December 27, 2011: Déjà Vu All Over Again

We are back (somewhat) from our holiday break, and we’ve been puzzling lately on one of our favorite filmi topics:  Hindi remakes of American films.  So far we’ve brought you quite a few, like Kaante and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander.  Tune in to our latest discussion of three more…

 

Julia M:  My weekend library haul this time includes Shaurya (Valor, 2008) with Rahul Bose.  I am determined to try and like him!  If you’ve not seen it, you can catch Shaurya free on YouTube with English subtitles:

 

Jenny K:  I keep trying to think of a film of Rahul’s that has the other, more manic side of his personality, but the two that I am thinking of are so bad that I can’t recommend them. I’ll keep trying.

[a few days later]

Julie M:  Shaurya was clearly inspired by A Few Good Men. More than, since it’s the same plot with a couple of twists. But it’s not as interesting as the original, not even close. Rahul Bose displays an actual personality, though, and some animation, so it’s worth watching. And Jaaved Jaffrey is pretty good as the prosecutor/Rahul’s best friend (love his deep sexy voice).

Jenny K:  Does anyone say “Such…you can’t handle Such” [ Such “truth” hai]?  Now, who is it who plays the Jack Nicholson anyway?

 

Julie M:  Yes indeed–KK Menon plays the Jack Nicholson character’s analogue in Shaurya and he does say that. It’s not translated very well, and he doesn’t yell it like Nicholson did, but it’s said. I was looking for it and was very proud that my rudimentary Hindi skills overcame the inexact subtitles in that instance–enough so that I recognized the quote.  Here’s that scene (start at about 6:00 in for the full effect).

And KK was really good as Brig. Gen. Pratap. It’s more of an extended cameo appearance rather than a role, just two or three scenes, but he totally nailed it without Jack’s histrionics.  Here’s the scene where he’s first introduced.  No subtitles, but he’s doing some golf practice at the border and knocks one into enemy territory, then makes an underling go and retrieve it.  Totally creepy. 

[about a week later]

Jenny K:  Okay, I’ve now watched Shaurya and then A Few Good Men again after, and am ready to voice a more informed opinion. The director of the former definitely used the Aaron Sorkin/Rob Reiner film as a template, no doubt about it. The basic plot of the maverick outsider lawyer in the military played by Rahul in Shaurya is, of course Tom Cruise in the earlier film, and KK Menon takes on the Nicholson role. Once again the bad guy is a superior officer with aims at a high office and a feeling of absolute godlike correctness in anything he chooses to do. They meet in a semi-friendly fashion at the Brigadier’s base, over a meal and discuss the case. There are in both films an innocent victim murdered and an innocent murderer, depending on your side in the argument. There’s lots of researching done by Rahul’s helpful co-workers, and a nifty if unlikely courtroom triumph for the underdog at the end, where Rahul, like Tom Cruise, is up against his best friend as prosecutor. Even the courtrooms look vaguely the same…old fashioned military decorum with lovely big windows. But there is definitely more than a few differences that make the Indian film its own take on the shared themes.

The first thing that I find different is that Rahul’s co-investigators are outsiders, journalists, and would in no way be allowed or even encouraged to help with a military case. Rahul’s job was to keep all of this out of the press, and he even got in trouble for it…yet here’s Minissha, practically in the next scene being let in on all the dirt…yet she doesn’t feel the need to print it. All her earlier ambition chucked out the window, it seems. Highly unbelievable on all fronts. I guess things couldn’t be stretched so far as to allow a mere woman to be an equal legal partner as Demi Moore was in AFGM.

 

Julie M:  And yet, Nargis was a lawyer, on her own, 60 years ago in Awaara…no problem there…nouvelle prudery?

