Friday, August 29, 2008

The Unforgettable Tour again - now with fewer words!

My story for Tehelka about the Unforgettable Tour has been published here. Please know that I did not make up that title. While I've heard many Indians and Indian-Americans use "Amreeka" in jest, I am certainly in no place to tease anyone about pronunciation.

But anyway - yay Tehelka! I just wish I'd been able to blow the lid off some scandal at the concert...Aspi and I brainstormed a few fake-pretend concert-related corruption stories (young Unforgettables' Yaarana-style jackets not solar powered! firework showers blind front-row patrons! Chicago show marred by Capone connections!), but none of them would have stuck.

Monday, August 25, 2008

moments in filmi feminism (the first installment in an occasional series): the restaurant brawl in Chak De! India

When I saw it in the theater a year ago, Chak De! India absolutely blew me away. It was moving, inspiring, funny, and simply fantastic. And feminist. Wowee! This weekend, I rewatched it for the first time, dancing around the living room, yelling at the screen, hooting and hollering...and then during the restaurant scene BAM my joy came to a screeching halt. In the theater, at just about this point in the film, I had somehow sensed intermission was coming, stepped out to the lobby to beat the bathroom rush, and completely missed the girls' brawl with the harassing hooligans. I'd never seen it until Saturday, and it really bothered me. It didn't sit well with my own definition of feminism or with the ethics of the rest of the film.

Here it is, briefly. The girls have just told coach Kabir Khan that they want him out. On his last day of work, he invites them to join him and the staff for lunch. Everyone sits silently at McDonald's, dejected and contemplative. Molly and Mary, the two girls from the northeastern states (Manipur and Mizoram, if I read the official website correctly), go up to the counter, and on their return to their table are again harassed by male onlookers (they've already been leered at outside the training center).

Balbir has had enough

and physically attacks one of the guys.

He shoves back, Mary and Molly join in, and the fight grows to involve all the girls and many boys who were either in the restaurant already or rush in from outside once they see the scale of the fight.

Kabir stops staff Krishnaji and Sukhlal from quieting things down

and only interrupts the fight to caution a boy that to attack from behind is cowardly (and takes another jab at cricket, a running joke in the movie).

A car window is broken, the seating area is trashed,

and Sukhlal is stunned.

Khan says "I told you, Sukhlal. It is spirit, not strength, that makes a team."

The girls gather round and try to stammer out an apology and an invitation to Khan to stay on as coach. He doesn't wait for their formal request and tells them to be on the field early tomorrow morning. Cut to the team walking out of the restaurant and Sukhvinder Singh singing "Chak de! Chak de India!"

Here's what's bugging me. Apart from this scene, Chak De! India is for me a feminist film, unapologetically, boldly, with heart and humor. But women taking on the worst behavior of men and/or male-established/dominated society is not what feminism about. You don't get to attack people because they mistreat you. Of course these jackasses deserved to be punished. Their behavior was harmful and hurtful and unacceptable. I was totally with Balbir when she yelled at them, and I absolutely do not think females must be quiet and just bear whatever sh*t is dished out at them. But vigilante violence isn't really the answer here - in my mind, it's not even an answer (which is one reason I don't always love the 1970s Angry Young Man acrhetype). In a story that highlights personal and professional success by playing by the rules and behaving ethically and with concern for others, it doesn't fit. I'm so disappointed that not only does the movie have the girls engage in this behavior, it also has this outburst of short tempers and violence serve as the bonding moment, the experience that enables the very existence of the team continue. What's the message here? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? We will rise when we beat down others? The people who mistreated us behave like this, so we should too? Violence demonstrates our potential for greatness?

Two other problems. It was a cheap tactic to have the big, angry Punjabi girl lead the physical fight - the writers just let her be a stereotype. (When she lashes out physically again later, on the field against the already violent Argentian team, it makes a lot more sense. It falls within the behaviors established for that set of interactions. I have no problem with that.) Additionally, we aren't shown any consequences for this behavior except the team's sudden show of "spirit" and their subsequent realization that they can work together effectively with Khan leading them. No one from the restaurant calls the police, the team doesn't apologize to the restaurant workers, and no one who caused the mess helps clean up. Kabir, you want a team that beats the crap out of people in broad daylight and then shows no responsibility for what they've done? Great. I don't understand why the coach sees this as the moment that demonstrates the girls cohering into a working team.

Overall, the film shows the girls maturing and learning in wonderful ways throughout the rest of the film. They learn to be colleagues and the best possible versions of their individual selves. They try, they give, they share. It's glorious. But to me this scene falls far short of the nobility in the rest of the movie. When the girls lose control of their brains and give in to physical expression of anger and confusion - no matter how legitimate their anger and confusion may be (very!) - and are then only rewarded for their "team spirit," the film shows human beings benefiting by behaving badly. Boooo. Let's bench that baloney.

What do you think?

Update (August 26, 2008): Indie Quill and 24 Frames Per Second have responded to this question at length on their sites, so don't miss the great ideas and conversations there too.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

simply adorable: Dulha Dulhan

[Spoilers ahead, but nothing you wouldn't assume knowing that this is a sweet little comedy and love story.]

Squeeee! I loved this movie! Dulha Dulhan was given to me by Si, my friend and Hindi tutor, among a handful of other Mysterious Movies from Yore in a bag of treasures from her summer in Rajasthan. A good movie is always a treat, but because I'd never heard of this one (and I don't think she had, either), its lovableness feels like an especially wonderful random gift from the universe. Thanks, universe!

