Sept. 18, 2014: Women’s Rights, and Wrongs

Way back in March, in honor of International Women’s Day, I decided to get the girls together on several nights in the same week to see what the Indian cinema market had to offer on this theme, as it seemed they were making a particular effort.  It was a rather intrepid undertaking, going to see three films with women in the drivers seats, at three different venues within three days, and I thought I was up to it…but it may have been too much.

The first film we went to see was Queen at the Loehmann’s Cinema in Falls Church.  Pat and I went out in the cold snap and joined a faithful group of midweek theater-goers (it was a Tuesday) eager to find out what all the fuss was about.  I had never seen so many glowing reviews for a film, or more specifically, a performer as I had for Kangna Ranaut that week on Rediff.com, here’s an example.  I was really looking forward to watching it, and it didn’t disappoint.

Kangana Rules in QueenTo give a short synopsis, Kangna plays Rani, a lovely, yet very girl-next-door Delhi girl, quiet, modest, soft spoken, who we meet in the first days of her wedding celebrations. Along with Rani we meet her parents and her funny younger brother, Chintu and the rest of her family, and are ready to jump right in and join the party.  But, unfortunately it doesn’t last long, as her fiancée, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), gets her to meet with him at a café, two days before the final ceremony…and calls it off!  Rani doesn’t rant, doesn’t rail at him, as one would expect, but she pleads with him, and when he still holds firm, sleepwalks through the next few days of the dismantling of her shaadi dreams.

The one thing she can’t let go of is her honeymoon to Paris and Amsterdam.  Lovingly planned to two of her favorite cities, taking that trip, even alone, is the only thing that might, she thinks, assuage the pain in her heart.  Her parents, helpless to do anything else for her, let her go.  The rest of the story is the adventures Rani has on this ten day voyage that has her discover a part of herself, find a strength that she never knew existed…a life without a man defining her.  This new freedom, while daunting at first, with practice, becomes a life-sustaining force for Rani.  She meets many new friends, sees new places and has volumes of new experiences along the way.

Lisa Haydon, Girl-WindPat and I both really enjoyed going along with her.  The performances were uniformly good, with Rajkummar being effectively swinish as the jilting boyfriend who comes to his senses, too late.  I’d seen him in sweet earnest performances in Talaash and Kai Po Che!  and had no idea that he could play scum so well… And the eye-opener of the evening for me was Lisa Haydon, who I hadn’t seen before, and she just captured focus in any scene she was in, blowing through Rani’s life in Paris like one of that city’s fabled April breezes.  She’s going to go places, I’m sure, and the resemblance to Angelina Jolie, doesn’t hurt.  But Kangna Ranaut captures our heart in every scene, whether crying after her first release of emotion with her first taste of alcohol, or dancing like a maniac on the club bar, or simply standing up to her louse of a fiancée.  She holds onto that girl at the center of the story and makes us feel it with her and root her on.  Two major thumbs up from us.  Sorry the trailer doesn’t have subtitles.  Couldn’t find one with them.

Continuing with India’s ongoing female empowerment theme, Kathy’s all jazzed up to see Juhi Chawlha opposite Madhuri in Gulaab Gang, about a woman (Mads) who fights for womens’ rights, literally and verbally!  So, off we went to Gaithersburg to catch this one.

Directed by Soumik Sen and pairing two of our favorite actresses, you’d think we would have loved this one.  I should have researched it more, though it’s been so long since we’ve had a good Juhi film, that we’d probably have gone to give her support, in any case.

Juhi Chawla the VillainessThe research would have shown me that what purported to be a based-on-real-life story had been drumming up lots of negative publicity and protesting by the purported heroine of the piece Sampat Pal Devi that didn’t bode well for the film.

A brief synopsis would tell you that Madhuri Dixit is playing Rajjo, a woman who is moved to establish an ashram in Uttar Pradesh to teach young local women how to read, support themselves and even defend themselves.  They live and work together in unity and peace (unless you count the fits of physical justice they deal out that have all the men in the area wary of the sight of pink saris coming at them), and Rajjo is encouraged by their future when an ambitious local woman politician Sumitra Devi (Juhi Chawla) comes to their ashram looking for the Gulaab Gang’s support in the upcoming election.  But Sumitra should have known that her less than noble goals would come out and you just don’t cross Rajjo’s gals, as any of the locals could have told her.  Juhi is fabulous, by the way…I’ll never take her at face value again…pretty can play devious and crafty, as well!  Brava!

