Tuesday, July 29, 2008

research quesiton # 5

Inquiring minds want to know: is there an Indian version of/remake of/homage to Star Wars? If so, does Helen play Leia? If not, feel free to write in your suggested cast, director, and composer (we don't really want to trust John Williams with this project, do we?).

FYI, a teaser for upcoming events: continuing on the express to Shashi Pradesh, Ajooba is tonight's viewing pleasure and Prem Patra is lined up for Saturday. The following weekend, the train will take a slight Shashitabh-inspired detour when Aspi and I go to the Chicago leg of the Unforgettable Tour. Tour prep includes: choosing outfit (something to complement Ritesh's red pleather, perhaps? definitely must allow for dancing), figuring out how to smuggle in a camera, and listening to Kamla's new interview with Abhishek.

Update to post: well well well, look what just came up in a search for something almost entirely unrelated.

(image courtesy of http://www.indien-netzwerk.de/navigation/humor/)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Heat and Dust

If Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala don't stop ripping out my dil and throwing it SPLAT onto the screen I'm going to have to stop watching their movies. And this time they messed with my head, too - and decked the whole tricky beast out in nawaby finery and 1920s party dresses. I ask you, what chance does a girl have?

The narrative in Heat and Dust flips back and forth between present day and the last decades of the Raj, both in the same location in India. In the modern day, Anne (Julie Christie) has found letters written to her grandmother by her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi) about her life in India, beginning in the 1920s. When her husband, a lower-level official, is off working, Olivia gets to know the local community.

She's not particularly interested in the other memsaabs, preferring instead the company of the Nawab (Shashi Kapoor)

and his hanger-on Harry (Nickolas Grace).*

Meanwhile, Anne tries to fill out the story in Olivia's letters. She begins her research by interviewing Harry, now a very old man, and then moves in with a family in the town Olivia lived in. Anne's stay in India begins to parallel Olivia's as she too settles in with a host community

and also finds a companion in a flatteirng, sympathetic Indian man, her landlord Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) (yes, that Zakir Hussain). There are some really nice visual ties as well: here is Olivia's bungalow in the 1920s

and now, when it's Inder Lal's office.

(Is the fact that Inder Lal works in Olivia's old house is a coincidence overly filmi for a movie like this? Discuss. At first I thought "neato" and then I thought "oh come on," and then when the movie ended I decided it was in keeping with the sweet and sort of romantic tone of the film.) The plot summary should end with saying that Olivia's stocking

has sweet and toe-curling bookends in both her own story and Anne's.

Anne's story is the easier one to make sense of: she's in India in search of something, and she's not entirely sure what when she starts out but seems to find her bliss or whatever by the end. In the 1920s, though, life is more complex, as life in movies seems to be when social norms prevent people from doing and saying what they really want. (The question of social norms comes up in Anne's story too; most of the major points in Olivia's life have parallels in Anne's.) All the characters want something, everybody has something ugly in them, something to color how you interpret them. Olivia is probably the least skewed, and she comes off more ignorant than anything else. Like young Lizzie Buckingham in Shakespeare-Wallah, naive Olivia has to navigate her attraction to a manifestation (and I do mean "man") of the more sophisticated and equally rule-bound Indian culture. I honestly don't think she's exoticizing the culture she finds herself in; at least, she's not exoticizing it any more than she has been kept at a distance and simplified by both the English and the Indians. The only person who really seems to be her equivalent and true friend is Harry, who's not Indian by any stretch but seems to have no use for or interest in the world of the English.

(A quick aside about "the world of the English": the 1920s story is very much focused on the English administrators and a tiny handful of the Indians who work with them - pretty much just the people you see in the dinner party picture above. No attention is paid to anyone outside this group. In the modern story, we do get a broader sense of the town and the different people living in it.)