Raj (Raj Kapoor), a radio singer, shares a room in a Bombay chawl with Bansi (Agha), a film studio musician. One day Raj gets a letter from a friend, asking him to go to the train station to meet the daughter of the friend's boss. There he finds Rekha (Sadhana Shivdasani), penniless and with nowhere to stay, and takes her in. Rekha is delightful, and, as her naivete in the big city charms the roommates and the whole neighborhood, she and Raj fall in love.

But there are buts.

But #1: Raj gets another letter from his friend apologizing for not having written sooner to say that his boss's daughter never made her trip to Bombay. So who's the girl staying in his apartment? Of course, it doesn't matter, and after a few attempts to shake her off, Raj realizes how much he loves her and they get married despite her unknown identity.

But #2: While she's out doing some shopping, someone from Rekha's past comes looking for her and takes her back home to Jaipur [ooh, that's a nice concidence for me, since Jaipur is where this DVD began its journey to my house]. Rekha also conked her head and suddenly remembers her actual past - her name is Chanda, and she had been fighting with her family over an unwanted engagement - but forgets her current life in Bombay with Raj. All of this happens while Rekha is out of the apartment, so Raj comes back to an empty room and has no idea why or where she's gone. Nahiiiiiin! Will Raj find Rekha? Will Bansi find Raj? Will Rekha remember her husband and their life together? Will the chummy world of the chawl be reunited?

The film is adorable, start to finish.* Raj Kapoor is twinkly and sweet.

Raj (the character) makes several attempts to get rid of the mysterious and reputation-risking Rekha before he finally gives into his affection for her, and you see the pain on his (the actor's) face as his love struggles against his sense of propriety and pragmatism. He is heartbreaking as he sings a melancholy version of "Hum Ne Tujhko Pyar Kiya" to Chanda in Jaipur, echoing back to her the words she sang him in Bombay to win him over.

Raj and Agha also have great chemistry, squabbling and making up and vowing their eternal loyalty like an old couple. Sadhana is a wide-eyed, cutey-patooty delight.

You might call her simplistic, but she comes off as wholehearted and genuinely charming rather than dumb. The three together form a dear little urban family of sorts.

Rekha's and Raj's isolation is referred to repeatedly. In the Bombay-based portion of the film, neither of them has any literal family. As they plan their wedding, Raj says that orphans like them don't get all the fancy trappings like the groom riding a white horse

but the neighbors work together to give them a lovely wedding and party, complete with musicians borrowed from Bansi's latest film set. (When I went back to get screen captures, I noticed that their festive, "proper" wedding is hinted at in the film's fun animated title sequence.

More on them in a minute.) Later, their landlord tells Chanda's father that Rekha is like his own daughter and welcomes her to stay in Raj's room rent-free. Interestingly there's no contrast to happy, family-filled village life, no moral lesson about how the big city is cold and evil - maybe the point here is that each of us can create family out of the affections we find, no matter who the people we're fond of happen to be.

Anandji-Kalyanji's songs are stellar, starting right away with the titles.

After he claps his surname into existence, cartoon Raj morphs into the R of his first name, then back again. And don't you love how much he looks like actual Raj? There's no doubt who that is. A dancing cartoon Sadhana twirls until her skirts form an S, and she becomes her initial too. Later they dance together, Agha does handsprings, and Anandji and Kalyanji play the drums.We have to wait a bit for the next song, but it's worth it. The whole chawl dances around together in "Mujhe Kehte Hai Kallu Qawwal."

"Bane to Ban Jaye Zamana Dushman" reminds me of Paheli's "Phir Raat Kati" puppet dance with its theatrical painted backdrop and stylized choreography.

I don't know how either Sadhana or Raj were regarded as dancers, but I thought they were really expressive and completely in keeping with their characters. "Piya Khiche Hue Bandhe Hue Chale Aayenge" [phew!] has little to do with the movie and might just be an excuse for Sadhana and her friends to dance around in the mountains, kind of like a superfluous slumber party squeal-fest, Bollywoodishtyle.

I loved it. Filmi Geek found me the soundtrack online at Dhingana, a site I've never seen before, and I listened to it all day - though after multiple times through the music in isolation, I've decided I prefer it with its picturizaitons and in the context of the story.

And oh, some of the lyrics! The front of the DVD case says the lyrics are by Gulshan Bawra, Anand Bakshi, Harun, and Indivar, and I don't know which of them to credit for what I'm going ot quote. In the sad version of "Hum Ne Tujhko Pyar Kiya," Raj pleads with Chada:"You were proud of my love for you. Try to recollect those times." Later, he wanders the countryside, lost after his attempts to win her back fail:
You brought me to such a turning point, then shattered my heart.... You did not leave me fit to belong to someone else. What do I say about your unfaithfulness. It makes me ashamed of my faithfulness. That love you had given me.... Who are you turning back and looking at, o heart?

Isn't that beautiful? Aaaah! I love how the actor and the words express the confusion, the not understanding, of your beloved just vanishing into thin's not just sadness and grief, it's also the pain of not knowing. Beautiful.

