May 29, 2013: Two from Tamil Nadu: One Old, One New

NayakanJulie M:  Finished Nayakan (The Godfather, 1987).  WOW.   A “godfather” movie with heart. I have not seen the American Godfather series but if they are anything like this I will have to go right out and see at least the first one.

Jenny K: You and I may be the only two film buffs around who haven’t seen  Coppola’s The Godfather!  I always heard it was the inspiration for Nayakan, but I’m reading Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interviews with Mani Ratnam, the director, and in the chapter on this film, he says that it isn’t strictly so.  When asked by Kamal Haasan what kind of film he’d like to make if they worked together, Mani said, off the top of his head, that he’d do a film based on the life of real life Mumbai don, Varadaraja Mudaliar.  Of course, every filmmaker alive in the Eighties has been influenced by Coppola’s film, in some way or other, but the only scene that everyone seems to agree was a direct homage, was having a scene of enemy gang members being killed while the godfather is performing a religious ritual…of course, I have no way of citing this as gospel, as I haven’t seen both.   Yeah, yeah…I’ll remedy it.  Soon.

Here’s a link to the info on Baradwaj Rangan’s book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam.  I’m really enjoying it.  And his blog and reviews are wonderful, too.   The book is available on Amazon.  Enough interruption by me.  Back to the synopsis.

Julie M: Young Shakti Velu, a Tamil, is accidentally responsible for the police killing his father, a labor leader.  After killing the policeman who killed his father the boy runs away to Mumbai, where he is taken in by a poverty-stricken but kindly slum dweller and hangs around with other Tamil street kids who become his lifelong associates. Velu (Kamal Haasan) grows up hotheaded, distrustful of police and fiercely protective of the community that took him in. He also turns to committing petty crimes in order to bring in some money, even challenging local crime bosses, but also performs good deeds on behalf of individuals in the community. When his father-substitute dies at the hands of police he kills the inspector who killed him; his local community, used to his goodness, refuses to identify him and he goes free. He then suffers an attack of remorse and protects the inspector’s family with kindnesses and cash.

Velu and NeelaAs he ages, Velu grows into the role of “Nayakan,” or godfather, of his community, never hesitating to use violence when necessary but it doesn’t seem to be necessary very often, and helping his people with favors. He falls in love with a young prostitut, Neela, (Saranya Ponvannan) and marries her, and they have a son and daughter as he continues to solidify his position as the don with the heart of gold. Unfortunately, he also sucks up all the criminal enterprises and as time goes on, his enemies start to move in ever closer.

The film is mostly about the personal trials and tribulations of an ordinary man who happens to be in the crime business, and I can see how every subsequent “godfather” movie in India looks to this one as its wellspring. He almost makes crime not so criminal. He loves a girl, loves his children, suffers heartache and loss, seeks redemption and grows old, just like all of us. I appreciated that the film did not dwell on his criminal enterprises and instead focused on the man himself; Kamal Hasan is AMAZING as he “ages” from a young man of 20 or so to about age 70. Unfortunately he succumbed to “Marlon Brando Disease” and stuffed cotton in his cheeks to signify aging–ew–and mumbled a lot at the end; thank heavens for subtitles!  [Ed. note: but, alas, not in this clip!]

Jenny K: Nope…not cotton.  The interview tells me that Kamal Haasan is wearing a pair of dentures cast to give him that lovely jowly look.  “We didn’t want to do too much; otherwise it might have become another Marlon Brando.  It was done subtly.” Obviously didn’t work on us…my reaction was the same as yours.

Julie M: Mani Ratnam’s direction and highly realistic settings–even the one dance number seemed natural–added to the storytelling. This retrospective article by Kamal Haasan gives some great insight into the process of making the film and its lasting impact.

Highly recommended all around; thank you so much for sending it!

[Editor’s Note:  Available, in full, here, but with no subtitles.

Available here, with subtitles, but the first fifteen minute segment has been removed.  Or, go get it from your library…your choice!]

Jenny K:  Glad you liked it as much as I always have.  Mani Ratnam is my favorite director, as I’ve said many a time before.    I haven’t seen it for quite a long time, but Nayakan and Kamal Haasan’s own directorial offering, Hey Ram are two of only a handful of street violence films that I truly enjoyed.  Company, by Ram Gopal Varma, comes to mind, but that may be heightened by the Ajay-factor.

