Monday, October 27, 2008


Shashi is in his brainy specs, ready for a serious discussion of Shyam Benegal's 1981 retelling of the Mahabharata set in two wealthy industrial families in contemporary Bombay.

I'm sorry, Shashi ji. I'm feeling really daunted. I don't know much about the Mahabharata* - and even less about the works of Shyam Benegal.

Can't we just lounge about on your tastefully-appointed ocean-view terrace and listen to western classical music and talk about art?

Yikes! So disapproving! Okay, I didn't realize you felt so strongly about it. I'll try.

Kalyug follows a brutal struggle for industry dominance by two branches of the same family, Puranchand and Khubchand, each comprising three generations. (Don't ask me what their businesses actually do - I think it's engineering of some kind; machinery and factories are important.) In the process of trying to win an important government contract, each side issues attack after attack on the other, with devastating and tragic consequences. Everyone is a perpetrator and/or victim of the competitiveness - and sometimes both. If you'd like to see who everyone is, I made screen captures of the family trees from the beginning of the movie and notated them: Puranchand and Khubchand. Most of the action is devised by the middle generation, who have both parents and children alive. On the Puranchand side, this consists of the distracted eldest brother Dharam Raj (Raj Babbar),

his smart and opinionated wife Supriya (Rekha),

Urmila Matondkar as Rekha's son.
who obviously should be allowed to participate in the business more than she does, hedonistic middle son Bal Raj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda),

and capable Bharat Raj (Anant Nag).

He reminded me a lot of Shahrukh (only facially - there are no sheer shirts or arm-flinging in this movie.)
Amrish Puri plays Kishan, Supriya's brother, who is linked to the Puranchands both in profession and by family. Dhan Raj (Victor Bannerjee)

is the driving force on the Khubchand side, and he has a very invovled and clever business partner, Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor).

Look how Karan and Kishan are off to the side a little bit - included, but not as integrated. That happened a lot.
For those of less familiar with the Mahabharata than with modern American epics, The Godfather might come to mind: violent struggles for power and navigating family allegiances with deadly consequences. The Khubchand and Puranchand businesses are legitimate, but their strategies and means sometimes fall far from that status. Power structures begin to become clear during a family celebration; Bharat's wife Subhadra, like Kay, is closed out of the inner sanctum of family grief and planning; and Dhan Raj's brother Sandeep is like Fredo, sickly and weak, unfit to handle what the family must do.

One of the trusted resources I turn to when I see a film and keep thinking "Hmm, I wonder what that was all about" - or just generally want to know more about it before I feel ready to make public my own reactions - is Professor Philip Lutgendorf's philip's fil-ums. (Warning: his review contains spoilers.**) I absolutely concur with his opening remarks that Kalyug is "austere...well crafted, beautifully paced, and superbly and understatedly acted by an all-star cast." Brilliant is the best word for it. Everything about it felt real and immediate - so much so that I often forgot that the basic story is ancient, complicated, and essential to a religion I don't know much about. The murky ethics, the anguished decision-making, the unbalanced priorities in the web of profit, family, and duty: all of these echo as realistic in this setting.

Unlike Prof. Lutgendorf, though, I think the movie works very well even if you're unfamiliar with the Mahabharata. Of course you won't pick up on as many threads and lessons, and you'll probably have a lot harder time navigating all the characters, and you won't see them and their actions through the lens of their original significance. But that doesn't mean the whole thing falls apart. I thought the film stood on its own very well, even assuming that I missed characterizations of particular values, references to famous advice, or even embodiments of the epic-scale worldviews. I would not be surprised to learn that there is commentary about contemporary economic conditions as well; the families include taxes, labor unrest, and foreign ties in their arsenals.

Even if you're meeting these characters (or representations of ideas) for the first time, you can follow their struggles to sort out greed and duty, identity and power.

Karan may be the most tragic figure of all. At first Karan comes off as very much in control - he's steely in his business plans; his organized apartment and fussily over-accessorized breakfast are accompanieid by the ordered, rational melodies of Bach - but there are hints of his sadness over his failed love affair with Supriya before her marriage.

