Side Streets is one of those movies that contains seemingly unrelated characters - in this case, immigrants to New York City, a different family in each of the five boroughs - whose lives do in fact intertwine with each other. It's also one of those movies that takes place in a very short time period, not quite real time but all within about a day, a very hot August day that exacerbates almost everyone already at the end of their rope. The tight social and geographical proximity, plus the tight chronology, make you feel like you've been dropped in to the actual place and time and are able to observe these people almost as an anthropologist might. This 1998 Ismail Merchant-backed film has a huge international cast and was an official selection at various film festivals, including Sundance and Venice.
"Hey Beth, that sounds interesting, but why are you writing about it here?" you might be wondering. Here's why: the Staten Island family consists of ungracefully aging movie star Vikram (Shashi Kapoor), his younger brother Bipin Raj (Art Malik), and Bipin's wife Chandra (Shabana Azmi), who is completely fed up with Vikram's ego.
More on the Raj family in a moment. Bipin is a driver, and one morning he picks up struggling fashion designer Sylvie (Valeria Golino - remember her from Hot Shots? Shashi to Cary Elwes in two steps! Something is right with the world*), who is designing a dress for beauty pageant contestant Marisol (Rosario Dawson), whose dreams of getting out of the Bronx with her pageant winnings are paid for by her boyfriend Ramon (John Ortiz).
Ramon tells Marisol he's got a great job in an office, but actually he works in a butcher shop with gambler and schemer Josif (David Vadim), whose wife Elena (Mirjana Jokovic) has just about had it with his usesless plans. Sophie and her argumentative boyfriend run in some of the same club circles as Brenda and Errol Boyce (Aujanue Ellis and Leon [just Leon, apparently]), who are introduced lazing in bed watching one of Vikram's old movies - Satyam Shivam Sundaram, in a Billu-like combination of fictional and real movie star biography.
Bipin decorates his car with images of his bhai in better days. If I drove a taxi, that's what it would look like.
The movie's official site here tells the story of how the script came about, and I have to tell you it hits at all the soft spots in my attraction to the great American narrative arc: most of us came from somewhere else and don't always feel at home where we wound up. I love tales of immigration and culture clashes among immigrants, their American-born children, and their new, different, not always understanding neighbors. These are one of the ties among Americans (past and present), I think, the jostling for understanding what "fitting in" means to each of us, and how we fit in while fitting together - cf resonance of Obama, for example. It also plays to my small-town midwesterner sense that New York City must be an amazing place - as implied by the introductory voiceover, a tongue-in-cheek 50s educational filmstrip-style male voice announcing that a global traveler needs only a subway token to see the world. Side Streets does not directly comment on cultural differences, but distinguishing features of each character's background - as well as remarkable similarities among them - are discernible in the sets, dialogues, and of course the threads of the stories. Wisely, the movie's emphasis is on the humanity of these individuals rather than on plot points in which the different families interact, looking at how our dreams motivate and hold meaning for us even when reality seems to be telling us to do otherwise. Money and resource worries are common, but so are hopes for the next generation. Even a man with criminal plans dreams of a house with a lawn in Connecticut. Side Streets tells the kinds of truths that seem to pile up faster and faster as you grow older: everybody is carrying around some sort of secret pain or fear or frustration inside, but everybody has capacity for action and independence and joy, too. No matter where you're from, you've been selfish and deceptive, and you've done things to help someone close to you.
If this were my DVD to give away, it'd be going straight to Filmi Geek, because Shabana Azmi is simply wonderful in Chandra's exhaustion with Vikram's refusal to do anything other than suck up the family's energies with his delusions of still-extant grandeur. In this scene, she has just escaped from her house to get more snacks for Vikram, and the shop owner has spared her a few kind words. No sooner is she able to process the idea that someone is concerned about her well-being for once than the shop owner adds that the proffered cake is in fact for Vikram - "tell him I'm a big fan."
