July 6, 2012: Raincoat, Running and Rampal

Julie M:  It took many sessions on the exercise bike, but I finally finished Raincoat (2004). Such a pleasure to see Ajay out of action-hero mode, and amazing chemistry between him and Aishwarya Rai. Good performances all around and well-integrated music in the background. She managed to look lovely and sad and beaten all at once, and the performance seemed to foreshadow her role in Guzaarish.  A+, all around.

Plot summary:  Manu (Ajay Devgan) is an out-of-work millworker from a rural area who has come to the big city of Kolkata to try and drum up investments from friends to fund a new business venture.  On a whim he decides to visit Neeru (Aishwarya Rai), a former girlfriend who had dumped him six years previously to marry a wealthier man more acceptable to her family.  They spend a rainy afternoon together, discussing old times and their current lives (during which they shamelessly lie to each other without the other knowing), and a surprise ending recalls the famous O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi.”

 

Jenny K:  I loved their reminiscences of their past.  And Ajay was very good playing against type. No toughguy here, until the end, maybe.

 

Julie M:  Funny, but the way it was performed I thought it was originally a stage play, because it’s basically a one-scene piece. The part at the beginning and end with Manu’s friends seemed tacked-on; I could have done with just the two characters, but I guess there had to be a way to explain his life otherwise we would not have known.

 

Jenny K:  You’re right, it’s very suitable for the theater.  This was close on the heels of Choker Bali, both directed by Rituparno Ghosh, and was at the height of Aish’s “I can prove that I’m not just a pretty face” campaign.  Raincoat works much better for me than Choker Bali, which was glacially slow, if earnestly played.

 

Julie M: Raincoat is available free on YouTube, in parts.  Here’s Part 1.

 

Jenny K:  I had a productive (for the blog) night, last night…I ran an Irrfan Double Header! Thank God for art films, because it made a twofer possible, not often feasible in Indianfilmland, without a mid-afternoon start and serious munchie fortification.

First up was Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2010) which I have been trying to see for quite some time, but it never made it to any of my local theaters. But now it’s on Netflix streaming!

As a film, you feel as if you’ve seen it before…familiar, yet with such odd mash-ups that the results are unique. At times it feels like Chariots of Fire, but set in the military…then there are bits of Sholay‘s Gabbar Singh in a rather Robin Hood kinda mood. Also strong Bimal Roy tinges of “what’s a poor self respecting farmer to do when life gives you a rotten roti?” And the answer seems to have been cribbed from the Bhagat Singh Handbook. Here’s the trailer.

The film is extremely watchable. Irrfan has such an expressive face, it’s a pleasure just to have him on screen. The story begins with a disclaimer that the plot is based on true people and incidents, but is a work of fiction and any similarities to real people are coincidental??? Is it just me, or doesn’t the first half of that statement preclude the second? Oh well…

The story is that of a peaceful, unremarkable young man from a village, who joins the military as his only escape. He was born under a wandering star, says his wife’s fortuneteller. But she knows that he’ll always come back to her, no matter how long the walkabout. While in the army, he signs up for the athletic program because he loves to run, and to get more food. He does have quite the appetite, does Paan Singh Tomar, and boy, can he run. All the way to being National Champion of the steeplechase,  and all over the world.

He seems completely happy with his military life, his racing and the occasional visits home to see his wife and kids…until…his cousin, Bahwar Singh (Jahangir Khan) steals his sugarcane crop. It seems Bahwar resents the local running celebrity just showing up infrequently and not doing any of the work around the village fields, so he takes what he wants from Paan Singh’s fields, too, which he regards as his due for not being the prodigal son.

When PST  asks for recompense, his cousin ignores him. PST goes to the police. They ignore him. He tries to call in favors from his army bosses…heck, he’s a national sports hero, after all! Well, they send in a mediator to try the case, and find in Paan Singh’s favor, but aren’t willing to enforce anything. Seems his clippings and medals get him only so much, and no more. Bahwar Singh just laughs and burns the cane, sends PST’s wife and kids running for cover, beats up his mother who stays to defend the house, and then destroys said house. What’s a law abiding man to do when the authorities don’t care? Become a dacoit, of course!

The plot sort of goes where you expect it to after that, however, the trip is well worth the taking. Irrfan and his supporting cast are wonderful, the atmosphere evocative, and the mood is increasingly more oppressive as the film unfolds. You know why Paan Singh does what he does.  He’s a rebel, not a dacoit, as he says, repeatedly, to any who will listen. If the following interview with surviving relatives is anything to go by, he did have no choice.

This film is on YouTube, too. In parts, here.

 

Julie M:  I love anything Irrfan Khan does.  You had me interested by just saying his name!

 

Jenny K:  The second part of the twofer was The Warrior (2001). Directing his first feature film, Asif Kapadia hits one out of the park on this film. A short film (about 90 minutes) this film is long on impact. It’s shot with practically no conversation, all in vibrant visuals. Taken from a tiny mention of a story of samurai life, writers Kapadia and Tim Miller along with DP Roman Osin, weave a mesmerizing story of a warrior who gives up his life as an official kingdom assassin, tired of what his liege lord asks him to do. Unfortunately, that decision costs him his home and everything dear to him. Here’s the trailer.

