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:


Sunday, September 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Khoobsurat (2014)

No one is more surprised than I am that I like this film so much. I am on record repeatedly as loathing Sonam Kapoor as an actor and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in general; I'm no fan of the House of Mouse; I merely like (not love) the original but would never have chosen Sonam to do a Rekha role; I don't find Mr. Darcy/Grumpy Pants type characters automatically attractive; and I don't even have Fawad Fever.
(Though I developed it while viewing, obviously.)
But here we are. Maybe I'm just in the mood for some dil-squish, but Khoobsurat's romance is delightful and resonant and believable despite trading in major tropes. As friend Vishal says, it earns all its filmy moments. It helps very much that the characters are actual adults: they're responding to innate desire and affection rather than unsettling passion or any non-self-determined need for a romantic partner, which cuts down the drama considerably. They are sad without each other, but nobody does anything self-destructive when they separate.
How unbelievably refreshing to have a buttoned-up, "respectable" man and a woman (any woman) express sexual desire without censure from outside!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 25, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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