Anyway. Motives. The Nawab is broke and grasping for cash, Olivia's husband worries about his job competency, the higher-up English officers do everything they can to minimize the threat of rebellion, and all of the women seem to obsess over what is and isn't done. At the same time, the characters' hidden agendas and run-ins with customs and boundaries lead to awkwardness that is funny to watch. Olivia has the most trouble, of course, but everyone at some points has to choose what to do with social expectations and obstacles. There are many conversations about how to behave and how to think about other people. Upon first arriving in India, at a formal event Olivia is offered a snack she can't stomach and has to make desperate faces at her husband, who mimes to spit it out in her hanky.

(I think I like this scene so much because it happened to me with a piece of barfi in a school principal's office in Amritsar.) Another of my favorites is this bit of dialogue from a paranoid memsaab's advice to Olivia when she first arrives (in the quote, "they" refers to Indian men):

It's funny on a basic level - xenopobic, emotionally unstable memsaab spouts nonsense - but it's much juicier if you recognize the actor. As Bart Simpson would say, "The ironing is delicious!" Lines like this - for example, Anne all but rolls her eyes while supposing contemporary English people move to India trailing after some guru or other - make me think that MIJ have a keen sense of humor about the stereotypes that float about in the sea of Indian-Anglo culture and relaitonships. It could be that they were also having fun with real life stories: in addition to the Kapoors' Indian-English love story, Julie Christie was born and raised in India.

But does the sense of humor guarantee they're not falling into exoticizing, demeaning ideas and depictions? I really don't know. I know orientalism is a charge frequently levied at Merchant and Ivory, and I haven't found it to hold up in their other India-based movies I've seen. Yesterday The Horror!? and I were discussing the culpability of works that present something vile and also a voice that criticizes or laughs at or otherwise seems to minimize the vileness; in his words, "having it both ways is an old exploitationer [good word, right?] tactic." For example, what do we make of Shashi's unctuous prince?

He loves the trappings of his status and the lifestyle he's had, but he has his hands full playing the Raj while agitating politically behind the scenes. Decadent, impotent dandy or clever independent? Or Anne's host family, who tries to cure daughter-in-law Ritu's unexplained illness with chickens, fire, and a pilgrimage to a holy site.

This little arc was the most troubling to me because it's presented with no information. We don't know what's wrong with Ritu, who screams and thrashes at night but seems perfectly lovely and competent during the day, and we don't know what the bowl of fire and waving a chicken over her are supposed to do; we only hear that Anne tries to take her to a specialist doctor and Inder Lal declines.

Stereotypes abound, mostly racist British officers, but I thought they were pretty clearly being criticized and poked fun at. Most of the language they use is so appalling and unsubtle that it's hard to believe the filmmakers would have them use it for anything other than easy targets. You could probalby argue they're too broad to be effective skewers, but I don't think they make sense as anything else. The Nawab's mother (Madhur Jaffrey) is another hater; she loves viewing the pomp of the English and making the ladies squirm by her pointed quesitons or shunning them altogether.

Both Indian and English characters in Heat and Dust present a variety of opinions about the Raj and about each other. Everyone in this movie has prejudices, some nastier, more ignorant, or more harmful than others.

Now that I've finished all that description, I'm not sure what the movie is about, really. It was emotional and biting while it was going, but I'm not left with any strong feelings or impressions - I was really choked up at parts, mostly those that moved at the personal level of responding to one's attachments and attractions (hence the heart-splatting, but I don't want to tell you what they are so I won't spoil the movie - just know that it tugged some strings), but I recovered immediately, unlike with the devastating Shakespeare-Wallah. I think Heat and Dust is basically about the importance of finding what/where/who makes you happy and doing/going to/being with it/them - and, it must be said, there is at least one character who embodies the potential troubles that can accompany such decisions if you buck the social norms too dramatically. I'd love to hear from someone who has read Jhabvala's Booker Prize-winning novel, which I can easily imagine has more going on and/or focuses on different aspects of the stories to create a different message overall.

* I definitely got a vibe between Harry and the Nawab. Can anyone who's read the book to speak to this?

Monday, July 21, 2008

all a-twitter

BLB is now on Twitter. You can find me here if you want to brave my experiments in trying to use this "mini-blogging tool," the most appealing of Twitter's self-descriptions, to do something creative, useful, and/or * gasp * interesting. Bite-sized movie thoughts, perhaps? No promises that all tweets will be movie-related. But at least they'll only be 140 c/s and cannot include gratuitous pictures of Shashi or Neetu. (Way to sell it!)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

don't stop believin': Immaan Dharam

Alternate title: Can I get a witness?

