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

February 13, 2013: Good cop, good cop

Our catching up continues…in the last months of 2012 we watched several films with good cops (two of them Aamir Khan!) and couldn’t help comparing them.

Julie M:  Finally finished Zanjeer (The Chain, 1973)…awesome film! Had everything: love, revenge, gangsters, fight scenes, and Amitabh Bachchan, looking hot in a police uniform. It doesn’t get much better…here’s the trailer, unfortunately not subtitled: 

Plot summary: Young Vijay (isn’t his name always Vijay in these things?) Khanna witnesses the murder of his parents one Diwali and as he grows to adulthood, his nightmares are haunted by an image of a man on a galloping white horse for some unfathomable (to him) reason. We know why, though…because the murderer was wearing a chain bracelet with a horse charm. Raised by a sympathetic cop, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) becomes a police officer, known among his peers for his unorthodox ways and steadfast dedication to wiping out crime in all its forms, which often gets him into trouble with his higher-ups. At a new posting he befriends, and reforms, the local gambling boss Sher Khan (Pran) and saves Mala, a damsel in distress (Jaya Bhaduri), although the actual amount of distress she was in is doubtful, since she’s pretty good at knife-handling. Here’s the meet-cute scene between Vijay and Sher Khan. 

Jenny K:  Did you ever see Amitabh in the film Dev? He and Om Puri have a great good cop/corrupt cop duel in that one, and it has the added benefit of being one of the few movies I couldn’t fault Kareena in!  BigB isn’t quite as young as in Zanjeer, but I think I prefer his older avatar in any case.

Julie M: I’ll take him any way I can get him…but so very handsome when young and that drunk scene in Satte pe Satta always cracks me up and makes me fall in love with him all over again…anyway, Vijay also receives anonymous phone calls alerting him to when shipments of tainted liquor are brought to town, and he becomes a local hero to all except for the criminals running the hooch, headed by a crime boss named Teja (Ajit).

After Teja menaces Mala and she barely escapes with her life, Vijay rescues her (again) and places her in protective custody with his brother, where she gradually loses her “street” ways and falls in love with Vijay. As the case against Teja grows, Vijay gets more and more determined to wipe him out…until the day he himself is framed for bribery, thrown in prison and gets kicked off the force. He knows Teja is behind it, and grudgingly accepts Sher Khan’s help to trap Teja into a final confrontation.

I love this scene where Sher Khan expresses undying bro-hood with Vijay:  Pran not being particularly graceful, it has that awkward yet mesmerizing improvisational quality of Tevye’s big number “If I Was a Rich Man” from Fiddler.

Despite some totally ridiculous hand-to-hand combat, Zanjeer is a mesmerizing picture of a man who must reconcile his past and present and somehow exorcise the bitterness from his soul in order to be truly happy. I highly recommend that people do a BigB marathon by watching (in this order) Zanjeer, Deewar and Sholay (although I was not a fan of Sholay personally, it’s important to see); it’s a wonderful snapshot of what makes Amitji a star and how he defines a cinematic generation.

Since this was so perfect I’m not sure I want to see the upcoming remake, although seeing Sanjay Dutt as Sher Khan would be terrific. Prakash Raj as Teja, Priyanka Chopra as Mala, and hunky Telegu actor Ram Charan Teja as Vijay (confusing) round out the remake cast. It looks like a very faithful update, down to the songs even, which makes me wonder why it even has to be done.

Zanjeer is available free on YouTube with subtitles here.

And speaking of squeaky-clean ACPs…

Julie MSarfarosh (Martyr, 1999) was definitely a treat! Great performances all around, with standout roles played by Aamir Khan and Naseeruddin Shah. I can see why you bought this one…combines your two boys into an irresistible experience.

