Wednesday, October 26, 2016

catching up on 2016 Bollywood

Ki & Ka
If you forget about the Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan part—which you immediately should, because it is bloated and self-congratulatory—this is not a bad little exploration of gender- and relationship-based expectations. The story is more often from his perspective or from within sympathies towards him, I think, but no women are particularly demonized (though the bit about Kia's jealousy over Kabir's housework-based fame could be handled better, IMO), and in fact Kia's career ambitions are supported by other women and rewarded in terms that she likes, which feels HUGE for a mainstream film. It's still vaguely maddening that socio-economically privileged men are fawned over for doing basic household work and for being friends with stay-at-home wives/moms, but it also seems quite likely that that's what would happen if these characters were real people. I like that these characters are the way they are because they've thought about issues and their own personalities and likes, not solely because of trauma or rebellion. I also like that the film is clear that self-knowledge and self-confidence are not always enough to sustain you through social critique when you're in a non-traditional relationship or scenario. We all want to think that what other people say doesn't matter, but that's very hard to adhere to all the time.

Arjun Kapoor, though. He's so dull.

Phobia (did not finish watching)
This is perhaps not a movie for viewing on a plane: the screen is too small for the visuals to be appreciated or for the fear to grip sufficiently, and the cuts (at least on Etihad Airlines) probably left out some of the drama and scares. I am not a horror, or even scary, movie fan, so I'm not sure why I even tried this, but I was soon bored. The film throws a lot at you, but nothing stuck for me. Perhaps in another setting, Radhika Apte's impressive performance—which based on what I saw is as much a solo turn as Shahrukh's in Fan—would have been enough to engage me through the whole film, but it wasn't while I was jet-lagged and over-eager for the plane to land.

Side note: Radhika Apte is suddenly everywhere I turn—an absolutely fine place for her to be, I hasten to add. It's like when you learn a new word and suddenly notice it in everything you read even though you'd swear you'd never seen it before. In the last few months, I've seen her in Kabali, last year's tv adaptation of Chokher Bali (which I like far more than the Aishwarya-Prosenjit version), Anurag Kashyap's short That Day after Everyday (2013), and Parched (see below).

M. S. Dhoni
I knew this movie would be out while I was in India but I had no plans to see it because 3-HOUR CRICKET MOVIE WITHOUT SUBTITLES.
This is what cricket scoring and strategy sound like to me.
But I actually love it. Does it help that, thanks to a friend of a friend, I got to see it at a special screening hosted by Sushant Singh Rajput and meet him and tell him how brilliant I think Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is? Obviously.

Some people told me that knowing nothing of cricket or Dhoni might be the ideal frame of mind for this film because I would have very little sense of how hagiographical it is, of what is conveniently omitted—what was still untold, despite the film's tag line. That's mostly true; even in my ignorance I'm pretty sure the film isn't showing us much of the hard mental work of captain-ing, of strategizing and making decisions in very high-stakes situations. I also agree with the general murmuring that there is no compelling reason to make this film in 2016, when the subject is not only still alive but currently active in the line of work that made him famous.

That said, I delight in biographies that show that greatness is also found in people who are decent human beings with no demons, no quest for redemption, and nothing in particular to prove other than that they are good at X endeavor. I love to see a genius who is otherwise ordinary. I don't know if Dhoni is as sane or nice a guy in real life as he is in the film,* but it's pleasing to get the unspoken message that you will benefit in life by working hard and being good to your friends and those who help you. I get that "decent people who try hard" doesn't always make an exciting narrative, especially without a villain, as this film is, but I'm glad someone tried. To me, and with the background I have (and don't have), SSR made an actual character rather than any caricature, not just with his face** and voice but with his whole body, and it's a character I find easy to care about and root for.

* I am aware Dhoni is a friend and partner of one of the producers.

** what a face
but the wiiiiigs
but back to the face

This film is WAY better than I thought it would be. I had expected a horrible slog through important social issues leading to either absolute nihilism or misandry, but instead Parched is complicated and filmi enough to feel more like a story than a lecture. The visuals are beautiful—often used in what I assume is deliberate contrast to the very ugly attitudes—the acting is flawless, and the characters are complex. Best of all, the film makes clear the importance of women helping themselves and each other and breaking or redefining the traditions that harm them.

The men in this world cannot be relied on for any good, and some of them are not even predictable in their horribleness, their abuse taking new shapes as women claim power and argue back. The women's artistry (handicrafts, dance), seen both in the set design and as plot points, echo each individual's powers as creators and deciders. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here with definitions and use of space as well; sometimes the public space (a bus, a roadway, a historic site) is the most liberating (and liberated), but at other times the private is (a cave at night, an empty house). What seem to be the most dangerous spaces are the village or multi-family interactions where people know you enough to judge you and have power over you but aren't close enough to actually love or know you: marriage negotiations, the panchayat meeting, your courtyard.
For those of you who have seen it, did you love how Shahrukh Khan is invoked? I want to write an essay on how he gets used as a symbol in films that he is not otherwise a part of; this one is the most interesting example that I can think of, tied to not only sexuality and desire (as opposed to just material aspiration) but also new technology and freedom. He's the only star who could have worked this way, both modern but irreproachably mature and masculine.

