Monday, August 31, 2009

Avoid, yaar, even though the yaar in question is Dharmendra or Amitabh! Ram Balram

You heard me. Your outfit here is the best thing in the movie.

You know what? With Memsaab, Filmi Girl, and Rum already giving Ram Balram waaaaay more ink than it really deserves in their noble attempts to figure out what went wrong with it, I'm going to protest this film being any further drain on the collective brain power of humankind and just say this: the songs are fun, but don't, for the love of high Helen above, let them sucker you into the whole movie. "Ek Rasta Do Rahee" shows the easy glee of Dharmendra + Amitabh (Dharbh?) and "Yaar Ki Khabar Mil Gaye" starts off with Amitabh in a poncho and a giant hat, which are exactly the tricks writer/director Vijay Anand and crew use to trap you. DO NOT FALL FOR IT. Do not fall for the poncho! Do not fall for Rekha's tambourine! Do not fall for the funny effect of Amitabh's long limbs, swathed in black, poking out from under the poncho as he dances in the flamenco/cowboy/village-defending song!

Do not fall for the sound masala premise of orphaned chor/sipahee brothers (or are they cousins? I forget, and it doesn't matter) abused by a creepy uncle who threatens them with a giant nail at the end of his crutches! Do not fall for the Helen-Zeenat-Dharmendra Dance of Distraction aimed at getting the upper hand over their evil captors on a ship! (And do not fall for the related mystery of why anyone is on a ship in the first place!) Do not fall for the heroics of Dharmendra in a harlequin pink and white jumpsuit and motorcycle helment dangling from a helicopter. EVEN DHARMENDRA IN A PINK AND WHITE JUMPSUIT DANGLING FROM A HELICOPTER CANNOT SAVE THIS MOVIE, though I totally understand why you might think he could.

Abort! Abort!

Watch the songs. Skip the rest. It's boring, it meanders without cohering, it lacks in emotional pull, and it kills off the otherwise wonderful female character who has a a child outside of marriage. It's an utter failure and waste of several good ideas and performers. Avoid, yaar! Avoid!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shaitani Dracula: the worst movie ever made?

This is Dracula. I think he's channeling General Custer.
My original plan for the morning was an international watch-along of Ram Balram. But when House in Rlyeh's DVD would not offer up its promised subtitles, we had to come up with something else. That something else was Shaitani Dracula, which I went along with because apparently I am a total sucker for European accents even when they're typed. I had never heard of this film or its director/writer/producer/star Harinam Singh until last winter, when Keith over at Teleport City wrote it up in one of the finest pieces of cinema-related blogging I've ever read. As soon as you're done looking at the pictures here, hie thee immediately to Teleport City and laugh until you cry (which is what happened to me). And then hie to Die Danger Die Die Kill! to read another like-minded and like-styled report.

As someone who likes to know what's going on and why, Shaitani Dracula actually is a nightmare. To avoid repeating Keith word for word, I'll just say that you could watch this movie's scenes in any order you wanted and it wouldn't really matter. (It wasn't subtitled, but I don't think knowing all the dialogues would help much.)

Otherwise, not so scary.
Worse than its lack of clear plot, competent acting, and all those pesky elements most people like in their movies, it committed the cardinal sin of Hindi cinema: it's boring. IT'S SO BORING. House claims it held bizarre glee for him, and there's no use arguing over taste. I hope he'll explain why and how in a post sometime soon. Save for a few particular moments, I would rather have been watching anything else.

moment 1:

This is one of Dracula's handmaidens. She's obviously balancing on a wagon or some other rolling thing with a relatively small surface area, because they never show below her knees and her menacing arm gestures usually slip into "Whoa! I almost fell off!" Also, her wings are made from foam core roughly cut with a table knife, and sometimes she loses them with no explanation.

moment 2:
There's a goose. Nobody says anything about it, and nothing happens to it (thankfully).

Yet nobody cared to re-shoot the 30 seconds it spends in the foreground.

moment 3:

This is stock stage direction #1. I lost track of how many times the group reassembles into this rough formation. It's the only linear thing about the movie - good for ensuring maximum screen time to all these poor hacks, but bad for actual effective group communication.

moment 4:
The incidents of monster/human sexualized violence

This is the opening shot. Why, hello to you, cleavage-y rape!
are somewhat made up for by the scantily-clad women doing the critical information-gathering and monster-killing.

I realize the Buffy-like slaying might just be an excuse to set up shots like this, but I'll take what I can get. The men in this movie are completely useless, and the women end up doing fine on their own. Um...yay?