But on a more “down” note, I think you’ve had a lot more friendly visit to Tamil film-land than I have…Went to the theater the other day to catch the highly touted Paradesi (Wanderers), the new Tamil film by national award winning director Bala. Well, I haven’t seen any of his other films, so I can’t truly judge, but I’m inclined not to see anything else. Here’s the trailer.

I really wanted to like this film, as it has high aims. It’s based on the novel Red Tea by Paul Harris Daniel, which I haven’t read (and I’d have to go to the Library of Congress to get a copy) but deals with the terrible experience of naive Tamil villagers who get tricked into working on the southern tea plantations during the last two decades of the Raj. It shows their suffering and I’m sure it’s an issue which deserves to be known, but the execution, especially in the second half of the two hour film, has gaping holes, which to a non-Indian audience are almost unbridgeable.

The first half of the film introduces you to the pre-tea existence of the villagers, as our hero, Rasa, the somewhat simple-minded town crier goes from home to home announcing the upcoming wedding of two of the local young folk. Everyone is supposed to attend, and to feed the town crier, it seems. Rasa lives, and supports his grandmother, on the kindness of his neighbors and seems to have no ambition for anything further than the next meal. Arthavaa Murali, who plays Rasa, is a handsome young man, veteran of only about three films, but makes a good impression with a mix of cheeky sweetness and naivety that reminds me a bit of a Fresh Prince era Will Smith. His abs don’t do badly by comparison, either.

Rasa and Angamma of ParadesiHowever, Bala is always directing Rasa to erupt into floods of tears from all sorts of causes from the death of his uncle to as little as “I’ve worked hard all day and no one will give me any rice!” It may be a cultural thing, with American audiences traditionally uncomfortable with men crying, but I’ve been watching Indian films for quite a while now, and he still seems way too weepy for your traditional hero. It doesn’t help me to identify with him. The lady that catches his eye, Angamma, played by Vedika, is similarly childlike in her teasing ways…it comes across as half K3G Kajol and half Pippi Longstocking. She, in love with Rasa, feels the need to tease him often and ceaselessly until, of course, Rasa breaks down in tears. This brings them together. 

Angamma’s mother puts her foot down against any marriage between the kids, because Rasa is just too much of a “Bin-Picker” (his nickname, the Tamil equivalent of “dumpster diver,” I guess) and has no way to support a wife. So Rasa goes out of the village, determined to succeed or die trying. Rasa brings back a tea plantation recruiter who may just help him achieve the latter end, for himself and a good portion of the village. The recruiter spins stories of easy profit and waves cash advances at anyone who will sign his contracts and go to work on the plantations for a mere year. Many accept, packing their few belongings and head off on a two month walk to their new home. Almost as soon as they leave, Angamma’s mother finds out she’s pregnant and as she’s not married, Mom tosses her out. Rasa’s grandmother, also alone, is happy to take her in. Here falls the intermission, on the body of one of the would-be workers, prone and dying in the path, left where he has fallen as the body of workers are prodded on and over his body, left as worthless. Not a good sign for anyone.

The second half only gets more appalling, on almost every level. First you get the treatment of the poor workers who are tricked into the traditional “owing the company store more than they are paid” scenario. They can’t get away by work or flight, which is punished by mutilation of varying sorts. Of course, the white owner of the plantation is a rapist, and worse still, a bad actor with a very American accent for an officer of the British Raj. This follows in the tradition in many Indian films that all the white actors are at a skill level that suggest they were dragged off their beach chairs and asked if it wouldn’t be fun to be in a movie for a day. Fun for them, not for us. Uniformly bad work by all non-Indian performers.

Rasa finds out after a year, in a letter that gets through, that he’s a father, and is tortured by thoughts of them, as well as overjoyed by the news itself. That’s until the plague hits and reduces the workers by half…then they get a severe attack of the missionaries, too. Can’t these poor coolies get a break?

The missionary doctor and his sexy white wife do a really bad evangelical song and dance to try to bring the relief of Jesus to the poor, downtrodden masses, those of them that are left, anyway. Many accept and join in the dance, primarily because of the bread thrown into the audience during the choruses. I don’t know if I’ve ever before seen an Indian film so openly disrespectful of other religions as in this number. I was tempted to walk out, but it was over fairly quickly, however it left a very bad taste in this Christian mouth. Yes, I know that not all missionaries were welcomed, or pure-hearted in their intentions, but this seemed like a completely out of context cheap laugh cultural slam, and it put me off charity with the filmmakers immediately.