I can't imagine there's much new in this movie, but it's absolutely adorable anyway. The tight focus on Rekha/Chanda and Raj helps a lot, I think; both leads do a fantastic job being charming, lovey, confused, and vulnerable. If this story of the leads' off-screen dislike for one another is to be believed, I'm even more impressed at how well the movie succeeds - and at how convincing they are as an on-screen couple. It didn't even suffer the Curse of the Second Half! The balance of elements does tip more towards sadness and drama then, but everything still moves along to the predictable happy ending. Like Pyar Kiye Jaa, the whole thing just comes together perfectly and is totally satisfying. I had intended to keep this writeup really short, just saying "This is really cute! You should see it!", but it seemed wrong to withhold screen captures and whatever other enticements I could dig up. But it is really cute, and you should definitely see it - and then tell me whether you thought so too.

* [There are some more detailed spoilers in this caveat about the movie's adorableness.] Well, almost. There are a few moments of "oh come on, 1964." The chawl is scandalized by the idea of Rekha staying overnight with Raj and Bansi, and an ashamed Rekha takes some severe action when she realizes that her presence causes trouble. Later, when Raj finds Rekha in Jaipur, he pleads with her father to believe that they were married, but the only evidence that her father will accept of her marriage to Raj is...well, a physical condition that you don't have to be married to have. And, taking her doctor's diagnosis as proof of her wedding herself, Rekha decides right then and there to return to Raj, even though she doesn't remember him. Insert eye-roll. I can't defend these plot points in any way, but at least they pass quickly, with nobody really freaking out or making a big deal out of things. I was so charmed that I just let them go.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bombay Talkie


You are a selfish, ignorant, heartless, horrible person who refuses to learn anything. You make hurtful messes everywhere you go. You are my worst nightmare of a person to become or to be anywhere near.


Okay, now that that's out of my system, maybe I can discuss this movie without going ballistic.

Oh wait, one more: I think my fascination with Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, both as individual actors and as a couple/film world institution, got in the way of being able to watch this movie objectively and discern its overall effect. I think I was too busy looking for documentary-type clues.

They're either fantastic actors or madly happy together - or both!

I've been warned against Bombay Talkie movie by several people - some knowledgeable about Indian cinema, some not, some Merchant Ivory fans, some not, some Shashi fans, some not. To quote the most humorous of them:
[I] watched Shakespeare Wallah last night and after about 1/2 hour of it decided that I liked it velly velly velly much [....] This comes after totally giving up on Bombay Talkie (yeech), which was torture to even fast forward through! You probably could have warned me about that.

I think this was probably the first time I'd heard anything about the film at all; subsequently I read blogs with interesting, varying reactions. (And I should note here that I probably don't have anything to say that they haven't already commented on.) But really, there was no escaping the film's pull. Regular readers know I'm not picky when it comes to trying Shashi films, but almost as strong is the lure of Jennifer Kendal, whom I thought was brilliant in Junoon, as well as in her little parts in Shakespeare-Wallah, Heat and Dust, and Ghare-Baire (haven't seen 36 Chowringhee Lane yet). I also really like self-referential works and stories that have affectionate winking at interesting conventions and stereotypes. The idea of seeing Shashi Kapoor play a weary Bombay filmi hero who gets entangled with a British woman? Irresistible. Additionally, Post-Punk Cinema Club and I talk a lot about our favorite eras of Shashi, and the late 60s and early 70s are a very fine vintage. On the other hand, my experience with India-based Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala movies is trending downward, very inauspiciously for Bombay Talkie - everyone knows how blown away I was by Shakespeare-Wallah, The Householder was rich and sweet, and Heat and Dust was interesting but not overwhelming.

Stylistically, this film worked just fine as a MI project. It's pretty, it comments on the cultural relationships between India and the west (and the meeting ground in between), and it keeps the reins on emotion, just as you'd expect. But story-wise...dear god, what happened? Why did anyone want to tell this story?

The central figure, Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal), is one of those mysterious people who has an electric effect on others despite being a train wreck herself. She's dangerous - but because she's thoughtless, not because she takes interesting risks that may lead to great things. She burns people repeatedly, yet they come back for more. She's a crappy parent. She's dim. She's unwilling to think about anyone but herself. She's all id. Caught up in orbit around Lucia are self-loathing writer Hari (Zia Mohyeddin), floundering, childish movie star Vikram (Shashi), and, by extension, his wife Mala (Aparna Sen). Both men are instantly smitten with Lucia, even though she is careless with their emotions (Hari) or ignores any aspect of their life and needs that do not directly benefit her (Vikram). I was struck by how much misery there is in this film. Nobody is happy, and everyone is being used by somebody else. In this gloomy world, everybody owes someone, too, which only increases their bitterness: Vikram and Mala need each other in the fairly conventional ways demanded by social pressure and economics; Hari hates that nobody seems interested in his poetry and he is forced to pen stupid films for idiots like Vikram; Lucia depends on men to distract her from actually doing the hard work that would be required to fix her life; and Vikram thrives on the ego-feed of Lucia's conspicuous, blatant attraction.

Iftekhar! He doesn't have any lines, but he's there. Unlike Amitabh, whose little part was cut.
Interestingly, Vikram is also endebted to an older female star, in a neat flip of the casting couch. The treatment of Anjana Devi (Nadira) is surprisingly unjudgemental. She reminded me of Samantha from Sex and the City, thriving by trading in sexual and social power as easily as others use money. She seemed much more comfortable with and in control of her decisions and their consequences than the other characters do. Anjana also got funny lines like this.

