January 10, 2017: Goodbye, Puri Sahib

om-puri

Julie M: Indian film lost one of its guiding lights on January 6. Om Prakesh Puri was best known as a character actor—his appearance did not lend itself to lead roles in films that wanted to be popular, and he was definitely no chocolate hero. He worked on stage, in television, and in film, first in “art” cinema, later in mainstream Bollywood. I don’t recall seeing him dancing or singing, though: he always seemed to be too serious an actor for that. Puri was the crossover actor that all Bollywood actors dream of being: fluent in several languages, he worked without prejudice in Indian, Pakistani, British, and American films. His rough looks and gravelly voice as he aged often landed him roles as either a police officer or a stern father/father-figure, frequently positive ones, occasionally ambiguous, rarely 100% negative. As an indicator of his “type,” his name is often thought of when one thinks of actors like Naseeruddin Shah (the Filmi-Goris perennial fave and Puri’s longtime good friend), Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri (no relation), and Smita Patil. He was the “angry young man” before Amitabh Bachchan, and appeared in later films like Rang de Basanti and Yuva, both serious films about young people coming into awareness of their political obligations (although in Yuva, he played a corrupt politician who is threatened by the young upstarts).

American audiences may remember seeing him in Gandhi (1982) as the character who killed a Muslim child because a Muslim had killed his son, and wants some kind of absolution from Hell through Gandhi. It was a pretty intense one-scene cameo for him early in his career and I believe it was his first non-Indian film job.

Puri had already won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor award in 1980 for the dramatic and heart-rending art film Aakrosh (aka Cry of the Wounded). In it he played, nearly silently, a peasant whose life is one of such unfairness, dehumanization, loss, and violence at the hands of others that he commits a heinous, violent act of his own simply to prove that his entire life and those of his loved ones won’t be known for complete victimization. WARNING: this is very difficult to watch. The role in Gandhi, however brief, brought back, to those who had seen Aakrosh, a similar character who had the opportunity to make a very different decision.

Jenny K: In a similarly visible US film appearance in Roland Joffe’s City of Joy with Patrick Swayze and Pauline Collins, Puri played a Calcutta rickshaw driver with such detail and determination that he impressed even the New York Times, though the film itself didn’t do well. Here’s a bit of his biography, remembering that film, chronicled by his ex-wife, Nandita.

Julie M: Puri could also handle silly comedy as well as the more serious dramatic roles. One of my personal favorite Indian films is the 1997 Chachi 420 (Fake Aunty), which was inspired by the American film Mrs. Doubtfire.   As Banwari Lal, he is instantly suspicious of “Lakshmi” (the fake-female babysitter for his employer’s granddaughter), and pits himself against her repeatedly as she thwarts his plans to siphon off his employer’s money. Here’s a great scene with Banwari comically spying on her as she walks through town (there is dialogue but no subtitles are necessary).

As in most farces, there is eventually a comedy of mistaken identity, and this one involves Banwari in a hilariously complex way.   At the end he learns the truth about Lakshmi, but has committed so many evil deeds that he cannot reveal what he knows lest they all come out publicly and ruin him.

Jenny K: That looks hysterical, but in addition to a light touch with slapstick, Om Puri could be funny with just a look or a gesture, bringing an indelible quality to what would, in other hands, be a rather bland supporting role. Take his part as Pandit in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool(2003)…a fabulous film, but paired with his old school chum Naseeruddin Shah again, as Purohit, they play policemen/city officials who bring real color to the usually bland “chorus” role in this Macbeth adaptation. They completely had me laughing from the get-go.

om-in-maqbool

(Screencap thanks to Amrita Sen on the Borrowers and Lenders site.  I could not find one, and no pic would be a crime!)

Julie M: But his roles as a gruff father trying to resist change are the ones that I think a lot of people would remember him for, and two of them are conveniently filmed in English. In 1999’s East is East (and its 2010 sequel West is West, which we reviewed here), Puri earned international acclaim as the patriarch of a British-Pakistani family. As George Khan, he is dismayed that his British-raised children won’t respect Pakistani traditions and is abusive to them and to his British wife. In this scene, George is upset that his youngest son is faking that he is not circumcised in order to fit in with the other boys.

Although played as comedy, Khan’s struggles with his family’s identity rang serious and true among not just Pakistani immigrants to Britain, but among any bicultural families torn between the old ways and their new homeland. In 2014’s The Hundred Foot Journey, Puri plays Papa Kadam, an Indian immigrant to France whose smelly, casual Indian restaurant is a nuisance to Helen Mirren’s Madame Mallory, who runs a classy Michelin-starred French restaurant just across the street.

They become instant enemies: in this scene, Papa has bought all the pigeons in the market so Madame cannot make her restaurant’s signature dish.   He doesn’t say a word in the scene, but he is so good at the character that you know all you need to just from his face. The journey he takes from stubborn ire to protectionism, to eventual détente and maybe something more, is again one that is familiar to any immigrant.

Jenny K: What I constantly marvel at is how a man with such an instantly recognizable face and voice can give such a variety of characterizations in the body of his work. I remember going to see Mirch Masala (1987) during the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival back in the spring of 2011, and almost didn’t recognize Puri at first, who, at 37 was playing an old caretaker of sixty-some. He was always playing older, at least by the time I began watching Indian films in the eary 2000’s. And, because of that, it’s hard to believe that he left us at only 66!

Mirch Masala is one of those dramas of colonial India that play so well, especially with its stellar cast. Naseeruddin Shah is epically slimy as an evil governmental officer, or Subhedhar, who uses his position to harvest the countryside for taxes and other “side benefits.” On his rounds one day, he sees a particularly lovely, but married, woman, Sonbai (the feisty Smita Patil), at the banks of the river, and tells her what he expects from her. She flouts him and runs away to hide in the local warehouse yard where the chili harvest is dried out in the sun. Abu Miyan (Om Puri) is the factory watchman, or chowkidar, who stands alone with the women in their defiance of the subhedar’s demands for Sonabai’s surrender. Even the mayor of the town is against them, thinking that the cost of one woman will be worth the loss of the whole town. Sometimes the film leans toward the melodramatic, and Naseerji twirls a particularly fine moustache, but I really enjoyed the film and Om Puri’s noble character. [Sorry, no subtitles, but the visuals are vivid!]