I wouldn't ordinarily encourage watching whole movies on youtube. It tends to hurt the eyes, and generally I feel it's important to compensate filmmakers for their work. However, in this case, Shaitani Dracula might have been made with the spare change found between the sofa cushions and its costs can be recouped by the same technique. More importantly, Shaitani Dracula is an affront to humankind. I'm genuinely shocked that someone could be so incompetent and so full of his own deranged vision that he'd have the gall to ask other people to be involved with his madness (it's one thing to be out of your mind; it's another to drag other people into it) and then release the thing into the universe. Someone should ask him what in Helen's name he thinks he was doing, but I don't actually want to know. Go. Watch. Be amazed. I'm feeling like a bit of a failure for disliking it so much - I fancy myself easily amused and I'd love to be able to roll with the D-movie boyz - so if you get some fun out of it, more power to you. And tell me of your findings. No-logic masala, atrocious item numbers, 80s fashion disasters, regressive social norms - all of these I can handle if other elements surrounding them are intriguing or delightful or even just comically bad. But this held nothing. It's stunning that someone made it, and it's maybe even more stunning that such entertaining and well thought-out, creative writing has resulted from it. The mind, it boggles.

For discussion: I'd like to inflict on House something that is the opposite of this movie. Help me think of something. It needs to be well-lit, full of original music, dancing, mountains of glitter, male skin, fashionable, tasteful costumes, and heartfelt moral lessons. Suggestions? HAHK, maybe?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I'm just not that into it: Swayamvar

Once again, my plastic robot heart remained mostly unmoved by a Shashi movie PPCC seemed to like and respond to so much more than I did. Parental wishes are fulfilled, the memory of ancestors/old friends is remembered, people learn things, uppance comes, kuch kuch lovey-dovey happens, true identities are obscured and false ones are perpetuated, fires are set, punches are thrown, rape is threatened, blah blah blah. Nothing unexpected here, and they're all fine ingredients (except for the rape thing) in what feels like a half fairy tale/half masala blend. But...enh. Swayamvar did nothing for me. There's nothing really wrong with it, but nothing in it really stands out, either. PPCC's and Memsaab's posts are much richer than mine is going to be, and I'm about ready to say I liked reading them more than I liked watching the movie.

I did not care for:
There's stuff about husbands being wives' protectors, the film seems to criticize a woman for being angry that her husband reveals on his wedding night that he isn't who he said he was, and a strong-willed female character is domesticated. Shashi seems to be phoning in parts of his performance as Charming Bourgeois Smoothie, possibly coasting on his looks and fluency in this general type of role. When I first started watching Shashi movies, Aspi warned me that sometimes in the later years of his leading man career, "it wasn't unusual to see him sleepwalking through an entire movie and flashing his megawatt smile whenever he needed to be, uh, starrish." That phrase rang through my head throughout this film. I'm not positive that some of this was not called for by the script - he's a Charming Bourgeois Smoothie playing a slightly different Charming Bourgeois Smoothie who then pretends to be an Alcoholic Nobody, which confuses what his actual character is. He and Sanjeev Kumar both have about five minutes of being "themselves" before the wacky scheme kicks in, so the viewer doesn't have a chance to know much about the real Laxman and Ram (yes - but no women named Sita, thankfully). What's an act and what's for real is not always clear, but not in an intriguing way. He's not exactly bad in it, but I found his performance lacking in genuine oomph. Don't get me wrong: I love the stock Shashi Kapoor tricks - vocal gymnastics ranging from growl to squeak, striding around confidently and handsomely in a suit, breezy yet intense canoodling, facial contortions -

but somehow their combination and execution here were just not up to snuff. It didn't help that I found his character totally annoying; the wacky scheme he uses to try to fulfill his dad's wishes and win over his girl (Moushumi Chatterjee) is irritating (I'd file it under Really Stupid Ideas) and, worse, mean to her.

Also, if you do watch this film, try to find a version other than that released by Sky Entertainment. I don't know if the problems were due to the print or something the DVD people did, but the color leaps all over the place, some scenes are so dark you can't see actors' faces, and the sound has a weird echo-y tinge.

but I did like:
Sanjeev Kumar's performance and character are much more enjoyable than Shashi's. As PPCC says, his smile is charming and overall he's endearing (though in a more paternal than hero-ish way, to my mind). Watching him beat up Ranjeet is pretty hilarious. Shashi sometimes puts The Voice to good use, and his drunking/dancing in "Aap Aapne" is a darn good time. The two of them together are very nice, and there's a great exchange done entirely in whistles (which then is reprised in the following song, "Ek Mahal Ma Chum Chum"). Asrani is used sparingly and effectively. Ranjeet is both disgusting and funny in his brief time on screen. In case you didn't know he was baaaaaad, here he is throwing gasoline on Nadira's room (while she's in it) and tossing in some lit matches.