Lacfadia, the warrior, flees from his fellow enforcers who are sent after him to stop his escape, and having taken a vow to never raise a weapon against defenseless people again, his flight is a desperate one. Irrfan, practically silent, is even more expressive than he normally is with words. He takes up a few wanderers he meets on his seemingly aimless quest for spiritual peace. One of which, a petty thief named Riaz, played by Noor Mani, does an equally impressive job. Noor posted excerpts from his own performance here on Youtube, but it gives a nice cross section of the film’s tone.

This young man had been living a life on the street before he found an acting school set up by Mira Nair’s people when Salaam, Bombay! needed non-professional actors. Actually, most of the actors in this film were non-professionals, and the director, Mr. Kapadia, got some amazing performances from them. Great behind the scenes pieces on the DVD…almost as much footage as the film itself!

This one is definitely worth the watch. It felt a lot like Tarsem Singh’s The Fall with its eloquent silences and beautiful scenery, and also a bit like Road, Movie in the collection of oddly assorted travellers, that we reviewed earlier in our Abhay Deol Fest. The intimate interaction between relative strangers is there in all three films. Get it if you can…probably is a library choice as it won the BAFTA in 2003 for best picture.

 

Julie M:  WOW. I’m speechless with the quality of both of these films and of course with Irrfan Khan as the lead performer. I’ve got to get hold of them!  Library has neither. Bummer!

 

Jenny K:  Well, it is on YouTube, but no subtitles…I’ve watched some like that, but it can be frustrating…

 

Julie M:  Whew, finally finished Tehzeeb (Etiquette, 2003). Major EFD (emotional family drama)!  I’m still recovering.

Brief plot summary: Tehzeeb (Urmila Matondkar) grew up as the lonely daughter of famous singer Rukhsana (Shabana Azmi). Her character has been shaped by the witnessing, at age 10 or so, the murder of her beloved father (excellent cameo appearance by Rishi Kapoor) by her mother, a crime for which Rukhsana was acquitted; however, despite years of suppressed horror and rage, she still admires her mother and she is still the emotional center of Tehzeeb’s life. Tehzeeb, once an aspiring singer but now a housewife, is married to romance novelist Salim (Arjun Rampal, sigh), and they live with and care for her developmentally disabled sister, Nazneen (Dia Mirza). Here’s their great meet-cute scene.

 

Jenny K:  Actually, this is the first movie where I found Arjun attractive.  He does grow on you.

 

Julie M: One day Rukhsana announces that she is coming for a visit for the first time since Tehzeeb and Salim married five years ago; the prospect of this throws Tehzeeb for a loop. The next few weeks expose buried feelings and contradictions, rub raw nerve endings and lead to confrontations, disclosures and more.

It’s rare that I get to see an Indian movie that centers so strongly on complex female relationships. You’d think, with Bollywood’s preference to avoid niche marketing, that such a project would never be greenlighted unless it was liberally sprinkled with dishoom, or at least some scantily clad gori dancers. But all this female bonding, to me, was treated too superficially.

The schmaltzy background music was more suited to TV soap operas than a mainstream movie, and the requisite hospital scene near the end had me rolling my eyes.  Nevertheless, I appreciated the character conflicts even if they were handled in a daytime-drama way (from sets, costumes and staging through action and significant glances…is this Mumbai or Pine Valley?). “Tehzeeb,” in addition to being the name of the lead character, also means “etiquette,” and ultimately it is etiquette that kept Tehzeeb all these years from confronting her mother with her feelings, which could have avoided all this intense drama.

Yes, there were dance numbers, but they felt tacked on and gratuitous, particularly Arjun’s, seen here. It was completely wrong for the character, as he played kind of a combination of narrator, comic relief and token useless male (but he was gorgeous, especially in that black turtleneck sweater, and if I were to have a slightly cowed but very romantic husband I’d like him to be Salim).

Urmila, a decent enough actress, should never be allowed to dance. Everything I see her in she is clunky and robotic and looks like she is slightly in pain.

 

Jenny K:  Now, to give Urmila her due, I ought to put up one of her more acclaimed dance performances from China Gate.  Now, I’m not saying she’s going to threaten Madhuri’s queen-of-the-gypsy-numbers status or anything, but she does hold her own, here.

 

Julie M: And WHAT was up with the “creative” dance number for Dia Mirza??!!  The “move the action along” music was much better, except when it was intrusive, which was, oh, about half the time. The slow songs were lovely. And my favorite part was when Tehzeeb, entertaining her mother and sister, parodied famous movie numbers. Can’t find the scene online, though.

 

Jenny K:  That was always the scene that stuck in my mind, too.  She was really funny, and on-the-nose in her imitations.  Hidden talents!

 

Julie M: Overall…a solid B film, worth seeing if you come across it but nothing to go out of your way to find.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 2012: Why 2007 Was a Good Year, Yaar

Julie M:  Tonight’s feature was Dharm (Religion, 2007). A very beautiful film, very reminiscent of Deepa Mehta’s work (particularly Water, and not just because Dharm also takes place in Benares). More on that later. Here’s a very quick trailer.

Here’s a longer one but worse picture quality.
 

Jenny K:  Someone has to explain the various meanings of dharm/dharma to me sometime.  Here it means “religion,” but I had always heard it used as “duty,” which, though it has similar qualities, is not the same thing.  Enlightenment, anyone?

 
Julie M:  Plot summary: Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) is a Brahmin and the head of a temple, an extremely devout Hindu who is strict about ritual and “right thinking,” which often causes difficulties with his wife (Supriya Pathak) and daughter. He is the personal advisor to his patron, whose daughter is in love with a visiting gora journalist and whose son Shankar is drawn to a radical Hindu political organization.