The sophisticated industrialist keeps a photo of a married woman on his nightstand with a small vase of flowers. Who is this guy? As the corporate drama rises he becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and a secret about his past revealed late in the film unhinges him entirely. As soon as his true history falls out of line with his recent actions, he can think of no future path. When he turns to Khubchand for advice and is met with a blunt "Go away. I'm not god; go make your own decisions," he pauses for a moment and says "How about suicide?" Gah! Look how far he has fallen: he can't separate what he has experienced and learned, what his capabilities are, from his newfound real history. To which Khubchand replies "What good is suicide? Karan, if one has reasons to die, one has reasons to live, too." Double gah! I'm not sure if Karan is supposed to be an evil genius or just an incredibly driven executive, but he is also somehow the most human and empathetic person in the story, maybe because we get to know more about his non-work self than we do about the other players. He's the first of the men to actually try to de-escalate the tensions and protect the other side. (Of course the grandmothers and mothers have been expressing grief and feeling the effects of the plots more personally all along.) Khubchand's final advice to Karan is "Son, build a relationship with life"; Karan's reply is "With whose life?" Triple gah!

And I'm not just saying this because Shashi plays Karan. Karan Singh is one of those significant, impressive roles, a person you are suspicious of, impressed by, and hopeful for...and then you grieve.

I have to talk about one of the visual components. Everywhere you look in this movie, there are wheels. Factory machines, telephone dials, tires. Modes of transport are also ubiquitous, with many, many scenes of some family member or other pulling up to a house in a car. I had two thoughts on this. First, perhaps they are references to Arjuna's chariot in the Mahabharata - or, more importantly, to its charioteer? Second, maybe they are signals of the Kalyug - the age of disorder, of machines - or to the cycles of life of which the Kalyug is a necessary stage?

Another question: what's going to happen next? There's been devastation and death. People are moving away. The consequences are known and felt by everyone. Are they left with no will to go on? Or will the families - or their businesses - continue?

As the film ends, Bharat is spent from rage and confusion. Who's comforting him? Not his wife, the young, sweet Subhadra, who has little patience for business matters and has, by this point, been shut out by a more confident, opinionated woman, Supriya.

It's Supriya he clings to, who successfully reaches out to him. She obviously has the brains and determination to make the business rise...if someone will let her in. Oooh! Just like Sarkar Raj!

Though the movie is mostly secularized in its setting - I can't even remember if anyone goes to a temple - art links links the viewer to the historical precedent of the story and to the values and behaviors represented by such well-known icons. I suspect some of the art is also there to show that these are educated people who collect not only because they like the objects but also to show off their ability to acquire and the sophistication and refinement required to appreciate what they have obtained.

PPCC, can you help me with why Buddha is here? Avatar of Vishnu? Duty? Right action? The value of eschewing worldly wealth and a princely lifestyle?
I also felt another effect, namely that the gods were present and watching, even if the people didn't pay particular attention to them. The performing arts comment too.

Bharat isn't interested in this performance; he and Subhadra skip out early and head off to a nice dinner. "Behold! Heed!" the dancers seem to say, but the people won't listen. I don't know what story the dancers are enacting, but you can tell there's death and regret in it just by watching.

One more. One of the cars has a small sticker for Dostana in it. Meaningless coincidence? Or nod to another tale of a rift coming between people who should be close?

I thought Kalyug was completely successful, even if it probably didn't work as much or as profoundly (for me) as it would for viewers who are familiar with the Mahabharata. I was definitely confused at times, but only because I couldn't remember which brothers went together, not because I wasn't moved by their tragedy. As Lutgendorf says, the plot is actually quite straightforward and no real back story is given (or needed). Corporate competition gets really out of hand. That's about it. And even if why is a different question, the effects are clear. Greed destroys. People grapple with personal responsibility, potential, and identity. Commitments are broken. Grief and regret overwhelm. All of this happens, and I felt all of it immediately, yet it's so calm. People inflict one tragedy after another on each other, and the victims continue on. I don't know how a movie can be both gut-wrenching and even-keeled, but there it is. It is a sad, fascinating film, and I recommend it to everyone.

* I have picked up some idea of the Mahabharata over the years, largely through an exhibit I worked on about Balinese Hinduism, and I did some further introductory reading before I watched this film, but what I know and understand would fit on an index card. And of course knowing the sketch of a story is very different from growing up or being otherwise immersed in a culture that has drawn on and been shaped by the text for centuries.

** And if my memory is correct, at the very bottom of the page, he's got a detail wrong about the final stages of the plot. ** Update to post (October 29, 2008): As usual, Indie Quill set me straight on this. To clarify in a spoiler-free way, just know that my read of what he wrote was too literal, and Lutgendorf was probably speaking in a more specific context that I didn't pick up on.

