me like they usually do. I think she makes a good mom-character, although doing this bit once more might disqualify her from ingénues in the future.

Compared to this movie (which I remind you that I DID like), Bodyguard seemed almost…literary in its faithfulness to the masala format.

 

Jenny K:  Ah, Salman…patron saint of the old, multi-song genre!  Who’da thought I’d be thankful to him for something?

The adventure continues…

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!

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