Sunday, June 07, 2015

Dil Dhadakne Do

(The above song is NSFW.)

I fully expected to be underwhelmed at best and left cold and irritated at worst by Dil Dhadakne Do, mostly because the further in time I get from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara the less I care about it. When I went back and read my review of it from four years ago, I realized I'd say most of the same things about this film, except that the problems I had with ZNMD—I didn't care about the characters, they navigate the world too easily, the women aren't written as fully—are handled much better in DDD. If Zoya Akhtar wants to make largely the same movie a second time, at least she much improves on it*, which is much more than can probably be said for someone like her cousin Sajid Khan.

First off, I really appreciate the casting. Everyone is a sensible choice and everyone does well. Sure, some actors more to do than others, but those with meat make the most of it, especially Ranveer Singh, without whom I would have been far less entertained and attuned. And like a few other good directors before her (Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Basu, Omung Kumar), Zoya gets a strong performance out of Priyanka Chopra. Pip pip! Also deserving of special notices on this blog is the impressively non-irritating on-screen Farhan Akhtar! I had no idea I could so fully like him as an actor, but here we are. Plus his character is likable and useful. Coupled with the writing, the performances mean that I believe these people and I care about them.

For me, this film has the right proportion of lesson-learning and loose ends. There is still a lot of work left to do when the film is over, but we have the sense that these people can and will actually try, and I think any more tidying up would have felt too easy and would have diminished the emotional heart that is the central family. I said to my friend as we left the theater that I was hoping for a little "one year later" summary for each character while the credits rolled, but actually, that would have been facile, and the film equips the audience for making up our own minds based on what we've learned of these people. We know, as does everyone in his world, that Anil Kapoor is a self-made businessman, and thanks to the final action sequence we can feel cautiously optimistic that he will similarly energetically address his family's emotional needs and their recovery from a decade of bad decisions and unhappiness. Zoya and co-writer Reema Kagti trust their characters' potential, and so do I.

However, I do worry for Shefali Shah's character, because I think she was stung the most in all the truth-telling, as well as left with the least clear new path, and that is a formidable wall of aunties she hangs with, and I can't really see them being inspired to cut their gossiping or her quickly learning to stop caring what they say. As Priyanka points out to them, they really need to find something better to do, but as they admit about themselves, what else do they even have in their lives, so how could they go about changing? She has the harshest treatment in the film's examination at the effects of choices; like so many women she is clearly crucial to her husband's success in the business world but has nothing she can claim as hers and, at least in her mind, no skills she could use in any other setting. In the world as she knows it (which is not the same as how the world is to outsiders, of course), she really is stuck.

Perhaps the best thing about DDD is that everyone is called out on their hypocrisies. The faults, the trauma, and the suffering are equitably distributed among the central family and their world. It's not just that each of these people has flaws —it's that they acted otherwise while accusing others. As Pluto says, we each find pretentiousness annoying in other people. Our habits and our fears, not particular individuals, are the villains.

But: that darn dog. His setup comparing people to other animals lasts just the right amount of time (with the ship being their prescribed habitat in the zoo that is humanity, I guess?), and he certainly has some truthful insights, but maybe they could have been just as effective coming from a human, such as the pre-teen daughter who sits quietly but clearly observes everything? I do love Pluto's empathy and physical presence (as reminder of important values and people), because those are things a dog can actually do. Despite being a dog person my whole life, I really don't need The Voice of Dog, the Moti the Emotional Wonder Dog in actual words.

But I'd still rather have a verbal dog than Manic Pixie Dream Katrina Kaif, know what I mean?

* Except for the songs, which are similarly forgettable and unconvincing, except for "Girls like to Swing." I'm kinda sad the one-take-song idea is wasted on a sequence that for mainstream big-budget Bollywood is underwhelming, dance-wise.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

[Spoilers! They will be marked in situ.]

To get it out of the way: I like this movie a whooooooole lot.
It's fun, in addition to being rich, thorough, elaborate, and engaging. I don't usually associate "fun" with wartime drug trafficking and squishy gore (there are several not-for-the-squeamish moments), but that's what Dibakar Banerjee is so consistently able to do. The story and its attendant details and visuals fold back in on themselves; things that seem throwaway as they happen pop back up later as context or stage-setting. This film strikes the balance that must be so hard for mysteries: there has to be suspense, but there also have to be clues and answers among what the author introduces, because solutions that come out of nowhere are frustrating. The world of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is big enough to let the questions jangle around but not so big they peter out.

