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.

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Oct. 4 2011:Ranbir, Ajay & More Bhagat Singh…Deol With It!

Julie M: Finished Shaheed: 23rd March 1931, the Bobby Deol version of the Bhagat Singh story.   I saw it mostly for the story, which I fell in love with in The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and I hate to leave similar films uncompared, so here goes.

It was way bloodier and more violent than the Ajay Devgan version, but Bobby did not play Bhagat as intensely as Ajay did. The production value was significantly lower and cheesier, and the early part of the story seemed rushed. The Ajay version spent a lot of time on the early years, while the Bobby version spent more time stressing the family-drama aspect of the story. Aishwarya had a cameo as the girl Bhagat refused to marry, which seemed jarring. The songs weren’t translated, and the subtitles generally were pretty bad (sometimes no subtitles at all!). The English were portrayed as complete idiots as well as evil in this version, whereas in the Ajay version they were just clueless and a bit scared. I was actually more impressed with Sunny Deol’s performance as Azad than I was with Bobby’s as Bhagat.

Comparison: here is the “Sarfaroshi Ki Tamaana” song as sung in the Bobby Deol version:

And in the Ajay version
Here is the “Mere Rang de Basanti Chola” number in the Bobby version:

And in the Ajay version.

 
So, Bobby Deol may have looked more like the real Bhagat Singh, but I liked the Ajay version better. In a nutshell: the Bobby-version of the story was hit-you-over-the-head whereas the Ajay-version was more subtle and actually more stirring for it.

 

Jenny K:  It may all come down to AR Rahman vs. Anand Raj Anand/ Surendra Singh Sodhi. Nobody beats the Rahm! And though I liked the Bhagat Singh version, I still think I like the Rang De Basanti version, just a tad better, as I said before… Aamir’s voice-over just gets me all shivery…what a guy!

Sunny Deol will always, sorry to say, beat out Bobby on acting talent whether or not he tries. He actually is very supportive of baby brother, but has, at least until recently, been the most visible star. His movie Gadar, holds the record for highest gross made for 2000-2009. He can really pull them in. Is that the first one you’ve seen him in? Have you watched Border yet?  Here’s one scene, the odds are against Sunny’s boys, 150 Hindustanis to 2000 Pakistanis but he’s going to give it all he’s got, attitude-wise.

And here’s a backround piece on the filming.

Border gives you the emotional side of “the women left behind” and also tells a real story about the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War where the Pakistani Air Force came in and surprise bombed 11 Indian air bases with no warning. Indira Ghandi sent her troops on all fronts, and beat them back so badly that the whole thing was over in 11 days with Pakistan ceding Bangladesh to independency. It’s the best of its kind in all ways, except, perhaps, for the “happy to go to war, dancing with my tank” song, which is catchy, if incongruous.

[next day]

Julie M:  Saw the first half of Border. I get that there’s some personal stuff there, but it’s still a war movie and I’m not a fan of war movies. Still, I’m enjoying Sunny Deol’s performance and Akshaye Khanna had one great scene where he blew the cr*p out of one guy, after having failed to do so at his first opportunity.  Tell me if it gets significantly better in the 2nd half, because I’m just about ready to quit.

  

Jenny K:  All I can say is that I liked Border…I found the performances good and I liked the personal back-stories. I think Sunny’s best scenes are in the second half, when things get toughest, but if you’re not liking it, you shouldn’t watch it.

Sonny doesn’t tend to do many comedies, so if you like him, you’d have to take him in some earnest, heroic drama, and this is one of the easiest to take, military-wise. Maybe you should see Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Not my taste, but it was a Really Big Hit. Set during partition, about a Sikh guy falling for the Muslim girl he rescues and how they fight to stay together, despite religious differences. Sunny has played a lot of soldiers and sardars in his time.

He did one comedy recently, Yamla Pagla Deewana, with Bobby and their dad, Dharmendra, but it looked so PriyaDhawanish (my new term for unrelentingly slapstick) that I just couldn’t do it. Here’s the trailer, see what you think.

Julie M:  I’ll finish Border, then. So far the war aspect is overshadowing everything else, in my mind. B was very surprised when he saw me watching it, because he knows I don’t watch war movies.