Madhuri in FlightGulaab Gang dancingMadhuri is lithe and agile and suitably tough in her role, but I didn’t know how to take the film, as a protest or a comedy?  In the midst of a fight, here comes a musical number stopping all the drama.  And those sticks they are wielding are not dandia sticks, either.  They pack quite a punch, complete with martial arts style slo-mo.  I’m afraid the music didn’t make their message any more palatable to me.  I’d agree that women shouldn’t sit still and take all the abuse given them, but should they take action that make them just as brutal as the guys?  What with this and the equally iffy Dedh Ishqiya from January (Sorry, Nasseerji, you know I wanted to love it!) Left us with a sour taste in our mouths.  Thank goodness we’ve still got Irrfan to look forward to.

That would be Irrfan Khan, in The Lunchbox (Dabba – 2013). The “little crossover film that could” has Irrfan trading notes for food with an under-appreciated wife, not his, played by Nimrat Kaur.  But this slow-burning foodie favorite has been worth the wait for audiences and investors alike as it’s slowly earned it’s money back and is still playing at four theaters here in the US 29 weeks after it’s opening!  It’s an art house darling to die for.

The Lunchbox PosterThe short story: Nimrat’s character, Ila, is an unhappy housewife, trying to recapture her husband’s attention by her cooking, to not much avail. She gets advice on how to spice up her life as well as her food from the unseen “Auntie” upstairs (voiced by Bharati Achrekar). When Ila sends the newly flavorful dishes off to her hubby via the tiffin-wallah delivery boys, she waits hopefully for a change in his demeanor, but doesn’t get one. However, the next time she tries, she gets a thank you note, of sorts, from the man who actually received the food, Saajan Fernandes, widower and impending retiree (Irrfan, yummy, as usual, even when trying to hide his light behind the “moustache of middle age”).  The continuing errors of the tiffin guys give her the outlet they need for their unexciting lives.  The will she/won’t she tension of his appreciation and her need of it, keeps you nicely on the edge of your seat until the end.  Here’s a trailer.

Now, the SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen it, and intend to, don’t read the paragraph below.

As much as I liked the performances (Nawazuddin Siddiqui was adorable in this! So many faces this man has!), this film doesn’t merit the high degree of adoration the public seems to be giving it. The biggest problem I have with it would perhaps be solved by putting back in some of the length it feels like was there at one time. I’m all for women’s empowerment, but I don’t think that her character would have left her marriage with so little cause, in such a short span of time. She convinces herself that her marriage is over because her husband doesn’t like her lunches, and perhaps is having an affair? And she doesn’t even confront him about it, not once? Seems horribly abrupt, or perhaps we’ve missed a scene or two of spousal abuse. Never thought I’d be asking for that, but a cause like that would make more sense of her drastic solution, especially taking her child with her. I certainly wasn’t expecting a “make yourself happy, no matter who it hurts” ending worthy of Hollywood at its shallowest.

July 1, 2013: Best Actor? Nasseer, By Far

Naseeruddin ShahThis week Julie is just brimming over with an accumulation of Naseeruddin Shah film magic.  I’m just going to get out of the way.  It’s a natural reaction, in my opinion…evidence of my own mania for the man, here.

Julie M:  I continue to be impressed with Naseeruddin Shah.  I’ve seen, what, eight or nine films with him now, and I want more!  [just counted, and actually I’ve seen him in 19 films!] The last two just reached out and slapped me across the face, they were that good.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for including Parzania in the latest box! I was totally gobsmacked by that film, and your man Naseerji was simply stunning in it. Trailer here. Wow.

Jenny K:  I did warn you…he can be quite habit-forming.  Ought to have some sort of label at the beginning of each film, or something.