Another old favorite of mine for its classic cast and solid performances was Disha (1990), our review, here. Puri’s performance as the “crazy” older brother, Parshuram or “Pagal Parsa” who sticks to the farm life and the continual digging of his family’s well, is the rock on which the whole story is built. The whole film is a picture of how poverty in the countryside sent multitudes into the city to better their family’s fate, but it usually didn’t. Nana Patekar, Raghuvir Yadav and Shabana Azmi are also wonderful in it.

Whatever role he took, Om Puri left us with a clear picture of the person he was trying to share. It was a gift, rich with detail, charm and passion, subtle or broad, always perfectly delivering the director’s intention. That is not a talent that will be easily replaced…if ever. Thank you, Puri Sahib.

September 25, 2014: Mmmm, Bearnaise…

Julie M:  Now that I am a Woman of a Certain Age, I’m finding that there is a special kind of film being marketed just to me. The heroine is an older woman (typically played by Judi Dench or Helen Mirren), the location is exotic, the woman is strong although in the beginning she is a) confused b) mean or c) standoffish, and eventually she melts and/or comes into her own through the application of a youthful character, a charming man her own age (whom she starts out hating), and/or a younger woman whom she mentors. In the end she “learns something about herself” and does things she would never have dreamed of doing at the time the film starts.

Jenny K: Hey, we’re not as old as The Dames…at least, not yet…meaning no disrespect to those lovely ladies and/or their immense talent.  But you have to hold onto those pre-retirement years with both hands, and they move faster and faster now, but I’m determined….but, I get your point, sorry, carry on.

Julie M:  Although they are all kind of the same, that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining. I liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and now, ditto The Hundred Foot Journey (2014). I was aware the whole time that I, a WOACA, was being manipulated and pandered to, but man, it was pretty fun.

In this iteration, Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, a perfectionist and somewhat crotchety fine-dining restaurateur in a small town in France whose nose is put out of joint by the arrival of the Kadams, who take up residence and open an earthy, noisy Indian restaurant across the street from her hoity-toity establishment. The Kadam patriarch (a glorious Om Puri) antagonizes her from day one:

 

and eventually they have a balls-out business war, which plays out hilariously.

 

Meanwhile, Hassan (a very dishy Manish Dayal), the son and chief cook, becomes infatuated with French cuisine and with Madame’s sous-chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Hassan’s culinary talent soon becomes obvious, and Madame is simultaneously threatened and intrigued.

Jenny K: I love Om Puri in his long-suffering dad roles, he does it so well.  He steams and fumes along with the best of the dramatic comedians…or is that comedic dramatists?  Remember his films, East is East (1999) where he plays a Pakistani patriarch in Britain, and its sequel West is West (2010) where he takes some of his marriageable sons back to the mother country to find a bride…no, wait a minute, as I recall, in that second one, Om’s character, George Khan, sort of bugged the heck out of me.  Still a truly gifted actor, though.  Here he does it again, while on a sort of marvelous food travelogue!

 

Julie M: In addition to Om, the gorgeous scenes of rural France, long lingering camera pans of Hassan’s face, and multiple hits of food porn make this fairly obvious targeted to you-know-who and it would have normally made me roll my eyes. However, music by A.R. Rahman, an introductory flashback to the Kadams’ roots in India (with a nice cameo by Juhi Chawla as Mama) and the final message familiar to anyone who has seen even one old-fashioned Bollywood movie takes The Hundred Foot Journey a few steps beyond the typical middle-aged-lady-fantasy that is found in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to something interesting, without approaching the middle-aged-lady-weeperness of, for example, Philomena. Definitely worth seeing–once, and not thinking too hard while you do–and then going, as I did, with a fun group to an Indian restaurant that, unfortunately, did not measure up to the assumed deliciousness of the food in the film.

Jenny K: When I saw Hundred Food…eh…food-ean slip there…I mean Hundred Foot Journey, I felt like I was getting a real dose of cinema comfort food. It’s the latest in enjoy-your-life-it’s-not-over-yet films by Lasse Halstrom. I just rewatched his Salmon Fishing in the Yemen where a supposedly stodgy (? Really?  Yeah, right.) Ewan MacGregor finds a new lease on life with Emily Blunt in the deserts of Yemen with a dishy sheik and lots of big fish along for the ride. Not that EMcG is exactly ready for a senior discount, but his character was similarly stuck in his ways and weighed down by duties, obligations and the fatigues of routine life. Love both films…how could you go wrong with Helen and Om? Though I’m not sure I really believed their jodi would last for any length of time. Perhaps I just loved her much more effective “senior romance” with Brian Cox as her long-lost Russian spy-boy-toy in Red (and Red 2). A much more explosive chemistry there, even discounting the automatic weaponry she sported! He comes in at the end of this clip with a twinkle in his eye and saves the day…though she probably could have done it herself.

 

Julie M: But Madame and Papa…I never saw them as becoming more than just very good friends and late-life companions. He was too attached to his dead wife and she to her restaurant. Plus, she’s still French. But, back to Salmon Fishing. I read the book and was not sufficiently impressed to see the movie, although it keeps showing up on my library’s DVD shelves so I should probably borrow it one of these weekends.

Jenny K:  Definitely a must-view, if just for the scenery…Scotland and our Sheikh Mohammed (Amr Waked), both. And Kristen Scott Thomas’ hilarious comedic turn as the PM’s Press Director.  Who knew she had that set of chops in her arsenal?