 

Jenny K:  I love Pankaj Kapur…he’s always so real, if you know what I mean, never a false note in his performances. I also liked him in Raakh with Aamir and Sehar with Arshad Warsi. He is the best thing in Roja, a Mani Ratnam film that I’m sending you in this next package.

 

Julie M:  Oh, yeah, he was in Raakh.  I had forgotten. 

 

Jenny K:  That’s what’s so cool…he has a gift falling so deep into his characters that he even looks different.  Same quality Seema Biswas has.  I wonder if they’ve ever done a film together? Hmm….I’d buy tickets to that, in advance!

 

Julie M:  Anyway, Chaturvedi’s rigidness softens when his daughter brings home an abandoned baby boy, whom he and his family raise as their own. When the boy is about four his mother comes to claim him: surprisingly, she is Muslim. This conflict between traditional Brahmin and Hindu values, long-standing ethnopolitical prejudices and the desires of the heart forms the backdrop for the rest of the film.

I was absolutely fascinated all the way through, both for the amazing visuals, the human drama (without a drop of melodrama) and the pathos the director, Bhavna Talwar, drew from the storyline without falling into mush. I think that any Indian female director working in this vein can’t help but be influenced by Deepa’s work, and there were times that I had to remind myself that this wasn’t Deepa’s.

I had just seen Pankaj Kapoor as the crime boss in Maqbool and loved it, and this film sealed my opinion of him as one of India’s premier dramatic actors. He was also the old guy in The Blue Umbrella, another fave of mine.

 

Jenny K: Really? If I remember correctly, you weren’t so sold on The B.U. when you first saw it…had a few reservations.  At the end, here.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mellowing on a film.  I’ve done that more than once.

 

Julie M: If I had a criticism it was that Dharm was yet another film in the “Hindus and Muslims are enemies for no real reason” vein. You’d think that people would get the message by now, and this film brought no additional compelling arguments.

Dharm almost was India’s entry into the Academy Awards for 2007, but lost out to Eklavya: The Royal Guard. Having seen both I think Dharm got royally scr*wed–although I liked Eklavya a lot, Dharm was far better and more valid, and would have actually earned India the nomination that year.

 

Jenny K:  Dharm sounds interesting…but it may be hard getting used to seeing him without facial hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a beard!

 

Julie M:  You know, the penny JUST dropped for me that Pankaj is Shahid’s father.  Where have I been?  And that Mausam (which you saw and I’m waiting for it to appear on DVD) is somewhat autobiographically inspired (for writer/director Pankaj)? I still have to consult a scorecard (aka Wikipedia) to get all the relationships straight in Bollywood.

 [about two weeks later..film viewing seriously interrupted by life…]

Julie M:  Last night I watched Loins of Punjab Presents (2007), which to my surprise was an English language film although an Indian production. The premise was good and it had some very funny moments, but it sets itself up to a number of comparisons to which in my mind it did not measure up. Here’s the trailer.

 
Jenny K:  I would talk about how long it took you to watch this, but I remember being appalled at the trailer myself for it’s sheer Priyadawanism [my own term for a particularly high level of slapstick] and held off watching it for three years, until it came my way for free on Hulu one day. 

 

Julie M: Turn off your ad-blocker or you won’t get to see it.

Brief plot summary: Loins of Punjab is an Indian-owned pork processing company based in New Jersey, which needs some good PR among its countrymen. The owner decides to sponsor an “American Idol”-type, Bollywood-themed singing competition for NRIs, called Desi Idol, and give away a huge cash prize to the winner. A very motley crew turns up to audition, and over the course of the film’s running time we get to know a cross-section of them complete with motivations, quirks, joys and sorrows.

The film was billed as a satire, and I definitely got everything they were satirizing: dreams of fame, various NRI types found in the U.S., the nature of being Indian. Highlights include the large and voluble Patel clan, Shabana Azmi playing an evil socialite, and Ajay Naidu (whom audiences might remember as “the Indian guy” in Office Space, one of my all-time favorite comedies) as a tough, gay bhangra-rapper.

Jenny K:  He was also that silent but loathesome cook in the first part of Today’s Special…look for Ajay when you see it.  I thought LoPP was sweet. And it was obvious that Manish, the director put his whole being into it.

 

Julie M:  Sweet?  I wouldn’t go that far.  Some moments were sweet, mainly about the Vikram-Sania jodi, but I thought they were mostly going for hilarity.  For a film about a singing competition I thought there were frighteningly few musical numbers (I thought the “Bole Chudiyan” segment was the sweet part, but that may only be because K3G was the 2nd Hindi film I ever saw and the nostalgia factor was working), but that may have been the point. However, this scene really made me crack up.

Jenny K:  Okay, okay…sweet at its center, and funny, as opposed to slapstick/vulgar through-and-through.

 
Julie M: Yes, it was funny and I enjoyed myself while watching it; however, my mind kept comparing it to the great Christopher Guest mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, and others (except For Your Consideration, ick), which I felt LoPP was trying to emulate and fell a bit short.

 
The short running time (less than 1 1/2 hours) made the film feel rushed.  I would have adored to have it last 30 minutes longer and be filled with more background and depth on the main characters.

 

Jenny K:  I agree that he could have lengthened it a bit and not lost his US audience, if that was what he was worried about.  BTW, I really like Shabana as a villain. She should do it more often. And she looked wonderful!