 

Jenny K:  And then, there is the change in motive for the case. Instead of pondering the nature of power and how a bad job can make a military hero a villain by what he’s asked to do (Jack’s Colonel truly believes he’s doing right by his men and the country by defying the orders of his higher ups about Code Red prohibition), the Hindi film has to make all the bad guys explainable in their motives and much more sympathetic. With ethnic bigotry as the focus of the piece, the defendant was perfectly justified shooting his superior, who was about to kill a local child. He was also right to take his punishment, as he saw it. Further justification is needed when you learn that the Brigadier isn’t an out and out rotter…his wife, child and, don’t say it, his mother have all been killed by a native boy who he took into his home and trusted. Well, no more Mr. Nice Guy! He’s going to wipe out the whole race, so this kind of thing can’t happen to anyone else. Makes Nicholson look downright simple in his monomania..”I’m right and everyone else can just fall in line or get out!”

All in all, though Shaurya had some nice moments and some nice performances from Rahul, Jaaved and KK, I’m always going to choose the Reiner film, because it’s an almost perfect film. Stands up and salutes as well today as it did when it came out in ’92. Hoo-Rah!

 

Julie M:  You expressed almost perfectly my sentiments about Shaurya vs AFGM, right down to the ridiculousness of Minissha’s character Kaavya being able to be as much help as she was (although truly, how much investigating did she actually do?).  I too felt that the racial/ethnic/religious angle was uniquely Indian–maybe because they don’t at bottom believe their public fiction, like we do, that race (or caste, in their case) no longer matters, they can get away with it in a film whereas we can’t here, not in big-budget Hollywood films anyway. My big surprise at this film was that Rahul was so much less low-key than he usually is–almost manic–and his character is given a simplistic, yet highly effective reason for all the high-danger sporting activity. Since Indian films don’t get into the dark side of psychology very much, I found it refreshing.

[several weeks later]

Julie M:  Hum Kaun Hai (Who Are We? 2004) is an almost identical remake of The Others (2001), except without the atmosphere and with very weird, wholly Indian “explanation” scenes tacked in that inexplicably reunite Amitabh Bachchan (as the main character’s missing husband) and Dharmendra (as a totally new character not in the original).

First, the similarities. Basically, everything is the same. Dimple Kapadia takes on the role that Nicole Kidman portrayed in the original film, and does an excellent portrayal of a deeply religious (Catholic) woman trying to deal with a beloved husband missing in the war while faced with circumstances which seem to indicate that her house is haunted, or that her servants for some reason are making her think it is. Two cute kids (Hansika Motwani aka Baby Hansika, Master Aman) with a disease that renders them unable to be in bright light; three servants who appear out of nowhere to take care of them; the need to lock doors and keep curtains drawn to keep the kids from inadvertently stumbling into daylight; a mom plagued with migraines. Photos of dead people in a creepy album. All the same from start to finish. In fact, if you squint you could swear that Fionnula Flanagan, who played the matronly servant in the original, had reappeared in the remake and was speaking Hindi.

Now, the differences. First, the quality of the film stock was very bad—or maybe it was just the print that the DVD was taken from—it had color problems, jarring jump-cuts and bad sound. Looked very low-budget. (OK, had to get that off my chest) Where the original took place on a dim, misty remote island where the viewer could really believe that the house was haunted (and there was some meaning to the fog as well), HKH takes place in a sunny, park-like estate with the merest wisps of fog floating in and out, and it looked at times as if the fog was digitally added. The dimness of the original is replaced throughout by bright light, even in the “candlelit” scenes, which was jarring. The original took place in the 1940s, whereas the remake takes place in the present day (there are mentions of television, for example), removing the otherworldly quality that made the original so creepy. Dimple Kapadia seems very strong and capable, in dramatic contrast to Nicole Kidman’s ethereal fragility, which actually made her descent into screaming panic so much more scary (you kind of expect Kidman to fall apart, based on her looks). HKH had multiple flashbacks to the married couple’s love for each other, setting up the totally weird ending where we get an explanation of the husband’s strange reappearance that is totally different from the original film’s. (won’t go into details because it’s a major spoiler) And a final scene that is just really, really stupid.

