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.

Carla:
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?

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.

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

Beth:
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."

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

Beth:
What were the high points for you, if any?

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
Well, it's inevitable.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:

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.

Beth:
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.

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

Beth:
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?

Carla:

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?

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

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

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

Beth:
No, it's not.

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

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

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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?

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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?

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
Yes.

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

Beth:
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."

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

Beth:
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?

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

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

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

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

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

Beth:
(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.

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
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.

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

Carla:
Very true.

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

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

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

Carla:
Ah, interesting.

Beth:
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?

Carla:
What are your answers?

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

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

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

Beth:
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.

Carla:
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.

Beth:
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.

Carla:
And with those ringing endorsements...

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

Carla:
WHAT????

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

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijaan

#toohotforparagraphs


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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Baahubali: The Beginning

Baahubali is an incredible, awesome film...except when it isn't.

Its CGI work is varyingly glorious, adequate, and really bad. Its props are lush and evocative except for all the armor that looks like bargain bin plastic. It is racist: shoe-polish black-skinned evil army uses a click language and rough-hewn wooden shields (the good guys have metal) while putting innocent villagers in front of its soldiers and is described in the legend that precedes their onslaught as barbaric rapists and thieves. It is sexist: its rebel warrior heroine becomes useless when the hero shows up. He physically brands her as his own property; gives her a forced, almost rape-y makeover that removes her armor and lots of other protective, sensible layers of clothing, exposing her in every possible way, while adding cosmetics and untying her hair; and distracts her from her self-stated life's work by pointing out to her that she is conventionally pretty, a value that is also stated as antithetical to her chosen life. Some of that happens in a dream sequence, but once reality returns, she is soon snared in a net and twists an ankle, apparently unable to continue walking on her quest (even though we've already seen a different woman go on an arduous journey with an arrow sticking out of her back). I guess you cannot be capable and self-directed;once some completely random yahoo tells you you're pretty. Brains or looks, ladies! Earlier in the film she explains that tears are not a sign of weakness but of her boiling blood; now she says she's torn between him and her mission (her two loves in life). In what may be the worst of this whole simplistic, insulting arc, he actually decides for her by saying "You are mine, and thus all of your life is mine, so if rescuing the princess was your mission, now it's mine" and just walks off without her.

Neither racism nor sexism are a particular surprise, but the extremity of the first and the about-face of the latter shocked me. Based on the end of this film, I do fully expect her to be back and in warrior form in the conclusion, and I hope she will fight side by side with the hero—this is clearly a world with more than enough baddies for several heroes to come forward without any of them seeming less than divine in comparison. There's enough opportunity to grunt and impale and decapitate in slow-motion to go around.

Update to post (July 18, 2015): I just read two really good pieces on the rape of Avantika in this film, one by Anna Vetticad at The Hindu and one by Vivekananda Nemana on The Ladies Finger.

Back to the incredible, the awesome. I love basically everything else about Baahubali. There are so many moments that made me clap with delight in the theater. It's the only film I can think of whose second half not only is not worse than the first but also improves upon it so drastically (and the first half was no chopped liver, either). I tend not to care about fighting in films very much, but the huuuuuuuge battle is my favorite part, joining a short list of films whose battle scenes I would re-watch even out of context of the rest of the film (Asoka, Sikander). It is handled with such drama and creativity. The low tech demanded by the historical setting results in some of the most enjoyable weaponry and defenses I've ever seen. The political machinations are no less impressive, with Ramya Krishnan as Sivagami fierce and frightening in her philosophies and leadership. She's the hero of this film, in my opinion (okay, either Sivagami or art director Sabu Cyril), and that's one reason the decline and fall of guerrilla Avantika is so upsetting: these writers know how to make a no-nonsense, super -capable woman, but it's as though having created one they figured their quota was met and stopped caring. The clothes, SWEET HELEN ABOVE THE CLOTHES: small-scale metalwork (mainly jewelry, though a guardian's chain mail shirt and a prisoner's clanking chains are effective too) and fabrics are simply glorious. Exteriors, interiors, and architecture add reinforce the scale appropriately and beautifully. My favorite visuals include:
  • princely jewel-toned dhoti and flowing hair
  • a metal-tipped shoe (Kattapa's, I think?) standing on the head of a prisoner
  • the rebels' stone bracelets (even when Avantika's magically changes wrists and back mid-song)
  • Sivagami's entire wardrobe, down to the puff-sleeve sari blouses
  • Devasena's tattered dupatta, which...does not bode well for what we may find out about her, does it?
  • Mahishmati throne room (parliament hall?), which somehow looks like what Frank Lloyd Wright or Ron Thom would do if he only worked in stone
  • just the sheer crowdedness of the architectural facades in Mahishmati. How is this whole city not rendered immobile from over-stimulation?
  • the goat-emblazoned battle formation
  • the imagery of the fuchsia clothes sailing through the sky (and the opponents' reactions to them)
  • horse-mounted rotary blades
  • flaming hay bales
  • the whole snow sequence, which is an incredibly brilliant choice to make since we see snow in Indian films rarely and as a setting of suspense, aggression, or peril even less often. The tinkling of the ice coating every branch is just perfect. To me this loses its magic once the sledding starts because that portion is much less well done, but hours after leaving the theater I'm still enchanted by the ice.
I will never tell you not to bring your brain to a film—that's always your choice, and you should make it as you see fit, no matter what the rabid twitter rabble says—but I do think that aspects of Baahubali crumble under certain expectations or scrutiny. I somehow thought that a huge budget also meant absolute dedication to all detail and execution, but it doesn't, and it's probably unfair to hope so. All the budget in the world doesn't guarantee better writing, and I wonder if some ideas in story or characterization suffer from neglect when other, showier (and maybe more marketable) ones are distracting. I also won't tell you that the stupendous visuals, scale, and overall orchestration of so many wonders make up for my disappointments, because those are entirely separate concerns, all of them worthy of consideration. So while it isn't perfect (and sometimes stumbles in unexpectedly simplistic ways), Baahubali has so much to appreciate and revel in. Go see it, right now while it's on the big screen. It's extremely fun, wildly creative, and very, very cinematic.