Julie M:  Parzania (2007) is the story of a Parsi family caught up in the religious riots of 2002 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Cyrus (Naseeruddin Shah) is a middle-class, educated movie projectionist with a wife, Shernaz (Sarika), and two children, a daughter (Pearl Barsiwala) and a son named Parzan (Parzan Dastur). Parzan is a typical ten-year-old, fooling around and dreaming of a land he calls Parzania, where the buildings are made of chocolate and you can do whatever you want. They befriend a visiting American named Allan (Corin Nemec), who is escaping from a troubled life and is looking for answers by studying Gandhi’s teachings in India. The family is close and life is good.

One day while Cyrus is at work a joint action between a radical Hindu political party and the local police in retaliation for a Muslim leads to the majority Muslim population in the family’s neighborhood getting attacked by a gang of thugs while the police watch. Their housing block is torched and citizens are murdered; in the melee Parzan is separated from his mother and sister. Despite obstacles Cyrus eventually reunites with his wife and daughter but Parzan remains missing. Allan finds the family in a refugee camp and takes them in.

parzaniacover

The rest of the film is the family’s search both for meaning and their missing son, and the horror of being caught up in a brutal war between religio-political factions, neither of which they affiliate with. It is based on a true story.

This is not an easy film to watch. The riot scenes are graphic and horrific, and there is a courtroom scene at the end that had me spellbound while tears were welling up. As a parent I cannot imagine anything worse than being forcibly separated from my children with no knowledge of where they are or if they are even alive, and the pain was portrayed in an absolutely realistic, compelling and heart-rending way by the two lead actors. Best thing I’ve ever seen Naseerji do, and I was unfamiliar with Sarika (later looked her up–ex-wife of Kamal Hasan) but am suitably impressed.

The film is mostly in English, but the bits in Urdu and Hindi are about 15-20% of the film and are not subtitled. I would have liked to have gotten the full impact of the movie–I can figure out some Hindi but this must have been some kind of dialect because it just sped by me, and I have no Urdu at all. Nevertheless, even with only 85% of the dialogues in my language it still was a heart-stoppingly powerful film. No wonder it was banned in Gujarat when it came out: it’s not something the tourist board would want spread around, and it makes the police and politicians look corrupt, incompetent and heartless.

I could say so much more about the film’s pacing and cinematography, which are both perfect, but this has gotten too long already. Although obviously the true story has been dramatized, the historical facts are correct, heartbreakingly so. The damage and waste of humanity occasioned by these constant religious wars is really keeping India from any kind of progress. Gandhi must be spinning in his grave.

This is definitely one I will recommend to all–amazing piece of filmmaking. It is available free on YouTube here. 

Julie M:  The other film was 3 Deewarein (3 Walls, 2003)…and, true to Naseerji’s form, it was an excellent one. To me, possibly Naseeruddin Shah’s best performance of what I’ve seen so far (although he was really good in Sparsh as well).

Absolutely unbelievable character drama with four superior lead performances. Trailer here (subtitled).

Brief plot summary: Jaggu (Jackie Shroff) and Nagya (Nagesh Kukunoor) are both prison inmates, convicted of murder and awaiting execution. Jaggu freely admits to killing his wife in a jealous rage, but Nagya insists that the murder he is accused of (also his wife) was an accident. They are joined one day by a transfer prisoner, Ishaan (Naseeruddin Shah), who is also convicted of murder and is a serial escapee. His story is that he too killed accidentally, tripping during a bank robbery and the gun went off, killing a pregnant woman. The three men form a bond of friendship in this somewhat experimental prison where the goal of the warden (Gulshan Grover) is rehabilitation rather than warehousing.

Naseerji 70's ChicJenny K:  I think I first fell in love with Naseerji when he popped up with that silly curly wig! Oh, my…

Julie M:  Into this milieu walks Chandrika (Juhi Chawla), a documentary filmmaker who is doing a project on death row prison inmates. She asks to interview these three (the only ones in the prison set to die) for her film, to raise awareness about the true face of crime in India. Over the course of the interviews we learn more about these men, and about Chandrika as well, who we find out is undertaking the project as a way to escape her abusive husband. Meanwhile, Ishaan is planning yet another escape and Nagya is hoping for a pardon at the prison’s annual Republic Day celebration, while Jaggu is resigned to his ultimate fate.