Dishoom is a dumb movie, but that's exactly what I was in the mood for when I watched it, so I ended up liking it quite a bit.
India's Minister for External Affairs opens an email from "Anonymous" with the subject line "CONFIDENTIAL." India has much bigger problems than a missing cricketer if top politicians are dumb enough to click on attachments from unknown senders.
Varun Dhawan is well cast as the junior and comedic partner in a buddy cop project; John Abraham...everyone in this film has more charisma and screen presence than he does, and I include both the dog and Nargis Fakhri in that assessment.
What Dishoom does best is keep the plot moving along fairly quickly so that you are soon distracted from one dumb thing by another (and fortunately most of them are good-natured, with at least one glaring exception about to be named): Akshay Kumar doing his best with an ignorant gay stereotype cameo! 
random patriotism from the kidnapped cricketer! Jacqueline Fernandez's thighs! Parineeti Chopra's waist! Rahul Dev's piercing gaze! vehicle chases inside some giant mall or something! John smoking again because he's such a badass! the writers actually acknowledging that someone could be recognized by his voice! motorcycles with side cars! land mines! 

And then this happens and the world stops and I am so happy.  
I would watch anything to see that crooked smile again. I don't know where Akshaye Khanna has been for the last few years, but THANK HELEN ABOVE HE IS BACK and apparently with his talent in place. If you have missed Akshaye Khanna like I have, this movie is definitely worth watching (but you can skip the first 45 minutes or so). That's the only real reason I can give you to watch this.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mohenjo Daro

The last problem Mohenjo Daro should have is being dull. So much is brought up in this movie—political intrigue in two generations, corruption, tragic childhoods, religious practice topped off by a Chosen One, the barter system, the indigo harvest, the domestication of animals, the arrival of horses in South Asia, crocodile hunting, international trade gatherings, civic taxes, the back story of an entirely separate city, environmental disaster, a love story (plus another that got sidelined)—yet almost none of it is interesting or adds up to much. I wish Ashutosh Gowariker, as both writer and director, had chosen a few of these and then really developed them with care.

Instead there's a weird mishmash of History 101 (No Previous Study of the Indus Valley Civilization Required) and Plot Points That Often Happen in Fillums (Orphan, Love at First Sight, Outsider Saves the Village). At the same time, that latter category is underused stylistically: Hrithik does get in some great face-quaking and nostril-flaring, but the overall tone of performance is on a different scale than the setting. Why Gowariker did set the story in such a specific culture but then choose to ignore history and archaeology and make it such a yawn of a place to visit? I'm not saying every film set in ancient times has to be the level of batsh*t spectacle of Gods of Egypt, but do something with it—otherwise why bother?

The dullness unfortunately extends to the hero too. Hrithik's Sarman is a goody-goody with no texture or depth beyond his unicorn dreams. He never has any questions about what doing the right thing should look like or how he can accomplish it, even when it involves politics of which he knows nothing—or full-on murder, for that matter. Several people have commented that the city of Mohenjo Daro itself looks too tidy and blank (especially in the aerial views, which seem to have been put into the film without bothering to render any people and the byproducts of their daily lives), and I think this applies to Sarman's personality. There's nothing magnetic or magic about either, which doesn't help you want to spend so much time with them or care about their fate. Granted, I'm pleased that Sarman seems to be an actual grown-up instead of a man-child, but I wish there had been a way to let him, and us, have more fun.

As with Gowariker's other surprisingly dull historical film, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Mohenjo Daro is not a complete waste of time for me. There are surface features and idea content that I really like.
• Most importantly, this version of the past seems far less romanticized than we humans tend to do and instead reads pretty well as a canvas of things we still do badly millennia later. Education is given no attention, social strata are fiercely guarded, laborers are overtaxed and undervalued, different ethnicities are dehumanized as freaks, blood sports and execution qualify as entertainment, speaking out against tyranny is dangerous, and we disastrously mishandle natural resources. Most strikingly to me, even in a primarily made-up world, there is still little room for women in Gowariker's imagination. The senate, guards, citizens who speak out against wrongs in public, and people brainstorming how to save their city from a natural disaster are all only men.
• Kabir Bedi is bang-on as an egotistical villain with scary voice and piercing eyes, and he's also perfectly cast, visually, to be Arunoday Singh's dad (and would be good as Hrithik's dad, should anyone wish to make that film).
• Textiles. This is not the textile fancier's dream that Jodhaa Akbar is, but I think they're employed well without being distractingly luxe, and nice use was made of the madder, turmeric, and indigo look. From what I've read, we know very little about the clothing of the Harappan civilization, and whoever designed these had fun with them without going overboard, making distinctions between the rich and poor wardrobes while still visually uniting them in shape and material. While not the prettiest, my favorite single piece is the priest's cloak clearly modeled on this famous artifact.
• Probably the most gleeful element of this whole film is the headwear, closely followed by the lapidarical* jewelry; Sukanya Verma calls the films a 155-minute-long fancy dress competition. I'm grateful for it. Somehow crazy accessories are fun where overly ornate clothes would be silly. The glaring exception is Chaani's much-discussed headdress of feathers, sequins, flowers, and slices of agate, but I love that too. Why shouldn't the girl given by the Sindhu River to the city have a fancy hat?
• The shift in focus at the end from personal revenge to political engineering. I won't spoil it, but I really thought the film was going to be over about 20 minutes before it was and appreciate the final detour. In fact, I'd call the post-interval part better than the pre-, despite the good dancing being in the first half.