For the plusses: the acting by the principal trio of Arthavaa, Vedika and Dhansika (who played a mother in the camp, deserted by her husband) were uniformly affecting. I’d like to see them in other films. The lovely music by GV Prakash Kumar was very lyrical and atmospheric. The lyrics, by Vairamuthu, at least as translated, seemed almost seamlessly tied to the images that they portrayed, adding depth and poignancy to all the emotional montages they accompanied, especially the climax song. But mostly, I want to applaud the fabulous cinematography of Chezhiyan which is stellar in almost every shot. Very haunting, gorgeous shots of the tea fields and the mountains, especially.

I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend this film with as much enthusiasm as the director and actors had in making it. Their intentions were good, and they achieved some of their aims, but the second half missteps killed my recommendation. If you have the time, threaded through this special promoting the film, are quite a number of nice clips of Paradesi. I wish Arthavaa had kept his short haircut… 

Julie M:  OK, so this begs the question: what is the purpose? Yes, the Raj was bad. Yes, the scenery is lovely; nothing new there. Acting and music excellent–but does not overcome a bad plot and huge cultural stereotyping. Sorry, just in a grumpy mood today.

Jenny K:  No one else has mentioned the missionary scene as bad in the reviews I’ve read, except tangentially. However, all the reviewers were desi, so, perhaps it just hit them as a throw away item number. No biggie. All depends on the audience; the one that the director was aiming at, anyway.

March 5, 2012: Politics, Poetry, Prose ~ A Filmi World-Serious

Julie M:  Watched Hey Ram (2000) tonight. I am officially in love with Kamal Haasan, who although he is not as good looking as Aamir Khan, is, I think, the better actor. The film was gut-wrenching and absolutely excellent, the story of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary times, doing things he thought he’d never do as he searches for his convictions. Supporting turns by SRK and Rani Mukherji were likewise excellent (although SRK really overplayed his character’s death scene, what a ham!), and it took me a while to recognize that it was Naseeruddin Shah playing Gandhi, he so completely inhabited the role.          

Jenny K: I know what you mean, but it’s hard to miss that highly identifiable nose.  He’s cute even creaky, old and in a dhoti…I’m so far gone…

 

Julie M:  Haasan plays Sakhet Ram, a Hindu archaeologist in the 1940s who gets along well with the British and is vehemently opposed to Partition and the idea of Pakistan.  Shah Rukh Khan is his friend and fellow archaeologist.  A personal tragedy involving Ram’s wife (Rani Mukherji) radicalizes his hatred towards Muslims, and he becomes an anti-Gandhi activist.  There’s quite a bit of violence and political back-and-forth, which was a little confusing, but a bit of research straightened things out for me.

This review/analysis does more than I ever could to unpack the layers of the film.  I had to read it several times and it only confirmed my opinion of Kamal Haasan’s incredible talent as writer, producer, director and actor.  And I really liked this German compilation of clips to music (not from the film).

Thanks for including this one in the box: amazing. You can tell how much I liked it by how speechless I am.

 

Jenny K:  I should read the article thoroughly and then watch it again… Glad you liked it, though Rani’s final scene gave me the heebie jeebies for a while afterwards the first time I saw it. If you like Kamal Haasan that much, I’ll send you VeluNayakan, that Godfather film the next time I send a package. I know you don’t like mob films much, but it really is one of the best of his that I have seen, plus, it has Mani Ratnam directing it.

 

Julie M:  So I watched the first hour of Pyaasa (Eternal Thirst, 1957) and was thoroughly bored. Unsuccessful poet Vijay (Guru Dutt—who also produced and directed the film, coincidentally like Kamal Haasan!) is turned out by his family, is appreciated only by a prostitute, and meets up with his ex-girlfriend who, as it turns out, is married to someone who can get his poems published.  What to do? Who to choose? Bleh. Snore. Great songs, though, and Mala Sinha is (was) so stunning as Meera, the ex. Didn’t find Waheeda Rehman (as the prostitute) particularly mesmerizing, though–but I understand her big part comes later in the film.  Worth continuing to plow through it?

 

Jenny K:  Wouldn’t have sent it if I didn’t think so…a different kettle of fish from Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, but just as well known, and also classic.  I think the tension builds as it goes on. It’s a bit more along the lines of Devdas in the tortured poet thing, but I found it easier to take. The last scene in the lecture hall is wonderful, and where he is silhouetted in the doorway, it’s almost messianic in its imagery…and the song is fabulous.