The acting is consistently excellent, full of moments of the actors reveling in their characters' bravado, frustrations, and vulnerabilities. To me, Sushant Singh Rajput is a great choice for the arrogant but faltering Byomkesh, who is clearly keen on his own keenness but by no means a super sleuth. There are moments when the actor's modern-day movie hero physique is a little distracting for his character's station in the film, but that really can't be helped, and some effort is put into showing Byomkesh's need for physical effort and presence (and resignation to the consequences when he is out-gunned). He is particularly good at the Morse-like aversion to dead bodies, showing the empathy and humanity of a hero who depends so much on projecting if not worldly-wisdom then savviness of the moral complexities of his work. Anand Tiwari, who channels Uttam Kumar minus the matinee idol charisma (not an insult), creates a sidekick with plenty of punch (sorry) and a mind of his own, the grief and confusion of his father's disappearance plain on his face. And my word, Neeraj Kabi delivers a complete 180 from what we saw him do as the monk in Ship of Theseus. He is stunning in this. Swastika Mukherjee as the femme fatale is maybe a little much (in performance as well as what was written for her), but somehow it works and we are inspired to indulge her, maybe because of the innate heightened drama of wartime. (If you haven't seen the Bengali film Bhooter Bhobishyot, you might not mind what you get here, but in that she has a not dissimilar role as a 50s film star in it, and it despite being a comedy it's the more subtle role and performance.)
Divya Menon as Satyawati, a relative of some of the people uncovered in the investigation (and eventually Byomkesh's almost unspoken love interest), doesn't get as much to do but portrays an important blend of competence and fear, maybe serving as the audience stand-in even though she's not his Dr. Watson, behaving completely appropriately for a normal, essentially face-value person who's shocked to find herself in a criminal world but also manages to keep some of her wits about her. I think she's the only major character who doesn't overtly lie to anyone, making her...the standard-bearer of morals, yet in a different way than the "woman is the izzat of the house" that disgusts me so much in some Hindi films. She's not a vessel or a canvas; she has brains and agency and demonstrates integrity.* There are fun performances from some side characters too; in addition to believably playing small but key roles in the mystery, Meiyang Chang**, Arindol Bagchi, and Pradipto Kumar Chakraborty (I think? I'm blanking on the name of the quiet but funny servant) color the central boarding house so well that I wanted more of their characters even though that wouldn't have been strictly necessary to the story.

A related facet of this movie left me not only less than satisfied but actually grumpy. [Spoilers for the next two paragraphs!] The scene in which Byomkesh has very Poirot-esquely gathered the key players together to reveal whodunit needs a rewrite. Several people bumble in ways with literally lethal consequences even though 1) they have demonstrated that they are smarter than that in the rest of the film and 2) there must surely be ways for writers as talented as Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar to get the effects they want/need for the conclusion of the story without having people be so idiotic. Why is no one pointing a gun at Yang Guang? Why do they not stop Anguri Devi from approaching him? WHY DOES SHE THINK HE WOULD GIVE UP HIS EVIL SCHEMES FOR HER? Sweet Bindu on a biscuit, this woman is stupid, and that pisses me off. Consistently throughout the film to this point, she is clever, scheming, brazen, and courageous, but like countless molls before her she is undone by romantic love in the face of overwhelming evidence that not only does the man not love her but that he is the scum of the earth.

There's a repeated joke in the film that Satyawati is no damsel in distress,
Ajit is speaking; Satyawati dismisses him with a wave of her hand.
which Byomkesh clearly finds attractive, so then why is the much more complicated female character—who is the only other female character, really—turned into one? Is this some kind of lesson about gullibility? Everyone else in the room is foolish about Yang Guang, but given that her history with him is the longest and most complex, she should be proportionately wiser. If for some reason her grisly death is needed to further establish Yang Guang as cold and psychotic, then he could just attack her without requiring her to be so delusional. However, if I can pull back the focus to that scene in general, I do like that the film is not afraid for its hero to make mistakes, as he does throughout the film, especially in a story that is establishing (or re-establishing, depending on how you feel about the Byomkesh canon [I myself do not care because I only know him from Chiriyakhana and Abar Byomkesh]). Byomkesh repeatedly gets duped by misdirection, called on his bluffs, and bashed in the head, as do police, politicians, and other criminals. Everyone can fall for tricks, but why is the stupidest person in here a woman when hardly anything/one else is female, and why is her stupidity mixed up with a sort of sad-sack, sappy unrequitedness? It's boring (not to mention insulting), and this movie is so much better than that. [End spoilers.]

Everything else in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is, to me, perfect. It earns that ! in its title. Between the work on this soundtrack of Sneha Khanwalkar and many other artists (though I assume she is largely responsible for bringing all this together, as well as for the background score?) and that of Amit Trivedi on Bombay Velvet, I feel like we're in a new golden era in which these brilliant artists are creatively soaring even more than usual within the stylistic demands of period films. (I don't include Anu Malik's work on Dum Laga Ke Haisha in this list simply because it's not as multi-influenced; I usually dislike his stuff but even I see that it's genius for its setting.) The lack of typical big-name Bollywood composers and singers gives Byomkesh and his world some thrilling edge, and it even adds to the suspense: even if you've heard the whole soundtrack before watching the film, you still don't know which song is coming when or how it will be used. Aspects of the songs also tie to the multicultural world of the city and time period this film inhabits—not the same cultures, of course (though some screaming Japanese metal or sampled/reconfigured traditional Chinese songs would have been pretty on point), but the music reminds us this is a setting in which people and their influences come, mix, and go. It is surely not a coincidence that a lyric about evil and faith ("I walk through the valley of the shadow of death") is in the language and religion imposed by of some of of Calcutta's invaders. Just as Byomkesh pings from clue to clue, the music does too. This concept is all over the background score, even pulling in the sounds of actions in the film, like a Chinatown dockyard drug deal accompanied by a murky, eerie combination evoking bianzhong reverberating underwater while a series of electronic bleeps punctuate above like wartime radar.