I know it's unfair to ask for a movie that has nothing to do with what the makers seemed to be doing, but since the film is named after a famous city, I can't help wishing for ancient noir, playing with ur-urban mysteries and dangers. There are hints towards that at the beginning (warnings to Sarman that the city is full of greed), but soon enough the city is just full of people who do whatever Sarman tells them to. I have no idea what the point of the film is; it's not entertaining, it's not visually striking, it's not provocative, and it doesn't seem to have any particular message. I had been looking forward to Mohenjo Daro, certain it would offer several flavors of cheese that I really enjoy, but now that I've seen it, all I can do is wonder what Gowariker was trying to accomplish.

* Probably not a real word.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Brahman Naman

While Brahman Naman is, on paper, very much a film Not For Me, there are several satisfying developments in it. The foremost is that finally a film gives man-children pretty much what they deserve rather than what they want or even need. The main protagonist, Naman (Titli's excellent Shashank Arora), is missing the point with sweeping strokes as badly at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. I'd feel a little bad for Naman if he weren't so single-mindedly solipsistic and lazy, refusing to assemble what he could easily learn into any kind of context or understanding. He asks no questions and he has no real or nuanced curiosity—just entitlement to a self-narrated, self-defined goal that takes no account of the other person that it requires. He doesn't even do research in helpful ways, his emphasis on trivia just as self-congratulatory as his incessant physical self-gratification. The characters are walking—well, mostly sitting on an roadside bench—advertisements for the meaningless of undirected, unapplied intelligence. A side character mentions that the boys usually skip class, and it shows: they have no idea how to participate in group settings beyond their own clique. They can't even play a prank effectively, so clueless are they about how their peers think and act.

While Naman is determinedly masturbatory, the film is not particularly, at least that I picked up on (quizzing/scholastic bowl wasn't a thing in the schools I grew up in). I agree with Ranjib Mazumder that the script has a smirk about it at times, but I never got the sense that the creative crew was overly proud of themselves for their twist on hopeless young men. The dynamics remind me so much of Sulemani Keeda set at college 30 years ago, with the difference being here that the film as a whole acknowledges the world outside its horrible central characters.

It's also a discomforting film. It has a lot of imagined, discussed, and actual nonconsensual touching, even involving people who are asleep or otherwise unaware of what's happening. Naman and his group manage to be as revolting than the heroes in filmier films who think harassment is romantic. Naman is every bit as bad as every sparklier, smoother, prettier mainstream hero who ever grabbed when he was told not to. The most dramatic instance of this was a punch in the gut, switching from what seemed like genuine affection into a vile interaction that should have gotten much harsher rebuking than it did. And because Naman is who he is, he doesn't even learn from his very serious transgression for more than a few moments. I kept thinking of the recent Stanford rape case, though at least Naman's father probably would have been ashamed of him and punished him.

Interestingly, the women on screen in Brahaman Naman are more evolved than some of their filmi counterparts. These women say no and mean it—and mean no and say it. They also offer some lessons in slightly longer sentences, but the film doesn't ask them to stick around to make sure Naman learns anything. At first this frustrated me because I want to know more about what would happen in particular dynamics, but after the film ended I realized oh, of course, nothing will happen because Naman isn't going to change and these women wisely saw it and left, mostly sooner than later, having far better things to do than hand-hold this fuckwit.

My experience with Indian cinema so far is that black comedies are fairly rare, but I think one could make the argument for Brahman Naman falling into that category. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, or maybe because I'm a grown-up woman from another culture, but by the end I was so distressed and feeling hollow from the mattress factory scene that I had nothing left to laugh about.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

'cause I can play the part so well: Fan

[A vague, two-sentence spoiler is marked in situ.]

In Fan, Shahrukh Khan and Hindi cinema make an unsettling modern complement to Satyajit Ray's Nayak, that great investigation of stardom and the self in a more restrained age. Fan is very much today's dystopian world of celebrity, the ubiquitous, instant media never singled out but constantly, even sinisterly, complicit in every frame and deed. Capture an image, then replicate it, manifest it, make it accessible, promote, distort, and destroy it, only for another to come up in its place before its death throes are finished. It's the information age gone horribly wrong. Over and over, the two lead characters—the star Aryan Khanna and his junior Gaurav Chandna, or the fan and his senior, depending on how the power in their relationship shifts—hiss that they know things about the other, and it's no coincidence that Gaurav runs a cyber café, speaks better English than people expect him to, and never shows a flicker of confusion when navigating Mumbai, London, or Dubrovnik. Accessing information and controlling its flow are as important in Fan as they would be in any heist or espionage film. 

