November 21, 2015: Of Flights and Fancies

We love international travel. It’s so improving. Plus you get to watch cool movies on the plane. Julie saw not one, not two, but three recent Hindi releases courtesy of Lufthansa.

Julie M: Finally got to see three new-ish films, none of which ever made it to my local theaters. Two were worth it, one was not. Let’s dispense with the “not” first: Tanu Weds Manu Returns was a giant snooze-fest that made me actively hate characters I was not 100% fond of the first time around. We catch up with the nebbishy Manu and self-centered Tanu as they are making each other miserable in England four years after their marriage. She commits him to a mental institution and proceeds back to Kanpur to scandalize her family with her wild city ways; he gets released and takes up with a 19-year-old Tanu lookalike in Delhi, who happens to be half-promised to Tanu’s old boyfriend. Everything spirals down from there: an ill-advised engagement, a baby of secret parentage, and a snarky law student add up to a horrifyingly cringe-worthy series of events. By the time (spoiler alert, as if you needed one) Tanu and Manu reconcile, you really don’t care anymore whether those two crazy kids can make it—you just want it all to be over.

Jenny K: I am so jealous…about the international travel, and the leisurely watching of movies while in flight, even if they are mediocre. Sorry to hear it, though, as I usually like Kangana Ranaut (the charming actress from Queen) and R. Madhavan. However, I’d heard bad things about TWM and its apparently lamentable follow up, and have successfully avoided them.

Julie M: On the other hand, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a fun addition to the growing body of modern Hindi thrillers. It’s 1943 Calcutta, India has major problems with war, the British, and opium, and Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a very young, aspiring private detective. He talks his way into an assignment to find another young man’s missing father and stumbles into a complex situation involving spies, scientific discovery, international terrorism and (of course) murder. The plot involves double- and triple-crosses, a Mata Hari-like vamp, a helpful (or is he?) British military man, and a Watson-like sidekick/pal. The filmmaking is atmospheric and visually very detailed, Rajput is a very convincing wet-behind-the-ears detective, and the door is admirably left open for future adventures. And we know there will be more: the character, created by Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, was beloved in Indian popular literature from 1931-1970 and has been the protagonist of many other films and television serials, both based on the books and not. This movie (despite the liberties taken with the chronology) serves as both an origin story and a concept reboot and the character combines the coolest traits of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Sam Spade. I’m already hooked.

Jenny K: Now, I’m sorry I missed that one. You make it sound like a good bet…even if you may have enjoyed it strictly on the visuals of young Mr. Rajput. A favorite of yours, as I recall from earlier reviews.

Julie M: And then we come to the third film, Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan. I am not a huge Khan fan (the last few films of his I saw were horrendously bad and he seemed to be aging poorly), but I found this portrayal of an uncomplicated, not-especially-bright guy just trying to do the right thing to be quite entertaining although there was plenty of eye-rolling at the obvious tugs at the heartstrings.

Jenny K: Now, I did see this one! And in a theater, too! I have been, like you, not one of Sallubhai’s biggest supporters, but every so often he does pull off a winner, even for me. How can you resist the self-mocking Bodyguard and its crazy, shirt-phobic drainpipe? You have to see the scene to believe it! And Salman does get credit in my book for being one of the only stars who still supports the multi-song format any more. I really miss the seven songs per show days.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan 2Julie M: Khan plays Pawan (nicknamed Bajrangi), a devotee of Hanuman who has recently lost his father (a hilarious backstory has him dropping dead of shock after Pawan finally passes his exams after eleven attempts) and is trying to make money to buy a house so he can marry his girlfriend Rasika (an underused Kareena Kapoor). Pawan’s happy life is turned upside-down when a lost, mute little girl (Harshaali Malhotra) attaches herself to him. He knows she belongs somewhere and as he gradually finds out more about her—much of which is disruptive to his simple and narrow world—he vows to return her to where she belongs. In the process he has to deal with completely unknown situations in the best way he knows how: by being himself in a world that seems not to know how to deal with him.

This tale, and the way Khan spins it out, seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. The story is in the traditional format of past-setup, present day, LONG flashback, and moving forward, with the post-interval action more serious and carrying the seeds of controversy. Pavan’s world is almost a fantasy, with bright colors, friendly people and traditional pastimes. His relationship with Rasika unfolds like the first half of every Bollywood movie, with a “meet cute” and hate turning to friendship and then love over a montage of scooter-riding and travel-photo Delhi adventures.