Her stable of hopefuls also have some fun moments improvising impressions and songs, entertaining each other but also showing off abilities and looking to climb the ladder of Anjana's affections.

By the time Bombay Taklie ends, I don't think there's a glimmer of love or hope left anywhere. Even Mala seems to be more interested in the stability and respect of a family life than in romance or partnership with Vikram; maybe she had given up on that long before the movie picks up her narrative. For all their subservience to her demands, neither Vikram nor Hari really loves Lucia, I don't think. They talk about her like property, like a resource.


Beyond its story, Bombay Talkie has two somewhat redeeming features: many scenes are beautifully designed, and the performances are interesting. The opening titles, for example, are such a rich, affectionate treat!

Immediately on their tail, we get the very clever and fun "Typewriter Tip Tip Tip."

There is so much crammed into this ten-minute sequence, most notably Shashi's effortless morphing from aloof ego

He looks just like Brando!
to ingratiating host

to flailing performer.

As Jabberwock noted, this role seems perfect for Shashi, who probably lived the best balancing act Bollywood has ever seen, often involving the co-star in and makers of this movie. There are many beautiful shots that comment or nod to the life of a 70s hero, like overacting even when he's off camera,

silently looking on while a huge team of musicians creates "his" sound,

and walking off into the sunset at the Gateway.

It's clearly very difficult to be a movie star attending premieres for your films. Vikram fluctuates between short-tempered and smooth at a party, lighting up only when people interest him or the spotlight turns his way.

Momentary detour about the character of Vikram: he actually comes across as pragmatic sometimes, as in the scene above. He leaves a snuggle with a distraught Lucia when he's needed on the film set, he signs on to films he dislikes because he needs the money, he visits Anjana despite Lucia's disapproval, he tries to manage his rivalry with Hari over Lucia enough that Hari will still act as their go-between, etc. He's very childish in some ways, getting involved with Lucia just because he feels like it ("I want to," he says repeatedly - I wonder if his relaitonship with Lucia is something he starts because he thinks he has control, unlike his professional life and marriage, which seem to be dictated by other people?), but he also seems to know what is absolutely required of him at the base level for his survival in the world he finds himself in.

Some scenes captured the whole movie perfectly. Early in the movie, this shot, with Lucia running out of a family party that she has very rudely crashed, Vikram chasing her, and Mala chasing him, foreshadows the whole movie so well.

Lucia is only present in Vikram's life because she's a thoughtless idiot, but Vikram responds. Later, the ephemera of Vikram's life is carelessly spilled across the floor, the result of a Lucia-commanded party.

Ooof. I'm running out of steam for this wearisome movie, but I wanted to mention the actors. This was not my favorite performance by Jennifer Kendal. She came across as a little too stagey for my taste, especially when opposite her easy-breezy husband, but maybe that's how director Ivory wanted her to be, highlighting Lucia's ignorance, grasping, and tendency to create ridiculous amounts of drama. Still, she wasn't painful to watch, and her lovely face effectively showed Lucia's frustrations and fears. The other three major characters were done very well, I thought, and I can only imagine how insufferable (or more insufferable, depending whom you ask) this movie would have been with less careful actors who couldn't find any nuances in their characters. Short appearances by Helen and Uptal Dutt, in addition to Nadira, also added a lot to the movie-world context in the film.

My friend Wendy sometimes sums up novels or movies by saying "I wouldn't want to be friends with any of those people," and that certainly applied here, and sadly I didn't get much more from the movie than that. Hari, Vikram, and Lucia are bad, selfish people. I didn't even pity them - I just wanted them to stop and think and leave each other alone. The one sympathetic figure, Mala, doesn't get much screen time and her motivations are hardly explored beyond the general "long-suffering wife" character that the movie assumes we'll grant her. I really don't know the point of telling Lucia's story. It's sad and futile and bleak and offers no real reward for your (or the characters') suffering. I don't understand what the filmmakers were thinking when they embarked on this - maybe it's a warning never to be like her and never to do anything like the people in this film do, a sort of extended "life don't"? I hope the extra features on the DVD (read about them here - apparently MIJ wanted kitsch, which I didn't pick up on at all) might have contained answers to this question, but I ran out of time to watch any of them. Even if I hadn't, I don't think I would have bothered - I just wanted out of this world the second the movie ended.

As the other writers above have mentioned, Bombay Talkie squanders a great opportunity to poke some informed, loving fun at Bollywood - which is what its first 15 minutes promise to do. There are moments of references to or commentary on the Bombay film world scattered throughout the rest of the movie, but nowhere else is the examination as strong. The name alone made me assume that the film world was the subject of the story, and it simply was not. So not only is the choice of focus in the story completely mystifying, the name doesn't even lead the viewer to it. Alternate titles that sprung to mind include Women on the Verge of Getting a Tight Slap from This Viewer and, to paraphrase Mad TV, Pretty White Ladies with Problems.

What a downer! So let's end with something more fun. First of all, why is Mala stroking a pink wig? This thing appears at least twice, and I could not figure out what it was or why it was there.

Second, the Shashi Pradesh State Museum and Archives, Costume and Textiles Division, is proud to present its newest acquisition: Shashi in brightly patterned shirts, unbuttoned halfway, with a gold chain.