In general the 2nd half was much, much better than the first half, which unfolded at a breakneck pace and with as much drama as reading the newspaper. And I was just as freaked out with what was the second-to-last scene in the original (but ended up as perhaps the third- or fourth-to-last scene in the remake). But then they had to ruin it with the last two scenes.

If you’ve not seen The Others, you will like Hum Kaun Hai just fine as it represents a genre rarely seen in Indian film (a creepy psychological story with ghosts—but maybe this is a growing trend, because 2007’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa entered into that genre as well). But if you have seen and loved the original, you’ll spend a lot of time rolling your eyes at Hum Kaun Hai.

 

Jenny K:  You make Hum Kaun Hai sound like a fun watch. I had seen The Others, but just when it originally came out, and I don’t have many clear memories about it, so I may be safe. And I love Dimple.

 

Julie M:  Well, I’ll make it easy for you to see it.  The film is available free on YouTube. I saw it on DVD where the running time was just over 120 minutes; online the running time is about 106 minutes, so there may be some missing scenes.  But I checked—the “added” scenes are all there, in all their ridiculous glory.

[a week or so later]

Julie M:  As a follow-up to many discussions, I’m finally watching Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha (Love Had to Happen, 1998), even though I know it’s a remake of French Kiss (1995), but since I haven’t seen FK I figure I’m safe.  I’ll watch FK after, in order to give this one a fair chance. After a disastrously farcical first half, it’s settling down into a decent movie.  Here’s Part 1: 

It’s nice to see Ajay help the girl he loves connect with the boy SHE loves, just like in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (although this is an earlier film). And he and Kajol have nice chemistry in this. Not as much as in U, Me Aur Hum, but they are cute. She more than he, although he got much cuter once he shaved off his mustache.

Oh, and BTW, what is UP with Indian movies and the first half/second half dichotomy?

 

Jenny K:  You know, until this past year, I’d have said that it was always a first half strong/second half fizzle out tendency. This year, not so much. And I always felt that Ajay and Kajol’s chemistry in this was much stronger than in U Me Aur Hum. In that one, he was such a conceited guy in the first half, and then he was so concerned in her care and worried, that chemistry didn’t enter into it, at least in the traditional way. Interesting that you got it completely differently.

 

Julie M:  Here’s my take. (it only applies to masala or romances) If the first half is really stupid, the second half is strong. If the first half is great, the second half falls flat. Examples that come to mind right away are K3G and KHNH. Great first half, overly melodramatic 2nd half.

 

Jenny K:  But we must note that that’s coming from the point of view of a die hard non-sentimentalist.  I will grant you that K3G goes a bit too far in it’s emotional histrionics in the second half, but there are enough good moments in it (especially that dance number with Hrithik and Co. in those GORGEOUS sherwanis!) that I still enjoy it.  And KHNH is supposed to be an emotional love smorgasbord…so you must be prepared to eat a full gut-wrenching load, or you just skip it altogether.  I love it.

Oooh…that reminds me.  I just watched Affair to Remember, that transatlantic smorgasbord with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  Wish I had put in the Indian match-up of this one, Mann with Aamir and Manisha.  It takes all the emotional fluffery and pads it out to double its length with much anguish and gnashing of teeth and even more silly songs than the original, which were very silly in the first place “Tomorrowland” being the most unlikely choice for a nightclub song that one could think of.  It’s free on Youtube as well, with subtitles.  Aamir is young and peppy, and Manisha smiles more than once or twice, Rani does a cute item number early on, but I can’t even go into the grandmother’s shawl scene at the end because the translation of that one into an “Indian version” had me rolling on the floor with it’s unintentional hilarity.  You just have to see it.

 

Julie M:  But back to the films at hand.  The setup is standard rom-com fare: the male half of an engaged couple leaves for a business trip to a different country and falls for another woman, prompting the female half to follow and try to win him back. En route she meets a native of the country she’s going to, and circumstances force them to be together unexpectedly. They get to know each other, become friends, and he helps her with a plan to win back her fiance by pretending they are lovers. Pretense turns to reality, and at the end the fiance is overthrown in favor of the new romance.