Jenny K: But aren’t those good feelings and the basic sweetness what’s been missing from Hindi films recently, with all their goondahs and drug lords? I know I’ve missed them, heck, the lack of heartwarming films and romantic musicals in western filmmaking is what made me turn to Bollywood in the first place.

Bajrangi BhaijaanJulie M: That’s what I mean! I was never bored and the director made me care about every character. Pawan takes the shocking revelations about “Munni” in stride (she can’t speak! she eats meat! she’s a…MUSLIM!!!), which is supposed to be a testament to his innocent nature, should have made me laugh out loud but given the setup seemed only natural. The trope of a small girl teaching lessons to a grown man about acceptance of difference, and then having him teach others, is standard in “film-festival” films but seemed fresh here. The reporter character played by Nawazudin Siddiqui (what is it about that guy—I love him in each and every one of his roles!) had a suspiciously fast turnaround from “get the spy” to “let’s help this guy,” but somehow it made sense. And the overall message of people being people, not countries or political beliefs, is just simple enough to work. And of course, I, along with everyone else (I assume—I was watching it on a small screen on the back of the airplane seat in front of me!), teared up at the end despite myself.

NawazuddinJenny K: Nawazuddin is one of my favorite actors working today, a dusky Jude Law with many more guns in his acting arsenal (sorry, Jude, you’re still delicious).   In the past five years, especially, he’s done a wide variety of characters. Dekh Indian Circus has him playing the mute farmer in a remote country village with poignancy in every silent glance. Kahaani turned the tables completely in a darkly edgy role as the driven police detective (is he complicit in the crime, or not?). Then in Talaash, he’s a haunted criminal who makes you sorry for him even while you thoroughly condemn his decisions. And in Dabba/The Lunchbox, his touch with light comedy brings a glow to this unlikely bromance with the equally wonderful Irrfan Khan. Truly unique performances in every role he attempts, an actor’s actor.

Julie M: An old friend unfamiliar with Bollywood but much involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw this movie and crowed about how wonderful it was and how many lessons it had to teach us. I’m glad that this film had the intended effect on someone—but I also wish it was a less formulaic film.

Jenny K: At least someone out there is attempting to teach the lessons, I say. Even if it wasn’t completely successful, or was too heavy handed in places, I feel that this film touches more people than it turns off. My sometimes cynical pal, Pat, said it was the best film she’d seen all year and I chatted on IMDb with a woman in the Midwest somewhere who wandered into BB in her local multiplex, almost as an accident, as her first choice had sold out, and came out uplifted and with a budding love of Indian film! That’s a winner in my book.  Salman Khan, take a bow!

Bajrangi Bhaijaan 3

September 10, 2013: Kai Po Che! is not your usual 3-way bromance

Jenny K: When I read Julie’s reactions to her latest DVD, Kai Po Che!  (2013), I was flooded with waves of déjà vu…I know that sounded familiar to me, that plot…and it was!  I went to see Kai Po Che! at the theaters with my friend Pat back last February.  Julie was kind enough to dig up my original reactions so we can compare them…as follows.

Jenny K:  Sometimes I wish I research films more before I plunk down my hard-earned-paisa at the movie theater!  The trailers are right out there, but did I watch them?  No.  Check it out.

Not saying that I didn’t like parts of it, but I had skimmed the positive review in Rediff (planning to review it myself, so didn’t want to prejudice myself) and had seen the director’s name, Abhishek Kapoor (Rock On!) and the Chetan Bhagat tie-in…well, I went in expecting a Dil Chahta Hai/ZNMD buddy-comedy-drama about cricket, and didn’t get the sentimental feel-good film I expected.

What we expected

What we expected

Julie M:  I must say that I was expecting the same thing, based on that trailer which did seem to focus on the bromance aspect and the joyful title (a shout of triumph in Gujarati, from kite flying), and was a bit disappointed as well, but I still liked it for what it was…mostly.

What it's really like

What it’s really like

Plot summary: Omi (Amit Sadh), Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Govi (Raj Kumar Yadav) are best friends from childhood, now all grown up and out of college but going nowhere. Their dream is to open a cricket supply store/coaching school, but they have no money. Omi ends up borrowing what they need–twice–from his rich uncle Bittoo (Manav Kaul).  The boys open the shop and it goes very well, but ironically, they start to drift apart just as they have made their dream a reality.  Omi is guilted into assisting Bittoo in his political ambitions, and finds that he likes the work and believes in Bittoo’s ultra-conservative Hindu party beliefs.   Ishaan discovers Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), a young Muslim cricket prodigy and the son of Bittoo’s political rival, and he spends more and more time coaching him on the field and befriending him and his family.  Govi secretly takes up with Ishaan’s sister and in order to feel less bad about deceiving him (and to avoid Ishaan’s wrath:  he is very protective about his sister), spends less time around his friend.  Things come to a head when political feuds turn personal, and a final confrontation turns their mutual lives into a tragedy.

