November 21, 2015: Of Flights and Fancies

We love international travel. It’s so improving. Plus you get to watch cool movies on the plane. Julie saw not one, not two, but three recent Hindi releases courtesy of Lufthansa.

Julie M: Finally got to see three new-ish films, none of which ever made it to my local theaters. Two were worth it, one was not. Let’s dispense with the “not” first: Tanu Weds Manu Returns was a giant snooze-fest that made me actively hate characters I was not 100% fond of the first time around. We catch up with the nebbishy Manu and self-centered Tanu as they are making each other miserable in England four years after their marriage. She commits him to a mental institution and proceeds back to Kanpur to scandalize her family with her wild city ways; he gets released and takes up with a 19-year-old Tanu lookalike in Delhi, who happens to be half-promised to Tanu’s old boyfriend. Everything spirals down from there: an ill-advised engagement, a baby of secret parentage, and a snarky law student add up to a horrifyingly cringe-worthy series of events. By the time (spoiler alert, as if you needed one) Tanu and Manu reconcile, you really don’t care anymore whether those two crazy kids can make it—you just want it all to be over.

Jenny K: I am so jealous…about the international travel, and the leisurely watching of movies while in flight, even if they are mediocre. Sorry to hear it, though, as I usually like Kangana Ranaut (the charming actress from Queen) and R. Madhavan. However, I’d heard bad things about TWM and its apparently lamentable follow up, and have successfully avoided them.

Julie M: On the other hand, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a fun addition to the growing body of modern Hindi thrillers. It’s 1943 Calcutta, India has major problems with war, the British, and opium, and Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a very young, aspiring private detective. He talks his way into an assignment to find another young man’s missing father and stumbles into a complex situation involving spies, scientific discovery, international terrorism and (of course) murder. The plot involves double- and triple-crosses, a Mata Hari-like vamp, a helpful (or is he?) British military man, and a Watson-like sidekick/pal. The filmmaking is atmospheric and visually very detailed, Rajput is a very convincing wet-behind-the-ears detective, and the door is admirably left open for future adventures. And we know there will be more: the character, created by Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, was beloved in Indian popular literature from 1931-1970 and has been the protagonist of many other films and television serials, both based on the books and not. This movie (despite the liberties taken with the chronology) serves as both an origin story and a concept reboot and the character combines the coolest traits of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Sam Spade. I’m already hooked.

Jenny K: Now, I’m sorry I missed that one. You make it sound like a good bet…even if you may have enjoyed it strictly on the visuals of young Mr. Rajput. A favorite of yours, as I recall from earlier reviews.

Julie M: And then we come to the third film, Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I am not a huge Khan fan (the last few films of his I saw were horrendously bad and he seemed to be aging poorly), but I found this portrayal of an uncomplicated, not-especially-bright guy just trying to do the right thing to be quite entertaining although there was plenty of eye-rolling at the obvious tugs at the heartstrings.

Jenny K: Now, I did see this one! And in a theater, too! I have been, like you, not one of Sallubhai’s biggest supporters, but every so often he does pull off a winner, even for me. How can you resist the self-mocking Bodyguard and its crazy, shirt-phobic drainpipe? You have to see the scene to believe it! And Salman does get credit in my book for being one of the only stars who still supports the multi-song format any more. I really miss the seven songs per show days.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan 2Julie M: Khan plays Pawan (nicknamed Bajrangi), a devotee of Hanuman who has recently lost his father (a hilarious backstory has him dropping dead of shock after Pawan finally passes his exams after eleven attempts) and is trying to make money to buy a house so he can marry his girlfriend Rasika (an underused Kareena Kapoor). Pawan’s happy life is turned upside-down when a lost, mute little girl (Harshaali Malhotra) attaches herself to him. He knows she belongs somewhere and as he gradually finds out more about her—much of which is disruptive to his simple and narrow world—he vows to return her to where she belongs. In the process he has to deal with completely unknown situations in the best way he knows how: by being himself in a world that seems not to know how to deal with him.

This tale, and the way Khan spins it out, seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. The story is in the traditional format of past-setup, present day, LONG flashback, and moving forward, with the post-interval action more serious and carrying the seeds of controversy. Pavan’s world is almost a fantasy, with bright colors, friendly people and traditional pastimes. His relationship with Rasika unfolds like the first half of every Bollywood movie, with a “meet cute” and hate turning to friendship and then love over a montage of scooter-riding and travel-photo Delhi adventures.