Fan is Nayak exploded. It's less contained, more international in both subject and scope, more hysterical, weary, and jaded. The titular hero of Nayak, Arindam Mukherjee, is still able to have normal-ish conversation with everyday people he encounters on his train ride from Calcutta to Delhi. Aryan of Fan cannot—he doesn't even take the train as Arindam did. Unless a person works for him or flat-out doesn't know who he is, they scream in his face. I think it's correct to say that the real-life mahanayak Uttam Kumar was never a global phenomenon, but of course Shahrukh is and has been for at least half of his career, certainly due in part to the film culture in which each arose and the consumers of it but also significantly to the available media (there they are again). I love the moment when Gaurav peaks out from the loo door marked "western style" on the train from Delhi to Mumbai, surely a nod to the importance of the European and North American audiences (both Indian and not) to Shahrukh's career—Aryan would not still be where he is without the ticket sales and income from the other parts of the world. In the film, Aryan both is supported and penalized by foreign systems and structures, but he is far more in control in India (and most of all in his hometown).*

It's important that neither Fan nor Nayak is much interested in showing the hero as an actor; the film from half a century ago is concerned Arindam's internal psychological and emotional struggles, and Fan is about how the star is created and maintained. Nayak has a few flashbacks to Arindam in his early career, talking to his theatrical mentor and working as a small player in a film, whereas Fan never shows Aryan shooting a film (he tries to read a script but falls asleep). Aryan does practice dance moves, greet the public on his birthday, and dance for hire at an obscenely opulent wedding—the price of the life of a modern Hindi-film star—but it is Gaurav's process and performances at the heart of this story. Gaurav's (anti-) heroics are more impressive and interesting than Aryan's. We know that Aryan would be able to scale rickety scaffolding and leap over rooftops because we've seen him do these moves before in his films, consumed his muscles and prowess, fed to us by his own publicity machine (among others). But how does Gaurav have the ability to hang from balconies and make fake documents that fool security staff? Did he just absorb those skills from observing Aryan for 25 years, as he has the heroic arm-fling and line delivery? We don't know, and that sort of surprise is terrifying when you think about it.

One of the greatest sequences in Nayak is the nightmare in which Arindam's life spirals out of control in twisted versions of his actual experiences. Fan doesn't bother with the mediator of sleep: Gaurav shoves his dreams, mangled, into his reality, and Aryan lives in a world so hyperbolic that dreams don't even hold a place. In many ways, Gaurav is the nightmare version of the superstar, and because of modern media, mobility, and maybe even manners, the nightmare has split off from the dreamer and has fully incarnated in another physical body. Both Arindam and Aryan physically lash out; I assume that would have been more shocking behavior in fictionalized 60s Calcutta/newspapers than it is in 2010s Mumbai/internet, but Fan takes Shahrukh's real-life infamous slap and deals it back to him. If Aryan loses sleep over how he treats other people, we hardly see it. Dealing with insanity and extremity, including his own, is just part of his daily life. It's not that Aryan is thoughtless—particularly early in the film, it's a joy to watch Shahrukh's face crinkle as he moves from playing with his kids to trying to figure out what the mega-fan of the week has gotten up to this time to realizing that it's worse than usual. If Nayak is a journey, Fan is, as Aryan states, a game, ending almost exactly in the pilgrimage site where its dominant arc began, with ritualized actions, confusion, menace, and blathering media. The film is deliciously unsettling about what victory in the game may mean.

[SPOILER—skip to the next paragraph to avoid it]
Think about it: this is a film where the moralizing speech by the hero has no impact whatsoever on what happens. It's a new world, na?

Just as Nayak could only have been made with and about Uttam Kumar, Fan could only work with Shahrukh, his career of smart(-ass) interviews, self-aware persona, and massy films that experiment with assumed character types. He is a virtuoso in the film, essentially a two-hour schizophrenic monologue. While some of the investigation into the relationship between fan and star feels unfinished or superficial, watching him sustain and aggravate the differences in two contrasting characters is a joy. I can't think of a more complicated or interesting double role anywhere in Hindi cinema, let alone one linked so thoughtfully with exploration of identity, facades, access, and self-knowledge (with which I think the film is more concerned than the relationship and debt between fan and star). Obviously the film has commentary on Shahrukh's own life, but it has some on the industry as well. Gone are the worries of separated brothers: two disparate people who have an inarguable reason to be alike feels like such a simplistic problem now. Families and homelands are now replaced by the panic of deliberate duplication and infinite replaceability. For an actor who has played with lookalikes so much and so significantly in his career, this must have been such a treat to do.

Shahrukh is never better than in characters who are gray or even fully dark, and some of the best of those performances are with Yash Raj Films (Chak De India, Darr). Fan builds beautifully on those traditions. Shady Shahrukh is my favorite Shahrukh, and this film gives us two (or maybe even three, depending on how one reads the final scene outside Mannat)? Thrillingly, the only romances in Fan are with personas—isn't it so harrowingly now, moving on from man vs man to man vs self to man vs celebrity? As much as I appreciate a good romance, this is so much more interesting and also a nice change from his recent overall blahness and missteps in that category (plus avoids creepy uncle territory, since everything here is just plain creepy). Fan is also an important experiment for an aging star and for his aging public: what do we do with these monsters we've created? Will we suffocate them—or they us?

* Gaurav makes a wonderful cutting remark in Madame Tussaud's about white people trying to control brown people's images. (Thank you Anarchivist for reminding me of the speaker and setting of this comment, which makes it even more biting!)


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hemlock Society

[Vaguely spoiler-y. Also, if suicide is a trigger topic for you, I can imagine this film may come off as blasé, simplistic, or even offensive.]