 

Julie M: What I kept thinking, of course, was what if this had been an Indian film? We would have gotten the full backstory of how Papa and Mama met, courted and married: her food ties, his absorbing of her passion (because he doesn’t seem to be from a food family, he got swept up into hers), and enough of the cute couple back and forth [SPOILER ALERT] to make her eventual death even more dramatic and shocking (it seemed beside the point here, simply to get her out of the way so the plot could continue), [END SPOILER] and then the continuation into the next generation with more of little Hassan growing up at her side and in the kitchen. The puny, abbreviated flashback via the story he told the immigration official was just not enough for me. Then there would have been more poignancy when Papa goes all out to continue the business afterwards, [SPOILER ALERT] and conveys (of course, many more times) what heaven-dwelling Mama says. And we would have seen more Juhi. [END SPOILER]   Plus, of course, more songs and even an item number, set in the old restaurant, that tells us how much a fixture it was before it burned. It would have been much more satisfying, like, um, a good meal…

Jenny K:  I’m always one for more Juhi Chawla!  Definitely would have been a plus…but would Dame Helen have shared half a film with another love interest?  Not bloomin’ likely!  She’s a very strong WOACA…and she was already sharing the screen with multiple dishes that all too frequently stole focus.

Julie M:  But as it was, didn’t that sea urchin dish look yummy?

Jenny K:  What did you say?  I was browsing Yelp….mmmm!   French or Indian???

Julie M:  I vote for both!

Nov. 20, 2011: Wives, Widows and Wanton Women

Recently we’ve been watching a number of Indian films that center around women, ones that show them as fully rounded characters in situations that are far from the romance-movie norm. Please come along with us and join in on a fascinating subject for conversation.  It’s a long one, but well worth the time.

 

Julie M:  Tonight’s feature was Deepa Mehta’s Water (2006). What a film–so beautifully shot, yet so sad and made me angry at the same time. You know I love “issue” films, and this film raised enough issues to keep me musing for days.

Set in 1938, Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) is a rural girl, age 8 and recently widowed–according to tradition her parents take her toVaranasi to live in a widows’ ashram. Chuyia must adapt to a life of faith, austerity and begging with her new “family” of much older women. She doesn’t fit in at all, but she does befriend Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who is shunned by the other widows because she is routinely sent out as a prostitute to make money for the ashram. Another widow, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), takes Chuyia under her wing. Chuyia and Kalyani meet Narayan (John Abraham), a wealthy recent graduate and a Gandhi follower.  Narayan and Kalyani fall in love and plan to marry, but there is a major roadblock that leads to tragedy. Chuyia is next in line for “the life,” but Shakuntala intervenes and in a very nice parallel, Chuyia’s chances for a better future end up linked with the Gandhian political movement.

 

Jenny K:  I saw this movie more than once in the movie theater, and once I was lucky enough to see it with the director there to talk about it.  I got a much better feel as to what went on with the original filming, and how it was stopped due to protests over her controversial subject matter.  What perseverance! 

The elements of the plot reminded me a lot of Gloria Whelan’s book, Homeless Bird which won the National Book Award in 2000.  It details the life of a thirteen year old child bride as she is widowed and left in Varanasi to die, but who gets a second chance making her own way in the world.  Lovely book, don’t let the children’s book status warn you off.

 

 

Julie M:  I read that the original cast, before the film was shut down for five years because of the protests, was supposed to have Nandita Das as Kalyani, Akshay Kumar as Narayan and Shabana Azmi as Shakuntala: my mind reels at the thought of that combination!!  But this cast was awesome too.  John Abraham was excellent (and hot hot hot in a dhoti!), best I’ve seen him, and Sarala was fantastic as Chuyia. Seema…well, Seema is always wonderful, but her portrait of a woman caught between tradition and common sense is heart-rending.

 

Jenny K:  Oh, my gosh!  Seema blew me away.  I cried like a baby just from the expression on her face at the end of the film as she puts Chuyia on the train.  Actually, hers is the only performance that I cry at, every time.    Didn’t you like Raghuvir’s performance, too?  What a hoot!

 

Julie M:  It took half the movie before I recognized him as the eunuch/cross-dresser Gulabi, who assists the ashram by pimping out the widows.  Great performance but wrapping my head around what he (she?) was doing was hard.  The nature of the time period, the status of widows in Indian society (somehow I feel that not much has improved in the rural areas since 1938), the clash between the educated/literate and the not-so-educated, class and caste differences, and the attribution of misogyny to religion when it’s simply a product of ignorance…  But this film was so atmospheric, and the Rahman music so stunningly integrated, that it’s entirely possible to just enjoy it without thinking about its more serious side.  Truly one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Even though it was a bit slow in spots, and didn’t have Aamir, I think I liked it better than Earth.

 

Jenny K:  I can see how you’d say that, but I think that, for me, Earth still had the most impact, if only for the scene where Aamir meets his sister’s train.  Shudder…made me feel a bit more identification with Ice Candy Man’s situation.  In Water, except for Seema, I watched them, but didn’t really connect.  Perhaps Lisa Ray was just too cool for me.  She was, however, much better than she was in Bollywood/Hollywood, if that can actually be compared.  Deepa’s never been that good with comedies, if you ask me.

 

Julie M:  Well, just look at her.  I’ve never seen Deepa laugh, even in an interview.  She’s just so intense and focused.

 [a few days later]

Julie M:  Saw Chameli (2004) last night. Plot-wise it falls into the genre of “guy gets caught up with the denizens of the night where he is a fish out of water” film. I have not seen the type in English as anything other than a comedy, or something that purports to be a comedy, most recently Date Night which, although I love Tina Fey and Steve Carel individually, I could not bring myself to see. My favorite was 1985’s After Hours, less comic than most, probably due to the direction by Martin Scorsese.

 

Jenny K:  Maybe, I’ve just not seen enough of this genre in our films.  Can’t think of any I’d compare it to…certainly not Pretty Woman, which is the only “pro/john” kind of film that jumps to mind.  And non-sequitur, you should give Date Night a chance; it’s fun!

