Friday, November 27, 2015

between the heart and the world: Tamasha

[Vaguely spoiler-y.]

Imtiaz Ali does not create straightforward love stories, and at least from Jab We Met forward he seems just as interested in self-knowledge, identity, and personhood as in romance. Tamasha embraces this immediately from the opening framing of the story as a staged production where the lead actors are introduced in costumes that almost obscure them and dialogue that only very slowly reveals their names. When Tara (Deepika Paukone) and Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) meet, she is utterly dependent on him, but he makes it clear that he wants no information that will actually tie her to him and instead invites her to spend time together through false personas that they revel in.

It's fitting that Ved insists on not learning anything about Tara for the first third or so of the film, because the character turns out to be somewhat mute and disconnected except for her reactions to Ved. She appears successful at her job but we don't hear much about it (especially from her); we see her with family after her return to India from Corsica but they're never mentioned; she seems to have no friends, unlike Ved, who has a nice gaggle of people who care about him. What we do know about Tara is that she very much loves the version of Ved that she knew on holiday in Corsica when they were both free from their daily lives and the versions of themselves that exist in those lives, and she is unhappy and incomplete when she can't have it.*

What we see of Tara in the years between that time and the "now" of the film is her remembering Ved, existing in a lush life but obsessed with their time together. In the opening theatrical production, Tara's character on the stage, dressed as a clown in bright, floppy clothes, says something like "I'm the voice of your heart" and a bright red heart flashes on Ved's metallic, rigid robot costume, but I don't think that's actually true. He is the voice of her heart, but his heart, as we see over the second half of the film, is a sympathetic combination of career and family disappointments, tension with authority figures, and a deep love of stories.

Ved is an unhappy person because he has not been able to fully address all of these features of his life—or state them clearly to other people. In the the process of figuring himself out, Ved tells Tara he can't predict his reactions even as she begs him to take her back, and I wonder if some of that tension will come out in their future. It is one thing to love somebody, but it is another to understand who they truly are.

The opening of the film suggests that Ved will become a professional, successful performer; maybe the big, splashy stage lovingly absorbed by audiences will provide him with an outlet for the big, splashy emotions and reactions inside him. In retrospect, the points in his life that Ved is happiest are those when he is in some way controlling the narrative—in Corsica when he (kindly) intervenes in Tara's life and sets the rules for their interactions, as a child in Simla paying the storyteller (but notably not when he asks for a story from this same man as an adult), in school when he abandons classes, at work when he goes off the management-approved script. It takes a big disruption in his life for him to realize that he needs to synthesize all these aspects of himself, and his self-reconstruction is the heart of his story.

There were moments while I was watching Tamasha that I wasn't sure if it it was going to conclude in a way that I felt was genuine and kind to its characters, and it took me about a day of thinking it over to work through all of its pieces. "Between the heart and the world" is a phrase Ved uses while telling his family what he's been learning about himself; we each exist in a space that is mediated between the demands of both the very internal and the very external, and we cannot be happy until we've connected those two spheres. While I wish a comparably complex self had been written for Tara, Tamasha is a film full of humaneness towards choices, learning, and honesty.

* Another stray thought that crystalized during Tamasha is that so many contemporary Indian films use west in such an shallow Eat Pray Love sort of way, except it's less "noble": Drink F*ck Love. This is particularly blunt in Tamasha because the two leads are even more isolated in Corsica than they are in India and they nothing back with them except their memories. Even the reason Tara goes to Corsica (Asterix comics) is only seen once again. It's nothing but a way to behave in ways they wouldn't at home, though those ways are at least authentic to who they are.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

I saw the restored Apu Trilogy in the cinema and here are a few of my reactions

Watching the the restored Apu Trilogy is simultaneously heart-wrenching and soul-restoring. Like many of Ray's works, they are devoid of villainy and sensationalism and instead give full scope to the textures of everyday life and the human experience, which are times are small and fine and at others expansive. There is nothing to avenge and no one to hate or even be disappointed in. There is just life, and you can either be in it or not, and Apu, repeatedly, chooses to live. In addition to that extremely poignant and important thread is the very fact that this restoration exists—that some group of people chose to work on this, chose to devote resources to it, chose to give it back to the world. Humans are demonstrably the worst force to ever act upon this planet, but when we do well, there seems to be at least a shred of hope for us as a species.

The films' sadnesses are somehow both crushing (especially at the end of Aparajito, because he is almost an adult, almost demonstrating that he has big enough roots not to fall over, but there is genuine uncertainty) and simply cyclical. That life is both waves and particles is an idea established early on, and it repeats at varying scales. Apu finds himself drawn to "home," but that home changes location. He runs in and out of the front door many times, but at each house one of those times will be the last. There is ceaseless motion full of contrast. The train is a distant wonder; the train is so constantly present that it's painfully loud. The sky is full of fireflies; the sky is full of smoke. Someone is distressingly unknown; that same someone, with a bit of time and effort, is essential and dear. Neighbors are petty and snobbish; neighbors are giving and caring. Life/success and death/failure both occur in all of the locations/homes. People are there to support and protect him until suddenly they aren't, but there will be someone else, maybe someone he wouldn't have expected.

So much of what Apu lives and chooses resonates so widely: helping people whose values we do not share, letting past deeds color our feelings for someone, working hard, saving scraps, feeling dark, following light, falling, rising. This trilogy is one of the very few instances in which the male experience really does feel like a (not "the") universal one to me. Apu's life is filled with a diversity of other people—young, old, peer, superior, inferior, family, stranger—and the females in his life affect him just as much as, maybe even more than, the other males. No one person or group excludes anyone else from filtering in. He listens to anyone fairly equitably. It's most visible in the first film because he's a child, but throughout the arc we continuously see his sponge-like but still very analytical self, taking in as much as he can and building his life with it. He's constantly learning. 

Things do happen to Apu—including very sad and upsetting things that he cannot opt out of—but he responds and is responsible. In fact, responsibility is probably the dominant tone in the last chord of the last film, responsibility to humanity more than to social norms (he acts primarily as a friend instead of as a father). This, to me, is what life is all about: listen, think, engage, be kind.

