Saturday, January 31, 2009

the light-up suit, great as it is, is not worth it: Yaarana

Yaarana - also known around these parts as "OMG Amitabh is wearing a suit with mini lightbulbs on it and stamping around a cheering arena!" - is terrible. I don't know how a project from the director of Do aur Do Paanch went so horribly, horribly wrong just one year later - and with a cast of Amitabh, Neetu, Amjad Khan, Aruna Irani, Jeevan, Ranjeet, and Kader Khan, at that! I usually really like movies about friendships - especially when the friendships hold their own against the more pervasive social pressures of romance and familial love - but this one was so bad I almost turned it off without even getting to the light-up suit. Maybe casting Amitabh and Amjad as the bestest of best buds just upset the cosmic Sholay-ordained order so much that nothing that followed it could possibly be right? Or maybe this is the fateful lesson of what can happen when you remove Shashi from an Amitabh-based masala equation?* The central friendship starts out okay: Bishan (Amjad) and Kishan (Amitabh) (whom the subtitles usually refer to as Bhutan and Krishna) are childhood friends (Master Tito zindabad!) and are remarkably emotionally aware and secure in their friendship, given that they are 13-year-old boys, repeatedly promising to lay down their lives for each other and suffering great distress when wealthy Bishan is sent away to school. Fast-forward an unspecified number of decades to "now," however, and they haven't matured at all and are full of manic pranks and stupid ideas. "I'm somehow feeling like Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler could be doing this," I said to The Horror!?, my watching companion. He replied "I'm mostly feeling bored and want to punch the two. This couldn't be worse with Jagdeep and Johnny Lever." I promptly chastised him for tempting the fates but agreed with his sentiment.

At least it's relatively short.

Let's count some of its flaws. Kishan is painted as such an unbelievable moron - that annoying equation of rural and uneducated with bumbling and naive - that he mistakes an elevator in the big city for an aging machine when Bishan goes in it, the doors close, and in a few seconds open again revealing an older gentleman.

You said it. He's insufferable.
The romance between Neetu and Amitabh barrels out of left field with no development behind it. Neetu isn't given anything fun to do, and even her two songs seem more like something I could do in my hallway than an arena-worthy show. Several characters go crazy - or pretend to be crazy - without convincing reason.

Scary roti -> crazy eyes!
What jokes there are go on way too long. There's a hyperventilating, constantly wailing child in the pre-titles preface (who grows up to be the less annoying Ranjeet). The subtitles reached a new level of mistakes, with lines like "I revere your remember our saga" and the accidental inclusion of the time counter.

There's occasionally even a freestanding "ä." There are many random moments of slow motion. People are suddenly moved instantly from one location to a very different one - from the city to Sholay-ish deserted rocky hills, for example - which is silly, because we all know that teleportation only works during song picturizations, not in regular dialogue. There were three solid seconds of a blank screen (oh sweet respite!). Hang-gliders are used to raid the villain hangout.

Well, okay, that might be kind of awesome, even though neither Amitabh nor Amjad has the sense to strap himself in.

Yaarana's only virtues are musical. Bishan insists on sending Kishan to music school even when money gets tight, so Kishan, ever sacrificing, tries to get himself thrown out by starting a fight at a dance, inspiring The Horror!? to say "pseudo flamenco disco guitar violence" and me to say "mischief disco" at exactly the same time. Amjad Khan has his own song wearing a captain's uniform with a group of schoolchildren on a ship, a combination I have definitely never seen before. If my ears do not deceive me, it's called "Bishan Chacha," and you can see it here starting at about 5:00. If you keep watching until the end of this clip, you might catch a glimpse of Ranjeet in a disguise that seems to include carrying a squirrel pelt in one hand. And of course "Sara Zamana," the long-anticpated (at least by me) song of Elvis-like entrance, fake guitar-playing, and light-up suit.

It should be noted that the costumes of leads and backup dancers suit neither each other nor the music, and choreography is pretty lacking, but still, it's the best this movie has to offer.

Now you've seen everything worth seeing in Yaarana. I'm actually glad Shashi wasn't in it. Avoid yaar!

The Horror!?'s review is here, and unfortunately he's not exaggerating.

* There's a good poll topic: which is more likely to be bad, masala with Shashi without Amitabh, or masala with Amitabh without Shashi? In my book, Fakira, Chor Sipahee, and Duniya Meri Jeb Mein are all much, much better than this, but Don and Amar Akbar Anthony are both better than all of those. Then again, AAA has Rishi, and this has only an underused Neetu, and while both are Kapoor, the former is male and therefore much more likely to have a role with impact. Yet Don has NO Kapoor of the variety we mean! So is Kapoor, or is Kapoor not, sine qua non? It has been proposed that true masala shall exist ⇔ the condition of Kapoor is met, where Kapoor={Shashi, Shammi, Rishi, or Neetu Singh}, but that would mean Don isn't masala, and surely that isn't right either. Brain exploding!