He too gets to act drunk a lot. The wardrobe department apparently used Moushumi to usher in the 80s single-handedly, putting her in a metric crapload of glassy lipstick and giving her proto-Madhuri curls. The movie overall is funny in parts. It has a pro-women song! We learn what happens if you sleep with Shashi Kapoor: you walk around the next day like you're in a shampoo commercial! That is how wonderful life is!

They're married, so it's okay, kids! And it might make up for having to do all the cooking and dishes!
There are two giant filmi houses (though interestingly the one lived in and owned by the women is smaller than that lived in and owned by the men).

Before I dismiss this particular DVD release entirely, let me praise it for the titles given to chapters 20, 21, and 23: it can't get much more masala than that!

David Sedaris has a story about teaching writing at the Art Institute of Chicago in which he mentions that a student once submitted an assignment that used the word "whateverishly." I'm all for making up new words, and this one often comes in handy. I feel "whateverish" about Swayamvar. I don't regret the time I invested in it, but it's not going on my re-watch list anytime soon.

And now that I've mentioned it, wouldn't it be fun to discuss what David Sedaris stories might work well with the naach-gaana treatment?

Friday, August 21, 2009

this week's Cha Cha Cha! Bahut Accha! Award: Let's Twist Again edition

Bollywood Banter has put up a wonderfully groove-inducing list of Twist-inspired songs from the 60s and 70s.

(Image courtesy of Bollywood Banter.)
He includes "Jaan Pehchaan Ho," "Tumse Hai Dil Ko Pyaar," "Aaja Aaja," and my own personal favorite "Kehne Ki Nahin Baat." I love absolutely every one.

Monday, August 17, 2009

an hour in the presence of SRK

Bitten by Bollywood has done a lovely job telling you what our day at the South Asian Carnvial - a.k.a. "that event where Shahrukh Khan is scheduled to appear, and oh yes, there are a few other famous people, some extremely overpriced food, and some slim-pickings shopping booths, but honestly who's here for those?" - which means all you're going to get from me is philosophizing.

Oh alright, and some pictures. We got to shake hands with Gulshan Grover

because we had lodged ourselves thus:

That's the other side of the fence, but we had the same position. And thank goodness, too: I can't imagine standing still for so long without having something to lean on/prop against. This is the line for autographs.

This line was, in our opinion, for suckers. Maybe ten percent of these folks got an autograph and photo with SRK. We got neither, but we did get super-amazing unobstructed views for at least a few minutes. (Though I am very happy for the blond woman in the light blue salwar suit in the center of the crowd, who had brought in a heartwarmingly earnest hand-made poster about SRK being one of the natural wonders of India and did in fact get an autograph with him.)

As for the super-amazing unobstructed view:

Holy &$@*!


The speaker in the corner ended up being directly between me and the location SRK stood for most of the event, meaning that I could usually see his feet, legs, and lower torso, but not his face. But that doesn't really matter - in the handful of minutes he spent when he first came out, greeting and being ridiculously gracious about how happy he was to be here and how grateful he was we had all come out, etc etc, I could see his face the whole time. I am also completely convinced he looked and smiled right at me. As we all know, his mega-charisma means that probably all of the several thousand people smooshed around the stage thought the same thing. Don't care. It felt incredibly special and kind and friendly, even if it wasn't. [Insert Jon Lovitz-style "Acting!!!!" flourish.]

Maybe because of my view, I got a little obsessed with his sneakers. They had silver toes.

The public face of the event organizers was this man (I believe he said his name was Akbar Khan, but quite honestly I wasn't paying very close attention - sorry! nothing personal!),

who was sort of an emcee and kindergarten teacher hybrid. Not a fun job. He had to repeatedly chastise us for shoving and moving the barricades; he had to repeatedly say "Just hold your horses, he'll be here soon" even though it seemed like he had no actual sense of what was going on backstage; he had to repeatedly try to engage with the single-minded fans about something, anything, to put them in a more pleasant mood while waiting. Then once SRK began signing autographs and doing photos, this poor fellow had to pass his microphone around the crowd and let those of us around the barricades "share a message for SRK" or some such, which mostly consisted of teenage girls sounding like half-witted lunatics. Or zombies, maybe. Zombies who shriek "Shaaaaaaahruuuuuuuuukh" instead of moan "braaaaaaains."