As much as I am enthralled by the films on the big screen, I have to admit that very little of this occurred to me, and certainly I did not feel it as strongly, when I first watched the films at home a few years ago. Aparajito did not resonate with me much at all when I first saw it, but I think now I understand it much better (also aided by the 100+ Bengali films I've watched since then, no doubt). I do believe in the magic of the cinema setting; sometimes it's positively necessary for a film to be particularly worth viewing (for me, this includes many of the spectacle-driven films) and sometimes it's just a plus. I don't think I'd put the Apu Trilogy into the former category, but for me the films are incredibly more gorgeous and moving on the big screen, and I highly value being part of a group experience and sharing in (and considering) the reactions from other viewers. For example, I think Ray does not get enough credit for being funny, but the frequent laughter in my cinema underscores how well this trait was translating. I read that the restored Apu Trilogy will play at the Mumbai Film Festival this year, and I hope that means more and more international screenings. (There are only US and Canadian dates listed on the official site, for what that's worth.) If you're at all interested in these films and you get the chance to see them in the cinema, please do. They are interesting and thoughtful and gentle and glorious; they are documentation of humanity.

Trailer for the restored films: 

A bit about the restoration process:

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Helen preserve us—this blog is now ten years old!

In honor of all the films, friends, and fun—the best decade of my life, actually—here are my ten favorite songs set in villain lairs. 

1. "Yamma Yamma" from Shaan (1980)
Amitabh, Shashi, Helen, Parveen, and Bindya Goswami in "disguise" as "gypies" dance in Shakaal's underwater lair around a flaming brazier amid a ton of backing dancers/acrobats/flags. If I had to name the most famous song in a lair, it's this one, partly because of the high-caliber stars; if I had to name a best lair song, "Yamma Yamma" might also win.
• Huge and spectacular set (flames, rock walls, gold throne, mural of tigers, oddly placed library near the throne).
• So much is happening!
• Classic villain (Kulbhushan Kharbanda as faux Bloefeld in faux military type clothes).
• Classic plot: the musical number is a ruse by our heroes to distract the villain while a colleague continues the mission elsewhere (there are shots of Shatrugan Sinha stalking around other parts of the lair).
• At the end, the villain does a slow clap and says "very good, wonderful."

2. "Zalim Duniya Ham Pe" from Wardaat (1981)
Where to start with this song's greatness? Almost all the characters are in Egypt ("Egypt") for no apparent reason (previous scenes superimpose them on backgrounds of actual Egyptian ruins, but in a blink of an eye they're suddenly in a lush green jungle before going back to the ruins) and the sets are a masterpiece of "don't let your budgets restrict your dreams," including some ceiling-height statues and a huge fanged sphinx. Most everyone is in sort of gypsy/tribal (though not Egyptian) costumes with feathers and fringe except Mithun and Shakti Kapoor, who seem to be just wearing whatever they came to work in. There are silent gun-toting henchmen. The villain has an enormous hunchback and presides in an elevated spinning chair (probably just a regular office chair that someone elevated on a box). Don't miss Mithun's unexplained (some may say "inexplicable") flamenco moves.

3. "Aye Naujawan Hai Sab" from Apradh (1972)
Feroz Khan stars in this and directs it too, and the man is Hindi cinema's master of enjoyable sleaze. Our hero (Feroz) is drinking too much and imagining the woman he loves (Mumtaz) as the item girl, a clear sign that all is not well in his head. Helen/Mumtaz's outfit is completely ridiculous and ugly in that way that 70s costumers and maybe even audiences found "glamorous"—and I love them for it. There are swimming pools and fountains with colored lights, full of stoned gori extras. There are gambling tables, a revolving bar, mariachis, a stuffed tiger mounted on some rocks with a bright red light shining on it, and naked statues in risqué poses. The setting is debauch-o-rama yet nothing particularly untoward actually transpires.

4. "Dekha Sahib O Sahib" from Chor Sipahee (1977)
This is a movie not enough people have seen, and this lair is fantastic. It has a spiraling slide! Oozily bad Ranjeet is dressed as a sheikh in a colorful tuxedo and silver boots. Shashi is an undercover cop who looks far more uncomfortable than he should if he wants to stay undercover. Parveen Babi shimmies around while wearing a giant tiara. Gaudy architecture and random dancing extras and henchmen in a variety of outfits. Shashi also uses the distraction to go free Shabana Azmi from wherever it is she's been hiding/being held.

5. "Shamma Jale Yana Jale" from Paapi (1977) (another film not nearly enough people have seen)
Again, it has everything I like in a lair—and set to music! Evil decor, alcohol, henchmen in white gloves, bar, masked man watching from behind a screen, villain looking debauched in his glittery bathrobe, weird furniture (tables held up by statues of naked ladies). I can't remember why Zeenat is doing this scene in the story (I think she's trying to infiltrate or distract), and then hey! Another random lady shows up in a short glittery skirt and cape (superhero cheerleader?)—because why not? Zeenat's clothes are also fascinating in a particular combination of outrageous and "I really wish I had an occasion to wear that, especially if I could chop off the black ankle frills." It just all screams "bad."

6. "Mujhe Maar Daalo Main" from Geeta Mera Naam (1974)
I haven't seen this movie because I can never find it with subtitles, but from what I've read this is the lair. It also has masala trademarks like baddies restraining the hero who protests while a good girl acts bad (I assume under duress or for a higher, possibly self-sacrificing cause?). Helen has a crazy wig and headpiece and is dancing in pink bubbles with an unfortunately attired guy who is actually a choreographer. Whip cracks punctuate the song in an unexpectedly S&M sort of way. Fun camera angles. Garish colors and seemingly randomly placed furniture. That black and white wall hanging of cats appears in film after film. Sunil Dutt watches (presides?) from the sidelines in a black leather coat, though unfortunately not clutching the stuffed toy monkey that he often has in this film.

7. "Kisne Dekha Hai Kal/Aaja Mere Pyar Aaja Ab To Raha Nahi Jaaye" from Heeralal Pannalal (1978)
Amjad Khan is very clearly in darkening face makeup and horrible wig, and then there's Prem Nath in floral (?) pajamas decorated with pompoms and feathers and a very broad mustache and an absolutely enormous plumed hat. I have struggled for years to come up with a phrase that captures this look; the best I can do is "Chinatown five-and-dime slumber party goes to Carnival." The walls are sherbet colored, the bar has big lips on it, and backing ladies "play guitar" in satin fringed bikinis. R. D. Burman goes crazy vocally, which in my opinion is always a great time. Watch the moving doors in the background that keep revealing and concealing mirrors. Ajit also has a great wig and weirdly colored makeup.

