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

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