Jenny K: But aren’t those good feelings and the basic sweetness what’s been missing from Hindi films recently, with all their goondahs and drug lords? I know I’ve missed them, heck, the lack of heartwarming films and romantic musicals in western filmmaking is what made me turn to Bollywood in the first place.

Bajrangi BhaijaanJulie M: That’s what I mean! I was never bored and the director made me care about every character. Pawan takes the shocking revelations about “Munni” in stride (she can’t speak! she eats meat! she’s a…MUSLIM!!!), which is supposed to be a testament to his innocent nature, should have made me laugh out loud but given the setup seemed only natural. The trope of a small girl teaching lessons to a grown man about acceptance of difference, and then having him teach others, is standard in “film-festival” films but seemed fresh here. The reporter character played by Nawazudin Siddiqui (what is it about that guy—I love him in each and every one of his roles!) had a suspiciously fast turnaround from “get the spy” to “let’s help this guy,” but somehow it made sense. And the overall message of people being people, not countries or political beliefs, is just simple enough to work. And of course, I, along with everyone else (I assume—I was watching it on a small screen on the back of the airplane seat in front of me!), teared up at the end despite myself.

NawazuddinJenny K: Nawazuddin is one of my favorite actors working today, a dusky Jude Law with many more guns in his acting arsenal (sorry, Jude, you’re still delicious).   In the past five years, especially, he’s done a wide variety of characters. Dekh Indian Circus has him playing the mute farmer in a remote country village with poignancy in every silent glance. Kahaani turned the tables completely in a darkly edgy role as the driven police detective (is he complicit in the crime, or not?). Then in Talaash, he’s a haunted criminal who makes you sorry for him even while you thoroughly condemn his decisions. And in Dabba/The Lunchbox, his touch with light comedy brings a glow to this unlikely bromance with the equally wonderful Irrfan Khan. Truly unique performances in every role he attempts, an actor’s actor.

Julie M: An old friend unfamiliar with Bollywood but much involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw this movie and crowed about how wonderful it was and how many lessons it had to teach us. I’m glad that this film had the intended effect on someone—but I also wish it was a less formulaic film.

Jenny K: At least someone out there is attempting to teach the lessons, I say. Even if it wasn’t completely successful, or was too heavy handed in places, I feel that this film touches more people than it turns off. My sometimes cynical pal, Pat, said it was the best film she’d seen all year and I chatted on IMDb with a woman in the Midwest somewhere who wandered into BB in her local multiplex, almost as an accident, as her first choice had sold out, and came out uplifted and with a budding love of Indian film! That’s a winner in my book.  Salman Khan, take a bow!

Bajrangi Bhaijaan 3

March 21, 2012…“A Fine Romance, and Two Hitmen…”

Julie M:  Your long post put me in the mood for a romance, so I went with Alaipayuthey (Pouncing Waves, 2000). Mani Ratnam and A.R. Rahman should always work together…even though the second half was WAY too overwrought for me, I thought overall it was pretty decent except for the music, which was AMAZING, and the visuals, which reminded me a lot of Dil Se (duh) and were therefore stunning.  Since this was the original Tamil film of which Saathiya (Life Partner, 2002) was a remake, and I’ve never seen Saathiya except for the number you indicated as one of your Valentine’s Day romance songs, you’ll have to clue me in on which you thought was better.

  

Jenny K: Oh, I’m always going to think that Mani Sir directing his own screenplay is going to be the better…not that I didn’t find loads of things to like about Saathiya (can you say Rani…so cute you could eat her up!) but I liked that not everyone in the Tamil version was so gosh-darned well known.  It felt like I was getting to peek in on someone telling their own love story…very intimate and endearing by not being  so slickly produced.  I also had a bit of a problem with Viveik bouncing around in the fields with his color-coordinated backup dancers…that was not as blatant in Alaipayuthey.  Just my opinion.

 

Julie M: Alaipayuthey is the story of two people who fall in love, get married and then wonder what happened. Karthik (Madhavan) sees Shakti (Shalini) at a wedding in her part of the city, and instantly decides she is the one for him, dreaming of her all the time.   

He woos her all over town, stalking her commuter train and professing his love for her until he eventually wears her down and she admits she loves him too. 