 
Julie M:  I will if you give Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle a chance—I thought it would be dumb but it’s hysterically funny. 

 

Jenny K:  Ooof…that might be too steep a cost, even for Kal Penn.

 

Julie M:  Anway. The plot revolves around Aman Kapoor (Rahul Bose), a successful Mumbai businessman whom we meet over the opening credits schmoozing at a cocktail party. Nice suit on him. We are also simultaneously introduced to Chameli (“Jasmine,” Kareena Kapoor), a prostitute, getting ready for a night of work. Aman leaves the party and finds himself stranded in the red-light district in a heavy downpour, which has literally flooded his car. It is, of course, Chameli’s corner where his car breaks down. Here’s the scene where they first encounter each other.

They talk for a while, get to know one another, and he becomes involved in her typical working night. We also learn that Aman has a tragedy in his past that rainy nights like this make him think about. Chameli’s matter-of-fact outlook on life (and apparently very salty language–occasioning the only bleeps that I can recall in a Hindi film) causes Aman to brood a bit less on his own troubles.

 

Jenny K:  Yeah, you don’t hear things bleeped much in Hindi cinema, do you?  Though I do remember that people said that the dialogues in Omkara was considered very vernacular and quite uncouth; it caused a good bit of scandal at the time it came out.

Julie M: She also displays a softer side, seen in the pretty number, above. Then events transpire that get Aman and Chameli into some trouble with the police, which he uses personal connections and not an insignificant amount of cash to get out of, and as dawn breaks Chameli goes back to her dump of an apartment and he goes back to his life. You see a quick but very nice scene that indicates her influence on him, then in the last scene (the next evening?) he shows up at Chameli’s corner, and there is a quick scene indicating his influence on her.

Rahul Bose displays his typical low-key, indie-film style to portray the brooding Aman, but the true star of the film is Kareena Kapoor. Having only seen her in ingenue roles that do not require nuanced performances, I thought she was marvelous as the hoarse-voiced, ribald Chameli, slouching up and down the street in her bright sari, dozens of bangles and overly made-up face.

She speaks of her business very casually and explicitly, sometimes to shock Aman but more often, it seems, to remind herself that she can have no other hopes and dreams than what her life actually is.  And she teases Aman by displaying herself and saying (paraphrased), “we’re not all Umrao Jaans and Chandramukhis.” But she tries her best to help others, and we find out that her connection to her pimp has a strong element of genuine friendship rather than purely his exploitation of her. So while she is not exactly the “hooker with the heart of gold” of more fantasy-like films, we definitely get a more complete picture of her as a woman than we do with portrayals of prostitutes in other films, like the character played by Preity Zinta in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke. And as a romance, much more satisfying than films like Pretty Woman, which was a fantasy all the way.

 

Jenny K:  I keep meaning to see Sushmita Sen’s film about the life of a village girl of questionable morals, Chingaari (2006) which got very mixed reviews.  I love her presence on screen and wish she’d get more lead roles.  No subtitles in this confrontation scene with the village priest (Mithun Chakraborty) but you get the gist…she reminds me so much of Shabana in this scene.

 

Julie M:  Chameli was kind of a cross-over film–not quite a realistic Aparna Sen-style film but definitely not mainstream Bollywood despite three song numbers and very high production quality. Having seen Tabu gloriously portray the life of a pay dancer in the gritty Chandni Bar, I was derisive of this overly glamorized number showing a Mumbai dance bar.

The writer/director, Sudhir Mishra, also directed one of my favorite films Haazaron Khwaishein Aisi, and bravo to him for getting more out of Kareena than I thought possible. I enjoyed Chameli, but only because it was an attempt to get a real female character into the Bollywood mainstream. Overall it was kind of slow and I am not enough of a Rahul Bose fan to see this much of him without being surrounded by extra characters to take the edge off his blandness.

 

Jenny K:  Hmmm…I thought she brought quite a lively quality to the film and I liked their chemistry.  Not as much as I liked his chemistry with Konkona in Mr and Mrs. Iyer, another Aparna Sen film that I will send in the next big shipment.  Now that I think of it, Rahul seems to gravitate to films where he doesn’t really interact physically with his lead actresses, here and in The Japanese Bride and M&M Iyer.  Curious.

 [about a week later]

Julie M:  Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (My Veil is Stained, 2007) is a fairly old-fashioned potboiler about honor, duty and sin–with the “modern” twist that the main characters are all female. “Modern” I say in quotes, because although it is set in contemporary Mumbai, it seems to have always been that women bear the brunt of whatever actions are deemed sinful at the time.  Here’s the trailer.

The plot involves a pair of happy sisters, Vibya (Rani Mukherji) and Shubya, called Chutki (Konkona Sen Sharma), who spend their time skipping around Varanasi (yes, the same Varanasi where the widows of Water live, except 70 years later) and raising heck..

They live with their parents (Jaya Bachchan and Anupam Kher) in a grand but decaying old mansion and we find out that they are quite poor.  Things go from bad to worse, and in order to save the family Vibya decides to take drastic actions that also lead her into a life of sin. She lies to her family (sin #1) that she has a job offer in Mumbai and leaves Varanasi, but finds nothing.  Desperate, she sleeps with a prospective employer (sin #2), who then flings money at her and denies her the job. She realizes that the only way she can make enough money to send home is to sell her body (sin #3), and she transforms herself into an alter ego, Natasha, a high-class, high-priced “escort.” This song indicates her state of mind as she practices walking in high heels and divorcing herself from her occupation as she thinks of home.

Of course she is deeply shamed and stressed, despite the fact that she becomes very wealthy and in demand.  Trying not to blow her cover while she falls in love with a nice man (Abhishek Bachchan), pays blackmail to her evil cousin (sin #4), and supports her executive-trainee sister (who has moved to Mumbai and also fallen in love with a nice man (Kunal Kapoor, mmm) stresses her out even more.