 

Julie M:  I liked her too, even though she was playing against type.  I feel very bad expressing any criticism, since one of my favorite characters in it, the poor outsourced Vikram, was played by the film’s director (Manish Acharya), and he died in a riding accident a couple of years ago.  

 

Jenny K:  Vikram(Manish) was probably my favorite character, too. I think the Chris Guest similarities must be expected as Manish studied film at Tisch in NYC.  He was probably steeped in that sort genre of film.

When I first saw LoPP, I wrote Manish on FB to tell him how much I liked it. He wrote back and we spoke on FB occasionally, and it was just too sad when he died a few months later. He had such a promising future.

On one post on his page he said he liked the funny parodies people made up for fake “Criterion Editions” of their favorite films, so I made him one for the fictional LoPP Criterion Edition.  For the first time posted online.  With thanks to Manish for the laughs he gave us (and with respectful parody, to Criterion).

 

Julie M:  Overall, a fun watch, could have been more effective comedically but if you’re not familiar with the genre you’ll like it just fine. 

 [the next day]

Julie M:  Saw Rock On! (2008) tonight. Wow–this is definitely one of my faves. It had me from the very first moment: I love that style of music (yes, I am a rock chick) and both Farhan and Arjun nailed their performances perfectly. Cannot believe that it was Farhan’s debut as an actor.  And Arjun in super-long hair…it was all I could to do keep from swooning.

 

Jenny K:  And I loved that Farhan did his own singing.  He’s become quite the young recording/concert artist when he’s got the time…love that raspy quality, very sexy.

 

Julie M:  I loved the setup—a rock band that broke up on the verge of making it reunites ten years later, told mostly in flashback—and of course the awesome musical numbers, particularly this opening one which had me up and dancing. 

And clearly the director knew musicians, or consulted with musicians, or hung out with musicians, because this part illustrating their camaraderie and tendency to goof off felt completely unforced and totally real. A musical bromance, pitch-perfect and perfectly pitched.  Three snaps up with a twist! 

 
And what’s this I hear about a sequel?  The film and story were perfect just the way it was. Don’t ruin it!! Shooting is supposed to start in June; let’s hope something falls through to stop it.

 

Jenny K: Thought you would like Rock On!!  I saw it four times in the theaters, I think. I kept taking people to see it, and then the last time, as part of a local Indian film festival with the director visiting for commentary, so, of course, I had to go again. Abhishek Kapoor is a well spoken, talented fellow, and nice to talk to. I told him that his was one of the two rock and roll films that got me engrossed and made me feel like I was actually at the concert. The other was Stop Making Sense (1984) with the Talking Heads, directed by Jonathan Demme. He said he hadn’t seen it…so I sent him a copy. Don’t know if he ever got it, but, maybe it will put him in the mood for this sequel.

Julie M:  The entire film is available free on YouTube in superior quality. 

March 30, 2012: Deliver Me from March Madness!

Julie’s been somewhat of a basketball widow this past couple of weeks, which gave her lots and lots of time to catch up on films!

 

Julie M:  B was working and watching basketball tonight, so I took the opportunity to watch Kashmir Ki Kali (Kali of Kashmir, 1964). It started out like a typical Shammi romp, where he is a wealthy, irresponsible playboy goofily chasing a shy, beautiful village girl, whom he almost gets until an impossible amount of drama in the last 30 minutes threatens their happy future together.

  

Jenny K:  Yes, I liked that one, too…it’s always been touted as one of his best. And of course, set in Kashmir…how can you resist?!?

 

Julie M:  Rajiv (Shammi Kapoor) is the reckless heir to a wealthyDelhi industrialist. One day Maa decides to pick him a bride so he’ll settle down; he rejects all the choices and flees to the family’s other home in scenic Kashmir, where he meets Champa (Sharmila Tagore), a poor flower-seller with a blind father. So as not to scare her off he pretends to be the homeowner’s driver (hm…where have I seen THAT before?) and chats her up, then finds numerous occasions to be with her and pitch adorable woo, mostly in song. This one was my favorite.

A particularly hilarious scene has him dressing up in a burkha so he can ride with her and her friends as they travel to a village fair, and there is a crazy sub-plot involving three comely lasses who have rented rooms in his home and are chasing his wealth (that part could have lifted right out as far as I was concerned). There’s also a wonderful dance number at the above-mentioned fair, full of ethnic goodness, although what a Punjabi folk dance is doing in a Kashmiri village is beyond me.

Since I had already seen the disarmingly similar, An Evening in Paris (1967), also with hammy Shammi and Sharmila, I kept having flashbacks–or flash-forwards considering it’s a later film. Though clearly typecast, Shammi is so silly and sweet that I forgave almost everything. Also, this film is worth watching because of the elaborate jewelry, second only to Paheli in films I’ve seen. Overall: fluffy, fun, a thrilling scene near the end with Shammi getting all dishoom on the bad guy and wrestling with him on an elevated rock transport system…what more do you want?

Kashmir Ki Kali available free on YouTube, with English subtitles.

 

Jenny K:  I, who never let basketball bother me, watched Bikini Beach today while getting some housework done. Ah, that Frankie Avalon, winning the fair Annette in a double role, as both himself and, as his own rival, Potato Bug, a goofy British hearthrob of a singer (a Chad and Jeremy type), who also drag races.  I just watch it for Eric Von Zipper. When EVZ likes someone, they STAY liked! In no way deep, but I’m a sucker for fluff, every so often. This may be why I was predisposed to like masalas.