But, of course, you must decide for yourself.

[the next day]

Julie M:  I took your advice and finished Pyaasa. Thanks for encouraging me to push on; glad I did.  It actually made more sense to me than Devdas, maybe because I understand the artistic temperament more than I understand stupid boys too weak to claim their love for themselves. I understood why he rejected those who were only willing to acknowledge him once he proved himself financially desirable, because I would have done exactly the same thing. And about the messianic thing, I know it’s Hindu but I found lots of Christ-like imagery (hanging out with prostitutes, “you will deny me three times”, the Christ on the cover of the magazine Meena is reading when she learns that Vijay is dead, etc.) except, of course, this has a much happier ending, we are led to assume.

 

Jenny K:  Some things are universal in their appeal to the human psyche, aren’t they? Whatever your religious point of view.

 

Julie M: Wonderful music, very interesting and poetic lyrics.  I particularly liked this one, where Waheeda’s character is flirting with Vijay thinking he’s a potential customer, but all he wants is his poems back, which she had bought as scrap paper. 

This one was cute, too. The massage-wallah is talking about how great people will feel after he works on them. 

I also liked the call-back to Awaara‘s dream-sequence with the dream sequence in this film. 

At first I thought that Rehman, who played Meena’s evil husband, was Dev Anand–if you take off the glasses they have a similar look. Or maybe it’s just the period–a lot of male actors looked alike.

 

Jenny K:  I thought Rehman reminded me of Prithviraj Kapoor crossed with tiny bits of Shammi (in his quieter moments)…

 

Julie M:  My other weekend viewing was Aarakshan (Reservation, 2011), the one I missed in the theater. This was the film starring (sigh) Amitabh Bachchan as the principled principal Prabhakar Anand, staunchly defending his view that education should be available to anyone from any caste and a reservation (aka quota/affirmative action) system acts to ensure access.

Saif Ali Khan co-stars as Deepak Kumar, a member of one of the low castes whose education was facilitated by Anand’s beliefs and who regards Anand as a mentor. Deepika Padukone plays Poorbi, Anand’s daughter and Deepak’s girlfriend, and Prateik (sigh) is Sushant, a college student and Poorbi and Deepak’s good friend. The villain is Manoj Bajpai, and Yashpal Sharma is a helpful stable owner. Hema Malini makes a cameo appearance at the end, although her photo is seen throughout the first half.

 

Jenny K:  Yeah, I read reviews about this one and thought it sounded too dry to have me spend my hard-earned pesos on it, even given the good intentions of the theme, and Amitabh’s presence.  Was the story interesting?

 

Julie M:  The plot involves Anand, the longtime head of the renowned private college S.T.M., who has a practice of giving a “leg up” to lesser qualified but very promising applicants from backward castes. This enrages the trustees and the upper-caste parents whose children score higher but are rejected because there are no places. Things come to a head when a government minister’s son is rejected, and he installs the evil Mithilesh Singh first as a trustee, then as vice-principal, in an attempt to find a way to oust Anand.

Singh also runs a private coaching school for high-caste students as a very profitable side business. When the government formally adopts a 27% reservation system for public education and employment, the situation blows up both around the country and at S.T.M. Deepak (a S.T.M. instructor headed for the US for his doctorate) and Sushant are on opposite sides of the issue and have a violent confrontation; Anand fires Deepak and expels Sushant. Deepak flees to the US and Sushant disappears. Then Anand loses his job over some comments he made to the press and the family leaves town for a while.

When they return they find that their house has been taken over by Singh’s coaching school and they have no legal way to stop it. Anand puts his principles into action by starting a rival coaching school, for free, in the stable across the street, where he takes all comers, aided by Deepak and Sushant, who have since returned and are buddies again.  This school becomes so popular that Singh seeks to ruin it. You can pretty much guess that he fails; at the end Anand is vindicated and S.T.M.’s founder, played by Hema Malini, funds a new coaching academy with Anand as the principal and chief trustee.

 

Jenny K:  Oh, that Manoj Bajpai! He’s such a delicious villain…I’ve seen him in very few films that he wasn’t indulging in lots of moustache twirling fun. I remember first hearing of him when he was full of sour grapes that he hadn’t been asked to do Devdas rather than SRK. Not sure I can see it. My favorite one with him is still the very over-the-top-and-loving-it Aks with BigB. My winner for Best Psychopath Serial Killer in Hindi films…if not for accuracy, then for sheer audacity. Rather creepy, though…lots of rather unhealthy imagery. Can’t say it’s a true thumbs up.