All seems lost when Chutki figures out her Natasha identity.  Then it is revealed that Abhi and Kunal are brothers.  I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that at the end the truth is revealed, and the fallout is not what Vibya expects. And there’s a cute final dance number (here, with German subtitles).

Great performance by Rani Mukherji as the torn Vibya, albeit a bit overblown.  The sisterly love between Rani and Konkona was very sweet and natural.  And Rani and Abhishek have great chemistry together:  nice to see them again after Bunty aur Babli.  Plot-wise, amid all her moaning and groaning about the “stain” she brings to the family, it seems that all is in Vibya’s head. Also, a plot point is that Vibya and Chutki are friends with a “courtesan” (Hema Malini, in a wonderful cameo role), an Umrao Jaan-like mother-figure whom they admire for her artistic skill despite the fact that she sleeps with men for money.

So why doesn’t anyone care that Vibya is selling her body?  Maybe ultimately it’s the difference between being a streetwalker like Chameli and being an escort like Natasha–i.e., the amount of cash changing hands. Or maybe it’s because did it all to support her family, which makes it okay.

 

Jenny K:  I saw this film in the theater when it came out, and though I liked all the performances, I didn’t have much of a fondness for it.  Maybe it was how easily Rani got to the top of her “profession”.  I think in real life, she’d have had a more depressing life path.

 

Julie M:  Overall, I thought that this film was much ado about nothing considering it is the 21st century already. All the drama seemed to be a relic of the past, and people were upset because they thought they were supposed to be.  A plot like this might have been impressive in the 1950s, but considering the family in all other ways seemed to be quite modern, the quandary Vibya was in rang hollow.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Mrityudand (Death Sentence, 1997) is an interesting take on woman-power, Hindi-style. Not what you’d expect from a mainstream film.

Plot:  the (fictional) village of Bilaspur holds traditional values, particularly when it comes to their women, who are expected to remain chaste, keep their place and allow the men to run roughshod over them. Town-bred Ketki (a surprisingly unglamorous Madhuri Dixit), arrives as the bride of Vinay (Ayub Khan), a young businessman. She is quickly absorbed into his family, consisting of his father, brother and brother’s wife Chandravati (Shabana Azmi). Shortly after her arrival, Vinay’s brother leaves Chandravati, who is barren, to head up the local monastery. Tradition demands that Chandravati act like a widow; however, a deep depression combined with the intense pressure to conform to social norms makes her gravely ill. Then Vinay falls into business problems with the local bully, Tirpat Singh (Mohan Joshi)–he as well cracks under pressure and starts to drink and beat Ketki. Here’s a scene as he deteriorates. 

 

Jenny K: Madhuri’s wonderfully tough in this, and almost almost as surprising as she is in Lajja, but I never recommend that one unless you speak Hindi, because the subtitles are almost non-existent.

 

Julie M: Ketki leaves Vinay but after he apologizes and quits drinking she returns home and figures out a way to solve his business problems. Chandravati finds true love with an old family friend (Om Puri) and becomes pregnant, proving that her infertility was not her fault; however, a pregnant widow is in a difficult situation socially so she hides in the house. Meanwhile, their servant girl is having money problems with Tirpat Singh, and he forces her to sleep with him to pay off the debt. Ketki learns of the situation and convinces the girl to refuse Tirpat; when she does, Tirpat comes after her and beats her, but the village women under Ketki’s leadership save her, driving Tirpat away.

Ketki’s ideas turn Vinay’s business around and he starts to best Tirpat. Tirpat, upset with his loss of power, contrives to have Vinay’s motorcycle explode and the troublemaking Ketki is now a “defenseless” widow.  Then Tirpat rounds up Chandravati’s monk-husband and blackmails him into accusing his wife of adultery.  [Spoilers, highlight to read] The village men arrive to hound Ketki and Chandravati out of the village (and kill them en route); however, the women come to their defense and attack the men. In the ensuing melee Ketki grabs Vinay’s rifle, drives Tirpat out of the house and shoots him dead.[end]

Madhuri Dixit was stellar as the smart, fiery Ketki, and Shabana Azmi was softer than I’ve ever seen her as the depressed, then joyful Chandravati. Om Puri was great as Chandravati’s savior-turned-lover—this was the first time I saw him in a romantic role.

 

Jenny K:  He can do it, if he sets his mind to it…and he’s often cast as a protector of women. I recently saw him as the old factory manager, Chowkidar Abu Miya, in Mirch Masala (1987) where he barricades himself with all the female factory workers to keep Smita Patil safe from the evil, lecherous local boss, played with moustache twirling glee by Naseeruddin Shah.

 

Julie M:  What I liked was how under Ketki’s influence the attitude of the village women changed from the early “this is how men are, it’s the women’s role to shut up and take it” to one of self-empowerment, realizing the importance of sticking together and not letting men’s’ ideas of what is appropriate female behavior rule their lives. And, in an interesting cinematic turnabout, the female characters in the film display complexity and depth while the male characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. It was an excellent combination of a typical “entertainment” film (the love story between Vinay and Ketki is explored with the usual array of songs) and a realistic treatment of an important social issue.

September 17, 2011: I Remember Nana…Patekar


Julie M:  Finally finished Khamoshi: The Musical. Took me three sessions, and I’m still not sure whether I liked it. It was very rhona-dhona, which I don’t like, but Nana Patekar and Manisha Koirala were amazing in their roles. The songs were not translated, and since easily half the movie was sung (and the rest completely backgrounded–it felt like an opera), I think that I missed a lot.

But the real surprise was that I liked, actually liked, a young Salman Khan, and I realize this is the earliest movie I’ve seen him in. Pre-bulbous-muscles and with good hair, and a wonderfully refreshing youthful sweetness, I now see why he’s so beloved. People must see him and keep remembering him in his prime. Even in this film, though, he displays that weird sartorial sense. His costumers must ask him what he wants to wear, because some of the ensembles looked very odd and similar to his “civilian” clothes.