The characterizations are sharp and the way stories unfold are unexpected. Naseeruddin Shah’s Ishaan is a charming con man whose brain you can almost see ticking away, while Jackie Shroff’s Jaggu is a sensitive cook and poet, who speaks almost entirely in English. Nagya’s twitchiness seemed a bit forced for the purpose of the character development, but it worked. Juhi Chawla ably breaks out of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl image to portray a very complex character on her own, not merely the vehicle for the exploration of the mens’ stories or a potential love interest for one of them. Here’s a key scene with her husband. 

Jenny K:  I was really impressed by Nagesh Kukunoor who was the writer and director of the film, too. I think it was his third film, and unlike most directors who put themselves in their own films, actually has reason to do so. Not your typical film hero, but gives a reasonably effective performance, when up against Jackie’s practiced film hero style and Naseer’s undeniable charm, you wouldn’t necessarily expect it of Nagesh.

Julie M:  Reasonably effective, but I thought his character was the least thought-through of all of the prisoners. Even Nasty Gautam had more to work with.

One thing that confused me: (spoilers) Was Ishaan really responsible for those other 2 murders, or did he just confess to them in order to avoid being shot by Chandrika? It was never really made clear.(end spoilers)

Jenny K:  I don’t know…been a while since I watched it…now where did I put my copy…

Julie M:  The prison itself, through the cinematography, becomes a character in the drama. Fully half the scenes are shot at night, and the moonlight effects are riveting. One of my favorite scenes is an interview between Chandrika and Ishaan that takes place in a workshop where the prisoners block-print designs on saris, and it is absolutely an authentic-looking studio for that kind of work; the bright colors of the saris hanging to dry contrast with the crumbling stone walls of the prison and are evocative on so many metaphorical levels. Just beautiful. The final shot of the film (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler), where you see an aerial view of the prison that previously you had only known from corners and courtyards, is absolutely spectacular and cleverly in keeping with the nature of the plot denouement. Stunning.

Just when you think you have this film figured out, something happens to totally upend your preconceived notions. In a good way, every time. All my thumbs (and you know I am ALL thumbs!) are up on this one, and I’ve even borrowed a few from other people so I can put them up too.  Available free on YouTube, albeit without subtitles. 

Julie M:  So let’s talk crossover potential.  Why has he not done many films in this country, or in Britain?  Is Irrfan Khan so much a better actor that he gets all those parts? (I’m thinking The Namesake and Life of Pi in particular, but also ones like Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited)  What does Naseerji get…The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (bad film:  I didn’t actually see him in that), Monsoon Wedding (OK, that was a good film and he rocked it) and Today’s Special, which, despite how good he was, was small and formulaic?  What gives?

Jenny K:  Irrfan’s got a better agent, maybe?  Or maybe chooses better directors to work with, or perhaps, better known directors…no, that doesn’t quite work as both have worked with Mira Nair, but maybe it’s “frequency equals recognizability”?  Irrfan has done three features with her, and one short, (The Namesake, Salaam Bombay, New York I Love You (where he successfully convinced me he was deeply in love with Natalie Portman, of all people!) and a short (Migration), against Naseerji only doing Monsoon Wedding with her…plus working with Ang Lee couldn’t have hurt Irrfan’s recognition factor, either.

Nasserji’s choice of The Great New Wonderful doesn’t stand up quite as universally appealing a crossover vehicle as Irrfan’s choices.  Not that I mean to insult that film’s director, Danny Leiner.  It was an interesting small film with a nice ensemble, and I loved the chemistry he established between our boy and Sharat Saxena, though as almost all of those scenes were subtitled, the two of them, as a pair, didn’t make it into this trailer.  Either way, both are fabulous actors and deserve to be American household names…but considering the basis of US media fame these days, without their own reality shows, this probably won’t be likely.  Sigh.  I don’t really want to have my favorites sell out that way, in any case.

Except a teeny tiny part of me that wants to see Hrithik Roshan blow the socks off of the rest of the celebs on Dancing with the Stars.