 

Julie M:  The first half of the film is what you’d expect: plenty of dramatic speeches by various characters on both sides of the reservation system issue, with personality-developing scenes for the main characters. Some people would find the speeches tiresome, but my love for issue-driven film and lack of real knowledge of the issue made it fascinating for me. The second half delves into the family drama and exposes the true evilness of the villain, with inspirational scenes of Anand’s influence on his young students and a stirring climax where the scrappy stable school resists the might of the corrupt government and profiteering private school system. Although it was all somewhat predictable, I was nevertheless quite entertained.

There was one big dance number that was very out of place, however, I liked much better this number from early in the film, introducing the Deepak/Poorbi romance.

This was about as romantic as it got, since they ended up fighting and then separated for most of the rest of the film, never really getting back together.

 

Jenny K:  Were you really expecting romance in such a blatant issue film?  Well, with your favorite, Saif in it, you probably had your fingers crossed.

 

Julie M:  I hated Saif’s mustache and the fact that he was OBVIOUSLY way too old for Deepika’s character (he was supposed to be a recent college grad, she was a college student who somehow had all day-every day free to hang out at her dad’s school). I kept rooting for Poorbi to throw Deepak over and get together with Sushant, because they were a much cuter couple. Alas, she fought with Sushant, too, and after they were out of the action she had nothing else to do except throw tantrums at her parents and narrow her eyes when she was in the presence of the evil Singh.

Overall I liked it–good issue and decent writing and drama. Three stars, would have been 3-1/2 had it not been so darned predictable.

Jan. 27, 2011: Doubles Trouble…Disguised and Confused

Julie M:  Okay, I’ve got a question.  Why are fraudulent and duplicate identities such a popular theme in Indian film? American films don’t do it so often–well, maybe they do in stupid farces I don’t watch–so what’s so attractive about the theme to Indian audiences? Maybe a secret wish to pretend to be someone that has a different kind of life? To experience a kind of reincarnation without forgetting previous lives?

Jenny K:  They certainly do use the theme more than we do, but it is a classic back to Shakespearean plays and beyond. Of the ones we’ve done already, there’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which I watched again last night on Netflix (liked it better this time), Don 1&2, the second half of DDLJ, etc. Lots of others we haven’t talked about, like Shah Rukh in Duplicate. SRK doesn’t seem to want to be himself very often, does he? Or some say, he’s always being himself. Oh well, it worked for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn…

 

Julie M:  Is there an Indian actor of major status who has NOT done a double role like this?

 

Jenny K:  A double role or a disguised role? But I think for the men it’s a no to either question. I think there are a few of the women who have done one or the other, and a few that have done neither. Women, I guess are supposed to be dumb enough to be fooled but not men…

Julie M:  Well, I guess you can count Rani’s second identity as the prostitute in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, but it’s not like she was trying to deceive anyone, just protecting her own honor, somewhat.

Jenny K:  It’s just not as often that you see the women do this kind of thing. Rani and Abhishek both did lots of identity shifting in Bunty Aur Babli, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

Julie M:  No, it’s not…the whole plot of BaB is the crime spree:  the alternate identities just helped them pull it off.  Although, the reason they did the crime spree in the first place is because they wanted to distance themselves from their failures as their actual selves…so it does make a weird kind of sense.

Jenny K:  Kajol has had at least one twin role that I remember, in Dushman.  Never seen Aish do either, to my recollection. Preity and Ajay pretend to be rich players in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, that also ends up with Ajay playing a twin role. Then there is Khal Nayak where Madhuri takes on a false identity.

Julie M:  Duh, Khal Nayak. I just saw that.

Jenny K:  I’m sure there’s more…Wait. Haven’t watched it yet, but Rani pretends to be a man in Dil Bole Hadippa! so she can play cricket, but then falls for Shahid. Got it in my queue at Netflix. She must have been the tiniest Sikh guy to ever wear the beard.

Julie M:  Maybe women-pretending-to-be-men, a la DBH!, in order to achieve something that is denied to women by the culture is a different issue? DBH! is very Shakespearean as well. Like Twelfth Night, recently made into the delightful-ish 2006 teen comedy She’s the Man, where a girl pretends to be her twin brother so she can play soccer and falls for a guy on her team.