 

Julie M:  I think the 1960s are the 1960s no matter where. I love how Indian films reflect the music of the time, all the while staying true to Indian mores and values.

[the next day…still during the basketball tournament…]

Julie M:  Saw Morning Raga (2004) tonight. LOVED it. It had everything–fantastic music, dramatic storyline (but not too), fabulous performances. Prakash…what a hottie, too bad he didn’t do more work. And Shabana “sang”! I loved that it wasn’t “mainstream,” that the pacing was perfect, visually stunning…I can’t say enough. Just my kind of film. Thank you, thank you for sending it.

Brief plot summary:  Swarnalata (Shabana Azmi) and Vaishnavi (Ranjani Ramakrishnan) are best friends and musical partners, singing traditional carnatic (South Indian) pieces in the privacy of their homes (this piece is the opening of the film).

Swarnalata convinces Vaishnavi to perform publicly with her, but a tragedy en route changes the lives of both families.  Twenty years later Vaishnavi’s son Abhinay (Prakash Rao), an aspiring musician, returns to the village and encounters Swarnalatha, and wants to incorporate her and her music into his band.   Swarnalatha, still blaming herself for the tragedy, refuses.  Can their mutual passion for music overcome the horrors of the past?  And what role does Pinky, Abhinay’s new girlfriend, play in the story?   Click on the Youtube logo, bottom right, if it doesn’t play.

 

Jenny K:  Morning Raga was all part of my minifest “movies about playback, and concert, singers”.  It was a nice little movie…but, Shabana didn’t sing any of it herself, you know. However, all the reviews I have read said they thought she had studied a lot to get the whole set of performance mannerisms right and the lip synch just so. Quite a feat!

 

Julie M:  Yes, apparently she did study, for months, as did Prakash learning to play the violin (even though it wasn’t his playing in the film). I admire that kind of commitment.

And…I was listening to a library CD on my walk this morning and a fusion song came on that had long bits of carnatic music in it, and now I know what it is! 

Morning Raga is available free on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, and the small bits that aren’t English are subtitled.  Part I is here.

 [a few days later..still more basketball…]

Julie M:  Saw Maqbool (2004) tonight. I was really leery of seeing it because of the gangland setting and I kind of wish I had listened to myself, because despite the excellent performances (Irrfan was fantastic!) it was really bloody and violent.

I like how it played with the parallel characters from MacBeth: instead of two sons Abbaji (the King Duncan character) has a daughter, which set up a whole other dynamic re the succession. Lady MacB is not a wife but a mistress, the mistress of both the King and Maqbool, again upping the drama quotient and changing her motivation from ambition for her husband to simply getting rid of a lover she does not love to exchange for one she does love, while still keeping her position. This scene, where she holds a gun to Maqbool’s head and forces him to call her “my love,” is key to her twisted psyche.

Jenny K:  That’s what bothers me the most about Maqbool, when they make Lady MacBeth the mistress, then in this film, Maqbool’s whole motivator is sex, not power and greed as in MacBeth. That bothered me more than, say having “Emilia” [spoilers] not die in Omkara, but in the end, flip the Shakespeare on his head and have her kill her Iago. Shocking, but less fundamentally a change to the plot.

 

Julie M:  I also loved this quwwali song at the gangland funeral.

And I loved how the “witches” are brought together in the single person of the soothsaying cop (Om Puri) and his jovial sidekick (your boy Naseeruddin Shah).

The visuals were good and I suspect would have been better if the DVD had not been mastered from a bad VHS original. Still, all that blood and shooting really soured what could have been a really satisfying drama. Overboard, to my tastes. 

This was a welcome light moment, at the engagement-party festivities for Abbaji’s daughter.

Jenny K:  I’ve always liked Omkara better than Maqbool of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations, primarily because Maqbool is soooo dark.  I thought as you like Irrfan so much, it was important that you see it. It may not have been his first film, but it was one of the first two that really put him on the map, cinematically. The first was The Warrior by Asif Kapadia. I haven’t seen it, but it has great reviews.  I can’t believe that he didn’t “hit” until he was about 40. He still looks so great and as busy as ever at 50!

Julie M:  Omkara certainly gets my vote, too, for the better of the two. It  was nice to see Irrfan and Tabu act together again. I loved the two of them in The Namesake (2007), which I saw first, but I can’t help but think that their casting in Namesake was inspired by their undeniable chemistry in Maqbool. Excellent, mature actors serious about their craft. LOVE to see that!

 [the next night…isn’t that tournament over yet?]

Julie M:  Saw Kairee (Raw Mango, 2000) tonight. Very indie, very good.

A young city girl (Yogita Deshmukh) arrives in a rural Marathi village to live with her beloved aunt Taani (Shilpa Navalkar) after the tragic death of her parents. At first she is happy in her new life, since she gets to spend a lot of time with her aunt in the beautiful setting. But soon she must go to school, which is taught by an incompetent master and where she is the only girl. She is made to feel bad but is cheered by her aunt’s standing up to the master and getting her transferred to another school where the education is better, the master  is friendlier (a stuttering Atul Kulkarni) and there are more girls. But, gradually she finds out that things are not what they seem in her idyllic new life.   [Sorry, no subtitles.]

It was a very beautiful movie visually, with excellent performances by Shilpa (such an expressive face, especially when she laughs!)  and Atul (good to see him NOT be a villain for a change), and a cameo by Sonali Kulkarni (of Mission Kashmir and Dil Chahta Hai) as the grown-up girl. 