Friday, January 30, 2009


Rihaee opens with the return of NRI Mansukh (Naseeruddin Shah) to his rural village home. But Swades this isn't. Mansukh is a self-serving hedonist and quickly embroils himself in dalliances with several local women (including Neena Gupta, Reema Lagoo, and Hema Malini), whose husbands (notably Mohan Agashe and Vinod Khanna) are all away in the big city for work (and sleeping with prostitutes, apparently).

The two sides of the village are eventually reunited and forced to sort out what has happened during their time apart. The personal and communal fallout from these actions in the newly recombined situation makes up the rest of the film.

Rihaee is one of those movies that I wanted to be a little bit better than I can finally admit that it is. Like Amu, it depicts a difficult and important topic - here, the double standards for gender in contemporary Indian society (the film was made in 1988) - in a sad and moving way, but its dialogue and plotting are sometimes clumsy enough that some of its potential impact is dulled. I feel bad saying all this because I totally support what I think it was trying to do, and I can easily imagine that it took a lot of guts to make this movie. On one hand, its first half or so is filled with women behaving badly with one another as they compete for scarce resources, in this case the affections of the new guy in town.

It appears to let weasely, snakey bastard Mansukh off the hook and leaves his actions unexamined and uncriticized by the other characters.

Note the boom box. Hubba hubba!
At times it is very inelegant, its social critique clunking along like a dreary list (at least in the language of the subtitles) rather than creating an engaging narrative. "All rules are for women, none for men," Amarji (Vinod Khanna) tells a young bride-to-be who has her sights set on him instead of on her fiancé. "Society will punish you but forgive me."

"Society" being a male construction, of course, wise elder Motiben (who is this actor? She was fantastic!) reminds us -

and, at that, males who are hypocrites, criticizing their wives for infidelity while they've been at brothels, flaunting the marriage vows they now preach.

Reema Lagoo (yay!)'s character calls slutty Mansukh out for the classic "men who sleep around are heroes; women who do it are whores."

I wanted the writers to do something more creative with these relevant, meaningful ideas than just list them, no matter how happy I was to hear them expressed at all.

But on the other hand: my god, women are voicing these things, these very important things that have weight well beyond the world of the film! If saying them pedantically and unimaginatively is what it takes, then so be it! The male characters sit and listen to what the women say, and although many of them don't seem to really accept the arguments are valid or to recognize their own hypocrisy, they are at least rightly silenced in the moment. Women are allowed - gasp! - a sex drive, and the basic human need for companionship of many kinds is depicted with charity and a very refreshing sense of being normal. There are also good points about the relationships between individual problems and community values and stability. Though it's not perfect, I think Rihaee asks a lot of difficult questions, and I was so glad to see female characters voicing so many of them. My personal definition of feminism places a lot of importance on women being able to make choices - true, unfettered choices that are well-informed and about which they have space and room to engage in whatever thought they want/need - and the movie does not disappoint on this front (even though I disagree with some of their decisions). It's probably worth wondering what options are really open to these illiterate village women, most of them mothers also responsible for farming, but they do work to control what they can, with fascinating consequences.

I'm also a little sad that somehow the most engaging performance in such a women-sympathetic movie was Vinod Khanna's. His Amarji is a really complicated character, and he constantly changes which motivations and emotions are at Amarji's surface. At times he shows some real empathy for the plight of women, as in the images above or in a conversation with his friend Roopji (Mohan Agashe) about the moral issues of prostitution. The easy-to-loathe Roopji grumbles about the morals of a world in which women become whores, but Amarji reminds him that it's men like Roopji who buy their services who are really to blame.

The climax of the story begins when Amarji returns to the village and is unable to process his wife's behavior with the same gentle reason that he displays with women and women-related issues in the city. Vinod plays Amarji with nuanced complexity and a sad tinge in his eyes (Khanna family magic brown eyes activate!), and I didn't know which part of him would end up as his essence, the bit who missed his family and was eager to go home or the bit that went to brothels but then criticized his wife for sleeping with another man. I can't believe I felt sympathy for this man, but so it was. This is definitely a don't-miss for Vinod fans. I liked Reema Lagoo's sparky, not-Salman's-maa performance a lot, but her character all but disappears as the film goes on. Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, and the woman who plays Motiben (must find name!) were all wonderful too, though their characters were not as intricate as Amarji. Hema Malini was really interesting as the woman at the center of the storm - the character's words and her performance are restrained, which was emotionally unsatisfying to me. Perhaps her calm was pragmatic and let people less invested in what is, the movie says, at its core a personal issue, do the public finger-pointing and debate.

Overall, "interesting" is my strongest praise for Rihaee, and that's no small thing. I wonder what impact it and its director had, I wonder how the actors felt about doing it, and I wonder how it was received. Even with some clunky parts and a scot-free slimebucket, it put a lot of important ideas out there. I hope some of you have seen it and will comment - this is the kind of film that is much better when discussed, and I want to know what context and interpretation I've missed or not fully understood. If you want more reading, there's a writeup at the Alternate Movies blog too.