I've read a few opinions referring to this film as lightweight and/or its story as silly. I can't agree with that; the, er, execution of the body count alone gives it some dramatic heft, as does the very setting of wartime world getting squeezed and desperate for conclusion.
What I do think is true is what a friend on twitter said: the difference in her experience of this film and Bombay Vevlet is that this one does not take itself as seriously. It is completely serious and diligent in its world-building and narrative support and execution, but it is not particularly making complex or grand statements about human nature or trying to teach us anything. There's a lot going on but it remains crisp. It is far too careful a film to be lightweight.
In the last few years, I've seen a lot of cinematic depictions of Calcutta, and this one cements itself into its locale without most of the standard elements. Again, I would expect that level of creativity from Dibakar Banerjee, but it really is rare (in my experience) to see a movie even mention Calcutta without jokes about fish, a shot of the Victoria Memorial, Kumartuli full of unpainted idols, references to puja, or a framed photo of Tagore. He does none of these things. He does include the Howrah Bridge (just barely opened at the time of this story) and the Indian Coffee House, but I assume the latter makes narrative sense, given Byomkesh and Ajit's phase of life. Ma Durga appears, right under the shadow of a blade drawn in anticipation of destroying a demon.
(I managed to avoid hearing most of the talk about this film when it released because I knew I wanted to see and write about it with nothing but my own reactions, but now that I've done so, I do plan to read up on what people think of how it handled Calcutta and Bengali-ness. If you've read anything interesting about that, please do leave the link in the comments.)

My favorite sequence in the entire film is just a few seconds long but illustrates all of what I love about the movie. Byomkesh and Ajit have just encountered two sickening corpses and had to fish for clues amid all the blood and chaos of a crime scene, and as they stagger out into the street, the sirens blare and all the lights along the street are switched off and passers-by scatter for safety, leaving them in multiple meanings of isolation and darkness. Byomkesh, clearly rattled and revolted, stumbles to a water fountain and douses himself in a jittering time-elapse, as though trying to absolve everything his world has become. But within another minute, in his own home, he has to face down his enemy, making the water seem more like a baptism for what is to come rather than cleansing what has already happened.

Believe it or not, I have even more to say about Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! than all of this, and Amrita and I are planning a podcast episode very soon. For friends in the US who haven't seen the film yet, it's available to rent and purchase on Google Play (I'm not sure if that's true for other countries).

* As much as I love Dibakar Banerjee's films, when I think back on them most of the memorable characters are men, and I wonder why that is. Even Satyawati here is not very attention-grabbing, despite her interesting place in the film. Is he not willing to put in effort to write more women (sort of like how Satyajit Ray utterly failed to populate the otherwise magical world of Goopy Bagha with any females)? This project has the handy excuse of being a period film, but if you can choose to ignore the Bengal famine, you can certainly choose to let more women speak and participate in your story—or, since you're not sticking to the canon anyway, create a setting in which female voices are organic. I need to rewatch his other films to develop any kind of sound theory about this, but now that it's begun to nibble at me, I doubt I'll forget it. Your thoughts?

** [Spoiler!] I feel really bad for actors who play twist-related characters. It's so hard to talk about their performances without giving things away. There are several in this story, but Meiyang Chang is particularly good at smiling pleasantly through times his character really would rather be interrogating.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

simply fable-ous: Bombay Velvet

Somewhere in the final third or so, desperate to figure out how to negotiate successfully with the slippery man who simultaneously makes him and restrains him, anti-hero Johnny Balraj seethes "I get to decide how much I'm worth." That is the unyielding myth at the center of smooth, rich surface of the world of Bombay Velvet. Johnny, best friend Chimman (Satyadeep Misra), singer/spy Rosie (Anushka Sharma), rising wheeler-dealer Khambatta (Karan Johar), detective Kulkarni (Kay Kay Menon), editor Mistry (Manish Chaudhury), and union boss Deshpande (Sandesh Jadhav) all chase the goal of determining their self-worth, and almost all of them fail. (For the sake of spoilers I won't say which one actually does confidently stake their own value, but it certainly wasn't the one I was expecting.) The wispy (and not very engaging) surface story about real estate mirrors this question too, neatly framed in Khambatta's narration in the history of Bombay geography: the swampy water that nature filled in between the seven islands was worthless, but what we big bosses say we'll do with the reclamation is priceless. The repeated comparison to the great island wealth factory that is Manhattan reminds us that at the foundation of the golden dreams is a swindle.