This next one is technically a horrible photo, I know, but it exactly captures how the event felt - this giant blur of activity and mostly impenetrable wall, but in the middle, that little sliver of white t-shirt and head bent down signing autographs - there's the cause.

This is turning into quite the year of blurry celebrity pictures. First David Tennant, then Tim Gunn, now this.

Good? Good. The rest of the share-worthy (and I use that term loosely) shots are here.

I cannot get my brain around why this frantic, chaotic, and frankly physically and intellectually uncomfortable hour elated me so much. What is this power someone like Shahrukh Khan has over us? I realize, rationally, that it matters not one teeny tiny bit whether this movie star smiled at me, or how geographically close I was to him, or what he actually looked or sounded like in person (exactly like he does on film, as far as I could tell). I don't even understand why I find all this interesting. In the cold light of day, it's not particularly interesting and it doesn't feel relevant to anything other than the bubble of that afternoon - nowhere near as interesting or relevant as his work, as what he can do through his chosen medium. This was my first experience with any kind of public celebrity event and I felt unprepared for being smacked upside the head with this amount, I guess I could call it. And by no means - noooooo means - do I exclude myself from this judgement. When he came out from behind the curtain, I squealed like a teenager. I squealed like I've always imagined I would have squealed for the Beatles in 1965 if I had been alive. I clutched at Nida repeatedly. I jumped up and down in my shoes (but no actual jumping, or else I would have squished the toes of some little child whose parents had shoved them to the front of the crowd - nice manners you're teaching your kids, folks). My heart went pitter-pat and I grinned like an idiot, this whole-hearted, joyful, happy grin, for at least an hour solid.

My own reactions were confusing enough, but the overall behavior of the crowd made me a little embarrassed to be a human being. The possessiveness, the grabbing, the utter disregard for anyone else around them. Why do we think celebrities owe us something beyond competent (or, ideally, excellent) execution of the thing(s) for which they are famous? People were grabbing at him, screeching at him, begging him to just "Pleeeeeeeeeeease look at me, just for a second, Shahrukh, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease!!!!!!!" What makes us lose our fool heads and sound like we're having a mental break over whether someone we've never actually met looks at us. I know there are lots of articles out there about fan behavior, and I might have to dig into some of them, now that I've had a taste of what they're talking about. As a species, it's not our finest moment

After about an hour of signing and posing, then a mad sprint around the interior perimeter of the barricades (so yes, I was about 2 feet from him at one point, but there were multiple security guards around him, and I just couldn't bring myself to be another person clutching at him), SRK was ushered off the stage and behind the curtains. We'd long since lost the other three people that we'd been hanging out with, so Nida and I bailed. As it turns out, SRK did go to the music stage later on to do a little bit of dancing, but we hadn't been certain he was actually going to do it. We were also exhausted and sufficiently star-struck and didn't think we'd get anywhere near the stage. Personally, my brain was about to blow a fuse, trying to sort through the experiences of the last few hours. Instead, we drove (or floated in our fog of star-ness) to Devon Avenue - the thoroughfare of Chicago's Indian/Pakistani neighborhood - and did some movie shopping at India Book House, where I had some fun conversations about my experiences with the middle-aged women working at the desk. Smiling wistfully, one of them told me that seeing SRK in person was a dream of hers; when I asked her why she hadn't gone to the carnival, she waved dismissively and said "My husband...." I wish I had responded with "Pish! What do husbands know about seeing Shahrukh Khan?!?" They also told me the fascinating tidbit that a few years ago, the neighborhood Independence Day parade had been led by...Shashi. SHASHI. IN CHICAGO. After cursing my woeful, woeful ignorance, I asked them for their recommendation for dinner. We sprinted across the street through the post-parade traffic and collapsed in a heap at the Viceroy of India. Fried snacks and tasty beverages were very helpful to thoughtful discussions of the day's events.

I hope SRK got a fruity drink or two too.
We also learned from other friends at the carnival that there's a new theater in Niles with multiple screens of Indian films (Big Cinemas). Anyone who's willing to schlep to Chicagoland, let's put heads together about a meetup for the Diwali releases!