The next installment of the bilateral projects of the International Relations Ministry of Shashi Pradesh! PPCC joined me in watching the first of my new stash of Shashi.

Bet you can tell what this is about, right? Behaving as people of faith in pluralistic communities. Recognizing higher powers. Witnesses-for-hire Mohan (Shashi) and Ahmed (Amitabh) regularly take oaths but spout lies in the courtroom. They're not really bad as much as they are opportunistic, as evidenced by the lengths they go to to help their neighbors, including the sweet Shyamlee (Aparna Sen). The stakes rise considerably when Kabir (Sanjeev Kumar), Shyamlee's fella and all-around inter/super-denomination religious philosopher, winds up on trial, and the rest of the story follows Mohan and Ahmed (and a few friends) as they take guidance from Kabir in their attempts to get eveyrone out of the messes caused by various bad guys in suits (Mac Mohan, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri, you get the idea). Rekha and Helen enable a little romance, but they're also much more than that, fighting the man

and asking some tough questions rather than item-shimmying.

Note the cross necklace. It's going to be really important later.
All three female characters are quite interesting, and although I'd argue they don't get as much screen time as their stories merit, they have meatier roles than some other 70s women I can think of (Neetu Singh in Deewaar, for example). They participate fully in the community and their stories add a lot to the societal context, providing windows into working conditions, parenting, and de facto families in the big, anonymous city.

[If you don't want any hints about the masala-y ending, don't read the next paragraph.]

Here's the one thing that bugged me. Immaan Dharam champions Indian religious pluralism and tolerance (among other things) - yay! - and it takes the Amar Akbar Anthony-type route, focusing on Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, also adding in a clear representative of Sikhism. But there are no Buddhists or Jains (not useful stock characters for the free-for-all dishoom at the end, perhaps?), and, more to my personal concern, no atheists. Everyone good in this movie is clearly identified in a particular theist faith. The movie might not say that the bad guys are godless - I don't think that their religious views are mentioned - but all the good people are clearly not. No one particular faith is exalted, but god- and scripture-based faiths in general are. Atheists and agnostics are not demonized, but they're not included. (If I recall correctly, the person who expresses confusion about the value of religion is killed, but he's also mourned and clearly not a villain.) The movie ends with Kabir's great big statement that the lead characters - the heroes, the people who solve the problems - compose "today's India." It gets some points for diversity; from left to right we have a Muslim, a newly-identified Christian, the all-knowing theologian, a Hindi-speaking Hindu, a Tamil-speaking Hindu, and a Sikh. But no non-believers and no doubters.

Join hands! Start a love train! As long as you believe in some higher power! Woo-woooo!

What's going on with this? Maybe at the time the movie was made no one was worrying about what atheists were up to? Maybe SalJav just didn't feel a need to comment? Maybe religion has been given the same movie treatment as many other aspects of life, namely that they're often painted broadly and there's little wiggle room (agnosticism isn't tied up with a nice bow, after all)? Maybe I'm worrying too much about a non-issue? I'm not sure why I'm so bothered by this; when you live in contemporary America, you realize that not belonging to a faith is not always a comprehensible or popular trait. But the movie seemed so adamant that people grab on to religion in order to survive and progress - it was as though not identifying with a specific faith and not finding wisdom in scriptures were not an option. No god, no life, no positive role in the country. This idea is even expressed literally a few times. Most of the examples don't play out quite as heavy-handedly as you might fear, but of course there are ridiculous filmi treatments of religion saving people as well - it is 1977, and we must keep our Recommended Masala Allowances of coincidences and symbols up to official standards!

Mohan sees the light. We get it, okay? Geeze.
Moving on. I did like that the movie has characters consider what it means to have faith, to treat people with kindness, and to behave in ways that are consistent with what they say they believe.