8. "Jali Hai Nafrat Ki Aag Dil Mein" from Ganga Aur Suraj (1980)
This is not a great movie but the song is a fine exemplar of the trope "girl goes undercover among villains to free boy and actually illustrates her plan with her dance and song but somehow nobody notices." Plenty of requisite bystanding stock-still henchmen. I also like the sort of semi-ruined palace set—the villains aren't meticulous enough to restore everything and clear out the vines, but they do appreciate some nice jaali work. They're also more populist, relatible in ways that the mega-rich with their revolving bars and underwater death traps can never be.

9. "Jhoom Jhoom Ta Tu" from Players (2012)
This is a godawful movie and neither Sonam Kapoor nor Neil Nitin Mukesh are at all convincing in this song, but I include it to document my appreciation that the very form of "song in villain lair" is not dead. This shows just how similar lairs can be to filmi versions of "rich people houses." The only thing that really separates them is the illuminated spider logo. Speaking of, it's a pretty great lair by the definitions established in 70s masala: dance area, villain's personal logo as decor motif, reproductions of random famous artwork, spinning chair, round bed, big mirrors, random bright colors, surveillance equipment. The villain smirks while the good girl, writhing against walls/furniture, is undercover trying to infiltrate or seduce him into doing something. The light-up floor with a big map of New Zealand (where this scene takes place) even echoes the light-up globes on the arms of Mogambo's throne in Mr. India. It's all there, looking just as delightfully incoherent as it did in the masala heyday. Too bad it was wasted on such a nothing film.

10. "Main Hoon Don" from Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006)
This song almost had to exist in a do-over of a 70s classic. I should note that I do not know if this is actually a lair or just a nightclub, but I think if the bad guy owns the night club and does business there, maybe it can count as a lair? Lairs are often the site of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, and this space and the lyrics do those things very well. It's the modern-day public face (or at least diwan-i-am) of the villain lair, whereas the song in Players is the private inner sanctum. And it continues the classic theme of a good character going undercover to serve the higher cause (or so we think, thanks to this film's truly great twist). All the things contained in the lair also meet the standard requirements: racially diverse audience members (though not in "ethnic costume" as in the 70s), random white ladies, a big dance floor, plenty of climate-inappropriate fabric (in this case, velvet), a bad girl, a good girl undercover, smug facial expressions by the villain, fog machine, gaudy chandelier, and both menace and debauchery.

And one more for all the films, friends, and fun yet to come: "Salaam Salaam" from Teesri Ankh (1982)
This is probably my very favorite lair song. There's another brain-boggling song set here, but I like "Salaam Salaam" better than "Superman" for actually showing off the features of the lair. The scale here is bang-on: more, more, more. The space is huge and the set designers and director use it well. Discordant furniture/carpeting/paint choices. Bar. Wrestlers and gladiators. Gold. Lots of statues and faces and eyes. Strong commitment to the owl and skull motifs. Talon fingernails. Leaping around. Spinning chair. Bad guy observes from above. Colored lights. Bleep-bloop communication equipment. Slide. Torture/death trap architecture. Bubblegum pink where you might not expect it. Weapons on the walls. Singing while fighting (which these other songs don't do, if I recall). Disco Helen.

I can think of no greater cinematic joy than that. Here's to many, many more.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Khoobsurat (2014)

No one is more surprised than I am that I like this film so much. I am record repeatedly as loathing Sonam Kapoor as an actor and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in general; I'm no fan of the House of Mouse; I merely like (not love) the original but would never have chosen Sonam to do a Rekha role; I don't find Mr. Darcy/Grumpy Pants type characters easily attractive, and I don't even have Fawad Fever.

But here we are. Maybe I'm just in the mood for some dil-squish, but Khoobsurat's romance is delightful and resonant and believable despite trading in major tropes. As friend Vishal says, it earns all its filmy moments. It helps very much that the characters are actual adults: they're responding to innate desire and affection rather than unsettling passion or any non-self-determined need for a romantic partner, which cuts down the drama considerably. They are sad without each other, but nobody does anything self-destructive when they separate.
How unbelievably refreshing to have a buttoned-up, "respectable" man and a woman (any woman) express sexual desire without censure from outside!

I love that the film is willing to show the drawbacks and benefits of both of their personalities and temperaments and is harsh to neither. We viewers know Vikram and all the Rahtores need to lighten up and let go (and will do so), but we also see all sorts of signs of their success and, for the most part, functionality.
This is not the typical movie Rajput family of generations of enmity and violence (and the writers hilariously give the requisite line about "I'm a Rajput!; I'm fierce!" to the quiet teenage girl). Their house is not dusty with the weight of history or dissipation, and their staff works efficiently and is part of the modern world. They're not bad people—they're just hurting.

Mili, for her part, definitely doesn't fit in, but she also doesn't give in. She appears to be a MPDG, but she's an actual woman (not girl) and it is her profession to help people, not her special mission just for one sad sack of a man; she will survive the film, not make his cure her swan song. The person she falls for is one level removed from the person she's most directly trying to serve—the romance is collateral benefit to her actual purpose. Mili also brings to bear the other great Bollywood regional stereotype without any literal balle balle, and her mother is blunt and loud without reverting to utter Punjabi Maa hysterics (given what we've seen Kiron Kher do elsewhere in roles of similar demographics, that's impressive).

Mili and Vikram are certain enough of themselves that they are well poised to collaborate as a couple. Yes, they're different, but they know it, and they also know how to navigate conflicts, at least in their professional lives, and they have learned how to compromise. The best part of the Bridget Jones's Diary movie for me has always been Mark Darcy telling Bridget he loves her just as she is, and Khoobsurat offers the same joy.
What a freedom that is, to be accepted for who you are, including your innate potential to improve and adjust within yourself. Love is not being identical to another person; love is understanding them. "Love is not just looking at each other, it's looking in the same direction" (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), and these two have the same desires, not just for each other but for the other people in their worlds. We also know that they listen to each other; he takes her advice after weighing it and finding it beneficial, and she is attuned to what other people feel and tries to act on it.