Nov. 27, 2012: Thanksgiving for the Parade of New Films – Part I

Since the Navratri/Diwali/Thanksgiving/Christmas rush of holidays is in full swing, we’ve thought it justified more trips to the theater, or at least a push to see more recent releases. Bollywood seems to be shaking itself out of some of its old stale tropes and harking back, nostalgically to some of the things we’ve missed.  Very appropriate for a post-Thanksgiving post, I’d think.  In fact, we’ve gotten so much watching done, that we’ll have to split these new film reviews into two parts, and leave Julie’s older, classic film voyaging for another post. 

Julie M:  Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya (I Fell in Love With You, 2012), which I watched on DVD, was cute, somewhat. It’s not the type of film I would see if it were an American production, because it’s rather predictable, but there were some moments, mainly having to do with those funloving Punjabis.

Mini (Genelia D’Souza) is an educated and spirited girl stuck in a small Punjabi village, where her father Bhatti (Tinnu Anand) has gotten moderately wealthy running an autorickshaw business. She has also, somehow, gotten a Canadian passport, and between the wealth and the green card she is a very eligible young lady indeed. Bhatti wants her to marry the spoiled and lazy, but quite handsome, Sunny (Kartar Cheema), the son of a somewhat wealthier neighbor; however, Mini wants to have a bit of adventure before she settles down. She reluctantly agrees to the marriage to please her father but is all the while trying to hatch an escape plan.

Enter Viren (Riteish Deshmukh), one of Bhatti’s drivers and a hardworking young man whom Bhatti has just cheated out of both his dreams and his life savings. In a drunken fit, Viren crashes Mini and Sunny’s engagement party to give Bhatti a piece of his mind.  In the commotion Mini sees her chance:  she forces Viren to “kidnap” her, then phones Bhatti with a “ransom” demand, telling Viren that he can keep a share of the proceeds as repayment for what her father cheated him out of while she uses the rest of the money to escape.

Jenny K:  Sounds familiar but promising…I’ve liked Riteish more and more, especially since seeing him hold his own with Amitabh in Aladin a few years back.  And Genelia was very cute (almost too cute) in Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na with Imraan.  And, I heard that Riteish and Genelia got married back in February….Perfect type-casting for a cute romance.

Julie M: I’m not sure whether the film release pre-dated or succeeded the wedding, but they’d been together for a very long time before they made the film, which makes the romance film something of a vehicle for both of them. 

Anyway, Viren, bowled over by her audacity, agrees and they find a vacant house to hide out in for a few days while Bhatti gathers the funds. Of course they start to fall in love while having adventures like crashing a wedding, scrounging for cash and going through the obligatory “who sleeps where” tamasha in their purloined residence. The wedding-crash scene was  predictable but still fun.

On the day of the ransom payment they go to the rendezvous point and…both of them get kidnapped for real! by the notorious kidnapper Chowdhary (Om Puri), who proceeds to demand additional ransom from Bhatti.

Is this enough adventure for Mini or has it gone too far? What will she, and everyone else, do when she finds out that Chowdhary, to everyone’s surprise, is Viren’s father?

Jenny K:  All this fake kidnapping stuff this year, this and Barfi!  What is it?  This year’s annual theme at the screenwriting college?

Julie M: Genelia D’Souza has the rubber face, cute mannerisms and mischievous grin made famous by Kajol and is the perfect bubbly girl. Riteish Deshmukh does an excellent “confused” face, which he deploys with regularity over the course of the first third of the film. Their couplehood is inevitable but it’s fun to watch it come together, and who could hate two such pretty people. Not one, not two, but THREE love songs that are mainstream and predictable fill the soundtrack, and there is a glitzy and obligatory-feeling item number with Veena Malik.

There are plot holes all over the place (for example, it’s never explained how she got her Canadian passport, and Chowdhary’s gang is too bumbling for it to make any sense how he got so wealthy; not to mention an absolutely inane turnabout in the last 15 minutes due to a pretty stupid “serious” speech by Chowdhary) but what do you expect from such an obvious vehicle for these two stars. Om Puri’s talent is wasted in his role, which I hate to see.