The plots of the two movies were, with the exception of a couple of added scenes in the Indian version and a slight adaptation to make it more desi (changing the setting from Toronto/Paris to Paris/India; and some details, because I somehow don’t think India is big on vineyards) exactly the same, with key scenes absolutely shot-for-shot identical–down to the female character’s wardrobe. The Indian version adds terminal clumsiness to the female character who is already afraid to fly, occasioning much (to my mind, unnecessary) slapstick in the first half of PTHHT; but that’s balanced by the FK subplot where the female character is American trying to get Canadian citizenship, which is jeopardized by the trip. In FK there is a language barrier, which is very funny, and is absent in PTHHT. And of course, the Indian version adds musical numbers, only one of which was at all memorable.

I think Ajay made a better Luc/Shekhar than Kevin Kline, and, much as I love Kajol, I think Meg Ryan made a better Kate/Sanjana. I could believe Ajay as both a thief and an ordinary village boy with dreams of land, but Kevin always had the thief about him–the vineyard scenes fell a little flat. Meg Ryan…well, she pretty much invented, for the late-80s and 90s, the cute-and-bewildered rom-com heroine with questionable taste in men, and even Kajol can’t compete.

 

Jenny K:  I’d agree that Meg slightly edges Kajol out, as she is the prototype and does that type of role (cranky/cute) almost better than anyone. I’m sorry she’s sworn off. I have always described Kajol to people as a sort of Meg Ryan type…even physically, with those big eyes and killer smile…and the coloring differences just give you great variety. I do agree with you that the clumsiness thing was rather unnecessary.

 

Julie M:  Frequently the reasons for remaking a Hollywood movie for Bollywood audiences are unclear, and the remake falls flat. FK was a great choice for an Indian remake: it has all the elements of comedy, romance and drama built right in, and obvious points at which a song would underscore the plot or action. Comparing these two versions is also instructive, for newbies, in the differences in pacing between American and Indian movies. American films move right along, with no wasted plotlines or introduction, whereas Indian films take more time on the setup and draw out the denouement, sometimes excruciatingly long, to wring out every drop of drama and sentiment.

 

Jenny K:  I actually liked the longer format for PTHHT, and think it works well for the story. The ninety minute format for French Kiss always left me wondering why, in that short a time, Kate fell for Luc…Kevin Kline or no Kevin Kline, who has always been a favorite of mine. So, with the longer time spent at Ajay’s home, etc, that all makes more sense to me.

 

Julie M:  Me too, having seen FK second.  But if I had only seen FK, then I’d put it down to “movie convention.”  Of COURSE she’ll fall in love with him once he demonstrates his knowledge of wine, because THAT’s what’s important in a relationship.  Oh, and that he knows his diamonds.  But in PTHHT I must tip a hat to this song,  which shows to best advantage the chemistry between Ajay and Kajol in this film  (sorry for the bad quality and no subtitles).

Overall, I’d say that if one hadn’t seen FK then PTHHT would be 100% satisfying, adorable, and stand-alone excellent—ranking among the best of Indian romance films. But for American audiences, FK is going to win out, if you like that kind of thing (I’ve seen way too many and am jaded on the genre).

PTHHT is available in one link, free on YouTube, with subtitles.

December 1, 2011: A Suitable Boy suits me fine

I just spent the last month reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, 1400+ pages long, ten years in its writing and finally published in 1993.  I selected it because a) although not an award-winner it’s an English language classic  b) I love epic novels and c) it’s about India.  As a piece of literature it is unparalleled for both its scope and characterizations, and for Bollywood addicts it will seem both familiar and highly explanatory.  A novel like this can provide insights into culturally-driven motivations that no film, even the most melodramatic ones, could handle.  I simply adored it.