Friday, July 03, 2015

mini reviews for June 2015

Chhalia 1960 [Spoilers.]
Oof. If more of Manmohan Desai's early films are like this one, I'm never going to make it through his whole filmography. Chhalia focuses on one little Ram-Sita-y family, using them as a metaphor for Partition and its aftermath (which are the setting for the story): Nutan is the faithful, fertile, and wronged motherland, Rehman is the proud but misinformed father/patriarch in a suit who abandons her, their sad-eyed moppet is the ultimate innocent victim,
and Raj Kapoor is the scrappy common (Hanu)man who restores proper order.

Pran also serves as a refuge for Nutan in one wave of the story (and Raj in the other). For reasons not clear to me (I think a few scenes are missing from this print) they hate each other and have a big fight, which is hilarious because how are we supposed to think Pran would not win instantly?
That's all well and good—except for Raj Kapoor, who is creepy beyond belief in this role—but to get to that satisfying ending you have to sit through the chestnut of "through no fault of her own, wife is separated from husband and behaves nobly, but he doubts her and rejects her until she's almost burned to death."

The Desai symbolism I love so much in his 70s films isn't nearly as rampant here (and would be out of place), but he does show doubts embodied as a literal straw man—demon, actually—who goes down in flames as the family is reunited.
The director lights Nutan's face so lovingly but makes her say things like "My husband has spurned me but I am praying for his long life."
But frankly, this is not my kind of story, even when indebted almost entirely to Nutan's thoughtful, sympathetic performance. In addition to Rehman spurning Nutan when he wrongly assumes that she has cheated on him with Pran while they were separated by the chaos of Partition, her father and brother do too and disown her. So much talk of izzat gives me severe eye-roll sprains. There are some visually beautiful moments, but unfortunately they're offset by Raj Kapoor playing his knockabout fellow with too much sleaze. I assume a skeevy hero isn't the intended effect, but yikes.
There are also a few moments that are so jarring they disrupt the solemn, sad tone: not once but twice Raj Kapoor is put in front of posters for his own films.
Why? Why would you do this? There's nothing funny or sly about anything else in the film, and somehow the in-joke almost insults the story.

Chhalia isn't a bad film, really, but unless you just really want to wallow in misogyny, there's not much appealing in it. Maybe for Nutan, Desai, Partition, or Indian-films-based-on-Dostoyevsky's-"White Nights" completists only?

Jay Vijay (Jay-Veyaj: Part 2) 1977
(According to the film's own title card, its title is Jai Vijay: Part II, but I cannot find any trace of part I. Maybe it's a nod to the historical introductory material?) I couldn't find a subtitled version of this online, so I might be missing something, but it feels like a clip reel of mostly really, really good masala lunacy held together by a story we've more or less heard before. Two hundred years ago, three kingdoms hid their treasure underground and wrote the directions to the location on three necklaces;
the importance of the necklaces was then written on copper plates buried underground; the locations of the plates were written on palm leaves kept in each palace; omg this is like trying to come up with yet another password with more than eight characters including numbers and capital letters; then about a generation ago, somebody bad wanted to get the treasure and some royal babies were separated and yadda yadda yadda (in a good way).