Jenny K:  That’s really loosely Twelfth Night, isn’t it? Viola pretended to be a boy to save her own life…a woman alone in the world back then was in desperate straights…she wasn’t doing it to achieve something she couldn’t have as a woman. She thought her brother was dead, too, not that that is a particular issue, but it adds to the pathos. In the US we tend to do more body-switching or regressing films to “show how the other half lives,”  films like 17 Again (which I loved)/Back to the Future/Freaky Friday and that more recent one with Ryan Reynolds and Paul Rudd that seemed too crass to watch, so I didn’t. We seem to like it better when the characters have little or no control over the switching. I wonder why that is?

Julie M:  The Change-up, and it’s Jason Bateman, not Paul Rudd.

Jenny K:  Six of Juan, half a dozen of his brother… 🙂

Julie M:  Nah, Bateman is a much better actor…and technically B to the F is time travel with the characters playing themselves in the past/future, but I see what you mean. To me, body-switching plots in American movies tend to be for the purpose of learning how to empathize. (except for the action movie Face/Off—where it’s for evil—but that’s not body-switching, just face-switching) Maybe it’s a Christian thing–walk a mile in another person’s shoes etc., but what do I know from that, I’m Jewish–and I think that is culturally more attractive to Americans particularly when it’s a switch between generations. Adults always say they want to go back to high school, knowing what they know now, right?

Whereas dual- or alternate-identity plots in Indian film seem to be for the purpose of trying to cram two different lives into one normal lifespan, and may be more attractive in Indian culture.  But here’s a rare Indian body-switching AND gender-switching plot—Mr. Ya Miss—sounds a lot like the awful Rob Schneider film The Hot Chick.

But all this is very different from dual-role movies, where one character is the visual double of another, generally an opposite-personality type, both played by the same actor, and that is the basis of the plotline.  Sometimes one dies and the other replaces him (Kaho Na Pyaar Hai).  Sometimes they turn out to be actual twins but separated, so that one is unaware of the other’s existence (in which case, the purpose seems to be to heighten the story’s melodrama). That, I think, plays with the popular notion/fantasy that everyone has a doppelganger somewhere, and what would happen if they came into the same life-space at the same time.  I found a fun slideshow of recent and famous dual roles.

It’s also a way to get hot or new starlets some extra screen time, particularly when one of the characters is evil or likes to wear revealing clothes (or both):  I refer you to Bipasha Basu in Dhoom 2 and Deepika Padukone (ick) in Om Shanti Om and Chandni Chowk to China (ick) as two examples. So, women seem to get these kinds of roles although they don’t typically play characters with alternate identities.

(warning:  my inner nerd comes out here)  I thought this was pretty cool about why superheroes have been popular as alter egos á la Ra.One, and also sheds light on why dual identities are popular:

“Reincarnation is par for the course. It can be a cosmic pathway for attaining an alternate identity, sense of self, or supreme liberation… Women, who can often be powerless in the real world, can channel the divine female energy to break social convention and triumph over evil.”

Jenny K:  I still stand by my statement that the girls do the double roles much less frequently than the guys do.  My theory may have something to do with watching Pat and Kathy go crazy at every version of SRK that they can possibly watch, the more the better.  Cases in point:  Ra.One and Don 2, every different identity and/or disguise, and even every different makeover elicits hours of post-show dissection. The girls, not so much.

Julie M:  Aha!  Then this probably explains it:

“Audiences have always loved to see their favourite hero in two viable characters where one is shy and the other is daring at an exciting price of single ticket.”

And if the hero is hot…well, who can blame them?!

Speaking of alternate identities, I recently had fun with the comedy Chachi 420 (Aunty Fraud, 1998) despite its being a direct rip-off of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). The basic plotline of the two movies is identical: a man, faced with losing the right to see his kid(s) as he and his wife divorce bitterly, disguises himself as a woman so he can get a job as their nanny and stay in their lives. Both characters face complications trying to maintain their dual identities. The differences in details and ending, though, are emblematic of the vast differences between Indian and American culture, and where the comedy comes from is likewise wildly variant.  I think may help shed light on why alternate-identity films are so popular.