Mili actually says she'd prefer to be alone than deal with men who want her to be someone she isn't, and by the time we meet her in the story she seems to have stopped taking "we have nothing in common" as criticism. She is comfortable enough in her own skin to to just be her own, different self even when her oddness is remarked upon by a colleague and a high-powered client. That is an amazing feat for any human, especially a female character in popular media. A heroine who gives zero f*cks but is also a kind person, someone who wants to participate in things but doesn't let them drag her down. Perhaps that's because, as another twitter friend pointed out, Mili's family loves and respects her. Like in Queen, we see what women can do and how happy they can be when they have a genuinely supportive system behind them.

I think it could be argued that Vikram does (and, it is implied, will do) more changing, but I think we also don't know what Vikram was like before [spoiler backstory], so we don't know what his deep-down self is or prefers to be. Besides, Mili's influence and actualskillsextend just as much to Vikram's family as to him as an individual. In both her professional and personal capacities, she helps the system of which he is (and wants to remain) a part and which he values.

There is so much Khoobsurat does in telling this admittedly predictable story that is special. First, SNEHA KHANWALKAR ZINDABAD! Her music is largely unexpected in this context, mirroring Mili herself, and I love it. Second, the film is just so beautiful to look at. The palatial architecture and interiors are just as gorgeous as they always are in films in Rajasthan, but somehow they seem a little more human-scale here, perhaps because we see them through Mili's undaunted eyes and she quickly makes them her own. Third, everyone's acting really is wonderful. I haven't seen any of Fawad Khan's tv work but here he is the type of actor who can probably have chemistry with a lamp post; by some miracle, Sonam Kapoor is expressive and exuberant without being ridiculous, even when her character feints that direction. They're a great pair. When he relaxes and she calms down, there is a space between them that feels so loving. Fourth, the clothes. He is all smooth surfaces and class; she is all color and chaos. I'm sure it's unrealistic that a doctor would dress as she does, especially when working in the already not-as-professional setting of someone's home, but it seems consistent with her character. (We know she can wear something more work-like; in the opening segment in the cricket match she's wearing a team shirt.) Fifth, the other characters are used very well, just enough to add useful context and texture without distracting. There really isn't a B plot in this film, and vah vah to a creative team for knowing it doesn't need one. Sixth, the inner monologue voiceovers by the lead characters are so funny and honest, and the contrast they create with what the characters actually say out loud to other people feels very, very real. They underscore how hard it can be to say what you really think, whether you appear to be all Mili-impulse or all Vikram-control.

Reader, I bought the DVD. 2014 was a good year for rom-coms, what with this, Humpty SharmaHasee Toh Phaseeand Happy Ending. I know a lot of you didn't care for it, but Khoobsurat
delights me. Shashanka Ghosh brings a performance out of Sonam Kapoor that is by leaps and bounds a career best. I almost want to call this film candy floss for how sweet it is, but don't sell Khoobsuratshort: it actually has a lot of important things to say about self-knowledge, self-confidence, healing pain, and reserving judgment, and it says them with remarkable gentleness and fun.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


In yet another attempt to be safety buddies during movies we fear are too violent to watch on our own, last week Filmi Geek and I watched Badlapur. Just like Gangs of Wasseypur, neither of us expected the movie to be our cup of tea, but nevertheless we found other interesting things in it as it went along. I'm not too surprised about, given how much I like the director's other films and all of the leads. The performances may be what I take away from Badlapur (and casting too, for that matter, especially the contrasting-in-every-way Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Varun Dhawan); I would not change a thing about how this script was enacted and visualized.

Carla: As you know, this is a genre I normally don't expect to like much. I decided to watch Badlapur, though, because I found this year's other revenge drama, NH10, startlingly affecting. Going outside of my comfort zone for NH10 was rewarding in a way I hadn't expected. So that, combined with the great praise Badlapur had received from many, made me curious enough to give it a look.
Beth: And what had led you to watch NH10?
Carla: I have to laugh a little, because the answer is: some folks from my Hindi practice group were going, so I decided to go along with them, I'd probably watch almost anything with friends.
Beth: Watching with friends makes almost anything bearable. Except Dance Dance, as we learned the hard way.
Carla: Haha, I was just thinking about that Dance Dance day too. What made you want to watch Badlapur?
Beth: I wanted to watch it because 1) I'm trying harder to keep up with new releases this year (I have some more momentum now that we get most of the big releases in the regular multiplex), 2) I like Varun and Nawaz, 3) I like the director's other films, and 4) ditto hearing good things.
Carla: All very good reasons. I want to talk about your expectations going in, because I have been having a hard time thinking about Badlapur as the film it is, rather than the film I expected or wanted it to be.
Beth: I was in India when it came out, so I heard quite a bit about it, including from Amrita and other friends who saw it. I knew about the revenge rape and I remember there being some discussion about its treatment of women overall. So I knew it wasn't necessarily going to be a film for me, really, but I was intrigued.

Carla: I want to talk about that rape, but I also want to hear your thoughts on the broader question, the treatment of women in general in the movie.
Beth: I was saying to another friend who has also seen it that I have cautiously semi-arrived at the idea that the film is just flat-out anti-humanity in many ways, women being a subset of that.
Carla: Yes, I agree, it is very, very bleak.
Beth: I'm not sure it does much to women that it doesn't do to anyone else, with the exception of sexual violence, because of @*&%$ course it has that. And it does actually have a man sexually menace a man, sort of, doesn't it? (Note: not the same as rape.) But still, the writers made that choice, and I don't know why. It's not like they did it to be titillating as some other films do. It was just a mark of the lead's descent, I guess. But unnecessary.
Carla: I'm not convinced that they didn't put it in there just to be titillating.  On the one hand, the movie is, in some ways, about male violence, about toxic masculinity. And male violence, when turned toward women, more often than not takes on the dimension of sexual violence. So the movie maybe has plausible deniability to say it's merely documenting what toxic masculinity does.
Beth: Like we don't already know! Badlapur=#YesAllMen.
Carla: On the other hand, yes, we all know this about male violence—we don't need a film to document it for us.
Beth: Just read a newspaper.
Carla:  And it happens so early in the film, that I question whether it's legitimately showing descent. Indeed, my main difficulty with the film as a whole is that it never shows any descent.
Beth: So there's descent and then there's snap. The further I get from the discomfort of watching the film, the more I am willing to give it "snap."
Carla: Yes, I think that's more what it is going for—snap rather than slow burn or spiral.
Beth: It's not like this was a super upstanding man with tons of community connections etc etc. (For example, the famous commercial that he’s saying is his idea—I’m not sure if that’s just a fun pop culture reference or if the writers are setting him up as a [time-traveling] plagiarist.) He was a dudebro. And I'm not saying it's easier for dudebros to snap, but he had less far to fall on a matrix of movie heroics.
You pointed out his immediate isolation after the crime; maybe that's when it happened. He can't even look at other people.
Carla: Not just that he can't—but no one steps up to force him to.
Beth: This is not someone weeping into comforting arms (which were there for him). He is not helped by humanity.
Carla: I was shocked by that when we were watching—everyone just says "sorry, bro" and files out. His family and friends abandon him to his grief.
And I think I said to you, wow, I would not leave my friend alone at home the evening of the day he loses his wife and kid. I just would not.
Beth: Although I guess we don't know if those people are actually gone or if he just doesn't interact with them?
Carla: I suppose I'd have to watch it again, but the impression I was left with on first watch is of a lot of people patting him on the shoulder on their way out the door. Next he's alone in the kitchen with the leftovers.
Beth: Oh the leftovers—that was so sad. His parents and in-laws are around somewhere, but the result is: he has no one.