I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the path of popular, mainstream Bengali movies from the Suchitra-Uttam films of the 50s to today's remakes of Telugu masala, and I wonder if Hemlock Society and its ilk—less loud and macho than the Telugu remakes, not as heavily message-driven as art films—are the most faithful descendants. The name alone indicates that this film is About an Important Aspect of the Human Condition, but it's also funny, dynamic, and at moments very sweet. Director-writer Srijit Mukherji is responsible for a few of these kinds of films; I've seen the interesting but imperfect Autograph and the maybe-good-on-paper-but-actually-eye-roll-y Baishe Srabon.*

Hemlock Society quickly develops a sense of an increasingly bizarre and slightly dream-like subculture, full of kooky minor characters, within the "real" world it first establishes. It pushes this new weirdnesses to some interesting extremes with humor that keeps the overall feeling a little off-kilter, neither as dark nor as saccharine as I thought it might become. The film acknowledges suicide as a complicated issue and in doing so creates characters who spend a lot of energy processing thoughts and emotions. Doubt and confusion are central to many of these people.

Meghna (Koel Mallick, whom I know only from countless song sequences from the afore-mentioned Telugu remakes and who has the most enviable ocean of dark, wavy, shampoo-commercial-worthy hair) is dumped by her terrible fiancé and instantly turns to attempts at suicide (we later find out her relationship with her dad and stepmom is strained and that she's having a hard time at work, too), only to be interrupted by Ananda (Parambrata Chatterjee), who barges into her apartment under the pretense of looking for terrorists.
Ananda is clearly a loon—practically a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, though the flip in gender in that dynamic instantly makes it somewhat less annoying, as do his breezy attitude and humor. Not the least of his quirks is constantly referencing Hindi films, an unusual trait for a Bengali film character in my experience. But he tells Meghna what she wants to hear, affirming that suicide is a rational response to an upset life. He then shares that he works with a secret organization that teaches people how to actually make it through the misrepresented and complex process of killing themselves effectively. She allows him to take her to the Society's training facility, which sits on the same grounds as Ananda's film studio (he inherited a lot of money and has indulged in various projects). At the end of the film, it becomes clear that there's a connection of ideals between the two campuses, but most of the time the proximity of the dream factory just reminds us how unrealistic the Hemlock Society seems.
The film studio also provides a reason for a cameo by Bengali action hero Jeet, a frequent co-star of Koel Mallick.
If you are a more alert viewer than I am, or even just a bigger fan of Rajesh Khanna movies, you might realize that a very upbeat, fillum-obsessed character named Anand(a) who helps the droopy and despondent probably means that this film is not actually saying that suicide is a good idea. I have not seen Anand, but from what I read there are indeed some commonalities with that film. I won't go into them, but let's just say that I was uncertain what direction Hemlock Society was going to go and to what purpose for much longer than I should have been.

I'm actually glad I didn't figure out the film earlier because wondering what exactly was going on is a pleasing experience. I love black comedies, and this film inhabits that territory much more often than most Indian films I've seen. The training facilities of the Hemlock Society are my favorite part of this strangeness. There's a main hall, a mix of sterile white and almost church-like architecture except for large portraits of famous suicides (you can see Kurt Cobain on the right);
classrooms dedicated to instruction in different methods of killing yourself, each garishly saturated and filled with imagery of that technique;
Throwing yourself in front of a train cannot work in India, he says: the trains are often late and the rescue crew will reach you before the train does.
and an interrogation room filled with scribbles and letters (presumably suicide notes, from the few I could read), presided over by a priest in a chair that is half umpire, half lifeguard.
The symbolism in the visuals is heavy, but dialogue is funny and the film never seems earnest about it. Furthermore, Meghna herself is clearly disoriented by all of this and can't quite figure out what to make of it either. The "is this for real?!?" sense is amplified by the appearance of big-name Bengali actors who appear as faculty. Barun Chanda (probably best known for Ray's Seemabaddha and also familiar to current Hindi film audiences from Lootera and Roy) teaches about trains (pictured above), Sabyasachi Chakraborty explains how to effectively slit your wrists, complete with dummy arms that gush blood, and Soumitra Chatterjee plays an army colonel who demands Meghna come up with a better reason for killing herself than just a stupid boyfriend, suggesting political protest or selflessly risking her life in a patriotic act of war.
This professor debunks a method used in Bemisaal.
Even though they're not playing themselves, their presence adds gravitas to the strands of thought that swirl through Meghna's head as she struggles to figure out her honest responses to what her life has become. They do what good teachers are supposed to do: lead her to questioning what she thinks she understands and inspire her to keep digging. Dipankar Dey plays Meghna's father, a doctor, who is slow to realize the seriousness of his daughter's condition but does what he can to protect her, including giving the ex a pretty fantastic public shaming (and, more importantly, learning to listen to her). Rupa Ganguly is calm, deep presence as Meghna's stepmom, quietly doing a better, if thankless, job at parenting a grown daughter than Meghna's biological father. 

In retrospect, Hemlock Society's principal message is unsurprising. Instead, the pleasure in the film is how it rolls out that message, combining funny but uncomfortable extremes with largely uncommented-upon pity for humanity's many shades of suffering. Despite the weirdness and Ananda's savior complex, it's a human-scale story, with ordinary people trying, failing, learning, and then trying again. It shows the ability of strangers to intervene to positive effect, the importance of reaching out to those who suffer, and the necessity of taking time to stop and think before committing life-altering acts—all handled with straightforwardness and humor. The film also provides this wonderfully hyper-self-aware Bengali-film dialogue (I think in parody, though I could also be convinced it's in earnest), for which I am eternally grateful, as Ananda tells Meghna about his ideal woman:
And I thought Hindi film heroines were unrealistic.