Unfortunately, their parents do not hit it off due to class issues so their desired marriage is forbidden—of course they get married secretly, and vow to tell their parents “when the time is right.”  Shortly thereafter Shakti’s older sister Poorni (Swarnamalya) gets an excellent proposal and the groom’s father offers his younger son to Shakti; panicked, she spills the beans about the secret marriage and the groom’s family calls off the match.  The couple’s parents kick them out and they take up illegal residence in a partially-demolished, charmingly decrepit apartment building that they fix up and are blissfully happy in…for a while.  This number (the original from the “Aye Udi Udi” one in Saathiya) is so cute, and I really love the backwards-film trick.

  

Jenny K:  I wonder if it’s a Ratnam thing, or if it’s his cinematographers preference for this backwards filmwork?  Not that I don’t like it, but he seems to use it a lot. Dil Se had it, too in “Satrangi Re” (yellow dress at2:50 in this video).

 

Julie M:  Then they start to fight about little things, and when Shakti’s father dies before she can reach him she blames Karthik.  Eventually they become strangers to one another, and to keep some type of contact with her Karthik arranges to bring Poorni and her ex-groom-to-be back together.  Shakti sees Poorni and Karthik together and misunderstands Poorni’s grateful embrace, and she runs off.  [Spoilers follow. Highlight to reveal.] Once Poorni explains the truth to her she tries to get back to Karthik, but on the way to the train station is hit by a car.  As he waits for her train, then roams the city looking for her, he flashes back to how it all began and how much he loves her.  He eventually finds her in the hospital where she is unknown and unconscious:  his presence rouses her and she professes her love for him too.  They realize that although marriage is hard, their mature love will help them make it through. [end of spoilers]

The movie had me in the palm of its hand right from the opening number, where Shakti and her family are getting ready for the wedding: 

Like I said, the second half was overly dramatic for me, but the first half was sweet and the music (with the lovely picturizations) totally made it all worthwhile.  And this was Madhavan in his debut film, after already being known for TV work. I really like burly-ish men and he’s so cuddly and sweet in this.  He really is one of my filmi crushes. I read online that he re-watched this film and was amazed at how skinny he was back in 2000—to me, he’s only gotten more handsome (he was great as the dad in Kannathil Muthammittal, too)!

 

Jenny K:  And didn’t you love Arvind Swamy’s guest appearance at the end there? His scene with his wife was so moving.  He seems to have been one of Mani Ratnam’s go-to guys, using him in Roja and Bombay, and even in early ones like Thalapathi (that I haven’t seen yet…no subtitles).  He was even in that Kajol/Prabhu Deva film, Minsaara Kanavu (Hindi dub – Sapnay).  This one was his last screen performance, though, unless he’ll be doing Mani Ratnam’s next film, as rumored.  He gave up films and went into business.  A loss for us, he really had a gentle presence. 

 

Julie M:  I love the fact that in Tamil films, they cast actresses who look like human beings rather than pretty models.  I was not a huge fan of Shalini, or, rather, her character Shakti, who was pouty and hard to please even though she was supposedly in love with Karthik. And totally no backbone for standing up to her family even though she was supposedly spunky. Sorry, didn’t work for me.

I also didn’t like this number, a beach party with friends where Shakti expresses her displeasure with Karthik.  I thought it was too much pandering to pop culture, although it’s not as bad as the Saathiya analogue song, “Chori Pe Chori”. Eccch.  

 

Jenny K:  Then we’ll just link to them, rather than showcase them.  No need to needlessly distress the readers.  Warning: Go further at Risk of Exposure to Pandering!  LOL

 

Julie M: My final peeve was [Spoiler] the assumption that an accident will instantly bring about mature wedded love. [End] We all know (well, those of us who’ve been married for two decades) that it’s the day in, day out of being with someone and relying on them that makes it happen.  But, it’s a movie, and overall I thought it was pretty good although Saathiya won all the awards.

 

Jenny K:  Now do you know that for sure?  The Filmfare Awards have a separate show, entirely, for the Southern film entries…I know Rahman won one of them for his score, and it didn’t win best picture that year, but, it did pretty darned well from what I can tell on the international filmfest circuit.  Mumbai isn’t everything, after all.

 
Julie M:  So, which is better: Alaipayuthey or Saathiya? I can tell you, I’d much rather watch R. Madhevan than Viveik Oberoi, and Rani Mukherjee than Shalini. But otherwise they seem nearly identical. So why remake? To gather the Hindi audience who doesn’t speak Tamil?

 

Jenny K:  You hit it on the head…I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with desi audience members who speak Hindi (or Punjabi or Bengali) who tell me they will never go to see Tamil films because they’d have to read subtitles (assuming they have them!).

Nowadays, Mani Ratnam tends to film both films simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil to combine, save money and still retain creative control (Yuva, Raavan, etc). And almost without exception, I prefer the Tamil versions. Less polish, more grit always makes it seem more realistic, even if they do keep bursting into song.  And though it’s a close thing, I think the Tamil lyrics “fit” the Rahman music better than almost any Hindi they put to it (sorry Gulzar, no disrespect intended). It just seems to flow a bit easier, as if it’s written with the Tamil in mind and then the Hindi is made to fit, and so it’s a touch more awkward. Could be just me, but I’d bet money the Tamil lyric always comes first.

[a day or so later]

Jenny K:  New Vidya Balan flick out this weekend…Kahaani (Story, 2012)…looks like an eerie psychological thriller…sounds just up your alley! The last shot…very creepy….

Julie M:  Oooooh. It’s here in my local, too. Unfortunately, spending $10 at the movies at this time is not in the cards. I’ll have to wait for the DVD or online streaming version.

 [Later in the week]

Jenny K:  Gosh, I’m sorry you won’t be able to see this on the big screen.  Kahaani is what Hindi cinema has been aiming at for a long time, in that it’s as polished as any Western suspense film, but maintains a very vivid, convincing sense of itself and the country that it springs from.  I was completely drawn in.…It’s sort of  a Hitchcock suspense film, with bits of John le Carré or Graham Greene thrown in for the politics and paranoia.  Who’s the villain?…I mean, are the villains??….Wait, are there villains?  Or am I crazy?  Where’s Kim Novak in all of this?  Or Jimmy Stewart?  This feels like a classic in the making, full of ambiguous motives and danger galore.  And the ending succeeded in surprising me!  Imagine that…Wonderful.

The plot is fairly simple, Vidya Balan plays Vidya Bagchi, a talented computer programmer who has come to Kolkata to find her husband, Arnab, who’s gone missing after two weeks of working there on another computer project.  Vidya is very, very pregnant, and is determined to not let the red tape of Bengali police and politics keep her from finding her man.  She’s a tough lady under her everpresent maternal glow, and no police official can ignore her, or if he does, it’s very unwise.  She’s befriended by one particular officer,  Inspector Satyoki Rana (an endearing Parambrata Chattopadhyay) who aids her search, even at the risk of losing his job…and his heart to her.

Vidya seems to be going as quickly backwards as forwards in her search.  No one seems to even know her husband was there.  One person thinks that Arnab looks just like one of her ex-employees…but why is he “ex”?  No one knows who or where he is, either.   If Vidya finds a lead, the next thing she knows, that person is dead.  Who is killing them?  It can’t be that harmless looking man from India Insurance, can it?  Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) looks too much like Jim Broadbent to be evil, surely?  Is it the master manipulator A. Khan, who is so mysterious that he has no first name?  Or might the big boss, Dhritiman Chatterjee, (ooh, I loved him in 36 Chowringhee Lane, and Black, too) be blocking her hunt for political reasons? Well, let’s just say that the red herrings flow as fast and furious as color on Holi.

Kahaani is a sensual experience.  The cinematography envelops you in the city of Kolkata, so that you can almost taste it.  The shots of the Durga Pooja alone are worth the ticket price.  The music by Vishal/Shekhar is interesting, diverse and juxtaposes the past and the present seamlessly.  No real production numbers, yet the edgy quality carries the plot very well, as in this song. 

Vidya’s performance is masterful, as expected.  She plays with the camera like a virtuoso, and keeps all her mysteries to herself while making her character very identifiable at the same time.  How does she do that?

But the newsmaker in this film is Nawazuddin Siddiqui who plays A. Khan, a government higher-up who really steals your attention every time he’s on screen. He was good as the young reporter in Peepli Live, too, but I didn’t recognize him from it until I looked him up. I may now have to find a copy of Patang, as well, to watch him in it. Sigh, it’s an indie film, it’s going to be a difficult “get”. Here are two short articles on him, in the Times of India and the Deccan Chronicle, the latter is better.   

 

Julie M:  Peepli Live is on my list of recent movies to find and watch.  The very LONG list!

 

Jenny K:  You might even call it…wait for it…a Hit List!  But please don’t.  I’m still looking over my shoulder….I may never sleep quietly again, at least not in Kolkata.

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