 [the next day] 

 So I finished Border, finally, and you were right, it did get better. (I should always, always finish Indian films before I pass judgment on them!!)  The dyad of the characters played by Sunny and Akshaye was brilliantly done, and although a minor role, I enjoyed Jackie Shroff’s air force commander, as well. It was a treat to see Suniel Shetty portraying a young, idealistic soldier, given that previously I’ve only seen him in villain or criminal roles with a hard-etched face. Each of the characters who died (no spoilers here — given that it’s a war movie) performed acts of supreme heroism in defense of Mother India, and the scene where the Sunny Deol character got misty over the death of an enemy soldier was heart-wrenching.

However, I was unprepared for the absolute bloodiness and sheer length (probably close to 45 very intense minutes) of the final battle scene. War sure is hell, and the realism of it in Full Technicolor was probably quite shocking to audiences because it completely unhinged me–yet I had to keep watching. Here’s one of those scenes.

I have to credit the filmmakers for resisting the temptation to do the battle in slow motion, and if I have one criticism it is the maudlin nature of the very final scenes where they intercut images of the battle aftermath with tear-jerking impressions of the families at home — including one character’s cancer-stricken wife, who was previously only alluded to but never seen in flashback. Oh, and the truly annoying cry/chant of “Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan” at the peak of the action disturbed the mood — obvious pandering patriotism is never my thing.

Here is the stirring scene at daybreak where the Air Force can finally come to rescue our boys.

[Bringing the political theme to the present day, we both watched Raajneeti (Politics, 2010).]

Julie M:  Raajneeti is one of those films where a plot summary reveals too many spoilers, so I’ll make it brief:  This is the story of the ins and outs of one Indian election as we follow a political family and their associates.  After a bit of backstory on the mother of the political family and how she married into it, we are introduced to the younger-generation Pratap brothers and their families as well as to Indu, a young woman from outside the family with some political ambitions.  One brother, Prithvi (Arjun Rampal) is handsome and politically ambitious, while his younger brother, Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) has just come back from his PhD studies in the U.S.  A family tragedy catapults Prithvi into electoral (and familial) competition with his cousin Veeru (Manoj Bajpai), and Samar reluctantly takes a role after a second tragedy.  Here’s the trailer:

Jenny K:  Raajneeti doles out its own style of gunfighter justice which seems to be the predominant way to run a government in India, if Bollywood filmmakers are to be believed. Yuva, RDB, and other similar films of the past decade paint the picture of ultimate corruption by a group of morally bankrupt would-be contenders for office who are willing to do anything and everything to get their man (or woman) in power.  If that’s true, all I can say, is run out of the polling places, and straight for the airport… Just don’t stop and roll down your taxi window on the way there. You may get blown away. I certainly was. 

Julie M:  Although I felt the film had crazy, over-the-top dramatic tension–I kept thinking the level and volume was more appropriate to a TV miniseries rather than a feature film–I really enjoyed Ranbir ‘s performance as the reluctant-cum-ruthless political strategist. Ajay Devgan–love him–was a little disappointing as the outsider behind the opposing campaign, as it seemed to be a role he could do with his eyes closed rather than a creative challenge. Katrina Kaif was OK as Indu, Nana Patekar was perfect as the older political mentor, and what is it about Indian movies, where they choose American actors to be the least convincing possible to avoid upstaging the Indian actors?  The Ranbir character’s girlfriend was horrible, just horrible.

Jenny K: While you’re right about the lack of effective white actors in Indian films, this girl isn’t at all the weakest…trust me.  Her character was meant to be a quiet reproach to Samar, and not someone to steal focus…and she did that reasonably well.  She reminded me of Jennifer Garner, favorably, more than once.

Otherwise, the performances were uniformly pretty darned good. Nana Patekar was, as usual, a true artist, layering his portrayal with so many degrees of gray that he could have hidden among the newspaper clippings of his great reviews.