I've been on a huge Project Runway kick lately, so let's discuss. This look:
a) is in.
b) is out.
c) does not bore Nina, but not in a good way.
d) makes Michael wonder if maybe the black t-shirt he wears every single episode might be a bit dull and played out.
d) pleases guest judge Uli Herzner (season 3) because of its playful use of color, pattern, and plunging neckline.
e) inspires guest judge Santino Rice (season 2) to sing "Bom chicka wah-wah!"

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the Unforgettable Tour - now with varying degrees of unforgettableness!

On Sunday, I joined Aspi and his gaggle of fun friends for the Chicagoland stop of the Unforgettable Tour. (Pitu Sultan's writeup is here. She is v v funny and be sure to enlarge the photos.) Going to one of these shows with friends is definitely the right approach, even if you can't easily share witty comments over the din of the speakers. Aspi's writeup, which has inspired my format even though we disagree on some of the performances, is here.

Perhaps it's not the best idea to call your show "unforgettable." That's a lot to live up to, bypassing the here and now for the very long-term. "Unforgettable" may not even be desirable - plenty of bad things are unforgettable. Bhagban and Dhoom 2, to name some examples involving the cast of this show, are dreadful, which I remember every time I notice them on the shelf at the video store. To the person who named this show, I ask: do you want me to have a fun evening, in the presence of these performers and thousands of other fans, or do you want the show to lodge in my brain no matter the reason? Who knows - but unforgettable it was deemed, so in this light it will be considered.

Of course there were moments of this show that were utterly average in quality or memorableness. I haven't forgotten them quite yet, since the show was only two days ago, but give me a week and I bet they'll have slipped from my brain. Fortunately, I found none of the performers to be just ordinary. Each will be discussed and then given a rating from 1 to 10, with 1 as "Wait...they were there?" and 10 as most definitely unforgettable. (The numbers do not necessarily reflect how much I enjoyed an aspect of the show or how good I thought it was.) More on the stars (who all had solo sets and also participated in multi-star or whole-group numbers) in a minute - let's start with some pragmatics and settings.

venue: Sears Center, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
I pretty much loathe the Chicago suburbs (even though I know a ton of lovely people who grew up there or live there now), and my ire increases greatly whenever I have to deal with the traffic. But Aspi was really nice and let me carpool with him, so all I had to do was entertain the driver and remark at how he kept his cool even though people in SUVs tried to cut in front of us while we queued for the parking lot. Once inside, there was major malfunction and meltdown in the ticketing area. As Aspi reminded me in his post, some strange fellow was bellowing about how parents should refuse to buy tickets for their children, and there were about ten fewer ticket takers than were needed, resulting in a giant mob of people waiting for two poor souls to check their tickets and let them in. We got caught in this crowd for at least ten minutes, not moving, and the pressure growing and growing. Some @(#$&* decided that the right response was to shove, and I found myself making a silent plea to the filmi gods to protect us in what felt like a potential stampede, my mind rushing foolishly to the horrible mela scenes in A Suitable Boy. When some Ali G-lookalike started telling everyone within earshot to start pushing, Abby, ever stalwart, said "I WILL NOT PUSH." She's a lot taller than he was, and he shut up. In my experience, Chicagoland security-type people are not to be trifled with, often built like linebackers and with flat accents that can knock you out with an assault to your aural aesthetics. Ours managed to get things back under control, but not with the force I was expecting. The arena itself was arena-ish, but whoever designed it seemed to forget that audiences need room for their knees. There was absolutely no room to walk past people in your row to get to your seat unless they stood up, and lots of people didn't feel like standing up. I thought I was going to plunge to my death a few times.
venue unforgettableness: 6, but not in a good way

sets and costumes
Really, really cool and fun to look at, especially the giant sheets of fabrics used to various effects and the big grid that Abhishek danced in in "Dus Bahane," I think it was. I'm a sucker for sparklers, so the burst of fireworks at the end of most of the solo sets made me really happy. I thought the costumes were un-fuggable, even for the backup dancers. Everyone looked interesting at the least and, more often than not, classy and/song-appropriate. I must, must, must mention that during one of the multi-star numbers, Preity, Aishwarya, Ritesh, and Abhishek came out in Yaarana-style light-up jackets. Hilarious and cheeky!

(image from the official blog post about the Chicago show)
Nostalgia is one thing, and an affectionate nod to the kitsch of one of your colleagues' perhaps less notable projects is another altogether.
sets and costumes unforgettableness: 9

Riteish Deshmukh
SUPERWOW! I could see his smile from my nosebleed seat! He had so much energy and was flying around the stage! When it was his turn have the microphone, I believed him when he said "This is my first tour and I'm so excited!" He was at a zillion percent, passing the more often quoted 110 percent the moment he stepped into view. He also looked really stylish in his jeans and silver sneakers. It'd be so easy as the least famous person on the tour just to phone it in and ride a few coattails, and he was so far from that, so much more committed and engaging. I hope this tour helps his career - he deserves some palpable return for his investment on that stage.
Riteish unforgettableosity (yes, he gets his own term): 10

Preity Zinta
Oh Preity. She were my favorite thing about the Heat show in 2006, but here she was mostly perfunctory. Her outfits were lovely and she did everything nicely, but I didn't get much oomph from her. However, I am very grateful to her for doing "Kiss of Love," one of my favorite songs of 2007. I also like that she admitted to being out of breath when handed the microphone as soon as her solo set ended. Who wouldn't be! Thank you, Preity, for keeping it real.
Preity unforgettableness: 5. I enjoyed her performance, but my impression of her from the show two years ago is much stronger. People who didn't have my expectations might give her 6 or 7.