Aamir Khan is Ajay Singh Rathod, a squeaky-clean ACP newly arrived in Mumbai with a tragic backstory that made him drop his dream of being a doctor to devote his life to wiping out crime, particularly terrorist-related activity. Rathod is good–too good–his reputation precedes him and the bad guys in town scramble to cover their tracks. Nevertheless, with luck and skill he manages to penetrate an international gun-smuggling ring that reaches deep into the ISI–Pakistan’s version of the CIA. Meanwhile Rathod is dealing with his higher-ups’ prejudice against his man Salim (Mukesh Rishi), a Muslim whom they suspect to be sympathetic to the terrorists, the sudden reappearance of his college crush Seema (Sonali Bendre), and an unexpected friendship with his ghazal-singing idol Gulfam Hassan (Naseeruddin Shah) facilitated by Seema, who is his agent in Mumbai.  The action of the film centers on Rathod’s outsmarting of the criminals and bringing them to justice, but rather than being about one guy’s quest it’s almost an ensemble piece with some really outstanding performances.  And the guy gets the girl in the end.

Things I loved:

1) you meet and get to know Ajay in a sweet homey setting, kissing his Maa, playing with his nephew and getting all excited about scoring tickets to see Gulfam perform, then flash back to his college relationship with Seema as “Ajay Singh”, all the while seeing scenes of brutal terrorism in the present day. You think, OK, this ordinary guy is somehow going to be involved, maybe he’ll get kidnapped by the terrorists and end up saving the day, when BOOM, in almost a throwaway scene you learn that he is in fact the feared “Rathod” that all the goondas have been discussing, and just like that, Aamir’s face suddenly gets more mature, more serious, and you just know that he is going to be the hero in more ways than one. This is his Raakh character, only with a badge.

2) They get Aamir wet–not just wet, but DRENCHED–in the obligatory erotic love song. I mean, wow. Aamir just doesn’t do that in his later films. You’ve already fallen in love with him because of his character, and now this? It’s almost too much to take. 

3) Naseeruddin Shah. He gets two great speeches, one in each half of the film, and delivers them perfectly. But why (spoiler alert) did his character have to bite the ear off a baby goat?! ew. (end spoiler)

4) Gritty realism without gratuitous violence. I read that they did a lot of research on the actual cross-border arms trade and many of the details are scarily accurate.

5) Mukesh Rishi. He overacts in one scene, but otherwise I liked the presence of this giant–or maybe relative giant, because Aamir is such an elf. Apparently he was in Koi…Mil Gaya and I didn’t notice him.  Here’s his big scene with a bit too much intensity: 

So I guess my overall opinion is YES YES YES! I understand a Sarfarosh 2 may be in the works…with or without Aamir…???

Sarfarosh is available free on YouTube, in 16 sections, with 1 commercial per section. (sorry)  Here’s part I:

 

Oh–and about the title–still trying to figure out who the martyr is. Is it Ajay, who destroys his youthful dreams in order to defend his country? (spoiler alert) Is it Gulfam, who kills himself in the end so as not to destroy his own reputation (which Ajay seems to have protected after his death anyway)? Is it Salim, who alienates himself from other Muslims to do what he thinks is right, which is protect Ajay and India? (end spoilers)  Lots of martyrs in this film.

Jenny K:  Perhaps the title is a more generic “Martyrdom”? With all those examples, I’d bet it is. Glad you liked it. It’s always been one of my favorites, and I’d have bought it, even if I hadn’t been trying to own all of Aamir’s films at that point in my mania.

I really think that Sonali Bendre is lovely in this one…a real vision. I’m surprised he hasn’t done more with her. I also love the cinematography, especially the shots of the camels in the desert.  (aside to readers:  we review two more films with Sonali Bendre in a future post)

Julie M:  “Martyrdom” would be “Sarfaroshi” or is that more like “Sacrifice”? patriotic song Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna from The Legend of Bhagat Singh and similar. Maybe the title is more like “Sacrifice,” then.  Ajay sacrificed his personal desire, Gulfam sacrificed his nationality (remember he was upset that in Pakistan he was always a refugee).

Jenny K:  Speaking of cops, I can’t believe that I haven’t reviewed Talaash yet!  What a delinquent I am!  I saw it the first weekend out, and it was a really effective piece of suspense film making.  Here’s the trailer.  