Carla: And later he voluntarily isolates himself. For 15 years. In "revengetown".
Beth: I think we discussed while watching that it's kind of too bad we don't know what happens to him in those 15 years, whether he tries to put his life back together. But again, the result is: nope, he's a wreck.
Carla:I'd say there is no evidence that he made any effort. He did nothing but stew in his own juices for that whole time. I rather wish the film had shown us some of that time. The isolation seems to have allowed him to fester and get angrier, rather than healing and gaining any distance. But we are left to speculate about it based on very little.
Beth: I assume we're not supposed to see him as particularly human either, and this stalling and isolation helps make him seem that way? Or is it a cautionary tale—if this happens to you, DO NOT CLOSE OFF or else!
Carla: He's clearly unsympathetic and, as a result at least to me, not particularly relatable.
Beth: He's awful and somehow allowed to stay that way. People who should help him do not. On this point, I reeeeeally hated Divya's character. It was interesting to write such a tone-deaf person who supposed to be kind of a care-giver, an NGO do-gooder type is actually destructive.
Carla: That is an interesting point. I had seen her through the lens of being a victim of his psychopathic manipulation.
Beth: That too. I just think that one conversation with this man is enough to show you that he is in no place to issue any mercy, and she most definitely provoked him. Not that that means she deserves to be his pawn. But he was her pawn too (for less awful purposes, obviously).
Carla: I don't agree that he was a pawn to Divya's character. To use someone as a pawn you have to have some power, and she has none.
Beth: Ok. But she sure tries. She tries to guilt him.
Carla: She is naive, and too focused on her do-gooding to think through his responses to her and what they mean. But she has no power. To the extent she can manipulate him, it's only through that application of conscience—guilt as you say. That's a very weak hand.
Beth: If she had been _his_ social worker, that would have been an utterly different scenario. As is, she waltzes in and asks him for something incredibly difficult without knowing the first thing about him. So he's her tool, not her pawn, maybe?
Carla: Sure, that's a better way to put it. She is naive and idealistic in a way that makes her insensitive.
Beth: And pushy too.
Carla: And it also makes her too trusting, which gives him the opening he needs to play her.

Beth: Let's talk about the performances. I thought they were across the board really quite good.
Even if just for that, I'm glad I saw the film.
Carla: I have to say, I could watch Huma and Nawaz as a couple in anything, despite neither this nor Gangs of Wasseypur being a favorite of mine.
Beth: No age difference yuck for you? She’s 12 years younger.
Carla: Not especially; perhaps because she has a maturity about her or because he manages a certain boyish demeanor even when playing these deeply sociopathic character. Perhaps 12 years by itself would only be yuck when the woman is so young as seem girlish or ingenue-type?
Beth: I don't know. I'm not really on board with them as a concept but neither of these relationships is at all...nice or good.
Carla: No that's for sure. I just find them compelling to watch.
Beth: Totally. Both of them are great. But e.g. Deepika is the same age as Huma, and Deepika with Nawaz would just be BIZARRE. I don't know why.
Carla: That's interesting. I can't say I disagree. But Deepika has (cultivated?) a more girlish demeanor.
I have said about her before and continue to say that I am interested in her as an actor but really want to see what she does on the other side of 30. Also Deepika has a more refined quality, even when she's playing rougher-hewn women, that doesn't match well with Nawaz's physicality, maybe?

Beth: What other strengths does Badlapur have for you?
Carla: Well, we did have a little talk about forgiveness while we were watching, and as you said it's interesting that the film provoked those thoughts. Do you want to talk about that a bit more?
Beth: Sure! It's something that I have been thinking about as a result of all the just horrendous news we've had in the last few years. I really do not know what we are supposed to do at a societal or even individual level with some of the evil in the world. And for me that is what made this movie more interesting than just "BTW revenge is hollow, did you know?" To be a successful human do you have to be able to hold the concept of evil in one hand and not let it shape you to much with the other?
You do not have to forgive, but you cannot give in, either? The movie ends before we know how Varun will deal with that. Revenge as a concept is less interesting to me but forgiveness is something we all have to deal with even if just in little ways.
Carla: That's true. I'm going to speculate that he deals with it badly.
Beth: I assume so. I would not be surprised if he committed suicide, actually.
Carla: Yeah, I was thinking the same. Although that song over the closing credits (tone lurchy though it was) showed him continuing in his anger and defiance.
Beth: It's pretty fascinating that a mainstream film is unafraid to have its hero left on a moral knife's edge like that. But that song is so out of place. Maybe he'll dance it out.
Carla: Haha!
Beth: Debbie Allen is in the corner tapping her cane on the floor.
Carla: You raise a great point, though. I often like it when movies end with something other than facile resolution, like when a story of a troubled marriage ends on a note of hope but with implicit acknowledgement that there is a still work to be done. It's not all that common in mainstream films (of any industry).
Beth: Yeah, or all those 70s films we love where the hero actually has taken revenge and the bad guy is in handcuffs and then everyone literally lines up in a row, as though they're on stage and are taking a bow.
Carla: And so there is no resolution for him, and no note of hope either. The only constant is utter bleakness.
Beth: I tend not to like it when movies  just stop rather than conclude, but it made sense here.
Carla: It was not a conclusion, but also not a mere stop either—it was a turning point, a change in his world.
Beth: It also underscores that taking revenge does not make you a better person, which is another thing movie heroes tend to sort of swim in.
Carla: There's nothing honorable about this revenge.
Beth: No.
Carla: That was true in NH10 as well. The revenge is not so much satisfying as horrifying.
Beth: Even though he is utterly blameless in the tragedy—it's not like he was aligned with the wrong politician or even tried to save a friend who had gone off the straight and narrow and got sucked in—and it had zero meaning. Maybe that's why the revenge has no meaning? The thing it is avenging had no meaning. Hmmmm.
Carla: Well that brings us back to the Gangs of Wasseypur, the-cycle-of-violence-is-pointless idea. Everyone blind and toothless, etc.
Beth: And there it's armies, more or less, and here it's just...nothing.