See what I mean in this number: 

Jenny K:  You’re so funny…”remembering Salman in his prime”…he’s a bigger money maker now than he ever was back then. But I agree, he’s too muscular now.  That musclebound walk in Bodyguard, with biceps so big the arms wouldn’t go down was a joke, but I can’t deny that he looked sweeter and more vulnerable back in Khamoshi.

 

Julie M:  Prime LOOKS. I don’t doubt that he’s big box office now, but his rep had to come from somewhere. ICK on his muscles, though. Also, I recalled seeing Nana Patekar in something and liking him, not an Indian film though, but his filmography isn’t helping me figure that out.

I also liked this song from Khamoshi, since Manisha is usually so serious:

But man, overall this movie was such a bummer. Just when you thought things were OK, someone dies or disappoints someone else and cue the sighing and gnashing of teeth.

So: liked a couple of the performances, hated the bulk of the storyline, missed the point of most of the songs, and as usual I liked the look of a SLB-directed film whereas most everything else did not live up for me.

 

Jenny K:  Well, I am sorry that your 100th movie wasn’t more of a thumbs up. Congratulations, by the way!

 

Julie M:  Thanks for the congrats! 100, wow. Glad you’re keeping count because I’m not.

 

Jenny K:  Khamoshi is a very unusual film for what was going on at the time, not very many films made at all about the deaf, and then making it a full-out musical! The casting was very non-traditional, too with Nana and Seema in the leads. It was very early in both of their careers, and they always give wonderful performances.

Seema always plays tough women, either mentally or physically. She was the best part of Water, the only one who made me cry, and you can’t have a tougher debut than playing Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen! It’s based on a true story about a woman who was abducted by bandits and ended up becoming one, herself, lived a violent life, went to prison and after she got out, became a politician! I haven’t seen the film, but have heard it was very controversial when it came out. Phoolan Devi, herself, said that it wasn’t accurate, but it made her very famous. It’s on Youtube, but only in pieces.

Nana Patekar, too, doesn’t tend to do nice guys. I remember finding his role in Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair as very animal, very sensual, and rather sick. Always gives a very layered performance, even in films like Shakti (bad movie, good performance) and Bluffmaster!

Salaam Bombay is online, too.

Not sure which “not Indian” films Nana would have been in. I saw Salaam Bombay years before I started watching Indian films as an alternative vocation…Mira Nair’s first big film. I saw it in a standard theater. Much later I realized that Nana was “that same guy, but much younger.” I saw a clip from it on YouTube and Irfaan Khan had a tiny role in it too, as a sidewalk letter-writer-for-hire.

Nana also did a film called The Pool, which had an American director, Chris Smith, but I still think I saw it at a film festival, because it didn’t release wide. It made inroads at Sundance, too. Nice quiet little film.   Oh, and I remember you did say something about his performance in Bluffmaster! That’s the only one I remember you commenting on.

 

Julie M:  Maybe that was it. But I could have sworn it was a non-Indian film…Irfaan Khan, I definitely remembered from The Namesake, also Tabu. And the actors from Bend It Like Beckham were all NRI except for the dad, Anupam Kher, right?

 

Jenny K:  I think all the actors from BILB have careers in American television serials… Parminder Nagra in ER, Archie Panjabi winning Emmys for The Good Wife, Jonathan Rhys Myers on The Tudors, and one could argue for Keira Knightley’s Pirates of the Caribbean films as being serialistic.  End of non-sequitur.

As far as I can tell Nana has never been in an English language film, though occasionally I hear him speak English, but as far as I remember, he seems to get the majority of his roles in Hindi or another dialect. And he does a lot of “country” roles like Disha that I sent you. It’s a bleak but interesting story about a family (husband-Om Puri, wife-Shabana Azmi, his brother-Raghuvir Yadav) who run out of work in the country, and send their younger family members to work in the city…Nana is another local who follows Raghuvir to work in a city factory…and then they find that the urban promised land is no better than the poverty they left…just more crowded. Very good cast and performances.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  OK, so I watched Disha (The Uprooted, 1990) tonight. I liked Raghuvir Yadav’s performance better than Nana Patekar’s, actually, although Nana’s was pretty good too. Shabana Azmi (yes! who I remembered from 15 Park Avenue—I’m not totally  hopeless) had maybe one good scene and otherwise spent the whole film in the kitchen, alternately cooking and sniping at Om Puri.  Overall I felt the film could have been better. It was a hyper-realistic look at a certain and largely invisible segment of Mumbai’s masses and how they came to be there (immigration into the big city because of lack of work in the countryside), and so was worth seeing from a cultural perspective, but it seemed to me to have been rendered in a monotone. There were joyful moments but they seemed devoid of real joy, even the celebration near the end, and the potentially dramatic moments seemed flattened as well.

I kept waiting for something to really happen to these people, but it never did—it was mostly a collection of low-key interactions, many without any dialogue—and then it ended.  Suddenly.  Even the two songs were a bit on the pathetic side (as in, evoking pathos) even though they were supposed to be celebratory. I came away very depressed.  B watched the first half (or so) with me and said that it was more like a documentary than a fiction film.

And what happened at the end? The only thing I can figure out is that [spoiler alert] Phoolwanti had started sleeping with her boss from the beedi factory to keep her job, and that’s why Nana’s character suddenly came back. [end spoilers] Too bad: he was a bit of a romantic optimist through the whole movie, and you could tell that his life was shattered. And you said Nana didn’t play nice guys: he was definitely a nice guy in this.

 

Jenny K:  No, he just doesn’t specialize in nice guys. I bet he’d say the bad guys are more interesting. I’m not sure about the ending to this one. It has been a long time since I watched it. It was sad, I grant you. I don’t even remember songs being in there. It just had such a good cast, and good performances, and it’s an example of a type of Indian film that should be checked out from time to time. It balances out the overly filmi side of Bollywood. Do Bigha Zameen by Bimal Roy is I think the best of the genre of poor farmer being taken advantage of by fate/The Man/etc. films. It’s sort of cleansing in its aesthetic. Here’s the opening number of the film. From the look of it, I’d say that Aamir drew a lot of Lagaan‘s look from it.