The time period is 1951-52 and the setting is (primarily) the fictional state of Purva Pradesh, in the the fictional city of Brahmpur, a large university town along the Ganges that seems to be a couple of days’ train ride to both Lucknow and the “big city” of Calcutta.  The story centers on three extended and interrelated upper-middle-class families–the Mehras, the Kapoors and the Chatterjis–and their friends, the family of the Nawab of Baitar (the Khans).  Every character in every family, as well as several of their friends, acquaintances and bosses, gets a narrative arc.  Some of the tales are poignant, such as feckless and citified Maan Kapoor’s sojourn in a rural village where he learns some key life lessons, and a tragedy that befalls a young character during a religious festival.  Some are joyful–I loved the story of Savita Mehra Kapoor’s pregnancy and birth experience.  And, frankly, some of the narratives, particularly those discussing finance, verge on boring.   Seth even inserts himself, as a character writing a very long and meandering novel.

Although the thread tying the novel together is Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable boy for her youngest child, Lata, to marry, it

Author Vikram Seth

actually ranges very widely from city to rural village, from politics to academia to industry, to religion and cultural customs, to fashion and movies and literature and food and gardening and law enforcement and astrology and…you get the picture.  In fact, I can’t think of anything that isn’t addressed in some form in the novel.  Love, or rather, marriage, is the book’s central theme, with Lata accumulating no less than three suitors and proposals and trenchantly observing several other marriages for clues as to which choice will be best for the life which she intends to lead.  (interestingly–the choice of no-choice does not occur to her despite several unmarried-woman role models)  Who will she choose?  Will it be Amit Chatterji, the published writer ten years her senior but with whom she has so much in common?  Or will her mother’s preference prevail–the up-and-coming shoe executive Haresh Khanna who has not a few personality flaws?  Or will Lata follow her heart and marry Kabir Durrani, a fellow college student who is the one boy her family has deemed completely off-limits to her because of his religion?

Calcutta, c. 1950

Even though translating this novel to the silver screen would be absolutely impossible, I could see it done on television as a mini-series.  In fact, it was released as an episodic, five-hour  BBC radio play in 2002 with some actors Bollywood fans might recognize:  Boman Irani, Roshan Seth, Rahul Bose and Ayesha Dharkar.

But as a novel it’s as entertaining and diverting as Bollywood’s best.  Described by most readers as “Jane Austen meets Tolstoy,” A Suitable Boy will likely excite devotees of the Yash Raj imprimateur, stuffed as it is with cultural mores, wicked characterizations (Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra is hilarious in her social-climbing vacuousness, a perfect match for her husband Arun Mehra’s Anglified snob), oh-no-she-didn’t gossip, affairs, secret identities and several instances of unrequited love (some of them hideously tragic) before the inevitable happy ending.  There are even song interludes–or rather, poetry interludes that serve the same purpose as filmi songs.  One can have a great deal of fun casting the novel as a film from among current stars, and in fact I would encourage it to make the book come even more alive.  There is even a bit of film fandom:  the characters are obsessed with the current film release, the Nargis/Dilip Kumar starrer Deedar, which has been showing to packed audiences for months and its songs are on everyone’s lips.  This movie is described in the novel as being so emotional that it makes grown men sob uncontrollably, and has “…an unusually tragic ending, but one which did not make one wish to tear the screen apart or set fire to the theater.”  In fact, it is so popular that the ticket-buying queue retaliates on an annoying woman by blurting out the ending, spoiling it for her.   In short–it’s the perfect movie. (watch it online free here, unfortunately without subtitles)

And for those who completely fall in love with A Suitable Boy and want more, rest assured that Seth is working on a sequel called A Suitable Girl, set in modern-day India and nominally concerned with 80-year-old Lata’s search for a match for her grandson.  Even though it’s set to publish in 2013, look for it in…oh…2020 or so.  (I’m so mean)

Calcutta beauties, c. 1950

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 7, 2011 Lost in Bombay, Boys…Naveen & Rahul

Julie M:  Saw Bombay Boys this evening. Awesome and hilarious. NRIs in India experiencing the REAL India. Great satire of filmmaking, fabulous performance by Naseeruddin Shah, and Naveen Andrews is always excellent and adorable. Nice one in the “bromance” genre, but I guess this would be called the “anti-DCH,” right? I read that it is considered a cult film…I loved it. I think my favorite scene was when Naveen was trying to speak Hindi and act at the same time, the one where the girl was tied up. I also love that this scene makes fun of product placement in films.  A definite recommend.