Carla: The thing about Varun's character's spree is that it is not merely revenge.
Beth: More of a dismantling and erasing?
Carla: His violence extends beyond hurting the people who hurt him; he hurts the people they love, too. Yes, it's an obliteration. And that is part of what makes it totally anti-righteous, the complete opposite of classic filmi hero revenge. By coincidence I recently watched another revenge drama, an older one that is much more in the righteous revenge mode. That was Anjaam, in which Shah Rukh Khan ruins Madhuri Dixit's life after she rejects his advances, murdering her husband and framing her for the crime.
Beth: Does she take him down?
Carla: She snaps, about three-quarters of the way through the film, after enduring and enduring and enduring (with lots of talk about how enduring injustice is women's superpower)
Beth: Eyeroll.
Carla: Yes, a whole tray of them.
Beth: I was just thinking "I bet this movie was made ca. 1994" and sure enough.
Carla: She kills the (female) prison warden who had been pimping out the prisoners, she kills her brother-in-law who had just been horrible from the very beginning and eventually she also gets Shah Rukh Khan—she finds him catatonic in a hospital, and actually nurses him back to health and makes him think she has fallen in love with him just for the pleasure of knowing he has full awareness of her hatred when she kills him.
Beth: Whoa!
Carla: It's actually a pretty interesting dovetailing of nurturer-type womanhood with death-goddess-type womanhood.
Beth: What could be more terrifying to a Bollywood hero than a woman being maa-like and then killing him instead?
Carla: That's what is so interesting about it. She lulls him by playing into his own fantasy of how a woman, and especially this particular woman, should treat him.
Beth: That sounds pretty interesting. I like evil SRK performances a lot.
Carla: I've gotten a bit off topic talking about Anjaam but I've been thinking about how it compares to Badlapur and NH10 in its statements about revenge, especially. As it occupies that classical (for lack of a better word) space in which revenge is pure and righteous, it is a very different story from the revenge dramas of 2015, which are all about bleakness and damage. But like NH10, Anjaam shows how a good and ordinary and relatable person can turn into a bloodthirsty force, when pressed hard enough and forced to endure enough extreme suffering.
Beth: I did not see Ek Villain last year, which I mention only because it's the other recent revenge film I can think of.
Carla: I also did not. How about the end of Mardaani?
Beth: Ooooh which I liked, against my beliefs about how the real world should work.
Carla: Yes, I can see that—one of those satisfying in the movies even though it's morally wrong sorts of things.
Beth: And it to me felt very much like something 70s Amitabh would have done. Speaking of, sort of, another recent revenge movie is the Agneepath remake, which I also didn’t care for story-wise.
Carla: Another one I did not watch.
Beth: It is not a type that appeals to either of us, really. Our next movie should be something that DOES appeal to us.
Carla: AMEN. We have broadened our horizons together quite enough lately.
Beth: Indeed.

Carla:  Anything else to say about Badlapur, to wrap?
Beth: I love that the sketch artist is led to draw Ranjeet.
Carla: That was a great moment. I don't think I can top that.

Friday, July 31, 2015

two bloggers who don't like violent movies manage to get through Gangs of Wasseypur three years late

Carla of Filmi Geek and I watch-along-ed both parts of Gangs of Wasseypur earlier this week and then had a chat. She put a lot of other thoughts at the beginning of her post, whereas I have mostly grown weary of these movies—not out of dislike but more out of "I get it already" and "this is just generally not my bag, though I do think the films are pretty well made for what I understand them to be"—and don't have much else to say. Oh, except that I love love love the soundtracks to these films and think Sneha Khanwalkar is an absolute genius. It's so rare that I think a film's songs work as well and matter as much on their own as they do in situ, but hers always do.

If I had to summarize Gangs of Wasseypur in one sentence, I'd say that it demands more attention than it rewards. What do you think, Beth?

I think that would probably be my averaged-out assessment – there were parts I found boring and parts that were great, parts that were too complicated and others that were really satisfying.

Yes, I agree with all of that. What did you find most satisfying?

Two things. One, thinking about what kinds of choices and power the (very, very few) women had/chose to exercise. Two, all the direct conversation about movies and their role in the lives of the characters. For example, the big baddie says that as long as India has movies, people will be fooled. But in the end it's one of the biggest movie nuts who triumphs – or two of them, depending on how you define "triumph."

Yes, or none of them, depending upon how you define “triumph.”

What were the high points for you, if any?

I am trying to think about the times when I felt most engaged, because much of it did not engage me especially well. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character, Faizal Khan, has the most arc, the most complexity – the most conflicting desires and goals. And so the parts that worked the best, for me, are some parts of his story.

Based on how many times we said "Oh FAIJAL" while watching, he was more sympathetic to us than anyone else.

Yes, and given how removed the lives being portrayed are from the lives of most viewers – certainly from yours and mine – Faizal being sympathetic is essential.

I've been trying to figure out how much of his sympathetic-ness is the written character, and how much is just pure Nawaz, who elevates, if not flat-out saves, so many things he's in.

As you know, I don't generally get a lot out of stories that are primarily about men expressing masculinity in its most toxic and destructive forms, for its own sake. There's only so much uninterrupted dick-waving I can take without throwing up my hands and saying “Good God, I just don't care what happens to these people!”