Kaizad Khambatta, the most interesting and most richly-written character, offers and embodies those glittering promises. When Karan Johar first shows up on screen in brilliant yellow, sassing a bank teller and instantly smitten by Johnny's unsuccessful heroics, I was thinking "OH YES" because it seemed like something very interesting might be afoot. The persona of KJo, at least as seen in the velvet-blazered bully-host of his tv show, runs throughout Khambatta's meticulous appearance, favoritism, set-ups, suck-ups, and indulgence in snark. (Aside: can the casting of KJo be read as a nod towards Khambatta being a symbol of the film industry establishment?) At least according to the subtitles, only one disparaging comment is made about his sexuality, and it is never depicted as a weakness to exploit or a sin to correct. Khambatta is all about control, and nothing distracts him from his goals, a pleasant change from homosexuals who are portrayed with all-consuming libidos. The other characters see Khambatta the way he wants them to see him; however, we get a glimpse of him in his boxers sitting next to a miniature version of Michelangelo's David, decidedly not pulled together, not glamorous, and not the idealized male form. I am not surprised to think KJo does such a good job because he's always struck me as someone who creates personas, both for himself and in films, but nonetheless, as more or less his adult debut, it's quite impressive (and a very good choice of role).

As for the other actors, I have nothing but praise*. Many of the performances are stylized, I assume to complement the unrealness of the story and sets. I have been avoiding reviews of this film but scanning past tweets I saw a few references to the performances being stilted and emotionless; I guess I can see that, but whatever they're doing works for me. Satyadeep Misra is most definitely the standout; like KJo this seems a perfect fit of actor to role, and he says as much with his eyes and postures as Ranbir does shouting and toting tommy guns. His calm and reasonableness contrast so satisfyingly with Johnny's wildness. Kay Kay Menon is underused, and I hope he has some scenes that will re-materialize for a director's cut on DVD.

There are two things about Bombay Velvet that didn't quite sit right while I was watching and still don't as I write this hours later. Most significantly, much of the Rosie-Johnny romance is pretty unconvincing, particularly in its initial stages. Heroines falling for asshole heroes is nothing new, so it's not the issue of him being a stupid choice of affections, even after plenty of evidence that he is a capital-letter Bad Man. I just never got the feeling there was anything of substance between them other than convenience on her part (or, more charitably, pragmatism) and a desire for something pretty and capable of expressing love (at least through song) on his part. Somewhere in the film, she says something like "No one has loved me like Johnny does," but it seems to me all the other men in her life have treated her the same way: targeted her, more or less enslaved her, and used her for their own gains. No surprise that she thinks Johnny's puppy-dog eyes suffice for "love." She also says that Johnny taught her to hit back, but the flashback to her pre-Bombay years shows us that she already had that life skill. And on the topic of the flashback, that segment was interesting and nicely done** but ultimately unnecessary. Audiences have seen enough angry young man films to imagine the kind of background these three kids have. I would trade the runtime of the flashback for more scenes in the early stages of Rosie and Johnny's acquaintance and romance. "Ambitious man sees pretty woman and claims her" is beneath the scope of this film.

The lesson in the fable of Bombay Velvet is that you cannot determine your own self-worth, especially if you're aiming at the highest rungs of the power structures. There is always someone more powerful than you, with more to lose than you, who can decide. You can try—and I think the film is saying you should try—but you should not be surprised when you do not succeed. And that surprise is what makes Johnny and most of the other characters a little bit maddening but also a little more sympathetic than they might be, given the horrible things they choose to do. It's almost as though willful ignorance of potential consequences is necessarily the armor you must wear to fight resignation to your lot in life. We see it in Johnny very early in his arc as an adult: he hides his stolen gold biscuits somewhere really stupid, he finds inspiration in James Cagney, he goes after a woman despite no encouragement from her when she is clearly under the protection of another big shot, and he deliberately takes on enemies bigger than he is. This cage fighting over and over against the same opponent*** probably tells us more about Johnny than anything else he does: not only does he relish going down swinging, he pays for the privilege. At first I thought he would improve until he wins, but he says point blank that getting bashed up is his hobby, and he clearly loves just being in the fight.

For me, the beautiful and relentless period setting of the story and the often stylized ways it was told emphasized director Kashyap as a fabulist. In addition to the just sheer gorgeousness and visual interestingness, it lets the creative team make juicy allusions. When Inspector Kulkarni chases after Johnny in a hotel named Shalimar, we know the criminal will get away. And it creates the setting for a fantastic soundtrack like this one. What a brilliant escape from other movie music that sounds so interchangeable. Amit Trivedi's work may endure culturally as the fingerprint of this project. I cannot speak to the accuracy of all these period details—much of the look seems more like 30s Hollywood to me than the worlds depicted by Indian cinema of the 60s (again, no measure of accuracy)—but all of them build a world that is clearly not the one we currently live in and thus the kind of canvas that can support the big dreamers and risk-takers of the story. Not-here and not-now benefit stories like this. Exaggerated decisions and reactions don't have to fight with "sense" when they live in a world that isn't real to us. Like the characters' ignoring what might happen if their risks go wrong, maybe the visuals here are the velvet we need in order to soothe the tragedy of the moral of this story.