Julie M:  I know, I was supposed to see the same weekend as you, but sorry, I got sick!

Jenny K:  Aamir Khan plays another noble police inspector, Surjan Singh Shekhawat, who  is standing against all corruption.  Could we expect anything less?  But he’s suffused with an air of melancholy, that we discover is caused by the death of his young son in a boating accident.  Both he and his wife Roshni (Rani Mukherji) blame themselves for relaxing their vigilance and letting him die.

Work is the only thing that distracts Surjan at all, and it begins to put more and more distance between himself and Roshni, especially when he begins investigating the death of a famous movie star in a crazy, apparently drunken, car crash.  To Surjan, the details just don’t add up, and he begins digging into the sordid underbelly of the red light district, looking for clues.  He’s helped by the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, Rosie, (played by Kareena Kapoor) who nurses Surjan along the path to the right answers, and heals him, as well.  But things just aren’t as they seem…not at all.

Julie M:  She’s a hooker AGAIN?  Wasn’t Chameli enough for her? I guess she didn’t have a heart of gold there, but still.  

Jenny K:  The performances in the film are uniformly good, particularly Aamir’s and Kareena’s, who establish a palpable chemistry that I haven’t seen between them before…and I don’t see often with KK, at all.  Props to her, she knows just how to strut it and burn with a teasing warmth that captures Surjan and doesn’t let him drop the case, even when he knows he should, to keep his sanity and his marriage.  There’s a tangential plotline with a poor denizen of the brothels, Tehmur, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is in love with one of the whores, and he is determined to free her, at any cost.  Nawazuddin, as you know, is one of my favorites…though why he plays so many crippled characters, I’m not sure.  Got to get The Gangs of Wasseypur and see whether that one is a stronger personality.  I loved him in Kahaani as that semi-corrupt police inspector and he just burned up the screen.  He doesn’t, in my opinion, ever give a bad performance.

Julie M:  I don’t have enough experience with him to say whether he is one of my faves, but I loved him in Kahaani, so I will take your word for the rest!  Although Gangs of Wasseypur is not on my list.  Anything with “Gangs” in the title I avoid on principle.

Jenny K:  You definitely should see Talaash though. Even if I don’t like AK’s moustache in it, hides too much of his face for me, but it actually made Pat like him more. She says she can now see him more as a husband than as a boyfriend-type. I like him any way he comes, and it’s nice that he doesn’t seem quite as angry as his more recent films have portrayed him. I particularly enjoyed seeing Rani on screen again. It’s been too long!

Julie M:  Found it on YouTube but without subtitles.

March 31, 2012: Days of Whine and Reasons…to Procrastinate

We’ve been bad, bad bloggers.  No excuses other than work, and looking for work, getting in the way.  But we’re baaaaaaack!  Jenny went to a film festival in Pittsburgh, and Julie staged her own Naseeruddin Shah Mini-Fest. 

 

Jenny K: Well, not THAT bad…maybe only two aa’s worth.  I myself have gone to great lengths, of time and gasoline to bring forth this report.  Getting it written up, was, I must admit, much more prolonged than I’d have wished.  If I had known we were embarking on a Naseeruddin Shah-lebration, well, there would have been much less procrastination!

 

Julie M:  OK, so I saw Today’s Special (2009) tonight. I know it’s not technically an Indian film and it’s all in English, but it has three Indian actors (parallel and mainstream films) and an NRI actor/screenwriter, so I’ll count it as a win.  Here’s the trailer.

Jenny K: Finally!  I knew you’d like it…I talked about it quite a bit on my older blog when I first saw it in the theaters, but it’s great to get your perspective on it.  Needless to say, Naseerji had me with the first sight of him peeping at Aasif in the rear view mirror with such a knowing twinkle in his eyes.  Mmmm!  The man is definitely worth his own film fest.

 

Julie M:  To get the feeling of how great it is, here are the first scenes under the opening credits.