All in all, not a terrible way to pass the time if you happen to come across it, but it doesn’t break any new ground and you may find yourself checking your watch somewhere in the middle of the second half. Cute date movie if you’re 17, and for us oldsters, Riteish takes his shirt off which is always fun. I give it about a third of a thumbs-up. There is a completely illegal DVD rip on Daily Motion, with Part I, here.

P.S.  I thought the Sunny character seemed familiar…according to what I read, Punjabi actor Kartar Cheema (making his Bollywood debut in TNLHG) modeled his character on the Kajol character’s spoiled and mean fiance in DDLJ. Except in this one he’s not mean, just lazy and not very bright.

Jenny K:  They could do worse than copying DDLJ, except that stupid item number with the fat opera singer in “Paris”…shudder

The first of my string of movie outings was for the long-awaited comeback film for Sridevi, English Vinglish (2012). Kathy, Pat and I hit the local cinema to catch it the first week. Well, all I can say is, what a great way to come back! I can’t believe it’s been over ten years since her last major film! She’s 49 this year, but is still so lovely. Raising a family seems to agree with her. Here’s the trailer.

It’s a bit of a one joke plot with Sridevi cast as Shashi, the long suffering Indian wife, who, through one thing and another (life, mostly), hasn’t pursued her knowledge of English past the rudimentary stages in school, and her family taunts her with it almost daily. A joke, as they see it, quite hilarious, but she becomes more and more depressed that even her husband and kids don’t give her the respect she deserves.

Shashi’s trepidation becomes greater when she has to go to New York City for her niece’s wedding, reuniting with her older sister who is raising her daughters in America all on her own after her husband’s death. Shashi’s in NYC with three weeks to kill before the wedding and decides that enough is enough…she’s going to take a crash English course and surprise everyone. The scenes in the classroom, filled with a multi-culti mix of misfits is not particularly subtle, or believeable from an educational aspect, but the camaraderie and charm of the characters learning together and from each other is rather nice. You can see some of it in the “making of” clip, here.

Julie M:  Did you see Educating Rita?  Sounds somewhat like that one.

 

Jenny K:  Same genre, of course.  I loved Educating Rita, especially as it introduced me to Julie Walters.  But this plot wasn’t about falling in love with her teacher…in this film, an impossibility, as the teacher here was the worst performed role in the film.  And her education doesn’t break up her marriage as in ER, it strengthens it, in a traditionally happy ending at the wedding in NYC with her family.  

Well, happy for everyone except her fellow student, Laurent, from France, who has developed quite a serious crush on Shashi. Poor boy. I’d love to comfort him, myself, if I were given half a chance. He’s played by an actor named Mehdi Nebbou…half Algerian, half German, but all adorable. Definitely a thumbs up film, see it if you can.

AND, I went off tonight on the spur of the moment jaunt with Pat after work to catch Life of Pi (2012).  Not to tempt you out of your vow of complete home video supremacy, Jule, but Irrfan Khan has a much larger part in it as the Adult Pi, lots more face time for him than I’d expected…and what a face, sigh….Pat and I debated (but not for long) about the extra expenditure for 3D.  Worth it!  No, not just for Irrfan-gazing at seeming-finger-tip-reach, though that may have been enough, I grant you, but with tigers menacing, zebras charging, whales leaping overhead and flying fish flinging themselves at our hero willy-nilly, it was well worth the extra few dollars for the heavenly view on a big screen.  Not officially an Indian film, but with all the scenes set there, and some very fine Indian actors (Tabu! and Ang Lee’s new find, Suraj Sharma, as Young Pi does a phenomenal job in his debut role), I thought that it is a necessary mention here.  And a trailer.  

[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7WBfntqUoA]
 

In a day or two, we’ll be back with two more of our recent viewings, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, and Shah Rukh’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, so, stay tuned, we’ll be back!

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.

March 30, 2012: Deliver Me from March Madness!

Julie’s been somewhat of a basketball widow this past couple of weeks, which gave her lots and lots of time to catch up on films!

 

Julie M:  B was working and watching basketball tonight, so I took the opportunity to watch Kashmir Ki Kali (Kali of Kashmir, 1964). It started out like a typical Shammi romp, where he is a wealthy, irresponsible playboy goofily chasing a shy, beautiful village girl, whom he almost gets until an impossible amount of drama in the last 30 minutes threatens their happy future together.