*  With the exception of some of Anushka's lip synching, which is distractingly bad in several of those glorious songs. I don't know what happened; I've never noticed her being bad at this before (unlike Parineeti Chopra, who just cannot sell a song to me despite being a competent actor).

** The boy who plays young Johnny looks so very like Ranbir. Great casting!

*** Is it notable that this guy is called "Japani" even though the actor credited is surely Indian? There's not a lot of talk in this film about foreign influence or even interactions, but it made me wonder if he's supposed to represent the Japan of our stereotypes: rule-bound, super-efficient, focused on the tiny and the mechanized, all of which are in stark contrast to Johnny's world.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

book review: Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema: A Selective Guide

What I have to say about pal, colleague, and collaborator Todd Stadtman's new book on my favorite era of Hindi films is not going to be news to anyone: IT IS GREAT AND YOU SHOULD BUY AND READ IT IMMEDIATELY AND THEN KEEP IT HANDY TO REFER BACK TO WHEN (RE-)WATCHING THESE AMAZING MOVIES! It is, in fact, SUPERWOW,
the highest masala compliment I know how to give. Any book that puts Feroz Khan right up front and center with Amitabh Bachchan is a book for me.

I was about to say "The greatest strength of Funky Bollywood is all its glorious context," but on second thought, maybe the very best out of many superb features is that it is so respectful. As you'll know if you've read his blog, Todd has affection but also thoughtful appreciation for the subjects he's covering—and I think we all know that this combination isn't as prevalent in film writing as it ought to be. He also truly observes his subjects, and there is equitable distribution of amazement and critique.

Back to the role of context. The descriptions and analysis of films and cast/crew build on each other to form the big picture, but because Todd knows so much about other world cinema traditions and has done his research on the contemporary Indian context(s), he adds even more understanding by relating the films both intra- and internationally and to movies and music elsewhere. For the "I need/want a gateway drug" reader, expectations of what Hindi films may be like are addressed and, rather than being dismissed, which can turn people off, used as bridges into the themes and styles etc that actually do exist. Todd never judges the reader for making an assumption or not knowing more about the Hindi film world; instead, he says "That influence/idea/method can be seen sometimes, as in X, but more often you'll see Y Z—and ain't Y Z just the coolest?"

Funky Bollywood is as informative and critical-thinking-based as any academic monograph or collection but a lot more fun. It has mouth-watering pictures that can speak for themselves and also illustrate whatever beautiful lunacy is being discussed. Funky Bollywood proves how much fun you can have while thinking about pop cinema. The "Oh just leave your brain at home" approach to anything is ridiculous, as though thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. Even for someone at least 90% familiar with all the facts mentioned in the book (sometimes due to having talked about a particular film with Todd before or read his blog post about it), there is a ton to consider and learn, again due to the connections Todd draws and the way the entries interrelate.

[Ignore the following paragraph if I am mis-remembering and these critiques are unfounded.] One problem: right away from the title, there's a bit of muddling between "Bollywood" and "Indian cinema," which most people vested in the subjects hate and which I'm surprised to find in a work by this author. Maybe those word choices came from the editor/publisher who didn't know any better? "Bollywood" is a problematic and entrenched enough word on its own—even when I try not to, I find myself using it*—but to instantly slip in "Indian cinema" in the same breath, as though the two are interchangeable, is a bad idea. Unfortunately, it's also a very useful word, especially in a project aimed at non-experts, and I certainly understand the temptation to use it frequently. But it's also an easy word to use precisely, and doing so can subtly accomplish a lot of that education. If there is a mention anywhere that "the term 'Bollywood' specifically refers to popular cinema made in Mumbai/Bombay in Hindi, the most widely-spoken language in India after English, concentrated in the north" or some such, I missed it. Once Todd gets to the introduction of Jyothi Laxmi and K. S. R. Doss in his sections on heroines and directors, it becomes clear that Telugu films are not quite the same as the rest of the ones he's covering, but I don't think that's enough explanation in a book that wants to be a gateway drug for people unfamiliar with Indian movies. Are such readers even going to know what exactly Hindi is and how it functions in Indian culture (or, even less likely, Telugu)? I also noticed a few—a very few—errors, like calling Sunny Deol an "aspiring action hero." That ship sailed decades ago.

