Sunday, September 30, 2007


Poor Jaan-e-Mann. When it showed up on my door - courtesy of dear Dr. Marcus, fellow Fulbrighter and Bollywood-watcher - I gobbled it right up. But it's been a month and I can't figure out what I want to say even though I really enjoyed it (despite too much of muscles and a very lackluster role for Preity, whose talents ask for so much more). I loved its use of imagination, memory, and daydreaming. It's also really rich in visuals, many resulting from all the flashbacks and imaginary scenes. When its quirkiness was tied to something relevant, it worked really well. My two favorites were Suhaan (Salman) and Bonney (Anupam) comforting flashback Agastya (Akshay), who had somehow come out of the story and joined present-day Agastya as he told his tale of woe.

That's how sadness is sometimes - it slips out of your past and demands that your here-and-now life pay attention to it. And when we're lucky, here-and-now can help out the past, or at the very least acknowledge its realness. I thought this scene was so sweet. Also fun was the boys dancing with cardboard Preity in "Jaane Ke Jaane Na."

There's definitely a joke to be made about her seeming more lively as a cardboard cutout, but someone probably made it already. The movie-fication of the wished-for life was also lovely - pretending, as one does in Bollywood, that stalking is sweet and touching.

But sometimes the zany was too loosely constructed, like the completely pointless dwarfing of Anupam Kher. Seriously, people, what was that all about? I'd love to know how they did it, though, especially in the balcony scene - where's the rest of his leg?

On the con side, Suhaan and Piya (Preity) toyed with Agastya's feelings, even if they did so selfishly rather than maliciously. The movie might also be interpreted to be validating the Really Stupid Idea of "a baby will hold this marriage together!" But overall, I found it satisfyingly filmi with a yummy dash of surprising flight of fancy.

I went a little nuts with the screen caps, so now it's time for show and tell. To start, in keeping with Suhaan's dream about winning a Filmfare award, let's pass some out to Jaan-e-Mann.
Worst Wig, 2006

Electrical Outlet Most Likely to Make Me Think This Was Not Filmed in New York

Dance Fusion I Never Need to See Again

(That's Salman+Riverdance, in case you haven't seen it.)

Best Use of Archival Footage

Isn't he darling? Look at that smile.

SRK Did It Already, but It's Still Funny

I also want to point out the truly delightful movie-related segments with all of their fantastic details, like the posters outside the offices of the agents Suhaan pursues. They range from Main Hoon Na to Bollywood Hollywood and even include the Beatles (Hard Day's Night and the documentary Let It Be), and you know how I like it when Bollywood and the Beatles intersect.

A special nod for Salman being willing to make fun of himself here. Well done.

Also note Suhaan's first movie shares the title of the actual movie. Cute.

And for those who are curious, the Shirtless Wonder dropped sleeve at 15:28.

Is someone compiling these stats?

Beth kahaan hai?

Buried in work, that's where. So buried that my brain is not able to figure out what to say about two recently-watched movies, Jaan-e-Mann and Teesri Manzil.

While I work on those, help me figure out what to watch next. When my Hindi tutor returned from her summer in Rajasthan, she brought me, among many other delights, a handful of Mysterious Movies from Yore, and neither of us knows anything about any of them. Whichever of these gets the most positive and/or intriguing comments from you readers will be the next movie added to the queue. Here they are in chronological order.
Chitralekha (1964)
Dulha Dulhan (1964)
Sawan Bhadon (1970)
Jeet (1972)

My tutor also brought me Jewel Thief, Sharmeelee, and Guddi. Yes indeed, I am the luckiest girl in the world! Jewel Thief is obviously superwow and what I wrote about it when I first saw it earlier this year doesn't at all do it justice, and at some point I might write about it again. As for Sharmeelee, well, I could go on it forever (especially given the regime change) - and in fact have already done so - so while I'll watch it again and again, decorum prevents much more public disclosure unless I have some blazing new important insight. MemsaabStory wrote about Guddi recently and I thought to myself "Damn I have got to watch that, but where am I going to find a copy?" - and then realized that the universe, in all its wisdom, had already provided me all I needed. So Guddi was already in line to be watched, but after that, it's one of the four above.

I also had two interesting Bolly-related experiences this week. First, I went to a lecture on twentieth-century Indian art and the speaker made a side reference to Satyam Shivam Sundaram when discussing Ravi Varma's depictions of women. Second, I watched old and new Don back to back (aren't we lucky to have two Dons to watch!), the old one with Abby, who hadn't seen it, and the new one with a group of friends who are new to Bollywood for whom Abby had chosen new Don as an introductory film. One of the viewers guessed DeSilva's actual identity very early on, and I was surprised, as I'd gasped out loud in the theater when he said who he was and the interval lights came up. Then again, I had assumed the plot would be the same, and she didn't have any such expectations. The host's ten-year-old, a gadget-y little fellow, also liked it a lot, except for the singing and dancing, which he summed up as "enh."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday, September 17, 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007


In a movie that stars Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Naseeruddin Shah, and Deepti Naval, isn't it something that it's a much less accomplished film actor who steals the show? Everyone in Junoon is excellent, but it was Jennifer Kendal that impressed me most. Previously I'd only seen her in a tiny role in Ghare-Baire. (I have some James Ivory to catch up on, but I kinda burned out on Merchant Ivory in college back when we all wanted to be Lucy Honeychurch, you know? It's good, but I'm not sure I'm ready to dive back in.) She was best known around here as an unfugged costume designer (Fakira, Kabhi Kabhie) and T(rue) F(or) R(eal) S(ignificant) O(ther) of ascendant FPMBF Shashi Kapoor.* From the little I have read about her (and I haven't yet gotten my hands on the Kapoor dynasty biography - somehow the Illinois university library system doesn't have it, leading me to wonder where exactly my tax dollars are going), she has a professional and personal life enviable not only to anyone interested in international theater but also, of course, to us dreamy-eyed firangi filmi fans.

All of that can be put aside. Now when I think of her, I'll think of her smart, strong performance as Miriam Labadoor, a widow of the British Raj who must protect her shattered daughter, Ruth, and elderly mother as they hide out during the revolutions of 1857. They are given shelter by a noble, Javed Khan (Shashi), who is desperate for closer proximity to Ruth. His feelings for her (I hesitate to say "love" because we see little evidence of actual affection or fondness - "lust" is probably more accurate) are the obsession referred to by the title of the film. (Any thoughts on what other obsessions/madnesses the title includes?) Though left with nothing, Miriam manages to navigate safely through a system that is at best stacked against her and at worst out for her blood. Miriam's Anglo-Indian (mostly Anglo, from what I understood) family is vulnerable both as political enemies of the revolutionaries (led by Naseeruddin Shah) and personal enemies of the household that they cannot safely leave. Javed's walls may keep them relatively safe from violence, but Javed's wife Firdaus (played with sympathetic petulance by Shabana Azmi) makes it clear that these foreigners and a potential second wife, especially Ruth, are very unwelcome. Javed is vile, showing true affection only for his pigeons, and seems conflicted about his new role in the society of his house and community, a rebel who is afraid to fight and an egotist who flares up at any questioning of his decisions. Miriam ably stands up to fiery, unstable Javed, giving him enough hope of getting Ruth that he maintains the Labadoors in his house. She is weak but firm, and he is powerful but unsteady. Her best lines come in frank, controlled exchanges with an unhinged and confused Shashi, and I wonder what performing scenes like that opposite your real-life partner must be like. I don't think a viewer who was unaware of their relationship off-screen would ever guess that these two were a couple.

Jennifer and Shashi, compelling as they are, are just two of a slew of interesting people in the movie. Ruth, played by Nafisa Ali, may the focus of Javed's madness and by extension the reason the Labadoors and Khans are thrust together, but I thought that the story (at least as it is presented in the movie) happens around her more than it directly involves her. The meat of the interactions are between the adults as they take on various identities of aggressor and protector in the interactions at war, at home, and between these two arenas. For example, Firdaus and Javed's marriage seems tenuous before Ruth emerges as a threat, and there are brutal scenes between them as Javed spews his dismissal of Firdaus and lust for Ruth. I was also interested in the contrast of the Labadoor family's initial savior, Lalal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who is genuinely kind but does not have the social power to guarantee their safety, and Javed, whose status makes them safer but whose motivations are dangerous in other ways. The movie shows many different kinds of love and hate, confinement and escape. Speaking of which, as in Umrao Jaan, there's a motif of birds: Ruth develops an affection for Javed's pigeons, the only real bridge between them, but Firdaus hates them and refuses to care for them, preferring her own caged parrot.

Definitely one to watch when your brain is fueled and ready to participate. There is a very thoughtful discussion of the film on Bollywhat, which I highly recommend. Of the good points raised there, I was particularly struck by the question of what Javed's obsession represents in terms of Indo-Anglo relations, us/them, affection/lust, etc. Believe me, there is a lot going on in this movie; the more thought I put into it, the more I'm going to get out of it, even if some of that thinking is about some complicated and painful ideas.

Aside #1: I have two gripes about the movie that I couldn't figure out how to integrate into the rest of what I wanted to say. First, the background score is too melodramatic for my taste, and I didn't think it always suited the complexity of the story, interactions, and themes. Second, the battle at the end wore heavily. I think the same impact - war sucks, sacrifices can be painful, freedom/victory but at what cost, etc. - could have been made with less footage.

Aside #2: is Amrish Puri the narrator? I'd say that voice is unmistakable, but I've yet to find any evidence in print.

* That's right. You read it here first. Akshaye's on his way out. It's not me - it's him. Details not available at press time.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Saturday, September 08, 2007 dog ate it? a very tardy book report on King of Bollywood: SRK and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema

(What's the difference between a book review and a book report, anyway? Do teachers still ask children just to report on a book, as though it is a static fact, and not critique it and engage with its ideas? Kids can do that. They're really bright and have tons of ideas.)

Anyway. In case you missed it, back in July before the book came out, several bloggers from the US and Europe participated in a marathon discussion of the book with author Anupama Chopra. My hat is very much off to her for agreeing to such a rambling project, and she answered questions respectfully and with humor, an approach I always appreciate.

Now that I've had time to mull the book over - I was reading frantically right until I sent my questions in - I don't think I have much more to add to what was discussed in that post or to what other reviewers since then have said. It's an engaging, straightforward book, combining personal, industry, city, and cultural history. In its strongest moments, it made me feel like I was teleporting with the author, getting a personal tour as we zoomed through time or lurked around movie sets and stars, overhearing their thoughts.

Chopra avoids dull, rote listing of events in SRK's childhood and student days, and while it's clear she's a fan, she's not a suck-up, either. Her style of writing falls in the "analytically affectionate" category. She doesn't pretend to be unbiased, and because she tends to focus on "why SRK's performances resonate with such a wide and varied audience" rather than on "why SRK is the best actor EVER!!!!!!!!!!" her approach works nicely. She's thorough without gushing, and that's hard to do. I feel similarly about her tone in writing about the film industry - she's got fascinating, insider-sounding information, but she's not smug about it, nor does she condemn people for mob involvement, nepotism, making low-brown films, etc.

I am heartbroken that Chopra does not footnote her work. Each chapter contains a list of references, but facts, assertions, and opinions are not cited. I have spent almost all of my adult years in a university, both as a graduate student and now employee, with research as one of my major job responsibilities, so forgive me when I gripe that the failure to link ideas to their source, which would be so easy to do, renders this book almost useless to scholars. Of course, scholars are only a tiny fraction of the potential audience, but the problem is bigger than that: clearly anyone who reads this book is curious about the topic, so why not give us the tools to keep digging? It also means that a reader could very easily - and fairly, I think - decide not to trust what she says. The book is full of great stories, but how does she know them? Especially when a quote or description of an event sounds almost too filmi to be true, a citation would give the reader some more confidence that the narrative is, in fact, what we hope it is. (For example, she tells the story of a 25-year-old SRK standing on the Marine Drive overpass declaring "One day I'm going to rule this city" [page 67] - completely delightful and resonant with a star persona, but is it true? If he told her this story, then admitting that would help us understand that it might have been embellished a little or remembered as fuller of big emotion than perhaps it really was. He is a good storyteller, after all.) A story like SRK's needs all the backup it can get; as the author herself says, it's "a dramatic show-biz success story" (page 11), the kind that's easy to get swept up in, and he's obviously the kind of person(a) that can bring out the fanatic in those who like him. I said in the previous paragraph that she was thorough; I guess I should have said that her writing strikes me as thorough, since I don't know with absolute certainty how she got each bit of information, nor could I follow up on it myself. I wish I had asked her about the rationale for this decision when I had the chance. The reference lists are impressive, though, and they include books on film, newspapers and magazines from India and abroad, tv shows, screenplays, and production company websites. She also lists the people she interviewed; I'd like this even more if she annotated the list to explain who everyone is.

Maybe this complaint says more about me than it does about the book, but it's my book report, so too bad. I may be hot-pink in love with Bollywood, but I'm also a librarian, a bookworm, and a child of historians. I need for this passion to stand up to the kind of critical thinking that I try to apply to the other things I'm interested in, and this book doesn't help me as much as it could have.

Wow, how un-filmi was that?

I also wonder why the book's subtitle says "Indian cinema" when it's really just about Hindi cinema. Was that an attempt to make the topic more recognizable for potential readers who don't know what Hindi is?

As I read the book, pen in hand to mark passages and record my comments, I drew a star at the bottom of any page that I thought contained an interesting question, a conclusion worth debating, an insight I wanted to explore further, or simply a great story that very effectively illustrated her point. My copy is littered with stars, and there were so many moments while reading that I wanted to phone up the other people who were also in the group discussion and ask them what they thought of x or y passage. Chopra has a real way with words, putting her finger squarely some important ideas and describing this "seductive world" so accurately and resonantly - "Hindi cinema is a necessary comfort and a collective expression of hope" (page 8), "Shah Rukh's keynote [as an actor] was innate buoyancy" (page 59), "A superstar was created because the audience was ready for him.... It was almost as though, starved of a god after Amitabh, the audience had already decided to make Shah Rukh the next idol" (page 100). The book, like its subject, is generous with emotion and entertainment. Even if it doesn't always live up to what I want in a study of Bollywood and its context, King of Bollywood is a perfect match for its subject, and that makes for a great read.

Update to post (September 10, 2007): I forgot to mention that I have a preview copy of this book, so there might be things missing in mine that made it into the final version. For example, I just read over at Memsaab Story that there are photos, but mine doesn't have any.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Satyam Shivam Sundaram

Classic theme, souped-up package. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; what is seen is changed by the feelings of the viewer. You may look, but do you see? Do I love you because you're beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you? Etc. Like with yesterday's Chak De India, there's nothing particularly novel about what's going on here, but the movie certainly presents its ideas in engaging (and sometimes really weird) ways. Like Kaddele, I'm not quite sure what to say about this movie. It's both very familiar and completely strange. The visuals are strong, often really helpful to the story or message and always interesting.

If you don't know the movie, there are probably two things that you've heard about it. One, Zeenat Aman wears little clothing, and what she does wear is either almost transparent or very tight. Totally true. I'm not quite sure what to make of this - on the one hand, sexing up the already uber-babe Zeenat seems redundant and cheap when the message is "beauty is internal," but on the other, not looking like the rest of the village girls suits her because she's always been overlooked and mistreated, perhaps left to wear extra-thin fabrics or to play in the fields dressed however she likes.

Two, there is a totally trippy picturization. Also true. If you want to see a slide show from said song, "Chanchal Sheetal Nirmal Komal," skip to the bottom of the page.

[spoilers ahead - but you can still watch the slide show of the fun song by going all the way to the bottom]

Utter arse and very often wet Ranjeev (Shashi Kapoor) has some kind of pathological fear of ugliness.

Rupa (Zeenat) is an unlucky (so everyone tells her) village girl with a sweet voice and quick wit but a burned face.

They fall for each other fast, him without seeing her scar, and get married despite her protestations that he hasn't seen her entirely yet. When the veil comes off, Ranjeev has a freakout unlike anything I've seen,

locking his wife up at home and mentally dissociating her from his darling - and completely imaginary - perfect Rupa. While Ranjeev veers further and further away from reality, even with the advice and pleas of his wife and friends, Rupa sneaks out of the house and continues to meet with him for waterfall frolicking - he thinks she's the original Rupa, the girl he thought she was before he saw her entire face, and she plays along while figuring out how to put her life back together. In between the romps and snogs

more tragedies occur. Rupa bides her time and chooses her words carefully, and with some good timing/intervention by god/nature, everything comes out in the wash. I don't want to give anything more away, so let's just say that there's plenty of opportunity to yell "You go girl!" in the last twenty minutes of the movie (yay Zeenat!).