To end on a positive note, for me this event might just tie
Chak De India, Swades, and Main Hoon Na for Shahrukh's finest performance. He projected such graciousness and kindndess especially given what he'd been through the previous day. How he finds the energy to do this at all, let alone in such (apparent) genuine good spirits, really is a wonder. And despite all my questions about the psychology and ethnology of what I had just experienced and observed, and the fan/mega-star relationship and its dynamics, and the importance of participating in a viewing, if I'm being totally honest, I also have to add that I felt joy and excitement - or if you want to get all modern-day masala credits about it, thrills - unlike any other I've ever had. I probably won't need to go to an event like this again, but I'm so glad I went to this one and got a small taste of this aspect of Bollywood culture. It's chaotic and confusing and a little distressing, but it's also a total masala joyride of crazy and very personal, very wonderful dil-squish. Wheeee!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bollywood Hero: emphasis on "hero"

My bar for Bollywood Hero was low. Really low. Everything I'd heard about it made it sound like a perilous venture. "Post-famous-ish/B-list-ish white American comedian (Chris Kattan, playing a character of the same name) goes to India to star in a Bollywood movie" would surely lead to thoughtless stereotypes, ignorant or misapplied use of filmi conventions, and scorn for both the Indian and US entertainment industries. Despite the Mumabi setting of its a classic "fish out of water" and "how will this rag-tag mess ever pull together into a success?!?" plots - a sister (Priya/Pooja Kumar) and brother (Monty/Ali Fazal) creating their deceased father's ponderous dream script, a project appropriately called Peculiar Dancing Boy, and in the process shoring up their family's film legacy - there's little Bollywood-specific of heft in the show. There are plenty of trappings, mostly enjoyably executed. A starlet (Lalima/Neha Dhupia)'s career is managed by her overbearing mummy (whom I really wished had been played by Bindu again!). An aging gora has played the English officer in every Raj-y film of the last few decades (Julian Sands). Chris-the-character's first opportunity to show off the results of his dance practice is complete with the familiar and seamless ability of a song picturization to transport peope into different settings and give them new wardrobes.

After a few hours of thinking about it, my guess is that India and Indian cinema were chosen as the water for this fish for two major reasons. First, India is a setting that can provide maximum cultural differences and misunderstandings (and thus potential for comedy) but is still a culture the target audience would be aware of due to general world news and Slumdog Millionaire (more than would arise by planting Chris Kattan in, say, France, yet more relatable than in the popular film industry of Nigeria). Of course, Chris-the-actor's fluency in physical humor (and shiny suits?) makes the idea of him having to dance for his living an easier fit - not that dance is inherently funny, but as you can imagine, the Hollywood actor spends a lot of energy trying to live up to his Bollywood choreography. Second is the real point, I think: Bollywood is an industry where the concepts and iterations of "hero" reign supreme, and yearning to be a movie hero is Chris-the-character's sole motivation. If one watches this series with an eye on the second word of its title, the whole thing coheres better and becomes a more effective story. It makes sense that an actor stuck playing a space goat character on a small-scale cable show (which is what Chris is doing as the series opens) would jump at the chance to do something larger than life. For someone who longs to be to be romantic and dashing, to get the girl, to be taken seriously for once in his life, starring in a Bollywood drama billed as "a serious critique of imperialism and the caste system told through the medium of dance" could be a dream come true. (Side note: this summary of Peculiar Dancing Boy is repeated throughout the series, and every time a character pitched it, I had a hard time not picturing Mard.) I think the filmmakers could have done more with the Bollywood setting, but, as is, it served the main thread - Chris's hero lust and what he learns in the process of fulfilling it - pretty well.

Yesterday Fimli Girl asked me if it was a typical "westerner finds self in India" sort of story and I told her "not really," but after further consideration, I'm not so sure. Certainly not in a hippie-dippie, "India is so magical," mystical finding of self sort of way - in fact, Chris-the-character repeatedly affirms that he's already on top of all things cleansing and calming through various gadgets and practices, the kind of things the rest of us love to make fun of California for. [Vague spoilers ahead!] But in true Holly/Bolly fashion, Chris and the other characters do learn something important about themselves and become better and happier people by the end of the story. It's not so much spiritual as it is identity, "just be yourself," "there's more than one kind of hero," etc. [/Spoilers.]