But: bygones. This book is respectful, clever, thoughtful, and enthusiastic. It is well-considered, well-informed, and good-natured. Funky Bollywood is so good that I'd like to see, and can easily imagine, a whole series of books with this exact format and comparable enthusiasm and knowledge covering other eras and regions and genres of Indian film, especially ones overlooked because we assume that we understand them or that they're not notably worth thinking about. Maybe 1,000-odd words on the general context of the time and place the films are from, the industry they come from, the audiences they're for; profiles of significant creative players and cast (important clarification: not gossipy trivia but actually meaningful analysis of each person's contributions to/role in the body of work being discussed); a list of movies that's not so long as to be overwhelming but long enough that even seasoned vets are likely to find things they want to try or re-consider in a new light; and discussions of some tighter sub-genres or other thematic groupings. It somehow manages to be both specialist in topic and very open and inviting in approach, sort of like a personalized, personable encyclopedia. It's the perfect blend of writer and subject; it's true that both of those things are very much to my established liking, but I can't imagine anyone interested in global pop cinema not enjoying the bejeezus out of this book. It's a resource whose time was long overdue, and all of us who care about this subject, which is probably all of you reading this post, should be grateful that Todd is the expert who had the brilliant idea to tackle it in this way.
* I know. For years I've been mulling over whether to change the name of this blog and if so to what.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

mini reviews of the flims watched while traveling to/in/from the motherland and recovering from the jet lag appertaining thereto

(In the order I saw them.)

Kick 2014
Everything about this movie is a giant LOLWUT to me, but I sure had fun watching it. And pleeeeeease make Nawazuddin Siddiqui the next Bond villain.

Jodi Love Dile Na Prane 2014
Perhaps this film is a little bit too meta and precious for its own good: if memory serves (and it might not, given what time it was for my body clock when I watched this on the flight from Chicago to Dubai), it's a Bengali film about Bengali filmmakers being asked to make a romantic Bengali film at the behest of an investor who hopes the project will convey his love to his wife. I guess that's an interesting change from movies about movies having to meet commercial interests, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on the movie-in-the-movie's writer to come up with something really, really good—and as a result I'm not sure what to make of, and how much to invest in, the story he tells, which is based on his older cousin's dramatic love affair as a younger man. How much of it is "true"? Does that even matter? Does it actually help anyone to learn why life has turned out the way it has or to act on feelings that have been festering in isolation for decades? I'll happily take Abir Chatterjee as a lead in a love story, but romantically or artistically frustrated Calcuttans who make bad choices are a common enough occurrence that this iteration doesn't really stand out except for its unnecessarily unsatisfying end.

See the trailer here.

Roy 2015
Running the risk of going down in history as a Roy apologist, I will argue that the story of this film could have been really good but it was utterly ruined by the execution. Simply do not cast Arjun Rampal in a role demanding emotional expression—love, creative frustration, isolation, despair, grief—and expect it to work. Do not design the set of a writer's desk to include a giant wall-sized mirror over it and populate it with a typewriter, hourglass, pocket watch, and phonograph and dress him in a fedora and uncle bathrobe and expect us to take this narcissist hipster greasebag seriously. Do not cast Ranbir Kapoor if the only thing you need him to do is sulk—he can sort of pull it off, but whenever he comes on screen it's hard not to think of what a waste of his talents this movie is. Do not call the movie-within-a-movie Guns 3 if the only thing hit by a bullet is the ocean. Best line of the movie? Cyrus Broacha asking the fictional director "Is Guns 3 the end of the trilogy?" I have no idea if that was meant to be a legitimate question, but the fact that whoever was in charge of Roy left it in is all you need to know. The only thing this movie does well is serve as a bang-up tourism video for the resort in Malaysia where most of it is set.

Also, please, please don't have a backing dancer wear a Run-DMC t-shirt while others wear afro wigs and yet another person has a guitar with a confederate flag on it.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha 2015
I saw this in the cinema twice but didn't understand much of the dialogue either time, so I think I should wait until I have a DVD with subtitles to write about it much. However, based on what I did understand and on conversations with people after the film, every rave review you've heard is absolutely merited. For those of us who have, in the words of a friend on twitter, for whichever of a myriad of reasons violated society's definition of how femininity should be performed, this film has our hearts in its hands the whole time, and it is very respectful of that power. There is a scene early on in which Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) startles and is chastised by her parents and in-laws for dancing when they think she shouldn't be, even though everyone else is, that had me fighting back tears. I didn't catch why they were upset with her; going off of visuals and tone of voice, I got the impression they thought there was something unseemly in her joy, and therefore in her very nature, a critique I've spent way too much time in my life fearing despite never once receiving it (that I know of). She gets hers in the end, and watching her confidence and well-founded self-respect is so satisfying, especially in the face of a husband who so obviously lacks those things. My favorite part of the film may be the end: "Dard Karaara" is so perfectly perfect as a replica, as a celebration, as a do-over for this couple who through it prove doing things together as a team wasn't a one-off. Yes, it's a fantasy visually, but it's very real in spirit.

Happy Ending 2014
Why did everyone hate this when it came out? I think it's funny and breezy, and I appreciate the experiment of a story about people who are their own worst enemies instead of facing fantastic hurdles from the outside. As much as I like Saif Ali Khan, here quite in his good-at-duplicitousness form as someone struggling with the lies he tells himself*, the star of this for me is Preity Zinta as an appropriately exasperated grownup guiding hand. Govinda's great too and he's present just the right amount—more wouldn't have made sense. My only problem with Happy Ending is Kalki Koechlin's character, who is written too broadly to be believed as a threat or obstacle. Note how geography is used in this: the American context may be significant for characters who are searching, reinventing, running, and lying, in contrast with the words and emotional heft of the portion set in India.