* I have every intention of also watching Mishawr Rawhoshyo because HELLO it seems to involve Egyptian archaeology.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kapoor and Sons

Kapoor and Sons had a far bigger and more complicated emotional impact on me than I had anticipated while I was watching it. A day later, it's the performances that linger—all of them compelling and convincing—more than the characters. The script successfully convinces me that these are compassionate, intelligent people who have been reminded that loving each other in any meaningful way involves speaking and acting with empathy, with awareness of the responsibility of holding someone else's heart in your hands. Most of the problems the Kapoors have are due to assumptions rather than hatred or malicious wronging. I may have questions about what will happen next to all of them (and I do!), but I can trust that they will be much better off moving forward than they were when we met them.

Contrast this with Dil Dhadakne Do, which has a slightly more filmi ending but also left me much less certain about how the parents were going to do in the months ahead. Kapoor and Sons feels gentler, a little crunchier, and more real, maybe because it's set at home rather than in the fantasy world of an untethered vessel along foreign shores. The Kapoors did their work at the literal heart of their family (as is maybe foretold by dadu's recovery from the heart attack that brought his grandsons home and the plumber who fixes leaks only with the help, in turn, by each of the family members), and the writers choose to show us some results of their efforts. I really appreciate that we get those glimpses at their lives a few months onward. Their progress is uneven but it is so significant.

This film is an exploration of the platinum rule that gives real respect to the differences among whatever collection of individuals who happen to make up a family. The title sort of hints at that, I think; there's a reason it's not called The Kapoors. And even though the name "and Sons" omits the two major female characters, the film really includes them very well, giving them the same sort of mix of secrecy and explosive expressiveness as the men. This is how you make a movie that treats women with the same respect as men, even when the cast is unevenly split. This is how you tell a widely relatable story without asserting that the male experience is universal. Kapoor and Sons is full of humans, not heroes. The diversity of age is also very welcome and beautifully handled.*  I love films that make the parents as interesting as the children. As much as I wanted to know more about the particulars of everyone's arc—why didn't Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) tell anyone about his secret professional passion? what is Rahul (Fawad Khan) going to give his publisher in that 20-day window he promised?—I'm most caught up in wondering why Sunita and Harsh ended up so cold and bitter to one another (the fantastic Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor, inhabiting this anger expertly, spiteful and broken in one scene but so tender and hopeful the next). It's obvious, painfully so, that they did, but I want to know how it happened.

Maybe the greatest triumph of Kapoor and Sons is that it acknowledges the distress that comes from the realization most of us have to make ask adults: everyone around us is carrying so much pain and fear. This is primarily expressed through Rahul; the older son seems to be the most thrown by all the revelations that so clearly demonstrate that no one, not even the golden boy, could have kept the peace with that family system operating the way it was. He also most plainly embodies the hope that consequently arises: there can be so much meaning in someone recognizing and accepting our truth, however unexpected it may be. They cannot always solve our pain, but because they know it, they can much more genuinely support and love us.

PS: I'm very much looking forward to a few months from now when essays on this film can address what I think is probably its most important aspect, at least long-term, but that is, unfortunately, a major spoiler and thus has to wait.

PPS: Alia Bhatt is really good in this too, but I couldn't figure out how to mention it in the preceding paragraphs. Hers is a well-written secondary character who is important but not exaggerated, and I think she plays it just right.

* Although why on earth it was necessary to spackle Rishi Kapoor in so much makeup when the film could have used him as-is or cast an actor closer to 80 (the stated 90 feeling fairly unrealistic, unless Dilip Kumar would come out of retirement), I do not know.


Monday, March 14, 2016


I'm on a mission to watch all of Manmohan Desai's movies before the end of this academic semester, and unless one of the remainders* turns out to be an absolute dud, Kismat is taking the prize for the worst of the 21 films he directed. It's not even the worst Hindi film of 1968 that I've seen**, but even with a ramshackle, mostly uninteresting script, it is full of missed opportunities. This is the last of only three films Desai wrote for himself, but it's a shock to see it right on the heels of Bluff Master, which I'd call basically flawless. His next film, Sachaa Jhutha, is his first with Prayag Raj, who is responsible for all but one of the rest of Desai's films (and all of my favorites)***—and those that I think of as embodying his primary values (interests?) of entertainment, inclusivity, community, family bonds, and gentle populism.

First on that list of miscalculations in this film is the casting of the lead actors: Biswajeet (Vicky), whom I find bland in almost everything, and Babita (Roma), who is consistently overshadowed by her fantastic wardrobe, just cannot hold a film. I watched Kimsat with Memsaab, and she posed that the film would have been a lot better with Dharmendra in the lead. I agree, but I also wouldn't want to waste Dharmendra on it when he could have been filming something else, because this script is dull enough that even he may have had problems injecting any style or sparkle coherently. (Not that coherence matters too much in this film.) Ditto for Memsaab's suggestion of Sharmila Tagore or Asha Parekh in place of Babita; with a character who's supposed to be barely over 16 following around a strange man through peril after peril, there's nothing particularly worth exploring, even in better hands.
I never realized I needed an apricot shantung cigarette pant suit in my wardrobe, but I do.
In the comments on Memsaab's post on Kismat, several people mention having liked this film as a kid, which helps cement my impression that it was maybe somehow aimed at children more than Desai's other works, despite jokes by the lead characters about statutory rape, premarital sex, and sharing a hotel room just a day or two after they met. The goofy, gadget-y car and its wacky inventor/owner, Jani (Kamal Mehra), who becomes Vicky's sidekick, are the major hints to this direction, but there's also a fairly consistent ignoring of the more sinister (and interesting) elements of the setup.
This bobble-head dog on the front of the car holds a handkerchief to scent the missing owner and steer the car accordingly. That's pretty great.
Roma has run away from home because her father (Babita's real-life father, Hari Shivdasani) has too many rules and she wants to see the world, but her travel bug is only mentioned one other time, and neither of those motivations explains why she decides to stick with Vicky, who has expressed no interest in traveling or in standing up to oppressive parents. The film opens quite spectacularly, with explosions, talk of enemy nations, and a villain lair with bleep-bloop equipment in its first minute, but the espionage angle too is only mentioned once again, and we don't spend as much time in the lair or with its chief resident, Scorpion, as I would like.