Friday, October 17, 2008

some websites of note

Sometimes the Google powers that be smile upon you and you find two really amazing things quite by accident:
1) Celebrating Indian Cinema, an exhibit at the National Media Museum (UK) last summer. I can't believe there was a Bollywood exhibit and I hadn't heard about it. Now what am I supposed to do for my life's work?!? Anyway, I'm very grateful for its website. I especially liked the interviews with people discussing their filmi memories, growing up watching Sholay, etc. And if you know anyone just getting into Hindi films, this site has good introductory material, including overviews of particular films, directors, stars, and genres here.
2) Bollywood and Globalization, an amazing multimedia presentation by Sharmistha and Soam Acharya about the effects of 1990s economic changes in India on the Hindi film industry, which at the time of writing (2004) the authors say is "emerging from the doldrums." Cartoon caricatures of stars serve as nagivation to the sections of the presentation:
  • read and watch examples of the 11 "Rules of Bollywood."
  • learn the history in a decade-by-decade timeline. (Fun fact: India first became the biggest producer of films in the world in 1971.)
  • weigh the effects on Indian cinema of the internet, cable tv, the rising middle class, and piracy.
  • ponder how filmmakers dealt with these crises through less hectic financing systems, exploring new markets, combating piracy, sexing things up, improving production values (clips from Baazigar and Chroi Chroi are offered for comparison), and trying new talents and recipes.
  • wonder what the future holds. Aside: Aishwarya is the icon for the site's discussion of the future of Bollywood, while Amitabh is the icon for the history. Hee!
It's very smart, very funny, very affectionate, and cleverly crafted. Sharmistha Acharya's MA thesis on this topic is also available from the site and is going directly to the top of my to-read pile along with the many other academic books on Indian cinema that I have every intention of reading at some indeterminate point in the future when I think my brain is up to them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

pardon my German, but that's just Scheiße

SRK's Temptations Reloaded concerts in Germany (and Spain) have been canceled just a few days before the first performance, apparently because the promoters failing to fulfill part of their contract. The Bachchan & Co. Unforgettable Tour dates in Germany suffered the same fate in August. Shady.

Babasko has a few choice words about the ways concert organizers and DVD producers/distributors are behaving badly with German-speaking Bollywood fans. Read her thoughts here. Even if I hadn't met some of them and seen for myself how happy their SRK and filmi love makes them, I'd feel really bad for them.

Here are a few of them in happier moments, at this year's German-language fan meetup in Munich. The girl in the red shirt and teeny black vest...does that outfit look familiar to you?

If so, it's because she and her friends came dressed in homage to SRK's then-upcoming song in Krazzy 4, complete with black fedoras. (Look at about 2:08 for a taste.) They love movies so much they came to an event in costume. Is alienating people like this really a smart business move? Based on what I understand about the relative scarcity of films that are dubbed into German (and German-speaking markets have always used dubbing, apparently, unlike the US, where foreign films are usually subtitled), it may not matter - that is, fans might still be willing to pay whatever it costs to access whatever movies and events they can. Taking people for whatever you can get - or, to be more polite about it, maximizing your profit from, and possibly adjusting for your advantage, the intersection of supply and demand - may be a legitimate business model in some situations, but in the economy of good will, it's a real stinker. It may be profitable financially, but it might prove to be thoughtless in the long run. If you piss off your consumer base, sooner or later, you're screwed. That's the question, I guess: will fans put up with this, or will they walk? It's probably more complicated than that, and there are lots of factors - such as, if all of us non-Hindi speakers did intensive language training to become suddenly fluent in Hindi, we could say a hearty "Auf Wiedersehen!" to the subtitle and dubbing questions! - and I don't envy having to weigh all the considerations whenever I buy a ticket or a DVD.

Update to post (November 3, 2008): On a related note, here's an article in Variety ("Berlin Lures Bollywood Industry," October 30, 2008) that discusses a German film organization's efforts to promote its services to Indian filmmakers. Clearly somebody thinks there is money to be made in the Bollywood/Germany mix.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Helen: cures what ails ya

The inimitable Celi, co-founder of the (Somewhat Un)official Shashi Kapoor Fan Club on Facebook, sent me this link, and it has totally lifted my spirits as I languish on the sofa, home from work with allergies/sinus unhappiness.

I am by no means a Helen connoisseur, but this one is just so incredibly fun - and judging by the context at the beginning, she's not being overly objectified by the male gaze, gyrating while trapped in a bottle, etc., so this one feels a lot more joyful and free and less "overtly sexual women=bad or dangerous" than some of her other songs. I like anything from mod or go-go Bollywood, and this one is extra great because of the three wildly different and unrelated settings/costumes (even if one of them is objectionably fake-pretend Polynesian), the groovy moves, and the West Side Story-ish backup dancers. And surely only Helen could sell the line "demonstrate your talents to the world" while writhing on her back in a mini-skirt cowgirl outfit across a petal-strewn floor at the toes of a marching band.