* I think I've seen way more bashing of Saif Ali Khan for being too old to play this kind of moronic lovesick manchild character than is deserved, given that that is what many Hindi film heroes do much of the time, by actors who are older than he is, and in this film (as in Cocktail and Love Aaj Kal) the character is critiqued for being such. Also, it's not his major character type; if you look at his last ten years of films, he does other things more than he does this (Bullett Raja, Go Goa Gone, the Race films, Agent Vinod, Aarakshan, Kurbaan, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, Omkara...).

Finding Fanny 2014
It's a truly ensemble story and production; no one outshines anyone else, and that's how it should be. Everyone is different and they also all change and grow (as should happen in a road trip film) in ways that feel genuine. Arjun Kapoor is a pleasant surprise, with his sullenness working in his favor for once. A bit like Happy Ending, these people are blocked in by their own heads, past mistakes and fears chaining them to discontent. I like that the rural and small town features of this story are not the limitations; your ghosts haunt you wherever you go, and home is where the heart is.

Break Ke Baad 2010
That drifting, blurry feeling of jet lag is the only possible excuse for watching this so long after any discussion of it could be possibly be relevant to anything (except possibly the vast improvement of Deepika Padukone's skills). This is a terrible film, and like Roy it's the execution that fails much more than the concept: taking time to think and demanding space when you need it are important life lessons, especially for women. However, following someone to another hemisphere when they've told you quite explicitly they don't want to see you is horrible, as is worming your way into their daily existence. The hero of this film is thus a stalker extraordinaire, hidden in the non-threatening face of a charisma-free Imran Khan (whom I usually like—I know many of you don't), creating a version of the ever-dangerous "nice guys finish last" lie that the socially inept, manipulative, and/or self-centered like to tell themselves. This movie is proof that Deepika hasn't always been as good an actor as she is now, and the two of them have absolutely zero chemistry.

Hisss 2010
You guys, this movie is fun. There are many ways in which it isn't good, and there are some sex scenes I did not need to witness, but seeing a new version of standard nagina films is a great way to spend a few hours. I love the snake-to-human, human-to-snake physical transformations, and I can even deal with the repeated violence against women in this because the nagina's retribution against reprehensible men is pretty satisfying (because she is, after all, an animal, not a human with a conscience who comes from a society with ethics). This is every bit the exploitation film that some earlier versions have been, but it's interesting to see a classic story wrangled into a modern setting (and the way religion has to pound down any skepticism about what's really happening) and with modern effects and permissiveness. 

Monday, January 19, 2015


Do you ever get the feeling that you may know what is happening in a film but you're not certain  you know why it's happening—or if there even is a coherent "why" other than entertainment value?
Having seen just one other work by Shankar (Endhiran), one other performance by Vikram (the Hindi Raavan) and just a handful of other Tamil films, I'm flying blind on this one and unqualified to guess much at that "coherent" why (or its potential absence). There are passages and details in I  that I simply cannot process, some of them because they blew some part of my brain out and I haven't yet reassembled the pieces. Here are some of my personal truths with this film.