Plot summary:  Samir (Aasif Mandvi, of the Daily Show) is a sous-chef in a fancy New York restaurant, with dreams of running one of his celebrity-chef boss’s several establishments in the very near future.  When someone else is selected for the job he quits in frustration, intending to go to France to study with master chefs.  A family situation interrupts his plans and he offers to temporarily run his father’s (Harish Patel) restaurant, a greasy-spoon curry joint in Jackson Heights.  But he doesn’t speak any Indian languages well enough to communicate effectively with the kitchen staff, and he doesn’t know how to cook Indian food at all.  Friendly and quirky cabbie Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) proves to be Samir’s simultaneous undoing and redemption, and his feisty mother (Madhur Jaffrey) keeps him grounded.  Of course there is also a love interest (Jess Weixler).  In the process of juggling relatives and restaurants, Samir learns the true meaning of commitment, family and food.

 

Jenny K: Just the thought of Naseerji running about in that t shirt with feathers flying is enough to cheer me up for the day!

 

Julie M: What a sweet (if semi-predictable) film! Naseerji was AMAZING–I could have kissed him all over, what an awesome character and played to perfection by the master–and of course, the food was a star its own self. Harish and Madhur can always  be counted on for top work in whatever they do.  But what I liked the best was the absolute realism of the Indian elements–down to the music, slang and attitudes. Not fake-India, REAL Indian people. OK, it was Hollywood-ed up slightly, but it felt very honest. Mandvi’s original play translated well to the screen and it felt natural and very warm.  And this gem on the special features, featuring Aasif and Madhur cooking, was hokey but fun.

 

Jenny K:  Well, she was a gem, and is, of course a rather famous cook in her own right…when I watched it, I wanted him to back off a bit with the yuk yuks, and let her go to town. 

 

Julie M: Well done, great recommendation. Love it, love it, love it!  The whole film is available for $2.99 on YouTube.  [It’s on Netflix streaming, too.] And if you decide you can’t live without more Aasif, here’s a good interview.

 

Jenny K: My film outing was to beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, PA where The Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival was winding down it’s seventh annual showcase of films.  I was so sorry that I only had two days to dedicate to the festival, which runs for over a week…plus having numerous other events focusing on Asian-American culture during the year.  If you’re in the area, you should definitely check the group out.

I’m afraid, as you probably could predict, that I leaned heavily Indian in my choices for viewing, with The Beetle Soldiers, an Indonesian offering, being my sole trip outside Mother India.  That film, and two others, Dekh Indian Circus and Shala, all became an unintentionally themed set, focusing on the lives of children in different parts of South Asia. 

Dekh Indian Circus (2011) was the first film I saw when I hit town, not even waiting to check in at my hotel before going to the Regent Square Theater, a cozy little art cinema just off exit 77 on 376.  The film was directed by Mangesh Hadawale in a very polished first attempt.  Aided by Laxman Utekar’s lush cinematography we take a very vivid look through the eyes of two village children as they see a traveling circus for the very first time.  Or, rather, try to see one.  What should have been a rather simple joy the parents (Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui) wanted to give their kids became a monumental challenge due to mingled issues of bad luck and the vagaries of the local political circus of Rajasthan’s (or any) election time.  A gorgeous film, very well acted by all involved, but a bit sad in tone and a mite confusing, as the circus/political parallels weren’t clear enough to me.

To continue through the murk of childhood memories, the second film I saw, Shala (2011), by Sujay Dahake was supposed to be a coming of age film of a group of ninth grade boys during Indira Ghandi’s political emergency of the 1970’s.  I hadn’t seen much on this era so far in my Indian film viewing, and I still don’t feel that I have.  A murky print didn’t help, but, again, the info the writer and director gave the viewer about the era wasn’t spelled out enough to give the uninitiated much enlightenment.  The children performed well, and I would have wished they had stuck more to that story and tied up some of the loose plot ends instead of spreading things too thin by covering (thinly) the historical context.  It could have been a classic boy’s first love of the “Unattainable She” film, and for me, at least, it wasn’t.