Lots of cryptic references to finding the local peacocks (which the girl never gets to see:  I’m not quite sure what the symbolism is, maybe happiness?) and eating raw mangoes fresh from the tree (which I believe represents perfection), a favorite treat of Taani’s which the girl also never gets to experience.  

 

Jenny K:  Atul is one of my favorite character actors.  He’s given some great performances in Rang De Basante, Chandni Bar, Khakee and this one.  And all so different.  Amazing.  He never just “phones it in” as they say.  Definitely you’ve picked some wonderful basketball distractions. Two points…swooosh!  Into the hoop!

February 23, 2012: Of Variety and Spice, Part 2

Jenny K: Continuing our progression through the wonderful variables of Hindi film, we now veer into the comedies.  I had been twisting between curiosity and dread as to what Julie would think of Khalnayak, with Sanjay Dutt at the height of his long-hair glory, paired with Madhuri Dixit in one of her least predictable and most varied roles to date.  No sweet domestic goddess here.

But to justify myself a bit…even with all the positive things I said about some of the performances, the dancing and the amazing music, I never whole-heartedly recommended it.  The film is all over the place stylistically, and I didn’t think it was in Julie’s preferred genres in any case, yet, I’ve been wrong before in second-guessing her…Pardes for example?

 

Julie M:  Per your suggestion I watched Khalnayak…love love love the “Choli Ke Peeche” number, both the original and the male gangster parody!

But overall Khalnayak struck me as a very old-fashioned film–even though it was released in 1993 it has a 1950s vibe. Through a series of circumstances a boy goes bad and turns into a gangster (Sanjay); a police commissioner (Jackie Shroff) becomes obsessed with catching him; the commissioner’s girlfriend (Madhuri), also a police officer, goes undercover to track the villain and bring him in; a mother’s heartbreak; a bit of Stockholm Syndrome to up the drama quotient; and the villain redeems himself in the end. Too melodramatic for me. I don’t know, maybe in black and white with other stars that aren’t Sanjay Dutt in bad hair it would have been better. And Anupam Kher plays the fool, which I never like to see.  Overall: meh. Madhuri Dixit was the best thing about it.

 

Jenny K:  Like I said in an earlier post, Sanjay’s sex appeal, especially with the long hair is an acquired taste.  And the film, itself is a mixed bag. You are right;  the main reason I remember Khalnayak fondly is Madhuri.  I loved her dance numbers, and I loved her spunkiness while she was “in character” as the bad-girl-dancer-on the run.

I’d love to show a clip of that scene in the restaurant where she was playing that song lyric game while trying to enthrall Sanjay’s goondah cohorts. (I can’t remember its name…Pat loves to play it. You sing a song that starts with the letter of the first letter of the last song sung, or something like that. Looks like fun if I spoke more Hindi.) But what I was saying was that I wouldn’t have even recognized Madhuri in that scene if I had seen it out of context. So different from her usual persona. And aside from the bad hair I liked Sanjay in it. The odd long stretches with him all but chest-butting Jackie in the prison were all but intolerable in an uncut form.

 

Julie M:  Yeah–two LONG fight scenes with Jackie/Sanjay were too much. And I got tired of Sanjay looking out with one eye from greasy bangs. Eccch. Eventually I just watched it on double-speed and slowed down when Madhuri came on the scene.

[Two weeks later, romantic comedy…]

Julie MMujhse Dosti Karoge? (Will You Be My Friend?, 2002) was a tear-jerker of a romance film that doesn’t break any new ground. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t a satisfying film for those who like the genre.

Here is part one of the “making of” featurette that introduces the characters.

Raj, Tina and Pooja are childhood friends (about 8 or 9 years old) when Raj moves to Englandwith his parents. Raj has a kiddie crush on Tina. They promise to write through the “new” medium of email (more on this later), but since Tina doesn’t have a computer, he addresses his letters to her in care of Pooja. Tina is immediately bored with the prospect of a long-distance friendship, so for the next 15 years Raj (Hrithik Roshan) and Pooja (Rani Mukherji), in Tina’s name, correspond and fall in love. When Raj comes back for a visit, he starts wooing Tina (Kareena Kapoor) in person while Pooja looks on in hurt disappointment. Although eventually Raj realizes that Pooja really wrote the letters, he has already started an important relationship with Tina.  A tragedy and a couple of engagements bring the situation to a head.

 

Jenny K:  Every time someone refers to this film, I’m not sure I have seen it before…then I look at the clips and say, “oh yeah, I did see it…I must have forgotten.”  Sort of sums it all up for me, I’m afraid.  More of the same-old same-old.

Julie M:  The three big stars all do their jobs well (Kareena being her typical annoying self), and it’s clear that the Yash Raj producers wanted this to be an emotionally-equivalent follow-up to K3G (2001), which had included all of them. Hrithik doesn’t dance as much in this as one would want, but there are lingering shots on his handsome face and he definitely brings the moves. The action was definitely soap-opera-ish and the songs fairly forgettable, and even bringing Uday Chopra in for an extended cameo as Rohan, Pooja’s intended, doesn’t revive it. But, again, for fans of long, drawn-out, post-interval melodrama, it works.

 

Jenny K:  Now, let me get this straight…you think of Uday’s appearance as a film-saver?  Have you been spending time with Kathy behind my back???  Finding him endearing is really the exception to the rule, for me.