If I had a green velvet hat and red spangled sweater, I would go put them on right now and practice my twisting.

Best advice ever, right Kaddele?

D0 consult Memsaab's enormously popular list of her favorite Helen songs for further inspiration.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

lunchtime poll #8: villain lairs

As promised: per Todd's suggestion in lunchtime poll #7's responses, it's high time we discussed in finer detail one of the key ingredients in any good masala...the villain lair! Or gangster hideout. Or criminal-infested dive bar.

Somehow I am missing suitable pictures of such notable dens of iniquity as the dungeon in
Ajooba (though I do have one of the tiger attacking Amitabh there)

the underwater spinning control room from Shaan, Sam's debauched bed-on-a-platform from Disco Dancer*, and Raghavan's dank, dark, drippy basement in Main Hoon Na.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorites.

In Sharmilee, the villains' hideout has a nightclub attached, and in said nightclub, the performers enact the temptations of evil (note the giant prop booze bottle)!

It's a musical meta lair!

Original Don's vault is pleasingly 70s-looking and amuses me with its frilly pink lampshades,

and new Don's vault is a real doozy.

As a side point, it might be argued that neither a little red book nor a teeny-tiny disk are particularly effective as key artifacts of wrongdoing - they're not menacing in form or size or basic concept - but it doesn't really matter. There's too much other set ishtyle in both of these movies to fret over something like that. Besides, if the book weren't so small, they couldn't chuck it around so easily in the graveyard scene at the end, and we wouldn't want to lose out on that.

Roti Kapada aur Makhan has reflective zigzag wallpaper (or strings of beads over mirrors - either way, awesome).

Aruna Irani dares you to keep your ethics straight when confronted with such blinding distractions!

Fakira's lair is drive-in,

enables its occupants to look like Charlie's Angels (or is it the other way around? which came first?),

and, if I remember correctly, has clap-on clap-off lights used to great effect in fights and lovey-doving. Apparently it also contains a wardrobe full of super fly 70s shirts for Shashi, including the non-shirt, a.k.a. "sheer," variety.

Such quality provisions must not go unnoticed.

Mogambo has a lot to be khush about in Mr. India.

It coordinates to his outfit, continuing the fake military theme and winged skull motifs. Does it remind anyone else of Medieval Times (in a good way, of course)?

Ranjeet's hangout in Chor Sipahee has two stellar technological marvels: first, the plastic tube people mover,

which I've never seen anywhere else and am really pleased to know somebody bothered to make, because I've been curious about the efficacy of said idea ever since I was four years old and went with my parents to the drive-up window at the bank, and two, a giant slide.

I've heard there are other films with giant slides; I'm particularly fond of this one's tight spiral and how it appears to empty out to the back of the room, if this camera angle is to be trusted, making it pretty useless for grand entrances. So it's just...practical, then? Hmmm. Surely not. Pragmatism is only one of the guiding design principles for villain lairs. The Sheikh's den is also guarded by guys in funny outfits complete with coordinating hats. Henchmen are good; comically matching henchmen are better.

Once again, Parvarish winds up in my top spot. I really don't know what else you could want in a villain lair. As this aerial shot demonstrates, it is spacious, avoids nasty feng shui pitfalls of troublesome corners, offers ample plant life for fresh oxygen - and everybody's going green these days; why bother taking over the world if there's no planet left to enjoy? - and has coordinating seating whose forms echo the curves of the walls.

The quicksand pit features retractable platforms on one diameter and those handy moving spiked walls on the perpendicular. The perimeter of the pit is protected by a subtly shaded handrail - safety first! Parking and access by car are no problem, and there are sleeping quarters in calming baby blue en suite to the main room described above.

While the different functional areas are demarcated with color, furnishings, etc., the whole space is unified by stalagtites.

As you do. (Also note the weapon storage built right in to the structure, to the left of Vinod in the photo above.) The lair also comes complete with 'round-the-clock entertainment in the shapely forms of silhouetted dancing girls who neither require music to perform nor distract you from work by singing or speaking.

Parvarish's hangout also offers easy access to the street-level legitimate front for the smuggling operation, a school for the blind. Let no one cast aspersions on that! Additional features include the affiliated location in the submarine and the services of Tom Alter.

What are your favorites?

* I loaned my museum's director my copy of Disco Dancer over a year ago (in exchange for his copy of Teenagers from Outer Space, which is from 1959 and every bit as bad as you'd guess) and he has not finished watching it yet. What recourse do I have?