Vinod says "Hey Memsaab! Thanks for telling Beth about this movie! And Veracious, I'm comin' for you next!"

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Masalameister Desai rides again! Dharam Veer

Dharam Veer is a masala TARDIS, holding waaaaaaay more R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance) of blinged-out boots, pirate shirts, Elizabethan doublets, Roman sandals, feisty gypsies, hand guillotines, romantic princes, creepy statues, sworn promises, lost relatives, baby-switching schemes, court politics, sword fights, naval battles, and eye-for-an-eye justice than you imagine could possibly fit inside its perfectly normal-looking DVD box - and did I mention it also travels in time?

There was no way this wasn't going to be superwow. I loved every minute. It's got all the fantastic time/place elements of Ajooba with a tighter, funnier script (though one of the same writers, the equally accomplished Masalameister Prayag Raj) and more masterly combination of RMA elements (sorry, Shashi). Dharam Veer has so much in it, plot- and look- and attribute-wise, that it can't fit into just one state of Masala Pradesh - don't fence it in, man! - and I think a time- and space-travel metaphor is the only thing that can properly suggest its vast ramblings. Or maybe Dharam Veer is its own state, too full of cultural, temporal, and RMA diversity to be integrated smoothly into an existing category. Rum, what say you? Whatever it's doing, and where/whenever it goes, it's at the top of its game, and I'm sure I can't do it justice - for starters, I'm bound to leave something out, but more to the point, it's one of those things that has to be seen to be believed. Actual information and deatiled affection have been ably addressed in Todd's most excellent writeup at Teleport City. Instead, in my capacity as Undersecretary for Education and Culture in the great Funkadelic State of Masala Pradesh, I humbly offer you a sampler platter of some of Desai's kid-in-a-candy-store-paletted wonders.

Yippee! BLB's favorite heroine and masala-requisite Kapoor, Neetu Singh!

Pretty, pouty, weapon-wielding princess Zeenat Aman in an outfit my inner four-year-old loves breathlessly.


'Nuff said.

Garam Dharam, sporting some highly questionable costumes of varying coverage but consistent sartorial hedonism

and tossing off smarmy lines with obvious glee.

And ruffly-attired Jeetendra

forming the other half of a jodi so fine that it's the eight wonder of the world.

As loopy good fun as they are, I occasionally wondered how this movie would have worked with Shashitabh in it, but I couldn't really imagine either of them in these roles and had to admit that other actors from the Shashitabh Epoch might also be competent in such projects. Technically I've seen Jeetendra before in Aasha, but the only thing I remember about that movie is that young Hrithik Roshan dances in it, so I'm going to count this as my first Jeetendra movie. Me like!

Alright, since I brought it up: Shashi has to play Jeetendra's role, obviously. Nobody would buy Shashi as a rock-crushing blacksmith, and nobody would buy Amitabh as the royal prince if Shashi is also on screen. Now try to get the image of Shashi in that shirtless black strappy thing out of your head. Haha, made you wince!

Wee Bobby Deol!

Oh yes, and there's also samurai!

Sheroo doesn't actually talk, sadly - this text is from a voiceover of Pran's letter to the royal family - but that's his only shortcoming. He ably participates in samurai (a term the movie uses to denote a body of knowledge about fighting and defense, a meaning totally new to me) and saves heroes in assorted ways.

Proto-Shaan inside-out disco ball lounge!

Yes. Let us be grateful for small favors. Actually, I really liked this guy (and I think he's the actor who played the thakur in Purana Mandir! Ramsay Brothers to Manmohan Desai in one step!). He's very empathetic to the plight of a woman who doesn't want to be in her marriage. Score some feminist points for the writing staff (some of whom already have a lot for their work on Parvarish). But then they're going to lose them again for the weird "Dharmendra ties up Zeenat and drags her around while singing to her" number.

The masala TARDIS comes with a very well-stocked wardrobe so that inhabitants can visually blend in in whatever temporal or spatial environment they may happen to land in. Elizabethan, for example.

Or pageant-queen-Cossack-medieval-executioner-flamenco-gypsy-stan.

I hoard craft books from the 1970s, and this looks like a mash-up from a segment on how to sew costumes for the school production of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy plaid jumper + Scarecrow yellow fringe.

Out of all of the wonderful outfits and accessories, my favorite might be the boots. Dharam Veer is a nonstop parade of them, some of which I would, in all seriousness, gladly put on right this minute.

What is Martin Crane's armchair doing in the royal palace?

There might be a joke to make here. Generosity, gifts, packages, something along those lines.

The location of the subtitles doesn't help, does it?

Random leftovers too good to omit.

Ah! And the very useful life lessons of always believing in your friends and never, ever leaving a baby alone with Jeevan.

All this and much, much more awaits you in Dharam Veer - allons-y!