The next day, the first film was The Beetle Soldiers (2011), by Ari Sihasale.  It’s an Indonesian version of the same “boy comes of age” genre.  I was delighted to find that I was going to see one kids film this weekend where the children seemed to feel privileged going to school, and though it was often strict, not all the memories of school were harsh ones.  Our hero, Amek, played by Yudi Miftahudin with an open face and an honest expressiveness, has a talent for horses, and not as much for learning.  His life is also plagued by a cleft lip, but nothing stops his optimistic outlook…until the second half.  After that, not all the lovely cinematography in the world can stop the tsunami of bad luck that hits Amek and his family when his longed-for father finally comes home.  So much for a feel-good favorite.  Again, good performances, just not what I’d hoped for.  Sheesh.

Julie M:  The library finally yielded up The Dirty Picture (2011) and my schedule allowed me to see it in two short sessions.

I’m not going to rehash the plot because we’ve already talked about it here and our friend Carla on Filmi Geek did an extensive post on it, every word of which I agree with, except my tongue doesn’t hang out quite as much as hers does when I see Vidya. 

 

Jenny K:  Well, I don’t think anyone could match that much enthusiasm, even VB’s agent!  Wow!  And as good as some of Carla’s points are, some just missed me completely.  I got the feminist side of things, but I hadn’t seen the angle she found most obvious…with so much blatant hetero-ness goings on, it must have masked it, or it’s in the eye of the beholder.  Vidya has been a favorite of mine, acting-wise since the days of Lage Raho Munnabhai and Parineeta.  Way to go girl!

 

Julie M:  My opinion, outside of Vidya’s performance, which was of course jaw-droppingly fantastic, was that I didn’t think too much of it. I found it very dull in the few scenes she was not onscreen.  I was amused by Naseerji’s role as a Rajnikath-type South Indian actor (even anachronistically playing a college student at his age! So funny!) but he was oddly low-key and I felt he was underutilized.  The bad wig was just bad, not bad-hilarious. I think he could have hammed it up a bit more and not taken away from the film, and enhanced Vidya’s performance in the process.  A rare off note from an otherwise godlike figure in film, who turns everything he touches into gold.

 

Jenny K:  The last film of the festival for me, Trishna (2011), was an updating of Tess of the D’Urburvilles, the Thomas Hardy classic, by director Michael Winterbottom.  This one was also primarily in English, but with the setting moved to India (Rajasthan and Mumbai) and primarily Indian stars, it felt like a full-out Indian offering.  But one that will never see the light of day in the Motherland, I fear.  As faithful as Winterbottom was to the source material, the portrayal of the troubled Tess, I mean Trishna, is way too graphic in its sex scenes to ever make it past the Indian sensor board.  Heck, for a moment or two there I thought I was going to get up and leave, or grab Trishna’s knife and wield it myself, if she didn’t!  Ooof!  It’s not that I haven’t seen more blatant scenes in western films, but somehow the brutality of the scenes (while being a great indicator of Trishna’s motivation) were just this side of merciless to the audience, especially to me as a female.  Once again, good performances, especially by Frida Pinto of Slumdog fame, and great scenery, but definitely the depressing cap to a rather opressive film weekend.  Well, I chose my own schedule!

 

Julie M:  It took me three sessions, but I finished Sparsh (Touch, 1980) tonight. My faith in The Man is back:  I was completely blown away by NS’s performance!!

Plot:  Anirudh Parmar (Naseeruddin Shah) is the principal of a school for blind children, and is himself blind. While looking for an address one day he meets Kavita (Shabana Azmi), a young widow still overcome by grief after three years. They become friends, and he invites her to the school to help by teaching the children stories and songs. The distraction is just what she needs and she begins to come out of her self-imposed solitude.  Friendship turns to love and then an engagement, but after hearing the story of a fellow teacher’s (Om Puri, looking quite slim and dashing) similar marriage Anirudh becomes fearful that he will end up too dependent on her sightedness, and that she is somehow punishing herself by marrying him out of pity. Is their romance doomed by the cultural dissonance between the worlds of the blind and the sighted? Must each of them sacrifice something of themselves in order to be together?