And if you wanted it, this is the whole movie with subtitles.

 

Julie M:  I’ll have to watch that one, since it’s free online and all…

There were only two songs in Disha.  One was early on, at Nana’s character’s wedding, and it was kind of weird—the female singer had an outwardly happy face and the music was bright, but the lyrics were double-entendre about how awful life is.  The other one was in the men’s dorm where they used the click-clack of the machines to inspire a clapping/syncopated rhythm song/dance (a pretty long one). The latter song really seemed like a desperate attempt to inject levity into what is a horrible existence–not a life, existence is the correct word.   So basically—the songs made you feel worse instead of better.

 

Jenny K: Dear me, sounds even more dismal than I remembered.  But, I have some interesting news on the book to film front which looks rather exciting.  Don’t know why I haven’t heard of it so far.

I couldn’t believe I had only sent you two films with Shabana Azmi in it, as she’s sort of the Arts & Literature Queen of Indian cinema (in multiple dialects, of course) and she’s been in over one hundred of them.  So, I checked on IMDb to be certain and there it was!  She’s in the new Deepa Mehta film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children!  Holy Caroley…the cast list looks good, with Shabana and Seema, wonderful character actors like Rahul Bose, Rajat Kapoor (the uncle in DCH and Monsoon Wedding) and Ronit Roy (Udaan) plus newcomers like Siddarth and Soha Ali Khan from Rang De Basanti, and even the little kid from Taare Zameen Par, Darsheel Safary.

Here’s a short clip of Salman Rushdie speaking of adapting the book.

And there’s also a longer, more film-scholarly interview with the director, Deepa Mehta, and later in it Mr. Rushdie, if you have a spare hour. 

You’ve probably read Midnight’s Children, with your love of Indian literature, but I was wondering if, with the film coming up, maybe I should finally read it and we do our first literature post.  What do you think?

 

Julie M:   I most certainly HAVE read Midnight’s Children and now have got to keep from piddling with excitement  for more than a year until the film releases.   I have a stack of other Indian books to read (sitting on my bedside table at this very moment is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and I’m trying to clear some time so I can finally dive into Vikram Seth’s lengthy A Suitable Boy–I guess that’s what winter is for!), but will excavate my copy and re-read it so I can discuss it semi-intelligently with you.  Let’s do it!

Part 13: Fifty Films into Bollywood Paheli

[Jenny K’s Note: Paheli means puzzle.  Also one of our films this post.]

Julie M:  Got your package!!! Thanks for the necklace! Has it really been 50 films? It arrived slightly damaged (a few beads loose in the envelope and the dangly part had detached) but I think B can repair most of it. And thanks for the films. I think this weekend the library haul will include Paheli and Umrao Jaan. I won’t request any others because I got 3 from you.

Next week I have vacation (duh, you know that) so I think I might try to see a movie in the theater, since they only show them in the afternoons. This week my Indian theater is showing Delhi Belly (Aamir!) at a very convenient 2pm show time and Double Dhamaal with your crush Arshad Warsi at a less civilized 5pm; hope it’s still there next week!

Jenny K:  Gosh, I’m sorry that the necklace was damaged. I should have wrapped it better, but I was running out of room in the box, and it wedged in rather tightly, so I thought it would be okay. Hate to give a gift that has to be fixed first, thrift store find, or no.

And yes, according to my list, whatever you see next will be your fiftieth film. If you have seen either of the last batch of freebies (I Hate Luv Stories, or Loins of Punjab Presents) then you’ve already gone past that. They do accumulate fast, don’t they? Congrats!

I think I should arm you with my favorite review site at Rediff. Their reviews seem to be evenly balance between the Mumbai point of view and the US India fan base. I usually agree with them, more or less, though the people who respond to the reviews seem to be wildly offended when any negative opinions are voiced. Judging on their responses to your two films, I’d go with Delhi Belly over Double Dhamaal, even with Arshad. As much as I like him, he seems to be picked more often for his talent for mugging than his talented feet.

Julie M:  I have not yet dipped into the freebies. I’m saving those for when the library supply has dried up and I’ve seen the ones you’ve sent in the current box!

Jenny K:  Sounds like a nice weekend. Either Paheli or Umrao Jaan would merit wearing the necklace for “atmosphere” 🙂 Though I think I like Umrao Jaan a bit better. Paheli is very atmospheric, though. Costumes and sets from Rajasthan are lovely. Plot a bit weak toward the end, but that seems to be standard, more and more. What I call SNL Syndrome. Have some good ideas, fun execution and performances, but they don’t know how to end them.

Julie M:  FYI, I tried to watch I Hate Luv Storys. Had to quit because the sound and subtitles were so bad. I’ll try again when I’m in a more charitable mood. It seemed to start out fairly cute, though.

Jenny K: Yeah, my copy of that film is like that, too. What I get for digging in the Previously Viewed bin. If you can’t get through it, dump it. Not a problem. I’m sure it will be in the library chain pretty soon. I have it in my queue at Netflix, so it’s going pretty mainstream. It is cute, but not a “must see”. Of Imraan Khan’s films I think Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na is much better, but it wasn’t in the bin 🙂

Julie M:  Saw Kandukondain Kandukondain last night. Great Rahman music! typical plot–kind of threw a lot in there from movie making/playback singing to family drama to romance–but not too heavy on the melodrama, so it was OK. Good costumes too, and Tabu was good. I liked the song set in Egypt and the medieval castle one–cool dream sequences.

I can see where Jane Austen and that ilk (Brontes, too) would inspire Indian filmmakers [Jenny K’s Note:  Kandukondain, Kandukondain is a South Indian adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.] because of the focus on traditions and cultural mores combined with dramatic moments. Did they ever do a Jane Eyre version in India? because that would be interesting to see. I saw Bride and Prejudice although technically that’s an English film by an Anglo-Indian director.