You know what I believe in? I believe in Shashitabh, especially when the two are tightly aligned and striving for justice! They start off bad people - although jovial, well-integrated into their community, and always loyal to each other - and end up much, much better, repentant and working in service of others.

They plan together, learn together, fight together, and succeed together. They might as well be the same person, really, though it's a lot easier to identify them with India's two biggest religions when there are two of them. Sanjeev's character serves as the wiser brother, the better son, helping both of them clean up their act. And anyway, why have only one of them when full-on Shashitabh would be even more fun, I say! (This principle did not work well in Shaan, because Shashi hardly makes any impression, and thus Shashitabh is weak and not particularly fun or interesting, so it might as well actually just be Amitabh.) The first song, "Duniya Ek Adalat Hai," has the two reveling in each other's company, I suspect as actors as well as characters. They look like they're having so much fun, and it's infectious. It's very similar in style and tone to my beloved Parvarish's "Sab Janta Ka Hai," featuring the small(er)-time crooks larking around the streets of Mumbai, joyful and chummy. It even has rolled-up pant hems! No surprise - both movies are Lakmikant-Pyarelal in 1977.

Aside: I love when movies have street scenes that include hoardings or posters for other movies. Here we had Laila Manju with Rishi Kapoor and Ranjeeta Kaur, Sangram with Shatrughan Sinha, and Ab Kya Hoga, also with Shtarughan and Neetu Singh. You can see the latter two in the bottom left photo.
This is very, very fine Shashitabh, maybe even better than in Kaalaa Patthar because there's more fun in their relationship. It's of the buddy-buddy, "I am he and we are all together" variety rather than the "we'll complement our strengths and play off each other's screen personas" kind. Fun, sweet, and very well suited to this big cast and multi-pronged story.

Random bits:
  • Some notes on the women's makeup. Rekha wears "brown face," for lack of a better term, I assume to emphasize her character's Tamil-ness, and I think this is the first time I've seen a film couple in which the woman is darker-skinned than the man! I'd like to be wrong about that, but I can't think of any other examples. On the other hand, Helen appears in an important scene with no makeup on at all (or at least makeup that looks like she isn't wearing any, as opposed to her previous bright red lips and spider eyelashes)! The effect is really disconcerting; we're so used to seeing her all glammed up that in her natural state she looks almost alien.
  • Another first in this movie for me is an attempted rape that is detected and stopped by bystanders! And the woman is comforted and cared for! And she doesn't kill herself! And people work together to catch the perpetrator! Woohoo!
  • The graphics of the title credits are superbly 70s hip (see top photo too).

    This reminds me of looking at a World Book Encyclopedia article (probably published the same year this movie was made) in the reference nook of my hometown public library's children's department. I love it.
  • The Ultra DVD gave me no problems on my main DVD player, but when I put the disc in the computer, a little green rectangle popped up (you can see it on Helen's right hand above). V mysterious. Also, the back of the case has some of that really hilarious inaccurate and paltry descriptive marketing text that makes you wonder why it's even there, and it says "the main attraction of the film is the star cast," which really sells the story short, in my opinion. It also uses a picture of Shashi that isn't from this movie and calls Shashi and Amitabh's characters by the wrong names (Ram and Iqbal). Better the nonsensical text and mistakes there than in the subtitles, though, so I shouldn't complain.
  • Look how Kabir is bound up when the baddies capture him.

    Fortunately most of the movie's symbolism isn't this clunky.
  • Speaking of what I believe in....

    Shashi in black. High priestess.

Friday, July 18, 2008

lunchtime poll #6: bad hair day

Another Guide-inspired thing that makes you go hmmm: have you ever been distracted from a film or performance by a star's hair, as I was by Dev's in Guide when he was supposed to be suffering spiritually but looked like he had been sleeping on orange juice cans? Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of Rishi Kapoor's fluffy top in Doosra Aadmi,

Manoj Kumar's high-rise architecture in Roti Kapada aur Makaan,

and Bobby Deol's shaggy poodle thing in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Write in with your favorite egregious examples!

This doesn't have to be a bad thing, aesthetically. Many, many are the times I have had to pause to bask in the glory of Shashi Kapoor's Shashilicious waves and curls.