 Here’s a quick, unsubtitled compilation of some key scenes. 
It is always a joy to watch each of the lead actors, and watching them together just put me over the top. Naseerji’s turn as the fiercely independent and crusading principal was astonishing, and it was a treat seeing him so young and handsome (not that he’s a troll now, by any means!). Example.

Shabani Azmi’s performance, while excellent all along, really hit the heights in the last 30 minutes or so as she tries to understand Anirudh’s abrupt change of feelings and his rejection of her and her world. The students at the school were all played very naturally by blind children—I doubt any of them were professional actors but they sure seemed like it.

My main criticism is that it started abruptly and ended abruptly (although not confusingly so), which really destroyed the flow of the story. The songs were incorporated so naturally into the storyline I hardly noticed them–still trying to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.  I felt it was a little heavy-handed on the “blind people aren’t helpless” theme, but I put that down to being filmed in 1980 when India probably still harbored serious cultural prejudices against handicapped people of any kind and needed to hear this socially progressive message.  And it has a kind of “deus ex machina” aspect near the end when Kavita’s best friend (Sudha Chopra) explains Kavita’s personality to Anirudh.

Sparsh is available for $0.99 on YouTube here.  Don’t know if it’s subtitled or not—seems not to be.  It’s free, in multiple parts starting here, albeit not subtitled and in a very bad print.  

Jenny K:  We’ll try not to be so behindhand next month!

April 23, 2012: Silk Screenings Galore!

It’s that time of year again in Western Pennsylvania to wallow in a superabundance of amazing Asian American film offerings.  Harish Saluja and his friends, in the know on all things cinematic, especially of the international variety, are putting on a very friendly event called the Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival this May in beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, PA.

I had a chance to attend the first year of this program, six years ago, and even in it’s infancy, the films were great, the guest speakers were wonderful, and the crowd attending was particularly warm and friendly to out-of-towners like myself.  I particularly remember enjoying the chance to chat a bit with Konkona Sen Sharma when she was presenting her film Amu, what an enjoyable film!  And also, getting to dance at the opening night party with the star of Man Push Cart, Ahmad Razvi…guaranteed to give even the most jaded of us “aunties” a girlish thrill!  If you haven’t seen the film, you definitely should, here.  Enough said about past glories…here’s what’s on for this year!

The festival runs from the opening gala on May 11th through the closing on May 20th.  The films they showcase span many nations and cultures, all of Asian American heritage.  The films listed in the Festival Guide cover the cinematic globe from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and, of course, a few from India!  I’m in heaven! 

Those of you who have heard us rhapsodizing over Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Peepli Live, Kahaani) and Tannishtha Chatterjee (Road, Movie and Brick Lane), knows I’ll be there for Mangesh Hadewale’s Dekh Indian Circus, the story of a mother’s love for her children and the struggle to get them a rare trip to the circus.  And I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to attend Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, as well. 

Trishna is director Michael Winterbottom’s (A Mighty Heart, The Trip–a hysterical film with Steve Coogan) update of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” into the contemporary Rajasthani countryside.  It’s a story of two lovers torn between different castes, plus a conflict of tradition versus the newly educated poor.  Frida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire stars.

Another one that intrigues me is Shala from director Sujay Dahake.  It looks like a very cute coming of age story set in the 1970’s during the Emergency.  School crushes rule destinies, in every country, it seems.

Delhi in a Day looks intriguing, too…though it’s not on a good day for me.  Starring Lillete Dubey (KHNH, Monsoon Wedding) and Kulbushan Kharbanda (Lagaan, Monsoon Wedding) as the heads of a very wealthy nouveau-riche Indian family who rule over their household of very disorderly servants.  Their world is turned upside down when the money of a naive British visitor (Lee Williams) disappears and they have to replace it. Directed by Prashant Nair.

And there are so many others…I wish I could catch them all.  Hope I see some of you there, as well!

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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