So yeah, there is definitely something in the way Faizal Khan is written and/or the way Nawaz performs him that, sometimes, can overcome that reaction for me – those moments when the movie is not just about the dick-waving itself, but about something else, of which dick-waving is a part.

As much as I...liked? Faizal, I was not sad at the end. Because, DUH.

Well, it's inevitable.

But he came off as someone who tried, at least sometimes, in his own way. And he knew it.  That little speech he has with his wife on the balcony.

One of the points of the film is the pointlessness of that cycle of violence – Faizal expresses that explicitly in that speech you just mentioned.

Pointlessness yet LET'S SHOW A WHOLE LOT OF IT ANYWAY!!!!!!

That's why I said earlier that maybe no one triumphs, because what is triumph in this context? Just that you get to be the top guy on the other team's hit list for a while, until they get you.

And yes, a whole, WHOLE lot of it. I think I said to you while we were watching that it don't think one needs five hours to make the point that the cycle of revenge is pointless.

For viewers like we are, who don't want to see splatter and gore and suffering, this felt a little bit like a bait and switch, because at the end of Part 1 we thought "Yeah, okay, we can do this," but then preeeeetty soon into Part 2 it got gross. So at first I thought maybe Kashyap was going to make some points about the futility of it all without showing it, but no.


There is a notable uptick in the grossness when Faizal takes over, when he beheads the friend who set up his father. And that uptick itself means something – Faizal is a new generation, and the rules change a little when he takes over. Everyone becomes more ruthless.

And he's shown to be quite different from his father or older brother and man I feel like I'm talking about The Godfather.

Surely Kashyap knows that you will think these thoughts while pondering his film.

Oh of course. Faizal is at first kind of pleasingly weird. But then we see it manifest itself as psychotically violent at times instead. Whereas his dad was mostly...efficient? Rather than with a flourish?


For Faizal's grandfather, violence was a means to an end – he used it for survival. For his father, it was all in the service of revenge. For Faizal, it is still revenge, but there's something else, too, isn't there?

For Faizal and Definite it's for their moms. In different ways, but still for their moms.

Yes, that's a good way to put it. And, it's a good segue to talk about the women in the film.

After we finished Part 2, it occurred to me that I don't think we really see the women parlay any social power, do we? It's not as though they choose to be with these men – and I do think the younger generation chose pretty freely – because they gain a lot that we can see. They're not leading cliques of aunties or anything. They still do housework. Etc.

Another comment I made while we were watching is that half of the lines spoken by women are turning down men's requests for sex. That is one power that they have.

But even that doesn't seem to add up to much does it? I mean one of them STILL has four kids.

Indeed, despite her best efforts. But I think you're right, we also talked about why a woman would want to be married to a man like Faizal, and there must be some social cachet to it.

I don't know what social power would look like in their world but I don't think we saw it, either. They do get refrigerators? And TVs? But Huma's character had a TV in her room before she got married.

Even in a mad patriarchal society, there are spheres where women can wield power in different ways, and there are occasionally stories that are about that – but Gangs of Wasseypur isn't one of them.

No, it's not.

It is about a wholly male set of interactions, and the women are marginal at best. I guess the social cachet in being Faizal's wife, for Huma Qureishi's character, Mohsina, wouldn't necessarily be in the form of things, but in the form of regard and respect of other people in the community. But that is speculation, because Gangs of Wasseypur didn't find a way to squeeze any of that into its five hours.

No, there's pretty much no sense of community in this, except for perhaps before the weddings and at the funeral. But that's special occasion community, not everyday. They don't even give birth to women. There is no place in the family for them.

That's right, I noticed that too – no daughters, at least none that we get introduced to.

Yeah only the enemy family has girls, don't they? And one of the few female characters, Durga, has to be set up as the enemy of one of the others, Nagma.

Of course. Pit women against each other, in competition for what? A man – Sardar Khan, Faizal's father. A man who, incidentally, doesn't treat either of them with a ton of respect. Remember the scene where he tells them he wants them all to live in one house, and he can't even fathom what the objection would be?

He's one of those "well, he doesn't literally beat his wives, so I guess he's a catch" kind of characters – though at least the women seem to know it.

That dynamic around the first and second wife is probably the only thing Gangs of Wasseypur has to say about how women's lived are damaged by the norms of the society they live in. The rest is all about the damage inflicted on men.

I think the last scene between Mohsina and Faizal shows some. Or, implies it, anyway.

Yes, Faizal's wife tells him she is pregnant, and he says, "say hello to my kid," and you know they both know he isn't coming back.

I don't know how they managed to convey so much there, but they really did. But of course we knew the run time of the film too.

They both do a lot with their faces, as actors. But all that interaction does for me is reinforce the question, what does Mohsina get out of being married to him?

I think perhaps they're just genuinely attracted to each other. He's clearly amazed by her in the cinema. And then she's so flirtatious at the...engagement party, I think it is. Maybe she likes having him dance to her tune. Actually maybe she just finds the whole thing filmi, and we know she likes that.

Oh yes, that is definitely true. They really dig each other. That's what makes the scene on the balcony work, even though it's a bit heavy-handed – he is imagining a different life in which he could just enjoy his amazing wife, without having to worry about killing and revenge and which family member he's going to lose next.

A rare moment of clarity for Faizal when he's not high on drugs or killing.


Do you want to talk about those filmi connections some more?

Sure! For example, the flat-out outlining of generational heroes by Ramadhir is kind of funny.  And how he tells his son, "You just can't hack it as a gangster because you're too busy watching DDLJ, you dope."

It's clunky and clueless, which is very funny – he doesn't follow them himself, and doesn't remember them all.

He remembers enough as sort of cultural signposts, but yeah, he does not connect with them. And we get different people identifying with different heroes. Faizal likes Mithun, right?

Aww, yeahh. (But Faizal also does a Travis Bickle sort of thing in the mirror.)

So I guess by default Sardar likes Amitabh but I can't recall if he says so. Oh and there's that GREAT moment where Faizal turns around in his chair and it looks like the start of the warehouse scene in Deewaar. And Mohsina likesMaine Pyaar Kiya, and also Amitabh – she's a cool girl that way, maybe even a Cool Girl.

Perpendicular and Tangent are also big Sanjay Dutt fans. They are engrossed in an almost homoerotic fantasy about him when they are set upon by the goons who kill Perpendicular.

And Mohsina is definitely a Cool Girl. She can afford to be, because she knows Faizal digs her.