[the next day…]

Julie M:  Saw Chandni Bar last night. Really good! Would not have found that one on my own, so thank you for sending it.

This weekend my library haul is Paheli, Umrao Jaan (I caught an Umrao Jaan reference in Chandni Bar!) and Munnabhai MBBS. Don’t know what to start with…maybe Umrao Jaan to continue the dancer theme I seem to have going.

Jenny K:  Nach, ladki…. yeah, go with a theme…Glad you liked Chandni Bar. Thought you would. Tabu was great in it…and her awful lover was played by Atul Kulkarni, that guy in Rang de Basanti that was with the radical hindu party who got “converted” via the gospel according to film.

I checked into your Jane Eyre question…seems there was one very loose adaptation, Sangdil, in the fifties with Dilip Kumar, who was very famous, but I find him a very cold fish. Here’s the IMDb write up.  And here’s a bit of the film on youtube, but no subtitles.

[Jenny K’s Note: After much trial and tribulation and an overnight stranding at the US Air Phoenix hub, I have made it to Vancouver.]

Jenny K: Went to see Meenaxi at the festival last night and it was a DVD projection…sigh. Didn’t maintain the original proportions of the film either, so it was a bit “cramped” in the screen, if you know what I mean. I also keep forgetting how weak Tabu’s English is in this film. Sheesh! She’s so good in Hindi that I forget that. Hoping better for 3 Idiots.

Julie M:  I did not think Tabu was bad in The Namesake…thought it was appropriate to the character.

Anyway, I liked Umrao Jaan except that to me it ended quite suddenly. [Spoilers]  She got turned away from her family and then went back to the bordello, which had been trashed and abandoned. She looked at herself in the mirror, and…??? then what? did not feel resolved. (you mentioned that) I liked seeing a young Naseruddin Shah, too, in that film.

I also watched Paheli. SO CUTE! Rani was adorable (she’s looks adorable even when she cries), SRK was fun and sexy. The jewelry was amazing–I want all of it!! Of course I have nowhere to wear it, but it’s still stunning.

Munnabhai MBBS…some cute scenes, overall merely 2 stars. Liked seeing Sunil and Sanjay Dutt act together. Trying to understand your crush on Arshad Warsi. Confused as to how Munna could get married and live happily ever after in MBBS and also in the sequel but to a different woman.

Jenny K:  I wasn’t complaining about her delivery in The Namesake, but just her line readings in “Prague” in Meenaxi. I guess, now that I think of it, since Namesake didn’t bother me and it came afterwards, perhaps she noticed how she came across and worked on it after Meenaxi.

I’m not sure just why Arshad hits me, but he often does. If you like Nasseruddin Shah, and who doesn’t, then see if you find Ishqiya in your library. Might be right up your alley. Nasserji and Arshad in a buddy flick, conmen on the lam from other gangsters who hide out with the widow of another old friend. She’s Vidya Balan, the DJ from Lage Raho Munnabhai. It has funny bits, but I don’t think of it as a comedy.

Julie M: My library has Golmaal Returns and Golmaal 3 but not the original Golmaal. Is it worth tracking it down?

Jenny K: Stay away from the Golmaal films, COMPLETELY, you’ll hate them. Very, very slapstick, and despite the cast, it should be atrocious. I haven’t been able to bring myself to see them.

Julie M:  Speaking of which: this weekend’s haul is Tashan (fun with Akshay), Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (arty) and Om Shanti Om (SRK).

Jenny K:  I’ve only seen OSO of the ones you have listed for this weekend. Let me know what you think, and maybe I’ll pick a few up. I think I bought OSO just for the scene where SRK is pretending to be a South Indian film star to impress the girl. Crazy cowboy outfit and huge mustache is a real hoot and, alarmingly, not that much of an exaggeration. Well, you’ve seen Rajni, so you know 🙂

I liked the one I saw last night at the festival, West is West. Almost all in English. I liked it better than it’s predecessor, East is East, which was funny but ultimately depressing, because the father was such a negative character in it. He has sort of seen the light in the ten years since the first film…a bit…he’s still a bit of a pretentious jack***. but I love Om Puri. He is one of the best character actors they have. In Maqbool, he and Naseeruddin play the “witches” in the Macbeth plot, commenting on everything, playing two corrupt cops with the ugliest collective wardrobes I’ve ever seen. Wonderful…wah, wah, wah, as the saying goes.

Julie M:  Just finished watching Tashan. Action/comedy with a little romance (not too much or too gushy) and kind of a road story as well. Saif Ali Khan is a cool-dude call center worker in Mumbai who moonlights as an English teacher, and he gets mixed up with Anil Kapoor, a don, through Kareena Kapoor, Anil’s employee. Through his infatuation with Kareena he ends up stealing tons of money from Anil, only to have Kareena steal it from him and vanish. Anil calls in Akshay Khanna [Kumar], a petty thug/enforcer in Kanpur, to rough up Saif and then take him to track Kareena and the money down. And the fun goes on from there.

Some flashbacks and back stories, everyone narrates the story at some point and Saif speaks to the camera all the time, for no real reason. But overall it was not bad–I like good action films and the gangster element was more comedic than serious, until the end, which was quite bloody. Probably too much Akshay for you, but I enjoyed it. B caught most of the 2nd half with me and he kind of liked it too. Anil is hilarious as the don who loves to speak English–but he does it all wrong and with a heavy Sean Connery impression. Made me laugh out loud. The musical numbers are forgettable.

I’ll give you a report on the others after I see them.

Jenny K:  Thanks for the update. I’ll remember it when I’m stuck…maybe it’s on Netflix, most of Akshay’s films are. I do think Anil’s a funny guy, even when he’s not trying to be. You should have seen him on the Martha Stewart show when he was plugging Slumdog.

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