The most consistently compelling part about it is the older members of the cast, who make a damn fine Who's Who of That Guys, so much so that I would rank it only just slightly after the 1973 Gaddaar in which Pran and Iftekhar lead a crew of bandits all portrayed by That Guys. Technically the hero of this film is probably Jeetendra, but he does not impress, even on someone who has a moderate tolerance for 70s Jeetendra. Prem Krishan tries but feels similarly marginal, Reena Roy is criminally underused with no chance for the sort of sass I enjoy so much in other films, and Bindiya Goswami basically gets the runoff of Reena's already blah part. HOWEVER. Look at this cast list for the non-hero generation: Om Shivpuri, Satyendra Kapoor, Urmila Bhat, Roopesh Kumar, Kamal Kapoor, Lalita Pawar, Paintal, Appi Umrani, Mohan Sherry, Ram P. Sethi...the list goes on! It's totally worth watching just for them, and if you like character actors from days of yore, Jay Vijay is not to be missed.

Please indulge me in some picspam for the remainder of what needs to be said about this film. For example, an item song dancer (Jayshree T) is paid by a golden egg laid by a goose who is also in attendance at the performance.
Dev Kumar looks vaguely Prussian.
The Bloefeld-esque royal cat has a bejeweled collar and leash.
Jagdeep is finally used properly in a film: his usual schtick is curtailed relatively early in the film when he deliberately opens a booby-trapped door to invaders so that the bomb will explode on the enemies, killing himself in the process. YES. THIS IS PROPER USE OF ODIOUS COMIC RELIEF UNCLES.
Reena Roy has a nice song in the pool of her pretty pastel palace.
There is competitive qawwali in disguises.

Lockets.

STATUES WITH LASER BEAMS.
Thanks to being raised by a good-hearted daku, Jeetendra can, and I swear I am not making this up, get out of chains by wriggle-exploding. I don't know how this is justified, but there you have it.
There's a melee of the highest order. I love that they not only packed this scene with extras but they also actually staged it so you can see everyone at the same time. Smart.
Every time Viju Khote is hit in the brawl, there is a quack sound effect. Look, don't question these things, okay? Just rejoice in them.
If you look very hard, near the top right of this photo you will see Jeetendra (in brown) swinging from a rope holding one of the baddies (also in brown) in a scissor grip between his legs. In no way will this lead to a shot of a fantastically fake dummy falling to the ground. Nope.
The chief bad guy falls over a balcony and on to the goddess's sword and it is EPIC.
Thank you to pal Shivani for recommending it!

Sanjhbatir Roopkathara 2002
A story about a father-daughter relationship in which the father is a painter and the daughter a serious student should be right up my alley,
but this is essentially just Pretentious Bengali Movie Men Behaving Slappably. They are put upon because they are entitled, selfish, predatory jagweeds who mistreat the women in their lives.
Creative block is fundamentally boring to me, partly because the older I get the more I know that you just have to Do The Thing and partly because the writer-iest writers I know has never once complained about it, which sure does hint at some kind of connection to competence.
This guy with his book and cigarette and stole, amirite?
No. He was not different. He was an entitled jagweed as previously discussed.
The daughter, played by a wide-eyed and appropriately rattled Indrani Haldar (who is also Chandramukhi in the 2002 Bengali Devdas starring Prosenjit) (why haven't I seen that yet?) (oh right, because Devdas), is an interesting role. I can't think of many other films in which a daughter has to work so hard to figure out whether and how to repair her relationship with her father. In response to his sins that aren't even directly about her yet upset her deeply, on screen she does almost as much listening as she does stewing, which is a very mature way to handle things. She doesn't stamp out her own feelings but is also open to additional input and decides that moving forward is as important a value as the ones that were wounded.

Badshahi Angti
2014
For those who don't follow contemporary Bengali films, this is the newest incarnation of the legendary Feluda character, played by Abir Chatterjee, who has also been playing Byomkesh Bakshi in Bengali movies (and whom you know from a few scenes in Kahaani).
I would assume there have been massive outcries over the idea of Bakshi and Feluda being played by the same actor, but Bengali knicker-twisting over beloved literary characters is low on my list of priorities, so I haven't paid attention. And anyway, the real problem here is that Sandip Ray (son of Satyajit) is a terrible director and really should not be allowed to make any more movies, maybe especially not ones based on his father's work simply because inviting so direct a comparison is disastrous for junior. The only reason I could give you to watch this movie is to see all the location filming in Lucknow (including plenty of eating),
which is true of the last Sandip Ray Feluda film I saw too. This one also gets in a few fun chases, and I am impressed at whatever logistical wrangling it took to make that happen in Lucknow streets and crowds. I didn't find much interesting in this film otherwise, and it continues the weird and utterly disappointing Ray tradition of nullifying women from the world of stories aimed at younger readers/viewers (I don't think any even speak in this entire film). Almost an "avoid yaar"...or, as I was told to say in Bengali, "Ekdom dekhben na. Jaachetai."
Unless you like bad CGI rattlesnakes.
Hawaizaada 2015
Does it make any sense to say that this film moved me as a human but wearied me as a viewer? Does it make even less sense to say that I would have liked it more if it had been performed by the Muppets?
WHY IS MITHUN'S AERONAUTICS LAB ON A GIGANTIC SHIP?
The story has solid, worthwhile bones—in 1895 Bombay, the quest by an eccentric (of course) inventor and his equally eccentric protege to design and build an airplane becomes a metaphor for the freedom struggle—but is poorly served by the Bhansali-ish visuals, a too-fanciful tone, and a love story whose irrelevance rivals Special 26's.