Jenny K:  Hmmm….I don’t really know how I felt about Bombay Boys. Definitely some funny bits, particularly when Naseeruddin Shah was trying to threaten the boys while stabbing the table. The look on his face…priceless. And you don’t see a thing, that’s what gets me. Who needs graphic violence?  One look, one laugh, he says it all. 

The performances had some very nice moments. I didn’t even wince once at Rahul Bose’s acting. Don’t get me wrong, I love him in films like Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, and 15 Park Avenue, but he has been known, on occasion, to shall we say, chew the scenery (can you say Thakshak?? and worse still Everybody Says I’m Fine!!!).

Perhaps it has something to do with the right director, like Aparna Sen. Tara Deshpande who played Dolly had some nice moments, too. It’s almost a shame that she hasn’t acted since 2002. Got married, moved to Boston, it looks like. “Beantown Killed the Bollywood Star” is running in my head. I have to get more sleep.

But even given the good points, I kept feeling that this film was all over the place. I didn’t know what kind of film I was watching. The funny bits were funny, but not as funny as they thought they were. Perhaps I’d just heard and seen all the bad dancing and singing jokes before, and done better. Maybe it was just watching Nasseerji spin on a dime between really inspired bits of humor and very sadistic violence. Rahul’s doing prat falls, but being beaten senseless all the same…while his girlfriend is trying to slit her wrists. Hysterical…? Are we doing comedy or commentary? It’s takes a very delicate balancing act to try to do both at the same time and I don’t think the director, Kaizad Gustad, had it down pat, at least not in 1997. Nice effort, though…But not enough Jaaved Jaffrey!

 [JK’s Note: When we first posted about this movie, (Aug. 31, Dancing, Down Under and the Dons) we were sucked in by Jaaved Jaffrey’s music video “Mumbhai” which we supposed was an item number, or at least a credit-roller in the film…sadly not.  Do go back and check it out.  Very funny. There’s also a link to the whole film on YouTube.]

 

Julie M:  So aside from the music at the end: which character was Javed Jaffery? The film’s lighting was so dim, I could barely recognize anyone. Oh–and I noticed, watching the credits (looking for Javed!) that Zoya Akhtar was listed as the 2nd AD. Nice.

 

Jenny K:  I didn’t see him anywhere in the film, though I did see Vinay Pathak as the Spot Boy who was promoted to the director. He was wonderful as SRK’s hairdresser friend in RNDBJ, and the businessman who didn’t want to be so boring in Aaja Nachle. I read online that it was a surprise hit in India after it was dubbed into Hindi. I wonder if they did the video to pad the length of the film? I read two reviews, one from the UK which quoted a 105 running time and one from an Indian reviewer that said “the two hour film”. What was in the other 15 minutes? Jaaved-Bhai???

A number of blurbs on Youtube and elsewhere swore that Naveen’s voice was dubbed. I know everyone would have been in the Hindi version, but in the English? His voice was really oddly New Yawky, and a bit higher key than you’re used to hearing him use as Sayid on LOST, but I’ve heard him do lots of different accents and I wouldn’t think a US accent would be too hard for him. Check this one out, a bit of the Brit sliding in at the sides, but pretty good. What do you think?

Nice little made-for-cable film, My Own Country. He sings in it, too.  Sorry about the sound quality.

 

Julie M:  Naveen’s Hindi in the English version might have been dubbed. I was wondering about that. But his fake New York accent was all him, I’m sure of it. (not entirely accurate and slipped a bit in spots, but not as bad as Rahul’s Australian accent which was only there in half a dozen scenes, then it vanished completely.)  I thought the balance of comedy (not really comedy, but satire) and comment was very good. But then again, maybe I just don’t know enough about what they were satirizing.

About stars who sing…I only recently learned that Hrithik, Farhan and Abhay were lip-synching to their own voices in ZMND. Abhay’s voice is really good–a little training and he could be a playback singer. (well, not like Sonu Nigam, but still pretty good)

 

Jenny K:  Don’t get all excited about Abhay’s voice…except for that one song, “Senorita,” all the songs in that film were done with playback singers as usual. Primarily Shankhar Madevan, the composer. Abhay was very nervous about singing in the first place. Don’t think he’ll ever do it regularly. Farhan likes to sing, and did practically the whole Rock On! soundtrack himself, whenever he was pictured singing.

 

Julie M:  Oh, I understood that about “Senorita” being the only one in their own voices, but what a treat. Hrithik’s voice was on key but very thin and tentative, and Farhan’s was OK like a normal guy who can sing, but Abhay had the power and tone. If he only gained more confidence…

[the next day]

Julie M:  Saw 15 Park Avenue tonight. Wow–absolutely stunning performance by Konkona Sen Sharma and a powerful portrait of the toll that schizophrenia takes on a family.  The end was really freaky and it took me a while to figure out what happened. Here’s my take: she simply wandered off, literally wandered off the street but also wandered mentally into the world that made her happy. I think the bag lady seen at the beginning was a foreshadowing of Konkona’s character’s eventual fate. I liked how desperation to find the character made her sister echo Konkona’s urgency of finding “15 Park Avenue” so that she sounded just as crazy as the schizophrenic one. So sad. 

Here’s the scene where her former fiance (Rahul) runs into her while both are on vacation in Bhutan(the only thing I found completely unbelievable–so deus ex machina!) and starts reminiscing about their relationship:

 

Jenny K:  I like almost everything Aparna Sen directs. She’s Konkona’s mother, and she has a nice touch with actors because she was a very popular actress back in the seventies and the eighties. I went to an event locally, where Konkona was using 15 Park Avenue to promote greater mental health care for NRIs. It seems that it’s considered such a stigma that it’s often neglected. 

Konkona said, if I remember correctly, that her mother left the ending intentionally vague because she wanted the audience to end it the way they wanted it. I wondered, when I saw it, if Shabana Azmi’s character had been so worried about Konkona for so long, and pulled in so many different ways, that when she lost her, she began to go a bit crazy herself and began to imagine that Konkona had found her lost happiness. Doesn’t really matter. In this kind of film, I sort of like a dreamlike ending.

 

Julie M: I was mesmerized. Not so much with Rahul Bose–he was way too low-key and underplaying the emotional tone of the character–but Konkona really shone. Felt he was phoning it in.

 

Jenny K:  I don’t know what it is with Rahul Bose. Either he’s so subtle he’s almost textureless, or his acting is way over the top. There seems to be no in between for him. I liked him in 15, but it really wasn’t his film, wasn’t focused on him. I just watched him in another Aparna Sen film, The Japanese Wife, where he was playing a very shy Bengali school teacher who only lets his emotions out through letters to his Japanese pen pal. A very quiet film. Rather unique, I thought, and sad. Beautiful cinematography.

Almost all of the voice-over of the letters is in English, though the accents were so thick that I needed the subtitles anyway to be sure of what I was hearing. I thought I wasn’t going to like it, but it drew me in. Aparna seems to love drawing portraits of unusual relationships between lonely people. She doesn’t always have them “go anywhere” in the classic storytelling sense, but she takes you inside their lives in such exquisite detail that you feel like you’ve lived with them for a while.

[later]

Julie M:  Check out today’s Daily Chutney from Samosapedia:

The word for today is “DDLJ.” http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=0946bdaaa4aa27dae7d0ecccb&id=6faa213dce&e=c2b1d08c62

I still haven’t seen it. I do want to, but there are so many others to see!

 

Jenny K:  Everything in its time…I like the Samosapedia site, but will never subscribe to DChut because it always pulls me in with the embedded links and click, click, oh…click…it’s twenty minutes later….it’s  IST, only, yaar.  Adjust madi!

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