Biswajeet does some fighting against opponents like Shetty (both coated in mud) and a henchman with a hook hand; along with O. P. Nayyar's "One Two Three Baby" and "Kajra Mohabbat Wala", these are probably my favorite parts of the film. But despite the constant chasing, there's little sense of real menace. This might be partly due to Biswajeet's acting, because baddies like Shetty and Hiralal play their parts fully—Vicky comes off as smug and blasé rather than skilled and cool. Neither Vicky nor Roma expresses much curiosity about why bad guys keep popping up, making them seem dumb as posts. The script also lets down Vicky's credibility as some kind of major rock guitarist with actual knowledge of his instrument: he takes very shoddy care of his looks-like-cardboard-behaves-like-steel guitar, never trying to get a case for it and inconsistently remembering that it has a strap that would make it a lot easier to secure to his body when leaping from bridges. The one resource Desai uses well is Helen, who has a small but significant part as Vicky's first girlfriend, singer/dancer Nancy.

The underdevelopment and mismanagement are the most significant reason I'm so disappointed in Kismat; Manmohan Desai can usually be relied on to overdevelop things and to balance them exquisitely to delightful, fascinating effect. Kismat is one of those films that seems like it might have had some scenes cut or lost along the way: more espionage, more backstory or reflection for Roma, even more backstory for Vicky. It's also largely devoid of the kind of moral lessons Desai typically loves. Nobody in learns anything, even about fate, and only Roma has any kind of speechifying (interesting that he assigned that to the very young heroine, actually, instead of the hero or a parental figure). It's vaguely patriotic—but very unimaginatively so. Like Memsaab says in her post: despite his involvement at more than the usual level, it's like Desai never showed up for Kismat at all.

If you want to watch Kismat (you probably don't), it's available on Youtube with subtitles at the Ultra Movie Parlor channel.

* Janam Janam Ke Phere,  Budtameez, Bhai Ho To AisaShararat, and Roti.
** Do Kaliyaan, also starring Biswajeet.
*** I can't figure out who wrote Shararat. Even the film itself does not list any names. Frustrating!


Monday, February 22, 2016


Note the ship keeling in front of a cloudy sky in the painting behind them. This is not a subtle film.
Mostly because of Konkona Sen Sharma, but also out of my deep love of films with historical people being scandalous and making bad decisions among interesting and/or sumptuous settings, I've been very eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see Kadambari, a 2015 film about the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law and her struggle to have a life of her own within the Jorasanko Thakurbari. However, I know little of either contemporary Bengali movies or Tagore, so my bar was not high, having previously made my peace with the fact that Koko can be fantastic in stuff that is well beneath her. "Ignorant but forgiving" is not a bad frame of mind for this film (and many others), and as a visually beautiful story about empathetic people crashing into social conventions—especially ones that we, smug in the future, know will eventually begin to give way—it is a satisfying timepass indeed.

Kadambari is a very complicated and sad story, but I love how dedicated it is to staying centered on such a smart, big-hearted, relatable woman who struggles to figure out what she can do and what her life can mean.
She's winning.
This is not a film about Rabindranath Tagore, either as a person or as a Great Man, primarily; it touches on how Kadambari functions as his muse and support, and there are moments that I worried it was going to change gears into a manual on "Loving Your Genius Bengali Man," but the film really remains about Kadambari, the options she has, and the choices she can't make. My usually fairly accurate radar that starts pinging (RabTagging) whenever Bengali actors shift into that determined but misty-eyed facial expression and reverent voice that signify Tagore's words are imminent is rendered useless by the general subject matter, and I didn't even bother to look up most of the songs to see who wrote them. However, there is at least one song that sets another historical poet's words to a Tagore melody, a nice touch reflecting the characters' avid reading. Do watch that link for the 19th century Bengali version of the SRK romantic hero arm fling. And despite my general uninterestedness in poetry, big tears plopped down my cheeks during "Tomarei Koriyachhi Jibanero" during the end credits, thinking about these two people who probably both felt they'd lost their guiding stars but were never able to say so to each other.