Ajay Devgan looked fetching with his dark, simple wardrobe, gold earrings and now patented scowl, but on the whole I wish he had more to do. He had only two really good scenes, the one at the very end with his mentor Veeru on the roadside, where he showed some grace even when losing, and then the scene on the hillside with his mother. Wonderful expressive looks flew across his face as he reacted to her admissions. Frankly, as much as I love Ajay, I didn’t know he had that much subtlety in him. Bravo!  Here’s the director Prakash Jha and Ajay talking about their history together. 

This Making of Raajneeti video is interesting, too.

Arjun Rampal is shaping up as a rather tasty villain/psychopath these days. Always elegant, a killer with style. Much more interesting than his sweet, sensitive victim roles like his banker-turned-robber in Don or his edge-of-slacker musician in Rock On! And Manoj Bajpai turns in another slick moustache twirling version of the ultimate single-focus campaigner, Veeru. He showed us all the layers of Veeru’s insecurities, that drove him and tripped him, simultaneously…very nice. And Ranbir Kapoor, did his turn as the youngest Corleone brother…oh, I meant Pratap brother…easy mistake with all that ruthless mayhem and the schmaltzy pseudo-Sicilian soundtrack going on…with a degree of underplaying that I wasn’t expecting from the Saawariya Song and Dance Man.

 Only the women in the film seemed a bit muted in Raajneeti…Mom, Indu and Sarah, the gori girlfriend were scarcely there.  I wondered whether some of the girls scenes got left on the cutting room floor, but if this example is anything to go by, probably not…window-dressing.

Here’s the full movie with subtitles on YouTube.  But it’s in pieces.

Julie M:   Not only was it a political thriller, it was the tense story of a political family where there are secrets, jealousies, alliances and emotions equal to the best soap opera. This was a film that could have gone either way for me, but I actually liked it. Critics seemed to hate it, it was highly popular, but I thought it was a pretty good catharsis. I found myself cheering people and then in the next breath booing them, rolling my eyes at one thing and holding my breath at the next. A bit bloody for my taste but it fit the action. The only problem was that I ended up not really liking any of the characters, and waiting for each of them to get what they deserved. And each one of them did, except for Nana Patekar, who got off scot-free.

Jenny K:  Cheering and booing…becoming a real typical filmi-girl audience member, aren’t you? 
But while Nana got off without having to get his come-uppance, but the real crime to me was [spoilers] letting Samar off on his flight back to the US with only a weak token of a mea culpa “Gosh, Indu, I never wanted to be a politician…I knew I wouldn’t like who I’d become”…Understatement of the Year! What about a scene where he tried to take his mother back to NYC, and she turns her back on him and leaves? Or Indu finally donning a backbone with her robes of office and arresting him as her first official act? [end of spoilers] Would have been appropriate…What was his doctoral thesis again? “Sublimated Violence in Victorian Literature”? A natural!

 

Julie M:  Nice analysis. The only thing I’ll take issue with is your characterization of Prithvi as a villain. I’d call him obsessed and ruthless — and pretty dumb — but I think he genuinely wanted (!) to get into politics for more than just personal power or family pressure, and eventually he came to realize that the cost was starting to mount up but by then it was too late, he had to push on.

I agree that Veeru was the most interesting character to watch, outside of Samar, who actually got a bit boring towards the end with his sheer villainy. You could almost see Veeru’s head splitting with all the conflicting emotions.  And Indu was just a cipher from the start.

 

Jenny K:  Manoj Bajpai is always a great character actor…you love to hate him. Though, in this film, that’s so full of questionable ethics and downright villainy…you can’t throw a stone without hitting a baddie. It’s harder to decide who you should identify with…even mom is a liar.

 

Julie M:  That’s why I said earlier that I came away not liking anyone. But I think Prithvi was the closest to sympathetic, except Indu, who ended up being used by everyone. Even though Prithvi was not clean, he did realize that it had all gotten out of control. And then [spoiler alert] he was blown up, so… Veeru was more psychotic than Prithvi—he had the crazy eyes from minute one!

 

Jenny K: I was looking for a clip of Manoj Bajpai with subtitles and found one that looks as if it belongs in this article…another historical uprising film called Chittagong.  Not out yet, though it was made last year.  There’s always a new one coming out…hope it’s as good as it looks!

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