(Aside to Bobby's stylist: this is how you do curls, okay?)

(This is a bad picture, but I like how Rakhee is petting his hair. Totally understandable.)
And Abhishek's headband, which, inexplicably, I love - and I think suited oddball, too-cool-for-school Rikki perfectly.

(It's all just a matter of taste, of course...."Women Prefer Men with Stubble")

I'm surprised no female stars/roles have popped into my mind yet, and I'm beginning to think I must just plain ol' love a vast majority of the hairstyles I see on women in the movies, some 80s and 90s missteps notwithstanding (which is why I'll give Saif Ali Khan's mullet in Main Khiladi Tu Anari a pass). Even when they change as often as the outfits, like Rakhee's in Sharmeelee (to be fair, it's a dual role) - the more, the merrier!

Here's the more substantial question, though: is it generally right to assume that most filmmakers would rather the physical look of the actors add to, rather than draw attention from, the overall production? That doesn't mean costume and hair and makeup must always be only subordinate to the plot, tone, general style, etc. (for example, Teesri Manzil would not be so super fab without the overall fashions) - but everything needs to work together, doesn't it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

lunchtime poll #5: the path to awful movies can be paved with good people

A spin-off of the discussion of Guide, egged on by Pessimisissimo: what's the worst movie you've sat through because of who starred or was involved in it? (This is not to be confused with "what's the worst movie you've sat through because everyone else said it was wonderful/because of who brought it over to your house and was sitting on the sofa watching it with you, gauging your reaciton/because the music was so great/because you paid good money to sit in the theater's air conditioning/because you can hardly believe how giddily ridiculous it is" etc.)

#5: Aap ki Khatir
The explanation writes itself.
#4: Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
Darn you KJo and your stable of stars! SRK was the main appeal for me in this one because I saw it fairly early on and at that time he was the star I knew most about. If I I were to make this decision now, Kareena would likely have the same effect, as would SRK/Kajol together and Hrithik dancing. It should also be noted that I had read a lot of positive reviews of K3G, so those, coupled with the movie's general impression of being a Big Deal (whether or not this is earned), probably would have led me to it no matter who was involved. Still. Mega star-power with too much filmi indulgence and a story that makes me roll my eyes (somewhat made up for by Jaya giving the dinosaur what for).
#3: Bhagam Bhag
Even well-intentioned research can lead a person astray. In this instance, my occasional investigation into the all-important question "What is with Govinda?" led to nerve-grating, patience-testing annoyance.
#2: Kudrat
You'd think I'd learn. I'm sure I haven't. I'm sure I'll once again watch movies just because Akshaye Khanna is in them, and no doubt I will realize my time would have been better used some other way.
#1: Jab Jab Phool Khile
My hatred for this movie only festers and boils over with time. Neolithic ideals in sheep's clothing (i.e., Shashi) led me astray.

When you answer, please indicate for whom you suffered. I'm wildy curious if there's a general trend out there...we could start a special Filmfare award for "Most Likely to Entice People to Sit through Utter Garbage." (The Epsuggies?)

Another poll will be posted later this week. This is what happens when I've been traveling for a week and unable to watch any movies. Poll topic hint: click on the link for Kudrat above and peruse the pictures.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

cavalcade of fun

BLB has received a hot tip about Indomania (at least, I assume that's its name, based on the url), a Russian forum that has a treasure trove of interesting images. I don't read a lick of Russian (but my Hindi tutor does, conveniently!) and have been flipping through its pages randomly and with great glee. Among my favorite finds:
  • gently aging Shashi, looking adorably happy,
  • Preity in a funny hat,
  • Neetu and Amitabh gettin' down,

  • what must be the best Mithun movie EVER.

    Is it too much to ask that this is a scene from an actual movie and therefore there might be three more hours of similar fun? Pleeeeease?

In other news, a shopping spree has yielded 15 new Shashi Kapoor movies, ranging from Dharmputra (1961) to Suhana Safar (1970) to Ganga aur Suraj (1980). Don't say you weren't warned.