 

Julie M:  Well, he is a filmi-child…but I don’t think as badly of him as you do.  He was a cute comic sidekick in Dhoom and Dhoom 2, and he really can dance.  He can’t help who his family is. Give the poor guy a break! (But still, not upset that he’s retiring.)

The high point is definitely the song medley performed at Pooja and Rohan’s engagement party, featuring classic film numbers that have lyric subtexts appropriate to the MDK plot and reproducing the original choreography (in so much as was possible).

Hrithik’s aping of the “dance” stylings of Amitabh Bachchan in the “Pardesia” number was spot-on, and the medley shamelessly called back to the defining songs of each of the star couple’s breakout films: Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai (Hrithik) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Rani). It was so good that I returned to it after the film to re-watch it–no kidding–four times.

I also thought it was a crazy inside joke the way they named the characters. Calling Rani, who played the Tina character in KKHH, Pooja and calling Kareena, who played the Pooja character in K3G, Tina, was bound to elicit either squeals of joy or, in my case, groans of disgust, from fans. And this song, which introduces the grown-up Raj character, starts out JUSTLIKE his entrance in KNPH:

Finally, here’s my rant on the email plot device.  The film takes place in 2002, right? Which means, the first scene, when they’re kids, takes place 15 years prior, in 1987. Email in 1987 was very rudimentary and, unless you were a government professional or included in a business network, practically unavailable. Eudora, the first mass-market email program that made email easy to read and send over PCs regardless of what network they were on, was not introduced until 1988. So unless the families were extremely cutting-edge (Raj’s father seems to have been, because the reason for them moving away was to start a high-tech company in the West, but the others make fun of him for jumping on what is essentially unproven “fad” technology), they really would not be emailing to each other. But when does reality matter in these films?

 

Jenny K:  Oh, dear…didn’t I warn you about slamming your head against continuity/reality issues in Bollywood films?  You’ll just give yourself a headache and ranter’s cramp in your typing digits.

 

Julie M:  Verdict: watch MDK if you like the actors, appreciate cute inside jokes and love dramatic true-love-with-obstacles film plots. It wasn’t a waste of my time (watching Hrithik never is!) but it wasn’t necessarily a prime use of it either. The film is available for $2.99 on-demand on YouTube.

[and to wind us up, the next week…back to a sweet surrender, sorta…]

Julie MSorry, Bhai! (Sorry, Brother! 2008) is a pretty and low-key family drama with an unexpected ending. Boman Irani and Shabana Azmi play the modern parents of a small, close-knit family that includes two sons, stockbroker Harsh (Sanjay Suri) and scientist Siddharth (Sharman Joshi). As the story begins it is Siddharth’s wedding day, which occasions a flashback to 11 years previous when the family has traveled to attend the imminent marriage of Harsh to Aaliyah (Chitrangada Singh) on the island of Mauritius, where they both live.

As preparations are being made Harsh is involved in a work crisis, which throws Aaliyah together with his family, particularly Siddharth. As Mom struggles to learn to like her future daughter-in-law, Siddharth and Aaliyah fall in love. Once the triangle is out in the open, how the family deals with the revelation is the true heart of the film. The ending is warm and emotional without being maudlin (yes, I did mist up).  This song from the film serves as a good teaser. 

While I am not generally a fan of this type of story, I found myself gradually falling under its spell. It’s slow to start (I was nearly comatose during the first 45 minutes), but the depth of feeling between the characters builds to just the right amount, and the gorgeous Mauritius scenery was perfect for the winter blahs. The best part of the film, however, is the charming marital jodi of Boman and Shabani. They are completely adorable together and make the perfect couple. I couldn’t decide if I wanted Irani’s character more as my life partner or my dad.

If you like not-very-dramatic, realistic stories about sweet, romantic love, you’ll enjoy this film. I liked it well enough—2/5 for me.

February 21, 2012: Of Variety and Spice, Part 1

Jenny K: One of the things that so enchants me about watching Indian film is their sheer variety, how sometimes you are enthralled by romance, spectacle and melodrama, and then other times you’re falling out of your chair at the hilarious antics and timing of some of cinema’s best comedians.  Yes, I mean you, Paresh Rawal…you even make slapstick palatable for me, you jadugar, you.  And the most delightful thing, for me, is that sometimes you get all of that rolled up into one film!  Oh, masala, how I miss your spice in your current fall from popularity.

When we went through the few loose end reviews that we had yet to post, I began to see the gamut itself as being worthy of a theme.  The films resonate, even when they are serving up touchy issues, offering deliciously spicy biographies, or even are sublimely ridiculous, like Khalnayak, in our in Part 2…you just can’t take your eyes off Hindi film.

 

Julie M:  Finally saw Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). I appreciated the performances of both Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das and how controversial it was because of the subject matter–not just the lesbian relationship but how much it brought long-ignored women’s issues to the forefront–and it was great to have so much exposure to Jaaved Jaffrey (even though his character was an *ss), but overall, not as great film-wise as either Water (still my fave of the three) or Earth.

Basically I saw it as the story of two lonely and bordering-on-abused (not physically but emotionally) women finding solace in each other and that solace leading to a physical relationship. I didn’t see it as a “lesbian” film, just one about how punishing Indian culture can be on individualism and women in particular, especially less educated ones.