  • In I, Shankar continues some of the ideas seen in Endhiran about creation and re-creation of individual people. In my opinion, this is a very rich and worthy theme to explore, so I am happy to see him take it on again. This time, the focus seems to be on the tension between self-and externally-authored changes—and one type of them being much riskier than the other. There are multiple characters whose very jobs and natures is to transform or excavate identity. By definition, bodybuilders, models, and makeup artists all ply transformation and some version, probably not internally-defined, of perfection. The film revels over and over in physical transformations (and even mutations)—a song depicting beauty and the beast, while another one turns the object of affection into literal objects, plus all the disfigurement, makeovers, and costume changes—but there are also several internal transformations in characters' emotions, outlooks, and priorities. Each person in this movie struggles in some way with questions of who they are and whether they will let other people define them. To me, this is an endlessly fascinating shuffling of cards in terms of how people respond and move forward, and I love it. Instances of this range from huge, like when Diya (Amy Jackson) gets her career out from under the thumb of the sexual harasser John (Upen Patel), to more concise yet still interesting, like when a character refusses money for a job that he wants to do because the work is meaningful to him.
  • The corollary to self-identity, knowledge and judgements about others, is not commented upon as directly but is also in play all the time. 
  • The hero treats the trans character terribly, but oddly (and thankfully) no one else does. Heroine and villains are fine with her, whereas the hero expresses repulsion at her advances rather than simply "No thanks, not interested" or "I'm in love with someone else." I do agree with the critiques of this film as homophobic and transphobic, and she is the only character who is condemned as much for who she is as for what she wants, but it's probably worth noting that this character is as fully-written and carries the same dramatic weight as several others. She is neither a one-off joke nor comic relief, and she is respected by all her professional peers. 
  • Speaking of repulsion, heeeey there, 25-year hero-heroine age difference. You might think that this is somewhat offset by the man-child nature of Lingesan (Vikram), but somehow that just jarred more awareness of the actor's actual age. It was less icky in the stage when they're a supermodel team (in which she is the more experienced), but I certainly didn't need any more of their romance for this and other reasons. Hey, I'm squicked out by Jane and Rochester too.
  • When this movie needs to make you to have an emotion about a person or situation, it really goes for it full tilt.
  • I have a hard time being sympathetic to any character distraught over an obstacle to their success in modeling. Even in this film, which treats the heroine's chosen profession with as much respect as films ever do and gives her strength and great autonomy in it and (at least in subtitles) illustrates how much actual acting and storytelling can go in to posing with products and demonstrates (and perhaps exaggerates) the role of modeling (and celebrity) in sales and thus business blah blah, I fundamentally give only the tiniest of figs about modeling and wish vehemently that these people could find something more worthwhile to do. Bodybuilding is not not compelling to me either, but at least in this film it is loosely associated with health by showing what muscle-experts can do in service of fitness.
  • Upen Patel has come a long way since 36 China Town. He wasn't nearly as bad as I feared, and he certainly looked the part (I was transfixed by how well he wore that sherbet orange leather jacket in his penultimate scene). Amy Jackson was also better than I expected, though modeling should be the easiest thing for her to do, so no points there. Neither of them seems a necessary choice for their role, and if this were a Hindi film I would gleefully consider my mental recasting options. 
  • Shankar's concepts of women...I don't know. They're at least complicated, I'll give him that. At times Diya is shown as strong ("Ladio" has moments of power and strength in it, visually and aurally) and smart and reasonable. She gets to make mistakes, learn from them (and notably without being particularly punished), and change her ways. She tries to escape danger multiple times, she takes charge of her career, and the film never makes her a whimpering accessory to fights nor has her encourage her boyfriend to beat the shit out of people. But at others Lingesan's dopey infatuation almost minimizes and flattens and dehumanizes her, and in his head his love turns her into actual objects imagined in very revealing outfits that he can hold, poke at, and even ride. It's visually fascinating and impressive, even magical, but philosophically I'm not on board. She has moments of very egotistical manipulation. I think I could deal just fine with all of this, chalking most of it up to her being a complicated character, if one established by and for the hero (nothing unique about that in films), but late in the film there is some regressive and very dangerous stuff about her marriage and worthiness thereof that made me groan "Oh noooo" out loud in the cinema. It reminded me very much of that horrible moment in Endhiran when Chitti saves the little girl in the bathtub from fire and the crowd shames both him and her for her being naked in public no matter the circumstances, except this time we have no Chitti to critique humans for their inhumane attitudes. To add to the pain, in I, much of the manipulation of Diya is by her mother. Fortunately, Diya has a great older female figure in her work life, an agent who is both supportive and realistic with her.
  • As long as this movie is (Rajeev Masand calls it "butt-numbing"), I was rarely conscious of the time. It has so much going on that there's always something to think about or shift attention to. I only yawned during the visually lovely but utterly standard "Pookkalae Sattru Oyivedungal," aka "love song in which we pose in many, many different color-coordinated outfits." "How many movies have we already seen?!?" said my very impressed viewing companions at interval. Its structure is unusual and so smart—you don't know exactly where you are in the story even on repeat iterations of segments. Multiple threads of Lingesan's history run concurrently but unevenly, and the transitions between them are not always expected.
  • The advertisements within the film are absolutely glorious and worth the price of admission. "Aila Aila" is a whirlwind of extreme creativity beautifully executed. The guillotine moment is my favorite thing in the whole movie. 

You may not be able to tell from everything I've just said, but I loved I. It's enormously entertaining and philosophically compelling. Even with its problems, it's actually about something, a trait I've recently realized can make all the difference for me in feeling positive about and wanting to engage with a filmVikram is a treat to watch. He did wonderful physical work on top of a significant structure of distinctive writing, wardrobe, and makeup, and the result was all effect rather than effort. There was no strain in all that work, just joy, which is such a treat. It's an exuberant, interesting film, and I can't wait to see more of Shankar's and Vikrams' filmographies.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

lunchtime poll #12: research on non-Indian fans of Bollywood

Hello friends. I'm posting a request from a graduate student in Chicago who is doing research on non-Desi fans of Bollywood. If you'd like to participate, keep reading to find a link to her survey and a way to get in touch with her!
 Hi! I need help! I am a huge fan of Indian film (even though I have absolutely no South Asian heritage) and I am trying to write a Masters thesis on people like me, non-Desi fans of Indian film. I am hoping some of the readers here will fit that description and be willing to participate. I created a survey through google forms, you can find it here: 
If you are willing to talk with me by email or skype in a little more detail, or if you have any questions about any of this, you can send me an email at mredlich.depaul [a] 
And even if you don't respond, thanks for listening and participating in this community! I had a great time reading through Beth's old posts and everyone's old comments.
(And if you've wondered why I categorize these posts as "lunchtime poll," click here.)