  

Jenny K:  Yes, I liked that one, too…it’s always been touted as one of his best. And of course, set in Kashmir…how can you resist?!?

 

Julie M:  Rajiv (Shammi Kapoor) is the reckless heir to a wealthyDelhi industrialist. One day Maa decides to pick him a bride so he’ll settle down; he rejects all the choices and flees to the family’s other home in scenic Kashmir, where he meets Champa (Sharmila Tagore), a poor flower-seller with a blind father. So as not to scare her off he pretends to be the homeowner’s driver (hm…where have I seen THAT before?) and chats her up, then finds numerous occasions to be with her and pitch adorable woo, mostly in song. This one was my favorite.

A particularly hilarious scene has him dressing up in a burkha so he can ride with her and her friends as they travel to a village fair, and there is a crazy sub-plot involving three comely lasses who have rented rooms in his home and are chasing his wealth (that part could have lifted right out as far as I was concerned). There’s also a wonderful dance number at the above-mentioned fair, full of ethnic goodness, although what a Punjabi folk dance is doing in a Kashmiri village is beyond me.

Since I had already seen the disarmingly similar, An Evening in Paris (1967), also with hammy Shammi and Sharmila, I kept having flashbacks–or flash-forwards considering it’s a later film. Though clearly typecast, Shammi is so silly and sweet that I forgave almost everything. Also, this film is worth watching because of the elaborate jewelry, second only to Paheli in films I’ve seen. Overall: fluffy, fun, a thrilling scene near the end with Shammi getting all dishoom on the bad guy and wrestling with him on an elevated rock transport system…what more do you want?

Kashmir Ki Kali available free on YouTube, with English subtitles.

 

Jenny K:  I, who never let basketball bother me, watched Bikini Beach today while getting some housework done. Ah, that Frankie Avalon, winning the fair Annette in a double role, as both himself and, as his own rival, Potato Bug, a goofy British hearthrob of a singer (a Chad and Jeremy type), who also drag races.  I just watch it for Eric Von Zipper. When EVZ likes someone, they STAY liked! In no way deep, but I’m a sucker for fluff, every so often. This may be why I was predisposed to like masalas.

 

Julie M:  I think the 1960s are the 1960s no matter where. I love how Indian films reflect the music of the time, all the while staying true to Indian mores and values.

[the next day…still during the basketball tournament…]

Julie M:  Saw Morning Raga (2004) tonight. LOVED it. It had everything–fantastic music, dramatic storyline (but not too), fabulous performances. Prakash…what a hottie, too bad he didn’t do more work. And Shabana “sang”! I loved that it wasn’t “mainstream,” that the pacing was perfect, visually stunning…I can’t say enough. Just my kind of film. Thank you, thank you for sending it.

Brief plot summary:  Swarnalata (Shabana Azmi) and Vaishnavi (Ranjani Ramakrishnan) are best friends and musical partners, singing traditional carnatic (South Indian) pieces in the privacy of their homes (this piece is the opening of the film).

Swarnalata convinces Vaishnavi to perform publicly with her, but a tragedy en route changes the lives of both families.  Twenty years later Vaishnavi’s son Abhinay (Prakash Rao), an aspiring musician, returns to the village and encounters Swarnalatha, and wants to incorporate her and her music into his band.   Swarnalatha, still blaming herself for the tragedy, refuses.  Can their mutual passion for music overcome the horrors of the past?  And what role does Pinky, Abhinay’s new girlfriend, play in the story?   Click on the Youtube logo, bottom right, if it doesn’t play.

 

Jenny K:  Morning Raga was all part of my minifest “movies about playback, and concert, singers”.  It was a nice little movie…but, Shabana didn’t sing any of it herself, you know. However, all the reviews I have read said they thought she had studied a lot to get the whole set of performance mannerisms right and the lip synch just so. Quite a feat!

 

Julie M:  Yes, apparently she did study, for months, as did Prakash learning to play the violin (even though it wasn’t his playing in the film). I admire that kind of commitment.

And…I was listening to a library CD on my walk this morning and a fusion song came on that had long bits of carnatic music in it, and now I know what it is! 