I don’t think either of the characters were actually lesbian–well, maybe the Nandita Das character slightly leaned that way at the beginning–but she was not so much lesbian as wanting more out of life than being a woman in that society and upbringing offered her, and the only way she could translate it into action in her head is to occasionally dress up as and act like a man. Both of them were incredibly physically frustrated in their marital relationships and found an outlet where they could. 

 

Jenny K:  Might be interesting to compare it to Albert Nobbs, the way you describe it here.  Sounds like some of the same issues are addressed, even if Nandita’s character wasn’t in male dress for as long. 

 

Julie M: It didn’t go far enough, to my mind, in illuminating the underlying social problem nor did it suggest any solutions except getting away. I actually felt that a film like Mrituydand, despite the extra drama, does more to resolve those issues than a film like Fire–which can be written off as a “foreigner” view of India since Deepa Mehta is an NRI. Along those lines I thought this interview was great.

Jenny K:  That is an interesting interview with Deepa…I’m sorry she had so much trouble with the Hollywood studio system. But it makes me want to see Camilla. I’m still torn about whether I want to see Fire, but your review makes me consider it more seriously.

  

Julie M:  I think you should see it, if only to complete the trilogy. I should warn you, though, that there is one explicit sex scene. It’s very brief, though–two minutes maximum.

  

Jenny K:  That in itself doesn’t faze me, especially when it’s germane to the plot, which I can’t imagine it not being in a Deepa Mehta film.  She always manages to tread the line delicately, telling hard truths and showing painful or controversial scenes with just enough discretion that you don’t feel it’s gratuitous…unlike, say, Rituparno Ghosh’s Antarmahal.  No, I’m not going to dignify that one  even with a description.  Just don’t ever watch it.

[about a week later]

Jenny K:  Despite the slap-in-the-face title, The Dirty Picture, this one looks like fun… [Whoever chose the title, did the film a disservice, I think,  turning away some who would have probably enjoyed it].  Vidya Balan has all the good roles these days, and she keeps getting love scenes with my man, Naseerji!!!  The nerve…I’m quite jealous.

It’s supposed to be a biopic about a South Indian sex symbol named Silk, back in the Wild and Crazy Eighties.  Here’s the trailer… Love Naseer’s bad hair dye… this looks like an homage to bad taste in a really hilarious way.  I hope the whole thing is like this.  Maybe the masala is coming back, in context of an older film world, fingers crossed.

 [a week later]

As to my trip to see The Dirty Picture…Naseer or no Naseer, I almost wish I hadn’t seen it. Don’t get me wrong, it is interesting, but it’s so darned negative…  First it starts out on a high energy note with Vidya Balan’s Reshma, a poor woman possessed with the idea that she’ll be a big star in pictures and willing to do almost anything to get in.

She has no offers for films, is constantly rejected, but is often offered money to sell herself.  Reshma figures that she just has to hold on until she can tap this effect she has on men and put it up there on screen where she can get a better price for it. Eventually she pushes herself forward enough so that she gets a bit part in a dance number with a bullwhip as her dance partner. And the ferociousness of her gaze, her defiance, along with some rather suggestive moves with the handle of said whip, finally gets her noticed, for better or worse.

Next thing Reshma knows, now named “Silk,” has got a hot item number with her favorite movie icon, Superstar Suryakant, an overaged lothario with a suspicious head of hair (sound like anyone in Chennai films? No? RK’s fans seem to think so and are a bit annoyed with the filmmakers). Naseeruddin Shah does a great job as usual, carrying off the loud fashions of the Eighties with panache and humor, but I miss the salt and pepper hair of Today’s Special. I found him much sexier in that one. Perhaps he was going for the slightly ridiculous side of the character and must not have been going for convincing chemistry with Vidya, because it wasn’t really there.

 Her chemistry was much better with Emraan Hashmi as the arty director who hates Silk and the kind of films she makes, but who becomes obsessed with her fate toward the end. Nice to see that Emraan can be compelling on screen, because I haven’t found him so in the past. Tusshar Kapoor as Naseer’s younger brother (very, very younger…almost as unbelievable as “Suryakant’s” hair) is very innocent and occasionally quite hilarious as in his deliriously wacky re-do of an earlier Silk and Surya dance number “Oooh La La”, after she kisses him for the first time. I keep remembering him as the very serious young police officer in Khakee, and am glad to see he can kick up his heels effectively. Here’s the trailer of the number he’s copying, couldn’t find Tusshar’s.

Vidya is as wonderful as everyone says…definite award winner for the next Filmfare go-around. If you wanted to read more about the real-life woman, Silk Smitha, here’s an article on her life.    

As Silk, Vidya glitters, but the script is so chopped up, even at 144 minutes, that you feel like there isn’t enough background shown to detail any of why her life turned out the way it did, how the relationships in her life progressed and how they ultimately failed her. I especially wanted more story with her mother. People were introduced into her storyline and then just disappeared without explanation…or brought back, too late, still without explanation. Both Vidya and Silk deserved better support.

 

Julie M:  Despite your negative review I still want to see it on DVD when it comes out. Vidya is practically unrecognizable as herself, but she seems like she did a great job.  I’ll watch her in anything, after seeing her fantastic performance in Bhool Bhulaiyaa.   And I would like to draw comparisons to a fabulous American film I saw a while back, The Notorious Bettie Page, biopic of the 1950s pinup model known for doing pretty much anything in her photos while still retaining the look of wholesome chastity. 

 

Jenny K:  So…next post, we continue with our salute to the spice of variety…Come on back, and if you like, let us know your favorites.

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.

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