Despite finding the major characters tiresome and wishing Mithun Chakraborty and Ayushmann Khurrana would dial back their manic pixie dream chasers from 11 to about 7,
I caught myself tearing up a few times. I'm a sucker for stories that explore the nobility of science and human intellectual endeavor (e.g. Kinsey and The Dish), and while Hawaizaada is otherwise largely unsuccessful, I'm delighted that Bollywood attempted at a story like this. Design-wise, the human-scale elements like clothes and homes are gorgeous, if hyper prettified in an un-real teal palette,
but the machinery they endlessly labor over does nothing to help us believe it will soar—ironically, a story about flight is hampered by the plasticy-looking steampunk nonsense that looks far more like a prop than anything that could conceivably work.

We're supposed to believe and invest in their struggle, their dream, but there's too little grease and dirt and too many wistful looks and "Eureka!" moments (inspired by the Vedas, no less).

Somewhere I read that the original title of this film was Bombay Fairytale, and that's certainly more evocative of how this film feels. It's not nearly as successful at it as Bombay Velvet; probably the earnest but overly spelled-out freedom-fighting talk keeps this from working more smoothly as a parable. A lighter touch with less whimsy and less emotionally manipulative background music would help so much. That said, Hawaizaada is an interesting experiment, especially in a year with high-profile period pieces that function in different ways (Bombay Velvet, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!)
This intersection reminds me a lot of the front of the nightclub in Bombay Velvet, actually. Same set?
Ek Paheli Leela 2015
If this film had been made in 1975 instead of 2015 with Aruna Irani or Reena Roy or Helen instead of Sunny Leone, I'd gobble it up without a second thought. It isn't good, exactly, but it is certainly chock full of favorite features: gratuitous Rajasthani locations and caricatures,
Is there any film that just lets Rajasthani characters be Rajasthani without having them remark upon how proud and/or violent they are due to being Rajasthani? Ditto Pathans (as in Chhalia above).
eye-popping costume and set design,
terrible but quotable dialogue,
and great, gleeful reveling in tropes of creativity, love, fate, reincarnation, and revenge.
It's kind of a B-grade Magadheera that hits a bunch of familiar notes yet also handles the reincarnation angle in a way I've never seen before. This last bit is spoiler-y, so I can't discuss it further, which is too bad, because it's significant to the film and demonstrates some great creativity among the writers, first-time director Bobby Khan and frequent choreographer Jojo Khan.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Paromita Vohra's piece in The Ladies Finger about Sunny Leone's career in India and how she works the media by being unapologetic about her earlier porn career while also demonstrating certain traditional values. That's basically how the titular Leela behaves as well: she's not ashamed of desires and deeds, and she refuses to be shamed by anyone else either. True love and fidelity, which are more or less the family values of the world of this film, are upheld in both the flashback and present-day arcs. Leela is not perfect, but she is hard-working, kind, and slightly unsettlingly child-like, and her sweet nature is basically rewarded despite the outer trappings of her life in the fast lane of modeling. Say what you want about this film, it soars through the Bechdel Test immediately when "artier" stuff like Sulemani Keeda fails; it shows that women can be professional and ambitious without also being emotional and psychological train wrecks, an idea completely foreign to higher-profile "woman-centered" films like Fashion and Heroine. This seems like a great kind of project for a star who is new-ish to the industry and unlikely to hit it big in mainstream movies. And I think it is critical to point out that she is absolutely not any worse than Katrina Kaif still is after so many more opportunities. If the amazing last few years of Deepika Padukone's trajectory have taught us anything, it's that genuine improvement as an actor is possible, and if she can find a director willing to take a chance on her in a higher-profile project, she might just stand a chance. I'm not invested in whether she succeeds or not, but with your sociologist hat on, it'd be absolutely fascinating to watch.


Sunday, June 07, 2015

Dil Dhadakne Do

 
(The above song is NSFW.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 01, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

[Spoilers! They will be marked in situ.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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