Morning Raga is available free on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, and the small bits that aren’t English are subtitled.  Part I is here.

 [a few days later..still more basketball…]

Julie M:  Saw Maqbool (2004) tonight. I was really leery of seeing it because of the gangland setting and I kind of wish I had listened to myself, because despite the excellent performances (Irrfan was fantastic!) it was really bloody and violent.

I like how it played with the parallel characters from MacBeth: instead of two sons Abbaji (the King Duncan character) has a daughter, which set up a whole other dynamic re the succession. Lady MacB is not a wife but a mistress, the mistress of both the King and Maqbool, again upping the drama quotient and changing her motivation from ambition for her husband to simply getting rid of a lover she does not love to exchange for one she does love, while still keeping her position. This scene, where she holds a gun to Maqbool’s head and forces him to call her “my love,” is key to her twisted psyche.

Jenny K:  That’s what bothers me the most about Maqbool, when they make Lady MacBeth the mistress, then in this film, Maqbool’s whole motivator is sex, not power and greed as in MacBeth. That bothered me more than, say having “Emilia” [spoilers] not die in Omkara, but in the end, flip the Shakespeare on his head and have her kill her Iago. Shocking, but less fundamentally a change to the plot.

 

Julie M:  I also loved this quwwali song at the gangland funeral.

And I loved how the “witches” are brought together in the single person of the soothsaying cop (Om Puri) and his jovial sidekick (your boy Naseeruddin Shah).

The visuals were good and I suspect would have been better if the DVD had not been mastered from a bad VHS original. Still, all that blood and shooting really soured what could have been a really satisfying drama. Overboard, to my tastes. 

This was a welcome light moment, at the engagement-party festivities for Abbaji’s daughter.

Jenny K:  I’ve always liked Omkara better than Maqbool of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations, primarily because Maqbool is soooo dark.  I thought as you like Irrfan so much, it was important that you see it. It may not have been his first film, but it was one of the first two that really put him on the map, cinematically. The first was The Warrior by Asif Kapadia. I haven’t seen it, but it has great reviews.  I can’t believe that he didn’t “hit” until he was about 40. He still looks so great and as busy as ever at 50!

Julie M:  Omkara certainly gets my vote, too, for the better of the two. It  was nice to see Irrfan and Tabu act together again. I loved the two of them in The Namesake (2007), which I saw first, but I can’t help but think that their casting in Namesake was inspired by their undeniable chemistry in Maqbool. Excellent, mature actors serious about their craft. LOVE to see that!

 [the next night…isn’t that tournament over yet?]

Julie M:  Saw Kairee (Raw Mango, 2000) tonight. Very indie, very good.

A young city girl (Yogita Deshmukh) arrives in a rural Marathi village to live with her beloved aunt Taani (Shilpa Navalkar) after the tragic death of her parents. At first she is happy in her new life, since she gets to spend a lot of time with her aunt in the beautiful setting. But soon she must go to school, which is taught by an incompetent master and where she is the only girl. She is made to feel bad but is cheered by her aunt’s standing up to the master and getting her transferred to another school where the education is better, the master  is friendlier (a stuttering Atul Kulkarni) and there are more girls. But, gradually she finds out that things are not what they seem in her idyllic new life.   [Sorry, no subtitles.]

It was a very beautiful movie visually, with excellent performances by Shilpa (such an expressive face, especially when she laughs!)  and Atul (good to see him NOT be a villain for a change), and a cameo by Sonali Kulkarni (of Mission Kashmir and Dil Chahta Hai) as the grown-up girl. 

Lots of cryptic references to finding the local peacocks (which the girl never gets to see:  I’m not quite sure what the symbolism is, maybe happiness?) and eating raw mangoes fresh from the tree (which I believe represents perfection), a favorite treat of Taani’s which the girl also never gets to experience.  

 

Jenny K:  Atul is one of my favorite character actors.  He’s given some great performances in Rang De Basante, Chandni Bar, Khakee and this one.  And all so different.  Amazing.  He never just “phones it in” as they say.  Definitely you’ve picked some wonderful basketball distractions. Two points…swooosh!  Into the hoop!

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