Abhishek Bachchan
Overload of cool and good cheer. If I didn't really love Abhishek, this...shtick, I think some might call it (Abhishtick?), would have been incredibly annoying. But I do really love Abhishek, so it was perfect. He entered from the back of the arena, sort of boxer-like, in a leather jacket, with the crowd going completely crazy. As soon as he was on stage, he climbed into a fenced platform and was floated high above the floor, going out over the audience and back again. (Aspi's wife made a really interesting comment about how different this was from the entirely closed-in cages that female dancers are usually put in - a totally different type of power dynamic was being set up, in which he was free to jump out and get close to the audience. Contrast this to women in oversized bird cages, "locked up" with no way out.) He hip-hopped all over the stage, doing his Abhisheky dancing and posing - think of the "Right Here Right Now" mix video during the end credits in Bluffmaster. My personal feeling is that this was all done with a delightful veneer of self-reference and irony, playing on his image as both hep cat and Rakesh (from Bunty aur Babli)-like everyman, which I love. He seemed like a very normal, fun, generous guy who happened to find himself in front of a few thousand people and a ton of speakers and decided just to go for it and do in public the strutting and mugging and singing and dancing that he usually saves for the shower or his own living room. You know, like the act/sing/dance/emote-along-ing I do while watching his movies. It tapped into what I like most about Abhishek, which is that he appears to be this normal but really talented guy who enjoys what he does and can laugh at himself, even when he's being held up as some sort of icon. I ate the whole thing up with a spoon. The montage of film clips that preceded each star's solo set did a lot to hype them up, and Abhishek's included various qualities stuck after the modifier "unforgettable," like "intensity" and "comedy." Mostly I agreed with them, but the last one before he entered the arena was "unforgettable dude." If I had been drinking anything, it would have come out my nose - I use the word "dude" pejoratively to imply that someone thinks he is far cooler than he actually is or is behaving in an otherwise eye-roll-invoking manner. Which brings me back to my caveat about "if I didn't really love Abhishek." If you weren't on board with how he was being styled in this event, you would've rolled your eyes, for sure. Either he's got the best persona (not "personal") managers ever, or he really did enjoy himself and really did love interacting with the audience. Aspi put it well in his review - the man has a flair for dealing with people, and while I think he's fantastic in front of the camera, especially in comedies, now I wonder what he'd do behind it. In short: more please!
Abhi Baby unforgettableness: 11

Side note on Abhishek Bachchan: It's time to admit something that I rarely talk about in clear terms. It's a tight race, but Abhishek is both my favorite working actor (based on my responses to performances on screen and my assessment of talent and effectiveness) and my favorite star (as determined by a highly unscientific, biased, and personal combination of factors, mostly actors' celebrity personas and my vague impressions of the people themselves formed by their works, interviews, general treatment by the press, etc.). He is most definitely the reason I went to this show. Therefore my thoughts on his unforgettableness are wildly slanted, but Abhishek, in general, just does it for me both as an actor and as a celebrity, and it is no surprise that his is the performance I found most memorable (and loved/enjoyed most).

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Now I understand why people accuse her of being an ice princess. Her solo set was lifeless and boring. And when she started to talk, oh heaven help us, I thought I was in the hallways of a middle school. Giggle giggle "thank you for all your blessings" giggle giggle "I love you too" giggle giggle "I love my husband." BLEH. I've always been an Aishwarya apologist, but now you're walkin' on thin ice, princess. Aspi blamed her tight costume, and I'll happily chalk her non-performance up to that rather than admit that someone I have always enjoyed was only capable of being lackluster. She was also oversold by the introductory montage and voice-over, when she was referred to in superlative terms that only people with far more years of experience could possibly live up to. Not her fault, but very damaging to the effect of her set. Her dances in the later group numbers were much better, and "Kajra Re" was totally satisfying, even though I could tell it wasn't as snazzy and sharp as it was in Bunty aur Babli. Does this mean she can't be a solo artist? Say it ain't so!
Aishwarya unforgettableness: 4. I expected a lot more from her. This performance is already fading away, replaced by happier, more striking memories of her on film.

Vishal and Shekhar
My overall impression of the musicians is that they sang out of tune a lot. I'm sorry, I know that's mean, but being on the right pitch is an absolute baseline requirement for singers, and they missed. Now, let me say in their defense that the music was incredibly loud in there, and I have no idea if they could actually hear what they were doing. They were also very energetic performers, hopping around and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to work up the crowd.
V&S unforgettableness: 6. Their energy was admirable but misplaced.

Side note on musical performers: I loved Sa Re Ga Ma Pa's Amanat Ali in the pre-show and found him cool and suave (if overly Ranbir Kapoor-looking) yet engaged with what he was doing and his audience. He gets a 9.

Jaya Bachchan
You would never think the scowling, robotic woman on stage had been the star of Guddi - or of anything else, for that matter. She read from a card (nicely printed with the tour logo) a few reasons why we should stop global warming. I couldn't agree more with what she said, but her dour presence and complete lack of conviction made me want to go burn some styrofoam out of spite. The only thing that would have made her spot worse would have been having her text on a Power Point slide projected on the JumboTron while she read it word for word.
Jaya unforgettableness: 7. Her discomfort is seared into my brain.