Bollywood Hero has some (unintentionally) awkward moments. The "We're in Mumbai!" establishing pans across cityscapes focus on what sure look like slums and never show shiny highrises (or the Gateway of India! and they call themselves Bollywood!). Several characters have tritely heartwarming moments at a school for street children. (Side note: I have visited a school in Mumbai very like the one in the film, and my heart was very warmed, so I can't question the characters' reactions - but I can wonder why this thread is in the film.) Some of Chris-the-character's blundering might be because of ignorance about India specifically, but probably as much of it could be due to just not knowing how to exist outside his Hollywood bubble. Early on he is established as being at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood, especially in the face of this year's version of himself (Andy Samberg) or a mega-star (Keanu Reeves, who is painful to watch/listen to even while making fun of himself in a five-minute cameo), but it's clear that even there he lives a good-naturedly insulated life. There a few examples of "The food is so hot!" type jokes, but most of the things I was expecting would make me roll my eyes were simply left as observations and not ramped up into real jokes. Chris is repeatedly amazed by the sheer population of India, but there are no punchlines about it. He also never gets ugly American traveler-y, never whining about the water or traffic or heat. We're all glad for that. Basically any obstacle to Chris's dream of hero-dom, whether it's unfamiliar surroundings, dance steps that are over his head, or the loss of his leading lady, is met head-on and tackled, sometimes easily and sometimes not. I will also give the movie credit for pushing one particular arc of awkwardness until it was almost unbearable, then relieving it into a comedic interpretation that I hadn't seen coming. (Of course, I'm totally gullible, so the delight I felt in its resolution may not be possible for other, sharper viewers.)

Most of the humor arises not from wacky cultural differences/misunderstandings but from the shenanigans the crew has to undertake to get their film made. A majority of these fall to Chris-the-character, who despite his best intentions is woefully out of place as a Bollywood leading man (particularly in a costume drama). He can't dance, he kisses his leading lady in public, his scooter breaks down in the countryside as he pursues a retired actress, and he never understands what the director is trying to get him to do once Peculiar Dancing Boy starts shooting. He's a little dense, even though he tries hard and means well. All of which underscores why he hasn't made it big in Hollywood, either - I think the series is basically sympathetic to him but also shows his flaws (and his strengths too, but talking about those will give away the emotional heart of the ending). I don't want to be too harsh on Chris-the-character in case he's a close resemblance to Chris-the-actor/real-person, but it probably qualifies as delusional to think Chris Kattan would be offered the roles that Harrison Ford is now too old for, doesn't it? The Harrison Ford theme runs throughout, actually, as one of the quintessential hero types that Chris would like to be, and there's a nice homage to one of the best scenes of Raiders. Some of my other favorite moments include:
• Julian Sands in his hilariously drunken, inappropriate, sleazeball, bizarro-world version of Tom Alter.
• Chris gets it into his head that he should pitch Peculiar Dancing Boy to a reclusive retired actress who hasn't been on screen for almost a decade. He has no luck googling her but Priya and Monty's granny, with whom he has gestures only-based communication, hops on the phone and immediately finds a friend who knows the actress's exact whereabouts.
• little bits of dialogue scattered throughout, like Chris yelling at a snobby Hollywood party "Stick it up your a**es. I'm going to India!" or taunting Priya about why she has followed him down a country highway by deadpanning "Are you sure it's not because you care about me? Smidgen?" When's the last time you heard "smidgen" in a movie?
• the first song picturization, featuring Lalima and Chris, is to a totally appropriate and wonderful song and gets suitable treatment for someone testing the waters of dance numbers.
• Monty showing Chris around some film studios (and Chris being suitably impressed)

• hearing several of Michael Penn's songs (one with Aimee Mann too, hooray!) in this totally unexpected setting - what if Chris were Heathcliff or Romeo in black jeans?
• take a look at the film poster on the back of the bus!

I tried to find significance in this particular film being situated this way but couldn't. But still! Shashi!

While most of Bollywood Hero easily surpassed my low expectataions for it, it's not perfect. It's messy here and there - as with some Bollywood and Hollywood movies, a lot of threads are either abandoned or glossed over at the happy ending. Its major villain is just a few hairs away from a Mr. Burns level of cartoony greed and ambition. Watching Chris dance peculiarly over multiple scenes is a little uncomfortable. However, I was drawn in by the way the characters talk - I haven't seen many movies that talk about filmmaking in such un-filmi ways - and the underdog charm and momentum of both Chris and Peculiar Dancing Boy are hard to resist. Once I learned to focus on the characters rather than the setting, I thought it was cute. Maybe oversimplified (despite being almost three hours long), but with some real humor and a few well-done characters. I have no idea if my spin on it is what the makers intended, but I think they used their major cultural reference point for good and probably introduced many viewers to some of the joys and basic workings of Hindi cinema.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Deceivers and Chor Machaye Shor: an unsatisfying Shashi double-header

Dear oh dear, where to start? Here I was, thinking I would spend the air-conditioned day luxuriating in Shashilicousness (it's too hot out to do anything else anyway). And while these two films offered sufficient - plenty, even - Shashi, I don't have much else complimentary to say about either. Even the cover of The Deceivers indicated the movie was likely to be Raj-y, exoticizing ridiculousness, and at least three people had told me Chor Machaye Shor was really not the finest possible mid-70s Shashi offering - but did I heed the warnings? Nooooo. But at least with lots of Shashi, I can salvage some visual fun.