What Kadambari does do well for this segment of the Tagore dynasty is quietly express how talented and involved so many of them are. Kadambari may feel largely trapped in just one house, but it's an intellectually giant world in there, probably much vaster and more interesting than any other in the country at the time. There are ways in which Kadambari (at least she of this film) is lucky to be where she is, given the givens, and she knows it, which lifts the story out of pure misery and gives her hope. Of course, that contrast also heightens the pity of her unnecessary suffering: this is a family that values some freedoms and endeavors by women but not the specific ones, and not enough, to free her—or their young son, for that matter. This is a complicated world, in part because of all these different involvements and freedoms.
In the scene above, none of these very intelligent people can look at each other because they're all trying to simultaneously act on and obscure their true motives. The amazing-in-her-own-right Gyanodanandini (left; Titas Bhowmik), Rabi, and Kadambari's husband, Jyotirindranath (right; Koushik Sen), all want to spend this night with people they're not supposed to, but no one can admit it frankly or figure out a tidy way to get what they want. The film loves these moments of tension between manners and uneasiness, and so do I.  This blog post compares one aspect of the film to a saas-bahu serial; for me, this isn't a bad thing, because even when the film's love of foreshadowing and symbolism gets a little out of control, it's still pretty and effective. I would love to watch a Tagore family soapy miniseries à la Downton Abbey, that's for sure.

Parambrata Chatterjee, whom I still haven't liked in anything as much as in Kahaani, probably wouldn't have been my first choice to play Tagore, at least on paper, because I just don't find him to have much of a presence. Fortunately, Rabi's emotions and acts are so secondary to Kadambari's that playing him calmly and without pulling much attention is a good scaffold for the very able Koko to do the heavy lifting of showing how much they inspire and love each other. The film tells us nothing of the effect of Kadambari's death on Rabi, which, according to other things I've read, was profoundly distressing, underscoring that this is her story, not his or the dynasty's.

Of course, not every important event in Kadambari's life has to do with Rabi; at least in this fictionalized version, there are equally important (though less emphasized) dramas over her childlessness, her husband's adultery, the ways she fits in (and doesn't) with the other women of the house, and an exceptionally heartbreaking relationship with one of her nieces. Konkona pulls us into all of these so thoroughly with her eyes and face that we hardly even need the dialogues. Watch this unaccompanied version of "Kacher Sure" to see what I mean: the gorgeous solo voice adds to the impact of Kadambari's broken heart, but Koko is such a good actor that Kadambari's emotional states throughout this are perfectly clear without it.

Three other movies kept coming to mind as I watched (and re-watched) this: Edith Wharton/Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence, probably my favorite masterpiece of passion among restraint and "if only" (and very close in time period to this, interestingly); Saheb Bibi Golam, where a wife in the big house withers under her husband's neglect; and of course Charulata, which derives from essentially the same source material. What I can't figure out is whether the many, many visual similarities to Charulata are because Kadambari's crew loves Charulata as much as I do or because both draw from an agreed-upon historical visual vocabulary. The ingredients that Ray uses in tender humanism are amped up in Kadambari to the afore-mentioned soap-opera effect. Barred windows and opera glasses appear as symbols of confinement and spectatorship (both as observer and the observed); Bankim is invoked; well-dressed women discuss literature and gossip on balconies; dark wooden furniture anchors us, preventing egress and flight; improper couples linger in garden grounds ("flowers=sex" is at play in Kadambari as much as in any 60s Hindi film); and ubiquitous portraits of European ladies watch over proceedings*.
This one is particularly striking: even as a boy, Rabi represents movement and joy to Kadambari, and Amal's very arrival at Charu's house is heralded by a gale.

Charulata is better than Kadambari at expressing the complexity and tragedy of the heroine's story (and even that of young Rabi, I would propose), which is not saying anything bad about Kadambari because Ray is better than almost everyone and Charulata is one of the greatest films made anywhere. What differentiates Kadambari is death, making it maybe even sadder and narratively simpler—though if you read about how members of the Tagore family responded to her death, Rabi and Jyoti in particular, there's nothing simple about it. Charulata closes with the characters frozen in mid-decision and us with a breath caught in our throats, wondering about their future as emotionally as we responded to everything else in the film, but Kadambari immediately states that strange sort of miserable triumph when someone decides they've had enough and chooses to exit rather than suffer.

I rented Kadambari with English subtitles through Amazon instant video, and a quick search shows that it's on YouTube and Google Play as well (at least in the US...anyone care to report for your country?).

* I've always wondered about these in Charulata—are they evidence of sophisticated/westernized tastes or are they symbols of the colonizers, acting as yet another layer of constriction?

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, with the lead actors 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.

Aside: Another stray thought that crystalized during Tamasha is that so many contemporary Indian films use the west in such a 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. Even the reason Tara goes to Corsica (Asterix comics) is only seen once again, though it may be notable that when we see her with her comic again she's clearly delighted to be re-reading it and is even adding to it with a pen (new text? notes? colors?). Europe—and a not-part-of-the-NRI-map location at that—is nothing but a way to behave in ways they wouldn't at home. What makes this holiday into non-reality work well in Tamasha is that the rest of the film indicates that Tara and Ved's holiday-selves are in fact authentic selves, and they have to find a way to integrate what at first seemed like escapism into their their regular lives in order to feel whole. Zoya Akhtar has figured this issue out too; the travel in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara feels like a stunt, but in Dil Dhadakne Do it feels essential. I'm sure India is thoroughly sick of westerners using it for their own tales of self-discovery (I certainly am), but the pattern absolutely happens in reverse too, at least in fiction.

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. I also wonder whether either of them will be happy into the future if he retains all narrative power. What will happen if Tara insists on being a full partner in their shared story...and what will happen to her sense of self if she doesn't?

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.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

watching the restored Apu Trilogy in the cinema

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: