Monday, April 28, 2008

compare/contrast: Akshaye Khanna and John Cusack

My superwow friend Celi brought up this comparison today. (And just so you know whose brain you're dealing with, Celi is also the co-founder of the [Somewhat Un]official Shashi Kapoor Fan Club on Facebook. Yeah!) Here are the smilarities I've come up with so far:
  • both have close family members also prominent in the film industry (sister Joan; father Vinod)
  • both tend to avoid media fracas and keep their private lives relatively private
  • both have acting skills far beyond the general quality of many of the productions they're in (America's Sweethearts, Serendipity; Shaadi Se Pehle, Aap Ki Khatir)
  • both have delivered very strong performances as iconic longing boyfriends (Say Anything; Dil Chahta Hai)
  • both have played artists in love with much older women (Bullets over Broadway; Dil Chahta Hai)
  • have starred in movies featuring road trips (The Sure Thing; Dil Chahta Hai).
If it weren't for DCH I'm not sure if I could have done much with this idea, and now that I'm thinking about it, Sid is a very John Cusacky sort of role. (Sorry to sound Hollywood-centric; that's my first frame of reference for movies, and John's been acting longer anyway.) Admittedly I have seen and am generally familiar with far more of John's movies than Akshaye's, and I'm finding no comparison for the fantastically weird Being John Malkovich, the fantastically interesting Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the fantastically dark and wickedly funny Grosse Pointe Blank (one of my favorite movies, by the way). This mental exercise is also reminding me that apart from Being Cyrus, I can't even think of any off-beat comedies in Hindi in the last ten years that would be the kind of things that would make a truly fair comparison of roles and overall feel of projects. So we'll have to go for style and approach, I think. Celi is definitely on to something: choosy-ish actors who can nail the rom-com hero roles when they want to but usually opt for other types of projects that don't garner them the mass attention and/or recognition that they could have gotten had they taken easier paths.

What say all of you? And can anyone find a clip of John Cusack hoofing it so we can have a dance-off?

Saturday, April 26, 2008


First of all, a big thank you to reader Tulsi, who sent me my very own copy of Deewaar! Thanks, Tulsi! You made my day.

[If you call a one-sentence description of how the movie doesn't end a spoiler, then beware of spoilers.]

Deewaar won't get out of my head. I'm not sure what I make of it, and I'm not sure what the filmmakers wanted me to take away from it. It's sad. It's bleak. No bad deed is unpunished but no good deed is simple. The walls of Deewaar divide, not protect. The structures the characters inhabit are significant - the smuggler's dirty-money posh bungalow, the policeman's honest but modest rooms, the temple, the locked door of the warehouse where Vijay rains down justice on the extortionists - and it is meaningful when someone crosses from one into another. Even the construction of a wall injures our beloved Maa and leaves her vulnerable to demeaning, heartless creeps.

And what about that famous line, "Mere paas Maa hai": triumph or hope? For me the impact of this line was less from the words - I knew it was coming, and it seemed just the kind of thing that earnest and crushed Ravi would say - and far more from the context and what had come before. It's just the two brothers out in the street in the dark. When it's all over, is this scene what the movie is about? These two people who have made different choices and have to figure out how (or even whether, this being filmi) to live with the effects, fighting over the thing that binds them and never able to ignore their shared tragic origin? By the time Vijay confronts Ravi and he makes his famous retort, it was clear that poor Ravi really didn't have Maa at all. This is his great, sad tragedy, that no matter how many good things he does, he will never really have her, not wholly, not whole-heartedly.

Vijay's tragedy is a little less compelling to me. Carrying the mark of society's hatred of your vanished father, despite you being utterly innocent, is a horrible thing to live with grow up, but Vijay knew his choice to enter a life of crime was wrong and dangerous. "Choose" might be the operative word: if by the age of 13 or so you've seen one parent be driven out of town in shame/fear and the other suffer abuse despite her upstanding life, and then you volunteer to sacrifice your own childhood to provide opportunities for your baby brother, then maybe you don't feel that you have many choices open to you (after all, the educated and cheerful brother has little job luck either). But I think Vijay took the easier path of those the film makes open to him, and he gets the punishment that a filmi world demands. I really wasn't expecting the end, though; somehow I thought there would be reconciliation, that Vijay would leave his life of crime and die protecting Ravi from the avenging mob he left behind, and the fact that the movie ends as it does has left me feeling very uneasy. To my eyes, it's so distressing that he takes his mother and brother down with him - his choice (or whatever you want to call it, his life as he lives it) dooms his brother to fratricide and his mother to witnessing the loss of her greatest love in the setting of her safest place.* (Contrast this to Yash Chopra's later but similarly socially-themed Kaalaa Patthar, in which only the criminals suffer.)

It's just all so horribly sad. There was no good way out of this story. I could go on and on - I've been thinking about this movie nonstop in the days since I saw it - but I think this is the bottom line, the point to which all my questions and frustrations with the story return. It's very interesting but full of unfairness and inequity from both individuals and the world at large. There are a few tiny comforts in the movie, and they seem to come from the women, underdeveloped as they are. (The Maa character left me with yet more questions: why does she love Vijay more - and why does she say so?) (And what a waste of Neetu Singh, eh? She had nothing to do.) But they don't last and they aren't really integrated into the story. Nothing is easy here.

Before I stop writing, I have to name my favorite moment (other than the fabulous Aruna Irani qawwali), because it is so powerful and great: Vijay confronting Shiva in the temple, challenging the god to explain why his mother suffers so, to finally offer some help after her years of devotion. One thing I admire about Vijay is that he lashes out only when it's merited, and if I had had his life, I'd be screaming at the universe too.

* You could also argue that Ravi should have stuck to his original desire not to take on the smuggling case involving his brother and that by taking on the case he too is implicit in the tragedy. One could also argue that a real police commander would never assign an officer to a case that might require him to kill his own brother, but never mind.

Monday, April 14, 2008

the life of my favorite Shakespeare-wallah: Felicity Kendal's autobiography, White Cargo

Felicity Kendal, the star of the wallop-packing Shakespeare-Wallah, is known only to me through that wonderful film and the dreadful 2000s British detective series Rosemary & Thyme, in which she plays a botanist who teams up with a former police officer and solves plant- or garden-related crimes.* When Memsaab Story recommended her autobiography to me, I thought carefully and decided that a childhood spent traipsing around India doing Shakespeare and my curiosity about how she could have made such an amazing film at such a young age outweighed any reservations I may have had stemming from my general shudder associated with the tv show. (Plus the book came out a few years before the show started, so I could rest assured I'd not have to learn anything further about it.)

It is a great read. Her childhood in and around India, traveling with her family's theater troupe (their story is the basis for much of Shakespeare-Wallah), is absolutely fascinating. Kendal balances the story of her family with observations of daily life in various parts of the country, and she is particularly adept at descriptions of places and things, creating a solid set for the story. I wish she had more often told us about the lives of the audience members or collaborators, but I realize that as a child and teenager she may not have known their contexts well enough at the time to talk about them now - and, after all, the point of the book is her own life, not the life of post-Raj India, not "India in the 1950s as seen from the point of view of a girl born in England to English parents but otherwise Indian." But you can tell that it was a very interesting time to be in India, to be working with England's arguably most influential writer in a place with such complex feelings towards the UK.

I don't know diddly about British theater, but by the time her narrative sees her off to London to try her hand at the British stage at about age 19, I was too interested in what would happen to be deterred by names I didn't recognize. Apparently she worked on this book largely during her father (Geoffrey Kendal)'s declining health and death, and she includes so many letters from and conversations with him throughout the book that by the time she says goodbye, I almost cried. I think it is relatively safe to say that Geoffrey Kendal was a tough person to live with and be raised by, but his commitment to his work is admirable, and his love of the cultures he lived in is moving. Felicity's mother Laura is also fascinating, a small but strong woman equally committed to her art but not necessarily fond of the way her husband wants to practice it. She reminds me a bit of my own mother, a woman who had tons of professional experience but made some family-based decisions that also meant she didn't always get to make what she wanted out of it.

As I type this, I realized that to describe the Kendals as trying to serve the people of India by making Shakespeare available to people outside the major cities would create an offensive sense of noblesse oblige that I am not sure they had. I don't know exactly why the Kendals made performing Shakespeare around South and Southeast Asia their lives' work - the parents were stage actors in England when they were sent to India as part of the Entertainments National Service Association (the entertainment branch of the British military during WWII), and I gather Geoffrey in particular utterly fell in love and decided to stay. And whether or not you think that was a good plan, theirs is a very interesting story.

Admittedly little of this has much to do with Indian movies other than as a very meaningful companion piece to Shakespeare-Wallah. The Kapoorologists among you know that Felicity is the younger sister of Jennifer, wife of Shashi, and I'll 'fess up that I was hoping this book would give me a little bit of their history. And it does.** Hearing about their romance from the point of view of the tag-along baby sister is quite funny, and their story is delightfully filmi. They fall in love while both K families were running traveling stage shows, and Shashi eventually joins the Kendal troupe when it was short of male cast members. When the lovebirds start talking of marriage, neither family approves completely, and they run off to Bombay, her leaving the family business and an outraged and grieving father to set up with her new husband, the rising film star. What I didn't get a sense of - quite reasonably, given that the book is Felicity's story - is why Jennifer did not act more. Like Felicity, she grew up as an actress in the Kendal touring company, and if her work in Junoon is anything to go by, her staying off camera as an adult was a real waste.

Shashi fans will also like the passages that tell us a little bit about him as a young artist learning his craft. Later there's a very favorable assessment by Geoffrey Kendal of his son-in-law's abilities. After seeing the final print of Shakespeare-Wallah (in which he also starred), he writes in a letter to Felicity: "You are damn good, but Shashi is wasted. The only shot worth seeing is the shot of him by himself, when everyone else has gone to bed, a real winner. He should go into films in English with foreign directors who know how to exploit him."*** I'd like to argue that Indian directors knew how to use Shashi just fine - a world without Namak Halaal? Nahiiin! - although maybe not to the ends Geoffrey would have preferred.