The major weakness of the movie is that we never get any explanation for what exactly his problem is - there's no mention of childhood trauma involving seeing a rotting corpse or anything like that. Yet when he looks at Rupa's burn scars, he sees this.

He does tell us that he lives alone and as such he is free to exist in a dream world that is much more pleasant than the real world. You know, 'cause all of us single folks are off our rockers with a tenuous concept of reality. Anyhoo. Despite being an engineer, it seems he has very little grasp of emotional and interpersonal structures. (Oh wait, that's the stereotype, isn't it?) We're left to just think he's the Jerky J. Jerkamo of the century. He tells Rupa of his sad plight, at which point Filmi Geek, my watching companion, commented " His plight is he's stupid."His change of heart at the end of the film isn't really explained either, but that's okay, because 1) I was expecting it and 2) it signified a return to the good and just order of things. And I will say this: when he finally redeems himself, it sounds wholehearted and pure, with clean, simple words (yay writers!) and clean, simple delivery (yay Shashi!).

[spoilers over]

Okay, now for the good stuff. I can't describe it. Just watch. You might want a drink first.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

a ten from the American judge: Chak De India


I loved this movie so much.

I don't watch many sports movies, so the next comment is somewhat uninformed, but: I don't recall any other sports story having such a balanced, respectful approach to the question of how to encourage individuals to coalesce into a real team. I really appreciated the emphasis that the movie, via Khan, put on improving and relating to the larger communities to which the players belonged: each girl was a part of the team, but she was also part of womankind and India-kind. Each girl had something to give to - and receive from - each of these different overlapping and sometimes conflicting groups to which she belongs. (For a few of the characters, we saw even more bits of life to consider - family, boyfriend, and, in the case of Khan, the past. Of course most of us juggle all these pieces and more in our day-to-day lives, but I understand all of that couldn't fit in the movie.) Everyone had something to learn, and she did. Everyone had something to contribute, and she did. The movie did all this without obliterating the individual - no one was torn down in order that others might rise.

Another strength, I think, is that it nailed each cliché it indulged in.* It's a good thing, too, because if you're going to be unoriginal with your overall plot and character types, then you really need to play the old chestnuts in a relevant, meaningful, entertaining, and/or unique way - and Chak De India hit every one out of the park (pardon the metaphor mishmash). It was also surprisingly light on cheese (although maybe it's weaker on that front if you are more familiar with the regional stereotypes and how they tend to get treated in fiction than I am), with a lot of heart but very little melodrama. On that point, let me share that at intermission I sent Totally Basmatic a text message to say that Shahrukh was awesome (I believe I used all caps) and that sometimes I forget how much I like him and how effective he can be and am always delighted to be re-reminded. His and everyone else's performances were perfectly balanced, as was the whole movie: familiar but not redundant, engaging but not toying, inspiring but not preachy, indulgent but not lazy, sweet but not saccharine.

I wonder if the buoyancy of the excitement and communal good will of seeing this in the theater may lose its momentum when the movie is watched on the small screen. I hope not. I hope this movie will be beloved for years. It's an incredibly satisfying film; I don't know whom exactly to credit for that, so my hat is off to everyone involved. It's as though they, like the girls, knew they had a chance to do a good thing, and they made the very most of the opportunity. "Chak de" indeed!

Aside to people who play field hockey: what did it mean when the Indian men's team held out their sticks to the women's team and then they reciprocated? Respect? Truce? Bravo?

* It also avoided some I wouldn't have been surprised to see, like a badly-timed outburst from Khan when shaken by his ghosts, extended racist or other snotty remarks from the other teams, whispers of foul play, or someone overcoming a physical injury or a tragedy that befell them during the tournament. Wise choices, I'd say, as none of these would have particularly benefited the overall arc of "personal growth within larger communities" of the players and coach. There was one stereotype I was actually disappointed not to get, though: that arsehole hockey commissioner getting his comeuppance. Maybe credit for that is owed to shrewd writing: it was as though he was so uninterested in the women's team that having him around during the big matches, even by telephone, would have been inconsistent. At least we got our slow clap, though. I luuurve a good slow clap, and it was all I could do not to start one of my own at the end.