Apparently filming The Deceivers was Ismail Merchant's pet project (read here on the official site). Its story, in short, is that a British officer, the amusingly named William Savage (played by Pierce Brosnan), discovers a Thuggee group in the 1820s (in Gujarat, if I recall correctly) and then infiltrates it in an attempt to stop their crimes. I haven't read John Masters's novel on which the movie is based, nor do I wish to. Documentary books and films about unpleasant topics are one thing, but unspecifically fictionalized accounts are another. Confronting the horrible things we humans have done over the centuries (and continue to do) is one of the most important things art of any form can do, but making up stuff and then slapping on the disclaimer/tantalization "based on true events" tends to confuse the stories and dilute the issues.

Opening the film...

and closing it.
Because it's very unclear which parts of this movie are factual (or even fact-based recreation) and which parts are looser interpretation, infill, or fiction, it's almost impossible to say much about the message or the relevance of what it actually conveys. Which makes me wonder if it's any more accurate or useful to the understanding of historical India (or even modern ideas of historical India) than, say, the monkey-eating Amrish Puri-led gang in Temple of Doom. Those important points aside, its story is a little convoluted, too often filmed in very low light, and full of strange points like a man with a Muslim name stating his adherence to Kali with no contextualizing informaiton.

Just like Karz!
The criminal web that threatens to snare Savage is obvious even to someone as easily fooled and frightened as I. To be blunt: with the exception of solid performances by Brosnan, Shashi as the raja of Savage's district,

and Saeed Jaffrey as Savage's contact in the gang,

it's not a very good movie. It's not as cartoonish as Temple of Doom, but it sacrifices ethnographic exploration of the cult or much psychological investigation of Savage or the cult members for action, which mostly consists of strangling. It has more moments of ewwwww than I expected from a Merchant-Ivory production. A side note on that: I'm still not convinced that Merchant-Ivory films overall are the colonialist tripe that some people find them, and regular readers know I dearly love some of their films. So it was with great interest that I noticed that James Ivory is not at all involved in this project - his name is not in the credits at all. If anyone has read Merchant's book about making the film, Hullabaloo in Old Jeypore: The Making of The Deceivers, I'd love to know what on earth attracted him. There are probably interesting things one could do with a story like this, even a totally made-up one, but The Deceivers is just depressing and obvious. Even worse, Merchant-Ivory's other films that deal with Indian-Anglo relations and stereotypes have always struck me as critiquing both sides' impressions of the other and the way each chooses to interact, but that sort of analysis is missing here. Instead, it's the cringe-y stock types of bad attitudes and lazy fimmaking. Digitally Obsessed has a positive review of the cinematography and character studies; I disagree with the latter compliment but grudgingly admit that whoever did the interiors, costumes, and props usually did a lovely job (with the exception of the Thuggees' loot, which looks almost almost as plastic as something Kader Khan or Jeevan would relish in the 1970s).

Anyway. Picture time! Pierce is at his finest; Shashi is not but still manages to look regal under his copious facial hair. What I cannot capture is The Voice, which is set to stun and sounded so velvety that I had to rewind his first major scene to actually pay attention to the words rather than just the sounds.

Familiar faces Neena Gupta and Dalip Tahil also pop up briefly.

To close, a final eye-roll: I suppose if a pasty Brit has to go undercover in an Indian group, he might be wise to darken his skin, but I wish the movie didn't have to be so stagey about it.

That's not even a normal skin color! He looks greenish! Saeed is given the same treatment, and I swear I saw it on Shashi too.

Enough of that racist non-content! Let's move on to multiple threats of rape!

Noooooo, Shashi, nooooooooooooo! Noooooo, movie, nooooooooooooo!

PPCC's post outlines Chor Machaye Shor's problems, and they are plentiful. Vijay (Shashi) is framed for raping a woman in an atrocious wig and no pants

by his girlfriend Rekha (Mumtaz)'s father (Kamal Kapoor),

Garish bedroom alert! Amrish is the only Puri brother not in this, so Kamal Kapoor takes over the eye-bugging.
who doesn't want her daughter to marry him and figures getting him tossed in jail is the best way to stop them. Vijay doens't realize Rekha wasn't involved in the scheme, so when he gets out of jail, he goes to take his revenge (first picture). In the context of this particular film, I guess I'm glad at her response, which is to throw his vile behavior back in his face. "Has jail turned you into a beast? What have you turned out to be? And today you come to rape me? Is this your love, your faith in me? Why do you look away? Go on, bring me to disgrace!" she yells. He is quickly abashed and apologizes.