To start with, the basis of the separation of the men from their children is very different. Jai (Kamal Haasan—who also directed the film), the dad in Chachi 420, has very limited visitation with his young daughter because the divorce was granted on the basis of fairly minor “cruelty” to his wife Janki (Tabu).  Not much chance for comedy there. In the American version, a culture where joint custody is pretty much the default in divorce judgments except in extreme circumstances, dad Daniel (Robin Williams) was refused joint custody and given only weekly visitation with his 3 children because he was an unemployed voice actor and generally an irresponsible person.  Voice actor=funny.  Irresponsible=funny.

The relationship of the father to the ex-wife is different, as well.  Jai still loves Janki dearly and hopes for reconciliation (another motive for trying to get closer to the family), but Daniel understands that his relationship with his wife (Sally Field) is at an end–for him, it’s all about the kids.

Both films have comedic love sub-plots. Daniel’s wife has a boyfriend that Daniel works to crowd out of the picture, as he doesn’t think he’s good for the kids (and he’s a bit jealous as well)–how he undermines the boyfriend is very funny but is not the main source of the film’s comedy, which derives from Robin Williams dealing with being in a dress, learning to cook and clean, and having to switch identities in seconds to keep from being found out.

But in Chachi 420, Janki’s widower father falls in love with Chachi, as does Jai’s landlord, and a good portion of the Indian film’s comedy is in Chachi trying to evade their advances. That, and seeing how Chachi beats people up: there is an extended fight scene in a marketplace that is pretty funny, done in South Indian filmi fashion with Chachi standing in for the character normally played by Rajnikanth, but it goes on way too long. Sorry, I can’t find a clip of that scene, but trust me, it’s hilarious.

Jenny K:  So they combined Mrs. Doubtfire with Tootsie, it seems, with the older suitors thing, and doubled it, just to make sure we got the joke!

Julie M:  The reveal scenes where the dual identities are discovered are also very different. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the reveal takes place in public, in a restaurant, where Daniel has to go back and forth between two tables in his different personas and ultimately slips up–and is absolutely hilarious. In Chachi 420, it’s much more serious.  Jai (as Chachi) saves his wife from drowning herself in a river once she realizes how she drove Jai away and that she still loves him; he reveals his true self to her (and her alone) to keep her from continuing suicide attempts.  They reconcile and reunite the family, inventing a tragic death for Chachi.  Mrs. Doubtfire‘s Daniel and his wife never reconcile, but he does end up with a new job hosting a kids’ TV program in the persona of Mrs. Doubtfire, which proves he is responsible enough for a joint custody arrangement.

Jenny K:  You can usually see where the “homage” directors are drawing from the originals, and that’s part of the fun.  I’m, in most cases, pretty good at it…but the suicide on the bridge thing has got me stumped.  Where did that come from?

Julie M:  Oh, that was totally out of the blue. She sees Jai (who has been promoted from choreographer’s assistant to head choreographer on his current film) on TV giving an interview. Jai goes into detail about how he has two children, his 5-year-old daughter and his ex-wife who acts just as childish, and this triggers an extensive flashback as to how they met–very cute, she hit him with her car on a film set–fell in love, eloped and had their daughter.

She realizes how great Jai really is, and she runs to his house to find him, only to find a bunch of Chachi’s clothes and Jai’s dance assistant. (the assistant thinks Chachi is Jai’s housekeeper) Janki leaps to the conclusion that Jai is seeing both the assistant and Chachi, and this prompts her to throw herself off a bridge instead of, hm, I don’t know, leaving him a NOTE??!!!

Jenny K:  You and I obviously don’t feel things deeply enough.  I’ll try to do better.

Julie M:  It’s also a testament to Kamal Haasan’s acting talent that he makes a really good woman. Robin Williams does not–and that’s the funny part of Mrs. Doubtfire.  Here’s the first public appearance of Jai as Chachi.

Jenny K:  I see what you mean…he does look nice…only his forearms give him away. I don’t think I would have recognized him. He is a wonderful actor, though I think I’ve pretty much only seen him in his dramas and not seen his comic side before.

Julie M:   What I thought was funny is that as Chachi, he tucks the front of his sari back between his legs like he is wearing a dhoti, and nobody seems to notice. And throughout the film his fake boobs get bigger and bigger–he is positively svelte in that first reveal scene compared to later in the movie.

It’s also telling that Kamal, in the Jai persona, is a complete straight-man, while as Chachi he’s doing the comedy. It’s like he doesn’t want to pollute peoples’ visions of him as a dramatic actor.

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