Amitabh Bachchan
What can I say? He was the major feature of the show, even though he didn't seem to expend as much energy as much as other people. He got into the spirit of things without losing his dignity - no small feat. He too worked the crowd, in his own "stern but benevolent father" sort of way, ignoring hoots and hollers but pacing his words so that those of us who wanted to listen could do so. I especially enjoyed his version of "Main Hoon Don" (sadly sans the tiger mask) and the tribute to him in which the other stars danced some of his numbers. His dialogues were mostly lost on me but his voice was a treat to hear. In one of the Amitabh-based montages (there were at least two), the voice-over guy built him up into supernova, god, mafia boss, and world leader rolled into one. A bit over the top and completely unnecessary - anyone who comes to a show like this knows who Amitabh Bachchan is, for goodness' sake. At one point, the voice said something like "his greatness is more than the things he's a part of who he is!" and I replied "Oooh, is Gandhi here?" Another segment included a fleeting glimpse of Shashi - woohoo! - so my sarcasm was quickly curtailed in favor of dil-squishy happiness and I sank back into filmified gushing and love of all things Amitabh, just like the show clearly wanted me to.
Big B unforgettableness: 10, of course. I might have given him an 8 if he hadn't displayed such good humor about his own persona.

Side note: I would pay a lot of money and travel many miles to see Shashi live and in person, even in a stupid suburban arena, even if he doesn't do "Kehne Ki Nahin Baat." Shashi-ji, can we possibly tempt you to go on the road? Pretty please? You can just sit on stage on a bunch of comfy cushions and chat with us about whatever strikes your fancy - no performing necessary. That would be unforgettable, I think in the best possible way.

the show overall
I notice I've used the word "persona" a few times in this writeup. That's key to some of what was going on - this was a tightly controlled and orchestrated celebration of popular cinema fame, less of the movies themselves and far more of the faces who represent them. Anthropologists who study contemporary social rituals and religion would have a lot to say about the show, I'm sure: the congregating, the gratifying of the faithful, an acknowledgment of community and a reinforcing of the "we," the lit-up god-like figures front and center granting us a viewing. There were ridiculous amounts of hero worship and ego-feeding (which I suspect are inherent in shows like this), but they were offset by the performances, most notably Riteish's, that were in the true spirit of entertainment. The show was participatory, especially when egged on by Abhishek. There was a chance to engage with the stars, to do what they were doing (that is, singing and dancing, celebrating movies), to move a little bit beyond simply watching them. Just a little bit, of course, but it was there. That generosity is always endearing to me, and it's one of the most lovely trademarks of Bollywood films and culture generally. So well done, Unforgettable Tour, for tapping into what I love about Hindi cinema and creating a fun atmosphere of shared celebration and some genuine entertainment.
overall unforgettableness: 8

Friday, August 08, 2008

Prem Patra

Last weekend I had the great, giggle-filled pleasure of watching Bimal Roy's Prem Patra with Gebruss, PPCC, and Kaddele. "Chat cinema" proved to be much more interesting than the movie to me most of the time, so my comments about this movie are sparse and not entirely well-informed.

Shashi Kapoor plays upstanding, fellowship-winning medical student Arun, who falls for fellow student Kavita (Sadhana Shivdasani). (Yessss! Girls do science!) However, Arun is the unrequited object of affection for Ratna (Parveen Choudhary). Ratna is a petulant little brat, and in a moment of stupid spite she forges a love letter from Arun to Kavita. Kavita is furious - huh? is this a flip on the usual filmi "it's not stalking, it's love!" turning a love letter into harassment? - and turns Arun in to the school authorities, who promptly expel him and take away his fellowship. PROBLEM #1: when asked by the principal if he wrote this letter, Arun says "yes," even though he did not and he knows who actually did. What?!? Everything else that happens in this movie is pinned on this stupid, self-damaging lie. Gebruss pointed out that perhaps he does it to protect Ratna (who is a family friend), but still, surely there could have been another way out of this situation (like getting Ratna's father to broker a deal with the school principal).

But because of the need for doctors in his rural hometown (excellent commentary on actual issues!), the local landlord decides to cover Arun's fellowhip expenses, enabling him to go abroad for further study as planned - with the catch that Arun will marry his daughter, Tara (Seema Deo). But Tara, of course, likes somebody else, the smug modern/western Subhash (Sudhir). And equally "of course," Tara and Kavita turn out to be related and end up moving in together (I forget who goes to whose house). Tara feels compelled to write Arun a letter or two even though her heart isn't in it, but Kavita offers to do it for her. I honestly don't remember whether Kavita realizes who Arun is at this point - I don't think she does. Given the title of the film, you can imagine what happens as "Tara" and Arun's correspondence continues...and how crappy Kavita feels when Arun reveals to "Tara" how much hatred he harbors for the girl from his past. PROBLEM #2: does Kavita come clean at this point? What do you think? Bad stuff continues to happen and Kavita's deception builds proportionally to affection for Arun and her investment in the correspondence. And then some wonderfulness happens and everyone is happy and the movie ends - the whole cast stands around chuckling in the final frames, quite literally coming together and reminding us that all is well.

Oh, and Rajendra Nath is the annoying comic sidekick and is almost (and deservedly) eaten by a tiger.