And the whole family likes the TV serials apparently. There were like 20 people watching that!

"Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi" ... that one line of melody is repeated so many times and gets stuck in one's head.

And to open with it and then repeat it in the second film.

So, when the ultimate male explosion happens, this huge raid on the Khan house with automatic weapons and bombs, all the women of the house are gathered watching some saas-bahu serial, and the repeated line is all about the relationships of household women. Everything the movie is NOT about.

True. Many of the men are watching it too, interestingly. Maybe it's a reiteration of Ramadhir's point: If you just sit around watching movies/TV, your house is NOT in order and it makes you stupid.

That's very bleak, though, because most of these people are collateral damage. They are not responsible for this war, just because they are watching TV.

(Also a marker of changing technology, I would think, which the film likes to do.) Collateral damage is always part of stories like this though.

Yes, it is. What I am saying is that it is very bleak if Ramadhir's critique that TV and movies makes people weak gets taken out on folks who aren't directly involved in the war at all. It's one thing for him to harass his son for watching movies; he'd rather have raised a son who is a strong general in his army and a worthy successor. It's a very different thing to apply that criticism to people whose only crime is being part of the enemy household.

His soldier actually says that, remember? Kill them all, even the cook, the washer boy, the pets (or something like that).

Yes. By that time, after Ramadhir's sister and Nagma have been killed, the rules of engagement (such as they were) are out the window. This is no longer an honorable conflict.

The scope of the violence expands with technology, too. Sardar's dad starts out mostly hitting people, I think, and burning their property.

Very true.

And then Sardar has...knives and swords, etc., and then guns come in, and then bombs.

The first time Sardar's father sees a gun up close, it is used on him. It's all downhill from there.

And somebody, maybe him, has a line about "Wow, now every Tom Dick and Harry has a gun."

Ah, interesting.

So here are two questions to wrap up: 1) Why did we watch this and 2) do we think those rationales will actually be met or pay off?

What are your answers?

For me, this was a movie I felt like I Should See, capital letters – that somehow it's an Important Film from an Important Filmmaker. And I will admit that after Bombay Velvet was SO disliked by so many people but I loved it, I was more intrigued to see this one, even though I'd tried once and been turned off instantly by the violence.

I don't know the answer to my second question yet. If Gangs of Wasseypur keeps showing up in conversations, I'll be able to participate more than I would without having seen it, and I like that feeling. But honestly, do I see it come up all that much now? I'm not sure I do.

I don't think I see it talked about much either, and there may be a bit of a backlash against Kashyap because of Bombay Velvet (which I also did not think was as bad as all that), that will make people stop talking about Gangs of Wasseypur for a while.

However, my answers are very similar to yours. When I write, I put myself out there, and the more I have seen of the works that are significant and interesting, the less likely I am to make a complete idiot of myself. Also, while I don't like gangster films as a rule, I generally do like films about political machinations in India. And films that focus on areas other than the big cosmopolitan cities are also of great interest to me.

I have definitely had enough of hinterlands assholes at this point.

I would very happily watch more movies about how the machinations of hinterlands assholes affect women.

If I had to watch hinterlands assholes, that would be the slant I would appreciate, I guess. But I'd rather not watch any at all, at least not for a while.

Give me more Mrityudands, more Revolver Ranis, more Godmothers. Even more Gulab Gangs, if not that exact film over again.

I definitely don't regret watching Gangs of Wasseypur, even if I didn't find it thoroughly engrossing. It's a five-hour investment in the big picture and I do think it will pay returns.

I don't want those hours of my life back, but I don't think I'd be particularly missing out in ways or arenas that I personally car a lot about if I had not decided to watch it. "Timepass" isn't quite the right word for me for this film, but it's somewhere in that general neck of the woods.

And with those ringing endorsements...

Carla, nobody cares what we think about these movies three years after they came out.


This was really fun and interesting, Beth. With this chat, Gangs of Wasseypur is already returning on the investment.

Good! We always make our own fun, don't we?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijaan


most adorable, expressive, squooshy-cheeked, heart-tugging moppet since Stanley Ka Dabba

+ a female with plenty of agency despite being very young, a foreigner, unspeaking, and an in-context minority

+ "holy fool" type* (un-, even anti-conventional, charitable, simple, humble) gently enacted by Salman Khan

+ "Chicken Song"

+ girls getting to be interested in sports

 + no egregious beating up of people by the hero

+ emotionally (not logically) (duh) pleasing conclusion of the human trafficking element

+ mention, however brief, that dividing humankind by religion and caste is silly

+ illustration of challenges resulting from strictly, literally following a moral code

+ soldiers, officials, and everyday folks who do what is right

+ Nawazuddin Siddiqui doing anything**, especially rapid-fire line delivery

+ spin on the road trip formula

+ fuzzy lammies

+ Delhi food

-  like Baahubali, no need for a woman to go on a quest too, even though she is, you know, someone who works with children for a profession

- large number of adults who are really quite bad at keeping track of a child

- border officials who don't radio/call in to HQ to check the story about a lost Pakistani girl, whose had in fact been registered with authorities right away

- last three minutes, which are quite overdone and have shoddy CGI, including the classic mistake of physical objects with no shadow on a sunny day

? meaning of head scarf flying off as she gets stranded in India

? overly simplistic but perhaps in a kind, forgiving way

? echoes of moments of Highway with the happy times on the verdant mountainside

? why didn't they ask their Muslim next-door neighbors, who were already a known source of comfort to Munni, for some help in caring for her/providing her with a bigger competent adult community once they realized her religious identity, even just to get her out of the way of Blowhard Conservative Uncle for a few hours

entertained, satisfied, and slightly teary Beth

Note: I do think this film has the capacity to serve as a powerful piece of PR about Salman's real-life character among anyone who is prone to confusing (whether deliberately or not) actors with their characters. I don't know enough to speculate whether the director meant it as such, but surely the star realized the value. However, will that lesson fall on ears that aren't likely to be convinced already of his good-boy-ness? I doubt it. Uday Bhatia discusses the film's portrayal of its hero well in his review. 

* definition by Oxford dictionaries: "A person who appears unintelligent and unsophisticated but who has other redeeming qualities."

** Maybe more than any other performer, if I had to name a favorite performance of his, I would be very hard pressed indeed.