 Jenny K:  I was very off-put with Ishaan’s short-fuse, touchy character, at least until he started teaching Ali.  He kept acting as if everything was owed to him, the shop, the money to start the shop, success, everything, when all he had going for him was playing talent (so he says) and the arrogance of the young.  When he snaps at outsiders, and also his partners, I found it very hard to sympathize with his problems, at least in the first half…and in the second, the change in him comes almost too late for me.

Julie M:  That didn’t bother me so much.  I felt it rang fairly true that this washed-up (at age, what, 22? 23?) cricketer would have intense amounts of anger and feel the world owed him.  It’s not made explicit what derailed his career, but it makes sense that once he finds a protégé he would mellow out and feel that his life had purpose again.  He’s even willing to risk his friendships to keep that relationship going:  witness this scene where Ishaan steals money from the business in order to help Ali’s family rebuild after a devastating earthquake:  

Jenny K:  When the film went very political about two thirds of the way through I, not knowing enough of the local political subtleties, was rather lost about who was affiliated with whom, and why things escalated so quickly. I got the Hindu versus Muslim part, but I wasn’t sure if any of the three guys was, in fact, Muslim. Didn’t think so, but it might have made things clearer for me.

Julie M:  None of the guys was Muslim, but Ishaan was protecting Ali and had come to love Ali’s family.  He was acting in the family’s interests and that’s how he ended up where he did.  I had the same problem you did:  I felt that this final premise tearing our trio irrevocably apart seemed overly contrived and almost TV-movie-ish:  set up for the purposes of this narrative. Yes, I know it was an actual historical event but the narrative seemed squeezed in around it.

Kai-Po-Che PosterJenny K:  The actors, all relative newcomers, gave very realistic, affecting performances (Raj Kumar Yadav had done a nice bit in Talaash) but I felt the plot of the three life-long friends pooling their talents to start their business had been done better for me in Shuttlecock Boys, even though this film is more polished. It seemed to me that in stretching his scope as a director, Mr. Kapoor may have left the clarity and focus that he had achieved so well in Rock On! a film that I have watched several times, each time liking it more. Too much diversity of theme and intention is not always the best thing, especially in the shorter two hour format. Everything felt a bit thin and unsatisfying for me. I’d be interested to know how desi audiences took to it, or fans of the book.

Julie M:  Yeah, I thought that the fact it was taken from a wildly popular (but critically panned) Chetan Bhagat book would speak well to it.  Not as bad as that horror Hello that Bhagat wrote the screenplay for.  At least he surrounded himself with a team this time.

Jenny K:  Have you read The 3 Mistakes of My Life, the book this film is based on?

Julie M:  No:  I couldn’t stand attempting another CB book.  Not my style.  But his books tend to be humorous on at least one level, and this film had zero humor at all.  Only one brief scene where they all smiled simultaneously, and that’s it.

Jenny K:  Though I haven’t read any of Bhagat’s books, I’d tend to agree, having seen 3 Idiots, that this interpretation was abnormally solemn.  The songs brought some lift to the spirits, but not enough.  I liked this song, but it felt like one from DCH and sounded like a Shankar-Eshaan-Loy one from ZNMD 

Julie M:  It’s almost becoming a trope, three guys “coming of age” and facing tragedy, to the strains of singer-songwriter music.  I liked Shuttlecock Boys better—it just felt less self-conscious about being a Message Movie.

Overall I felt that KPC had a lot of potential but in the end just left me cold.  Because the action of the film was a giant flashback you know the ending–most of it, anyway–and once the political situation comes to a head you’ve figured it all out, and the denouement is almost boring.  Except for the final scene, which I felt was tender and perfect and brought me almost to tears.

I agree with you that the cast was excellent and it is worth watching for their performances, and to me, for Sushant Singh Rajput alone. And it seems that he comes by the cricket knowledge honestly:  his sister is a state-level cricketer!  He’s definitely one to watch.

Jenny K:  He sure is the flavor of the month, these days.  Did you see…he has a new movie out, Shuddh Desi Romance, that has been getting pretty good reviews. I’m planning to go see it, soon. 

Julie M:  I noticed that one too—made a mental note to follow it up in a couple of months, because by the time I get the time to go out to the theater it is likely to have left.

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