Anyway. That's all secondary to Felicity's story. I think I would have enjoyed White Cargo very much even if I weren't so besotted with Shakespeare-Wallah, but I'm sure knowing one helps you understand the other - and the wonderful movie made me feel very positive about the book before I even started it. And it may be her story, but she is generous in her inclusion of all the people and experiences that are important to her and that shaped her character and career. Kendal has spent her whole life as a communicator, and it shows. She's very good at making you see her life as she sees it, giving you enough detail to pull you in but not so much to swamp the momentum. Even if you're just intrigued by the idea of growing up in a traveling theater group, it'd make a fun read. The historical and cultural setting is icing on the cake for someone with interests like mine. What an interesting way to learn to be an actor. What an interesting way to learn to be a person.

* Momentary detour, in which I vent about this show. It should have been so much better for the following reasons: 1) the stereotyped English love of gardens makes rich cultural and artistic fodder, 2) as a whole the Brits tend to create more relevant and juicy roles for actors who have had the misfortune to pass the age of 40 than any other culture I can think of, and 3) many, many fine mystery shows originate from that fair island. But somehow Rosemary & Thyme is one of the most disappointing tv shows I have ever seen - in theory, it could be quite winking and fun, but it just isn't. The characters are named Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme, for goodness's sake, and I've been told that there is an episode in which they pursue a criminal in a riding lawn mower.

** It also has photos! There are several of Jennifer and Shashi in their early twenties, him looking dapper but breakably thin and her tanned, smiling, and confident. I didn't feel it was right to scan them in, but there are versions online already. Go here to see a photo of Felicity with Jennifer's family in the 70s, posted by a fan of the Kendal women.

*** Footnote fun: the letter is dated July 30, 1965, and appears on page 207 of the 1998 Michael Joseph edition of White Cargo.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Siddharth triple-threat: Aata, Bommarillu, and Chukkallo Chandrudu

First thing's first: Siddharth is absolutely adorable, and he really works his physical attributes to their maximum effects - beautiful eyes, big smile, dorky but endearing gestures, in-character and committed dancing.* I even liked his singing in Chukkallo Chandrudu. These all add up to a veeery pleasant and sometimes squeeee-filled movie-watching experience.

[Pause to reflect on the ├╝ber-schnuffel that is Siddharth.]

But during Aata and Bommarillu, my brain kept going "Hey, what about me?" I found both of these movies to be pretty dumb (or "pretty but dumb," take your pick).** The former has characters so broad you're not sure how even one of them fit on a movie screen; both have plots driven by very filmi, Really Stupid Ideas that severely challenged my ability to suspend disbelief; and the latter doesn't work if you can't support the love of Siddharth's pampered idiot and Genelia D'Souza's squeaking, cartoon-eyed, hot mess of annoyance. Even Siddharth saving puppies from a burning building - hello, manipulation!- could not move my stony heart. Neither film worked for me on any level except the visual, thanks mostly to the afore-mentioned Siddharth effect (and, in the case of Aata, some beautiful river scenes and interesting-to-look-at songs).

For reasons I cannot explain, I loved Chukkallo Chandrudu. It's not particularly more clever or nuanced than the other two and, with its three love stories, skirts dangerously near heroine overload. Isn't it interesting that Siddharth co-wrote a movie in which he gets to love on three different stars? Uh-huh. Fortunately, one of these three, Sada's character, is a compellingly smart, sensible, strong, and sweet young woman, the type I don't see nearly enough of. Hurrah! Song-wise, this film also has a clear advantage, featuring 1) Prabhudeva cutting a rug, 2) Siddharth hip-hopping around Innsbruck (which is supposed to be...Stuttgart, was it?) with refreshingly ordinary-looking backup dancers, and 3) Sukhwinder Singh's glorious, joyful "Dolna Dolna," in which Siddharth gives the best birthday present ever to Sada. If you have not seen this song, go find it at once, because you will not be able to help grinning like an idiot as you watch it. It's fab.

What I'm curious about is: how representative of Telugu popular cinema are these movies? I've seen only four Telugu films (these three and Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana), so may sample is very small and, I suspect, very skewed. As always, I'm up for recommendations.

* In fact, a certain fan told me she thinks Siddharth's dancing is rivaled only by the skills of Hrithik and Shahid. Thoughts?
** Aata also gets a thumbs-down from me for having characters act like rape is no big deal (even though they're the villains and are held up as wrong, I couldn't swallow the topic being treated so lightly) and for having Siddharth's character tell his heroine that her sleeping with him is his right.

Aside: Siddharth's name occurs 11 other times in this post. That is officially too many. There must have been other notable people/meanings/features in these films, but apparently you'll have to look elsewhere to find out. Apparently I have drunk the Kool-aid and all else is lost.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008