Unlike Chupke Chupke, whose shenanigans ended just before I started to lose patience for them, Prem Patra continues too long for my liking, and the ending was completely predictable yet, for me, not satisfying, I think because it cleaned up messes caused by contortions I couldn't get behind. The story made me say "Really?" a lot, not in the "Wow, I can't believe this wonderful thing is happening!" way but in the "Is this actually what the movie is going to do now? Seriously?" way, which I should refer to as "Kingdom-of-the-Crystal-Skull Really," since that was my dominant reaction to that movie. Anyway. The major obstactles for the characters to overcome are poorly founded. The movie indulges too much and for too long in deception for no good reason, and I just couldn't get past the characters' unreasonable, unnecessary decisions and the clunky, symbolic tragedies that befell Arun.

It's not without its charms, though. I love stories about people falling in love through letters - they feel so very Jane Austen. I also love stories in which book-smart, brainy people are romantic leads, and in that vein I couldn't be more pleased to see Shashi in a lab coat.

Actually, yes I could: he could be an archaeologist or language student (something more in the humanities than the scienes), sitting in a library wearing a tweed coat with elbow patches, but I digress.
À la Clueless, there's a makeover scene, with Tara transforming from country bumpkin to slick, eye-catching modern girl. (I feel so conflicted about makeover scenes: I always like them, squealing "Oooh, project!" and clapping my hands just like Alicia Silverstone, even though the very concept of "fixing" someone is disrespectful and rude and overly emphasizes physical beauty.) I agree with Old Is Gold, who liked Prem Patra a lot more than I did, that many of the scenes are very pretty to look at (especially when characters gaze out of windows or stare off into the distance over balconies) and that the acting is solid. Sadhana as Kavita is especially good, and she made me believe that Kavita thought pretending to be Tara was a good idea, even though I didn't agree with her. Shashi as Arun is typically classy and endearing at the beginning, and you can understand why Ratna can't get over her crush. However, once Arun returns to India after his fellowship and tragedy and meets "Tara" in person, he gets increasingly worked up about the wrongs Kavita inflicted on him in the past. I'm not sure if Shashi overdid Arun's distress, cranking it from sadness into aggressive bitterness, or if the character as written demanded such anger. Maybe I'm being too hard on Arun - it's hard to be objective about yourself when your emotions are heightened by love and disappointment.

Prem Patra will probably find its way into my DVD player again, if just for the songs and to see Arun fall for Kavita before Ratna pulls her prank. I'm also interested to learn more about Bimal Roy - this was my first of his movies - but please recommend something other than Devdas because I'm not sure I can take it. No doubt I missed some fine touches in Prem Patra while I was busy typing to and laughing with my viewing companions, although the International Relations Ministry of Shashi Pradesh was very pleased with the quadrilateral turnout. Everyone else will be writing up their impressions, right? Right? And doing the screen-capturing and noting of plum details that I was too uninspired to do? I thought so.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

research question #6: seeking Shahrukh Khan fan art

My friend Aradhana, a production designer in Indian and American films, is doing a project on Shahrukh Khan fan art and is seeking submissions for her research. She welcomes anything that isn't an actual photograph - drawings, graphic art, paintings, etc. Please email her here to submit your handiwork and include your name (not just your email address) and where you live.

Maybe I should do something in the style of my wedding portrait....


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

talk about ishtyle: Johnny Gaddaar

Eeeeeeee this movie is so cool! Everything comes together so well - story, characters, settings, pacing, and I'd add dialogues if I'm allowed to gague them by subtitles! It all just works. It seems energies were expended to maximum effect and with no waste. It's so crisp, moving fast but with time to think about what's going on and why and who's acting in the way you think they will - and who isn't. Those are important qualities in a thriller: no one wants to be left behind in dusty confusion, but you want things to move. Speaking of movement, there are lots of cars and other vehicles in this movie, maybe because physically moving the characters around and changing locations underscores the idea that the characters' own facades and understandings of what's happening aren't fixed either. It's one of those great stories in which you know just enough to be able to keep up but not enough to get lazy. Knowledge is always in flux, and each thing learned has consequences. It's so interesting!

Everyone in it is very good - especially Dharmendra, whom I thought played his role with just the right touch and brought some winking film-world gravitas to this movie reference-soaked project.

What I feel I can honestly say about Neil Nitin Mukesh is that 1) he succeeded in this complicated central role, showing you how Vikram tries to handle all his lies and their consequences, and 2) he chose a really good debut film. Even Rimi Sen was compelling - I've seen her in several things and she's left no impression at all. She infused moll Mini with a nervous energy that kept me wondering what she was going to do next. Though in even smaller roles than Rimi's, Ashwini Khalsekar and Vyjayanthi do great things with what they're given as well. On that note: even though the female characters don't register much as developed people, they do and bring about a lot. That's new!

I really don't want to say or show much more because I don't want to hint at anything that happens. Just watch and enjoy the ride. Don't be surprised if you have to catch your breath a few times - but do be surprised at everything else.

A wee list of a few not-critical-to-plot things that caught my eye:
  • She's reading R. K. Narayan's The Guide!

    What does it all mean?!? There are tons of movie references in Johnny Gaddaar, but Guide isn't otherwise one of them, is it? And what contrast does it make to Vikram always holding James Hadley Chase (whom, incidentally, I just learned spent part of his childhood in India)?
  • Fish=Bluffmaster reference?
  • Look! So cool!
  • The person who did the titles deserves a special mention - as you can see, they're so fab.
    I watched them twice. Well done indeed, Huzefa Lokhandwala!