Just no.

You don't have to rekindle a relationship with someone who accuses you of framing him for rape then threatens to rape and kill you. What is this exchange supposed to prove? That this sunny, breezy man can become super-violent when pushed? That he's capable of great swings of emotional (in)stability? That true love surpasses threats of extreme physical, personal violence and utter dehumanization? As if that weren't enough, Vijay's cellmate Raju (Danny Denzongpa) also tries to rape his love interest, Chandramukhi (Meena T)

The camera doesn't treat her with any more respect than Raju does.
and is none too pleased when Vijay interferes. And then in the climactic brawl, poor Rekha is threatened with rape again, this time by a dacoit who's been ordered to do so by an evil politician (à la horrendous 90s staple revenge rape, here levied against Vijay, the leader of the heroic group fighting the politician).

See all those people standing around? They do nothing.
I had a hard time getting past the Vijay/Rekha scene, and I was flabbergasted to see rape come up twice more.

Chor Machaye Shor does serve as a frightening cautionary tale of what can happen when the cosmic masala order is upset: our hero is a very Angry Young Man named Vijay...played by Shashi. Nothing good can come of this. Nothing good apart from Shashilicous curls, that is.
Hai hai mirchi!
And maybe a parade of scarves - not as many as Dostana, but they'll do nicely in a very 70s way.*

I agree with PPCC that this film can really only be recommended for Shashi-lovers. And maaaaybe for Danny Denzongpa lovers, because he's creepy for awhile but then comes around to the right side and rocks his tight, flared corduroy trousers (à la Vinod). Shashi is the best thing in the movie, even when he overacts the bejeezus out of some of his more intense lines.

Arms are clenched in stick-it-to-the-man revolutionary spirit!
Given that the film opens with courtroom drama and Vijay yelling one of my favorite multi-purpose bits of dialogue - "Yeh jhoot hai! Jhoot!" - this should not come as a surprise.

In addition to anger and rage, he also gets to strut around as a self-satisfied engineer.

Apparently he's in agricultural engineering, but equally apparently he had a very well-rounded curriculum in school and is able to strut right into a civil engineering project with great success.

This general pose and attitude are perfected years later in Kaalaa Patthar.
He also spends a lot of time smiling and/or leaning on things, wearing tight trousers and unbuttoned shirts and looking very pleased with himself and his surroundings, which is a Beth Loves Bollywood-approved default mode for 60s and 70s Shashi.

He and Mumtaz have some nice romancing,

though "Ek Daal Par Tota Bole" seemed less like a cute moment of young love and more like a stereotype: mist, slow-motion, the couple running towards each other, lots of trees to romp around, etc.

Plus unexplained parrots. Other than their canoodling, this is not an affectionate story, and it had almost zero emotional pull for me. Dil fail, to be blunt.

Honestly, Shashi looking assured and handsome is my dominant impression of this movie. It also features:
  • the excellent flailing of "Le Jayenge"
  • some fun outfits and wigs for Mumtazaz
    Her skirt has the Taj Mahal on it!
  • that swimming pool that pops up in all 70s films (where is this? We must go there and have a super-groovy party!)
  • weird dolls in the afore-mentioned garish bedroom
  • and evidence for why Shashi should not be behind the wheel.
There are actually other threads in this movie. The major ones are shady political dealings and abuse of a voter base; sadly I watched it only a few hours ago and can't remember much about them except a vague Swades-ish feeling. And as PPCC says, it's very un-masala in some of its framework: I had no idea what was going to happen next, or why, and there's very little mention of anyone's family (Vijay has none, apparently, and is connected to no one other than Rekha until the plot gets rolling). Is Vijay some kind of symbol for the responsibilities and/or abilities of the common person to fight the system? Is this about participating in and belonging to one's community? Is it an exploration of the various incarnations of evil (formal/established/official=politics; informal/outsider=dacoits; wildcard/free-form=the small-scale crooks Vijay befriends in prison)? Is it aiming at political commentary - a wry critique of the attitudes and behaviors of those in power? Or maybe it's a wobbly step in the growth of reformist masala (although the much more impressive Roti Kapada aur Makaan came out the same year)? I have no idea. I don't know what to make of it. I wasn't drawn in, and its pleasures are superficial and fleeting - though really, really nice while they last. Maybe not quite a stinker, but definitely not satisfying, eh Shashi?

* Also curiously Dostana-like: manpris!