Art Malik too wears his discomfort so well, stuck between his despairing wife and his ridiculous but un-abandonable brother. Here Bipin is surrounded by admirers who have descended on his house to see Vikram.
Vikram, meanwhile, keeps them waiting as he de-grays. All we've seen Vikram do so far in the movie is lounge around, complaining about needing more air conditioning, a wrongly-prepared egg, or the volume on the tv; when fans show up, the performer (and strikingly real-life-Kapoor-like host) returns in a flash, gracious, smooth, and ready to boogie.
Vikram holds out hope that Al Pacino will call him up some day with a new project, and he has no love for the filmi heroes who have dethroned him. After a frustrated Chandra clears out his party, Vikram watches one of his old films on tv and comments during the commercial for a Bollywood stage show
Whoever designed this ad, whether real or fake, knew their movie title typefaces!
OMG! The meta is making my brain explode!
that today's stars have no dignity and that their gigantic arena concerts lack intimacy. Such pathetic juxtaposition, from the faded star who shimmies in his brother's living room in Staten Island to the current box office king beaming in through the tv with a fleet of choreographed backup dancers. As ridiculously as Vikram behaves when other people are around, we learn just how self-aware he really is, his face an obvious giveaway that he knows his life is no longer graceful dances and poetic dialogues.
Song: "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge"! More meta!**
Shashi Kapoor, you have broken my heart. Vikram is just so...qopwommrphaiusdflasjk, my new expression to mean something like "my sense of reality, objective critical detachment, dil-squishability, tendencies to mother-hen depressed men, and love of movie self-references have all collapsed in on each other and then got whirled around in the blender of Shashi-pyaar."*** Please, please tell me this performance was not autobiographical. It's probably impossible for anyone who knows anything about 80s and 90s Shashi not to feel like that Vikram is Shashi's life unfolding painfully and awkwardly before our very eyes. I hope to high Helen**** that it isn't. I'm having a very hard time sorting out what might be real life and what is just for the film, but the impression of Vikram is at times uttelry tragic and at others hopeful by reclaiming glory and, I hope, happiness. (I also can't express much more about what I thought of his performance without giving away the story, so please email me if you've seen this because I'm desperate to discuss it.) The layers you could deconstruct from a star playing a star watching his fictional own performances, which are the same as his actual own performances...whoa.
I'm only dwelling on the Raj family because they're the link to Indian films. As in Billu, I found all the characters in Side Streets rounded and complex; each one wriggled their way into my sympathies, even when they did foolish things. By the end of the film, I think most of the characters have learned something about themselves or their families - and that's always a very satisfying development in my world. Ignorance about the people we think we know best, or in whom we place trust and affection, is one of the common problems in Side Streets, so while not everyone's final scene is what you could really call happy, through knowledge and listening to each other they have become closer - and maybe better able to be themselves. It's really not a cheesy movie, despite how I'm describing it. It just has sweet, simple, resonant ideas that can make you feel more connected to the people around you.
* This is a must-know movie if you want to play "Six Degrees of [Anyone from Hindi Films]." Using this movie alone, you can take just two steps to get from from Shashi and Shabana to Dianne Wiest, Robert Downey Jr., Charlie Sheen, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, John Leguizamo, Steve Martin, Phil Hartman, Dan Aykroyd, Glenne Headley, Chris Rock, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Anna Paquin, Pete Postlethwaite, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Alexis Bleidel (Shabana to Gilmore Girls in three steps?!?), Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Chazz Palminteri, Michael J. Fox....
** Throughout the film, you hear many Shashi songs, including "Yama Yama" from Shaan and "Tota Maina Ki Kahani" from the Shashi/Shabana masala romp Fakira! Self-referential-o-rama!
*** While my head hadn't yet hit the keyboard to create qopwommrphaiusdflasjk and thus I didn't have an actual term to express it, this sentiment was also relevant to lesser degrees with Shakespeare-Wallah and Bombay Talkie.
**** Doesn't she seem like the right power to pray to? Helen-loving atheists, let's see if we can make it catch on!